Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Newroz Fire and Our Coming Spring

By Murat Cem Mengüç

Speculations about a possible Kurdish Spring started long ago and after the terrible events of the Newroz celebrations in Turkey during the last week, even members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) started to speak about it. Assistant Secretary of the AKP, Hüseyin Çelik mockingly stated that “spring doesn’t arrive for the Kurds alone.” He is right, but only ironically. A spring is on its way, and it is neither constructed by the Kurds alone, nor will be a spring well remembered by them exclusively. Following the daily Fırat News, one observes that the fire of Newroz is lit everywhere, fed by many, and threatens to burn more than the Kurds. For all we know, Kurds may be the only ones who know how to jump over it.

Turkey is on the brink of an ethnic civil war. US and EU watch Turkey like a patron observing his protégé, and still depict AKP as a moderate Muslim democratic party. They also insist Turkey is a universal example of how Islam should be politicized. On the ground, however, at least two Islamist movements govern the Turkish political scene, and they enjoy feeding the divisions among its peoples.

Besides AKP, and probably more important than AKP, there is a phenomenon called cemaat, a Sunni Muslim movement, formed around the US based theologian Fetullah Gülen. I call them cemaat (masses), because that is what they call themselves, otherwise they are known as Güllenists, or Gülen Movement. Historically speaking, cemaat and the AKP can be explained as a uniform entity, and come any election, they partner to defeat oppositions. However, they have slowly separated their paths as well.[1] AKP has governed Turkey nearly a decade, and successfully. It is a pro-capitalist, pro-globalization, right wing conservative entity, and it is a solidified political institution. It receives immense amount of respect both domestically and internationally. It is not a movement with religious tendencies. Its leadership possesses a consciousness formed through their interactions with other Turkish political institutions, such as the Turkish military and the Turkish judicial elite. They are in the position of power, and believe they are in charge of Turkey’s future. In contrast, the mentality of the cemaat, which is a much more organic and elusive entity, is less concentrated. Its ideals are shaped around the teachings and the statements of a spiritual leader. Its agenda is neither conclusive nor institutionalized. Its members want to influence the immediate Turkish politics and the global Sunni/Muslim scene. It seeks change through grassroots organization and media. Finally, cemaat is led by a man who lives in exile, whereas AKP is led by a group of technocrats who live in the Turkish capital. In short, if cemaat is searching for more power, and believes it can be more powerful, AKP thinks that it has now become the power.

As one reads the Stratfor Papers, it becomes obvious that the paths of AKP and the cemaat parted long ago. These papers suggest that the two groups remain symbiotic but don’t act together. However, Occidentally wired international media, along with the stereotype loving US and EU political elite observe AKP and the cemaat as a uniform phenomenon. Even the well informed agencies like Al Jazeera, who supposed to be an expert on the affairs of the Middle East is confused. When it cares to invite a Turkish scholar to compose a piece about the AKP or Turkey, it still strikes the same note of uniform Turkish Islam, such as in the case of Pınar Kemerli's recent opinion piece.[2] (In all honesty, Al Jazeera does a better job covering the British Premiership than the Kurdish insurgency in Anatolia and the Turkish politics in general.)

Kemerli’s case shows that aside from the outsiders, the insiders also make the same mistake. Even the journalist Ahmed Şık, who was just released from prison after being arrested for writing (though not publishing) a book about the cemaat, still refers to the Turkish Islamists as a uniform entity.[3] Whether because the Turkish secular intellectuals not yet grasped the multifaceted nature of Turkish Islamism, or not yet recovered from the shock of having lost the leadership of their country to a religious conservative movement, persistence of this view shows how alienated the educated secular elite and the common masses of Turkey have grown.

The important thing is the confrontation between AKP and the cemaat conceives everyone else almost irrelevant. Especially the non-Sunni religious minorities of Turkey are used as gambling chips. The Kurds are perfect example of this. They practice a different form of Islam and inhabit a region bordering the Syrian Shia dictatorship which is now exterminating its Sunni population. AKP gained its popularity in the Kurdish region when it introduced a program called “Kurdish Opening.” This opening promised a series of laws to recognize Kurdish civil rights. It also promised to unarm the militant Kurds without budging to the PKK. Presently, the “Kurdish Opening” collapsed, because cemaat leaked a sound recording of the secret dialogs between the PKK and AKP, which were not supposed to happen. They did so, to teach AKP a lesson. AKP was being spear headed under the authoritarian leadership of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdoğan.

Anything that plays the Turks against the Kurds, or the Kurds against the Turks also plays into the hands of AKP and the cemaat. Anything that grabs the daily attention, allows the Islamisation of the Turkish politics continue with less public out-cry. Moreover, AKP and the cemaat benefit well from being conceived as a uniform entity, because it makes them look even more powerful.

At the turn of the millennium, when AKP came to power, it was with the help of the cemaat, but due to economic factors which dictated the real politics in Turkey. By the mid 1990’s, membership talks with the EU clearly indicated that the archaic banking and tax laws in Turkey had to be reformed. After a disastrous economic collapse in 2001, AKP was able to emerge as the only party which could form a majority government, and willing to enact reforms. If it rose to power with the help of the cemaat and its grassroots strength, its later popularity was a result of many other factors. The banking and tax reforms AKP enacted were originally drafted by a Turkish economic genius Kemal Derviş, who is now the Administrator of the United Nations Development Program. These were designed to make Turkey a partner to the ongoing globalization, and they were very simple but strict recommendations. They brought Turkish economy up to par with the international capitalism in terms of its business laws. Surely, Turkish economy performed well afterwards and continues to do so. AKP became a temporary solution for the needs of a country which was long ruled by non-reformist institutions.[4] It became a political device employed by the middle and the upper class capitalists who sought a dependable capitalist order. If the previous political institutions were willing to enact similar reforms, there would have been no AKP in Turkey today, at least not one that could have achieved a majority government.

If one observes the rise of AKP to power from this perspective, one could see that the religious versus secular aspect of the Turkish political confrontations are coincidental, and I will argue, sometimes artificial. Religiosity and secularism cuts across the entire Turkish society, and have many facades. They are not denominators, and if considered denominators, they create more confusion than clarity. The depiction of Turkish Islamisims as a uniform front by the international and the domestic politicains and the intellectuals both feed the Turkish identity crisis, and allow a play field for the likes of AKP and the cemaat to manipulate the Turkish political scene. The fact that there exists a power struggle between AKP and the cemaat proves that there are many levels of Muslimness in operation. I believe this spring, it is this power struggle that will keep the Newroz fire burning.

[1] A good recent editorial on the subject was penned by Emre Uslu.
[2] A good recent piece was penned by Pınar Kemerli, in which she depicts the Turkish Islamists as a uniform political entity.
[4] See, Hakan Yavuz, “Is There a Turkish Islam? The Emergence of Convergence and Consensus” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 2, October 2004.
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