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A Rightward Shift in the Muslim World’s Model of Moderation

Istanbul Dispatch

by JASON HIRTHLER

It was Karl Marx, in his essay on the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, who said, “They must not represent themselves; they must be represented.” Marx was writing about Louis Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1851 coup d’etat of the French state, dissolution of the French parliament and eventual assumption of the role of emperor. Among the events that led to the coup were Bonaparte’s efforts to change the constitution so that he might be re-elected President. After his efforts were frustrated, he staged a successful coup, and rewrote the constitution to consolidate and extend the powers of the presidency (although a year later he declared himself emperor).

One could draw a few parallels between the Eighteenth Brumaire and unfolding events in modern Turkey. Not representing themselves, the natives here are represented by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his AK party (AKP). Coincidentally, Erdogan has launched a new constitutional convention in part to consolidate powers in the office of the president, a post he is thought to crave once his current term as PM ends next year. Not only that, but Erdogan—once a cosmopolitan figure with an eye on Europe and the backing of secular Turks—has lately moved to boldly realize his personal vision of Turkey as a regional Islamist heavyweight ruled by a robust executive. Whether the Turkish people desire the same is increasingly immaterial. Erdogan’s once liberal veneer has faded with his recent attempts to regulate alcohol consumption after ten o’clock, crimp sales licenses, separate male and female students, implement conservative educational reforms, and offer slices Istanbul’s majestic commons for private profit (see July’s Gezi Park protests). Ironically, Erdogan once posed as the Ataturk-minded cosmopolitan who would take Turkey into the European Union, liberalizing the nation’s economy and society. Liberalization, of course, meant a parliamentary system and a move away from sharia law to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the nation’s founder. For Erdogan, it had more to do with the deregulation of Turkish protectionism and financialization of the economy. Now, with the Eurozone a shambolic burlesque of fiscal health, and the prime minister growing neglectful of his country’s partly secular psychographic, one wonders whether Turks consider Europe’s temporizing behavior regarding EU membership as serendipitous.

For some, Erdogan has accomplished a neat trick of subterfuge: he preached democratic reform to Europe, and under the guise of liberalizing Turkey’s legal framework he unshackled Islam from some of the more burdensome restraints emplaced by secularists—notably the ban on head scarves, now removed. What was thought to be a liberalizing tendency in Erdogan is now seen as an attempt to simply liberate Islamism to reassert itself in the country—this perhaps as a requisite step in Erdogan’s vision of Turkey as a political centerpiece of the Middle East. How different a view this is from that of Ataturk, who sought to bring Turkey firmly and forever into the ‘modernist’ camp of Europe. It is no small piece of history that in 1924 Ataturk abolished the Islamic Caliphate, closing sharia courts, and shuttering Islamic madrasas. It has not been viably reestablished since. The frequent calls we hear from radicalized Muslims for the establishment of a global caliphate reflect Ataturk’s decision 89 years ago. If Ataturk faced West, Erdogan presents a more nuanced picture, happily adopting Western neoliberal prescriptions for the Turkish economy, however discredited, while taking slow but deliberate steps toward an Eastern-facing conservatism. Call it laissez faire hidden in a hijab.

Although Turkey’s economy has tripled since the early 2000s, the numbers again belie the unreliability of GDP as a measure of broad social prosperity. Nearly half of Turkey’s population live near, at, or beneath the poverty line. Unemployment is up, prices are up, stocks are down, and the economy has slowed. OECD figures note Turkish laborers work exceptionally long hours, and under Erdogan’s AKP party, union membership has become a desiccated feature of a frayed solidarity. Sounds a lot like America—or Columbia when you see that the government jails union activists with an impunity normally reserved for suspected terrorists. (Part of the global shift to conflate protest of any kind with internal security threats, dissenting journalists are also jailed with terrific regularity.) In Turkey, bank deposits also indicate the wealth gap. A sliver of account holders own most of the depositor funds. What the knock-off handbag touts and teacart vendors and simit salesmen have left is public space. Which is where protests flared in June.

