In search of the 'New Turkey'

“The Old Turkey is behind us, and its doors are now closed”, said Recep Tayyip Erdogan this summer, standing before a banner that read, “On the Road to the New Turkey”. A month later he was president. But what now? Kaya Genç wonders if in fact two countries continue to live alongside one another.

During the 2013 summer riots in Turkey, almost all my Istanbul neighbours banged pots and pans from their windows. They didn’t say much while pan-banging but it was apparent that they were protesting against the actions of the state, its representatives and its security forces. I live in Cihangir, a few minutes’ walk from Gezi Park, where the riots began. While listening to this atonal music of dissent that surrounded my flat during long summer nights, I had more than enough time to reflect on what seemed like an unbridgeable gap between the lives of residents in my bohemian neighbourhood and those who lived in the adjacent neighbourhoods, where support for the governing party is high. It was as if two countries lived in one, and only one would be allowed to survive.

Panorama of Levent 4, Istanbul. Photo: Elgaard. Source: Wikimedia

One year later I visited Ankara, Turkey’s political capital, where I felt the gap even more acutely. The protestors were there all right, in the form of young activists, leftist university students and retired bureaucrats who said, respectively, that things could be better in the future, or were better in the past. But there was also a new phenomenon visible here – a rising class of what the social anthropologist Jenny White terms suurlu (“conscious”) entrepreneurs: pious business people who are devout Muslims yet take advantage of the opportunities the capitalist system has offered them during the last decade. As we commuted in a first-class carriage of a train on the brand new high-speed railway, I watched well-dressed men use their newly purchased iPads to send business emails, and enjoy the transformation of their country at around 255 kilometres per hour. In London, you might call them City types. Here they are seen as “the business people of the New Turkey”.

On 11 July this year, a month before Turkey’s first-ever presidential elections by popular vote, the then prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took to the stage in a meeting hall in Hali, Istanbul, and announced his vision for the future of the country he had been ruling for the past twelve years. “The Old Turkey is behind us, and its doors are now closed,” he said. Erdogan was standing in front of a massive banner that read, “On the Road to the New Turkey”.

In the course of his speech, the self-confident politician made dozens of references to the “New Turkey”. There were also references to its antonym. “The Old Turkey was ruled by terror,” Erdogan asserted, as he listed the key points of his vision. Under the guidance of his Islamist Justice and Development Party (the AKP), the New Turkey would have the power to achieve social prosperity, a larger economy, political stability, advanced democracy, and transparency. The New Turkey would achieve those by itself, once it came to life. Erdogan’s job was to make sure that nothing got in the way of its birth.

Even after watching Erdogan’s three-hour-long speech, one could be excused for having questions about this utopian project. Like a carefully encrypted message that will reveal itself in time (according to Erdogan’s manifesto, this will be in 2023, the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic) the New Turkey is an ideal rhetorical tool; one that helped the prime minister win the elections and become president in August.

Yet not everybody agrees on what the New Turkey refers to. Does Erdogan mean the future, or his party’s term in office, when he talks about the New Turkey? Or has the New Turkey been with us since the AKP first took office in 2002? I posed those questions to the political analyst Dogan Eskinat, who worked for Erdogan’s campaign. “The New Turkey represents a utopia and a roadmap for the country,” he said. “It reflects the notion that Turkish society is inherently unequal in terms of access to opportunity. The New Turkey promises to empower the masses who were disempowered under the old establishment.” Eskinat said the New Turkey is yet to come – “we do not live in the New Turkey today, but we catch glimpses of it on occasion.” But it was his conclusion that I found most interesting: “the New Turkey is our response to the American dream.”

If a time traveller had come to visit me in the early 1990s and foretold a future where Turkey’s conservatives would install an 81km-long underground railway network, with 65 stations, in Istanbul – a city of overcrowded buses and chronic traffic – I would have laughed at him. But, once in government, the AKP did indeed modernise the city to a great degree. In the preceding decades, defenders of Turkey’s old political elite had adapted an isolationist, Eurosceptic and statist tone, and the economy they had created favoured only the privileged bureaucratic classes. This meant the closing of doors to “strivers” from the poor, rural communities. Yet the shifts that have taken place in the last decade, where Turkey’s economic growth has brought migrants from those rural communities into the heart of its cities, have led to an uneasy reconciliation between religion and modernity. Conflicts between these two spheres became increasingly pronounced. Pious politicians asked for alcohol-free neighbourhoods and there were tighter regulations on events like rock concerts, which rang alarm bells for the secular youth; in response, members of the upper middle classes became more vocal in their complaints about Arab tourists and Syrian refugees, whom they accused of being backward.

