‘So, you are Pakistani?’ Almost every day, when I meet Turks for the first time, I am asked ‘where are you from?’ Almost without fail, the conclusion is reached before I can say anything. Even though I was born in Britain, and have spent less than ten months of my entire life in Pakistan, I agree for simplicity’s sake. But there is another more significant reason: Turkey is one of the few places in the world where being a Pakistani is celebrated. Turks are taught in schools that it was money and gold sent as donations from what was Muslim India, and is now Pakistan, which significantly helped the War of Independence. With all that cash and bullion Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), the founder of the Republic, established Türkiye İş, Turkey’s first national bank, in 1924. After the initial introductions, the conversation turns quickly to focus on my religion. Some go on to ask my name. Then they probe, ‘this is a Turkish name. Are you Turkish? Why do you have a Turkish name but you are not Turkish?’ I smile and reply ‘my name is from Arabic’. Then they ask, ‘are you a Muslim?’ I reply, ‘of course.’ They smile warmly and declare, ‘Salaam-alaikum’. After this initial exchange many Turks declare, ‘We love Pakistan. You are my brother’.
In Turkey, talk can quickly move to religion; and people are judged in terms of whether they are for or against religion. For most Turks faith identity is critical. After all, Turkey is a Muslim country where the majority of the people are content to call themselves Muslim. Those with strong faith identities also tend to have strong emotional attachment to the Ottoman past. However, a large segment of the Turkish population also subscribes to a brand of secularism which regards certain Muslim symbols with absolute dread – the very sight of a headscarf sends them into an enraged spin. These secular Turks look at the secular republic and its formative phase with a high degree of romanticism.
Known as Constantinople at the time Istanbul was captured in 1453 by the nineteen-year old Ottoman Fatih Sultan Mehmet (1432–1481). This is when the history of Turkey begins for vast swathes of the Turkish population, for whom their only education is high school or early secondary schooling. Constantinople was the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire for a thousand years before the arrival of the Ottomans. The majestic Aya Sophia still stands on the grounds upon which it was built, in spite of numerous earthquakes and reconstruction mishaps. The Blue Mosque, also known as Sultanahmet, built to pay homage to the Aya Sophia, is arguably one of the most symbolic images of the country today, in the same way that many associate the Taj Mahal with India or the Statue of Liberty with New York.
When Ottoman Turkey conquered Egypt, taking charge of the Caliphate, it became an immense economic, cultural and political power in the region, spreading Sufi philosophy east and west. The Ottomans positively incorporated other religions into wider society, namely Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula and Christians who joined the ranks of the civil service. The Ottomans were open and inclusive in recognising different religions as part of a millet system of governance, where each community abided by its own laws – Shariah, Christian Canon law, or Jewish Halakha.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Turkey was re-founded as a secular republic by Atatürk – a war hero who inspired the Turkish War of Independence (1915-1919), defeated the Allies in the 1915 Battle of Çanakkale, abolished the Caliphate and modernised society according to European ideals by introducing secularism based on French laicism. In contrast to the Ottoman Empire, Atatürk forged a monocultural and monolingual society, ultimately defined, formulated and operated in opposition to centuries of Ottoman rule based on Islamic and Sufi spiritual norms and values. Kemalism disregarded ethnic differences among the Muslims, suppressed public expression of religious sentiments and symbols and effectively expelled religious differences from society. But the fabric of society could not be changed without significant implications. Atatürk used an authoritarian system that projected and implemented a top-down idea of Turkey. By changing the language, both its content and script, he arguably removed from everyday use approximately thirty per cent of the vocabulary that had much of its roots in Arabic and Farsi. Overnight, in adopting the Latin alphabet instead of the Turkish form of the Arabic script, a significant body of the population became illiterate. Over the decades, the state apparatus, which served the interests of an elite cadre, brutally enforced Atatürk’s form of republicanism. The state reproduced itself through the formalisation of institutions in its own image, namely the military, academy, judiciary and media. Bourgeoisie secular groups, located and operating out of the centres of Istanbul, held both industrial and commercial power, and garnered political and cultural influence as a result. In the meantime, the secular republic subjugated religious and cultural minorities, which were crucial to the expansion of the Ottoman Empire. They were oppressed or forcibly assimilated until the opening up of the economy and society that began in the early 1980s and accelerated after the end of the Cold War.
