Thursday, July 04, 2013

Claire Berlinski fills in the socio-historical background to Turkey's present discontents

There's plenty of other news from the eastern Mediterranean to distract us, but we shouldn't totally lose sight of the ongoing political drama in Turkey.  The very intelligent author and journalist Claire Berlinski, who lives in Istanbul, just wrote a longish piece on Turkey's current protest wave and its significance, "The Gezi Diaries", which is worth reading in full (including her angry commentaries and conclusions, which are interspersed with her vivid accounts of what's been happening).

But at the very least, anyone interested in what's going on in Turkey might want to read the first section of her piece, which offers a good compact overview of the historical background to the recent events. Here's how she sets it up:
In the sitcom business, they call it “laying pipe.” It means the exposition of the backstory, the quick explanation of the events that set the plot in motion.  [....]  In writing about Turkey, the hardest part is that before you can even begin to say anything interesting, you need to lay ten miles of pipe, and by that point you’ve lost your audience. Moreover, the names are confusing and unpronounceable.  [....]
Americans have suddenly seen an explosion of images from Turkey on their television screens: massive clouds of tear gas, the sound of screams and siren, lots of Turks looking mad as hell. Say what? More Muslim rage? Something about kids camping in a park? Isn’t Turkey supposed to be the model moderate miracle?  [....]
Here’s what you need to know, bare-bones: [....]
Berlinski is no fan of the AK Party or of Erdogan, and she is exasperated with what she sees as the fawning and uncritical treatment they have gotten from western pundits and policymakers over the past decade.  But as you will notice, she does give them their due, and also tries to put their faults in appropriate perspective.  Here are some snippets from her final paragraph:
Part 4: What’s Next?

I have no idea. I’m not clairvoyant. But this I do know: Now that things that have been true all along are finally getting coverage in English, the discourse will swing the other direction—and it will all be wrong and exaggerated again. This will help Turkey exactly as much as the creation of the imaginary “Turkish miracle.” There are real people here; [....]  They could use some honesty from the rest of the world, because they’re sure not going to get it from their government or their media and they know it.  [....]
—Jeff Weintraub

Claire Berlinski
The Gezi Diaries
Published in abridged form in The Tower
June 2013

Part 1: Laying Pipe

In the sitcom business, they call it “laying pipe.” It means the exposition of the backstory, the quick explanation of the events that set the plot in motion. Sitcom writers admire each other for the economy with which they lay pipe. In writing about Turkey, the hardest part is that before you can even begin to say anything interesting, you need to lay ten miles of pipe, and by that point you’ve lost your audience. Moreover, the names are confusing and unpronounceable, Americans have simply had it with this part of the world; and besides, Turkey’s all so Byzantine—no surprise—that they just can’t keep the plot straight, even if you give them a PowerPoint presentation, Cliff Notes, and an iPhone App that reminds them who the characters are.

Americans have suddenly seen an explosion of images from Turkey on their television screens: massive clouds of tear gas, the sound of screams and siren, lots of Turks looking mad as hell. Say what? More Muslim rage? Something about kids camping in a park? Isn’t Turkey supposed to be the model moderate miracle?

Apparently, the news scored among the decade’s lowest ratings. I strongly suspect that’s because these scenes simply baffled everyone back home, specialists apart. Specialists included, perhaps. “None of us expected this in Turkey,” said John McCain, who of all people really should have, given his eagerness to commit the United States to a military intervention on Turkey’s southern border.

Grasping why this explosion happened—or more importantly, why it came as a surprise to so many who should have known better—requires serious pipe-laying skills. I think I can do it, but work with me, not against me. Start by forgetting everything you’ve been reading for the past ten years about Turkey. Pretty much every bit of it has been nonsense. Scrub the words “secularists” and “Islamists” from your brains. Don’t try to compare Turkey to any other country: not America, not Afghanistan, not Egypt, not Syria, not Iran, not Russia, and certainly not France in 1968—not that the latter would ever occur to you, but the French press seems crazy for the idea.  [JW:  I must confess that the analogy occurred to me, too.]

