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.


Islamic State in Turkey

The biggest danger to the region — including Turkey — and arguably the world at the moment is not Russia’s expansionism or the Israel-Gaza conflagration, but Islamic State (IS), formerly ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). IS has become so powerful that it now controls entire swathes of Iraq and Syria and has unsuccessfully attacked the borders of Jordan and Lebanon. It has threatened Saudi Arabia. And now it has allowed a public face to emerge in Turkey with a mass open-air prayer on the outskirts of Istanbul of mostly Turkish men in robes and long beards. The sermon praised the jihad and wished it success. Turkish youth are joining IS across the border, and coming home radicalized. The Turkish government’s attempts to muzzle the media about this Wahhabi radicalization within its borders means that the threat has not yet been internalized — or acted upon. Wahhabi Islam until recently has had only a tiny footprint in the Turkish Islamic pantheon; this is a major change.

Given that IS hopes to establish a caliphate that includes ALL Muslim countries, it is clear that Turkey is on its radar screen. Why is this important? Because in taking Mosul, IS became extremely well-armed and very wealthy. It had access to hundreds of millions of dollars and gold bullion in Mosul’s bank (while it isn’t clear whether they looted the bank, it is clear that they have found financing) and captured advanced equipment left behind by the US, including a Blackhawk helicopter, Stinger missiles, and howitzers, as well as some planes. Since its successes in Iraq and Syria, it is reported that thousands of foreign fighters have flocked to join IS. Many of them are European, American, and Turkish, drawn by jihad romanticism or even the lure of loot and power (much like the Crusades that, under cover of religion, allowed Europe’s disinherited younger sons to amass a fortune and gain territory to rule). The fact that there are now IS members with EU and US passports has spooked Western intelligence agencies. And these radicalized young men will be going home and bringing the jihadi virus with them.

What is also important to realize is that IS is brutally massacring anyone not deemed to be Sunni enough, including Shi’ites, Yazidis, Kurds, and Christians. They are busily gunning down women and children, crucifying people, decapitating them, stoning them to death, all in the name of a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam that may or may not have roots in actual Islamic jurisprudence. The pattern has been, particularly in Africa, that jihadist groups spring up and then apply regional custom or even wholly invented “laws” to formulate their Islamic state. In this dystopian fantasy, women are targeted and the jihadists are rewarded with power and access to sex and money, all justified by “Islam”. As the leader of Nigerian Boko Haram announced after kidnapping 200 girl students,

“I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by Allah,” a man claiming to be Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said in a video first obtained by Agence France-Presse. “There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell.”

IS has destroyed age-old shrines of all religions in the region, including Muslim, and threatened to blow up the Kaaba in Mecca and the major Shi’ite tombs in southern Iraq. (Iran is already mobilizing militarily to intervene should IS get near them.)

ISIL is an al-Qaeda franchise (although al-Qaeda apparently cut its ties with the group in February 2014 because ISIS was too brutal and “intractable”) that grew out of a motley collection of armed Sunni groups in Iraq that supported themselves primarily through extortion and kidnapping. There they gained the support of Sunni leaders who resented their treatment by Iraq’s Shia-dominated government. The groups were attracted to the fight in Syria against the government of  Bashar al-Assad, which was dominated by Alevi Muslims (associated with Shi’ism). Wisely, early on the US refused to arm the anti-Assad fighters because of the presence of such unsavory groups among them. After the Taliban blow-back in Afghanistan, the US wanted to know exactly who they were arming. And, indeed, before long the conflagration in Syria had turned from a civil war to a proxy war, where Sunni jihadist groups armed with money said to be from the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia and with at least logistical support from Turkey, fought against the Alevi-dominated government, but also against Shia Muslims in general. The Shia side was supported by Iran. Lebanese Shi’ite Hizbullah and Sunni Hamas also sent fighters — on opposite sides. ISIL joined the various factions under a single leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Now it is a proxy war between partisans of Sunni and Shi’a Islam, involving all the states in the region. Indeed, the anti-IS coalition makes for odd bedfellows: Iran, the US, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Syria. Iran and US have had to coordinate their anti-IS drones in Iraq. Turkey is only slowly getting with the program. It’s almost as if Turkey hasn’t recognized the threat to its own sovereignty.

Turkey harbored the Sunni jihadists for years as they crossed the border from Turkey into Syria to fight against the Assad regime, seemingly with no forethought about the blow-back on Turkish society or the effect of the long-term presence of foreign jihadis within Turkey. The Turkish government, after its attempts at friendly mediation with Assad had been spurned, turned into Assad’s bitter enemy. In Turkey, IS already begun to carry out violent attacks, including burning down a Shi’a mosque, and attacks on the headquarters of the Kurdish political party. The lack of government reaction to an openly pro-jihadist sermon in Turkey’s biggest city seems to ring no alarm bells with the AKP. If the Turkish public knew about it, I like to think that most pious Turkish Muslims would react negatively, that this is not “Turkish” Islam, and grow concerned. But with the government’s news blackout and inaction, they won’t know what hit them until it’s too late.


The Poor and The Disconnected

This post was updated:  I was unable to find the report on the Development Ministry site, but I looked up the lowest poverty threshold for 2012 on TUIK (Turkish Statistical Institute): 3582 TL (2012 was the year they changed to YTL). The poverty line is calculated at $2.15 purchasing ability or $4.3 a day per individual. 

