Turks & Tolerance: Putting Islamist Victory In Turkey In Context.

By Joshua Treviño

National Review
July 27 2007

The ballots are in, and the Turkish electorate this week decisively
reelected Recep Tayyip Erdogan to a second term as prime minister
in Ankara. Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development party rose to
power – first as the Welfare Party, till it was forcibly disbanded,
and then in its current guise – amid fears that it would depart from
the Kemalist vision that undergirds the modern Turkish state. (The
party is more commonly known by its Turkish acronym, "AK.") Certainly
it did not help that he was prone to public statements such as,
"The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets
our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers," nor that he has declared
that he seeks God’s forgiveness each time he shakes hands with a
woman. When Westerners envision Muslim leaders with whom they may do
business, Prime Minister Erdogan is not the sort who comes to mind.

Still less, despite his stated ambition for his country, are he and
his the men who will lead Turkey into Brussels’ version of "Europe."

But if Turkey’s elected leadership seems an unwelcome religious
throwback after decades of familiar generals and gray-suited
bureaucrats, and if Turkey itself has not been a model of pluralist
democracy under AK rule, neither has it slid backward into the
much-feared Islamist grand vision. The popular metaphor for Turkey
has it poised between two worlds: Europe on the one side, and Asia on
the other. The media narrative in the U.S. and Europe would have us
believe that Erdogan and the AK party represent the latter, drawing
Turkey away from us in its ambition and program. Their opponents,
therefore, are our friends, or at least are benign toward the West.

This narrative is simple and comprehensible. It is also false.

The reality is that Turkish state and society are precariously
balanced between three distinct visions: the aggressive chauvinism
of its Kemalist founding; the Islamist ambitions of its resurgent
religious consciousness; and the secularist ambitions of its burgeoning
entrepreneurial and urban classes. Each of these strands has its
pull, and barring unlikely catastrophe, none will wholly dominate the
others. For all the ink spilled over the pros and cons of Islamist
rule in Turkey, it is the Kemalist element that represents the most
meaningful threat to a Turkey that may join Europe. Understanding
that threat is key to understanding AK’s victory this past weekend.

The maverick Turkish historian Taner Akcam, in his book From Empire
to Republic, explains the basic premises of the Kemalist worldview.

Turkish nationalism as expounded by Mustafa Kemal, better known as
Ataturk, arose in the context of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire.

The empire’s loss of territory in Africa and the Arab Middle East was
discouraging, but not nearly so traumatic as its dramatic rollback
in Europe, where millions of Turks and Islamized Europeans lived.

(Ataturk himself was a native of the now-Greek city of Thessaloniki.)
As the empire tottered and fell, the Entente powers of the First
World War decided to extend the process of dismemberment to Turkey’s
Anatolian heartland. The Allies occupied Istanbul; Woodrow Wilson
advocated an Armenian state on the eastern third of modern Turkey;
France and Italy attempted to carve up southwestern Asia Minor;
and most famously, Greece landed an invasion force at Smyrna (modern
Izmir) and advanced nearly to Ankara in pursuit of a reborn Byzantine
Empire. It was only the organizational and political genius of Mustafa
Kemal that saved Turks from having nothing more than a rump state deep
in the interior: He cowed the Allies into abandoning the country,
and crushed the Greeks in a campaign that ended in the massacre of
thousands on the quays of Smyrna.

The lesson that Kemal’s Turkish nationalists drew from the trauma of
their republic’s birth was twofold: first, that religion in public
life is a retrograde force; second, that non-Turks are a tremendous
existential danger to Turkey. This outlook contained in itself its own
contradiction: the definition of a "Turk" in this context is a Muslim
who speaks Turkish. Given the polyglot nature of the Ottoman Empire,
this means that those considered Turks are not all ethnically Turkish:
Slavic, Caucasian, Arab, and Greek blood are all part of the national
heritage. Thus, the Kemalist project attempted to simultaneously
suppress faith, and posit faith as the defining characteristic of
national identity. Though the state formally recognized non-Muslim
citizens, it also suppressed and expelled them as much as possible,
in a process beginning with the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor
in 1923, continuing with the pogrom eliminating the Greek community of
Istanbul in 1955, and proceeding into the modern day with the slow push
to eliminate the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate in Istanbul. Muslim
citizens of the Turkish state would receive similar treatment if they
dared seek autonomy – see the Kurds for a prime example – but if they
refrained, they were generally left to pursue a quiet existence, as the
thriving Arab population of Antakya, near the Syrian border, testifies.

The baleful effects of this sort of nationalism are on display today.

Religious freedom is severely restricted, and the country has a history
of outright prohibition of missionary activity. As previously noted,
the Turkish state actively seeks to eliminate the patriarch, senior
bishop of the world’s Orthodox Christians, whose place of office has
been in Istanbul since a millennium before the Turks conquered that
city. A combination of legal restrictions and tightening controls
mean that the pool of state-approved candidates for the patriarchate
is rapidly shrinking, and unless these policies change, there will
probably be no one left to become Patriarch before this century
ends. The slow ending of an ancient Christian institution may seem,
in the modern media narrative, an ambition of Islamists, and perhaps
it is: but the responsibility here is squarely on Turkey’s Kemalist
heritage, and its legacy of nationalist paranoia.

