Is Turkey Remaking Muslim Democracy?

Book Review
Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks
Jenny White
Princeton University Press

January 26, 2013

One evening in September 2011, thousands of Egyptians heralded the arrival of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at Cairo airport with cheering and shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" Many of the well-wishers were members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the rising Islamist organisation that has in recent years cited Erdogan and Turkey as an inspiration. On his first post-Arab Spring visit to the region, observers expected the tough-talking leader of the world's most successful Islamist party to offer support and guidance.

But in his speech that night, Erdogan explained that Turkey was a secular, rather than an Islamic, democracy, and advised Egyptians to build a state that respects all religions. Days later, in Tunisia - where the leading political party, Ennahda, has also acknowledged the influence of Erdogan's party - he explained his remarks. "A person is not secular; the state is secular," Erdogan said in Tunis. "A Muslim can govern a secular state in a successful way."

Though likely to disappoint ascendant Arab Islamists, this idea of a personal Muslimhood, free from state oversight, is at the centre of Turkish life today. It's also the focus of Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, a deeply insightful book by Jenny White, a professor of social anthropology at Boston University. As a number of nationalist groups battle for Turkey's soul, White sees the "new Turks" strutting on the world stage, remaking Muslim democracy and finding great pride in their Ottoman past and their ability to consume God and goods as they choose.

With the founding of modern Turkey in 1923, Mustafa Kemal, later given the name Ataturk, or father of the Turks, began to remake Turkey as a westernised republic in which an authoritarian government oversaw religion. Ataturk also established the Turkish national identity, centred on Muslimhood, racial purity, and Turkish language and culture.

The Turkish military soon emerged as the guarantor of secularism, repeatedly stepping forward to push out leaders it thought had compromised Kemalist ideas. To this day, says White, the Turkish army purges its officer corps of anyone who refuses to drink or whose wife wears a headscarf.

To outsiders, the 2002 rise of Turkey's Islamists seemed at the time a startling event. But White's hindsight outlines a natural progression, linked to globalisation and the broader, regional resurgence of Islam. Starting in the 1970s, the Turkish military allowed greater Islamic freedom, with open discussions in the press and in public about Islamic intellectuals like Maulana Mawdudi and Sayyid Qutb.

The country's first Islamist political movement appeared in 1975, when a group led by Necmettin Erbakan released its National Vision, a pro-business platform linking Islam to nationalism. In the 1980s, the success of thousands of pious businessmen from the Turkish heartland, dubbed the Anatolian Tigers, gave rise to a more conservative elite and to influential networks like the followers of religious educator Fethullah Gulen.

Erbakan's Welfare Party stood against westernisation and secularism and preferred alliances with other Muslim countries to Nato, the European Union (EU) and Israel. Yet it was also seen as forward-looking, progressive and pro-Turkey, and had support in small towns and major cities, among rural women, urban professionals and the Anatolian Tigers. The party gained ground, and in 1994 mayoral elections, its candidate, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, became mayor of Istanbul.

By the time Erbakan became prime minister two years later, 40 per cent of the party's supporters were secularists, and Welfare had emerged as Turkey's modern political party. To the military, of course, that meant Erbakan had to be pushed from office and the party shut down. Its successor, the Virtue Party, rose quickly, until it too was banned in 2001. But that same year, Erdogan founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP), adding an embrace of globalisation to Erbakan's vision and downplaying the Islamist elements. The party won the 2002 elections and has dominated Turkish politics ever since.

On the surface, Turkey's AKP decade has been one of social stability, economic growth and hope for the future. But White reveals how the public discourse has fractured. As Ataturk's vision has collapsed, Turks have splintered into a million shifting shades of nationalism: Kemalist, Islamist, rightist, ultranationalist, neonationalist, liberal and more.

Despite their disagreements, all these groups place great value on the country's Ottoman past. Today, the year that most evokes Turkish pride is not 1923, but 1453, when Constantinople fell to the army of Sultan Mehmet II. That victory is now celebrated in malls and history museums, bestsellers and popular soap operas.

Ottoman glories also undergird Turkey's new quasi-imperialist foreign policy. Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey's bold foreign minister, often speaks of reintegrating the greater Middle East to "bring back the golden era".

"Since 2002, when the AKP won its first major election," writes White, "an Islamist vision of political life has given way to a Muslim nationalist vision that is focused less on a shared global umma and more on a structured relationship with the Muslim world in which Turkey takes a leading role, as it had in Ottoman times."

