Infernal Opera: Turkish Factions Fight for Power

This al-Monitor article by Metin Gurcan raised the hair on my head. [URL in case you can’t link:]

The revolution eating its young. According to the article, right-wing, secular ultranationalist ideologues with a nasty past (led by Dogu Perincek) are now being supported by Erdogan to purge and take over ‘vacated’ positions of power in state security agencies in order to rid himself not only of suspected Gulenists, but also his own supporters whom he no longer trusts. He trusts Dogu Perincek???? Who will be left standing? The Menzil and Suleymanci religious orders are in the opposing block, trying to position themselves strategically. I see nothing but disaster down this road. Islamist Cool-Aid or the Perincek brew: anti-West, pro-Russia and Eurasianist. President Erdogan, whatever his original plan was, has lost his way in the struggle to remain in power.

This is like some unbelievable farce. Ordinary people will be crushed beneath the giant machinery of this epic battle for power between groups that aren’t even representative of society. President Erdogan stands above it, a conductor flailing his baton at an orchestra pit full of roaring monsters ripping each other to pieces, unworried that they might turn around, grab his leg, and pull him into the pit.

What Exactly Happened at Lausanne?

President Erdogan has been bashing the Treaty of Lausanne as being a defeat for Turkey, resulting in loss of Ottoman lands, rather than a victory. It is good at these times to read what the parties to the treaty themselves had to say at the time. The English certainly saw it as a humiliating defeat (Lord Curzon). Pat Walsh, on his blog, quotes from their dispatches and commentary from the time. And the Irish took hope.


Turkey refused to have terms imposed upon her that would dilute her sovereignty, even though Britain fought tooth and nail to maximize her Imperial influence over the region. The Turkish delegation also refused to be railroaded into a take it or leave it deal imposed by an arbitrary deadline. When Curzon said his train was standing at the station and it was “now or never” the treaty remained unsigned by the Turks. Curzon, after delaying his train in the expectation they would submit, left empty handed on his train. The British returned a few months later and the Treaty was signed on July 24th 1923.

The New Turkey. What is it?


This essay was published (in Chinese) in Oriental Business as “The New Turkey after the Coup,” by Jenny White, September, 2016.

In the massive rallies that followed the failed coup in Turkey, President Erdogan hailed his people, representatives of the “New Turkey”, for sacrificing their lives by throwing themselves in front of the tanks. The “new” Turkey as envisioned by Erdogan is a nation that is ruled by its people, by which he means the majority — the kind of people that voted for him — and shaped in their image. President Erdogan always refers his decisions back to Milli Irade, or the National Will, the concrete embodiment of the people’s rule. The New Turks are pious Muslims who value their religion as the foundation for national unity and who revere the traditional conservative family that mirrors and models the nation. The traditional family, of course, is patriarchal and requires modesty and obedience from its members, much like model citizens in their interaction with the state. Erdogan is the patriarch, the strong, protective leader who cannot be questioned.

On the one hand, this is very different from the previous Kemalist national model, which was based on the idea that Muslim Turkish blood is what united the nation and propagated a continual state of fear that purity of blood and national unity would be undermined by enemies from abroad. The greatest duty of the Kemalist citizen was to be ready to shed that blood to defend the country from evil-intentioned outside powers and their internal cats’ paws, Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, whose patriotism was always in doubt.

On the other hand, certain themes of the New Turkey have deep roots. The Kemalist nation, although it encouraged women in education and the workforce, was also modeled on the traditional family, with the military as guardian and ultimate arbiter of the safety and unity of the national family. A citizen’s duty was to obey the state. Polls show that a majority of the Turkish population has been and still is pious, highly conservative, and intolerant of outsiders, so it is not surprising that political propaganda relies on familiar social and cultural images. Both models are intolerant of anyone whose origin, sect, lifestyle and views differ from the majority they represent. Kemalism, although a secular ideology, defined Turkishness as having Muslim Turkish blood, not as Turkish citizenship, thus leaving non-Muslim citizens out of the national family. Erdogan’s New Turkey bases national identity on Sunni Islamic belief and Turkish culture, neither of which are geographically fixed within Turkey’s 1923 borders.

