Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Elite transition and culture wars in Turkey (Dexter Filkins)

People ran away from clouds of tear gas police fired among the crowd on Taksim Square in Istanbul on Tuesday.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected in 2003, despite having been banned from holding office, and since then he has taken an increasingly harsh line against his opponents. In the past five years, more than seven hundred people have been arrested. Photograph by Abbas.

I just noticed a New Yorker piece about Turkey by Dexter Filkins that was written more than a year ago, well before the current protest wave in Turkey. But it's one of the better overviews I've seen of the political developments in Turkey over the past decade that helped set the stage for this confrontation. Filkins focused on the prolonged and complex struggle between the newly ascendant Islamist AK Party elite, headed by Erdogan, and the old secular Kemalist elite—including, in particular, the deeply embedded framework of quasi-authoritarian institutions and arrangements, partly open and partly concealed, that Turks have long called the "deep state". The AKP's campaign to dismantle the "deep state" has some potentially valuable implications for advancing Turkish democracy, but in other respects it seems to have broadened into a more generalized campaign to suppress and intimidate all criticism and opposition, and some of the ongoing judicial inquisitions have come to resemble a McCarthyite witch-hunt.

This piece by Filkins is exceptionally informative for anyone who wants to understand the background to the current situation, so it's worth reading in full:

"The Deep State: The Prime Minister is revered as a moderate, but how far will he go to stay in power?"

=>  For me, it also provoked a passing thought that I'm tempted to pass on, and I won't resist the temptation. As I mentioned about a week ago, over the past decade I have often been struck by the curious and interesting parallels:

(a) between Turkey's AK Party and the Texas Republican Party—both of which combine a heavily pro-business unleash-the-market orientation (which helps explain why magazines like the Economist look so favorably on the AKP) plus a fair amount of crony capitalism with often-intolerant cultural conservatism, moderately theocratic tendencies, opposition to abortion, uneasiness about the theory of evolution, and a culture-war mentality infused with deep resentment against the "elitism" of secular, cosmopolitan, old-time-establishment types who they think look down on them ...

    ... and, specifically ...

(b) between Governor Rick Perry and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan—both of whom combine a bullying tough-guy macho style with a tendency to shoot their mouths off and blurt out embarrassing and offensive statements ... that draw unfavorable comments from outsiders and sometimes complicate life for their political colleagues, but don't seem to bother their core supporters?

I find that pair of analogies apt and illuminating, despite their obvious limits.  But as I read Filkins's account of Erdogan's career as a successful populist politician (and demagogue), it occurred to me that Erdogan also has more than a touch of James Michael Curley, and perhaps even Huey Long (though Erdogan is decidedly more pious and, as far as we know, more sexually monogamous than the latter, and of course he doesn't drink alcohol).  He expresses and personifies both the status resentments of his consituency and their desires for macho self-assertion.
Despite the scale of Erdoğan’s victory, he never forgot the humiliations he had suffered. Nuray Mert, a former columnist for the newspaper Milliyet who used to be an ally of Erdoğan’s, told me, “He was traumatized, I think—by the military, by the people who tried to hold him back.” Last June, when, again, Erdoğan led his party to a resounding victory in parliamentary elections, leaving the opposition scattered and leaderless, he nevertheless played the underdog. “We are the voice of the voiceless!” he said to a throng of supporters in Istanbul. “They sent me to prison from this city!” Most of the time, friends say, Erdoğan keeps his resentments under control, but occasionally they surface. “Whenever Tayyip got really mad at me,” Zapsu [a successful businessman and one of Erdogan's close advisers] said, “he would call me a White Turk.”


The Palace, a café in the working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Kasımpaşa, is on the same noisy street where Tayyip Erdoğan spent his youth. A concrete-block building occupies the spot where Erdoğan’s father, a seaman for a state shipping company, brought the family after migrating, when Erdoğan was a child, from the Black Sea town of Rize.  [....]  When I went into the café not long ago, a group of men were sitting at a table playing cards. There were no women there, and none of the men could recall the last time one had ventured in.  [....]

On seeing me, some of the cardplayers came over to talk. Affecting the same sort of tough-guy swagger as the Prime Minister, they were happy to discuss Erdoğan. He was one of them, a champion and a native son. Erdoğan, they said, was the most serious, the most pious, the most respectful young man that Kasımpaşa had ever produced. “He was a flower in the marsh,” one said. As a boy, Erdoğan would climb onto an elevated platform at Sinan Paşa, a sixteenth-century neighborhood mosque that was restored by the government two years ago, and read Koranic verses aloud to the assembled. “If a bunch of guys started staring at a girl and teasing her, Tayyip would always shut them up,” one of the men said.

Erdoğan bypassed the local state-run secondary school to attend what is called an Imam Hatip school; technically, this is where young men prepare to become imams, but in practice, in a country where the display of religious devotion was officially discouraged and sometimes forcibly suppressed, it was one of the few places where parents could send their sons to receive a religious education. The men admired Erdoğan’s toughness, as well as his piety. He played as a striker for Erokspor, a local soccer club. Yaşar Kırıcı, the owner of the Palace, said, “I’ll tell you one thing—he never backed down from a fight.”  [....]
Such are often the ways of politics in a democratic age (which are not always, in the end, fully democratic politics).

—Jeff Weintraub