We see this in Turkey's toughness with Israel and the creation of a visa-free zone with Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Yet just as Turks treasure their Ottoman heritage, they also see themselves, and their religion, as distinctly un-Arab. "One thing all nationalists agree on," writes White, "is that Turkish Islam differs from Islam tainted by Arab influence."

But what does that mean? How can Islam be uninfluenced by the people who midwifed its birth? Speaking to White, Omer Ozsoy, a reformist theologian at Ankara University, wonders: "While reading the Quran, to what extent am I facing an Arab reality and to what extent the demands of Allah? We have to distinguish between these." Such comments might be blasphemous in many Sunni Arab-dominated countries, but Turkish Islam has been steeped in centuries of moderate, Sufi ideology.

Turkey's leaders stress a modern, personalised Islam, as suggested by Erdogan's remarks in Tunis. The new Turk can wear Gucci and still go proudly and with purpose to Friday prayers. With more than half the country's population under 30, this marks a profound shift. "The choice to be suurlu, a 'consciously believing Muslim', as opposed to blindly following tradition, has become highly valued as a sign of Muslim modernity," White writes.

The word "tradition" has become shorthand for Wahhabism, Salafism, and other deeply conservative Sunni belief systems that have gained a foothold across the broader region. "This government is rather different than the Muslim Brotherhood," Ceylan Ozbudak, the executive director of the talk show Building Bridges, said during a recent episode. She and her co-hosts explained that they didn't like the word "Islamist". "We have a Muslim government," Ozbudak explains, "but they apply the rules of Islam, not the rules of tradition."

Indeed, Erdogan has said he views Sharia not as a strict legal code but as "a metaphor for a just society". The country has no influential, deeply rooted religious establishment, no body akin to Egypt's millennium-old Al Azhar - which is mentioned in that country's new constitution - or Saudi Arabia's powerful ulema. This allows AKP leaders to determine, largely free of outside influence, how to build a 21st-century Muslim democracy, and forge a new national identity.

White uses her fluent Turkish and more than 30 years of extended stays in the country to flesh out this bold and unpredictable social and political experiment. Of her two previous non-fiction works on Turkey (White has also written three Ottoman-era crime novels), the second, Islamist Mobilization in Turkey, won the 2003 Douglass Prize for best book of European anthropology. White is indeed an anthropologist, rather than a journalist or political analyst, and her book goes on to detail the uncertain place of women in 21st-century Turkey and the "contradictory nature of Turkish social and political life as it accommodates individual choice while validating primacy of family and community in determining ethics and norms."

But academic jargon of that sort is rare; the writing is generally clear and straightforward, and the book is chock-full of rich titbits from Turkish society. White highlights changing fashions among Turkey's elite in the evolution of the word for squatters - from gecekondu (literally, "placed there at night") in the 1970s, to varos, a Hungarian term referring to an area beyond the city walls, today - and the sudden disfavour of moustaches. Once a proud, defining facial feature for nearly every Turkish man, they now signify the meaner classes ("men from the varos").

White has a clear affection for Turkey, which may serve to mute her criticism. Though she does briefly discuss the vast Ergenekon trial, in which a shadowy group of 200-odd military, police, journalists and activists have been accused of plotting to overthrow the government, she neglects to discuss the government's oppression of journalists until the book's final pages. And she mentions Ahmet Sik, a journalist who has spent the past year in prison awaiting a verdict on questionable, Ergenekon-related charges, only in her endnotes.

Yet crackdowns on the press have been skyrocketing. No country jailed more journalists than Turkey in 2011, including China and Iran, and no country is currently holding more reporters in prison. In recent months, the European Union and the London-based writers organisation PEN International have criticised the Erdogan government for using antiterrorism laws to justify arrests and create a climate of fear.

A greater oversight may be the short shrift given to Turkey's long-suffering Kurds. Kurdish militants have since the late 1970s fought the Turkish government for their own state. But the vast majority of Kurdish Turks, estimated at 13 million, or about 16 per cent of the country's population, seek only to maintain their own language and traditions. The willingness of the Erdogan government to accept and integrate them is key to the country's future.

White does better detailing how the state and society marginalise non-Muslims. She visits Ishak Alaton, an 82-year-old Jewish Turk and a well-known entrepreneur, who says he "has never been given the feeling by this nation that I am part of it". The Turks even have a word for such people: vatandas, non-Muslim minorities, who can be citizens but not true Turks. She also points out how the authorities, the military and the media regularly voice concerns about the threat of Christian missionaries, engendering widespread fear and occasional, vicious attacks on priests.

Filled with insight, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks is sure to become a leading text for those looking to read the Turkish tea leaves - a readership on the rise of late. In her conclusion, White considers the Turkish model, acknowledging similarities between Turkey and newly free Arab countries. Ultimately, the differences win out.