The demonstrations were roughly handled by police during the summer, when millions across Turkey protested the planned redevelopment of Gezi Park—at the center of the city alongside Taksim Square. The plan, a recreation of Ottoman artillery barracks, was taken in a private with no public input. For Erdogan’s AKP, this was a clear instance of overreach, attempting to seize most conspicuous park in the largest city in Turkey and transform it into a needless ode to the Ottoman Empire (and, nearly as obviously, to Erdogan’s own legacy). To their great credit, Turkish citizens acted to shut it down. The redevelopment plan, or plot, should we say, was shelved by a court ruling in July, and then reauthorized by a higher court, behind a number of belligerent statements from Erdogan, who expertly inhabited the perennial role of the myopic prime minister, caught flat-footed by an explosion of public frustration, responding with characteristic defiance, condescension, and heavy handed police actions.

Across Istanbul, one is exposed to images of Ergodan, his placid gaze sitting atop a thick mustache, now grayed with age as he sails through his twelfth year in power. His efforts to crimp alcohol sales added kindling to the protests, which rapidly broadened beyond Gezi Park to encompass perceived threats to secularism. Erdogan’s subtle and not so subtle shift into authoritarian habits has many Turks worried that the secular foundation of the state is being steadily eroded. As of last year, Turkey had more journalists in detention than either China or Iran. Under its terrorism law, the state has convicted 13,000 citizens of terrorism offenses— just another innocuous number without context, but consider that, according to the Associated Press, between 9/11 and 2011 more than 35,000 people worldwide have been convicted as terrorists. A full third of that number have been convicted in Turkey. The government also launched an attack on Dogyan Holding, the largest media conglomerate in the country (including Hurriyet), fining it half a billion dollars in a tax evasion case that appeared to be politically motivated, after the company’s outlets began investigating improprieties in Erdogan’s AKP.

Together, the zealous use of the pretext of terrorism and the evident social encroachments have many Turks worried Erdogan has shifted into full autocrat mode. The new constitutional convention has as one of its chief aims the expansion the powers of the presidency. Pundits suggest Erdogan and current President, Abdullah Gul, may simply switch roles in next year’s election. Or Erdogan could modify AKP party rules to permit him a run for a third term as PM (there is no constitutional barrier). The administration also has put considerable muscle in recent years into uprooting Turkey’s phantom “deep state”, long thought to be an underground coterie of militarists devoted to defending the secularist character of the state, and believed to be behind the country’s several coups since its founding. It is then no coincidence that the constitutional convention aims to replace the current constitution, which was written under military rule decades ago and which unsurprisingly invested considerable powers in the military. Yet much of Erdogan’s pursuit of deep-state groups have the character of show trials, suggesting an ulterior effort to weaken a secularist military rather than unwind its clandestine sect. And since a healthy chunk of the more than 5,000 pending criminal cases against journalists are related to this political purge, one might add a desire to vitiate civil liberties to the programmatic shortlist. Indeed, the focus of the government’s crackdown are on a group called Ergenekon (consult your tradecraft bible for the etymology) that supposedly includes military and parliamentary leaders, as well as journalists and academics.

Given the abuse of free speech, the creeping conservatism, and efforts to defang military leadership, one could be forgiven for thinking that Erdogan is doing his best to throttle the very soul of secularism, all under the guise of liberalization. Nor would it be adventitious to conclude that Western-style democracy is neither a sufficient condition for general prosperity, nor a reliable guarantor of the commons—although, to be sure, those aims are often denied under the very banner of their promotion. The late Edward Said, referencing Marx’s “representation” line, added that representation was ever a theatrical art. Thus, when one thing plays at being another, it’s theater, but not less frequently, politics.

Jason Hirthler is a veteran of the communications industry. He lives and works in New York City and can be reached at jasonhirthler@gmail.com.