I Love Turkey

In this article written seven  years ago, the year before I moved from Turkey to the Netherlands, I outlined my understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of this great country. It was written before the bloody coup a year-and-a-half ago and the devastating purges of tens and tens of thousands of journalist, intellectuals, and political figures and government servants. It was also written before the President moved through constitutional changes to consolidate all power in his own hands. But none of this would have surprised me seven years ago. And I still love Turkey - from afar.

I Love Turkey: an Article Written Seven Years Ago

By Livingston T. Merchant, Ph.D.

I love Turkey, but not the way I love a cruise along the sparkling Mediterranean coast, not the way I blindly love a lover, not the way I love an evening eating and drinking with friends in a tavern. Rather, I love Turkey in the way I adore a slightly unhinged cousin who suffers from attacks of genius alternating with devastating mood swings. After living here for seven years I find the other forms of love are impossible to maintain.
By curious coincidence, at the beginning of the twentieth century, three great and ancient empires collapsed and gave way, first to chaos, then to the imposition of secular regimes that suppressed the traditional religions of their respective countries. In China this process was initiated in 1911 and culminated in 1950 with the coming of  Mao Zedong’s dictatorship. In Russia the process began in 1917. In 1928 Stalin consolidated his power and began his attack on all aspects of traditional society.
In Turkey is it is difficult to say when this process began. The devastating series of wars that began with the Balkan Wars in 1912 segued into the catastrophe of World War I and its aftermath, the Greek invasion of Anatolia. Finally, when the Greeks were expelled and the Republic of Turkey was proclaimed in 1923, Ataturk rid the country of the dysfunctional government of the Sultans. He also suppressed most popular expressions of religion. Turkey was incredibly lucky, in that it was led by a strong man with a vision and an understanding of modernization. Sadly, the other two successor regimes in Russia and China, at least after the death of Lenin, were led by paranoid lunatics. In another curious coincidence, by the year 2000 popular religious expression was back in full force in Russia, China, and Turkey.
Turkey today is a fantastically diverse country in which ethnic groups, languages, religions, and ideologies are in a complex relationship with each other. Even to describe these differences is liable to make one the target of ravening nationalists, fanatical religionists, and dogmatic secularists. Step over a line, and you can be dragged into a court for “insulting Turkishness” – a conveniently undefined concept. Take an alternate view of historical events, and a nationalist assassin may gun you down, an assassin who may turn out to be in the pay of an army general

The Politics of Head Covering
One high-profile question in recent months has been the so-called headscarf issue. This arises from the fact that women have not been allowed to wear a head-covering in universities. Many devout Moslem women feel (or their men-folk feel) it is immodest to go out without their heads covered, so some young women removed their headscarves while attending classes and others chose not to seek higher education. When I first arrived in Turkey, I, like many foreigners, could not understand the problem.
A high ranking university department head sat in my office my first year in Istanbul and explained that headscarves that were of a certain cut were signs of rebellion against the secular regime. She said that in Anatolia women often wore a scarf that was not religious (did not hide the neck and all the hair) and that this was different.
“I understand,” I said, “so women in the Anatolian scarves could attend classes.”
“No, of course not,” she said heatedly. And I realized I did not understand the issue at all. After seven years I am still not clear. Some of my young female students are afraid that if the university is swamped with covered women, they will be tagged as immodest and immoral. Perhaps this is so.
At any rate, it has become a totally political question. The governing party, the Justice and Progress Party or AKP, pushed through regulations that allowed head covering in education. This led to a tremendous row. A secular prosecutor moved to have the AKP closed, in spite of the fact that it had recently won almost half the popular vote in the elections for parliament. Representatives of the European Union jumped in to say that closing an elected party would be a violation of democratic principles and that Turkey was jeopardizing its future membership in the Union if the courts did so..
The AKP is the last of a succession of Islamic parties, all of which have been closed down for violating the secularism of the state. In this case the party is a self-proclaimed moderate organization which likens itself to the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. From the beginning it has been eyed with extreme suspicion by the secularists and with near adulation by religious Sunni Moslems. The controversy over the headscarf issue has thrown the AKP into a paralysis. Many political parties have been   closed in the years since the founding of the Republic, and while it may be six months before this matter is settled, the fact is that the prosecutor has amassed a great deal of  “evidence” that may be taken seriously by the secular-minded courts. The democratic process, the principles of the constitution, and the profoundly conservative tendency of the higher echelons of the officers’ corps all come into play with unpredictable results.

