Displaying items by tag: Turkey
Under normal circumstances, the most important news out of Turkey last weekend would have been a new law that, critics say, represents a blow to the country’s already weakened judicial system. But you might have missed it for the furor over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s decision to convert the famed Hagia Sophia museum, one of the world’s top tourist destinations, into a mosque.
Opposition figures such as Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu say Erdogan is using the Hagia Sophia controversy to distract from missteps by his government, from the management of the economy to the handling of the coronavirus crisis. But the conversion is consistent with the president’s lifelong political goal: the reassertion of Turkey’s Muslim identity, and its corollary, the rejection of the secular nationalism of the country’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Throughout his career, Erdogan has systematically chipped away at the secular foundations Ataturk laid in the 1920s and ‘30s, by encouraging overt expressions of religiosity in government as well as society. That he has done so while claiming to uphold Ataturk’s founding father legacy testifies to the latter’s outsized political footprint.
With the sacralizing of the Hagia Sophia, which had been secularized by Ataturk in 1934, the president can drop the pretense. The Turkish state is now an expression of Erdogan’s ideal more than it is Ataturk’s.
Secularism survives in Turkish society, but it is a fading force. Orhan Pamuk, the country’s preeminent literary figure, conceded as much when he told the BBC that the conversion of Hagia Sophia “is to say to the rest of the world, ‘Unfortunately we are not secular any more.’ There are millions of secular Turks like me who are crying against this, but their voices are not heard.”
Erdogan’s legacy will likely outlast that of Ataturk. For all the international outrage over the conversion of the museum into a mosque, it is hard to imagine a Turkish leader — and certainly not a democratically-elected one — turning the mosque back to a museum. Polls have shown most Turks favor the change, even though many recognize that it is politically expedient for the president.
The structural changes of the Erdogan era may be as hard to undo as the symbolic ones. Take the new law passed last weekend. It allows for the creation of new bar associations, potentially diluting the influence of the existing bodies: 78 out of 80 associations opposed the changes.
Critics note that Erdogan’s purges of the judicial system have already greatly weakened it. A European Commission report last summer pointed to “political pressure on judges and prosecutors and transfers of a large number of judges and prosecutors against their will.” It warned of “a negative impact on the independence and overall quality and efficiency of the judiciary.”
The bar associations are among the few remaining organizations able to speak truth to the president’s power, by drawing attention to abuses of authority. The fear is that new associations will be set up along political lines, with pro-government bodies balancing — or drowning out — independent ones.
International human-rights and legal groups have warned that the government “is seeking to, and may well succeed in, undermining the legal profession’s role to date in upholding human rights and the rule of law.”
That may not grab as much attention as Pope Francis’s statement about the Hagia Sophia, but the conversion of legal institutions says as much about the Turkey Erdogan has built as the re-purposing of a 6th century edifice.
Published in: The Print, July 14, 2020
ISTANBUL — Earlier this year, Turkey opened its closely guarded population register, a monumental archive of lineages going back to Ottoman times. A website that gives access to all public services in Turkey now includes a genealogy tab. Users can download ancestry documents, with records going as far back as 1882.
Since the appearance of the new service, roots, migration, purity and hybridity have dominated the conversation in WhatsApp groups, offices and tea shops. In just two days, over 5 million Turks went looking for their heritage on the register. Interest was so intense that for a few hours the website collapsed. The government was forced to stop the service for several days.
For a century, the Turkish state imposed a rigid national identity on its citizens, one that excluded ethnicity and underscored “pure” Turkishness. The government’s opening of its records has mesmerized people. As Turks absorb the news of their own ethnic diversity, the century-old idea of racial purity, manufactured and imposed by the state, has begun to crumble.
Some Turks, especially those whose families have lived in the same towns for generations, have found reaffirmation in the proof of their own deep roots. Others are frustrated. One Turkish nationalist learned that his great-grandmother was of Kurdish origin. A writer friend was surprised to discover her great-grandfather’s name was Isaac. One of my neighbors found out she had European roots and decided to apply for dual citizenship.
For a long time, ethnic identity was considered a matter of national security in Turkey. Most Ottoman Armenians lost their lives in forced deportations in 1915, while others converted to Islam to survive. Conversions were kept secret within families; many grandchildren of Christian converts learned of their ancestry as adults. Many Turks discovered they had Armenian family ties just recently.
The genealogy data is offered only for private use, and it reveals how meticulously the Turkish state has been keeping track of its citizens over the past two centuries. “It turns out my maternal ancestry is from Yerevan,” a user wrote on the website Eksi Sozluk, where thousands of comments have appeared on the issue. “My paternal ancestry meanwhile is Georgian. I am in shock.”