Turkey is Turkey—a massive, complex country, formerly an empire, formerly many empires, in fact; its history not only as unique, complex and difficult to understand as American history but a thousand times more so. They can’t even build a functional metro system here, because every time they dig, they find priceless Neolithic ruins and the archeologists go berserk.

Here’s what you need to know, bare-bones: The supposedly secular Turkish Republic was an authoritarian state, although not a totalitarian one, and yes, Jeanne Kirkpatrick was right, there is a difference. I went behind the Iron Curtain when the Wall was still standing. The USSR was indeed—immediately, visibly, on first sight—an evil empire. Turkey wasn’t remotely like that, nor is it now, and God willing it never will be. But it is, still, an authoritarian state. Turkey has always had weak institutions, but a state that’s strong as an ox. The authoritarianism just comes in a different flavor—once they served it state-worship style and from time-to-time military style; now they serve it piety style. But it’s still the same thing—weak institutions and a strong, authoritarian state. They just changed the wrapping paper. It’s much better off economically, but not so much as you’ve been told. Still, even considering the past few week’s God-awful events, even considering the preposterous show trials, the jailing of journalists, the censorship of the Internet, the almost unfathomable dishonesty of its government and its intellectuals, the cronyism, the corruption, the foreign policy misadventures—it’s probably a better place to live, for most of its citizens, jailed or unjailed, than it has been at many points in its recent so-called secular past.

And it wasn’t “secular,” either, in the way an American would understand the term. A state-funded and state-controlled institution, the Diyanet, was one of the first organizations established by the Turkish Parliament after the abolition of the Caliphate. It was founded, in its own words, “to execute works concerning the beliefs, worship, and ethics of Islam, enlighten the public about their religion, and administer the sacred worshipping places.” That would be the ethics of the Hanafi Sunni school of Islam, not the Eleusinian Mystery cults—or any of the religions of the 20 percent of the Turkish population who aren’t Sunni Muslims. The point is that religion here has always been subservient to and a tool for the state. When the state decides it’s important, the Diyanet can tell the Imams—all the imams, if they want to stay out of jail—what to put in their sermons. Does that sound “secular” to you? Does it sound, for that matter, “ultra-secular,” as the AKP’s opponents are often called? As for Turkey’s religious minorities, including other Muslim sects, well, it must be said that Turks don’t seem to kill them anywhere near as often since the AKP came to power, though you just never know; with Turkey, these things can turn on a dime.

But what Turkey does not have—and still does not have—is Islamic law. After the founding of the Republic Islamic courts were abolished and replaced with a secular legal apparatus, often modeled word-for-word on the Swiss, German, and Italian civil and penal codes. This has not been changed, and no, trying to regulate the sale of alcohol is not full-on sharia, it’s just full-on nanny-state, or more accurately, full-on daddy-state, since that’s what they call it here: Devlet Baba.

So Turkey is a rarity in the Middle East: It’s a democracy, if only in the sense that it does hold regular, free elections, and it has a secular constitution. It’s in NATO, and it furnishes NATO’s second-largest army—and its leading army, if you use the criteria of “percentage of admirals and generals in jail.” It provides a crucial energy corridor to Europe. The Incirlik air base is a vital staging point for the US military, or at least it’s supposed to be. It has made a reasonable contribution to the coalition forces in Afghanistan, and agreed to host a radar system designed by the United States as part of its NATO shield against a missile attack aimed at Europe. This pleased American military officials no end, but exposed Turkey to a significant threat of alienating a neighbor that is more than capable of inflicting upon it severe punishment of that special, sneaky, we-invented-chess-you-know Persian kind. And every so often, it’s sort of a national tradition, Turkey goes nuts and kills a few—or more than a few—of its own citizens. “This is not our country,” wrote Turkish novelist Tezer Özlü, “this is the country of those who want to kill us.” She died in 1986. She was not responding to a newborn phenomenon.

