Take note

Two million people would not gather in five cities over three weeks if they didn’t have something to say.

Two million people would not gather in five cities over three weeks if they didn’t have something to say.

The crowds in Izmir

Yesterday’s Republican rally in the western city of Izmir was perhaps the most impressive meeting of them all. Nearly a million people attended, forming the stunning sight of a sea of red Turkish flags contrasting with the brilliant blue of the Izmir bay.

“Turkey is secular, and shall remain so” has been the predominant chant at this and at previous rallies in Çanakkale, Manisa, Istanbul and the capital Ankara – all western cities. The protestors feel that with the recent presidential election Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling AK party has taken one threatening step too many towards dismantling Atatürk’s legacy. The intention is, they claim, to end the secular republic.

That would be a very difficult thing to do. The Kemalist legacy is embedded in Turkey’s institutions: not a week goes by before children are reminded of it at school, and imams are instructed to preach it at Friday prayers across the country. You can’t overturn that in a hurry.

One thing to consider would be whether AK really does want to end secularism. A recent Economist article would argue that evidence, so far, is to the contrary. The economy is riding high, the judiciary has been reformed, and ties with Europe are stronger than ever before. If AK truly is planning to instil sharia law the moment it takes the presidency, it’s doing a very good job hiding it.

The Turkish people are better off than they were five years ago. Broadly speaking, they are happier, richer, and more likely to be in work than in 2002. Broadly speaking, this is down to the politicians in AK, who recognised what was needed and delivered it. Broadly speaking, they deserve to win the next election.

And win it they probably will, because Turkey is a country of such size and diversity that even two million is not an electoral liability. Notice, for instance, that the Republican rallies have all been in western cities (with the exception of an upcoming event in Samsun, on the eastern Black Sea coast). For all the millions who took to the streets, there are millions more who did not.

That is how some AK leaders have been consoling themselves over the past few weeks. They are wrong, and Mr Erdoğan should move to correct his party’s position. He was wrong to treat the presidential election as if it were an internal primary. He should not have waited until the last minute, when tensions were at their peak, before consulting the opposition. Now, more than ever, Turkey needs a compromise candidate for president, and only Mr Erdoğan can start the process to find one. If there is to be a public vote for president on July 22nd, he must propose and nominate Hikmet Çetin.

AK cannot afford to ignore the secularist protests. That will only make things more difficult for them when they do return to government in July – especially if they need to seek a coalition partner.

  1. “Expatriates” often labour under the delusion that Turkey can actually develop and become something new and better. They tend to apply imagination to the issue.

    They see that Turkey is capable of developing mature political institutions, and eagerly watch it do so.

    A common Turkish attitude, on the other hand, is that “things are like they are because they must be. They have always been like they are and always will be”. The instinct is to corral the wagons in the face of surrounding indians and hope they will all go away. They believe that their simple faith in Atatürk’s republic will be enough to ward off the bogeyman.

    But the foreigner, informed by experience and reason rather than faith, sees here a sterile conflict between secular bullies and religious bullies.

    James is expressing the hope that everyone in this country can act politically in an environment where institutionally based political behaviour is possible, and where actions do not depend exclusively on personal influence and prestige. This is, indeed, his mistake. But it’s a kind of mistake Turkey needs many more of.

    The reconciliation of the country’s secular and nationalist heritage on the one hand, and cultural and religious diversity on the other can only be done through the development of genuine political and democratic institutions. At the moment, and somewhat ironically given the background of much of its membership, the AKP is the torch carrier.

    The AKP has done all the nasty things that Turkish politics traditionally requires – “kadrolaşma”, electoral bribery, unbelievable bureaucratic arrogance, opening up investigations as a punishment and so on and so forth. But as well as this, it has shown a commitment over the past few years to genuine change – recognition of the complexity of the country, the primitive nature of relationships here and the way these primitive attitudes get in the way of the country’s development. The track record is there for all to see , if they want to.

    There is no doubt that Hikmet Çetin is in every respect the most suitable candidate for president of this country, and it would be an act of great political maturity on the part of the AKP to encourage and support his candidacy.