Turkey as a Potato

When I arrived in Turkey, I was presented with the picture of a country that was more or less uniform from one end to the other – like a potato when you cut it open. Close to 99% of the population was Moslem. Turkish was the only official, indeed the only tolerated language. There were the Kurds, of course, but as a former head of TUSIAD, the national businessmen’s association, explained that Kurdish was not really a language and had only a few hundred words. Wishful thinking on some peoples part. The ethnic and religious diversity of Turkey rivals that of its neighbors. The country is incredibly rich in religious, ethnic, and cultural sub-divisions. The more that this has been denied over the years, the more tensions among groups come to the fore.
Many Turks like to think that there is nobody here but us Turks. This works if you define as Turks all the inhabitants of Turkey. But sociologists tend to see things differently. Kurds make up about a fifth of the population. They are an Indo-European people that speak a series of dialects related to Persian. Since they have not produced a corpus of literature in their mother tongue and since many of their dialects are mutually unintelligible, they have no unified linguistic base. But they certainly have a unified identity. And for many years they have wanted recognition of their language as cultural medium and as language of instruction. But most of all they want a bigger slice of the economic pie. Impoverished, isolated, neglected, they have provided a breeding ground for one of the worst terrorist movements of the region, the Kurdish Workers Party or PKK..
The solution of the Kurdish problem will ultimately be found in the economic policies of the republic. Ignoring the problem will result in more and more young men (and women) taking up arms and reigniting the horrendous civil war launched in 1984 that resulted in more than 35,000 deaths, most of them Turkish and Kurdish civilians. The military solution – killing PKK fighters – may satisfy the assuage the emotions of the Turkish population, but it will not solve the problem. This is especially true now that the Kurds have a semi-sovereign base in “Kurdistan” in neighboring northern Iraq.
Turkey has other ethnic groups, several of them speaking their own languages. By and large this has not led to great resentments. The Circassians, for instance, consist of about a million and a half people, but the Ottoman empire gave them a refuge at a time their confreres were being massacred in the Russian empire, and cultural autonomy is not a major issue for them.
The Armenians are now very few in number in Turkey, and a tragic dispute stretching back almost a century has left anger and resentment among Turks and Armenians. The question as to whether there was an Armenian genocide in 1915 divides Turkey from the rest of the world. It is seemingly irresolvable after decades of debate, since no one on either side of the question can agree on the circumstances surrounding the deaths of so many hundreds of thousands of Armenian Ottoman citizens. To make matters even worse, the dispute involves territorial disputes threatening the integrity of the Turkish Republic.

The Religious Conundrum

Where to start to discuss religion? Perhaps with Islam. This is the national religion, but what does it mean to say that Turkey is 97% Moslem? Before the Republic the Ottoman Empire was a crazy quilt of beliefs and practices. Armenian churches, imposing mosques, and dervish tekkes (monasteries) sprinkled the countryside. By and large there was peace between the faiths and practices, through certain groups like the Alevi kept their heads down to avoid persecution or discrimination. Many people were involved in pilgrimages, the worship at the tombs of Moslem or Christians saints and dervishes of various orders dispensed spiritual advice and collected alms. If this sounds like medieval Europe, it was.
Ataturk was passionately wed to the idea of modernizing and westernizing Turkey. When he consolidated power, he closed down everything that he considered superstitious including the religious orders (tarikats) of dervishes. He even shut those institutions that had supported his rise to power. He wanted his people to wear western clothes and the women were to remove the veil or headscarf. He wanted simple peasants to listen to the great music of the West and to abandon the haunting tunes of Turkish music. He set up a school system with a unified secular curriculum and he closed the mudrese, the schools that taught the Koran, usually by rote recitation. Placing the surviving religious institutions, the Sunni mosques, the churches, and the synagogues under a government ministry, he tried to stamp out everything that he saw as superstition.
Ataturk was remarkably successful. A class of educated secular young people emerged, especially in the urban centers of Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara. And these centers remain as bastions of his vision to this day. However today, 90 years later, it is clear that much of the old practices did not go away. They went underground. They began to come back by the middle of the twentieth century with covert religious schools and dervish orders, with increasingly religious political parties, so that finally today the national political debate is defined by religion. Even the Turkish army, which has numerous times intervened on behalf of secularism, seems to have lost its bearings. The old and simple methods of military coup do not seem to be working. And while the country is making only modest progress in breaching the walls of the European Union, all actors are aware that trampling on the desires of an increasingly religious electorate, will not help Turkey’s chance of accession.
It is true that except for a few Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, everyone has “Moslem” stamped on their identity cards. This includes millions of secular Turks who have nothing to do with religion, at least in its organized form. True, it includes tens of millions Sunni Moslems who when they worship, worship in mosques that are maintained and staffed by the government ministry of religious affairs. But somewhere between a quarter and a third of Turks and Kurds belong to sect called the Alevik. The Alevi derive from Central Asian strands of religious belief that are interwoven with a form of Islam, itself with roots the Shiite sects.
To identify the Alevi with the Shiite religion of Iran would be totally wrong, however. The Alevi practice a strict equality between men and women in the home and in society and they are traditionally rather left-wing, a product of hundreds of years of rebellion against persecution by the orthodox Sunni Moslems. This persecution erupted violently in 1993 when a Sunni mob attacked a hotel in Sivas where a group of Alevi poets, singers, and intellectuals were having a conference. Enraged by the presence of a writer whom they considered anti-Islam, the mob burned down the hotel murdering 37 of the participants. Since then the status of the Alevis has improved somewhat, but they remain a fairly closed and secretive community.
Finally there are the Yasidi, a mostly Kurdish sect with its roots in ancient central Asian religion. They are sometimes called devil worshipers, but this is inaccurate. They worship angels, whom they say God set to govern the world. It is true that they worship Satan, who had a somewhat dicey past, but the Yasidis insist that God has forgiven him for his youthful indiscretions.

