Saturday, May 25, 2013

Culture wars and the persistence of institutionalized intolerance in Turkey

From the perspective of someone with a long-time interest in modern Turkey but no claim to real expertise about the country (that's me), the piece below by a Turkish journalist, Semih Idiz, offers some intelligent, perceptive, and nicely thought-provoking reflections on the complex transition now going on in Turkey and the tensions it is generating.

The project of the Kemalist elite that founded the Turkish Republic after World War I and controlled it for the next 75 years or so was to pull Turkey out of what they considered social and economic backwardness and turn it into a modern, western-oriented nation-state.  And this modernizing project included a strong commitment to "secularism" understood on the model of the old French Jacobin-style republicanism, involving not a complementary relationship between republicanism and religion but a head-on collision between them.  For Jacobin republicanism and its offshoots—including many varieties of Latin American republicanism and, in some respects, Leninism—"secularism" never meant simply an institutional separation between religion and the state, on the US model, but an active struggle against the threats posed by clerical authority, religious orthodoxy, and cultural traditionalism.  While the Kemalist republic established and maintained what was for a long time one of the few systems of parliamentary representative government in the Islamic world, it also had significant authoritarian elements, including restrictions on cultural and political tendencies seen as threats to the Kemalist order (and, in the case of Turkey's Kurds, to unitary Turkish nationalism), along with occasional coups or quasi-coups by the Army and brief periods of direct military rule.  That particular modernizing project began to ossify decades ago, and eventually lost its grip on Turkish society and politics.

Turkey is now undergoing a historic shift from being dominated by the old secular Kemalist establishment—anchored not just in the formal political class and westernized cultural elites but in the armed forces and the rest of the institutional structure that Turks call the "deep state"—to being dominated by an Islamist, culturally conservative establishment centered on the AK Party.  Where this whole process is eventually taking the country remains uncertain.  So far, the AK government has proceeded cautiously in most respects, but in the process has been dismantling the remaining institutional restraints that may help to explain and maintain that caution; and it has been engaged in a range of judicial and political campaigns of prosecution and intimidation against its critics and opponents that may partly be justified, but that sometimes look a lot like McCarthyite witch hunts.  It's also possible that, in the future, the AK itself might get pushed toward less cautious policies by its popular base. Will this ongoing process eventually result in a transition from the authoritarian remnants of the old quasi-Leninist Kemalist Turkey to the new authoritarianism of a quasi-theocratic and socially reactionary Turkey, or will the eventual outcome be some sort of genuinely democratic political liberty and pluralism?

That remains to be seen.  Many Turkish democrats and members of the secular middle classes, as well as some Muslim sectarian minorities like Alevis, are worried—and they have grounds to be worried.  On the other hand, it's probably still too early to conclude that the worst-case scenarios are inevitable.

In his article, Idiz tries to capture one piece of this larger drama.  He argues that while control of Turkey may be passing from one dominant group to another, there is a basic continuity in one respect—the readiness to resort to institutionalized intolerance by whoever is in control.
In the past, insulting the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, could land you in jail. In the same way, lifestyles contrary to Kemalist paradigms were shunned by the ruling elite with scant regard to freedom of conscience. For example, religious women were legally prevented from going to university or working in state jobs because of their headscarves. But the tables are turning in Turkey.

Previously the law was used to protect secular idols. Today it is being used to protect religion and its idols. The basic instinct to restrict freedom of expression, when the subject matter is considered sacrosanct, remains. Under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), freedom of expression is being increasingly restricted in the name of “protecting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.”
On the other hand, I'm struck by the fact that, in the end, Idiz's prognosis is guardedly optimistic:  He's clearly aiming for a tone that is neither complacent or apocalyptic.
In other words, the institutionalized culture of intolerance is alive in Turkey. It is also beginning to show itself in other ways. Take the highly restrictive legislation the government is working on for the sale and consumption of alcohol.  [....]

Turkey, however, is a heterogeneous country with great diversity. This will ensure that [attempts to restrict freedom of expression and impose cultural intolerance will] ultimately fail, regardless of what legislation is introduced. Turks also have the right to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which Nisanyan says he will do. No doubt Say, whose case like Nisanyan’s has been appealed in Turkey, will do the same if his freedom of expression is not respected in his own country.  [....]

Meanwhile Ayse Kulin, Turkey’s best-selling author of historical novels, created a storm recently after saying during a television interview on the Turkish HaberTurk channel that Islam has to change.

“Islam cannot continue as it is. It is giving the impression of being a terrorist organization. When someone writes a book or makes a rude caricature, the reaction is too much. If the man has written a book, then don’t read it. Why try to kill him? The Quran has to be reinterpreted. Many concepts have lost their original meaning. The essence is gone,” Kulin said to subsequent howls, bordering on threats, from Islamist quarters.

Kulin, however, was only expressing what a growing number of secular Turks believe. She is therefore the harbinger of a looming clash of civilizations within Turkey, which will also have regional significance.

In the meantime, we know from the America of the 1920s that prohibition driven by religious zeal increases, not reduces, alcohol consumption as well as related criminal activity.  [....]  One does not need the wisdom of a Khayyam to know that forbidden fruit is always sweeter. There is no reason why the Islamic world should be an exception to the rule.
Will these assessments turn out, in retrospect, to be prescient analysis or wishful thinking?  I guess we'll see.