Turkey was never conquered and colonised, and is thus able to view western ideas with interest, rather than suspicion. It has been a democracy, or has at least resembled one, for 90 years - time enough to strengthen its institutions and solidify its political system. Finally, decades of economic growth have created a large, globalised middle class able to balance Islam with modern living.

Speaking at a political conference in 1998, Erdogan quoted from an Islamic poem: "Democracy is just the train we board to reach our destination. The mosques are our barracks, the minarets our bayonets." How did he go from there to the secular Muslim statesman of today? Perhaps it was the five-year political ban that came as a result. Perhaps his time in office, bumping up against the possible, altered his perspective. Perhaps he hasn't changed at all, and we'll find with his government's release of an updated constitution later this year that he has merely been biding his time.

Whatever the case, Islamist groups like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are unlikely to emulate Turkey's Muslimhood model anytime soon, though the AKP vision might suit the young activists of Tahrir Square. Yet, if Turkey's history is any indication, their time in power is decades of democratic and economic development away.

Originally ran in The National

The Other Winners from Gezi Park: Urbanists Everywhere

After five days of battling police forces, Taksim Solidarity, a collective formed by protesters in Turkey’s largest city and dedicated to advocacy for the threatened green space of Gezi Park, finally listed its demands Monday night: That Gezi Park remain a park; officials involved in the recent police aggression are forced to resign immediately; tear gas bombs banned; all jailed protesters released; and demonstrations allowed throughout Turkey.

As of Tuesday, protests have flared in dozens of cities across the country, and at least 1,700 people have been arrested, hundreds injured and at least two killed, with a handful in critical condition. Just today, a 240,000-member workers union began a two-day nationwide strike to protest the police’s excessive use of force. Why the sudden mass support? “This is not about a park,” read a leaflet circulated online. “This is about democracy.”

It may have begun with the Emek Theatre, a century-old Istanbul cinema torn down by the municipal government to become a mall six weeks ago. Or with the way the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) rushed to pass a restrictive new alcohol law last month. Or the way Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan defended it, saying the previous laws on alcohol had been created by “two drunkards” (likely referring to the beloved founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, and his comrade-in-arms Ismet Inonu, the country’s second president), while his new version was “commanded by religion.” It might have started with the government’s long-running crackdown on domestic media and freedom of expression, or its decision to eschew a master plan for Istanbul.

Whatever the case, by this past weekend, when a demonstration to save one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul exploded in a matter of hours into a visceral national movement, it was clear that Turks had had enough of the AKP’s authoritarianism. Catalyzed by an unwanted makeover of public space, Istanbul residents demanded a say in the governance of their country and the development of their urban environment. A small group of determined urban activists transformed a local effort to “save the trees” into a call heard around the world to “reclaim the streets, and the country.”

Just a month ago, Erdogan was at the peak of his power, plotting to rewrite the constitution and transform the government to install a French-style presidential system. After a decade of strong economic growth, Turkey is brash and influential, much like its leader. Istanbul, the country’s cultural capital and economic engine, has developed into a tourist mecca and go-go metropolis of 15 million, where jackhammers, scaffolding and construction cranes are as familiar as the city’s cigarette-slim minarets.

Istanbul is only 1.5 percent green space, compared to 17 percent in New York City. The city’s central area of Beyoglu is particularly nature-free. At the northeast rim of Taksim Square, Gezi Park may be unkempt and little appreciated, but it is also one of the few remaining areas with trees in the district. On top of that, in a city suddenly filled with swank shopping destinations, it was slated to become yet another mall.

“Just like our ancestors, we are continuing to write history and leave behind creations,” Erdogan said at a groundbreaking ceremony for a $3 billion bridge over the Bosporus last week. The bridge, to be completed in 2015, is named after 16th century Ottoman conqueror Yavuz Sultan Selim — the man widely seen as responsible for the slaughter of Alevis, a moderate Muslim people that today makes up some 15 percent of Turkey’s population of 75 million. “This is how we are building a powerful Turkey,” Erdogan added. “For the seven hills of Istanbul, we have seven grand projects — one is this bridge, a third necklace over the Bosphorus.”

Other Erdogan-backed projects in the works for Istanbul include the world’s largest airport, the city’s largest mosque on a hill overlooking the Bosporous, and a project to carve out a Suez Canal-style waterway to the west of the city, linking the Marmara to the Black Sea — a project the prime minister himself has called “crazy.” Thus far, the government has made all the decisions about these projects with little to no public discussion.