Strict authoritarianism led to reliance on the military as a means of seemingly protecting the nation from hostile others. But during the twentieth century Turkey witnessed three military coups. The late 1970s and early 1980s also saw the emergence of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party). Its efforts moved beyond a Marxist-Leninist political and ideological cause to one of guerrilla warfare against the Turkish state. It was civil war in all but name in the south east region of Turkey until 2011, when a ceasefire was declared and a new peace process initiated, which subsequently deteriorated in September 2015.
This history of political turmoil is well described by Edip Asaf Bekaroğlu in his examination of Turkish secularism. Historically, as Bekaroğlu notes, the secularists have had the upper hand, buttressed by the military. But since the turn of the millennium, the majority in Turkish society has moved towards the centre ground. The emerging ‘Islamists’ embraced democracy and citizenship, and politically squeezed out the hard-line secularists and nationalists. From 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) ruled Turkey with stability, vigour and enthusiasm unprecedented in recent Turkish history. The economy boomed, Turkey flourished, the AKP won three consecutive elections and there was a growing sense that a persuasive political, social and cultural project was bearing fruit for the many. The ‘Turkish model’ was touted as a potential future of all Muslim societies. ‘What today is a cautious Turkish bid to become part of history’, wrote Swedish critic Parvez Manzoor in the first issue of Critical Muslim, ‘may one day become a model for all Muslim states to emulate’.
Alas, poor Abdullah! It was not to be. Power corrupted the Islamists – as it does ideologues of all other shades. The 2013 events of Gezi Park, when citizens across the country demonstrated against turning a much loved small park into a leisure complex, brought the true controlling nature of the AKP to the fore. Soon after a host of corruption scandals that implicated people at the very top of the party surfaced. The then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan curtailed press freedoms, oversaw a particular brand of neoliberalism and disillusioned many in society with his intense authoritarianism. In addition, his rather public feud with the Hizmet (a Turkish transnational civil society movement headed by Sufi scholar, Fethullah Gülen) was seen as unnecessary in-fighting between two progressive Sunni Muslim fraternities, one political and the other community-oriented. As Ahmet Kuru points out, Erdoğan tried to ‘take various spheres of life under his control from soccer to judiciary, from religion to construction, and from media to education’; and ‘replace the parliamentarian regime with a presidential one and to make himself the ultra-powerful president for ten years (2014-2024)’. Kuru outlines an array of Erdoğan’s misdemeanours and concludes that the promise of the ‘Turkish model’ has turned out to be false; ‘after a decade in power’, what Tayyip Erdoğan ‘has actually built is a 1500 room palace for himself at a cost of around $1 billion!’
The struggle for power between Hizmet and AKP played into the hands of the undecided and the critically minded in the 2015 elections, while also encouraging a Kurdish vote for a Kurdish party. Hizmet is led by Fethullah Gűlen, described by Sophia Pandya as ‘a Sufi theologian known reverentially as Hocaefendi (respected teacher) to his millions of followers’, who has ‘inspired a civil society humanitarian movement, called Hizmet, or service, which has founded thousands of educational centres and owns dozens of media institutions, in Turkey and abroad’. The AKP is led by Erdoğan, former Prime Minister and now President. The two leaders were allies for years; ‘their alliance was based on their common traditional and religious inclinations, not to mention their shared political enemies’. Indeed, the AKP’s electoral success was due, at least to some extent, to the support it received from Hizmet. But they had a ‘furious fallout’ in 2013; and ‘their ultimate breakup was informed in part, by their contesting forms of masculinity’. This struggle for power represents, notes Pandya, ‘their contesting visions of Turkey, but also their differing performances of masculinity, leadership, religion, and values regarding alterity’.
