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: http://www.the-american-interest.com/2015/02/02/the-turkish-complex/

The Disconnect Between Education and the Economy

The most recent official unemployment statistics for October 2014 have been released by Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK): official unemployment rate is 10.6 percent, non-agricultural unemployment rate 12.7 percent. You can read a detailed news account of the report here. This figure has remained more or less the same over more than a decade, despite a booming economy, which is now contracting. In other words, while a new middle class has emerged, the poor have remained poor. The only trickle-down has been the customary distribution of resources through family, patronage, charity, and some social services. The family remains most people’s social safety net.

What is most alarming is the analysis of the latest unemployment figures. The devil is in the details. For instance, nearly one fourth of the officially unemployed are college graduates, more than half (54%) of them women.

51 percent of the officially unemployed do not have a high school diploma,  university graduates are 24 percent. Regular high school graduates total 11 percent, as do vocational high school graduates. The illiterate unemployed are 3 percent.

Too many young people are graduating from new institutions with low quality education.  Since 2006, 51 state universities and 48 foundation (private) universities were set up, many in the provinces.  At the end of 2014, there were 176 universities, 104 of them state and 72 of them foundation institutions. Between 2006 and 2014, the national quota of higher education students was increased 83 percent. The Development Ministry’s 2015 Program points to the increasing numbers of students looking to change schools and graduates seeking a second university education show the lack of quality in the system. I am reminded that a couple of years ago (I can’t remember the date and details malesef) a Turkish trade institution planned to ask the government to issue special visas so they could hire IT specialists and other technicians from India, arguing that they are unable to run their businesses in Turkey because there are no people with suitable skills for them to hire.

What is Huda-Par?

Armed fighting has broken out again in southeast Turkey between the Kurdish PKK and Huda-Par, resulting in two deaths. Given that the AKP government is supposed to be negotiating peace with the PKK, we may well ask who or what is Huda-Par, which appears to be a far-right Islamist organization, one of many armed factions of various stripes that make up the Turkish fringe. But they’re more than that and evidence of another dangerous game being played blind in Ankara (read to the end of the post below).

I’m repeating below my post from November 22, 2013 (original here) in which I trace the ancestry and close relatives of  Huda-Par, which had just come onto the political scene.

Here’s the post:

Turkish Hizbullah is back — in a new guise as a political party, Huda-Par. Hizbullah (not related to Lebanon’s Hezbullah) has been around for a few decades, wreaking havoc of one kind or another. I’ve covered it in this blog in relation to extra-judicial murders of prominent Kurds in the 1990s (in contract to the Turkish deep state), then a murderous rampage across the country killing and viciously torturing Kurds, Islamists and others, including women, and videotaping the torture sessions. The state finally cracked down on them, killing their leader in a shootout in 2000, closing their safe houses, unearthing the bodies in their back yards, and bringing the rest of the pack to trial. But despite all the evidence of the video tapes and bodies, the judiciary sat on their appeals for ten years until the time was up and they were by law required to be released (people accused of insulting Ataturk or writing about Kurds, by contrast, were assured of receiving speedy and lengthy sentences).

In the meantime, Hizbullah reemerged in civil society sheep’s clothing in a series of associations of slippery provenance, some allegedly financed by Iran, holding demonstrations with anti-secular, anti-Ankara, and anti-Israel themes (with distinctive Iran-style headbands, flags, and women in black charshafs), and possibly involved in the Mavi Marmara incident. I made an attempt to connect the dots between some of these unsavory associations here and  here. Hizbullah’s umbrella organization Mustafaz Der (Association of the Oppressed) was closed down by Turkey’s Supreme Court in May 2012.

In December 2012, Hizbullah established a new political party, Huda-Par (Party of God). In a June 2012 interview with Sidki Zilan, unofficial spokesman for Hizbullah, he laid out the aims of the planned party. He saw this as an opportunity to grab votes from AKP, which he said attracted Sunni Zaza Kurds, and the BDP, which attracted Kurmanci Kurds (with Alevi Kurds voting CHP). The party seems perfectly happy to institute sharia law in Turkey. “We are Muslims before all else, but we will take note of the people’s wishes,” Zilan said, when asked about sharia. “And the people will no doubt cleave to Allah’s path.” No doubt.

Huda-Par sets itself against the secular Marxist-derived PKK in a rivalry that has already drawn blood, potentially starting a turf war between Islamist and nationalist Kurds just at a sensitive time in the AKP-PKK peace process. From The Economist‘s article about the new party.