Said Nursi and Fethullah Gulen
Radical secularism’s worst nightmare has come to the fore in the form of an emotional preacher, a Kurdish imam from Izmir, Fethullah Gulen. That in itself does not sound scary, but the fact is that he has amassed billions of dollars, millions of followers inside Turkey and out, and has founded some 500 first-class schools around the world including a university in Istanbul. All of this was accomplished in spite of the fact that he had to leave Turkey in 1998 after running afoul of the courts. (It was alleged that he was urging his followers to dissemble their religious affiliation and to take over the organs of state power).
There is a history behind all of this. First, it is important to remember that not everything in the old Ottoman system was reactionary. In fact in the last years of the empire there were experiments in modern and scientific education. Even some medrese, the religious academies, were trying to unite a scientific and a religious curriculum. One of the most influential visionaries of this movement was another Kurdish imam named Said Nursi. He tried to combine a tightly knit religious movement with the concept of westernized education. At the end of the Ottoman Empire he was trying to convince authorities to create a modernizing university in the East of Turkey to overcome the backwardness of the region. After the founding of the republic, he was marginalized politically, but he continued to support westernization as a buffer against communism. He died in 1960 and his tomb was ravaged by right-wing extremists.
The thought of Said Nursi lives on in the work of his disciple, none other than . . . Fethullah Gulen. The vision of modern education wed to Moslem beliefs has a powerful appeal to the religious men and women of contemporary Turkey. One question remains that no one seems to be able to answer: does Fethullah stand for a truly modern and tolerant religious state, as he claims, or is he secretly planning to bring in the sharia, the Islamic law as practiced in Iran and Saudi Arabia? With the lack of any hard evidence, people see Fethullah in the light of their own beliefs. In spite of this ambiguity, Fethullah may well be the most influential Turkish thinker in the world, and his impact given the present climate in the country is immeasurable.

Honor Killings and the Deep State

Honor killings and blood feuds are unpleasant elements of the landscape in Turkey. A young woman strays from the strict Moslem code of behavior – perhaps just secretly dating someone the family does not like – and a brother is sent out to murder her in order to redeem the honor of the family. It happens, perhaps a couple of thousand times a year. It is primitive, brutal, criminal, but acceptable to some segments of society.
An Armenian journalist tries to make statements about the history of Turkey that he believes could reconcile Turks and Armenians. Pop. He is shot down in front of his newspaper office. A Nobel Prize winning author makes comments about the deaths of Armenians and Kurds. His name appears on a hit list for assassination, a list kept by a serving general in the Turkish army. A couple of Catholic priests are knocked off. One of the assassins is photographed holding the Turkish flag in the company of commandants of the army and the police. Boom. A bomb is set off: the bombs are discovered to be from a military arsenal.
What is going on here? Actually these events are based on exactly the same principle and mentality as the honor killings. In this case a wide-spread, long-standing conspiracy in the government, the army, and in civil society is responsible. The group is known as Ergenekon, a reference to a place in early Turkish mythology where the early Turkish tribes took refuge. From the same traditions that brought you the honor killings, we have the honor assassinations of those who question. For decades this group has been known as the “Deep State”, the implication being that these people really run the country.
I Love the Country

And so I love Turkey, not as a lover, but rather as I love a brilliant person that is struggling to find his or her identity. In all of the deformities described above, there is the enduring strength of the Turkish people. Struggling against such odds after the defeat of the First World War, the invasion of the Greek armies, surrounded for years by hostile Communist neighbors, and the target of the designs of the so-called Great Powers, the Turks have a great nation from the ashes of a ruined empire. The future of the Republic is impossible to predict any more than we can predict the future shape of a cloud in the sky. To live here for a number of years is to be caught up in the mood swings mentioned at the beginning of this essay: some days our hearts brim with optimism, some days we are pitched into a pessimistic depression. But it is impossible not to love this country.


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