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Queen Mary University fellow MEHMET KURT joins the Turkey Book Talk podcast to chat about “KURDISH HIZBULLAH IN TURKEY: ISLAMISM, VIOLENCE AND THE STATE” (Pluto Press).

It is a remarkable book based on Kurt’s personal experiences, which gave him extraordinary access to a shady and secretive group.

Download the episode or listen below.

Here’s my review of the book at HDN.

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Allow me to repost this related conversation from a few weeks ago with Cuma Çiçek on his book “The Kurds of Turkey: National, Religious and Economic Identities” (IB Tauris):

 

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Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid joins the pod to discuss his new book ‘Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World’ (St Martins).

Download the episode or listen below:

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And here’s my review of the book at HDN.

Islamic Exceptionalism

Support the podcast with a per episode donation via Patreon! Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant and Andrew Cruickshank.

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

It’s been a while since I last wrote about my favourite hard-line Islamic newspaper, Yeni Akit. It would be wrong to overemphasize Akit’s significance in the overall scheme of things, but a couple of its recent news items are certainly worth mentioning, and indicate that it might have rather more influence than many give it credit for(!)

On Nov. 22, Akit published a story headlined, “Immorality at High School,” containing photographs that it said showed teachers drinking alcohol with their students at a picnic. This photos were taken in the southern province of Antalya, (“known as a castle of the secularists,” according to the article), and were apparently uploaded to Facebook by one of the teachers. “It has been claimed that the teachers are members of the ‘Eğitim Sen’ union, which opposes the headscarf as well as classes on the Quran and the life of the Prophet,” Akit helpfully stated. The Antalya branch of the National Education Directorate opened an investigation into the 11 teachers upon the publishing of the story, but this was quickly dropped after it was established that the photos were in fact taken by a teacher at a family picnic three years ago, and that no students were present. Unbowed, on Dec. 2 Akit went on to publish a photo of a female teacher at the same Antalya school, part of a group at a bar celebrating a friends’ birthday (with glasses of beer on the table). “Do these photographs suit a teacher?” said the headline. However, rather than the Education Directorate setting up an inquiry, the teacher in question is now opening a legal case against Akit.

 

 

It’s worth mentioning these “photo scandals” because very recently Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used similarly tendentious photographs published in Akit to attack his political opponents. The pictures used by Erdoğan showed deputies of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) sitting around a table eating kebab, despite the fact that over 600 Kurdish prisoners were entering their 49th day on hunger fasts: “Lamb kebab for us, death fasts for you,” read Akit’s headline. On the same day (Oct. 30) Erdoğan told a meeting of his parliamentary party: “On one hand [they] are eating lamb kebab, on the other [they] are telling those in prison, ‘Die on hunger strike.’” In fact, it soon emerged that the photos had been taken two months before at the wedding of a BDP member in the southeastern province of Mardin.

Erdoğan’s harsh words got a lot of coverage at the time, (here’s the Reuters story on it), but the fact that his source was Yeni Akit obviously received rather less attention. Commentary suggesting that the prime minister is turning Turkey into an “Islamic state” is simplistic and misguided, (a piece in the Wall Street Journal last month claimed that he was “ramming Shariah law into practice.”), but it can’t be a good sign that he’s turning to Yeni Akit for rhetorical fodder to use against his opponents.

The massacre that took place in the Central Anatolian town of Sivas in 1993 is one of the darkest episodes in modern Turkish history. On the morning of July 2, a large group of radical Sunni Islamists descended on the Madımak Hotel in Sivas town center, protesting its hosting of an Alevi cultural festival. The mob attacked and set fire to the hotel, which resulted in the deaths of 37 people. Autopsies at the time concluded that the deceased had either died of burns or smoke inhalation.

Radical Islamist daily Yeni Akit’s July 23, 2012 front page carried a large headline declaring “The 19 Year Lie,” accompanied by two photos tastefully showing the morgue full of corpses from the massacre. Aside from the pleasure the paper obviously derived from showing off the photos on its front page once again, the ostensible reason the story was to expose what it called the “lie” that those in the hotel had been killed by the flames. In one of the pictures, a young girl lying on a morgue table, Belkıs Çakır, bears what the paper says is “clearly” a gunshot wound in the chest. This apparently proves that most of the deceased actually killed each other inside the hotel.Unfortunately for Akit, closer inspection reveals that the “blood” from Çakır’s “bullet wound” is simply a braid of hair hanging down from her head.

Akit’s charming July 23 front page

Akit’s piece aroused immediate opprobrium from a number of other Turkish dailies. The next day’s Taraf responded with the headline: “Akit sets fire to Madımak again,” Cumhuriyet said: “One more black publication from Akit,” while leftist-nationalist Yurt bluntly stated on its front page: “A Bigoted Lie.” All included the dismayed reactions from the families of those who died in the tragic incident, as well as their representatives.

Akit said the morgue photos had been hidden for 19 years before passing into their hands, but lawyer Şenal Sarıhan explained to Taraf that the photos were in fact included in a book on the event written by herself, “Madımak Yangını Sivas Davası.” “This book was published in 2002, and it had its third print run in 2011. Akit’s reporter Murat Alan clearly has it. The photos are included on page 97, 100, and 102. To claim that this is the first time they have been seen is completely untrue,” Sarıhan said. Çakır’s original autopsy, she added, was conducted at Sivas’s Numune Hospital, under strict observation. It unambiguously concluded that she had died of burns and from carbon monoxide poisoning. “The definite cause of death was burns and smoke inhalation. There is no dispute on this subject … Neither bullet wounds nor knife wounds can be seen in the photos,” Sarıhan said, adding that the only two people who died of bullet wounds on the day were shot outside the hotel by the demonstrators.