Tensions between Huda-Par and the determinedly secular PKK have been bubbling ever since the Islamists announced they would be taking part in municipal elections in 2014. Last month the PKK accused Hizbullah of attacking mourners in the town of Cizre on the Iraqi border. In reply, Huda-Par complained that PKK vigilantes had repeatedly targeted its offices…

After PKK youths prevented Huda-Par volunteers from distributing leaflets on November 2nd, gunmen stormed a wedding attended by supporters of the pro-PKK Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), killing one guest. One of the assailants, who were arrested last week, was identified as a Huda-Par member and former Hizbullah militant.

I suggested in 2010 that Ankara’s turning a blind eye to Hizbullah’s activities in all of their guises was a dangerous game, putting the AKP in bed with Islamist extremists. Given what is happening now with al-Nusra and other Qaeda-linked groups operating freely on the Turkish-Syrian border in a proxy rivalry between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Qatar and Iran-funded Shiite groups, the fact that an Iran-linked former terrorist group has just started a political party in Turkey can’t be good news.


Analysis and Summary: Turkey at a Tipping Point

I want to share with you an article I just published in Current History. The December 2014 edition of Current History has a collection of articles on the Middle East by prominent scholars that give excellent analyses and updates for different countries in the region.

Here’s my take on Turkey:

White-Current History

The Salafi Switcheroo

It now appears certain that Turkey has provided military and medical assistance to ISIS (now Islamic State or IS) fighters over the past couple of years, allowing them refuge in and easy transit through Turkey to Syria. The Turkish IHH organization played a prominent role in this. I have written about IHH on this blog before, here and here, tracing its origin and links with intolerant Salafi-style Islam (particularly vicious in its IS incarnation — even al-Qaeda distanced itself from ISIS because it was too brutal!). Last year, I wondered how resistant Sufi Turkey was to the Salafi virus.

Since the recent announcement of IS, its wildfire-like spread throughout Syria and Iraq, and its threats and sometimes incursions into adjoining countries, the Turkish government appears to have gotten with the program. There is almost no country in the region that hasn’t lined up against IS, including Iran, since IS has threatened to destroy the major Shi’a shrines in southern Iraq, and Saudi Arabia now that IS has threatened to blow up the Kaaba. Its success has attracted thousands of foreign fighters from Europe, Canada, the US and elsewhere, making the plethora of battle-hardened jihadis with EU and US passports a major international security threat.

But like Saudi Arabia, where the state claims not to support terrorism while private Saudi foundations and donors dole out vast amounts of money to support Salafi expansion around the world, Turkey has two heads (and I don’t mean the “parallel states” of Erdogan and Gulen): 1) the official government/state and 2) cats’ paws like IHH, which the government can disavow formally, but informally support and use for its own purposes. The new old Deep State (the old one was kept busy assassinating Kurdish leaders, but new wars make new friends).

Behind the scenes are competing Jeckyl and Hyde institutions that both fund and undermine these activities (as for instance the police trying to stop a truck shipment of weapons into Syria, but being pushed aside (and fired for doing their duty) by Turkey’s secret service MIT). The focus on Gulen as the ‘parallel state’ is a red herring that draws the eye away from the Salafi switcheroo. Here is an article by David L. Phillips that makes the argument that Turkey, in one of its manifestations, is still supporting IS. Not that IS needs their support anymore!

Islamic State Member Threatens Istanbul

In this incredibly disturbing video (and accompanying article in Hurriyet Daily News) a reporter embedded with Islamic State documents their propaganda/brainwashing activities, aimed at young boys. One IS member threatens on camera that if the apostate Turkish government doesn’t turn the Euphrates water back on, which Turkey has blocked with its dam, IS will come to Istanbul and turn it on from there. He is quite explicit that this is a threat. Hello, Ankara?

Surprise, surprise, the article and video do not appear in the Turkish edition of Hurriyet. Instead, the newspaper is a ragbag of half-clothed women, sexy stories, car accidents, and crime. There’s a photo of some “volunteer Peshmerga” Kurds ready to fight ISIL (not IS — the announcement of the self-styled expansionist ‘caliphate’ seems not to have penetrated the Turkish imagination). And that’s all the news from Iraq and Syria, the festering war of unspeakable brutality, misogyny and genocide that respects no national entity, including the Turkish government. IS is a virus infecting all the neighboring countries and destroying whatever culture and history it touches. Given Turkey’s love-affair with its own national identity and past, it seems beyond belief that it is not inoculating itself and its citizens against this imminent threat.