Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What you thought you knew (but didn't actually know) about Turkey - 1

I read an article called "Prospects for a 'torn' Turkey: A secular and unitary future?" by Svante E. Cornell and Halil Magnus Karaveli of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Silk Road Studies Program. Their arguments were very refreshing. They made me realize that most accounts of what's going on in Turkey (especially Western perceptions, including some of my 'received opinions') are hopelessly simplistic. So I decided to note some of their points here in a series of posts.
  • Islamic ascendancy was the "irresistable reclaim by a supposedly essential popular culture of a terrain that had been occupied by an alien secularism imposed from above by the state."

In fact, successive secular governments have accommodated Islam since Turkey became a multi-party democracy in 1950. Under the watch of center-right governments Sunni Islam came to dominate the school system and private schools funded by Islamic fraternities and orders found fertile ground.

Ironically, it was the military rule following the 1980 coup that encouraged Islamist politics as an alternative to radical left. With the ingenious "Turkish-Islamic synthesis," the generals attempted to blend right-wing nationalism and Islam. The "Religious Culture and Ethics" class made its way into elementary school curriculum (and the consitution), clerical high schools expanded and a new Islamic intelligentsia was born. The liberalization of the economy created a new middle class with more conservative values, while simultaneously increasing income disparities in the society, fuelling support for Islamic conservatism.

Just as it is simplistic to claim that the state bureaucracy and military are homogenously secularist, it is also simplistic to think that secularism does not have any popular legitimacy. The 2007 Republican demonstrations displayed the popular secularist sentiment (although now the Ergenekon indictment claims that they were an attempt to overthrow the government and put state security at risk.) Although I don't think the organizers of those demonstrations are particularly bright, the democratic right of the participants to express their views is not less important than that of the Islamist conservatives.

Finally, an inherent deficiency of secularism contributed to its decline. As Şerif Mardin put it, "the republic has not given the question of what is good, right and aesthetic any deeper consideration. That is the deficiency of Kemalism." The authors go on to say: "Kemalism was not unsuccessful because it has been applied with vigor and insensitivity to popularly held beliefs, but because republican ideology remained philosophically arid, insufficienty connected to and fecundated by the heritage of the Enlightenment." This goes back to the state policy of accommodating religion while "appearing" secular.

Next up:

  • The prospects of an Islamic reconciliation with liberal values - how democratic is the AKP?
  • The dynamics of ethnic seperatism, Islamism and neo-nationalism.

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