Photo by Meriç Dağlı on Unsplash
Kaya Genç is a Turkish journalist and author. He wrote The Lion and the Nightingale: A Journey through Modern Turkey (2019) to tell the stories of very different people following the attempted coup in 2016, and previously wrote Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey (2016) where he interviewed people who had been involved with and opposed to the Gezi Park protest movement in 2013.
Pete Boggs interviewed him early in March 2020. When the interview was conducted coronavirus had not yet arrived in Turkey and was not a global pandemic, although Genç’s planned speaking event in London had been cancelled as the venues were not allowing foreign speakers into the building.
Justice and Development
Erdoğan’s party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, just a year after it was formed by representatives of some of the existing Islamist parties. For the vast majority of Turkey’s history since the fall of the Ottoman Empire it has been ruled by various shades of Kemalists, a heavily secular ideology. Kemalism is a populist-nationalism, referring to the ideas of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic.
Despite its self-description as conservative and heavy association with Islamism (albeit a somewhat softer form than is often associated with the term ‘Islamism’), many people, including those who considered themselves left-wing and liberal, saw in the AKP hopes of Turkey becoming a much more liberal society. To a very limited extent, some of this bore out.
The most obvious example of this is on headscarves. Whilst headscarves were never banned outright in Turkey, the Turkish state has historically put restrictions on them, in accordance with the strict laïcité of Kemalism. After being frowned upon for a long time, headscarves were banned for women public servants following the 1980 coup, and this was extended to a ban on headscarves in universities in the ‘90s.
Erdoğan made an attempt to lift the university ban in 2008 which was blocked by the Constitutional Court, but then succeeded in lifting it in 2010. The government also successfully repealed the ban on headscarves in the armed forces.
In academia there was also some increase in freedom, and a more open environment to critically assess the history of Turkey. It became more of a possibility to talk about the Armenian Genocide and the historical repression of the left. The AKP was critical of Kemalism for its own reasons, and was willing to allow others to voice their criticisms. This was far from universal however: Garo Paylan, an Armenian parliamentary deputy of the HDP, gave a speech in parliament about the Armenian Genocide, and a few days later was physically attacked by AKP deputies.
The AKP throughout its entire existence has been a neoliberal party, and a party of Turkish capitalism. The Anatolian Tigers were cities outside of the traditional centres of Turkish industry and capitalism (İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Bursa, and Adana) which had been growing rapidly since the 1980s. Shopkeepers and small capitalists from these cities formed a very important part of the AKP’s base: a much more conservative and religious demographic than İstanbul capitalists in industries such as the media and the military.
As time went on, the AKP and its supporters began to make serious inroads into the more established sections of Turkish capital. In the construction sector Islamists came to the fore, and were often very intimately tied to the Anatolian Tigers: the construction industry has been a mainstay of the AKP throughout the entire period of its rule, and government patronage is the primary factor in building companies getting contracts. Even in the military sector, Islamists have been able to topple the previous domination of ‘White Turks’, those who are secular, republican, pro-Western. The military industry has profited massively from the war in Syria.
The Kurds and the war in Syria
For a long time, Kurdish voters were an important part of the AKP electorate. Erdoğan had removed many of the Kemalist-era restrictions on the Kurdish language and culture, and for a while there were serious attempts at a rapprochement between the Turkish state and the Kurdish independence movement. These peace talks foundered largely due to the Syrian Civil War, and the conflict between the interests of Turkey and of the YPG. The shaky ceasefire collapsed fully in 2015, but even then Kurdish voters were not uniformly driven away from the AKP. The Kurdish vote for the AKP has also been a source of tension with the MHP, the AKP’s far right and deeply anti-Kurdish coalition partners.
Since successfully taking over a section of what had been the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) from Kurdish forces, Turkey has begun its planned resettlement of Syrian refugees in this area. On the British left, it has been said by some that Turkey’s programme of settling refugees from all over Syria into the Kurdish regions of Syria was an attempt to reduce the Kurdish nature of the territory, and carry out a ‘soft’ ethnic cleansing.
When I put this to Genç and asked whether he thought this was a likely explanation, he was skeptical. He thought that the central motivation in what the state is doing in this effectively annexed territory owes more to revitalising Turkish capitalism. There have been much-publicised economic troubles for Turkey in the last year, and through the government’s most favoured sector, the construction industry, this is being ameliorated by the building of one million houses in the territory.
More recently, Turkey has involved itself in the Syrian Civil War in the Idlib governorate, directly fighting Assad’s forces. The war against the YPG late last year was mostly popular at home, enjoying general public support and garnering little in the way of serious criticism from anyone in parliament other than the Kurdish-linked HDP, which the government has continually repressed. The war against Assad is less popular however. There have been a lot more deaths of Turkish soldiers, and this has formed the basis of the CHP’s criticisms of the war. The Turkish involvement in the ongoing Libyan civil war has received very little media coverage.
Anti-LGBT sentiment is not a central pillar of the Turkish political right as it is in places such as Poland and Hungary. This does not mean that Turkey is a hospitable place for LGBT people though: Turkey has an incredibly high murder rate of trans people, the highest in Europe. Throughout society there is particular animosity against people who are gender non-conformist. There is also political repression of the LGBT movement, with pride parades and public events often being banned or repressed.
However, in the last few years the government has allowed gender reassignment surgery to be provided and covered by the SGK, the social security service of Turkey through which universal healthcare is provided.
