Turkish demonstrations are about freedom

Submitted by Anon on 18 May, 2007 - 6:51

Richard Preece discusses the recent anti-government demonstrations in Turkey

Much mainstream liberal and centre-right reporting on the crisis in Turkey has portrayed the debate as being a kind of “clash of civilisations in one country” between “Islamists” (or even “Muslims” according to others) supporting the ruling Adalet ve Kalk¦nma Partisi and “secularists” supporting the army and the opposition Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi.

On the other hand, sections of the left seem to be tending towards the totally boneheaded view that the hundreds of thousands on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, and the tens of thousands more in smaller cities, were representative of the “middle classes defending their lifestyles” from a government that has done nothing to attack them.

Underlying this, I believe, is the idea of a thin liberal middle class atop a religiously conservative “pious mass” whom some on the left believe to be the driving force of anti-imperialism in that region. Both of these views crudify a complex phenomenon.

It is worth looking at the heritage of the AKP, the vast majority of whose leaders are former apparatchiks and elected politicians from the Refah Partisi or Welfare Party, led by a veteran Islamist named Necmettin Erbakan who had been around in Turkish politics since the 1970s. Erbakan led various ultra-religious parties (or rather, incarnations of the same party), of which Refah was merely the last under his leadership.

A feature of Erbakan’s parties was their frequent clashes with the Turkish military which, hard though this is understand in a Western context, is one of the most universally trusted institutions in the country, and widely seen as a “guardian” of the country’s republican heritage. Erbakan’s last government was ushered out of power in 1997, and Refah declared illegal by the courts in 1998.

Whilst a member of Refah and Mayor of Istanbul, the man who is now Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was jailed for incitement to religious hatred, for reciting the following words:

“The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…”

He also abortively tried to ban alcohol sales in Istanbul when he was Mayor, a measure which the AK government partially revived, again to much protest. There have also been other ham-fisted attempts to introduce Islamist measures, such as an attempt to criminalise adultery in 2004.

Overall the AKP government has tried to distance itself from the heritage of Erbakan, who now runs the small, ultra-conservative Saadet Partisi. However, the thought of AK controlling the presidency as well as the premiership has caused deep worry amongst many ordinary Turks who are naturally suspicious of monopolies on power being held by patronage-dispensing political machines of any kind.

Many do not believe politicians like Erdogan and his would-be Presidential candidate Abdullah Gul have changed from being Islamists into centre-right mainstream politicians.

The massive demonstrations in all major cities (and a number of minor ones) in heavily populated Western Anatolia, have been by people seeking to defend a way of life rather than a “lifestyle”. They believe that it’s possible to live in a 99% Muslim country, as a Muslim, without actually supporting a religious state. And they believe that ideal to be under attack. This isn’t “Muslims” versus “secularists”. This is about two competing and different visions of Islam, and multiple competing visions of politics.

The protestors believe that they are protecting social freedoms like a woman’s right to walk the streets without wearing the hijab, sexual freedoms, and the right to choose what one eats or drinks. They also believe that they are taking a stand against the encroachment by stealth of a religious state in Turkey.

They may be overly paranoid about the AK Partisi itself, but given AK’s leaders’ history of close association with the theocrat Erbakan, that paranoia is not totally unfounded. They may be overly obsessed with symbols (such as offering support for the ban on headscarves in government buildings), but there again those symbols mean something more significant to Turks than they do to white Westerners.

The laicism which is wound up in the manner with which they express these desires, is wrongheaded in my view — albeit that the argument is not quite as clear cut as many in the West would think. However to project their desires as being those of an effete middle class trying to protect its privileges is simply unfair.

What stances should leftists in the West take on the issues involved? We should join the leadership of the Turkish trades unions in opposing the military’s threats to intervene once again. The army may be popular in Turkey (incidentally the unions are not), but any left has to stand firm on its belief in democracy rather than military force as the bedrock of political power in a nation state.

Further, I think we should support Erdogan’s proposal for a directly elected President — this adds legitimacy to a role which at present has no real democratic mandate. This call is also supported by the leaders of the unions Turk-Is¸, Hak-Is¸, and Memur-Sen. We should call for a vote for the left-Kurdish Demokratik Toplum Partisi where it is standing in the elections that Erdogan has called, and for a vote for other left forces elsewhere. Lastly, the left should be quite clear that it opposes the institution of a religious state in Turkey.

What really annoys me about coverage of Turkish politics is the evident ignorance of basic facts about that nation’s history, cultures and politics on the part of so many people (especially in terms of political groups) who cover it. People in Turkey don’t fit the slip-shod categories that so many people on the left employ in an attempt to easily explain politics in Anatolia and the Middle East. Rather than trying to make them fit “our” schemata, we should try to meet them on “their” terrain. We might even learn something.

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