The past few weeks, as you probably know, have been Tezer Özlü weeks. The police killed five of their fellow citizens—and probably more—and blinded nearly a dozen of them. It should also be noted that a policeman died, too, chasing his fellow citizens. But these words don’t begin to compass the explosion of violence and cruelty. I live by Taksim Square. It is not clear what set it ablaze one Tuesday evening, but certainly something did; police stormed a crowd of some 30,000 with massive clouds of tear gas and sound bombs, setting off a stampede. Extremists in the crowd began fighting back—throwing stones, setting off fireworks, starting fires to mitigate the effects of the gas, transforming what had just the day before been an irenic, quirky festival of a protest into a nightmare of nihilism and violence for the sake of violence, the sound of the ezan in the background adding surrealism to the sacrilege and vice-versa. The police behaved like animals. I saw it. They terrorized and maimed and wounded and traumatized a bunch of goofy kids whose only crime was camping out in a park, as well as everyone in a mile-wide range of them. God only knows what they did in the parts of the city and country where the media wasn’t looking. I’m not even sure I want to know. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as Thanatos.

But keep this in mind: With one exception, they did not shoot them with live bullets. This wasn’t a Syrian-style wholesale slaughter. And this was nothing compared to what happened from time to time during the so-called days of secular-paradise. The Dersim rebellion in 1937 and 1938 was suppressed with such vigor that historians suspect tens of thousands of souls perished. The civil war with the PKK is said to have claimed 40,000 lives, including state forces, and I do not imagine the Turkish military was scrupulous in its adherence to the Geneva Conventions when prosecuting its campaign against it. At the height of the conflict, in the 1990s, thousands of civilians were systematically rounded up and—with no trial—jailed and tortured and disappeared. There are hundreds of mass graves in Southeast Turkey. Now, don’t misunderstand me: The PKK is a neo-Maoist scourge and a curse, a personality cult centered around the clinically narcissistic figure of Abdullah Öcalan, and while I would rather it had been done differently, it had to be done. I take the PKK personally; they nearly killed me one fine Sunday morning in 2010, when one of their splinter groups took it into their heads to bomb Taksim Square, where I would have been but for my more pressing desire to sleep in. In principle I condemn and deplore torture, as all right-thinking people do, but I confess that in my heart of hearts, I don’t lose sleep when I imagine their leadership drawn and quartered. That said, mass graves, burnt villages, and the internal displacement of some half a million Kurds is not precisely an advertisement for this so-called secular Eden of yore, and if I hear that it was so great back then even one more time, I suppose I shall have to summon my patience, because I know I’ll hear it another million times, and I can’t afford to lose my mind every time I hear it.

And shall we mention not only the military coups, but the events that led up to them, such as the clashes in the 1970s between far-left and far-right paramilitaries, funded by God knows who (I truly fear the answer), which created such chaos and anarchy—killing, on average, ten people a day and toward the end, 20 a day—that the public was relieved, yes relieved, when the military finally stepped in? They whitewash that effusion of relief right out of history here these days, but ask anyone old enough to remember it, just remember to ask them in private. They wanted that junta, and badly, until the junta began doing what juntas tend to do, with one very important exception: After finishing up the torturing and the hanging, they returned the government to the civilians.

So we should not for a moment imagine that the events of the past weeks have been some hideous aberration from the otherwise irenic and secular history of the Turkish Republic. A May Day massacre in Taksim Square in 1977 claimed 35 victims. Following the sound of gunshots—and it is to this day a mystery who fired them—the security forces blazed in with armored vehicles, blaring their sirens, setting off noise bombs, and hosing the crowd with water cannon. This so panicked the crowd as to set off a stampede—does that sound familiar?—and it was in that stampede that most of the victims died. None of the perpetrators were caught and no one was brought to justice. Not one single Turk who watched the stampede in Taksim the other night would have failed, immediately, to remember this—except, it seems, the police who seemed determined to recreate it. Or perhaps they remembered it perfectly. Who knows. That there is the problem: No one knows.