Sometimes there has been tension between nationalist-minded and Islamist-minded politicians around LGBT rights, with each of them having their own reasons to not be entirely consistent on this question. Whilst there are obvious religious justifications for Islamist politicians to be opposed to LGBT rights, for a long time (and still today, to a lesser extent) they have been associated with political liberalisation. Despite the secularism of nationalist politicians, some of their ideas of the hated and supposedly backwards Ottoman past have brought up the ‘debauchery’ of the palace.
The problem of antisemitism in Turkey is largely invisible to those who don’t experience it themselves. It is reported on very rarely in the press, and at the surface level there is official friendliness towards Jews in Turkey, with new synagogues being opened and state officials attending meetings with Jewish institutions.
However, throughout Turkish society and the media there is a serious proliferation of antisemitic tropes and conspiracy theories. In thinking about how conspiracy theories exist in Turkey, some have looked at the concept of the ‘Sèvres Syndrome’: the idea that external enemies are seeking to destroy and carve up Turkey. The name refers to the never implemented Treaty of Sèvres from 1920, which sought to partition the defeated Ottoman Empire into separate zones of influence. In antisemitic conspiracy theories the world over, Jews straddle the line between being internal and external enemies. Turkish ultra-nationalists have long loathed Turkey’s internal minorities along these lines, most prominently Jews, Armenians, and Kurds, seeing them as a comprador or disloyal element in the country.
There have been a number of public instances of prominent antisemitism recently in Turkey. A deputy from the İyi Party (The Good Party - a split from the ultra-nationalist MHP which linked up with some dissident republican-nationalist politicians from the CHP) described being rich and comfy as ‘being Jewish’ on Twitter. A November edition of the left-leaning newspaper Cumhuriyet republished a cartoon from 1945 which depicts a Jew with a big nose and black hat, and makes allusions about Jewish money’s power in politics. Perhaps most viscerally shocking was a viral video of young girls at a summer camp calling out “death to Jews” in revenge for Israel’s treatment of Palestine.
Even Erdoğan himself got in on the action. Last March during an exchange of insults with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Erdoğan said: “Look, we have not oppressed any of the Jews in this country. We have not done anything you did to any synagogues here. Don’t provoke us. We will not fall into this trap.”
The association with Erdoğan and the AKP with antisemitism has changed over time. During the early days of AKP rule, when they were seen by many as a liberalising and democratic force, opponents of Erdoğan accused him of having connections to the billionaire investor George Soros who features heavily in contemporary antisemitic mythology, and recycling the AKP of him owing their power to international finance.
However, since the Gezi Park protests the government has successfully reappropriated this discourse, and many of the attacks on the Gezi movement have centred around supposed links to George Soros, international financiers, and the ‘interest lobby’. After the arrest of a number of activists in 2018 linked with the Gezi protests, Erdoğan blamed: “the famous Hungarian Jew Soros. This is a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them. He has so much money and he spends it this way." Later that year the government and the sympathetic media finally succeeded in all but forcing the Open Society Foundations, Soros’s organisation, to cease operations in Turkey.
Traditionally Turkey and Israel have had reasonably warm relations, both being secular military democracies in the Middle East with ties to the West. This has changed under Erdoğan, particularly after he stormed out of the Davos forum 2008 after an argument with then Israeli President Shimon Peres about Gaza, which worsened after the Gaza Freedom Flotilla raid in 2010. Despite semi-successful attempts at repairing this relationship it has again deteriorated since Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Since the recent worsening of relations between Turkey and Israel there has been more space for antisemitism in public speech and the media. Television shows in the mold of American FOX News promote conspiracy theories about Israel in the Middle East, and express concern that Israel is planning on annexing a part of Turkey as it has done with the Golan Heights. (As an aside, FOX News in Turkey is actually secular opposition media).
The vulgar anti-Zionism displayed on much of the left in Britain also exists within the Turkish left, some sections of which have close ties with Chinese capitalists and call for Turkey to break from NATO and instead ally with Russia and China. With their denial of the Armenian Genocide, and belief in a poisonous ultra-nationalist form of Maoism those ultra-secularist far left figures have retained a violent anti-Kurdish political sentiment, seeing the Kurds as inextricably tied up with ‘the plans of the state of Israel’.
Liberal media has been hurt more than the left under the AKP, and those in the worst position are those who were previously in bed with the government and have now fallen out of favour. Those who have always been outside of those circles, are in some ways in a safer position.
A number of liberals and ex-Maoists in the media had adopted a “Gramscian” approach to building a critical liberal media, and developed a strategy of taking over the large pro-government newspapers such as Milliyet or Hürriyet. However, the privileged position of these newspapers was entirely predicated on their support for the AKP. Any successes that more critically-minded journalists had in infiltrating the upper echelons of these outlets were easily reversed.
Finally, I asked Genç for recommendations of left-leaning or independent media which reports on Turkey in English:
• The newspaper BirGün, which is associated with the libertarian-socialist ‘Left Party’ (formerly Freedom and Democracy Party), has English-language articles on its website under the ‘BirGün Daily’ section: www.birgun.net/birgun-daily
• The website Medyascope, an independent journalism platform which features English-subtitled commentary on Turkish politics by Turkey’s veteran analysts and columnists who can no longer find employment in mainstream newspapers: https://medyascope.tv/konu/english/
• The independent news outlet Bianet, which publishes in Turkish, Kurdish, and English: bianet.org/english
• Agos is a newspaper in the leftwing Armenian tradition of Turkey, whose editor-in-chief Hrant Dink was assassinated in 2007: www.agos.com.tr/en/home
• LGBTI Turkey publishes a lot of articles about LGBT issues in Turkey, and has information about various different campaigning groups: lgbtinewsturkey.com