Friday, November 21, 2008

Turkey Another Yugoslavia?

A very sinister analysis from Kerem Öktem in The New Humanist:
Xenophobia and racism have become a serious problem in a country whose citizens are used to thinking of themselves, particularly in Germany, as the victims of racist abuse. According to the latest Pew Global Attitudes Survey, Turkey has become one of the most xenophobic countries in the world. More than 70 per cent of Turkish citizens dislike both Christians and Jews, almost 70 per cent think unfavourably of Hamas, the cause célèbre of virtually any Muslim society, around 45 per cent dislike Saudi Arabia and, believe it or not, almost 10 per cent disapprove of Islam, in a country whose population is nominally 99 per cent Muslim.

These figures fly in the face of marketing narratives of Turkey as “the mosaic of religions”, a “country of tolerance”, and Istanbul as a city where mosques, churches and synagogues sit back-to-back peacefully. But counter-evidence, like the Altinova attacks, has been amassing in the last few years: since 2006, two priests have been killed, many more attacked, and three Christian missionaries, two of them converts from Islam, slain. The most prominent murder of a Christian was that of the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who advocated a new approach to history based on the recognition of Turkish atrocities, an advocacy that flew in the face of the state-enforced denial of the 1915 genocide.

The present state of affairs seems to confirm the worst fears of Turkish secularists, who have always argued that the government of the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), who have now been in power for six years, would lead to a rise in religious tensions, and precipitate the destruction of the secular Turkish Republic and establishment of a theocratic regime based on Sharia law. In this light, the legal proceedings brought against the party earlier this year, which threatened to outlaw the AKP (and were only narrowly averted by a majority of one in the constitutional court), would appear almost justified. It would also be a justification for the secular-minded army taking further steps to prevent Turkey from slipping any further down the road to regime change.

But this picture is far too simplistic: neither the AKP proper nor rogue elements within the party are behind the recent religious hate crimes. Nor are the military command the doughty champions of secularism they claim to be. Indeed the idea that Turkey has ever been a secular country is itself a myth. The Turkish version of state secularism foresees neither separation nor disestablishment, but rather the state-financed administration of a certain type of Sunni Islam. This is beaucratically entrenched through the Diyanet, a vast religious services agency with more than 80,000 imams on its payroll, which provides substantial state support for religion across Turkish society, and imposes its orthodox version of Islam on all communities in Turkey, including those of different beliefs, like the Alevis, and the non-religious.

. . . .

As it appears now, the two large blocs vying for hegemony are not secularists and moderate Islamists, but isolationalists and nationalists – ranging from the military to the Republican People’s Party – on the one side and authoritarian Islamists on the other. Both blocs are determined to impose their ideological straitjacket on society, both are ready to use religion for their political ends, both base their politics on the vilification of others and both are happy to exclude the two large minority groups, the Kurds and the Alevis, without whose enfranchisement Turkish democracy will remain incomplete. Yet both blocs are also Machiavellian enough to drop almost any ideological commitment, if this would bring them closer to power.
Turkey might soon be waking up to a sinister spectacle: a wave of ethnic and religious violence erupting in its main cities and in areas where Kurds or Alevis are sizeable and visible minority communities. This would be a sad repetion of the inter-sectarian and political violence that almost ripped the country apart and culminated in the military coup of 1980. Against this worst-case scenario one can count the immense progress in civil society, liberal thinking and independent academic institutions that has been made in the last decade of rapprochement with Europe.

Lurking in the background is one terrifying possibiity. It was summed up by one AKP liberal, frustrated by the lack of progress regarding his government’s policy towards religious minorities, who told me recently during a visit to Ankara, “Yugoslavia always remains an option.”
For full article, click here.

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