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Al-Monitor
May 24, 2013
Turkey's Clash of Civilizations
By Semih Idiz

Turkey is a secular republic, according to its Constitution. This means religion and state must be kept apart. It also means the state has to remain equidistant to all faiths, or lack thereof, and to protect the liberties enshrined in the international agreements the country is party to, if it is to be true to its claim of being a genuine democracy.

These liberties include the freedom of expression, which Turkey has never been good at protecting. They also include respect for diversity, which Turkey has never been good at protecting either.

In the past, insulting the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, could land you in jail. In the same way, lifestyles contrary to Kemalist paradigms were shunned by the ruling elite with scant regard to freedom of conscience. For example, religious women were legally prevented from going to university or working in state jobs because of their headscarves. But the tables are turning in Turkey.

Previously the law was used to protect secular idols. Today it is being used to protect religion and its idols. The basic instinct to restrict freedom of expression, when the subject matter is considered sacrosanct, remains. Under the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), freedom of expression is being increasingly restricted in the name of “protecting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.”

The latest victim is Sevan Nisanyan, the outspoken Turkish writer and intellectual of Armenian origin. Nisanyan is known for his biting tongue, which is common among Turkish writers and intellectuals, whether they are secularists or Islamists. He wrote tauntingly in his blog last year: “Making fun of an Arab leader who claimed he contacted Allah hundreds of years ago and received political, financial and sexual benefits is not hate speech. … It is an almost kindergarten-level test of what is called freedom of expression.”

The prosecutor brought charges against him for “insulting the religious beliefs held by a section of the society” and Nisanyan received a 58-week prison sentence from an Istanbul court on May 22. The court could not say he had blasphemed since this would be out of tune with Turkey’s claim to be a secular democracy. But he had blasphemed in the eyes of those who charged and convicted him.

Some may think Nisanyan’s Armenian ethnicity, a difficult identity to carry in Turkey at the best of times, is the reason he was hounded. But his case is not unique. The world renowned Turkish pianist, Fazil Say, was also convicted recently for “insulting the religious beliefs held by a section of the society.”

Say received a suspended 10-month prison sentence for re-tweeting words attributed to Omar Khayyam, the Persian philosopher, mathematician, astronomer and poet, who allegedly said: “You say its rivers will flow in wine. Is the Garden of Eden a drinking house? You say you will give two houris (angels) to each Muslim. Is the Garden of Eden a whorehouse?”

Such remarks have no chance of going down well in a predominantly Islamic and conservative country like Turkey, of course, despite its democratic aspirations. Turkish society has not attained the social maturity yet that would enable it to shun such remarks while tolerating them, to protect the freedom of expression.

Europe also had cases in recent history where religious sensibilities were ruffled. The Catholic reaction to the film “The Last Temptation of Christ” is an example that springs to mind. Whatever the reactions, though, freedom of expression was upheld. If Turkey is a secular democracy in the European mold, the same should be happening here.

In other words the state should not only protect Nisanyan’s right of free expression, no matter how unsavory his remarks may be for some, but also protect him from attacks that may result from his exercise of this freedom. That,however, is a pipe dream for today’s Turkey. It was so in the past, too, when the “sacred” entities and beliefs of the time, which had nothing to do with religion, were protected with religious zeal.

In other words, the institutionalized culture of intolerance is alive in Turkey. It is also beginning to show itself in other ways. Take the highly restrictive legislation the government is working on for the sale and consumption of alcohol. If passed, those who have a taste for a pre-meal aperitif or a glass of wine during a dinner out will find it very difficult to believe they live in a secular republic.

Those behind this legislation are shrouding it in arguments about “protecting youth” and “public safety” and using European examples to bolster their claims. But the zeal with which the campaign against alcohol is being conducted — in a country where alcohol consumption is below international averages — with the prime minister, Erdogan, throwing his full weight behind the campaign, has secular Turks wondering where their country is headed.

Turkey, however, is a heterogeneous country with great diversity. This will ensure that such bans ultimately fail, regardless of what legislation is introduced. Turks also have the right to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, which Nisanyan says he will do. No doubt Say, whose case like Nisanyan’s has been appealed in Turkey, will do the same if his freedom of expression is not respected in his own country.

The only thing the Nisanyan and Say cases, as well as draconian restrictions on alcohol consumption, will achieve in the end is to add grist to the mill of those who argue the AKP has a secret Islamist agenda, thus casting a dark shadow over Turkey’s democratic credentials. Other initiatives, such as banning red lipstick for hostesses on Turkish Airlines, and trying to put them in what are considered to be more modest uniforms, are already the subject of much criticism at home and abroad.

Meanwhile Ayse Kulin, Turkey’s best-selling author of historical novels, created a storm recently after saying during a television interview on the Turkish HaberTurk channel that Islam has to change.

“Islam cannot continue as it is. It is giving the impression of being a terrorist organization. When someone writes a book or makes a rude caricature, the reaction is too much. If the man has written a book, then don’t read it. Why try to kill him? The Quran has to be reinterpreted. Many concepts have lost their original meaning. The essence is gone,” Kulin said to subsequent howls, bordering on threats, from Islamist quarters.

Kulin, however, was only expressing what a growing number of secular Turks believe. She is therefore the harbinger of a looming clash of civilizations within Turkey, which will also have regional significance.

In the meantime, we know from the America of the 1920s that prohibition driven by religious zeal increases, not reduces, alcohol consumption as well as related criminal activity. We also read about alcohol consumption in Iran, not to mention prostitution and drug abuse, despite heavy penalties. One does not need the wisdom of a Khayyam to know that forbidden fruit is always sweeter. There is no reason why the Islamic world should be an exception to the rule.

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