The third bridge had long been opposed by progressives and environmentalists because its anchors were to be built in some of Istanbul’s last great swathes of green, not far from the Black Sea, and the expectation was that the resulting traffic would doom those areas to smog and sprawl. Yet the government, led by Erdogan’s AKP, went ahead despite the opposition. Again, residents were not consulted.

Other troubling government actions in Istanbul include the following: Mass evictions of low-income residents to make way for renewal in tumbledown Istanbul districts like Sulukule, Tarlabasi and Zeytinburnu; the stoppage of May Day activities in Taksim Square by cutting ferry, bus and metro service in the area and sending out tens of thousands of policemen to apply liberal doses of teargas; and the evisceration of Taksim, the heart of the city and the site of a constant stream of smaller protests in recent years.

Several dozen protesters took to the park early last week and refused to vacate to allow for demolition. In response, Erdogan underestimated the people’s frustration and overestimated his own power. “Do whatever you want,” he said. “We have made our decision on Gezi park.”

Police came to retake Gezi Park at dawn last Thursday, burning tents and applying teargas, pepper spray and the occasional beating. The protesters scattered but soon returned. After authorities again forcibly evicted the demonstrators the following morning, protesters returned in greater numbers and spread details of the attacks via social media.

With the national media cowering, much of the news about what came to be known as Occupy Gezi has spread, particularly in those first few days, via Twitter and Facebook. One photo from last Thursday — of a smart-looking woman in a red dress, white handbag slung over her shoulder, all but ignoring a policeman’s aggressive pepper spraying — became a symbol of protesters’ defiance.

Woman in red becomes leitmotif for Istanbul’s female protesters. Credit: Photo by Osman Orsal. Reuters.
Other widely circulated images included a gas-masked whirling dervish protester and, not surprisingly, some nasty head wounds. Protesters in Turkey have flooded networks with up to 100,000 tweets an hour, directing each other to hotspots, calling for media coverage and highlighting authorities’ acts of violence. They used the crowdfunding site IndieGoGo to raise more than $80,000 for a full-page ad in the New York Times.

Not all the protesters have been angels. They set dumpsters on fire, graffitied walls, smashed windows, looted shops and burnt cars. Some used small makeshift weapons. But the vast majority has been peaceful, and Sunday morning many of them worked together to clean Gezi Park.

Erdogan, yet to respond to the demands of Taksim Solidarity while on a state visit to North Africa, seems to have turned into a modern-day Selim the Grim. “There is now a menace which is called Twitter,” he said during a TV interview Sunday, echoing dictators everywhere. “To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” The following day, as Turkey’s stock market took its biggest tumble since Erdogan came to power, he blamed the protests on “extremist elements” and said intelligence agencies were looking for a foreign hand. He also said, “anyone who drinks is an alcoholic” and threatened to meet the protesters’ numbers with more of his own.

Solidarity from Zuccotti Park to Gezi Park. Occupy Wall Street and members of New York City’s Turkish community picketed the Turkish consulate in New York Street on June 3. Credit:Michael Fleshman on Flickr
Leaders of Turkey have never been big on checks and balances, but Erdogan’s decade in power seems to have warped his understanding of his position and of democracy itself. Perhaps it’s not surprising. Growing up in conservative, working-class Kasimpasha, Erdogan earned a reputation as a take-no-prisoners brawler. Rather than negotiate or surrender when cornered and losing control, a brawler keeps on fighting, clinging to the feisty, indomitable attitude that put him on top. He has let go of his mall plan for Gezi, but suggested he might build a mosque in its place.

With the prime minister the clear loser, the big winners from the past week are President Abdullah Gul, who has hit many of the right notes in responding to the protesters and who seems to have opened a rift between himself and the suddenly out-of-touch Erdogan; Turkey’s youth, who now have a much greater understanding of their power; and Istanbul, the city Mehmed II conquered so many years ago has discovered, once again, that it is unconquerable, and largely able to control its own destiny.

And one more, outside Turkey: The international urbanist community, which has a new, tone-perfect example of how concerns about public space can spur greater, broader calls for democracy and basic rights, and how people everywhere are equally willing to fight for some measure of control of their parks, neighborhoods and built environment.

Due to its still-considerable support, there’s no reason to expect the AKP to fade from Turkish politics anytime soon. But Erdogan’s stranglehold on national power may continue to slip with more clashes in the days to come. As I write, reports are flooding in of more teargas in Ankara, Antalya and other cities, while thousands of Istanbullus head toward Taksim Square early Tuesday evening. Once more unto the breach.

Story originally ran at NextCity.org, on June 5th 2013.