Then there was the Maraş Massacre of 1978, when more than a hundred—and many believe far more than a hundred—Alevis were systematically massacred over the course of several days by the so-called Gray Wolves, a right-wing paramilitary now believed to have morphed into a louche political party with 13 seats in the parliament. This incident, too, remains shrouded in mystery. As do many in Turkey, some columnists at Zaman, one of Turkey’s most visible newspapers, ascribe the massacre to the Deep State—the term for a powerful secret coalition nested in the Turkish political system and comprised of high-level elements in the intelligence services, the military, the judiciary, and the mafia—to pave the way for the subsequent coup. But this same newspaper has been the chief vuvuzela championing the more recent arrest and incarceration of Turkey’s admirals and generals on charges of coup-plotting, while systematically failing to report that the case rests largely upon evidence that is obviously, indeed brazenly, forged.

A bit more pipe and we’ll get there. Zaman is part of a large media group owned by the powerful cleric Fethullah Gülen, who is always described as “reclusive” but who in fact rarely shuts up; he is the “inspiration” for the Hizmet, or “the Service,” a Nurcu-sect “civil society movement” (in their words) that is widely believed in Turkey to control the police and the justice system. Gülen is a powerful business figure both in Turkey and abroad. More interestingly, from the American point of view, he lives in Pennsylvania, in the Poconos, and is one of the largest players in the world of American charter schools.

Needless to say, this is also most interesting from the Turkish point of view. Those here who are unnerved by his role in contemporary Turkey believe he is handled by the CIA, and while I could not possibly know, I’ve never been able to understand why we granted asylum to a man who, it may clearly be shown, was at least formerly a raving anti-American, anti-Semitic, Islamist nuthatch. This may be established by even the most casual perusal of his earlier books and sermons. These were written or delivered before he either had a change of heart—a transformation that he has never explained—or before it became more lucrative and expedient for him to establish himself as a champion of interfaith dialogue. I will spare you all the evidence of his former and perhaps current extremism, just one quote—a rather recent one, too—should suffice:

"Consider the issue of apostasy. Under Islamic law, apostasy is regarded with the same gravity as treason is regarded by most states and all armed forces. The hope must be to prevent, by pleading, prayers, persuasion, and all other legitimate means, such a crime from becoming public and offensive to society. Those who insist on pursuing this path must be asked to reconsider and repent. If they reject this opportunity, the penalty is death. No lesser penalty could express society's abhorrence of breaking one's covenant with God."

Quite straightforward, that.

Nor have I been able to understand why two CIA veterans, George Fidas and Graham Fuller, the latter of whom has long had ties to Central Asia—and indeed had family ties to “Uncle Ruslan,” the enraged uncle of the Boston bombers (to whom his daughter was briefly married)—provided references for Gülen’s Green Card application.

A last note about Gülen: Either he or Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the most powerful man in Turkey, but no one really knows who’s more powerful, although everyone does know by now that that this place ain’t big enough for the two of them.

But my main point is this: Brutality and human rights abuses were hardly unknown before the rise of the AKP. Nor was absolute poverty, although that now is largely gone thanks to them, which, along with the incompetence of Turkey’s opposition parties, accounts far more for the AKP’s electoral success than the inherent tendency of all Muslim countries to gravitate toward Islamist politics.

What is an aberration, and utterly inexplicable to me, is this: Since the AKP came to power in 2002, the world somehow ceased to care, or to ask any deep questions, about whether Turkey’s “democratic deficits,” as they’re known in the euphemism trade, have really healed, or are apt ever to heal given the AKP’s style of governance.

