Turkey: Battle for secularism

Opposition to creeping Islamisation is not confined to the protestors in Taksim Square and elsewhere, argues Eddie Ford. The army is also deeply disgruntled with the AKP

Events in Turkey are highly volatile. As the Weekly Worker goes to press, Taksim Square - at least for the time being - has been cleared of anti-government demonstrators. Late on June 11, the riot police deployed teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets to regain control. Protestors fought back as best they could with fireworks, fire bombs, stones and other makeshift weapons. At one stage, more than 50 lawyers were dragged onto buses by police after staging a sit-in to support the protests. By dawn though, bulldozers had moved into the square to clear away the barricades and tents. Many protestors have regrouped in nearby Gezi Park to ponder their next move.

Speaking in Ankara as the police operation unfolded, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an warned that he would not show “any more tolerance” and called for an “immediate end” to all demonstrations and protests. Erdo?an has repeatedly asserted that the anti-government movement has been “hijacked” by “terror groups” and “Marxist-Leninists” out to harm Turkey, explicitly linking the protests with an attack in February on the US embassy carried out by the banned Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front.

For good measure, Erdo?an blasted the international media for waging a “comprehensive campaign” aimed at “sullying” Turkey’s image - a week before he had been denouncing the “gangrene” and “menace” of Twitter. Very modern. Not to be outdone, on June 6 Turkey’s European Union minister, Egemen Ba???, told a press conference that the BBC had “encouraged” the protestors to commit acts of “vandalism”. On the other hand, Turkey’s pro-Erdo?an TV channels failed for days to mention the protests at all. According to Reporters without Borders, Turkey ranks 154th in terms of press freedom.1 For instance, in 2008 the courts banned internet users from viewing the official website of Richard Dawkins after objections from Muslim creationists.

Four people, including one policeman, have been killed so far. Some 5,000 protestors have been treated for injuries or the effects of tear gas, while officials say 600 police have also been injured. Various trade unions have come out in support of the protestors, including the Confederation of Revolutionary Trade Unions (D?SK), which historically is more a political extension of ‘official communism’ than a ‘normal’ trade union grouping like the British TUC. In the optimistic words of DISK’s director of international relations, K?vanç Eliaç?k, “Some people are fighting, others are dancing. Some are lashing out drunk; others are collecting garbage and treating stray animals. I do not know what is going to happen tomorrow. But today is a new day and we are all new people.”2


As most people know, the demonstrations initially began as an environmental/ecological protest against the ‘redevelopment’ of Gezi Park. Despite being one of the very last remaining green spaces in Istanbul, the original plan was to build a shopping mall, clearly showing the AKP’s commitment to spiritual development, and also a replica of an old Ottoman military barracks. It seems that the shopping mall has been dropped - a victory of sorts - but the barracks are to go ahead.

Yet it is the barracks scheme, far more than the mall, that has infuriated millions of Turks, because it is symbolic of the creeping Islamisation of society by the AKP - even if it is still formally committed to secularism, albeit within the confines of “conservative democracy”3. Hardly surprising, however, given that the core of the party was formed from the ‘reformist’ faction of the Virtue Party, banned in 2001, and dissident members of the highly conservative (but legal) Motherland Party. This salami-style Islamisation has manifested itself in various ways. Most visibly, of course, are the huge number of mosques - which are everywhere, thanks to a decade-long building programme, generously backed by Saudi Arabia. Indeed, Turkey now has 82,693 mosques - 3,113 of which are in Istanbul alone.4

Almost inevitably, women have been increasingly lectured about the importance of ‘traditional’ values - how they should have more children, dress in a certain way, not flaunt themselves too much, etc. Perhaps most upsetting of all the very many secularist Turks are the increasing restrictions on alcohol - regarded as Sharia law through the back door. One of the latest edicts bans the sale of alcohol within 100 metres of any mosque or school and on June 11 the president, Abdullah Gül - also an AKP member - finally approved a bill declaring that retailers will no longer be allowed to sell alcoholic beverages between 10pm and 6am. Therefore a very large number of drinking places will have to close down and nightclub life was severely curtailed.

But for secular Turks the Taksim military barracks are a heinous emblem of everything they reject and fear. Originally built in 1806 during the reign of the Ottoman sultan Selim III, the barracks are notorious for being the launch pad for the ‘March 31 Incident/1909 countercoup’ - a reactionary, Islamist-inspired, revolt against the constitutional monarchical system that had taken hold after the 1908 Young Turk revolution. The plotters dreamed of putting an end to the nascent constitutional era and restoring Abdul Hamid II as the absolute monarch/sultan. The sultan’s bid for a return to power gained a certain traction when he promised to restore the caliphate, eliminate secular policies and reintroduce the sharia-based legal system. Now the AKP effectively want to build a monument to this counterrevolutionary cause.

Needless to say, the revolt was forcibly crushed and as a consequence the barracks building suffered considerable damage - never being repaired. Its internal courtyard was later transformed into the Taksim Stadium in 1921 and became the first ever football stadium in Turkey, something the Islamists always hated.