In the first half of the noughties, a democratic, Islamic and pluralistic Turkey was an attractive proposition for Western observers who had been searching for ways of reconciling Islam and democracy in their own countries, especially after 9/11. In the West, Turkey was increasingly presented as a model for its Arab neighbours, while in the wake of Egypt’s revolution in 2011 Erdogan surprised many Islamists in other countries by praising Turkey’s secular model at a Muslim Brotherhood rally in Cairo.

Chris Morris, a former BBC Turkish correspondent, interviewed Erdogan for his 2004 book The New Turkey (Granta), in which the politician set out a vision of secularism best summarised by the phrase “do not interfere”:

“Religion shouldn’t interfere with issues of government,” he said carefully, when we met at the prime minister’s official residence in Ankara. “But government shouldn’t interfere with issues of religion either. That’s the message we’re trying to spread.” […] He wants to be more democratic and more Islamic at the same time: the state may be secular but society isn’t.

This differed in emphasis from the secularism traditionally practised in the Turkish Republic, where a strictly enforced principle of laïcité banned women who wore the headscarf from working in the public sector. Erdogan’s party has long campaigned for a softening of such rules.

Yet this liberal and optimistic vision began to unravel last year, when the ruling party crossed a number of red lines. First, a ban on alcohol sales between the hours of 10pm and 6am rubbed many secularists the wrong way. Then, the increasingly visible demands of environmentalists, who wanted to make their voices heard as Turkey’s cities underwent redevelopment, were ignored. When those activists wanted to stop the destruction of Gezi Park, a small area of green space next to Istanbul’s Taksim Square, they were treated brutally. Videos of policemen burning tents, pepper-spraying and teargassing activists went viral. “Do not interfere” may have been the government’s attitude when it came to religion but protecting the environment, it seemed, was a different case.

Even before these events, some Turkish liberals who once defended Erdogan’s vision of a “more democratic and more Islamic” Turkey had started voicing their doubts. In 2011, the mass arrests of investigative journalists on the pretext of a coup plot had hinted at authoritarian tendencies within the Erdogan government and raised alarm in the international media. With the brutal police response to the protests of 2013, liberals thought their worst fears had come true. During this turbulent period, the government started using the term “New Turkey” more frequently. It was as if it provided a counter-argument to the criticisms and formed a roadmap for the shape of things to come.

The high-speed railway line that brings you to Ankara terminates at the city’s Central Station, where you can see the train used by the Turkish Republic’s founder and president Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the last years of his life. The carefully preserved 1930s vehicle, known as “the white train”, seems to embody the spirit of the modernisers who built Turkey. A similar sense of duty and national development was in the air in the Ankara of 2014. Stepping outside the Central Station, I saw legions of riot police patrolling the area. A few metres behind them stood a large sports hall where Erdogan was in the process of handing his post as party leader to Ahmet Davutoglu, a professor of international relations who was appointed as prime minister a few days later.

Davutoglu is an intellectual politician, influential in both Istanbul and Ankara. In 2008 he reportedly funded and helped found the Istanbul City University, which has a flagship Political Sciences and International Relations department as well as a School of Islamic Studies and a number of graduate schools. Davutoglu is also a frequent visitor at SETA, a conservative-democrat think-tank with headquarters in Ankara’s Cankaya neighbourhood. Insight Turkey, an English-language magazine published by SETA, is one of the centres where the theory of the New Turkey is made.

Insight Turkey recently ran an article entitled “The AK Party: Dominant Party, New Turkey and Polarisation” by professor Fuat Keyman. According to Keyman, the New Turkey is a “post-secular” society “where religion is more visible, active and established”. Whereas nationalism was the binding force of Turkey’s old ruling elite, identity politics have now come to the fore.

Many foreign observers have characterised this change with the image of headscarved women driving SUvs in Istanbul’s financial districts. New fashions, such as women’s magazines edited by and mostly consumed by headscarved women, as well as the opening of female-only beaches, have been interpreted as signs of this new era. On Twitter, users well-versed in Turkish, English, Arabic and Ottoman culture are increasingly setting the tone of the intellectual conversation. Members of international networks of pious business people are making their voices heard more frequently, through newly formed weekly and daily publications. When I visited Konya, one of the most conservative cities at the heart of Anatolia, I was surprised to see a shopping mall named after Rumi, the Sufi mystic who died in that city, after leading an ascetic life.

