Turkey: Things are not what they seem

The crisis in Turkey has been portrayed, simplistically, as a struggle between secular democracy and Islam. But matters are far more complex.

Last Sunday the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the allegedly Islamist grouping led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, captured many more votes than its opponents in a national poll. For the first time in more than 50 years a governing party was returned to power with an even larger majority. This followed months of speculation about the future of democratic rule in a country oscillating between Europe and Asia.

Earlier this year the army threatened to take power if there was any Islamist encroachment on Turkey’s secular identity. This was followed by large protests, sparked by the appearance in public of an incumbent presidential candidate’s wife wearing a headscarf. Why in Turkey, where 99% of the population is Muslim, does the wearing of a headscarf create an atmosphere in which military rule can be suggested?

Although many of us associate secularism with democracy, in Turkey the twin of secularism is nationalism. Secularism is central to Turkish nationalism, represented by the ever-present legacy of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, whose visage adorns walls throughout the country. A charismatic military officer who crafted the edifice of a modern nation-state from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk sought to radically Westernise his country. Outlawing Arabic in favour of the Latin script, he emphasised Western dress, equality for women and compulsory national education.

It was a developmental project that was led by a new bureaucracy and a wealthy elite, which moved quickly to dismantle the institutions of old political power—the caliphate, religious schools and religious structures of authority. At the outset Kemalism was not democratic, but a state-led project that sought to contain, domesticate and reshape the popular will rather than express it.

The army has frequently stepped in to protect Kemalism—in 1961, 1971 and 1980. Most recently, in 1997, the army compelled Necmettin Erbakan to resign on the grounds that he was steering Turkey toward religious rule. These moves by the military have forced constant evolution and mutation of political opposition in Turkey.

The diaries of a former senior military officer, Admiral Ornek, were published recently in the newspaper Nokta. Ornek describes how the army twice attempted a coup in 2004, but was unable to generate enough support for this move from within its ranks or from key business leaders. This led to an alternative strategy to dislodge the ruling AKP through a mobilisation of civil society and sympathetic media.

On a recent visit to Turkey I asked a student whether a coup was likely. She laughed and remarked that it had already taken place: the army had been forced to get with the times, and its public pronouncement on its website that it would step in to protect secularism was nothing but a post-modern exercise of executive power—an “e-coup”. The AKP may continue to govern, but the army has reminded everyone of its considerable power.

The AKP is “new”, but with a refashioned and reincarnated history. In their youth, its leaders embraced a more public role for Islam in Turkish life. The party’s most prominent officials represent a generation of new elites who have emerged from an Islamist past, historically associated with the working class, peasants and small traders, but who have since become upwardly mobile and middle class. Their appeal has been directed to the historically disaffected middle class, to the peasantry, to the orthodox, to the displaced urban immigrants, to the Kurds and to campaigners for democracy—and this broad appeal accounts for its electoral successes.

The AKP bases a significant part of its support not on what it is for, but on what it is against. It opposes the old elites who are monopolising the legacy of Kemalism to protect their way of life. For some of these old Westernised elites, entry to the European Union represents not the culmination of a dream but a threat: it would require the scrapping of some repressive laws and practices and could upset certain favourable economic arrangements. Not surprising, then, that it is the so-called Islamists who are spearheading the EU accession process.

The AKP also demonstrates flexibility when it comes to “principles”. Its main constituency might be the poor and marginalised, but it has slashed government spending, hurting these groups the most. It almost sent Turkish troops to Iraq despite the opposition of 95% of the population to such a move. On the other hand, newspapers report that in some schools Korans have been distributed, while at the same time a conservative education minister has authorised distribution of what some academics see as the most progressive school textbooks yet written in Turkey.

If what secularism represents is a matter of dispute in Turkey, then so too is Islamism.

Suren Pillay, a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Western Cape, is on secondment to the democracy and governance programme of the Human Sciences Research Council

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