The Kurds have sought equality, status and recognition since 1923, when the modern republic of Turkey was founded. Arguably, the 2015 election is the first time their voice has been truly heard. The Kurds are resilient, determined people as I discovered when I visited Yüksekova, a town deep inside ‘Turkey’s Kurdistan’, 200km further east from Van, far into the Hakkari province. At the bottom of Turkey, the town is approximately 60km from the borders of both Iran and Iraq. After flying to Van, reaching Yüksekova proved a treacherous journey. It meant traversing mountainous terrain, approximately 2,000 feet above sea level. Rivers flowed beside us as we drove on the rocky roads, finally arriving in Yüksekova, which is on a flat plain surrounded by snow-topped mountains on all sides. According to recent estimates, it contains approximately 60,000 people, all of Kurdish origin. I stayed with the family of Ismail Hakki, a former colleague from Fatih University in Istanbul. A well-built man in his late twentiess, he is a proud Kurd, as are all the Kurds I have met in Istanbul over the years. I was afforded the warmth, peace and nobleness of his most generous family, including his five brothers who were variously aged from their mid-twenties to forties. Their mother and father gave me the freedom of their home as if I were one of their sons. Steeped in traditional Kurdish and Sunni family culture, we ate together, young and old, on the floor while seated on elegant kilims and cushions.
I spent some time talking to the local community about the ‘Kurdish issue’. Various responses came back, including the idea that current discussions are better than ever before, it is possible to be optimistic at some level, and a solution could be found. This was soon after the current peace talks began in 2012. Others blamed the PKK, stating that they were the problem per se. Some were of the view that no solution could ever be achieved. For them the status quo would remain as it has done since the emergence of the secular Turkish state. Although there was no overwhelming consensus, it was evident that the residents wanted to decide their own issues and run their own affairs. In truth, a local Kurdish leadership was in place in Yüksekova, but there remained a great deal of tension under the surface. Sadly, a day after I left the town to return to Istanbul, PKK guerrillas and Turkish soldiers exchanged gunfire in the Dağlıca village of the Hakkari province, some 50km south-west of Yüksekova, close to the Iraqi border. It left 26 dead, with casualties on both sides. The incident was one of the fiercest exchanges between these opposing groups in recent years. It is apparent that the spirit of the people deep in Kurdish territory will not be diminished. Kurdish land is in their blood and it pumps through their collective veins with vigour despite numerous attempts to make them think or believe otherwise.
Since the advent of the modern secular republic, ethnic and national conflicts have periodically re-surfaced, thwarting the development of a confident citizenship at ease with religious and ethnic pluralism. At the turn of the twentieth century, out of a population of approximately 15m people, there were as many as one million Jews, Christians, Armenians, Circassians and other minority groups loyal to and in service to the Ottoman Empire. Today, there are no more than 100,000 ethnic and religious minorities throughout the whole of Turkey. In 2007, the renowned journalist Hrant Dink was assassinated in broad daylight in the centre of Istanbul. His young assassin declared ‘I have killed an Armenian’.
However, you do not have to belong to a minority community to be discriminated as pious Muslim women who wear the headscarf will tell you. Atatürk tried to reform the position of women, taking them out of the ‘Islamic dark ages’ as he saw it, encouraging them to enter the world of education and work. But he also banned the veil, or the headscarf, for teachers and civil servants working in public institutions. The ban was finally removed by the AKP in 2014. As Yusuf Sarfati notes, the headscarf has been a site of ferocious battle for the last three decades. While Sarfati provides a detailed historical account of the ‘contentious issue’, his analysis can also be seen as a powerful critique of ‘difference-blind liberalism’. He suggests that a more positive approach to the headscarf issue is to push for ‘institutionalise[d] counterpublics’ – ‘parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated so-called social groups invent and circulate counter-discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs’. Counterepublics, suggests Sarfati, would directly link marginalised veiled women to decision-making bodies, help in opinion formation and shape new strategies to combat the headscarf ban. Instead of seeing the headscarf ban solely as discrimination on the basis of ‘freedom of religion’ or ‘gender discrimination’, Sarfati argues, we should see it as discrimination against ‘religious women’.