Bit by bit, slice by slice, Turkey under the AKP is becoming less secularist and more authoritarian. No wonder the US state department is urging “restraint” on Erdo?an, concerned that he might upset the apple-cart at exactly the wrong moment in view of the instability over the entire Middle East, not least Syria. After all, the AKP is about to sign a peace deal with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) - much to the chagrin of the Turkish army - and the very last thing the US wants is for that to be sabotaged by an excessively authoritarian crackdown by Erdo?an.

De Gaulle or Putin?

Predictably enough, a great deal of commentary around the latest developments in Turkey has been profoundly uninformative - ranging from the asinine to the vacuous. Tiresomely, a lot of it has focused on the so-called ‘middle class’ nature of the revolt; the definition of which seems to include anyone who has a job or knows how to use a smartphone.

But it does have to be said, in all fairness, that the Socialist Workers Party has attempted to rival such coverage for inanity. Bluntly, the SWP position is based purely on opportunist political expediency. Hence Socialist Worker rambles on in its usual anarchistic fashion about how “rage” and “spontaneous protest” broke out throughout Turkey. True enough, up to a point, but what are the actual politics involved, comrades? The ludicrous answer is that the “opposition which found an echo with millions of people across Turkey is not in any way against the government’s alleged ‘Islamism’” - rather, would you believe it, Turkey’s “uprising” is “against neoliberalism” and the bosses (June 4). Just like back home in the UK, reassuringly. Creating a Taksim Square of their own ideological imagination, Socialist Worker tells us when ordinary people began to return home or to work, uglier forces began to appear” - that is, “people carrying Turkish flags” and shouting, “We are Atatürk’s troops”. From this, Socialist Worker draws the conclusion that “many of the nationalists want to see the army overthrow the elected government and carry out an Islamophobic purge”.

Pathetically, the SWP is in a state of total denial. According to the comrades, the greatest threat comes from an “Islamophobic purge” - not the very real and advancing Islamist agenda of the AKP. It cannot see, because it does not want to, that if anything the reverse is true - ie, the anger of the protestors has been directed more against Islamism than against corruption, cuts, unemployment, neoliberalism, etc. But, of course, our SWP comrades cannot bear to utter that dreaded word, secularism - the shibboleth that must never be mentioned. Even though Respect is a dead project, the SWP are still hankering for an unpopular popular front with ‘Muslim radicals’.

As if responding to the SWP, Ben Judah, in the Financial Times, urged us to “forget Arab spring analogies”, instead arguing that Turkey is “having its 1968” and hence now “needs its de Gaulle” (June 6). Meaning that Erdo?an should recognise his time is over and announce plans to resign, in the same way that Charles de Gaulle - after decisively defeating the French left in the June 1968 elections - still resigned the next year because he recognised that he divided the nation. “For the sake of national unity and the future of the AKP”, a party which for Judah has “unquestionably been good for Turkish democracy and is on the brink of peace with the Kurds”, Erdo?an should “echo the greatness” of de Gaulle and stand down.

But Judah worries that Erdo?an is becoming more like Vladimir Putin than de Gaulle. In other words, he writes, Erdo?an wants to rule until 2024 and his politics has “become about securing this above all else” - a new constitution would allow him to return triumphant in 2014 into an “empowered” presidency for two five-year terms. At the same time he is mounting a draconian crackdown on the opposition and democratic rights in general. Judah strongly advises the US to “nudge” Erdo?an in the “right direction”, perhaps by hinting that Turkey might not be able to participate in the EU-US trade pact, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership . In that way, says Judah, the White House could make it clear to Turkey’s leadership that doing a Putin makes this “impossible”.

Then again, in the last analysis, Judah’s analysis does not really work. Erdo?an is no de Gaulle or Putin. Unlike either, Erdo?an cannot rely on the army for support if the chips are down. The Turkish military is deeply disgruntled with Erdo?an, if not actively hostile to the AKP. Numerous army officers are awaiting trial and some have been imprisoned - Erdo?an’s determination to clip the army’s wing has earned him a relatively high degree of popularity among some sections of Turkish society.

Yet here we have an army that has carried out four coups and is committed to its version of secularism - authoritarian and top-down. And here we have an AKP which contains forces (ie, the Virtue Party) that in the relatively recent past had been outlawed for their Islamist agitation and are doing ‘treacherous’ deals with the PKK ‘terrorists’, responsible for the deaths of very many Turkish soldiers (ironically, but with a certain degree of logic, the PKK has not been particularly enthusiastic about the protests, as they might scupper its deal with the AKP).

Therefore if there were a military coup, more likely than not, though it would be designed to restore ‘order’, it would be directed against the government - an inconceivable scenario in Russia or France.

The situation in Turkey is highly complex and contradictory. Society as a whole is divided, torn by ‘culture wars’, and the AKP could split if the pressure intensifies. But the workers’ movement and the left is hopelessly fragmented, and still misdirected by the influences of ‘official communism’, Stalinism, social democracy and nationalism - whether Kurdish or greater Turkish.



1. http://en.rsf.org/press-freedom-index-2013,1054.html.

2. http://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/opening-taksim-square.

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justice_and_Development_Party_(Turkey).

4. http://en.trend.az/regions/met/turkey/2126410.html.