There is a certain gravity of being a westernized secular Turk, like those who made the international headlines last week, while resisting Prime Minister Erdogan and his police force’s Islamic crackdown of what began as a passive protest movement to save Gezi Parkı, which is one of the rare green spaces in the heart of Istanbul’s European district.
Back in the late 1990’s, several years before PM Erdogan’s astounding ascent to the highest echelon of political power in Turkey, I was a graduate student at Boston, Massachusetts. In the rare instances that I was invited to house parties, I encountered hostility from among the crowd. This hostility was often expressed through criticizing Turkey’s ban on the Islamic headscarf and the veil in schools and universities, although this restrictive policy allowed young Turkish females to escape overbearing familial patriarchy and the oppressive weight of religious conservative social pressure. Would my hosts, right off the bat, bring up a similar ban on the Islamic headscarf and the veil in France, or for that matter the Swiss ban on the Islamic minaret (the tower of a mosque), to international students from these countries? Well, I was not from the family, and no matter how much I explained them the unique historical heritage of the modern secular Turkish republic and the spirit of the ongoing jihad (Islamic struggle) against it, they were not convinced. The Republic of Turkey was founded by Kemal Atatürk and his fellow heroes of the National War of Independence in 1923 as a secular polity, against the backdrop of approximately six centuries of theocratic Ottoman rule. However, along with the ebbs and flows of the global jihad against infidels, Turkey’s Islamists were determined to destroy each and every vestige of Atatürk’s progressive secular republic in its totality. Then, the events of September 11 happened. For years to come, I was not invited to house parties anymore. This is what I mean by the gravity of being a westernized secular Turk, like those that are now rising up against the Islamic tyranny of PM Erdogan.
Between 1994-8, Erdogan was the mayor of Istanbul. In that period, he declared himself to be the imam of Istanbul and confessed that “for us democracy is a means to an end.” His mayoral term ended abruptly, consequent to a poem he recited in a campaign rally in 1997: “Minarets are bayonets, domes are helmets, mosques are barracks, believers are soldiers.” He served a four and a half months jail sentence for “inciting people to hatred on the basis of religion and trying to set up an Islamic state,” and was banned from politics. Yet, those were the years of political liberalization in Turkey, when Turkey’s European Union membership hopes were flying high, and Erdogan seemed somewhat matured, evidently for tactical reasons. He wanted to exploit a wide open political opportunity that emerged as a result of the catastrophic economic crisis of 2000-1, which led to the absolute meltdown of Turkey’s perennially corrupt political center.
Even before his conclusive electoral victory in 2002, he was hosted by President G. W. Bush in the White House, and afterwards he received a standing ovation from the EU’s council of heads of state and government. Around that time, reflecting the popular mood in the West, Spanish sociologist of religion (and a critic of the Enlightenment and secularism in Europe) Jose Casanova claimed that “the new government was certainly the most representative democratic government in all of Turkey’s modern history.” To us, it all seemed surreal. In its more than five decades-old electoral democracy, Turkey had experienced other governments that rested on greater majorities and other populist leaders. Erdogan was not strictly speaking representative of the mainstream, or the demos. There was something fantastically bizarre about him, whether sadly or many people thought funnily. I had never before or since come across the prime minister’s first name Tayyip or that of his daughter’s Sümeyye. From the very beginning, Erdogan and his core partisans not only stood for Islamic piety, but in contradistinction to the average citizenry, also for the Arabization of Turkish culture and society.
The truth is, the West was never convinced by the authenticity of westernized secular Turks. If anything, as Turkey’s ill-fated attempt to join the EU illustrates, our mere existence made them uneasy. Whereas Erdogan, with his sub-par education, ignorance of foreign languages (except prayers in Arabic) and boisterous Islamic self-confidence, covered wife and daughters, thick moustache, and lack of civilized refinements was the real thing. That is why he was hailed as the most democratic leader ever in Turkish history, receiving a standing ovation in Brussels. For the West, he was not only what Turkey is, but more importantly, what Turkey ought to be. Erdogan, too, acted his part of the bargain well. He was subservient to Western economic and security interests in the region. According to firsthand journalistic reports, he often repeats that no Turkish prime minister who crossed the United States could stay in power for long.
Early in Erdogan’s reign, the Turkish parliament had vetoed a bill that would pave the way to the original American plan for a two front war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, but it was the military who footed the bill. Currently, more than 200 serving and retired military officers, including a former chief of the general staff, are behind bars due to a police led political investigation. Allegedly, the Turkish police—or Islam’s response to the secular Turkish army—are controlled by the secretive Gülen cult, whose elusive leader Imam Fethullah operates from a walled compound in Pennsylvania.
In recent years, with the economy seemingly on track (despite record-high current account deficits), the army subdued, and emboldened by consecutive electoral victories, Erdogan accelerated his campaign to re-Islamize Turkey, eliminated the free press and liberty of expression (Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country in the world, more than China and Iran combined), imprisoned his opponents, and in cooperation with Fethullah created an unrelenting police state. One essential element of his campaign to re-Islamize Turkey has been to create an Islamic bourgeoisie, or an Islamic financial capital. However, Erdogan’s core support base and political allies are almost exclusively composed of the newly urbanized, provincial small-towners, and the peasantry (with some regional variation). They lack the know-how to provide high value-added goods and services.
This takes me to Gezi Parkı, the original focus of the ongoing demonstrations. In the past decade, construction schemes have arguably been the most significant means for enriching Erdogan’s coterie and partisans. In this Islamic model of wealth generation, prime lands and real estate are either acquired directly from the state at bargain prices, or they are acquired from private owners but their land to building ratio is altered by elective municipal officers after purchase, allowing for exorbitant returns to the original investment. Since these procedures do not correspond to embezzlement in an immediate sense and aid a divine purpose, they are not considered haram (sinful). Hence, Erdogan’s zeal for bombastic construction projects and his case against the Gezi Parkı is not simply due to megalomania or insensitivity to nature; it is rather integral to an Islamic economics that serves to foster the pecuniary foundations of an eventual theocratic republic. By the same token, what began as an urbanely conscious movement to save a middle-sized city park quickly transformed itself into a long-awaited defense of modern Turkey’s enduring aspirations: democracy and secularism, freedom of action and expression, right to political assembly and dissent, and a socially progressive state.
Paradoxically, before Atatürk launched his westernization movement that relegated religion to the private realm and removed symbols of Arabic culture from the Turkish public sphere, he had established himself through a military victory against Western colonial powers. Without his contribution, Turkey would have been colonial and unqualifiedly Islamic. During Turkey’s War of Independence, Western colonial powers had backed the last Ottoman sultan, Vahdettin. This time, the West should discontinue its support for darkness, tyranny, and the new sultan of Turkey for short-sighted gains. We may not be part of the family, but we are part of humanity.
Üner Daglier is a post-doctoral fellow at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures (European Studies) at the University of Hong Kong. He earned his doctorate from the political science department of Boston College in 2005.