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Turkish Secularists

Blaming It All On Muslims

by ANDRE VLTCHEK

In many aspects, Turkey is much like Indonesia – on paper the country’s economic growth is truly impressive, but talk to the people, and they will tell you that the place is collapsing, becoming unlivable in, overpriced, and that daily life is now extremely brutal. In both countries, a big portion of the wealth disappears into the deep pockets of the super-rich ruling elites: to obnoxiously glitzy yacht docks and marinas dotted around Istanbul, and in the glitzy shopping malls of Jakarta.

There is suppressed anger and frustration on the streets of Istanbul. My good friend, a writer, had recently been injured in a public bus, as two buses raced through the narrow streets, with a total disregard for the passengers onboard. Last night I witnessed how a veiled woman was almost crushed by the doors of the metrobus; she begged and screamed to be released, whilst the driver obviously seemed to be enjoying her agony, and all in full view of the passengers. There were several people near the doors, but no one came to her rescue.

People don’t shout here, but they elbow each other, walk through each other, and often show absolute spite for their fellow citizens. There is generally a ‘bad mood’ everywhere at street level; there is an apparent diminishment of kindness, as well as something that could only be defined as, chronic fatigue.

Come as a tourist, to see the great ancient mosques and palaces, museums and traditional baths, and you will fall in love with the city in one instant. Live here for a while, and the chances are, that you will soon be exhausted and defeated.

***

Istanbul is a ferociously divided city. There is a clear distinction, between those who think that the greatest human right, is to be able to booze up in the open, at the tables placed right on the sidewalk, and between those who choose faith over worldly pleasures.

To be precise: the city is divided between those secular (and historically, although not of recent, governing) upper and middle classes, and their hated adversaries: the practicing Muslims of Turkey, the majority of the nation.

“Woman who wear headscarves have no brains”, a renowned Turkish author shouts at me, a woman, and needless to say, ‘a secular’ one. We are on the shores of the Bosporus, in a public place, at a café. People are looking at us and I feel embarrassed. There was no chance of even beginning to argue with her. She was having one of those Istanbul fits – a familiar outburst of: “I have no sympathy, no use for the Muslim religion. Have you ever read their Book?”

I did. And just a few days ago, I had the great pleasure of discussing the Book with the great British Muslim scholar, Ziauddin Sardan in London. I am better off keeping the fact to myself, for fear of being quartered, and my body parts thrown into the darkness of the legendary waterway dividing Europe, and Asia.

She is not the only person I know in Istanbul who has those moments. In ‘the City of Dreams’, to show spite for Islam and for practicing Muslims, is clearly some commonly used secret ‘password’ to the universe of what is acceptable here as brainy and hip.

As she speaks, a Ferrari is racing along the narrow road connecting two posh neighborhoods on the shores of the Bosporus – Arnavutköy and Bebek. It only slows down when confronted by the massive body of a public bus. If it could torpedo the bus, it would. Stripped of its muffler, the car is making an obnoxious roaring noise, frightening the seagulls, children and old passersby. The man driving it is definitely not a religious type: sporting a crew-cut, and a cool, bored Italian-actor-from-the 1960s look, with a woman sitting next to him, her hair flowing in the wind, wearing a sleeveless blouse, with designer glasses lifted up her forehead, and a cigarette between two slender fingers.

Turkey is segregated. In a way, it is more divided than either Israel or South Africa, before the collapse of apartheid. But you would never hear anyone talking about it here.

***

I have three books translated into, and published in the Turkish language; several of their television stations often interview me. I know many men and women in Istanbul. Some are secular, others are Muslim; but I never see them ‘mixing together’. Most of the secularists I know here, despise Islam; they make sure to demonstrate how Western, how pro-Western, how ‘European’ they are. In their eyes, being religious equates to being a degenerate, an idiot, and even ‘unpatriotic’.

Try to define Turkey as a Middle Eastern country, and you will lose all your friends and acquaintances in an instant.

The Muslim-bashers don’t hide their ideas: they actually advertise them; firing up each other in what to an outsider, may easily appear as bigotry.

Not once did my publisher, my fellow writers, acquaintances, or those pro-Western intellectuals ever invite out to dinner or a night out, someone who would happen to be a religious man or a woman. Not once in Istanbul did I have a chance to talk to a woman wearing a headscarf. Practicing Muslims are ‘un-people’ in all those ‘literary’ and ‘intellectual’ circles; they are not included, not talked to, not consulted. “One can learn nothing from them”, a ‘secular’ poet once told me in posh café overlooking the Bosporus.