Zeynep Altıok, daughter of the poet Metin Altıok who was killed in the Madımak attack, was quoted as saying that the news did not come as a surprise from Akit. “They have written similar things before. They used to say it was the work of the [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK. Their aim is to distort the truth. Before, they said it was the PKK, now they’ve gone in completely the opposite direction. I can’t take it seriously.”

Unfortunately, it’s not easy to reason with fanatical Islamists, and Akit’s July 24 front page headline followed on from the previous day, declaring: “Let the autopsies be conducted again”! On July 25, following the condemnations that the earlier pieces had aroused, the paper retreated into comforting victimhood,complaining that the other newspapers constituted a “dirty alliance against Akit … a panicking cartel.”

Yeni Akit is notorious in Turkey as the most vitriolic of the country’s Islamist newspapers. It was established in 2010 after its forerunner, “Anadolu’da Vakit,” was closed down following its failure to pay a fine incurred in 2003 for a piece deemed “insulting to the Turkish Armed Forces” (still officially a crime). Sane-minded observers view Akit with a mixture of incredulity and contempt, and think of it as not much more than a marginal voice on the lunatic fringe. Nevertheless, the fact that it enjoys significantly higher circulation figures than a number of far more respected newspapers must be chastening indeed!

[Published on openDemocracy (20th June 2012): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/turkey-as-test-case-in-multipolar-post-cold-war-order]

Much is made of Turkey’s ‘difference’ in the Middle East. Why is it being identified an inspiration to the region? Why is there talk of Turkey as a model for Egypt, and not the other way around? In a recent interview with Turkish Policy Quarterly, historian Bernard Lewis makes much of Turkey’s republican history of independence and self-criticism since the Ottoman era, which he says accounts for the country’s regional pre-eminence today. Whilst these differences are indeed significant, a reasonable case can be made that they were not nearly so pronounced as Lewis claims. In fact, after the Second World War, Turkey was no more immune to the hard choices that had to be made in a bipolar world order than other Eastern European and Middle Eastern states. As such, like many others, it was only ever nominally independent.The difference between Turkey and the other countries in the region, however, is that it was able to emerge much more quickly in the post-Cold War era, when states previously under Soviet influence became independent, and the ‘protection’ of those under U.S. sway was rendered unnecessary. This emergence can be ascribed to Turkey’s higher economic, educational, industrial and institutional development, as well as its important narrative of national sovereignty and proud republican history. Its regional pre-eminence today is therefore closely linked to its status as a pioneer of the new, multi-polar post-Cold War era. The sense that the country is now defining itself, as opposed to being defined by outsiders, is a crucial psychological hurdle.

For the duration of the Cold War, the Middle East was an object region acted upon by outside forces, rather than a subject acting for itself. In practice, this meant states being pulled into the influence of either the U.S. or the Soviet Union. Turkey was no different in this sense, and was considered by Washingtonan essential bulwark against communism on the south-eastern fringe of Europe. In order to anchor Turkey to the west, the U.S. bankrolled the Turkish military through the Truman Doctrine in the post-war era, and it was made a full member of NATO in 1952 (at the same time as Greece, the other subject state of the Truman Doctrine). U.S. support – tacit or otherwise – was crucial in the three military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980, all of which helped to maintain the status quo order. Like so many others, during the Cold War period Turkey was barely democratic, with its western allies preferring a stable, reliable partner to one that genuinely reflected its people’s unpredictable wishes. The 1980 coup is particularly instructive, being seen by the U.S. at the time as necessary to prevent any danger of the country sliding towards communism, as the Turkish left was extremely mobilised throughout the 1970s. CIA Ankara station chief at the time, Paul Henze, is on record as saying that he cabled Washington – shortly after the coup had been carried out by the Turkish military – to say ‘our boys did it’. Gossip perhaps, but illuminating gossip.

The 1980 coup therefore illustrates the old Turkish model, and its similarities with the systems that have also characterised the Arab world in the recent past: U.S./western support for an essentially non-democratic state, in return for the guarantee of stability. Turgut Özal, who became Prime Minister in 1982, could therefore be seen as a kind of non-military Turkish version of General Pinochet. Coming to power shortly after an American-backed coup, Özal was pro-U.S., anti-communist, and neo-liberal – significantly opening up the Turkish economy to international market forces with U.S. support. It’s an interesting irony that in many ways it was these very reforms that helped prepare Turkey to develop economically in the post-Cold War era.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, it also – perhaps paradoxically – became increasingly clear that the old U.S.-dominant model had also become redundant, with much of the previous justification for U.S. support to stable but undemocratic regimes having been lost. Slowly, it became possible for new, popular movements to emerge in the region, and this goes some way to explaining both the revolts sweeping across the Arab world today as well as Turkey’s (less violent) development of a strongly independent government representing popular will. There are, however, significant differences that may legislate against post-Cold War Arab countries following the same trajectory as Turkey. Not least of these is the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-confessional nature of most of these countries – none can really be considered ‘nation states’ in anything like the organically-evolving western European sense of the world. Turkey’s own early 20th century nation-building project relied on an enormous amount of violently imposed state-directed social reorganisation, essentially imitating the western model, (in terms of the uniform cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious cohesiveness that was stressed). On its own terms, the Turkish model of modernisation was successful – taking a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic population and forging out of it a unitary, monolingual, officially mono-cultural state. In the modern nation states of the Arab world, with their fragmented and multifarious social, ethnic, religious, linguistic, sectarian structures, it is difficult to see how the same results can be achieved in the early 21st century – or even how such results would be desirable. The new Middle East is perhaps more likely to be one where – instead of two great outside powers seeking to impose their influence and maintain an unthreatening stability – a regional struggle will play out between multiple competing local forces. This struggle will be based on old fissures that the old Cold War order had previously kept an uneasy lid on.

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