Indeed, one major difference is the expansion of the New Turkey geographically and into the past. Kemalists focused on the embattled borders within which the nation state of Turkey was established in 1923. The founding moment on which the New Turkey is based is 1453, the conquest of Christian Byzantium by the Muslim Turks. New national rituals, including the  reenactment of the Conquest, have pushed aside Kemalist national rituals. Thus, a New Turk could just as easily live in any of the previous territories of the Ottoman Empire as long as they share Turkish culture, language, and Sunni piety. The New Turkey could become a world power, as it had been in the past. Not through territorial expansion, but through economic and cultural conquest. This dream was exploded by the Arab Uprisings, among other things, but Erdogan’s pivot toward Russia, Israel, and Africa is based on this vision of the New Turkey as a world power.

Both models of the nation repress parts of the population that don’t fit the model. In the Kemalist case, citizens without Turkish Muslim blood, but also pious citizens who haven’t adopted the Kemalist program of secular modernization. In the New Turkey, it is anyone who isn’t pious. In the first ten years of its rule, AKP accommodated religious and ethnic differences, but that tolerance has now eroded. The word traitor plays a central role in both national models, as the insider who turned against the group. The worst traitor is the one who had been closest to your bosom, like the Gulen movement that had partnered with AKP for many years before falling out and which Erdogan has declared a terrorist organization and Enemy Number One, hunted down in the post-coup purge. This is a Sunni-Sunni fight; the secular-Islamic rift so often trotted out as an explanatory framework, is not useful for understanding divisions within the New Turkey.

Much depends on what Erdogan does next. He is pragmatic and wants to stay in power, so he could go either way, toward greater polarization (attacking Alevis, non-Muslims, secularists — the people not represented by the National Will and thus not in the national family) or he could turn on a dime and stretch out a hand of good will, as he has just done with Israel, Russia, Iran, and even Egypt’s Sisi and, grudgingly, Syria’s Assad. The coup has strengthened Erdogan’s hand, as he has now under the post-coup state of emergency, without consulting parliament, finished undermining the independence of all major state and civic institutions in the country and reshaping them in his image. It is not surprising that posters with the logo, Milli Irade (National Will) also bear Erdogan’s picture. The premise of the New Turkey is that the ballot box legitimates Erdogan as the embodiment of the national will, in other words, a democratically elected dictatorship.

Institutions to Prevent Child Labor aren’t Working.

From Hurriyet. This is a summary. More details appear in the news article. I did not check the sources, but give them here.

Turkish education union, Eğitim-Sen: In 2015-2016, there are around a million child workers, half of whom are in the agriculture sector.

UNICEF and the Support to Life Association: The southeastern province of Şanlıurfa has the highest number of child workers. In 15 percent of Şanlıurfa families, there is at least one child who is working. Many children face physical violence and abuse at work. Some 15 percent of children in Şanlıurfa who do not attend school work 12 to 14 hours per day.

DİSK-AR:  In 2015, children aged 6 to 14 worked 28 hours per week;  15 to 17 worked 45 hours; children who do not go to school worked 54 hour.

Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions’ (DİSK): Child labor increased in provinces like Mardin, Gaziantep, Kilis and Şanlıurfa due to the cheap labor force supplied by Syrian refugees in the agriculture and service sectors.

Worker Health and Work Place Security Council: January 2013-June 2016 report. Over the last 3.5 years, 194 children have lost their lives while working or going to work.

Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK) 2013: Among child workers who receive a wage, 3.4 percent had experienced injury; 34 percent faced exhaustion; one-third were not provided with food; 36 percent did not have weekly days off; and 89 percent did not have yearly paid days off.


Women’s Labor Participation in Turkey: Update

Turkey’s female labor force participation rate in 1990 was 34%, in 2014 29% (World Bank).

The following is from the Turkish Statistical Institute (see this link for other interesting indicators for women’s lives, including literacy rates, marriage age, income disparity, household labor, violence, political participation):

Female employment rate was half of male employment rate

In Turkey the employment rate of population aged 15 and over was 45.5%; this rate was 64.8% for males and 26.7% for females in 2014.

Labour force participation rate of educated women was higher

In Turkey, labour force participation rate of population aged 15 and over was 50.5%, this rate was 71.3% for males and 30.3% for females in 2014.