It is not merely the patriarchate that is under threat: Anyone
deviating from the accepted mode of Kemalist Turkishness is liable
to harassment or worse. Turkish converts to Christianity Hakan
Tastan and Turan Topal are presently on trial under Article 301,
a newly drafted (as of 2005) Kemalist legal legacy that prohibits
"insulting Turkishness." Turkish media fixture Kemal Kerincsiz,
who is participating in the case, has told the press, "Christian
missionaries working almost like terrorist groups are able to enter
into high schools and among primary school students … They deceive
our children with beautiful young girls." Though this may sound
like Islamist rhetoric, the impetus for the prosecution comes from
nationalist adherents of Kemalism who are vastly more concerned with
the protection of Turkey than the defense of Islam. Kerincsiz himself
represents an element of Kemalism so zealous that he regularly seeks
the prosecution of Muslim Turks who do not hew to the strict Kemalist
line: the authors Elif Safak and Orhan Pamuk are among many hauled
before courts in recent years to defend their fidelity to Turkishness.

For all their misfortunes, at least Tastan, Topal, Shafak, and Pamuk
are alive. Father Andrea Santoro, a Roman Catholic priest, is not:
He was shot dead in the Black Sea city of Trabzon by a Turkish youth
motivated by a mixture of nationalist and Islamist sympathies. An
April 9, 2006, Washington Post story on the killing laid forth in
stark terms the perceived linkage between Turkish patriotism and Islam:

[Isa Karatas, spokesman for Turkey’s perhaps 80 evangelical Protestant
churches], said fellow Turks often ask him: "’If there is a war,
whose side are you going to fight on?’ I just couldn’t get them to
understand that even though I’m a Christian, my feeling for my country
is the same. They just don’t understand this."

Behnan Konutgan, an official with the Bible Society in Turkey who has
said every Christian is obliged to spread the Good Word, has been
arrested repeatedly. "When I am preaching," he said, "people think
I’m an enemy of the country."

That the consequences of this perceived enmity are dire is illustrated
in more than just Fr. Santoro’s case. This past April, in the city of
Malatya, deep in the eastern Turkish interior, a German minister and
two Turkish Christians were tortured and murdered. A July 12, 2007,
editorial in Christianity Today described the horrifying event:
"The two Christians were bound hand and foot to chairs, and the
Muslims began stabbing them, slowly and deliberately … Finally,
three hours after the torture began, police were called.

The captors then slit the Christians’ throats, killing all three."

The killers’ note explaining the deed was not one of jihad, but of
plain Kemalist nationalism: "We did it for our country. They are trying
to take our country away, take our religion away." Within days of the
killings, anonymous Turks sympathizing with the murders were reportedly
threatening media outlets in Ankara who dared report on the case.

Finally, the murder of Istanbul newspaper editor Hrant Dink
has attracted some notice in Western media. Dink was Turkish by
citizenship, and Armenian by ethnicity – and as such, he was something
of an alien figure to both milieus. He made his name by challenging
the nationalist tropes of both Turkey and Armenia, demanding that
Turkey acknowledge its history of repression, and asking Armenians
to let go of their bitterness. For his lifetime of effort, he was
repeatedly put on trial, and on January 19th of this year, he was shot
dead by a Turkish nationalist youth named Ogun Samast. The killer was
swiftly apprehended by authorities clearly sympathetic to his blow for
Kemalism: on February 2nd, the Turkish publication Radikal published
photographs of Samast in custody, flanked by smiling policemen as he
hoisted a Turkish flag. A mere ten days before, a hundred thousand
Turks had turned out for Dink’s funeral in Istanbul. In the throng
were placards reading, "We are all Hrant Dink."

The hundred thousand of Dink’s funeral are the hope of Turkey’s
future: They are the third element of the three-way struggle for
the national destiny, mostly young and mostly educated men and
women who reject the paranoid strictures and heavy-handed demands of
Kemalist nationalism. This past weekend, they mostly voted for Recep
Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party, not because they are Islamists,
but because in the Turkish context, it’s not the Islamists who have
brought repression to modern Turkey. Though it is true that many of
the incidents of Kemalist-inspired repression cited here occurred
under Islamist governments in Ankara, past and present, it must be
understood that the Turkish parallel state, in which the military and
nationalist elder figures assume the role of guardian of the republic,
remains tremendously strong – and the Kemalist ethic is profoundly
powerful and enduring. Even in leadership, the AK party is not able
to impose a non-Kemalist society upon Turkey any more than American
Democrats may work their unfettered will as a Congressional majority.

Our true friends in Turkey are neither the Kemalist nationalists
nor the Islamists, but the post-nationalist secularists who enliven
Istanbul’s trendy districts, populate the Aegean resorts, and produce
the literary genius of the likes of Pamuk. For now, that group has
endorsed the AK party’s Islamists. It is a choice we should respect –
even as we hope for more.

This is not to be naïve or starry-eyed about Erdogan or the
Islamists. They may proclaim their desire to join the European
Union, and they may model themselves after the Christian Democrats in
Europe. But Islam and Christianity make rather different claims on the
state and society; and we should have enough experience with political
Islam by now to regard it with wary skepticism until given reason to
trust. And – let us note – we do not know whether, in a generation’s
time, Turkish minorities may still be repressed, only in Islam’s name
rather than Mustafa Kemal’s. This is regrettably possible, but it is
not inevitable. If Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to show that it will not
happen, than he would do well to begin by listening to the message of
the hundred thousand of Hrant Dink. He could give the patriarchate
in Istanbul its liberty; he could give Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal
their freedom; and he could seek the old Ottoman tradition of social
pluralism over the Kemalist legacy of homogenization. It would not
be an easy thing for him to do – but it would be right.

– Joshua Treviño is the vice president for public policy at the Pacific
Research Institute in San Francisco, California. He has professional
experience in the Muslim world in Asia and Africa. In fall 2006, he
led a delegation to attend the papal-patriarchal events in Istanbul,

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