Incompetent Totalitarians


Martin Figes

In January the Turkish Constitutional Court closed the Islamist Welfare Party of former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan for violating the country's secular constitution. As soon as the Welfare Party closed, the Virtue Party opened with identical membership and has now taken over Welfare's place as the largest party in Parliament. The Pro-Kurdish party HADEP was is currently under threat of closure for violating the Anti-Terror law. HADEP was formerly DEP and before that HEP.

The name-game shows how dysfunctional Turkey's political system has become. Ankara's obsession with reality control has led to a police-state that is tragically brutal and comically inept. In a country where the mere mention of the word "Kurdistan" can result in a five-year sentence, 250,000 young men are avoiding conscription more or less with impunity. Police beat a journalist to death in front of a thousand witnesses and go unpunished, but pro-Kurdish newspapers containing eulogies to fallen PKK fighters can be bought from any news kiosk in Istanbul.

Explaining this state of affairs with Middle Eastern inefficiency is far too simple: The Turkish police-state malfunctions because of contradictions within the ideology the state is fighting so frantically to maintain. Since 1923, Ankara has wanted Turkey to be a modern, democratic state on a par with the nations of Europe but to achieve this end, it has used self-defeating means, i.e. the harder they try to be "Western," the more "Eastern" they appear. The source of this absurdity goes all the way back to the 1920s when the Republic of Turkey was founded.

In 1923 the land was prostrate from twelve years of war; war against the Italians in Lybia, against the Balkan States, the Allied powers in World War One and last against the invading Greek armies. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk created the Turkish Republic in the war-ravaged chaos of Anatolia. After driving out the invading Greeks and dissolving the six-hundred-year-old Ottoman sultanate, Kemal set out to create out of the debris a modern, European nation-state.

Unfortunately, there was nothing vaguely like a nation inside the frontiers of the new Turkish Republic. A nation is more than a set of frontiers, a government and a law code: it is an identity. What identity was felt by most of the remaining population of Anatolia after the war was that of "Muslim". The Ottoman Empire had done little to foment a national consciousness amidst its extraordinarily diverse, and mostly destitute population. Nation-building was not to be an easy job, and it took its toll on the great leader. Shortly before his death from cirrhosis of the liver, a French journalist asked him about his drinking. Kemal replied, "If you were trying to make a modern nation here, you would drink too." Creating a national myth is thirsty work.

The fact that there were no Turks in Turkey before 1923 complicated instilling the identity of "Turk" in the population. While the ancestors of the Ottoman dynasty had ridden in from Turkic-speaking areas of Central Asia in the twelfth-century, by 1923 virtually nothing of their ethnicity remained other than the language. The population of Anatolia certainly did not have any physical resemblance to the distinctly Asian-looking peoples of Central Asia. By the end of the Ottoman period, "Turk" had become a derogatory term applied to the Turkish speaking peasants of Anatolia. More problematic was the plentitude of peasants who spoke no Turkish at all. Anatolia was (and is) a rich, chaotic mosaic of languages, ethnicities and religions -- not exactly something to foster national identity.

So the nation-builders liberally applied whitewash to this mosaic. Aided by the profound lack of education among the "Turks," cultural engineers tried to convince people that not only were they "Turks" rather than just Muslims as they had previously believed, but also that Turks were the first civilised people and that Turkish was the mother of all languages. This barrage of balderdash convinced few people with any education, and no one outside Turkey. Nevertheless, it did have the effect, once they had drummed it into the heads of students in the new Republican school system, that there was an otherness in the world other than "infidels."

Not so funny were the efforts at stamping out versions of reality contrary to this view. In 1924 all independent Kurdish education and cultural associations were banned by decree. The first Kurdish rising against the Republic began in 1925 and risings appeared off and on until 1938 when the great Dersim rising was finally (and brutally) crushed. Ankara passed laws prohibiting publication -- even conversation -- in any language but Turkish. These prohibitions have survived three military coups and continue to be in effect today. Law No. 2932 passed in 1983 sums it up nicely: "it is forbidden to express, diffuse or publish opinions in any language other than the main official language of states recognised by the Turkish state", i.e. Turkish.

Between the end of the Dersim rising and the early 1980s, the myth-makers had little vocal opposition. Turkish academics proclaimed that Kurds were "Mountain Turks," and that Kurdish was really a dialect of Turkish. Public figures vilified the term "Kurd" and signs reading, "how happy is one who can call himself a Turk," began appearing spelled out in whitewashed stones on mountainsides all over the country. Giving children Kurdish names was outlawed. In 1995, Parliament even hijacked the Kurdish new year's celebration, Newroz, proclaiming it to be a Turkish holiday celebrating the mythical departure of the Turks from their ancient Central Asian homeland.

