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Turkey Book Talk episode #43 – SONER ÇAĞAPTAY on his book “THE NEW SULTAN: ERDOĞAN AND THE CRISIS OF MODERN TURKEY” (IB Tauris).

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My review of this book is forthcoming in the Times Literary Supplement. Not sure of the publication date so keep your eyes peeled for that.

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New Sultan

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New Turkey Book Talk episode with Michael Wuthrich, chatting about “National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics and the Party System” (Syracuse University Press).

This really is an excellent book that overhauls much conventional wisdom about Turkish politics shared by right and left.

Unlike the deceptively boring title of the book, this episode’s title is stupidly ambitious. But we do cover a lot of ground. I’m really pleased with it – hope you enjoy/learn from it.

Download the episode or listen below.

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Here’s my review of the book in HDN.

national-elections-copy-2

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Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.

Turkey on the brink (again)

September 17, 2015

I’ve written a piece for New America’s Weekly Wonk newsletter about the current mess in Turkey. Unfortunately it’s not very optimistic:

“Turkey has been rocked in recent weeks by a fresh wave of violent clashes between its security forces and the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). After each PKK attack on security forces, politicians and the media stress that Turkey stands “united” against terror, but rarely has the country been more bitterly divided…

“The situation now seems to be spinning out of anyone’s control … Turkey desperately needs unifying statesmen to rise above the political fray. Instead, it is heading into yet another needless and divisive election campaign. President Erdoğan faces a personal fight for his political survival. The AKP’s senior figures, enjoying legal immunity so long as they remain elected officials, are paranoid in the face of what they see as a stark choice: office or jail.

“With the stakes so high, what should we expect from the November elections? What if again no single-party winner is produced, forcing fresh coalition talks? Turkey’s major parties are essentially based on expressions of identity politics, so voters tend to shift allegiances very little. But Turkey is also a very unpredictable country, and the violence currently shaking it may also shake voter behavior in ways currently unclear. Do Turks agree with Erdoğan that only a strong AKP under his thumb can resolve the current unrest? Or do they think this instability is being cynically manipulated by the AKP? Can an election even take place in environment of such bloody instability? Whatever the answers, the fact that such questions are even being asked makes it difficult to be optimistic about Turkey’s short-term future.”

Read the whole thing at New America.

My review/interview double-header this week was based on “The Rise of Political Islam in Turkey: Urban Poverty, Grassroots Activism and Islamic Fundamentalism” by Kayhan Delibaş, who works at Kent University and Turkey’s Adnan Menderes University.

The book is well worth reading for anyone looking for a deeper look into the political context of the emergence of Islamist parties in Turkey in the 1980s and 1990s. While it’s true that political Islam is an intrinsically transnational phenomenon, it’s always worth remembering the specific conditions that have facilitated it’s emergence, which of course differ everywhere.

Here’s my review of the book in the Hurriyet Daily News.

And here’s my conversation with its author Kayhan Delibaş.

The Rise of politicl islam

Swimming against all economic logic, another new national newspaper appeared on Turkey’s newsstands last month. Karşı means “against” or “anti” in Turkish, and this new daily has a slogan declaring it “Against lies, the newspaper of the truth,” apparently channelling the spirit of Çarşı, (the Beşiktaş football club supporters group whose motto is “against everything”). Karşı has quite a varied team of people working on it, but in many ways it embodies Turkey’s chronic “opposition problem.” The fragmented opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) comprise leftists, liberals, Kemalists, nationalists, communists, environmentalists, anti-capitalist Muslims, and now Gülenists. But together these forces not only fail to make up a majority of the Turkish electorate, they are also handicapped by their diversity; the opposition is so disparate that it can agree on little other than that the AKP is a disaster.

The anti-government Gezi Park protests that raged throughout last summer made this point particularly clearly. The protests were full of energy and ideas, but it was the kind of energy that can’t be channelled through traditional political channels. The variety that made the Gezi movement so strong and impressive is exactly what prevents it from being an effective opposition force in more formal terms. What’s more, all Turkish opposition has to contend with a highly cohesive and disciplined incumbent government, confident in the loyalty of its core conservative constituency and backed by a well-oiled media and electoral machine.

 

Karşı's first front page, reporting PM Erdoğan's call to hapless Habertürk  boss Fatih Saraç to cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

Karşı’s first front page on Feb. 9. The headline reports PM Erdoğan’s order to hapless Habertürk controller Fatih Saraç, demanding that he cut a live broadcast in which Islamic theologian Yaşar Nuri Öztürk criticised the government.