  2. Look, I adore feedback on what I write, and I am always eager to discuss what it with people who disagree. But when I get sweeping generalisations like “expatriates cannot read Turkish politics properly”, there’s very little I can say. Tell me what you think I’ve read wrong. I want to know.

    One frustrating aspect of using Blogger is that I can’t force people to leave a name when they comment. I am happy to allow everyone to say what they think without my moderation, but they do lose their effect when you end up with a string of “anonymous” postings.

  3. Interesting commentary by Bad Tyrpist. Couldn’t agree more with James, either, regarding Hikmet Cetin.

    I recently watched this PBS documentary: “Mormons.” It told the story of how a break-away ‘heretical’ religion (the followers of which were driven westward at gun point) has become mainstream today, so much so to sport a presidential candidate from amongst its ranks. This came about thanks more to this religion’s (and its church’s) reforming itself than to social or political changes in the surrounding American realm. I don’t mean to say America remained unchanged in the same period, but in Turkey, the religion in question is old, rigid, and prides itself for unchanging, incorruptible canonical truth and practices. When a political current sings songs along this theme, there will be jitters naturally. I would like to think that these imaginative expats are right, and that fears are unfounded, but… there is a but.

  4. Nihat, there is always a “but”. I have jitters as well. And there is certainly a powerful stream in AKP which fills me with horror.

    But (and this is my “but”) in following the development and policies of AKP, you can see the softening effect of democratic politics on hard held beliefs, and an emerging willingness to consider and engage in tolerant compromise. Democratic politics tends to drag people into the centre because it focusses on what people have in common rather than what divides them. Maintaining “incorruptible” positions of doctrinal purity does precisely the opposite, creating enemies where none need be.

    I see the main obstacle right now as being the unchanging “canonical truth” of the Kemalists rather than Islam. Tomorrow, this may change, but right now chronic headscarfophobia is causing Turk to see Turk as an enemy. And that is neither good nor necessary.

    The real enemy is the tradition of personal privilege and patronage which still exists. This is now associated more with the Baykals of this world than the Erdoğans. The secular nationalists are even saying that democracy and the rule of law have to be curtailed to “protect the republic”. The army makes pronouncements, as in its recent subversion of the Supreme Court’s judicial independence, which would be considered not just inappropriate but actually treasonous in any truly democratic country. The AKP, on the other hand, have had to fall back on emphasising rights, democracy and due process under the rule of law.

    The Mormons may have changed themselves, but they did so under extreme pressure from the US federal government, a pressure which did not victimise them, but set clear ground rules and encouraged them to come and play nicely with the rest of the Union. Turkey could usefully treat its “Islamist” section in the smae way, particularly when so much of that sector is saying “OK, we’re up for it. Let’s play”.

  5. BT, thanks for sharing your thoughts directly. I take it you live in Turkey. I’ve been abroad for quite some time, and my once keen sense of goings on back home is no longer so. Therefore, I sincerely hope you’re right. Not that I have so far held opinions strongly opposed to yours, but I admit I am a bit taken aback (or to square one) by the recent strong reactions to AKP. I took note as James advises if you like. It can’t be all unfounded fears. I think, the AKP rule of the last five years is botched by their push to single-handedly elect the president. (That is to say the least.)

  6. James,

    I think your assessment that the AKP can’t or doesn’t intend to push Turkey towards sheria is questionable. First there are the things that their predecessors said and did in the 90s. It was truly a scary period. I won’t go into details as it is well documented elsewhere. Now, AKP can really be changed, reformed vs.. However they never came clean about that period other than the occasional and mushy “we changed” comments. It may actually be true, they may have changed but they sure don’t want to break away from their fundamentalist base (%7-8 of the Turkish electorate) and people like me are quite worried about the sway that that the fundamentalist base holds in their party.
    Secondly, there is the issue of bureaucratic appointments, government contracts etc. As one of the posters above wrote, everyone else have done it and so did AKP but the scale of the vigor of AKP’s “purge” is much greater than what was seen before.
    Than there is the issue of their booze banning, said-i nursi loving mayors and teachers. It looks like they didn’t get the memo on tolerance and secularism.

