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[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.

[Published on openDemocracy (11th May 2012): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/temporary-alliance-akp-fethullah-g%C3%BClen-and-religion-in-turkish-politics]

With the ‘Turkish model’ commonly cited as one of the inspirations for the revolts sweeping the Arab region, and with much speculation about the role of Islam in the newly emerging political systems in those countries, a closer look at religion’s potential future role in Turkish politics seems appropriate. Of course, it’s perilous to look into the crystal ball and make predictions about the medium to long term political future of any country, and this is particularly so in a place with such a volatile political landscape as Turkey. However, at the risk of inviting egg on my face at some point in the future, I would fairly confidently suggest that Turkey will not simply ‘evolve away’ from politicised Islam any time soon – as many hailing the apparent civilianisation of Turkish politics and liberalisation of the country’s economy often tacitly assume. With roots deeply planted – most notably through the Gülen movement of reclusive religious preacher Fethullah Gülen – it’s clear that religion will continue to play a significant role in Turkish political life, as in social life, for the foreseeable future. Whether its vehicle will remain the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), however, is not quite so certain.

Much has been made of the role and importance of the Fethullah Gülen movement, or cemaat (‘community’), both inside and outside Turkey. It emerged as a significant force in the 1980s, initially coalescing around the personality of religious preacher Fethullah Gülen in the western Turkish city of Izmir. The movement now aims to promote conservative social values, with a soft, public face emphasising ecumenism, tolerance and inter-faith dialogue. Gülen now resides on a ranch in Pennsylvania, his cemaat having evolved into a multi-million dollar global network, sustained by donations from members and numerous commercial enterprises. It has been at least passively supported by the U.S. since the 1990s as an apparently moderate, relatively liberal expression of Islam. The Gülen movement is now active in 140 countries, with interests including boarding schools, universities, banks, media companies, newspapers, charities, and think tanks. There is also much evidence that its sympathisers have infiltrated into the higher positions of power within the Turkish police force. As the recently “wikileaked” Stratfor intelligence agency cable put it in 2009, the Gülen brotherhood is “perhaps the best-organized grass roots movement in Turkey … [with] a vast social and economic organization, intelligence assets, a global network”. The cable goes on to give an idea of how it sustains and expands itself:

“FGC [Fethullah Gülen Community] businesses advertise heavily on FGC media, while FGC-owned media runs human interest stories and profiles of FGC sympathisers, businesses and schools. FGC members and sympathisers take holidays in FGC-owned hotels and shop at FGC-owned stores and invest in FGC financial institutions. Graduates of FGC cramming schools funded by FGC businesses often serve as teachers in FGC schools overseas. Finally, FGC media, funded by FGC businesses, reacts sharply to any criticism directed at Fethullah Gulen.”

In a country in which conspiracy theories find such fertile ground, the growth of this far-from-transparent and apparently unaccountable religious movement is alarming for many secular Turks. It would be wrong, however, to automatically equate the Gülen movement with the current Islamist government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), as many observers tend to do. In fact, the two have significantly different origins. The AKP, which was established in 2001 and has been in government since 2002, evolved out of the Sunni orthodox Milli Görüş/Nakshibendi school, which found primary expression in the various political parties established over the years by the late Islamist leader Necmettin Erbakan. The Gülenists, on the other hand, stem from the ‘Nurcu’ movement, whose origins go back to the late-Ottoman/early-Republican-era Islamic theologian Bediuzzaman Said Nursî. In contrast with the Nakshibendis, the Nurcus have always emphasised refraining from direct involvement in politics, and stayed largely non-partisan, their main aim being the rather more vague imana hizmet or ‘service to the faith’. Thus, the Gülen movement has only ever lent passive support to political parties over time, and it’s significant that this support was never extended to Erbakan’s Refah (Welfare) Party in the 1980s and 90s, out of the ashes of which the AKP emerged.

Both the Gülen movement and the AKP share socially conservative values based in Sunni Islam, and have therefore experienced a kind of alliance of convenience or symbiotic coexistence during the AKP’s term in power. The 2007 “e-memorandum” affair (in which the Turkish military attempted a “post-modern” coup similar to that of 1997), as well as the 2008 closure case at the Constitutional Court against the AKP for alleged anti-secular activities, brought the two even closer together. However, there are increasing signs of a growing divergence of interest. The din surrounding the recent reforms to compulsory education generally portrayed the developments as simply another round in the familiar secular-religious tug-of-war in Turkey. However, a more subtle interpretation was outlined in a recent piece by M. Kemal Kaya and Halil M. Karaveli, suggesting that the reforms were in fact – at least partly – the latest episode in the ongoing covert power struggle between the AKP and the Gülenists. Marked differences of opinion have also been apparent on such contentious topics as the recent Turkish football match-fixing investigation, the Kurdish question, and the continuing friction with Israel.