 

In a recent Reuters piece about the durability of the AKP’s appeal, Hakan Altinay of the Brookings Institution is quoted as saying that there is “no political force to pick up the ingredients and cook a better meal, the opposition has no sense of direction.” Indeed, it is commonly assumed that the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) is too clumsy and loaded with its own historical baggage to be effective. There’s some truth in this, but it’s hard to see how anyone could channel the disaffection of Turkey’s hugely varied opposition into a single coherent political party, while at the same time outlining a vision that can defeat the AKP at the ballot box. Similarly, Piotr Zalewski wrote last week that the CHP would “have to deliver more than just finger pointing for Turkish voters to entrust it with running the country.” That’s also true, but the party is paralysed by the fact that finger pointing is pretty much the only thing that unites those ranged against the government. A more constructive platform might target wavering AKP voters (however few they are), but that would likely risk losing the CHP’s own wavering voters. It’s an almost impossible balancing act. Of course, none of this is particularly new, but it has become particularly obvious in the lead up to the March 30 local elections.

The new newspaper Karşı – with its diverse but incoherent range of ideas about what is to be done – perhaps embodies the Gezi conundrum. As its editor-in-chief Eren Erdem has said: “The Gezi spirit excites us, and we are talking the same language as the people on the streets during the Gezi resistance. From our writers to our editors, from our printers to our correspondents, we all imagine a free world.” Of course, Karşı is a newspaper, not a political party, but its example does indicate the challenge facing any formal opposition hoping to capitalize on the AKP’s current problems.

The spat between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the movement of Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen has seen tension between erstwhile allies in the Turkish media boil over into open hostility. Among many other things, the public drawing of swords – ostensibly over the closure of private examination schools (dershanes) – has exposed the extent to which PM Erdoğan has successfully built himself a support network of personally loyal media outlets. This network was already clear to see, but its guns have never before been so openly turned on the Gülenists.

Of particular note is the staunchly pro-Erdoğan line taken these days by daily Akşam, which was among the assets seized from Çukurova Holding by the state-run Savings Deposit and Insurance Fund (TMSF) over debt issues in May. After the seizing of Akşam, former editor-in-chief İsmail Küçükkaya was fired and the TMSF appointed a former Justice and Development Party (AKP) deputy in his place, while major changes were also made to the paper’s wider editorial team. Its previously centrist tone changed immediately, and Akşam became one of the most reliable supporters of the government throughout the summer’s Gezi Park protests. After the prep school polemic exploded, Akşam again rallied behind Erdoğan, taking its place alongside Sabah, Star, Türkiye, Yeni Şafak, Yeni Akit, Takvim, and Habertürk, in the ranks of pro-government newspapers launching unprecedented attacks on the Gülen movement. As with the others, this is clear simply from the number of front page headlines repeating whatever belligerent words the prime minister said on the subject on the previous day.

Echoing Erdoğan: "No step back from dershane reform"

Echoing Erdoğan: “No step back from dershane reform”

Although the new editorial board shifted Akşam’s position months ago, it was actually only sold to businessman Ethem Sancak last month, (along with TV station SkyTürk360, also seized from Çukurova Holding). Sancak once described himself as being “lovesick for the prime minister,” and openly declared that he had “entered the media sector to support Erdoğan.” He previously bought daily Star and news station Kanal TV back in 2006, transforming them into firmly pro-AKP voices before selling them on soon afterwards. Both processes resemble the way that Sabah, one of Turkey’s top-selling newspapers, was sold to the prime minister’s son-in-law in 2007, since when it has taken perhaps the most unswervingly pro-Erdoğan line of all mainstream newspapers. Through such moves, Erdoğan has gradually built up a media base completely loyal to himself, without which he would never have been able to achieve a position of such authority in the country. It has been a conscious effort; the bitter power struggles that have marked Erdoğan’s political career have convinced him of the need for a reliant and disciplined media support network, and the intertwining interests of business and political elites in Turkey allowed this network to be cultivated. This new, rigidly “Erdoğan-ist” media base has been more apparent than ever during the row with the Gülen movement.

The AKP government has sought to take the sting out of the dershane issue, announcing that the “transformation” of prep schools into private schools doesn’t have to be completed until September 2015 (conveniently after the three upcoming elections). The electoral effects of the Erdoğan-Gülen rift are still being speculated on, but it’s clear that although a detente has been declared for now, the knives will be even sharper when they inevitably come out again.