    On the other hand there are the secularists, yes they were associated with huge amounts of corruption, the ideology is rigid, used by the elite to protect their positions in the society, mildly oppressive to the pious, antagonistic towards the newly emerging rural middle class, what the constitutional court and army did was not “fair play” etc. They need to reform themselves. BUT and a big but, the system that they created however flawed still allows people like Erdogan and AKP to wield power (to some degree). There is no example of an islamist movement relinquishing power democratically once it controls all state institutions, not in iran, afghanistan, algeria or palestine. AKP may be “it”, but I don’t want my country to play russian roulette with supposedly tamed political Islam until it is proven without doubt that they are compatible with both secularism and democracy.

    This is pathetic I sound just like a neocons.

    P.S: The economist also wrote “of turkey needs to chose between secularism and democracy she needs to choose democracy” as if democracy would last without some form of secularism. Screw them and their non-signed, swaggering articles.

  7. Nihat,

    …and thanks for sharing yours. I understand and appreciate your point of view.

    And Abuzer, your literate and pithily written comment is a pleasure to read. The Russian roulette metaphor is particularly appropriate…however, you say:

    ” BUT and a big but, the system that they created however flawed still allows people like Erdogan and AKP to wield power (to some degree). “

    Does it? It has done, to an extent, but recent events have shown that this freedom is based on license from the establishment (if you’ll pardon the term – but it’s useful shorthand) rather than any true belief in democracy and the rule of law. It looks like the establishment is saying, “You have the right and freedom to run the country as long as you don’t use it for partisan politics, or try to make any real changes.”

    It is an open secret, which polite company here does not mention, that there was no legal or consititutional basis for the Supreme Court’s recent cancelling of the first round of the rpesidential election. They did it simply because “the establishment” required it.

    If a government’s field of action is so circumscribed by unelected bodies, it kind of defeats the object of electing a government.

    I am reminded of the first time, 23 years ago, that I visited one of the yaylas above Akçaabat in Trabzon. We weere driving up an unmade, unstable, narrow road, in a Dodge truck (what would now be called a 4×4) with sheer drops only centimetres away from the wheels. I was almost paralysed with fear. I wanted to get off, and go back down to sea level. So I travelled on the roof of the vehicle.

    But we got there, slowly, and continually testing the road in front of us.

    This is my metaphor for what I see as the political challenge in front of Turkey. The next step along this narrow and tricky road is political institutions that can actually handle this rapidly changing country. The current ones can’t. Kemalist stonewalling on the issue is doing serious damage to the country.

    Sorrry, James, for hijacking your blog. Maybe I should start one of my own.

  8. Please forgive another blurt…

    “I don’t want my country to play russian roulette with supposedly tamed political Islam until it is proven without doubt that they are compatible with both secularism and democracy.

    This is pathetic I sound just like a neocons.”

    You don’t sound like a neo-con. A neo-con would just say “Islam is incompatible, blah, blah, so must be defeated….”

    But, surely, what is happening now with the AKP is the process whereby political islam demonstrates this compatibility. How else can it do so other than by, well, doing it?

  9. Bad Tyrpist- Not that I have any particular interest in defending Neo-Cons, but I think you’re giving the movement some particularly bad press there. Mainstream “neoconservative” thought in places like America actually sees Turkey as a testbed for the very sort of democratically compatibilised or ‘adapted’ Islam that you’re discussing.

    Other than that, I am desperately unqualified to comment other than to say that if the Islamist government is doing as well as the Economist says it is, isn’t the problem mainly academic?

  10. Bad trypist,

    I agree that looking at the constitutional court’s decision looks awful from a rule of law point of view. Also the army’s intervention is unthinkable in a mature democracy. We will certainly pay a price in the future for what was done by them during the last month. But I disagree that the AKP was not allowed to have real power or were not allowed to make any real changes. They pushed a lot of legislation, presided over the negotiation of the Annan plan, set the economic policy etc. If abolishing state security courts is not a real change I don’t know what is. In fact they were able to do pretty much everything that they wanted except some of their appointments and the presidential election.