If Kurds are the internal ‘Other’ of the Turkish Republic, Europe, as Melek Saral argues, serves as the external Other. Many Turks see themselves as European and wish to be Europeanised, and rapidly so with individualism, urbanism and internationalism supplanting existing notions of collectivism, traditionalism and localism. Turkey’s ambivalent relationship with the EU integration process is as much about Turkey’s search for an identity at the end of the Cold War as it is about the European expansion project. Given that Turkey has experienced years of unprecedented economic growth, low inflation, stable interest rates, rising wages, increasing consumerism, improving living standards, a remarkable health service, a growing higher education sector and strong geopolitical confidence in recent years, one would think that it is the ideal candidate for membership of the Union. Western Europe could also look towards Turkey as a positive partner in the integration of its own Muslim minorities, which are now close to 25 million. The EU could take advantage of a young and skilled Turkish workforce in beleaguered Western European economies undergoing the effects of ageing populations and low birth rates. But the EU remains reluctant for a simple reason: Turkey has always been seen and represented as the Darker Side of Europe. As Merryl Davies shows in her analysis of the advertisements for Fry’s ‘Turkish Delight’, European racism towards Turkey has deep roots. English statesman and philosopher, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) described the Ottoman Empire as a pressing ‘terror of the world’. The Ottomans were seen as stultified in superstition hidebound by tradition, slaves to their past, and Europe recoiled in horror at their alleged savagery, despotism and violence. Contemporary Western Europe has similar views about Turkey – it is where European civilisation ends and barbarism begins. In contrast, writes Soral, ‘European civilisation has always been a very important factor in the formulation of Turkish identity – going back to the Ottoman Empire. Modernisation, and to this end Westernisation, has not only been the major goal of the political elite in the modern Turkish Republic, it was also an objective of the Ottoman Empire. To be Western and European was regarded as a panacea for all the problems of the country; a path from underdevelopment to the civilised, modern world’.
However, all of Turkey’s overtures to the EU have been met with tea and sympathy at best and disdain and horror at worse. Not surprisingly, Turkey is looking elsewhere. Indeed, one could legitimately ask, given the crisis in the Eurozone and the all too evident fractures in the Union, what benefits could Turkey possibly gain by joining it? Particularly when Western Europe is arguably becoming more racist, xenophobic and intolerant towards its own minorities, especially towards Muslims since 9/11.
Thus, apart from its traditional allies, Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, Turkey has begun to forge ties with Africa, where it has invested heavily; with Egypt after the ‘Arab Spring’ where it supported the short lived government of the Muslim Brotherhood; and with Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), particularly Cuba. The ostensible objective in Cuba is to build the first mosque in Havana. But as Ken Chitwood argues, the main goal is to undermine the Sunni hegemony of Saudi Arabia and promote Turkey’s version of Islam – which Chitwood describes as alter-Islamist politics – as ‘a global brand made up of multiple cultures, languages, and histories’. It turns out that Cuba is as eager to oppose Turkish domination as it is to resist Saudi control, as it was to defy American authority. But Chitwood suggests that Turkey’s alter-Islamist politics is an unfinished project with much life. It ‘may or may not be relevant and appealing to the minority Muslim population in Cuba or in the rest of the LAC’, but as ‘a lived and felt political, social, and religious reality’ it may change and evolve in a positive direction. Its strength lies in its ability to ‘creates an environment of individual religious freedom over institutional religious structure’ and the ‘potential of creating spaces for interaction and interplay between multiple actors’.
A model space for interaction between a host of worldviews and outlooks, East and West, is Istanbul. As the ‘bridge of civilisations’, Istanbul is home to over 18 million people (unofficially). The majority of the population are Turks, with around 3–4 million Kurds, ironically making Istanbul the world’s largest Kurdish city. During my stay in the city, I have witnessed the further rise of the Anatolian Muslim merchant and professional classes, although secularist ideology still maintains a dominant profile in Istanbul. But the rise of the ‘Islamic bourgeoisie’ has given the city a new vitality. As Aamer Hussein states in his short, evocative piece, Istanbul is one of those cities that ‘aren’t really ours as we aren’t theirs, but we can love them and fit into them of our own volition, without compulsions or convictions or the pressure to belong’. I can say after Hussein, that ‘Istanbul could take the place of home for a few days at a time because I laid no claims to it’. It is a Western cosmopolis; offers a ‘version of the East that had confronted the paradoxes of modernity’; and serves as ‘a microcosm that had made away with continental distinctions’.
