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A plague on both your houses July 22, 2007

Posted by smiffy in European Politics, Uncategorized.

In the current religion versus atheism debates, mostly fought out on the Guardian’s Comment Is Free pages and occasionally on here and elsewhere, it’s easy to fall into the black-and-white “Religion + politics = bad, secularism = good” mindset. We rightly see the mixture of religion (particularly religious fundamentalism) and government as anathema to liberal democratic values; we might, therefore, make the mistake of thinking that secularism, of any stripe, is worth supporting against an alternative. Secularism, we might think, represents Enlightenment values, the tradition of Voltaire and Paine, of Jefferson and the American Revolution, of the United Irishmen, of Darwin, Huxley and Russell. All good stuff, yes?

Well, as Gershwin might say, it ain’t necessarily so. While secularism is, obviously, a necessary aspect of a modern, functioning liberal democracy, today’s elections in Turkey remind us that it isn’t a sufficient one.

The political crisis of earlier this summer, which forced these premature elections (which it looks like the incumbent AKP party is likely to win with an increased share of the vote) put the issue of secularism centre-stage and was watched closely by those in Europe troubled by the idea of a Muslim-majority state acceding to the European Union. The mass protests against the AKP attempt to install Abdullah Gul (he of the headscarf wearing wife) drew admiring glances from those who prize secularism above all else, an indication that Turkey was a modern, forward-looking democracy rather than the backward, semi-Islamist state that some opponents of the Turkish EU big might have one believe. The veiled threat from the Turkish military that it might intervene (again) if it didn’t like the actions of the elected politicians was passed over as an unfortunate faux pas, but with little further comment.

Turkish opponents of the AKP (literally the Justice and Development Party), particularly the Kemalist CHP (or Republican People’s Party) but also many in the smaller parties and the establishment media, like to portray it as a hotbed of Islamist reaction, cunning enough to play the game of democracy as long as it suits, but ready to jump at a theocracy as soon as the opportunity arises. There’s certainly some merit in the charge; many in the AKP, including Gul and Tayyip Erdogan the party leader have chequered histories when it comes to far-right religious politics. However, since the AKP came to power in 2002, Turkey hasn’t descended into Taliban-esque religious tyranny. On the contrary, with the opening of formal negotiations aimed at EU membership, the AKP government has been continuing along a path of slow (indeed, painfully slow as well as grudging and inadequate) reforms designed at bringing Turkey into line with EU norms in a wide range of areas, not just economically.

That said, the AKP is a right-wing conservative party; if not Islamist then in line with traditional Christian Democrat parties across Europe (ignoring the obvious, glaring difference). One would like to hope, then, that its main opposition would come from a liberal, leftist position – the kind of ‘secular’ values outlined above. Which is why the current political climate in Turkey is so depressing.

The two main opposition parties (based on the expected outcome of the election) are the CHP and the MHP (the Nationalist Movement Party) which while ostensibly secular is moving towards a hardline, nationalist, quasi-authoritarian position, particularly in relation to the Kurdistan issue (which surprisingly arose prominently during the election campaign) as well as growing in scepticism towards the project of EU membership. Indeed, it’s important to remember that it was the CHP, and its predecessors (or the assertively secularist military), that were in power during the most oppressive years since Turkey gained its independence. Worse yet is the MHP, essentially a neo-fascist, far-right nationalist party complete with its own quasi-paramilitary group, the Grey Wolves. Based on the figures released so far, the MHP is likely to receive around 15% of the vote, an increase of over 50% on their 2002 result.

So where’s a wet liberal secularist like me to turn? What would I do if I were Turkish? On the one hand we have the religious right, on the other we have extreme nationalists. Any party that comes close to any position with which I might identify receives a negligible amount of votes. What does this suggest for the future of Turkey?

The issue of EU membership is, I think, crucial. Despite franklittle‘s compelling criticism of the European Union (while I don’t agree with everything he writes, I’m at one with him on the institutionalisation of neo-liberal economic policies) I think the only hope for a liberal genuinely democratic Turkey is for the negotiations to succeed and for the Turkish state to institute the kind of reforms (e.g. strengthening of human and civil rights, reduction of the power of the military, normalising its relationship with Cyprus, to touch on just a few) required of membership. And with the question of Turkish accession likely to be a key factor when it comes to national ratification of the Reform Treaty, as well as the election of Sarkozy, a staunch opponent of the Turkish bid, that membership is far from assured.
All of which leaves us with a situation where the best hope for a genuinely secular and democratic republic in Turkey is the success of the religious party over the avowedly secular ones.

If only they could all lose.


1. ejh - July 22, 2007

I think the problem, or part of, is that for a very long time, there was, or was assumed to be, a convergence of interests between secularism, or reason, or whatever you want to call it, and socialism, or greater equality or social democracy or what you will. This was the case as long as there were powerful labour movements and as long as free-market individualism didn’t hold sway. It went some way to ensuring that people who wanted a more ratrional and less superstituous society saw clear common ground between them and working people who wanted a more equitable society: and vice versa of course.

