Fear and Loathing in Erdogan's Turkey

News Abroad

Hakan Ozoglu is Associate Professor of History at the University of Central Florida.

September 12, 2010 saw the approval of a referendum to amend twenty-six articles of Turkey’s constitution.  Although these articles appear to ameliorate the undemocratic elements in the constitution, prepared by the military after a coup in 1980, the amendments caused considerable controversy in Turkey.  The decisive margin (58 percent to 42 percent) boosted the government’s confidence in dealing with the opposition; however, it also stoked secularist fears that the government and Islamic-minded citizens are poised to destroy the secular nature of the state. 

Before going any further, I must clarify one thing: we need to be careful when generalizing about this matter as purely a struggle between secularists and Islamists.  Those who voted for the amendments include some secular intellectuals, Kurds, leftists and ultra-nationalists.  Similarly, some pious and practicing Muslims voted no. It is only as a matter of practicality to define these divisions as such.  Nevertheless, what separates nay-sayers from the rest is the fear that the current government’s hidden agenda of Islamist regime chance has no legal or political obstacles left to overcome.  Does this fear have merit?  

The root of modern secularist concerns lies in the Ottoman period.  Although the Ottoman Empire was theoretically an “Islamic empire,” theory did not translate into practice.  The religious establishment (with some exceptions) was incorporated into the Ottoman administration as bureaucrats, lower-level administrators, and civil servants.  In other words, their interest and well-being were skillfully tied to the existence and the functioning of the state.  Their dependency to the state laid the very foundation of the secularist view of the Republic; secularism meant the subordination of religion to the state, not separation from it.  The ulama (religious functionaries) were advisors to the secular administrations.  They interacted with them and influenced them to a degree; and depending on the period their influence varied.  They were, however, still outsiders to the inner circle of power.   

The same political landscape remained intact in the Republic of Turkey, at least until the election of the Justice and Development Party in 2002.  The military and the secular establishment were dominated by those who felt that religion should be under tight control and subordinate to the state.  When the Erdogan government came to power the secularists, who always believed that Islam’s place in the private sphere was well-established and already digested by the people, experienced a rude awakening.  They immediately looked for a scapegoat.  Conspiracy theories circulated about how the West, particularly the United States, selected Turkey as the model for moderate (read: tamed) Islam.  The 2007 elections saw Justice and Development lose twenty-four MPs, but the party still holds 341 seats (of 550) in the Grand National Assembly.  This was an alarming development for secularists as the executive branch solidified its control on the legislature.  There was still the judicial branch and the military, however, to protect the secular nature of the state.

The latest referendum has dimmed, if not outright extinguished, secularists’ hopes.  Military intervention in the civil government is now unconstitutional, undermining the military’s effectiveness as a deterrent against dismantling secular structures.  The amendments also lay the groundwork for diminishing the judiciary, removing yet another secularist pillar.

Unlike in earlier periods, the religious establishment now has an Islamic party in government, making Islamists’ access to political power much easier than before.  Those Islamists who never accepted their political role in secularist Turkey now have the chance to gain legislative and bureaucratic power.  Secularists are convinced that Islamists have already infiltrated government, ranging from the smallest rural village to Ankara.  With such a mindset, we can see the rationale behind the angry rhetoric voiced by the secular establishment.  As the secularist worldview becomes defenseless, according to the opposition, it is only a matter of time before Justice and Development shows its true fundamentalist face. 

The real question before us is not “is this fear warranted.”  Perception is reality in politics, and secular fear has its merits. The real question is whether Justice and Development is trying to fundamentally (no pun intended) change the nature of the Turkish state.  Personally, I have not seen convincing evidence that the party is “systematically” undermining secular Turkey.  Secularists dispute this but only with speculations.  One can surely hear from statements by government officials, however, that they wish to re-define “secularism” in such a way that religion would no longer be subordinate to the state.  Islamists demand “equal” status with and within the state.  The problem is that such equality may not be desirable or even possible.  Since both Islam and the state compete for the loyalty of the same people, “equal status” might lead to an intense competition for power.  Therefore, bringing religion to the public sphere requires establishing a very delicate balance. The Erdogan government must be extremely careful not to antagonize secularists, whose membership is not much smaller than the Islamists.  At the same time, the secularist movement must find ways to constructively deal with its own Islamophobia, but that’s an issue for another column.

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omar ibrahim baker - 9/21/2010

" The problem is that such equality may not be desirable or even possible. Since both Islam and the state compete for the loyalty of the same people, “equal status” might lead to an intense competition for power. "
May be a true and valid proposition as long as the STATE is, by definition, anti or counter Islam!
Should the state be for or neutral to, i.e. non competing with, Islam the proposition will not stand.

Which is exactly what Mustafa Kemal ( Ataturk) made the state to be, in competition with Islam, in his highly successful effort to build a modern, post Ottoman, Turkish state with the establishment of the Turkish republic.
Ataturk spent a good deal of his time and energy going after two distinct objectives:
1- Changing the appearance, the look, of Turkey
2- Changing the cultural /religious/Islamic “personality/identity “of the Turkish people ,
(more than 98% Moslem).