But Istanbul is not Turkey per se. The vast majority of Turks reside in the smaller towns and villages of Anatolia. There are also major industrial cities with sizeable populations that have grown tremendously in the wake of the policies of industrialisation, liberalisation of finance and as a result of the social infrastructure created by the AKP. Many cities in Turkey highlight the intersections of vast civilisations, peoples and their cultures, making it one of the richest sources of pre-historical, archaeological and ancient civilisation artefacts. Wherever you travel in Turkey, you witness its rich and diverse history. I have been fortunate to visit the ancient city of Ephesus, with its near-perfect Roman ruins, and the remnants of a vast city that at one point was the fourth biggest in the Roman Empire. In Edirne, I saw an oil-wrestling competition, the Kirkpinar, which has been held annually at the same site, since 1346. The rock-cut churches of Cappadocia, with their beautiful frescoes, the brilliant white beaches of Fethiye, the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus – there is so much enthralling history and culture that it would take the ‘halal tourists’ from the Arabian Gulf states a lifetime to see it all. My Turkish friends tell me that I can visit and see them because the Europeans did not colonise the country, take away all of her cultural wealth, placing it in museums to demonstrate their historical status. They have a point; and, one must acknowledge, that Turkey has been reasonably good at preserving and conserving its cultural property.
However, there is a danger lucking over the horizon – forgetting. ‘The past’, writes Charles Allen Scarboro, ‘is malleable and our memories live within the larger narratives of our contemporary society’. Scarboro takes us on a tour of Avcilar, his neighbourhood in Istanbul, and shows how little the Turks remember their multifaceted past. In Avcilar ‘a short stretch of an older highway lies alongside the newer E-5, the six-lane divided highway leading out of Istanbul. This short stretch of older road is named Eski Edirne Asfalta (the old paved road to Edirne), echoing a slower time when Avcilar was a humble way station between Constantinople and the earlier Ottoman capital in Edirne. The E-5, in its cold and abstract name, sets our sights to a far faster and far more general connection between Istanbul and ‘Europe and Turkey’s participation in the economy and culture of Western Europe. Edirne fades into insignificance; it has become a kilometre marker’. The neighbourhood ‘has also forgotten that the Eski Erdirne lies atop the Via Egnatia, a Roman road that tied Constantinople first to Adrianople, the earlier name for Edirne, and then on to the city of Rome. Those memories, however, are faint – eroded and replaced through the Ottoman then Republican policies of ‘Turkifying’ the old Roman and Byzantine realms, even to the level of the suburbs of Istanbul. Avcilar, itself, is named after the Sultans’ hunting lodges located here and the name of the Greek village that long nestled here alongside the Sea of Marmara is forgotten’.
In the historical city of Hasankeyf it is not an expressway but a dam that threatens to wipe out the city and its memories. The neo-liberal economic policies of the AKP seek profit over the need to remember the past. Development knows no bounds. Hasankeyf, writes John Crofoot, is ‘rich in Seljuk-era architecture and urban archaeology’. It is ‘a treasure house of the cultural history of Eastern Anatolia from the twelfth to the fifteenth century and an invaluable source of insight into the complexities and nuances of Seljuk society’. It is one of the few places where we can ‘acquire a comprehensive view of how cities were organised, the technologies that shaped everyday life, and the eclectic architectural tastes of Artukid, Ayyubid and Akkoyunlu patrons’. Yet, the city and its archaeological history could be drowned in a ‘10.4 billion cubic meter reservoir within a matter of a few years’ – thanks to the Ilısu Dam project.