Turkish leftists were disturbed by the interest in genealogy, fearing it could lead to tribalism, even civil war. But the editor of the Armenian weekly Agos welcomed it. He interviewed an anthropology professor who called the move “revolutionary,” and “a serious sign of normalization” in debunking the imaginary ethnic purity of Turkish nationalism. Indeed, a 2012 study in the journal Annals of Human Genetics found that Turkey’s paternal ancestry was 38 percent European, 35 percent Middle Eastern, 18 percent South Asian and 9 percent Central Asian.
Ottomans dealt with the complexities of ethnicity through what they called the millet system. For centuries, different rules applied to Muslims, Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Jews. Religious communities could do business freely, and run their own schools, newspapers and hospitals so long as they paid taxes to the sultan. But in the 1830s, modernizers of the Ottoman Empire introduced a westernized concept of citizenship and did away with the millet system. A group of Muslim intellectuals, known as the Young Ottomans, fiercely opposed the reforms.
In the 1870s, the group introduced the concept of Ottomanism, promoting a single imperial citizenship that combined Islamic law with principles inspired by European constitutionalism. They propounded the idea of Muslim nationalism: Sunni Islam would be the sovereign identity, while granting freedoms to other religions. If the Sunni character of the state was lost, the Young Ottomans felt, the empire might disintegrate. Ottomanism was their formula to keep it intact.
As the pace of modernization increased in the early twentieth century, the problem of genealogical complexity snowballed: Secular and westernizing Young Turks and founders of the Turkish republic tweaked Muslim nationalism into a citizenship based on the French idea of laïcité, the separation of religious influence from government.
They tried to solve the problem of ethnic complexity, sometimes through force: A population exchange in 1923 resulted in the denaturalization of more than 1.2 million Greeks in Turkey and more than 300,000 Turks in Greece. The tiny number of Greeks and Armenians who continued to live in Turkey were told to forget their roots.
Over the 1940s, following the death of Atatürk, racist clubs in Turkey tweaked this nationalism further and forged a “pure Turkish” national identity. Turks, in their view, came from the plains of Central Asia, Kurds were “mountain Turks” and any other ethnic influences were considered deviant and dangerous. Both leftists and Islamists repudiated this combination of a mono-ethnic nation state and modernity, and the Kemalist state punished both groups. The Marxist poet Nazım Hikmet was sentenced to 28 years in prison; the Islamist thinker and poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy spent a decade in exile in Egypt for questioning Turkish nationalism.
Many nationalists have viewed Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s composite of conservatism and neoliberalism as a threat to Turkish national identity since his Justice and Development Party, known as the A.K.P., came to power in 2002. But Mr. Erdogan’s government was praised by others for allowing historians to openly discuss the history of Ottoman Armenians and for lifting restrictions on Kurdish culture.
Under Mr. Erdogan, national identity based on “pure Turkishness” has been gradually replaced by the Muslim nationalism of the Young Ottomans. Leaders of the A.K.P. believe that erasing religion and ethnicity from Turkey’s national identity would repeat the mistakes of the Ottoman modernizers in the 1830s.
By throwing open the population register, the Turkish government — unwittingly — might have changed our ideas of Turkish nationhood and ended the myth of racial purity for good.
Published in: The New York Times International Edition 02 April 2019
Whatever you may think progress looks like — a rebounding stock market, a new house, a good raise — the governments of the world have long held the view that only one statistic, the measure of gross domestic product, can really show whether things seem to be getting better or getting worse. G.D.P. is an index of a country’s entire economic output — a tally of, among many other things, manufacturers’ shipments, farmers’ harvests, retail sales and construction spending. It’s a figure that compresses the immensity of a national economy into a single data point of surpassing density. The conventional feeling about G.D.P. is that the more it grows, the better a country and its citizens are doing. In the U.S., economic activity plummeted at the start of 2009 and only started moving up during the second half of the year. Apparently things are moving in that direction still. In the first quarter of this year, the economy again expanded, this time by an annual rate of about 3.2 percent........ Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)
Until recently, the “special relationship” between Israel and Turkey appeared unbreakable. Underpinned by shared perceptions of the threats and opportunities in their regional environment and cemented by an extensive web of joint initiatives in trade, intelligence, and defense, the Turkish-Israeli alliance blossomed in the 1990s. Any differences that arose between these two regional heavyweights paled in comparison to the overarching affinity and mutuality of interests that existed between them.
At least that’s the way it seemed at the time. Beneath the apparent façade of goodwill between the two countries lay a growing gap in values and political cultures that set the stage for a deterioration of relations as two major crises transpired. The first of these was Israel’s offensive against the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008/2009, followed a year and a half later by Israel’s attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish-flagged ship attempting to deliver humanitarian aid to the still-besieged Gazans. The divergence in values between the two countries began to take shape at the turn of the twenty-first century, and accelerated after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2003—a period that coincided with significant strides toward democracy in Turkey ....... Download the full article in pdf attachment (below)