It would thus be wrong to consider the Sunni religious community in Turkey a homogenous whole. Inevitably, there are fissures and power struggles contained within it, and it seems reasonable to suggest that the outcome of these shifting allegiances will be the dynamic that determines the future direction of Turkish politics, rather than the divided and ineffectual secular opposition. The Gülen brotherhood now has roots deeply planted in many of the institutions of public life inTurkey, and its sensitivities must be taken into account by any political group hoping for electoral success. In a largely pious and conservative country, it seems clear that religion will continue to play a significant role in the political sphere in Turkeyfor a while yet. However, with recent indications of high-level schisms, far less clear is whether the AKP, or some other party that understands and is comfortable with this reality, will be the leading political force to harvest its energies.

[Published on openDemocracy (18th Oct 2011): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/significant-changes-in-turkish-religion-and-turkish-nationalism]

[Also published (in Turkish) on ABHaber.com:  http://www.abhaber.com/ozelhaber.php?id=11509]

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, received wisdom has tended to view nationalism and religion as mutually incompatible in the Turkish context. Turkish nationalism, so the narrative goes, is defined by the secularising, modernising example of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a military man with an almost religious faith in the ability of science to reshape society. Islam, with its appeals to multinational, multiracial unity, inevitably stood in the way of the ‘pure’, homogenous nation state. Such an understanding was propagated by those early secularising elites within Turkey itself, and accepted by observers outside the country for the better part of 100 years. The current AKP government, however, is challenging this formula. Recent developments – in particular recent spat between Turkey and Israel – demonstrate that Turkish religion and Turkish nationalism are far from irreconcilable.

A singular irony of the founding of the Turkish republic is the fact that initially the new nation was defined primarily on religious (rather than linguistic) grounds, (with, it must be said, an unhealthy dose of ethnic nationalism thrown in for good measure). Significant numbers of those resettled on Turkish land during the Greek-Turkish population exchanges, for example, were Greek speaking Muslims who in many cases couldn’t even speak the Turkish language. The most important fact was that they were Muslim: religion was the most important category to fulfil in order to be included in the new Turkish state. The irony is that this definition was emphasised even as Turkey’s new leaders were systematically attempting to ‘cleanse’ religion from public life. The newly independent Turkish republic wasn’t just neutral to religion, it was actively hostile, establishing a rigid and doctrinaire form of laicite in a country that until recently had been the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. The state would be actively superior to religion, and all expressions of Islam were to be tightly regulated by the “Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı” (Department of Religious Affairs) to ensure compliance with the new secular order. The Caliphate was abolished; independent religious establishments were closed down; imams were appointed and their Friday sermons written by the new religious affairs department; women were discouraged from wearing the veil. Myriad other cultural and political reforms were initiated, aimed at faster and more effective Westernisation. All this was done in the name of modernisation, secularisation and – crucially – nationalism: to oppose the changes or the way they were implemented was to risk vilification as a ‘gerici’ (reactionary), against the modern, independent Turkish nation. The military became the symbol of the secular order, and the four coup d’etats that the country experienced during the twentieth century were all – to a greater or lesser degree – military responses to perceived religious incursions into political and social life. Inevitably, tensions also developed with minority communities who felt excluded from such a rigid understanding of the Turkish nation, and during the 1990s something like civil war exploded in the south-east of the country between Kurdish guerrillas and the Turkish state.

The paradigm seemed to be broken with the spectacular electoral successes of the AKP, an Islamically-oriented party, starting in 2002. Here at last, it was thought, was a way out of the monocultural impasse, a tonic to divisive and destructive Turkish nationalism. The new government sounded a refreshingly emollient tone, and a series of symbolic ‘openings’ helped warm up relations with the Kurds, the Greeks, and the Armenians as well as other minority communities within the Turkish borders. In addition, more progress was made in the EU accession process by the AKP than any previous government. This rosy picture, however, has soured recently. Campaigning during the parliamentary election earlier this year, Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan adopted a much harsher note on the Kurdish question than ever before, and – the AKP having won almost 50% of the popular vote – he has continued this tendency since. The EU process is effectively dead, and the government has wasted no time laying the blame squarely at the door of the EU itself. The USA comes in for increasingly stinging criticism (again sanctioned by rising anti-American sentiments in Turkish society). Emboldened by a booming economy, Erdoğan flexes his muscles on the world stage as no Turkish leader has before, which – appealing to the collective libido dominandi – wins him ever more support back home. Boorish populism is prosecuted in the name of greater and deeper democracy.

As with all nationalisms, the new Turkish model needs outside foes against which to define itself, and perhaps the most significant of these today is Israel. The raid by the Israeli Defence Force on the Turkish aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010 caused widespread public and political outrage, and the Turkish-Israeli relationship has since deteriorated to such a degree that Turkey has almost entirely suspended political, military and economic ties with Israel. Owing to the widespread popular support for the government on this issue, the AKP has no motivation to desist; indeed one could argue that it may even have an interest in prolonging the dispute. The situation clearly illustrates how far popular Turkish nationalism has shifted: a hitherto unheard-of instance of secular nationalism and emotional religious indignation uniting in a common cause.

Nationalism and religion have been the two primary energising forces in Turkish society for almost a hundred years, even if one has always dictated to the other. The current Turkish government’s rhetoric manages to appeal to both impulses, and that’s why it’s such a powerful brew.

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