Fortunately, Konya faces no such dangers. But the city that gave us Rumi is a bit of anomaly as Sufi tariqas are still officially proscribed by the state. The Sufi mystic and poet, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmi (1207–1273) is Turkey’s greatest cultural export. His shrine in Konya, the home of his Mewlewi order and the Whirling Dervishes, attracts millions of visitors every year. Rumi’s Mathnawī, composed in Konya, is regarded as one of the great glories of Islamic literature; and his spiritual, ethical and moral teachings continue to influence people all over the world on matters of human nature, cultural philosophy and religion. To be in Konya amongst the Whirling Dervishes, as I discovered, is to be moved into a parallel spiritual cosmos. But it is not just the Whirling Dervishes who leave a lasting impact on you. When Peter Clark comes face to face with the portal of the mosque in Konya, known as Ince Minare, he too is transformed. ‘Its physical presence’, he writes, ‘moved me as I had never been aesthetically moved before’. The style and design of the portal ‘lacked any possibility of further development. It embodied a kind of perfection’. Both the architectural and the spiritual manifestations ‘eluded the kind of rational categorisation to which my education had conditioned me’. The experience profoundly changed Clark’s life. It was a starting point for his career, an ‘insatiable curiosity and quest for empathising’ with the world of Islam.
Rumi’s work is, without doubt, universal. But could one say the same about the noted Turkish novelists Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901–1962) and Orhan Pamuk? The political battles of the Ottoman-scorning secularists and Ottoman-loving conservatives, as well as Turkey’s on-off lover affair with Europe, have naturally been replicated on the literary landscape. As Nagihan Haliloğlu points out, Tanpınar has been claimed by both secularists and conservatives. In his fiction and non-fiction, Tanpınar ‘gives us a panorama of a modernising Turkey, as the country experiences all the possible pitfalls in the process’. He recognised the difference between ‘our old life’, the Ottoman way, and ‘our new life’, the way of the secular Republic. ‘His old-new dichotomy’, writes Haliloğlu, ‘treats Ottoman and Republican cultures not so much as antithetical but as continuation of one another, with the possessive pronoun making sure that the reader knows that Tanpınar and his narrators have a sense of belonging to both’. Tanpınar’s alleged Ottoman nostalgia found an echo with the conservatives and his A Mind of Peace has been hailed as a classic – to be read by all Turks after the Qur’an and Rumi’s Mathnawi. But the publication of his diaries in 2008 revealed a different Tanpınar: one who thought conservatives yearning for the Ottoman Empire were ‘ignorant and thick-headed (and much more besides)’. ‘With the taint of being the go-to man of the pro-Ottomanists thus lifted, the new liberal brand of the secular establishment started to take to Tanpınar in the 1990s and the noughties, which culminated in Pamuk declaring him to be one of his influences’. However, Orhan Pamuk is himself quite problematic for many Turks who see him, in the words of Abdullah Yavuz Altun, as ‘a pro-Western intellectual’. His Western readers, on the other hand, ‘consider his works as coming from the periphery or East’. Pamuk may not be writing about universal love à la Rumi, but does that mean he is simply a local writer writing about ‘Turkish love’? The answer depends on your inclination, but Altun suggests he certainly ‘enjoys the paradoxical situation of being a modern novelist who outcasts himself from both intellectual fronts’.
There is little doubt that intellectual and political battles in Turkey are set to continue. In many ways, the story of its twenty-first century is the story of the rise and the fall of the AKP, its intellectual and cultural nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire, its attempt to tame the army, and its paradoxical relationship with secularism and Europe. Indeed, under AKP the country has come a long way in a short period of time. However, the need now is to move towards a civic nationalism model, one that effectively incorporates minorities and diversity into its legal, political, cultural, and economic systems. Consensus is important for stable democracies, but we should not forget the need for a critically engaged opposition. Only then can democracy be truly held accountable. It is the people of modern Turkey who provide us with a hope for the future – who maintain a legacy of a golden past, a revolutionary turn and a global perspective that sees them looking both east and west with confidence, poise and promise.