When labour force participation rate by education status was investigated, it was seen that the higher education status of women, more women participate in labor force. The participation rate was 16% for illiterate women, 25.8% for women graduated less than high school, 31.9% for women graduated from high school, 39.8% for women graduated from vocational high school and 71.3% for women graduated from higher education.

The following is from Hurriyet Daily News 9/18/16 by Emine Kart, “Turkey’s first action plan on women’s employment launched”. (Unfortunately, I was unable to find the original study on ISKUR’s website.)

According to a regular household women’s labor force survey conducted by Turkish Employment Agency (İŞKUR) Directorate-General, 7 percent of women in the country who do not participate in the labor force are ready to work but are not actively searching for jobs.

Of the total number of women not participating in the labor force, 1.3 percent have “lost hope” of finding employment, while 57.3 percent cite being busy with housework.

In terms of work status, most women (61.7 percent) are employed in return for wages or daily pay, while 1.2 percent are employers. Of women who are informally employed, 56.8 percent are unpaid household laborers, while 26.9 percent work for a wage or daily pay.


Turkey: The Long View

The renowned Professor Resat Kasaba came to BU a few weeks ago to give the annual Campagna-Kerven lecture. He is one of the few scholars with the command of history and political science to give a talk that sets present-day Turkish events into a larger historical context. A brilliant talk.

Neoliberal Wars and Violent Gentrification


This ad from the Turkish Prime Ministry chilled me to the bone. See this article (here) about the destruction of Sur, the UNESCO-protected old city of Diyarbakir, by Turkish security forces in December 2015 using heavy weapons, causing the mostly Kurdish population to flee. The article also mentions that the Turkish state then expropriated most of the properties in Sur (see image below from March 2016, expropriations are in red).


However, the local population had already heard rumors BEFORE the destruction began (and which the Turkish government justified as being in response to Kurdish fighters in the city) that the city was somehow going to be emptied out in preparation for massive gentrification. The video ad, which was published on April 4, 2016, lays out the government’s plan to build Sur “anew”.

The images show the same sanitized vaguely historic referenced fake architecture the AKP has used all over the country, completely destroying the historic (and human) fabric of communities and sites, except that in this case, they literally destroyed the city first (the video shows some of the bombed areas and implies that the city really looked like that). The rumors and the speed with which this reconstruction has all been organized makes it appear that violent gentrification is certainly one factor behind AKP’s war with the Kurds. Neoliberal wars?

Lines of Fire

If the parties newly elected to Turkey’s parliament are unable to agree on a coalition government, an interim caretaker government will be set up until the election, which will likely be held in November. Time is running out for a coalition agreement. A coalition looks unlikely, in part because the AKP would prefer an election that it thinks might give it the majority they lost in the last election, and in part because the major parties (MHP and CHP) have demands that AKP would not agree to, like reining in the power of President Erdogan and investigating corruption allegations against the AKP regime. Apparently the AKP has only offered potential coalition partners a minority government in which the other party would play second fiddle to AKP, rather than full-fledged coalition power sharing. It was set up to fail.

A caretaker government, however, is not in AKP’s interest because it means that ministries will be equitably divided among all four parties, i.e. it will have to share power, at least until the election. AKP would like to have all the reins in its own hands until the election so it can make sure that they get the votes they need for a majority. It seems likely that one scheme afoot is stoking anti-Kurdish and pro-nationalist feeling so that the Kurdish-rooted HDP, with its charismatic co-leader Demirtas, loses  the votes that gravitated from the AKP to HDP in the last election and made all the difference. AKP wants those votes back, even if it means overturning a peace deal with the PKK that was on the cusp of implementation and instead stoking civil war. (Recent polls show, however, that HDP votes have not decreased and a new election would again put them over the threshold into parliament. Those Kurds who used to vote for AKP will move their votes to HDP.)