    The point where the establishment confronted them has much more to do with the judicial and academic appointments rather than the headscarf. Their thinking is that if AKP fills the ranks of judiciary and academia with their partisan buddies and then turn to a more radical direction that would be the point of no return leading to a bloody coup or even worse. AKP was very well aware of this concern and had every chance the compromise to soothe the concerns of the opposition but they choose not to. BTW, this is not the first time they behaved in a this way, Bulent Arinc threatened to abolish the constitutional court in the past. How is that for separation of powers? I think that questioning their motives for not seeking compromise is a healthy paranoia.

    I know that I may sound like an apologist for the establishment but at least I know the nature of that beast. I still don’t understand the AKP.

  11. Simon,

    If the current US policy was a neo-con one, then yes, what I said would be unfair. But the neo-con influence has been drastically reduced over the past few years. You can even see elements of negotiation and compromise emerging in the White House these days. Many neo-cons have publicly backtracked. But I don’t think I have been unfair in portraying the classical neo-cons of the “New American Century” era. For them, Islam was a political force that opposed their uni-polar vision.


    Yes, I know. All you say is true. And I even support the army in some of its actions in opposing the influence of political islam….when, for example, the army put Bener Cordan in as MEB Müsteşar in the 90s, it had a very positive effect on the place, and did much to counter the entrenched opposition of the Nurcu and Nakshibendi to anything actually hapening in that august institution.

    Paranoia is good. As the old saying goes, just because you are paranoid does not mean they are not out to get you.

    But AKP have played by the rules, and the “establishment” have not. And that is bad for this country because it drives a wedge between the cause of secularism and the cause of democracy and the rule of law.

  12. I love your Western optimism and bona fide approach-as long as if you are consistent.

    For instance, if you think that it’s OK for you that the next American President or British Prime Minister would be Muslim, whose past is marred by fanatical Islamist speeches (like “ending the Republic in favor of a Sharia state); you are consistent. But do you accept it?

    That’s why I never critize Arab views on Turkey, let’s say. Because they want Turkish state be Islamized and they’re consistent ’cause they have such a state and they’re happy with it.

    I’m a practising Muslim who believes in a secular state. This march was for protecting it.

    If we let AKP to do what they want, it is so probable that Turkey would be an Islamist state soon. Nepotism and cryonism were always there, but this time they are in the most dangerous shape, because those who seized power are those who are really sincere about their passion to demolish the system. (not reforming it)

    Even this risk is big enough to act in contrary. That’s why I’ll vote for CHP, even though I don’t like Baykal.

    Our Western friends can keep supporting AKP, telling that they rebuilt Turkish economy (whoever comes could have done it, because it has totally collapsed 5 years ago).

    But let’s see a German Chancellor with a headscarve first… (if she manage to escape from a Schoeble prosecution…)

  13. And I should emphasize that even though I don’t agree with you on some aspects, on some other do I.

    Hearing different voices is so good.

    And your blog is interesting enough for me to add as a favorite.

  14. Hikmet cetin? That would be suicide for AK.

    At least Sezer is incompetent, the best kind of “CHP’li” you can have.

    If AKP gets 60% of the votes in this election, it’s going to be due to Sezer’s bumbling.
    Erdogan & co are quite happy with that dude.
    It was Sezer who got them in the government in the first place.

  15. The OWNERS of the Turkish Republic doesn’t treat the religious & country citizens as first class and have been pressuring since the start of the Republic. People don’t have a problem with Republic itself, but they are tired of being second class citizens, being insulted ALL THE TIME. They go to school too, they even have PhDs, but they are still called ignorant just because they are not Kemalists. No matter what you do, you are not supposed to become a “White Turk”. Let me tell you something. This order will change, NO MATTER WHAT. Not to an Islamic state, but a REAL democratic state.

    By the way, why Hikmet Cetin? He is a leftist, and leftists are only 25% of the country. Why is he legal and Gul illegal? We can’t take this bull anymore, sorry…

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