The Reformist Moment
There was a period in which Turkey seemed to be moving, even if slowly, on a road of reform with European Union membership at its end. A mixture of IMF influenced economic adjustment and adaptation of EU standards led to improving the conditions for foreign investors, privatisation, control of the inflation ‘monster’, legalisation of Kurdish (Kurdish in this context is mostly to be taken as short hand for Kurmanji Kurdish, the predominant language of Turkish Kurds) tuition at private schools, television broadcasting in Kurdish, penalties for ‘insulting’ the state were reduced. At the time these were impressive reforms which defied many predictions that Turkey was too stuck in defensive reactive nationalism and state domination to allow such reforms. The present AKP government was greeted by some liberals and reformers of various kinds, though never by me, as a party outside the system rooted in conservative Islamic circles, and therefore likely to reform it.
When did it all go wrong?
The AKP (Justice and Development Party, known as AK Party to fans, AK is pure or clear in Turkish) never struck me as likely reformers given its roots in conservative Islamic circles which favoured a political system based on religious law and a organic community of Muslim Turkishness purified of Western and modernist influences, with the sole exception of technology. Clearly people in AKP have changed, but within limits. They have not seriously challenged the secular system, though some things arouse cause for concern like the apparent downgrading of Darwinian evolution in high school. It is an essentially conservative party, in a quite strong sense of conservative (which in Turkish has a sense akin to ultra-conservative in English anyway). It is conservative in holding to traditional social values, to statism and to nationalism. Its social conservatism can be seen in the high percentage of head scarf wearers amongst female supporters and the wives of mostly male party leaders. They don’t drink alcohol publicly if at all.
They are certainly not imitating the conversion of the British conservatives to gay rights.
The statism and nationalism are linked issues. The AKP exists as a patronage machine,a s do all the political parties in Turkey. Public sector employment has gone up under this government, as under previous governments, to provide jobs for party supporters. this reinforces the view of the state3 as sacred and reinforces nationalism.
All the major parties look very nationalist in Turkey, and are looking more nationalist not less. The historic ultra-nationalist party, MHP (Nationalist Action Party) moderated after the death of its founder leader in 1997, with the effect that centre-right and centre left parties have converged with it. The Social Democratic CHP (Republican People’s Party) is using the accusation of Cyprus sell out to attack the AKP government. The previously centre-right DYP’s (True Path Party) current leader has been close in ideology to the MHP, though he has made gestures away from that. The fact that CHP is attacking AKP over the Cyprus ‘sell out’ does not make AKP less nationalist. The ‘sell out’ has not happened because like the other parties the AKP does not want to go to the electorate with the concessions which are inevitable if there is a settlement, particularly with the return of some land to the Greek Cypriots which is to be expected at some point since Turkish Cypriots have 38% of the land but only 18% of the population. Reluctance to pursue this policy is about reactions from the electorate but also the binding ideology of all the major parties. The binding ideology is that international relations is a zero sum game and that foreign powers are necessarily trying to at least weaken Turkey if not bring about the return of Ottoman capitulations, in which foreign powers had sovereignty over parts of the Ottoman lands and rights of ‘protection’ of Christians, or give Turkish lands away to neighbouring countries as was attempted after the First World War.
It has to be said in the AKP’s favour that they attempted to weaken restrictions on the property rights of minority foundations, but the legislation was vetoed by the President who is close to the CHP in thinking. However, AKP must have expected the veto and may have been motivated by the hope of more freedom for conservative Muslim groups. Turkish Armenian and Greek foundations still cannot invest in property, even in their existing properties. This is accompanied by the ritual statement that ‘the Treaty of Lausanne solved the minority problem’. The Treaty of 1924 established Greeks, Jews and Armenians as recognised minorities with the right to education in their own languages. This solution essentially creates a separate category of citizenship for the defined groups even while the Turkish state has always claimed to favour complete equality and integration within a secular republic. This leaves the situation where Turkish Greeks, Armenians and Jews appear to be in a separate category, even if they have a completely common life with Turkish Muslims.
The consequences of this equivocation can be seen in the antics of ultra-nationalist lawyer, Kemal Kerinçsiz, who has been featured in FactsAndIdeas. In a trial of the editor of a Turkish Armenian newspaper, Kerinçsiz in his normal bullying style demonstrated with his followers outside the court room insulting Hrant Dınk as a ‘Daşnak‘, that is as a member of an Ottoman era Armenian nationalist and socialist movement which used armed violence against Ottoman Muslims. A party of that name exists in Armenia now and pursues a mixture off social democratic and irredentist nationalist ideology. Of course Kerinçsiz is largely a Turkish equivalent of ‘Daşnak‘. he is a member of the MHP which was closely linked with political terror in the 1970s, and with less dramatic but real violence until the death of the party founder Alpaslan Türkeş in 1997. The MHP mixes various kinds of nationalism, including a strong current of Pan-Turkism which favours the unification of Turkish peoples from China to the Balkans. The antics of Kerninçsiz and his supporters in the Nationalist Jurists’ Association are sadly significant. They are behind many recent and current prosecutions of writers for ‘insulting Turkishness‘ and use the court cases as a stage for bullying provocation of hatred against those prosecuted. Fortunately most prosecutions have ended in acquittals, but another purpose has been served. Other antics include emailing instructors at Boğaziçi (Bosphorus) University, which is an English medium university of American origin, with insulting messages. This is clearly not behaviour appropriate to an association of legal professionals, but sadly in a harsh and exaggerated way they represent the ideology of many people in the state legal system and in the political parties, left and right. Needless to say Kerançsız can only interpret awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to Orhan Pamuk as an insult to Turkey because Pamuk had made remarks appearing to support genocide claims made by Armenians. This attitude appears to be shared by the government and the presidency , in a quieter way. This itself reflects a broad attitude in which debates about Turkish history and current place in the world can only be understood in terms of honour and face; international relations can only be understood as a zero sum game where if someone wins someone else loses; and a similar Mercantilist logic is applied to economics. Fortunately reality in Turkey does not completely follow that model. In the end the main political parties and actors have made pragmatic accommodations with negotiation, compromise and the search for ‘win win’ situations. It’s rather like the attitude of the last Conservative government in Britain to the EU but is much more pervasive.
Is there Hope?
Turkey is developing economically, so that there is a growing middle class urban population which is educated and is part of a complex civil society. More and more Turks go abroad to study. More and more Turks are receiving higher education. More and more Turkish academics publish in internationally recognised places at such a rate that Turkey has been climbing up the rankings of index scholarly articles for decades. More and more foreigners work in Turkey, including British academics, like myself, Balkan labourers and many others. The door is still open to the EU, so there is still an incentive for change. The point may have been reached where foreign inspired change cannot take root, and there is a clearly a nationalist reaction against changes which have been made. Future changes must come from reformers winning arguments within Turkey. The immediate signs are poor but the long term trends suggest an increasingly complex, open, educated, cosmopolitan society. The current increase in foreign workers suggest that Turkey may avoid Japanese style modernisation of an inward looking kind based on very limited immigration and ethnic diversity. However, Turkey could still be a new Italy where power is swapped between political groups dominated by clientalism and corruption, where politics is compromise between interest based factions, and where underlying problems are dealt with very late. In any case, the immediate situation is tough for the liberal minded in politics, but is maybe improving in terms of society, the economy, culture and daily life.