Objective (1) stressed the effacing of all external cultural/religious/Islamic characteristics including replacing the fez with a hat, substituting Sunday for Friday as the weekly day of rest and abandoning Arabic script ( the script of the original, ie pre translation, Koran) for a Western style script with necessary modifications and additions.( quite successful in major cities.)

Objective(2) attempted more substantial and far reaching” reforms” which went more into the core of things cultural such as outlawing polygamy allowed by Islam and moderately practiced at the time. .( Mostly ignored in the country side where a majority of Turks resided and with the new suburbs still reside)

Ataturk’s “secular” legacy was carried forward by his successors by the CHP (people’s Republican Party ) enjoying the unflagging support of the Army which eventually came to openly replace it as the bastion of Ataturkism and secularism.

The predominance of Ataturk secularism was only interrupted in the 1960s by a few violently quashed ( the hanging of Adnan Menders) attempts at a reconciliation of Turkish cultural heritage and Ataturkism until some years back with the ascent of non counter Islam political parties.

Arbakan's, the precursor, and particularly Erdogan’s Islamism in the strict sense of striving to attain a sharia ruled nation is certainly still a very open question.

What holds little doubt is that they certainly are not counter Islam, both in appearance and substance, the way Ataturkism was; a stand which seems to elicit the support of a majority of Turks!

Fahrettin Tahir - 9/20/2010


How can anybody who reads the newspapers be afraid of political Islam

A certain Stephen Kinzer has written a book about whz the US must encourage moderate Islamism in Turkey which will then proceed to bring the radical Islamism under ist control. This would be another experiment to use Islam to forward the interests of the West.

The US is fighting two colonial wars where the opponents use an Islamist ideology and they are not going to win it by Turkish Islamists supplying other Islamists with a new ideology.

We are afraid that they are trying to do so.

Fahrettin Tahir - 9/20/2010


And they are antisemites.

The Jews, you see founded two states in the 20th century, Israel and Turkey. They have subverted key institutions and control the state.

When a top general was photographed at the wailing wall they were overjoyed. This was proof not of fact that a succesful military mobilizes everybody for the defence of the country, no, the Jewish conspiracy was there for all to see.

Substituting secularists with their own people they are removing imagined Jews from key positions. Crushing the secularists is what the AKP is all about.

The real Jews are escaping to Israel.

Nowhere in the European press will you see any critique of such anti semitizm. Instead they keep claimin that the AKP is bringing democracy.

An Armenian church service at a long abandoned church in Eastern Anatolia was reported as the first Armenian Church service in Turkey since 1915. So horrible were the secularists, so wonderful are the AKP.

Fahrettin Tahir - 9/20/2010

The Ecevit government which preceded the Erdogan one crashed in two steps. One there was an economic crash prompted by a run on the Turkish Lira. Second exactly at the point where the government now consolidating and was most vulnerable the coalition parties demanded an election which they were sure of losing. That is too much coincidence and the conspiracy theory has the US engineering the AKP election victory which followed because the Ecevit government was refusing to help out in the coming Iraq invasion and the Akp was promising to help.

Later the AKP did not help and the Bush administration was heard complaining that they do not do as promised.

The presently burning issue in Turkey is not secularism but the rule of law and the Kurdish secession.

The military have been weakened by internalia and obviously invented gossip being published. The internalia are published in the anti army newspaper Taraf. They can only have been obtained by a powere having access to military communications. The only power in the region which can do that is the US military in Iraq. The conspiracy theory is that the Turkish military refuse to subordinate to US political will and so are being subjected to what the chief of staff calls an unsymmetric war.

The AKP talks of founding a new military force which would be subordinate to the party politics.

In 2007 hundreds of leading opponents of the AKP were arrested on charges of conspiring. This is the Ergenekon affair. They sit in jail, none of the charges has been proven in court but they continue to sit in jail. The leader of the labor party is one of them. The government press said this gentleman, who has dedicated his life to hating the US had been spying for the US and Israel. It would be very surprizing if he were and the other allegations are similar.

The pro government press has also said these people were in jail because they had been working on leaving the western alliance and working with China. Pro government press were making fun the people who expected the US to allow that.

Mr Erdogans close advisor Cuneyt Zapsu was in the US telling his listeners not to flush Mr Erdogan down the drain but to use him for their own interests

Nobody in the West thinks that it is a problem if a government jails opponents without being able to prove them guilty of anything.

With the latest change in the constitution all higher courts are under government control.

The press has been muzzled. The biggest opposition newspaper group has been given a 3 billion dollar fine on tax delaying charges. Since then nobody dares open his mouth.

Turkey has had an economic boom in the AKP years thanks to support from Europe. Now the AKP sits safely in control of the state they expect Turkey to give up Cyprus and Autonomy for the Kurdish region. Mr Ahtisaari who got a Nobel prize for his successes in partitioning other peoples countries is now working on the Kurdish issue.

All of these points are presently more important than the religious orientation of the AKP.

A Kurdish secession supported by the West would blow up Turkish politics. They would be losing the only Islamic ally they have.

I do not know if the US is still behind the AKP but the European Union is. They think by replacing the old secularist elite with this new Islamist elite they will be getting the same Turkey they had now under total submission to their political will.

They are getting a different country.

As clear a case of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs as any other.