Turkey’s Development Ministry issued a new report on the distribution of poverty across Turkey. 16% of the population is poor, defined as a 4-member family living under 4515 TL month. They take no vacations and have very little access to technology like the Internet or even cellphones. The poverty rate spikes in the east where in some provinces 13-14% of the population is poor, fewer than 4% of the poor have computers (compared to 42% in Istanbul) and 1% have Internet. It is noteworthy that even in Istanbul the poverty rate is a shocking 10% (I’m rounding off the numbers; it’s officially 9.6), that’s one out of every ten people.

You can download a 2014 comparative report here on poverty in Organization of Islamic Cooperation (COMCEC) countries that include Turkey. It’s also interesting that OIC seems to be the group against which Turkey’s Development Ministry most commonly measures itself in its reports. Turkey does indeed look good when compared to other Islamic countries. But why not also OECD? (I was also unable to locate the Turkish poverty study referenced in the news article on the ministry website.)

Coffee, Camaraderie, and the Cultural Logic of Factionalism

Jenny White at SUITS/ITS symposium 2014

Jenny White at SUITS/ITS symposium 2014

For those who are interested, this is what I’ve been doing on my sabbatical in Stockholm, a short essay describing my recent research on the 1970s in Turkey, a period that ended in a quasi-civil war and a coup. With the support of the Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies, I carried out interviews with a variety of people (from shopkeepers to industrialists, to leftist and rightist leaders and their followers, bystanders, men and women) who lived through that period in Turkey, as I did myself from 1975 to 1978. I collected very fine-grained accounts of their experiences at the time and oral histories of their lives (they were very young, so it’s often a fascinating coming-of-age story as well). I wanted to capture more than just the politics, so I also asked about personal lives and their environments (some were in a city, others in towns or rural areas), economic conditions, and so forth. I’ve just recently finished the interviews, so it will take time now to write it all up and analyze it and to read the secondary literature , like memoirs of the period, that I’ve collected.


The Ballot Queen and The People’s Cake

Now that I’m on Twitter (WhiteJennyB) as well as Facebook, I’ve been seduced by the ease of forwarding sound-bite information and opinion. I’ve also been consumed by my work at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies (SUITS — the institute is still debating how to pronounce the acronym). Now that my data is collected and my time on sabbatical is rapidly drawing to a close, I’m writing as much and as fast as I can. All of this is to say that I have neglected my blog (not to mention my friends and the gym) and I apologize. As a propitiatory offering, I attach below the relaxing sound track to one of my favorite movies, Hamam. It is a special gift to those able to watch YouTube again for the first time in many weeks.

And the politics? There has been little that I feel competent to comment on right now. The situation in Turkey is so fluid and unpredictable, that all possibilities are on the table. PM Erdogan has been campaigning for months to become president, without actually announcing his candidacy. The opposition has floated a few candidates without any campaigning. From PM Erdogan’s own and his circle’s comments, it appears that he plans a form of presidential rule quite at odds with the present more ceremonial role of the post. He believes that ‘being elected’ will imbue the post with power beyond, I suspect, what is on the books. (Ballot box as tank; the new, post-democratic “coup”.) He will be advised by a group of hand-picked “Wise Men” which I envision to be a civilian version of the MGK (National Security Agency) through which the military used to steer Turkey’s civilian governments. He is looking for a pliable prime minister, one of his own boys, the rest to fill the ranks of the government. There will be a turnover in the coming election, since many of AKP’s stalwarts will have reached their 3-term limit. Some will move on to ministerial posts, thus bypassing their use-by dates. President Gul seems uninterested in becoming prime minister. Will he start his own party, leave politics altogether? No one has their cards on the table.

The presidential election is close, less than two months away. It’s clear that PM Erdogan thinks his election is assured, so all that remains is finding the staff. Oh, and announcing his candidacy. As to his vision is for the country, that is unclear. He is focused on one goal right now, staying in power. Let the rest of them eat cake, as Marie Antoinette famously said of the poor. (The AKP’s callous treatment of the miners of Soma comes to mind after the recent horrific mining accident in which hundreds died.)

And now for the promised upbeat music:

Hizmet versus AKP: Everything You Want To Know

I highly recommend Reuben Silverman’s blog (here) for an incredibly detailed account of the issues and events surrounding the corruption investigations and their larger context — the history of Hizmet versus AKP jostling. Silverman has done a great service by doing this research (and documenting it). He says he is working on the economic angle (firings at the stock exchange, mass withdrawals from the Gulen-associated Bank Asya, etc) and will add that when he’s done. Keep an eye on his blog.


For Mother’s Day, I post here a film called simply “Mother (Anne)” made by CHP MP Safak Pavey. In it, the mothers of the young people killed during the Gezi protests speak.

Final 2014 Local Election Results

The final numbers for the March 30, 2014, elections are in from the Supreme Election Board (YSK):
89% participation rate

Metropolitan mayoral elections:
AKP: 45,54
CHP 31,04
MHP: 13,65

Mayoral elections:
AKP: 43,13
CHP: 26,45
MHP: 17,76