However, just speaking and writing in the official Turkish is not enough: one also has to avoid heretical opinions. The latest version of this thought policing is the 1991 Anti-Terror Law: "Written and oral propaganda and assemblies, meetings and demonstrations aimed at damaging the indivisible unity of the Turkish Republic are prohibited regardless of the methods, intentions and ideas behind such activities." Under the law such "acts of terrorism" are punishable by up to five years imprisonment.

These laws have imprisoned Leftist and Kurdish activists and party members, shut down newspapers and confiscated books and other publications. The State Security Courts have convicted and sentenced world-famous writers such as Yasar Kemal under this Act. Members of Parliament who have done no more than advocate a compromise solution for the Kurdish problem in the Southeast have also been imprisoned.

Here again comedy interrupts repression. Newspapers closed under the Anti-Terror Law can re-open under new names in a matter of weeks keeping most of their staff. Cases like Kemal and Kurdish parliamentarian Leyla Zana attract unpleasant international media attention often resulting in the commuting of sentences to placate an outraged Europe. Ankara gets bad press and does not silence dissent.

The contradiction is the direct result of the ideology that got Ankara into this jam in the first place. The whole drive behind Kemalist ideology was to create a nation that could enter Europe. However, the draconian policies of nation-building have created a situation very much at odds with Europe of the 1990s. While Turkey needs Europe, for psychological and economic reasons, Europe can do without Turkey as shown by Turkey's thirty-year wait to enter the European Community.

The situation has changed in recent years. In 1990, Prime Minister Turgut Ozal legalised Kurdish for domestic uses and allowed the recording of Kurdish "folk" music. Legalising something that had never been effectively criminalised impressed few people, and publication, broadcasting and even bilingual signs remained prohibited. However, the Kurdish "folk" music industry exploded.

Since Ozal's death in 1993 no one in Ankara has been brave enough to make any concessions to Kurdish autonomy. The war in the Southeast has intensified resulting in thousands of burned villages and millions of refugees, the methods of a deliberate campaign by the military to depopulate the Kurdish regions. The Kurdish cultural centre in Istanbul has to go by the euphemism "Mesopotamian Cultural Centre" to avoid closure. Even so, police raids and arrests are common there.

Seventy-five years of reality engineering are not working. Despite the laws, the torturing and imprisonment of dissidents, the extra-legal executions and vast military operations, Turkey remains a wonderfully diverse country in ethnicity, religion and language. The mosaic stubbornly sheds badly applied coats of whitewash and continues to gleam under the bright Anatolian sun.

Ankara is caught on the horns of a dilemma. The means they use to repress dissent make them semi-pariahs in the European Community they so much want to join. But to liberalise the regime and allow cultural pluralism, they risk social upheaval resulting in the dissolution of the Republic and thus the loss of the nation.

The dilemma has no easy solution. The time when limited autonomy would have satisfied the Kurds has probably passed. The burned villages, the refugees, the dead and disappeared have created deep and lasting enmity. Further, the Turkish army, the final arbiter, is never going to allow the dissolution of the Republic and the end of Kemal's dream.

Other than their determination to defeat Kurdish nationalism by military means, the army has recently intervened in parliamentary politics to protect Kemalism. Last year the army acted to head off a threat to their Western ideal coming from the Islamic Right when they forced the resignation of Necmettin Erbakan's coalition last June. Islamic fundamentalism not exactly being popular in Europe, EC members have made few protests to the military's pressure tactics or to last month's closure of the Refah Party by the Turkish constitutional court. Yet the military's disregard for the democratic process to defend the nation against "Easternism" is Eastern.

While the Cold War dominated international relations, Kurdish nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism remained thoroughly repressed. In those days, few really questioned Ankara's tactics or cared all that much about what was happening as long as Turkey remained a solid member of NATO. So the Western allies made little effort to protest three military coups or to object too strongly to the imprisonment or execution of thousands of Leftist activists following the 1980 coup. In the post-Cold War world, Ankara has achieved some success at getting accepted as a more equal member of the Western club, but at the same time has come under greater scrutiny to assure that it behaves according to club rules.

Without major and imaginative reforms, Turkey is heading toward a political catastrophe that will result in its ejection from the club it has struggled so long to join. While some promising developments have resulted from the new coalition in Ankara, it seems highly unlikely that Ankara can muddle through. The contradictions are too firmly imbedded in the politics of the Republic to allow any positive structural change.
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