To me all this is particularly shocking, because, for a big part of my life I live in Southeast Asia and in East Africa, in two places where people mix readily. In Malaysia, there could hardly be any party, or night out with friends, without people of different races and religions sitting at the same table. To be Malaysian is to be Malay, Chinese or Indian, Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu or secular. Of course even there it is not easy; it is not smooth, there are outbursts of intolerance, and even institutionalized discrimination, especially towards the Indian minority. But there is definitely no ‘segregation’. And if one attacks or puts down entire nationalities or religious beliefs, he or she is considered ‘uncool’ and very badly brought up. It would not be tolerated, especially in the company of educated people.

I have to repeat once again: I have only observed segregation such as that in Istanbul, in South Africa before the collapse of apartheid (and in some parts of the country after the collapse), in several parts of Israel and for different reasons, in Central Australia.

***

Secularists point fingers at Muslims, accusing the present religious Government of taking away their ‘sacred’ liberties (including, so often quoted, the right to booze up in full view of pedestrians).

But much more serious issues could be detected.

For instance, the West had been a determined sponsor of the present Turkish regime of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul. There have been massive arrests and disappearances of many top Kemalist generals and intellectuals, including those who have been demanding that Turkey breaks up with the US political and military diktat, instead forging alliances in the east.

So here is the paradox that is hardly understood in the West, even amongst some well meaning and left leaning intellectuals: while promoting Islamic ideals, the present government is taking direct orders from the West, destroying anti-imperialist intellectuals and the top military brass.

While banning exposed drinking establishments and encouraging women to cover up, the present government is helping to train the Israeli air force within Turkish territory, as well as arming and training the so called ‘Syrian opposition’, in specially designated camps.

***

It is not only Turkey’s present that is complex; it is also its past. Turkey harbors many grievances from the by-gone eras. Simultaneously, it is accused of inflicting pain on many in the region. There are hardly any simple answers to the historical questions.

One of the most burning and controversial ones is that of PKK and ‘the Kurdish issue’: are Kurds really the victims of Turkish discrimination, brutality and neglect? Or are they allies of the West, and themselves the perpetrators in the drive to fragment and destabilize the region, which includes the Turkish state (the case of pro-Western Iraqi Kurdistan is often quoted)? The common wisdom in the West is that the Kurds are victims, but talk to Left wing intellectuals and analysts in Istanbul or in the Middle East, and you will learn that the potential Great Kurdistan (with its seeds in Iraq) is nothing less than a sinister Western plot.

It is also true that the most dedicated fighters against Western imperialism are the secular generals, the high-ranking officers and intellectuals, many of them now imprisoned, most without any charges or trials.

Turkish reality is often paradoxical.

***

“The society should aim at the wellbeing of all its people. It is absurd to discriminate against citizens for being Kurdish, for being believers or non-believers, atheists or Islamists. These things should not matter and they take attention away from the real problems this country is facing: the issues, like the unbridled privatization of the national wealth of the country, the skyrocketing prices and the deteriorating conditions of the common people, as well as the Western imperialist interests in the region”, declares Sezer (even he prefers not to use his full name), a Turkish intellectual who believes in Turkish unity and who embraces the ideals of Kemal Ataturk, whose nationalist ideas as he says, never relied on the ethnic origin of the people, but instead on their citizenship; on belonging to the country.

No matter how noble his ideas, they appear to resonate in the mind of only a tiny minority of this fragmented nation. Sezer is expressing progressive, secular, urban views. But there is very little communication and understanding between the Turkish cities and the countryside, between the posh neighborhoods on the Bosporus and the humble dwellings of the have-nots, between those who wear headscarves and pray five times a day and those who are sipping wine in ridiculously overpriced and smart cafes, sitting cross-legged and wearing imported designer outfits.

The founding father of the Turkish state – Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – would probably find it difficult to fit into the nation he was trying so painstakingly to unite. No matter how secular his beliefs, it is unlikely that he would join that upper class, the Bosporus/Ferrari anti-Islamic choir.

But Ataturk would also certainly clash bitterly with the present government, which is combining religious practices with servitude to the West. In fact both camps would be reluctant to accept Ataturk for what he truly believed. In today’s world, his nationalism would be seen as inconvenient. Both sides – the Islamic government and the secular elites – are in two different ways collaborating with the West.

It is actually probable that, would he be living now, Ataturk would end up like many other brave Turkish opponents of Western imperialism, in jail.

Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the  South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu . His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” and will be released by Pluto Publishing House in August 2012. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.