But over the last twenty or thirty years or so, that link has been weakened: modernity is considered to be distinct from equality, very much so, and a rational society is thought to be one in which egalitarian ideas are consigned to vthe past, considered inimical to freedom and liberal democratic values every much as religious ideas. At very least, the two are kept separate: it’s considered imprtoant to say “Turkey must be above all a secular society” – not an unreasonable thing in itself – whereas an old socialist like myself would be inclined to say that if you operate economic and social policies that alienate working people and the poor, then they will go somewhere that does not treat them with contempt and that will be the mosque or the Church.

Now of course one may take a slightly different perspective and say that this represents a reconciliation, to a degree, between the socially concerned religious and the socially concerned but secular, and that’s not a dreadful thing in itself – and indeed it is not. But the frustrating thing is that it is a point that the relatively affluent, the metropolitan and liberal, seem to find it absolutely impossible to grasp, whether it be in Turkey or in Ireland or in the USA: if you erect a more competitive and less forgiving and less equal society, even if it be more affluent overall, then in fact what you eill do is foster religion rather than counter it, because what you will do is make people less comfortable, less secure and more afraid.

For all its faults and problems, the genius of socialism is that it invites working people to put themselves first, when their whole life-experience tells them the opposite, and people will only be enthusiastic for politics that put them at the forefront. And if they are not invited to put themselves first as workers, then somebody else will invite them to put themselves first on some other basis, that basis being race, or nationality, or the religion to which they adhere. So you find it is religious parties who have more to say to the poor than do the liberal parties, and the liberal parties never understand.


2. franklittle - July 23, 2007

Good post smiffy, I’ve bee trying to keep track of what’s going on in the Turkish elections and like you was somewhat surprised, though perhaps I should not have been, by the absence of some sort of libera, left bloc for the elections. I think it’s interesting that Kurdistan has become such an issue and I wonder if you would agree that this must be at least in part because of the US policy in Iraq, which has seen increasing autonomy for Kurds in the North of that country. I’d suspect this has to have a knock-on effect in Turkey among the large Turkish minority and not just in terms of morale or political symbolism, but in more practical forms of support.

I actually agree with you that Turkish membership of the EU would be a positive thing. Both for Turkey and for the EU as it happens. So long as Turkey can meet the Copenhagen criteria on human rights, I think their application should be treated in much the same way as anyone else’s, though as someone who supports and independent Kurdish state, there’s a couple of contradictions in that.

While I would be extremely EU-critical, and I can even see a scenario in the not too distant future where the left position should be for the dismantling of the EU, or Irish withdrawl, at present it is better to be in the Union, than not. Even if they are going to take our busses!


3. londoner - July 23, 2007

The AKP is a socially conservative party but it is not economicaly right wing in any convestional sense, nor is it traditionalist. Like many political Islamist groups it’s economic policy is much closer to social democracy than avowedly pro capitalist – the party has built its core support in municiple and local elections on the back of welfare provision and championing the economically marginalised – notably migrants from rural Anatolia to the chaotic cities, with a success not unlike US big city Democrat machines in the early 20 century. As with many Islamist groups it emerged out of a critique of both capitalism and the Marxism of the 1970s, and has been informed by both.
The headscarf issue highlights the extent to which the group though avowedly Islamist is quite unlike traditionalists. In contrast to for example the Taliban, AK rallies and campaign groups inevitably feature groups of (headscarfed) women – who are a key consitiuency. Their manifesto demands equal access to education for women wearing the veil – not an end to education for women.
As with the Iranian regime and Hamas the AK doesn’t concieve of itself as pro-status quo. It has backed a major privatisation program but few of Turkey’s billionaire conglomerate owners will be gald to see the party return to power.


4. nicktarlton - July 23, 2007

According to wikipedia amongst the 27 independents elected in this election were 24 members of the Democratic Society Party – a pro-kurdish social democratic party – and one representative of the Freedom and Solidarity Party (ODP) – a socialist party. I’m suprised folk who consider themselves leftist wouldn’t at least have a look at these forces before deciding that the best hope for Turkey is a right wing islamic party and the EU.


5. smiffy - July 23, 2007

Yes, 24 seats out of over 500.

I think you’re missing the point of the piece, a little. I’m aware that there are socialist and social democratic parties in Turkey. However, as I think I made clear, support for them is pretty negligible (although their prospects aren’t helped by the 10% parliamentary threshhold).

It’s something of a misrepresentation of my position to say that “the best hope for Turkey is a right wing islamic party and the EU”. It would be easy to churn out some boiler-plate piece about the importance of a real class-based alternative, left unity, solidarity etc. in Turkey/UK/Ireland wherever, which we’ve all heard before and after which we can all go home and feel good about ourselves.

However, until the great revolutionary train arrives at the station, it’s reasonable to look at the world-as-it-is, consider what’s likely to happen, rather than we would like to happen, and think about which of the two, admittedly undesirable, alternatives is likely to lead to a better outcome.


6. stringjack - July 29, 2007

“So where’s a wet liberal secularist like me to turn? What would I do if I were Turkish?”



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