Monday, June 12, 2006

Turkey - something we all should care about

No, this is not where I come out of the closet as an animal rights protestor. For those of you who don't know, I'm a long-term Turkophile; it's a country that I love to visit, holiday and work in, and I find its culture and politics fascinating to the point where I'm something of a geek about it.

There's a great article in today's Guardian detailing Turkey's current political travails for the uninitiated, but for those who want the potted version, it goes like this. In 2002 Turkey elected the conservative/Islamist AK Party to power, replacing the previous coalition of secular "old men" (many of whom had largely dominated Turkish politics since the 1960s), with a huge majority of seats, although only just under 35% of the votes. This sent ructions through the region - not least because every time Turkey had previously elected Islamist governments (as with AK's predecessor Refah in 1994) they had tended to be swiftly ejected, revolving-door fashion, by the country's Kemalist military. There's usually very little protest about this from the populace, a majority of whom have never voted even for "moderate" theocrats. So not many people held out much hope for Recep Tayyip Erdogan's party this time round. On the other side, the election of an (even moderately) Islamist government on the Greek borders, sent shivers down the spines of politicians in several EU capitals, who were already nervously contemplating the prospect of a Muslim EU member.

And yet... Erdogan (after finally managing to take his post as PM, following various legal shenanigans that are not relevant here) surprised them all. Not only did he retain power, he used it, along with his enormous parliamentary majority, to force through possibly the most radical programme of social reforms that the country had seen in decades. In particular, AK massively reduced legal restrictions on the use of the Kurdish language, and poured public investment into the country's desperately poor and war-ravaged south-eastern region, where the majority of Kurdish people reside, and where the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party were mostly active during the devastating period of the 1980s/1990s. What's more, AK pursued the country's EU candidacy with a far greater (and possibly more sincere) enthusiasm than the previous secular coalition had. Of all things, this conservative, Islamist government were behaving like social liberals. I wouldn't want to be painted into the corner of defending all of their programme, especially the free market economics of it, but in many ways it was a darn sight better than what had gone before.

All of this, you would think, would lead to massive EU enthusiasm to integrate a Muslim democracy like Turkey. But no, the bureaucrats dragged their feet, and mutterings were held in various capitals about diluting the "Christian" nature of the EU. Erdogan has since been forced on to the back foot at home, as the population has become increasingly becoming disillusioned with the EU's foot dragging, and the barely-disguised Islamophobia from some political figures in Europe has accentuated this process. Furthermore, the war in Iraq has produced a sense of bad feeling towards the West and the USA in particular, which really has no precedent in the history of the Turkish republic. And there were forces waiting in the wings ready to take advantage of this - the nationalist far right.

Any neocons or Eustonites reading this who think that ultra-secularism is always better than government by Islamist parties, should really take a look at the Milliyet Hareket Partisi. If you look at their website now, it is covered in pictures of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, and of the MHP's leader, Devlet Bahceli. Having had very little support in the recent past, due to popular loathing of the far right "Grey Wolf" militias who helped precipitate a full military coup in 1980, the party suddenly burst onto the national scene in the 1999 elections, coming second, only to be swept away by the AK tide in 2002. The MHP is secularist, and proclaims itself to be democratic, but the following quote from its founder Alparslan Turkes illustrates all too starkly the roots of its ideology:

"Turks do not have any friend or ally other than other Turks. Turks! Turn to your roots. Our words are to those that have Turkish ancestry and are Turks.... Those that have torn down this nation (referring to the Ottoman Empire) are Greek, Armenian and Jew traitors, and Kurdish, Bosnian and Albanians... How can you, as a Turk, tolerate these dirty minorities. Remove from within the Armenians and Kurds and all Turkish enemies." [1]

What's more, they're on the up - surfing a rising tide of nationalism exemplified by the arrest of the writer Orhan Pamuk for his comments about the Turkish state's record of gross human rights abuses to it minorities, in particular his stating publicly that Turkey had killed 1 million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds.

The MHP are, in fact, so on the up, that frantic Turkish progressives of my personal acquaintance are considering lending their votes at the next general election to shore up AK's crumbling support, in a desperate attempt to prevent an neo-fascist government from taking power in Ankara. AK themselves, meanwhile, are left scrambling back towards their historical religious populism in order to shore up their electoral base. Such is what we've come to.

What's really sad about all this, is that Turks tend to have the most marvellous attitude to religion and politics. When faced with the kind of question about Muslim versus secular identity that seems to tie up parts of the UK left in knots, the Turks I know will give you a quizzical look and say "err... well both really". There is no contradiction between being religious and not wanting to live in a theocracy, and this is commonly understood in Turkey. So this political situation need never have happened - it's a classic case of geopolitical events feeding malevolent political influences in a country, and it is desperately, desperately sad. A tolerant, multi-ethnic democracy that had been becoming more and more tolerant and democratic, now teeters on the brink of going into reverse gear.

So y'all still think that war in Iraq was a good idea?


Anonymous boogski said...

The Turks (Government and all) were against the invasion of Iraq. So. Could you tell me how the situation in Iraq is the cause of Turks becoming more nationalistic?

I wouldn't be in favor of throwing someone in jail for chewing gum or writing something less than flattering about ANY Nation. Nor would I be in favor of a bunch of Islamist kooks running the show. There's something in between.

The West.

*shit eating grin*

5:27 PM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Turkey has a history of being pro-European that goes back to the founding of the republic. When the West invaded a country full of their co-religionists on a false pretext, and surrounded cities holy to their Shia and Bektashi minorities, the West's stock fell to unparalleled lows. This is political fact.

The truth is Boogski, they elect governments democratically in Turkey, and whether you agree with their laws or not, they are passed by parliament.

We all have laws we disagree with. To be honest, I don't think allowing some gimp on a farm to own an AK47 is a particularly good idea, but US law disagrees with me. Such is life in a democracy. What's sad is that Turkey had been liberalising even further, and the West may have (via various processes) helped to stall that process.

12:39 AM  
Anonymous Janine said...

So where is the labour movement in all this, Alan? And turkish socialists?

1:52 AM  
Blogger voltaires_priest said...

Well, now...

That's a whole other post, but one that I should and will get around to writing.

12:14 AM  

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