We are all Kemalists

A thought-provoking article in Prospect magazine, “We are all Kemalists”, which argues that both the Islam and secular traditions in Turkey rely upon a familiar authoritarian system.

Turkey’s supposedly antagonistic “democratic Islamists” and “authoritarian secularists” are actually cut from the same cloth

Nicholas Birch (Prospect)

Battle lines are being drawn in Turkey. Indicted for anti-secular
activities by the country’s chief prosecutor, the ruling AK party faces
closure just eight months after it won a general election with 47 per
cent of the vote. At the end of March the country’s constitutional
court agreed to hear the prosecutor’s case, and the dispute could now
roll on for months. It’s the latest and most bitter round of a feud
that goes back decades. On one side, pious democrats. On the other,
authoritarian secularists.

That’s the most commonly used dichotomy, anyway. But just how
questionable it is was evident from the surreal row that triggered the
prosecutor’s closure case: the government’s attempt to end the ban on
women wearing headscarves in universities. Conservatives insisted that
the ban breached the obligation for Muslim women to cover their heads.
Opposition leader Deniz Baykal, dubbed a “staunch secularist” by the
western press, argued for the ban on the grounds that a woman who
leaves her head uncovered is not committing a cardinal sin in Islam.
Few made the simple argument that what a woman wears on her head is
none of the state’s business.

“This war is not between secularists and non-secularists, but
Turkish Muslims and Muslim Turks,” says columnist Gokhan Ozgun. The
real fear of secularists “is that their non-secular positivist Muslim
state might turn into a non-secular orthodox Muslim state.”

Far from being secular in the sense of maintaining a division
between religion and state, the Turkish state has always used Sunni
Islam to impose homogeneity on a multi-confessional society. Being a
Turk means being a Sunni Muslim, as Timur Topuz, a Turkish convert to
Christianity, found out when he leapt up to celebrate the Turkish
football team’s victory against Ukraine in 2005. “You, happy that we
won?” his grandmother asked.

The key instrument of religious control is the directorate of
religious affairs, or Diyanet, set up in 1924 when the Ottoman
caliphate was abolished. With a staff of 100,000 and a budget rivalling
national expenditures on defence or education, Diyanet preaches an
admirably moderate form of Islam. But it maintains the authoritarian
mentality of the soldiers who founded it. It runs Turkey’s 80,000-odd
mosques and drafts the Friday sermons read by imams across the country.
Even purely religious issues are often given a nationalist flavour. In
February, during Turkish operations against Kurdish rebels in northern
Iraq, congregations were told that “fighting for the motherland is
jihad, dying for it martyrdom.” The directorate’s aim has always been
“to cultivate loyal citizens rather than good Muslims,” says Hakan
Yavuz, an expert on Turkish Islam.

Yet attacks on this pious nationalistic brew are increasing. Some of
the loudest criticisms come from Alevis, members of a 10m-strong
ethno-religious minority whose syncretistic Shia-coloured beliefs and
dance-filled rituals put them at the outer reaches of the Islamic
spectrum. In March, Ali Kenanoglu won a landmark court case to get his
son exempted from “religious culture and ethics” courses made
compulsory, by constitutional order, for all schoolchildren in 1980 by
a military junta. Dozens of other Alevi families, who see the syllabus
as Sunni propaganda, have followed him to court.

Alevis’ attitudes towards Diyanet are also changing. In the past,
most merely demanded equitable representation within it. Now, many want
it closed. “It would be the most important privatisation in Turkey’s
history,” says Aykan Erdemir, a Sunni sociologist who wrote his
doctoral thesis on Alevism. “Turks gave up expecting the state to
produce jam and pyjamas decades ago. Should it produce religious
services? No. The services it produces are crap.”

Rhetoric like this is rare in Turkey, where the few liberals there
are huddle together for comfort in a handful of affluent Istanbul
neighbourhoods. But it appears to be spreading to some conservative
Sunni Turks. Neslihan Akbulut and Hilal Kaplan, twentysomething wearers
of headscarves, became household names in February when they issued a
press release, signed by 1,500 women, stating that ending university
headscarf bans was meaningless without an end to discrimination against
Alevis and non-Muslims, and a peaceful solution to Turkey’s Kurdish

When the AK party won its landslide last year amid deep national
polarisation, its leaders promised compromise, stirring excitement with
talk of replacing the authoritarian constitution many see as at the
root of the country’s ills. Then silence fell. Major reform ideas have
now fallen from the agenda. Instead, the government has preferred
piecemeal changes, like the headscarf ban, aimed at satisfying its
conservative Sunni core supporters. Compromise has been abandoned in
favour of rhetoric about representing the will of the nation. None of
this justifies the anti-democratic closure case. Yet AK is far from
being the democratic bastion many in Europe still make it out to be.

Its limitations become more glaring by the week. When police
tear-gassed and beat trades unionists gathered on May day, AK backed
the action. Far from standing up for a pro-Kurdish party also facing
closure, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan refuses to shake hands
with its MPs. The party’s response to the Ali Kenanoglu case was
equally duplicitous. “We can’t change a constitutional article,” said
the education minister, whose party had just rewritten two to sidestep
headscarf bans.

Where has the government’s earlier reformism gone? Some think two
failed coup attempts in 2004 scared it into compromising with the
state. Others think it’s all about money. “Back in 2002, AK had only
their chains to break,” says Rusen Cakir, a political analyst. “Now,
they’ve got contracts, cash, and they just want to hold on to power.”
Ayhan Bilgen, former head of a Muslim-slanted human rights watchdog,
argues that AK failed to learn from 1997, when the army shunted a more
traditional Islamist party from power. “Conservative Sunnis should have
realised then that for all they are encouraged to see themselves as
Turkey’s number one citizens, the state does not tolerate them either.
But… AK has now returned to the statist view of Islam—we defend the
status quo and the state defends us.”

AK’s transformation is summed up by a speech given by Erdogan in
March: “Inshallah, we will carry our country towards the future
according to the principles of one nation, one state, one motherland,
one flag… Let nobody create discord among us… If we continue along this
road loving each other on the basis that ‘we love the creature because
the Creator created him,’ problems will disappear.”

This one-nation rhetoric was borrowed unchanged from a stockpile of
tired slogans Turkey’s authoritarian establishment has been
regurgitating for decades. Indeed, apart from the religious
connotations of “discord” (or fitne), the only phrase Erdogan uttered
that was not a calque on Turkey’s official Kemalist ideology was the
one about creators and creatures, borrowed from Turkish Sufism.

Turkey’s tragedy “is that all parties are Kemalist,” argues Ali
Murat Irat, an Alevi intellectual. He is right. AK isn’t the
fundamentalist bugbear of secularist imagining, slavering for sharia.
It’s the naughty child of the system secularists set up and are now
defending to the death. Like the son of a military officer who finds
religion, AK may have repressed its father’s barracks-room mentality
for a while. Now it is back with a vengeance.

Turkey’s secularists appear unaware that at the root of all they
hate is their own authoritarian tradition of co-opting religion for
nationalist purposes. For Turks dreaming of full democracy, the only
hope is that AK lends an ear to the likes of Bulent Yilmaz, a Kurdish
intellectual. “The Turkish state is like a black hole,” he says. “If
you don’t want to be sucked in, you have to keep away, and move fast.”

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