And what is that style of governance? To amass power—of every kind—and distribute the spoils to its supporters. The media? An impediment. Lock it up, buy it up, or terrify it into silence. Critics? No use for them: Sue them, slander them in the media (which they control), imprison them, or chase them out of the country to evade prosecution (for crimes that in all likelihood have been committed in one form or another by nine-tenths of the Turkish elite.). The Paleolithic, but at least independent, judiciary? Its independence is gone, and I cannot believe that the West was so stupid as to celebrate this as a democratic advance, rather than see it for what it was and scream bloody murder. It disappeared in a 2010 constitutional referendum, one with 23 items bundled into a single package. Voters couldn’t select the items they wanted: It was thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Of those items, 22 were innocuous or salutary, one was dubious, and one was a poison pill. It restructured the size and membership of the Constitutional Court, raising its membership from 11 to 17, and took the power of the Supreme Court of Appeals and the Council of State to elect and appoint its members and assigned it to parliament and the president. (There goes the independence of the judicial branch.) This was in addition to Erdoğan’s pre-existing power to hand pick all of the MPs in his party (the legislative branch) and all of the ministers in his cabinet (the executive branch).

So the majority of the judiciary, including the members of the Constitutional Court, are now elected by a parliament dominated by MPs entirely under Erdoğan’s control. What’s more, a 2007 constitutional referendum resulted in the direct election of the president by the public. Before this, the president was elected by parliament, and viewed as an oppositional figure whose role was to limit the power of the prime minister. To put it succinctly, in two referenda—which the whole idiot world applauded like maniac penguins as great advances for Turkish democracy—the Prime Minister directly or indirectly took control of all three branches of the government.

The last leg of the balance-of-power stool was the military. Off to the clink went the top brass, who listed there for years without conviction; they will wait years more for the European Court of Human Rights to review their appeal. Some have already died in jail, and more will surely die before the case makes it to the top of the ECHR’s overcrowded docket. Kurds? Well, the word now is peace, but the word last year was war, with the highest casualties—some 700 dead—since 1999. Negotiations with Öcalan? Hey, why not? People here would accept almost anything to save their children from that unrelenting bloodletting. But we have no idea what these negotiations are for, or what has been promised, or why they are happening now when only months ago Erdoğan was boldly proposing to bring back the death penalty and hang that murderous scoundrel—a prospect, I must say, that rather inspired the public.

Now tell me: “Islamist-schlislamist,” as one (Muslim) friend said to me—can’t you see what the problem is here? A country already cursed by its authoritarian traditions managed to hand all of the power to one single man, a man who may for all I know have once had a heart of gold (though I doubt it), but who cares? Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this man now has absolute power. His only challenger is a creepy cleric in the Poconos who may be a peacemaker but is more likely just a hell of a shrewd huckster or a CIA asset (And God, I hope it’s the latter and I hope we know what we’re playing with and have a plan here, because if we’re so stupid that we really think he’s a peacemaker, I don’t see us surviving into the 22nd century.). To make matters worse, Erdoğan has been feted ‘round the world, including by people who should surely know better, as the greatest democratic reformer since Benjamin Franklin, which did little to enhance his grasp on the Reality Principle.

So why is anyone surprised that suddenly we hear the sound of screams and sirens in Taksim Square, Turks looking mad as hell, and massive clouds of tear gas over Istanbul—not to mention Ankara, Izmir, Antakya, Adana, Eskişehir, Muğla, Mersin, Bursa, Balikesir, Kocaeli, Antalya, Rize, and God only knows where else, because the international media is focused on Istanbul chiefly and Ankara as a footnote, and the domestic media is muzzled. Really, the only surprise is that it took this long.

So the pipe has been laid. The story begins.

Part 2: The Gezi Diary

I warn you now: I am not fond of vulgar language and don’t believe it belongs in a serious publication. But when things like this happen, people swear. You can stop now and read the AP version if the language I’m about to use will offend you. Keep reading if you want to know what something like this really sounds like. I can’t and won’t alter quotes—although in this case, for obvious reasons, I have to alter names. [....]
=> [JW: The rest is here.] <=