I recently spotted three curious newspaper pieces that neatly illustrate how the ruling mentality in Turkey approaches the “Alevi question.” Each one frames the issue in terms of “love,” “unity,” and “brotherhood,” but the underlying assumptions behind these words – ubiquitous and sacrosanct as they are in Turkish political culture – are worth investigating. Unfortunately, they’re not likely to be robust enough when it comes to answering the Alevi question.

The first example was published two weeks ago in mass circulation pro-government daily Sabah, written by columnist Rasim Ozan Kütahyalı. In two columns published on consecutive days, Kütahayalı argued that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government should heed “serious recent intelligence reports” suggesting that “outside forces” were planning to “exploit” Turkey’s Alevi citizens: “Outside forces and their inside co-operators are planning a new chaos plan. The intelligence for this is very serious … They want to drag Alevi citizens into a violent rebellion.” Then, in a spectacular example of drawing the right conclusions from a hopelessly misguided route, Kütahyalı went on to suggest that these threats were reasons for the government to take steps to heed the Alevis’ democratic demands:

“If the AK Parti government takes brave steps to solve the Alevi problem, as it has done with the Kurdish problem, then nobody will be able to construct a chaos scenario using the Alevis … The Alevis’ demands on rights and freedoms are very important, and the government should do whatever it takes to meet these demands.”

Kütahyalı’s argument was almost identical to the one in the Today’s Zaman column by Abdullah Bozkurt that I mentioned in my previous post. In that article, Bozkurt explicitly stated that Iran was looking to use Alevis, (as well as spies disguised as LGBT people), to foment sectarian war in Turkey. He then went on to say that this potential danger was why Turkey should be extra careful and now grant Alevis more rights:

“The Turkish government should be more vigilant than ever over Iranian activities and hasten the process of addressing Alevi demands, including the recognition of their places of worship (cemevi) and the provision of fair-share subsidies from taxpayers’ money. Alevis, who number over 10 million, should be able to establish and train their own clergy and the government should provide financial support for that.”

Hüseyin Gülerce also engaged in similar mental acrobatics in one of his Zaman columns in June. In it, he repeated the official government view that the Gezi Park protests were all part of a grand unpatriotic plot aimed at foiling Turkey’s economic ambitions, but he went even further: “The plan, the project, is based on exploiting, on exacerbating the Turkish-Kurdish, Sunni-Alevi and secular-religious divides. Unfortunately, the Gezi Park events have turned best friends into antagonists.” Like Kütahyalı and Bozkurt, Gülerce used this logic to justify “further democratization”:

“We need to overcome these divides … Democratization must not be halted. The democratic front must be strengthened, progressing to universal democratic standards … Starting with the prime minister, we have to come together in a spirit of tolerance and reconciliation.”

The mentality that essentially sees Alevis as a threat that should be handled with care is shared by all three columns, and it is echoed by many government officials. It was also there in Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s recent warnings against “sectarian division,” when he declared that “if being Alevi means loving the Caliph Ali, then I’m a perfect Alevi.”  In similar tones, ministers constantly repeat how Alevis should never worry about the government, as they are “brothers and sisters” who see “difference as a richness.”

It sounds nice, but it was refreshing to see a piece on T24 by Alper Görmüş last week that took aim at such patronising discourse. In it, Görmüş questioned the glib “embracing brotherliness” displayed by the AKP, saying that Alevis wanted not simply “love” and “brotherhood,” but “equality” and “respect”:

“In families, it’s always the elders who emphasise ‘brotherhood’ and ‘unity’… Alevis know that the Sunnis who use these terms are the strong, advantaged ‘family elders,’ and this does not suggest ‘equality’ and ‘respect’ to them.

“The prime minister’s emphasis on ‘love,’ ‘brotherhood,’ and ‘affection’ basically translates for the broader Sunni mass as meaning: ‘Alevism is not as authentic or respected as our beliefs, but this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t love or feel affection for Alevis themselves.’

“Genuine, lasting brotherhood is not built on ‘affection’ alone. A brotherhood that doesn’t contain equality, cannot be considered genuine brotherhood, and isn’t sustainable … Just like the Kurdish issue, the Alevi question cannot be solved by approaching Alevis without ‘equality,’ and without a genuine respect for their beliefs.”

This seems fairly watertight to me. It’s easy for the Sunni “family elders” to talk blithely of love and brotherhood, but it all rings a bit hollow when some still consider Alevis as “potential threats,” and when the state still only spends tax money on Sunni mosques, without even recognising Alevi cemevis as separate houses of worship. As Görmüş suggested, the AKP still has a long way to go before truly gaining the trust of Alevis.

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