If such changes reflect the soul of the New Turkey, they also provide material for critics of the project. The journalist and novelist Ece Temelkuran, whom I met in a street café at the heart of Cihangir, was one of the most prominent supporters of the 2013 Gezi protests. In her view the New Turkey is actually “the New Dubai” and Turkey’s people must do their best to stop it.

“We have been going through a Dubaization process for the last five years,” Temelkuran said. “It means this: clean the public space of social activities, destroy the idea of public space by reducing all human interaction to consumption … This of course diminishes the idea of politics to a dramatic degree.” The Gezi protests, in her view, were a reaction against this process.

Temelkuran has a point: Istanbul’s glitzy shopping malls, which have made headlines in recent years because of the rapid speed of their construction, have transformed Turkey’s cities beyond return, and reshaped them in their own image. Wikipedia lists 90 modern malls in Istanbul, the earliest of which was built in 1993. Thirtyfour new malls are projected to open in the near future, when Istanbul will have twice as many shopping malls as London, which has 59. It is also significant that most of Istanbul’s shopping centre developments are placed in the middle of conservative neighbourhoods and are set to change the texture of life there. According to Jenny White, it is precisely this intersection of conservative lifestyles and capitalism that has been changing Turkey over the last decade.

Perhaps we don’t have two Turkeys – a new and an old one – but rather two New Turkeys. During the presidential elections, Erdogan was challenged by a left-wing candidate, Selahattin Demirtas, who promised to bring a “New Life” to the country if victorious. His People’s Democratic Party (the HDP) also offers a radical transformation of Turkey, but one that puts the stress on defending the rights of minorities and LGBT people as well as promoting pluralism and multiculturalism. Demirtas, who is a member of the Kurdish minority, won just under ten per cent of the vote in August but the emergence of his party is none the less significant.

Historically, the Turkish republic, with its emphasis on a unified, secular national identity, perceived two internal enemies: Islamists and nationalist Kurds. Their respective political movements were driven underground after the military coup of 1980, but in more recent decades they have emerged once again, attempting to broaden their appeal. According to Sarphan Uzunoglu, an advisor to the HDP, the key difference between the visions of his party and those of Erdogan’s is to do with class. “If you are part of the new conservative middle class, then yes, the New Turkey is a democratic and comfortable state for you,” he told me. “However, for poor people, and all the oppressed communities, this majoritarian democracy is turning into a nightmare. The Kurds are aware that Erdogan’s Turkey must be completely democratised to create something genuinely new.”

Yet political visions, like religions, are curious things in that they tend to divide people into believers and doubters. During his presidential campaign, Erdogan labelled some of his opponents traitors; he seemed genuinely shocked that they failed to comprehend the extent of the transformation his team had been offering to the country.

Now that Erdogan, who still commands huge popular support despite the turbulent events of the past year, is confirmed as president, it remains to be seen whether these differences can be reconciled. Some secularist intellectuals continue to raise fears that the government will bring sharia to Turkey; a new “caliphate” in the words of the left-wing academic Nuray Mert. Meanwhile, the ongoing civil war in Syria could destabilise its neighbour: in October, Turkey’s inaction as ISIS militants encroached on the Kurdish-majority border town of Kobane sparked widespread protests and threatened a reopening of the conflict between the state and the separatist PKK guerilla movement.

Others, such as the columnist Yildiray Ogur, are more optimistic. He points to Istanbul, which has been governed by Erdogan’s party for the past two decades. “There was never a time when Istanbul had more nightclubs, and when more alcohol was consumed in the city,” he says, pointing out that the most recent Gay Pride was attended by tens of thousands. “AKP decriminalised adultery, and the state gave back properties and churches of non-Muslims. As for the caliphate, it is an unusable institution that belongs to an old world.”

Listening to Ogur I couldn’t help but think that the New Turkey has turned into a kind of mirror where people see their biggest dreams and fears. Having spoken to the young, ambitious and pot-banging people of my neighbourhood throughout the last year, I got the impression that nobody can convince them of the New Turkey’s merits. But I sensed a similarly unshakeable conviction in a young businessman who sat next to me on the high-speed train from Konya to Istanbul. As the Anatolian landscape flew past us, he talked incessantly about the details of a business agreement, and seemed to have no doubt that where we were headed was a Good Place.

Published 10 December 2014
Original in English
First published by New Humanist 4/2014

Contributed by New Humanist © Kaya Genç / New Humanist / Eurozine


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