AKP has attempted to discredit the HDP with increasingly heavy-handed doses of polarizing rhetoric and, it is rumored, under-the-table tit-for-tat violence that can conveniently be blamed on ISIS or the PKK. The peace deal with PKK that Erdogan spent several years setting up, is, as he put it, now “in the refrigerator.” MHP, the nationalist party, may also gain votes as a result of a rise in anti-Kurdish and anti-Alevi feeling and the violent death of the peace process. President Erdogan and AKP officials have targeted Kurds and Alevis in recent rhetoric, pressing a button deeply set into Turkish society through the education and political rhetoric of a century that inclines toward violent factionalism. Many Turks, both secular and pious, thought that period was over and, in the last election, voted for peace, putting the Kurdish HDP into parliament for the first time. They are faced, however, with a party and, in particular, a president, whose primary concern is staying in power and that appear willing to endanger Turkey’s stability and economy to attain that.

Whatever the outcome of the November election, if that is what occurs, it is a particularly dangerous time to be hacking away at the roots of Turkish political and economic stability. ISIS cells are known to be nested within Turkey and in recent days ISIS has upped its threats against Turkey. In its first video in Turkish (an excerpt with English subtitles here), it calls on Muslim Turks to rise up against their apostate leader Erdogan and take over Istanbul. Yet the Turkish government until recently seemed eerily unaware of that danger, mistakenly seeing in ISIS a fellow Sunni group that is fighting their common enemy, Assad of Syria. There has been talk of collusion, not only sympathy with ISIS. The AKP sees in the PKK, with which it had only just brokered a peace deal, a greater threat than ISIS. Whether this is deluded, only time will tell.

Whatever the outcome of the election in November, it will take years to correct the economic damage and the social and political enmity that has been aroused, many believe, as part of a cynical ploy to stay in power. ISIS, as threatened, may try to take its nihilistic brutality to Istanbul and Ankara, regardless of who wins the election. The real question is not who will win, but whether a civil war can be averted between the lines of fire now being laid down, between Kurds and Turks, Alevis and Sunnis, and ISIS-inspired Turks and the rest of Turkish society.

The Turkish Complex: Bigman, Hero, Traitor (The Video)

After collecting interviews last year about life in 1970s Turkey, a new project has begun to take shape that unexpectedly reaches into the present. Reading the interviews I was struck by a number of similarities with present-day Turkey and wonder whether there are certain key culturally powerful concepts around which Turkish society and polity orient themselves — and that help to shape them — in every era, regardless of  the current ideological labels. The Gezi protests signal a brief rupture in this ongoing pattern. Perhaps a long view can help us better understand the present, rather than trying to parse the last few years on their own terms.

Here I link to an article I wrote in The American Interest (and excerpted in the previous post) and here to the video of a recent talk in which I further develop this new approach.


The Turkish Complex: Bigman, Hero, Traitor, State

My new piece in The National Interest just came out. It is an analysis of Turkish current events, seen from a slightly more anthropological angle than usual. I identify repeating themes and patterns that underlie Turkish society and politics. I first encountered these while doing new research last year into Turkey in the turbulent 1970s (thanks to Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies for supporting the research). These insights have pointed me in new directions.

Turkey’s turn toward pugnacious autocracy over the past few years has caused consternation in Washington and European capitals. Some pundits blame it on the rise of Islam in a country that previously had been ruled by secular Kemalist governments. Since 2002, the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been elected three times at the national level with an ever-greater percentage of the vote. In the 2014 local elections, too, it neared 50 percent. As the party has deepened its hold on Turkey, it has felt more secure in pressing what many assumed has been its agenda all along: authoritarian rule and the Islamicization of society.

This view ignores two important things: that Kemalist governments tended to be tutelary, illiberal democracies shepherded by an intrusive military; and that during the decade after its election, the AKP, led by former Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, transformed Turkey into a liberalizing, internationally engaged, economic powerhouse that had the respect and ear of the world’s leaders. If one simultaneously exaggerates the successes of Turkey’s Kemalist leaders and the recent failures of the AKP government, distortion is bound to result, and one is left unable to really account for the seeming knife-edge turns in Turkey’s political character.

But the error goes deeper than that. The Islam-secularism dichotomy, virtually the only framework most Western observers use in trying to grasp things Turkish, is no longer a useful diagnostic (if it ever was). We are seeing instead a recurrent cycle of conceptual patterns and associated roles—those of the “bigman”, selfless hero, and traitor—that have long characterized and destabilized Turkish political culture. These roles and their interactions are driven not simply by competing ideologies, but by on-the-ground rivalry between network hierarchies and a general fear of social chaos.

Read the rest here: