A very Turkish non-coup

May 7, 2007 at 8:22 am (AK Party, chp, Islam, left, secularism, turkey, unions, voltairespriest)

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe current political crisis in Turkey presents a dilemma for left-wingers, because Turkey is a country that doesn’t fit either of the stereotypical views held by knee-jerk “anti-imperialists” or “liberal interventionists” about politics in predominantly Muslim countries. Put roughly, the one faction sees a thin crust of effete urban liberals and/or corrupt cronies around a secular dictator “in the pocket of the West”, barely holding down a piously religious-political conservative majority that may follow politics which are technically reactionary, but whose ultimate role is progressive on the grounds that it is “anti-imperialist”. The other sees that same mass as straining at the leash to be “liberated” from ruling juntas of either theocratic or secular-fascist political forces, and sees the enlightened forces of the West as being the only means availiable to attain that end. Needless to say, neither view properly describes the political situation in any state to which they are applied, and to try and shoehorn Turkey in particular into either world-view is to distort the situation there beyond recognition.

Much mainstream liberal and centre-right reporting on the crisis has had the debate as being one of a kind of “clash of civilisations in one country” between “Islamists” (or even “Muslims” according to others) supporting the ruling Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi and “secularists” supporting the army and the opposition Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi. I have seen words like “the battle for Turkey’s soul” employed more often in the past week, than in the previous ten years.  On the other hand, sections of the left seem to be tending towards the totally boneheaded view that the hundreds of thousands on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara, and the tens of thousands more in smaller cities, were representative of the “middle classes defending their lifestyles” from a government that has done nothing to attack them. Underlying this I believe, as I mentioned above, is the idea of a thin liberal middle class atop a religiously conservative “pious mass” whom some on the left believe to be the driving force of anti-imperialism in that region. Both of these views (and the latter in particular) reduce and crudify a complex phenomenon which needs to be looked at in the round if it is to be properly understood.

Let us look at some aspects of “Islamism” and “secularism” in a Turkish context. To take the first concept, it is worth looking at the heritage of the AKP, the vast majority of whose leaders are former apparatchiks and elected politicians from the Refah Partisi or Welfare Party, led by a veteran Islamist named Necmettin Erbakan who had been around in Turkish politics since the 1970s. Erbakan led various ultra-religious parties (or rather, incarnations of the same party), of which Refah was merely the last under his leadership. A feature of Erbakan’s parties was their frequent clashes with the Turkish military which, hard though this may be to understand in a Western context, is one of the most universally trusted institutions in the country, and widely seen as a “guardian” of the country’s republican heritage. Erbakan’s last government was ushered out of power in 1997, and Refah declared illegal by the courts in 1998. Whilst a member of Refah and Mayor of Istanbul, the man who is now Prime Minister of Turkey was jailed for incitement to religious hatred. Recep Tayyip Erdogan was arrested for reciting the following words:

“The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers…”

He also abortively tried to ban alcohol sales in Istanbul when he was Mayor, a measure which the AK government partially revived, once again to much protest. There have also been other ham-fisted attempts to introduce Islamist measures, such as an attempt to criminalise adultery in 2004. Nevertheless, overall his government has tried to distance itself from the heritage of his one-time mentor Erbakan, who now runs the small, ultra-conservative Saadet Partisi via former Prime Minister Recai Kutan – widely seen as Erbakan’s puppet. However, the thought of AK controlling the presidency as well as the premiership has caused deep worry amongst many ordinary Turks who are naturally suspicious of monopolies on power being held by patronage-dispensing political machines of any kind, and many of whom also do not quite so easily buy into the Damascene conversions of politicians like Erdogan and his would-be Presidential candidate Abdullah Gul from Islamists into centre-right mainstream politicians.

Now we come to the “secularists” who were actually on the protests. In point of fact, AK has done nothing of substance to shift Turkish politics decisively towards the “pious masses” that knee-jerk “anti-imperialists” believe are fulfilling a progressive role via the medium of theocratic political parties. Nevertheless the massive demonstrations in all major cities (and a number of minor ones) in heavily populated Western Anatolia, are about people seeking to defend a way of life rather than a “lifestyle”. They believe that it’s possible to live in a 99% Muslim country, as a Muslim, without actually supporting a religious state. And they believe that ideal to be under attack. This isn’t “Muslims” versus “Secularists”, the bizarre dichotomy that some have drawn up and applied to a number of situations, this included. This is about two competing and different visions of Islam, and multiple competing visions of politics. 

The protestors believe that they are protecting social freedoms like a woman’s right to walk the streets without wearing the hijab, sexual freedoms, and the right to choose what one eats or drinks. They also believe on a wider level that they are taking a stand against the encroachment by stealth of a religious state in Turkey. They may be overly paranoid about the AK Partisi itself, but given AK’s leaders’ history of close association with the theocrat Erbakan, that paranoia is not totally unfounded. They may be overly obsessed with symbols (such as offering support for the ban on headscarves in government buildings), but there again those symbols mean something more significant to Turks than they do to white Westerners. And they see themselves as protecting “their” republic, rightly or wrongly, against the steady encroachment of a religious state. The laicism which is wound up in the manner with which they express these desires, is wrongheaded in my view – albeit that the argument is not quite as clear cut as many in the West would think. However to project their desires as being those of an effete middle class trying to protect its privileges, is simply unfair.

This brings us inevitably to the question of what stances leftists in the West should take on the issues involved. In the first instance, I believe that we should join the leadership of the Turkish trades unions in opposing the military’s threats to intervene once again. The army may be popular in Turkey (incidentally the unions are not), but any left has to stand firm on its belief in democracy rather than military force as the bedrock of political power in a nation state. Further, I think we should support Erdogan’s proposal for a directly elected President – this adds legitimacy to a role which at present has no real democratic mandate. This call is also supported by the leaders of the unions Turk-İş, Hak-İş, and Memur-Sen. Finally, we should call for a vote for the left-Kurdish Demokratik Toplum Partisi where it is standing in the elections that Erdogan has called – and for a vote for other left forces elsewhere. Lastly, the left should be quite clear that it opposes the institution of a religious state in Turkey.

I’m going to end on a point which may seem self-evident to some, but please indulge me. What really annoys me about coverage of Turkish politics, is the evident manifest ignorance of basic facts about that nation’s history, cultures and politics on the part of so many people (especially in terms of political groups) who cover it. People in Turkey don’t fit the slip-shod categories that so many people on the left employ in an attempt to easily explain politics in Anatolia and the Middle East. Rather than trying to make them fit “our” schemata, we should try to meet them on “their” terrain. We might even learn something.


  1. http://modernityblog.blogspot.com/ said,

    Interesting article.

    it points out the fact that the Western Left needs a slightly more sophisticated analysis of events and power structures in Turkey and other countries

    it is as if much of the “anti-imperialist” analysis is merely a reverse Huntington “Clash of Civilisations”, with added verbiage

    I hope that some SWP type “intellectuals” take up the task and try to see the situation in a more nuanced way, for once

  2. johng said,

    Ah modernity.

    Hysterically funny article though. There are the usual lies and slanders about ‘boneheaded knee jerk anti-imperialists’ supporting the ‘pious masses’ which bears no relationship whatsoever to anything anyone on this supposedly ‘knee-jerk anti-imperialist left’ has ever said about anything let alone Turkey (it seems to me that the real objection is to people who always oppose imperialism because thats what socialists do, nothing to do with knee’s or jerks).

    I do however believe that one of the very serious difficulties confronting socialists in third world countries is a misleading framework of analyses partly connected to the historic alliance that occured between Stalinist parties and authoritarian regimes attempting to turn themselves into independent centres of capital accumulation (occassionally these alliances were sadly unrequited).

    A feature of these regimes was a top-down state, with democratic frills or not, and indeed a fairly narrow class of the westernised elite. It was often also true that in some countries (not so much in Turkey as far as I know) this elite also supplied important cadre for the existing Communist Parties. This has indeed resulted in an inability to examine properly the sociological basis of various forms of populism which emerged in response. The tendency of some socialists who hail vaguely from the Trotskyist tradition to see the war on terror in terms of metaphorical allusions to the cold war (ie third campism) has played into this problem and further mystified it (as if its possible to understand these phenomenan and what our responses should be to it with an allusion to super-power rivalry between the US and the USSR).

    This little passage probably epitomises the difficulties I have with this tendency, despite the fact that there is obviously an attempt to critique what is ‘widely seen’ etc:

    “A feature of Erbakan’s parties was their frequent clashes with the Turkish military which, hard though this may be to understand in a Western context, is one of the most universally trusted institutions in the country, and widely seen as a “guardian” of the country’s republican heritage.”

    One notes first of all that this curiously anodyne account of the role of the Turkish military contrasts rather sharply with the attitude taken to Chavez’s past (despite the fact that the tradition of populism he hails from is considerably more progressive then that associated with the Turkish military). However that irresistable little jibe apart one wonders about similarly passively voiced appreciations of the ‘republican heritage’ which the military is seen as a guardian of (is this a view shared by Kurds and Armenians? Is it a view shared by the left?). Beneath the untrue statements about the illusions sections of the ‘western’ left (I must say that the half hearted attempts at a kind of third world nationalism, borrowed as far as I can tell from liberal internationalists, people who invariably know not the faintest thing about any non-western country aside from its human rights record) there is an astonishing white washing of the history of the Turkish State itself going on here, despite the warnings about ‘illusions’. Its almost as if backing the army against elected politicians is ‘understandable’ even if it should be opposed (note again the horror expressed by some people here about British generals criticising British politicians in the midst of an imperialist war). Explain again why its understandable? Is it something ineffable?

    The notion that the anti-war left needs any lessons at all about not forcing things into catagories from Voltaires Priest (I think of the empirically detailed account on Lenin’s tomb which this is no doubt a shamefaced response to) or indeed mr dogmatic ‘very small stones’ modernity is a bit rich really.

    (NB Modernity will hence forth be known as ‘very small stones’ on the basis that his argumentative skills resemble the discussion of withfinding to be found in monty pythons and the holy grail. This allegation of mine will no doubt soon find confirmation in the response which is sure to attribute all kinds of bizarre views to me which I do not in fact hold).

  3. charliethechulo said,

    I see the proven liar and charlatan John G, shamelessly dares show his miserable face once again…

  4. voltaires_priest said,

    There are the usual lies and slanders about ‘boneheaded knee jerk anti-imperialists’ supporting the ‘pious masses’

    Now Gameboy, before you go accusing people of a-lyin’ and a-slanderin’ and all, you quite sure you’ve never used that phrase?

  5. voltaires_priest said,

    The notion that the anti-war left needs any lessons at all about not forcing things into catagories from Voltaires Priest (I think of the empirically detailed account on Lenin’s tomb which this is no doubt a shamefaced response to) or indeed mr dogmatic ‘very small stones’ modernity is a bit rich really.

    No, this is not a response to Lenin’s article. Although on reading it I did think it was crap, unlike much of what he writes (which is usually interesting, however much I might disagree with it) not that you would be able to tell the difference given your rather embarrassing public adulation of virtually everything he writes, and your mutual verbal gymnastics in desperate attempts to justify “the party’s” line on life, the universe and everything.

    Incidentally, talking of phrases people use, will you be joining Lenny in France to help him “back the Paris jihad”? Might need to practise those wrestling moves. Grrrr watcha gonna do when the SWP student section runs wild on you etc. 😉

  6. voltaires_priest said,

    One notes first of all that this curiously anodyne account of the role of the Turkish military contrasts rather sharply with the attitude taken to Chavez’s past (despite the fact that the tradition of populism he hails from is considerably more progressive then that associated with the Turkish military).

    Please enlighten me as to my opinion of Chavez, John, which you have no possible way of knowing. This is just your usual bollocks, n’est-ce pas? Slander by implication etc, rather than substantive argument, being your stock in trade.

    Also please enlighten me as to why my article, which called on the left to oppose Turkish military intervention in the democratic process, is giving an “anodyne” account of them. If you knew anything about Turkey, you would know that it is a simple fact that surveys have shown for decades that Turks do view the military as a trustworthy institution. Now, they might be wrong about that, but you have to start from the facts rather than from the starry eyed myths upon which you seem to build much of your poltical worldview.

    The rest of your post is barely coherent, being your usual nonsensical ramblings about “liberal internatonalists”, and attempts to associate me with views that I do not hold.

    Save it for Harry’s Place.

  7. http://modernityblog.blogspot.com/ said,

    JohnG wrote:

    Its almost as if backing the army against elected politicians is ‘understandable’

    He didn’t say that, and anyone with competent reading and comprehension skills would see that, but alas not you

    if you had some substantive disagreement with the article then why not take it point by point?

    instead you ramble on all over the place, displaying an unnecessary degree of political paranoia and somehow manage to bring Hugo Chavez into it?

    if you have anything significant to say on Turkey, then why not say it?

    or would that commit you one way or the other? and possibly you are a bit afraid of committing to a particular analysis before the line has been passed down, from on high?

    I think underlying this article was a need for subtler analysis, less vulgar “anti-imperialism” and by your response you prove the article’s point

  8. Will said,

    Gameboy: what a spamming twat he is. I hate and despise you Gameboy. You are filth. I hate you Gameboy – you are slime. You dirty piece of flim flamming piece of odeur. Shit in a bucket is you.

  9. Will said,

    Gakmeboy:Srasserite wanker.

  10. Will said,


    Look it up dumbasses.

  11. Will said,

    Ok – if you can’t be bothered;


  12. http://modernityblog.blogspot.com/ said,

    here’s another angle on that story:

    “Turkish Secularlists Claim That Moderate Muslims Are A Zionist Plot”


    very strange

  13. johng said,

    I’ve tried to post an article here which completely explains the above apparent anomoly (its not an anomoly at all once you understand the currents which make up the kemalist bloc who are on the far right of Turkish politics something which no one here wants to understand). Talk about closed minds and dogmatic frameworks. Why has it not appeared (forget about whether I have a right to speak one would imagine that people so interested in one what Turkish people were saying might want to read it).

  14. johng said,

    Dear Friends,

    I was asked by some friends about my views with regard the recent big marches in Turkey. Here are some reflections for those of you who are interested in the recent developments in Turkey and the various issues in general about secularism, religion, state, society and modernization.

    The answer to the question of how to interpret the recent big opposition marches in Ankara and Istanbul is not an easy one because this is a complicated multi-dimensional phenomenon and the social and political nature of those marchers is not homogenous. Political analysts and sociologists have just started to explore this phenomenon. I’ll just mention some of the emerging perspectives here and refer you to some relevant articles.
    One dimension of it is the steadily rising ultranationalist, anti-western, anti-American and even anti-EU waves in society, and this is something the western and even the Arab media did not reflect as they should have been. They simply tried to depict the whole thing in a very simplistic and cliche way as secularists vs. islamists conflict, even though one of the main slogans of those people who marched in opposition to the government was ironically anti-EU and anti-NATO. Some increasing numbers of secularist-westernists people are turning against Turkey’s EU project because they have noticed that EU does not only mean European dress, wine and music but it also means more democratization, demilitarization, more freedom of expression, freedom of religion and more human rights for all dissidents and ethnic minorities, basically more open and democratic society. Proponents of a fascist-Turksist and a secularist ideology, militarist control of politics and ban of any manifestation of religious freedoms in public sphere all became worried of EU prospect.

    What is perhaps more directly related to the current anti-western and specifically anti-EU tendencies among Turkish people is the behavior of the EU itself. Thanks to the arrogant, racist, extremely anti-Turkish and anti-Islam behavior of some EU members and their double-standard approach to Turkey’s EU membership, increasing segments of Turkish society are loosing hope in the EU prospect, and consider the AKP government responsible for humiliating Turkey and the Turkish people by giving too much unwarranted unilateral economic and political concessions and privileges to the EU, which never acknowledges in return what Turkey is doing and continues to humiliate Turkey by creating more accession requirements that were not on the table for other members, not to mention of course the nonsense idea of referendum over Turkey’s membership which France and several other EU members have brought it up only to ensure for their people the ultimate impossibility of Turkey’s EU membership.

    In a vicious circle, the more EU makes it less likely for Turkey to join EU, the more this pushes Turkish people away from EU prospect into nationalism and weakens the government and its efforts to raise the democratization, demilitarization and human rights standards on one hand, and the more this happens inside Turkey the more we fall apart from Turkey’s EU goal and thus the more EU considers us as less and less capable to meet the standards. Frankly, it is very unrealistic to expect a complete retreat of the army from the political scene into its barracks without Turkey being within the general political and legal EU framework which would work as the counterbalancing and normalizing power.

  15. johng said,

    The recent analysis in Economist says it all:
    “Were the prospects of EU membership obviously brighter, the army would not have intervened as brutally. As it is, the EU’s mild condemnation was shrugged off in Ankara, especially when the Americans said nothing at all.”


    as it is also observed rightly by a Turkish columnist,

    “First of all, as we live in deep turmoil, let me pass on a reminder to all those who have taken it too lightly: All the things Turkey has been going through ever since the murder of Hrant Dink, the chain of events that has brought Turkey to this “turning point,” is mainly the result of the EU rather deliberately letting Turkey down on its accession negotiations.

    There were many of us, and a lot of wise observers, that had easily foreseen that.

    As The Independent wrote in its editorial Tuesday: “The prospect of EU membership has been an important element in Turkish politics because it offers something to both sides of the divide. It would mean more rights for those, for example, who wear headscarves, while also guaranteeing the fundamental Western freedoms held dear by the secularists. Turkey’s EU ambitions, however, have been fading fast. With sentiment against Turkish membership hardening in France, Germany and Austria, there is a backlash among secular Turks who feel they are destined never to join the group.”

    It is certain some within the EU are feeling joy over having created a pretext for declaring Turkey now invalid as a prospective member. It is the senseless joy of the self-destruction, unfortunately.”

    But of course, as always, Europe doesn’t want to see its own share in the problem. For the rest of the article see,

  16. johng said,

    Moreover, the danger of Sharia coming back to Turkey is even a social impossibility to begin with. As a recent survey indicated, only eight percent of the population said they wanted Sharia, and I don’t think what even this small minority has in mind as “the Sharia” is the traditionalist Islamic law with its discriminatory laws against women, religious minorities or criminal punishments such as stoning, cutting hands or death for apostasy, but the general idea of justice and fairness which they believe exists in Sharia. Unlike many other Muslim countries, people’s right consciousness in Turkey about the value of the fundamental moral and legal principle of equality of men and women before law is too strong and deep rooted to change. Even religious Muslim women do not want to loose their acquired equality under the current secular Turkish legal system and become second-class citizens under the family law and criminal law rules of the traditionalist Islamic legal system. Fortunately, it is not possible to change this collective consciousness and common value in Turkey.

    (AKP’s short-lived attempt to criminalize adultery was an unfortunate conservative mistake and an exception to its own general policy.)

  17. johng said,

    In addition to the dimension of class conflict, I think part of this paranoia on the part of the secularist elite is, as it is described by some observers, their “guilt complex or guilt-induced psychosis” which led them to think that once religious people capture all the important top positions in the state they will treat secularist in the same oppressive and hateful manner by which they used to treat religious people for so long. Their fear is in a sense a reflection of their own guilty consciousness.

    See the article in English,


    So, some segments of those marching protestors were paranoid bourgeois classes worried of sharing the national wealth and power with what used to be lower classes of society, or worried that religious people will limit their freedoms in the same way they did to them, and some other segments were the politically conservative ultra-nationalists people who are anti-EU, anti-NATO and anti-west, and who are not necessarily all religious as some retired secular former army officers (who are suspected of being involved in some recent scandals-known as Semdinli scandal- about creating armed conflict and instability in the Southeast Turkey between Kurds and Turks by working with some paramilitary mafia forces), the Turkish communist labor party (IP) and the nationalist party MHP, both of which are political parties that include (ironically the communist labor party too!) some very far right, fascist and anti-Kurdish racist elements in it were also present in those marches.

  18. johng said,

    Since the militarist “deep state” realized the value of civil organizations and NGOs, it started to establish its own pseudo-civil organizations in order to use them as the “voice of the people” whenever they have a need for that, to the extent that some analysts say that a phenomenon of “militarist civil organizations” has developed in Turkey which call the army to action whenever they feel that their personal privileges are in danger.

    And also some significant segments of those marchers were Alevis (or Alawites) who are against AKP for the predominantly Sunni social makeup of its members and are angry that the current official policy of compulsory religious education at public schools and the structure of Department of Religious Affairs does not officially include them and their concerns, even though the current official structure and policy has nothing to do with AKP as it is not their creation but the creation of the previous secular governments before them.

  19. johng said,

    oh well probably the article was probably too long (just realised that this rather then a nefarious plot by the evil voltaire was responsible for it not appearing yesterday. And no modernity I’m not going to get down on my knee’s and scourge myself and admit that I am a vicious stopper liar). it won’t seem to let me do the whole thing. but there ought to be enough here at least to raise doubts about the idea that its possible to be so dismissive about the points I was trying to raise. including links to Turkish sociologists etc.

  20. johng said,

    democratization and modernization which Turkey is going through, and it might try to show more of those tricks as the elections come closer, but in the long run the change is inevitable. Sooner or later things will change, are changing and there is no way going back. The civil voice of opposition to the recent military interference into politics has been the strongest in the history of Turkey. And we will see people’s real reply at the upcoming election.


  21. tim said,

    Support Islamists.
    Blame US and Europe.

  22. johng said,

    Well done Tim. Safely ensconced in your dogmatic framework again. Hopefully more thoughtful contributions from Voltaire and Modernity.

  23. tim said,

    Pretty good summary of your thoughts though.

  24. http://modernityblog.blogspot.com/ said,


    I am surprised given your level of spam, that they you to post here at all.

    it would have been far better had you summarised it and brought out the key issues, but you can’t because when boiled down the essence of your arguments they fall apart

    and yes, the Economist has covered it for a number of weeks but none of that detracts from Volty’s essential points.

    4/10, better try again

  25. johng said,

    Its not spam. Its a letter from a Turkish Socialist. If you could get over your obsession with your own ideological duty to ‘expose the witches’ you might learn something from it.

  26. johng said,

    …I’m also interested exactly in how ‘my argument falls apart’. I pointed out above that one of the main problems faced by Socialists in many developing countries, is the way in which authoritarian state led development, sometimes with democratic frills sometimes without, produced populist responses from those excluded from the benefits. Typically what is involved are two rival programs of neo-liberalism. The one is narrow and focused on bolstering the power of an established elite. The other is broader in the sense that it includes in its mass base many of those sections of the middle and capitalist class previously excluded. Of course most of the population will not benifit from either but they tend to be drawn behind forms of politics which seem to involve broadening rather then narrowing the basis of political authority and economic opportunity. From what I’ve read this provides a fairly useful analytical framework for understanding not only what is happening in Turkey but in a range of other countries as well. The letter which was fowarded to me seems pretty amenable to that kind of an interpretation.

    The questions posed for Socialists are difficult ones but its very clear that in confronting these questions its dangerous to ignore the class dynamics involved and make judgements on the basis of an abstract a set of values (‘secularism’, ‘republicanism’ etc) whose real content is always and everywhere based on social rather then ideational relationships. This is the key difficulty with those who continue to read contemporary politics as if it was simply a battle about ‘values’. Voltaire suggested that he too was interested in the underlying realities of a country like Turkey. If he is I’m sure he’s capable of making some rather more incisive criticism’s then complaining about spam or my ability to summerise arguments.

  27. voltaires_priest said,


    I think your first attempt got (erroneously) stuck in the automatic spam filter – I would have released it but presumably that’s now not necessary as you’ve re-posted it in parts. It’s one of the few problems with wordpress – the akismet filter is very good but just every now and then it accidentally catches the odd genuine post. I might take the piss or say the odd mean thing but I will never wilfully censor your contributions, be assured of that. 😉

    On the letter, the guy/gal is certainly not totally off-the-wall. S/he is for instance right about the rise of an ultra-nationalism in Turkey, coupled with the rise once again of the MHP, however he’s mixing that up with other things. For instance large numbers of the people on the marches (and the hundreds of thousands on the streets were not “the elite”, unless it’s a fucking big elite) would object heavily to the MHP – indeed many of the marchers may even be social democrats who voted for the AKP in an effort to stave off the rise of the fascists. It’s far from the case that every AKP voter supports the old Refah agenda, and many of them would not see a contradiction between casting a parliamentary vote for the AKP and yet not wanting to see them control the presidency.

    Beyond that particular argument though, there’s much that I’d agree or at least find valuable, in his/her letter. Furthermore, I don’t think there’s much in my conclusions that s/he would disagree with – albeit that we’d differ on the analysis of the make-up of the marches themselves. I certainly don’t think there’s a huge amount to contradict what I said.

    However it simply isn’t correct to say that the marches are either representative of an effete elite or of the far right. As I said in the article, I think there is something deeper going on – and their concerns are not as unfounded as they might appear to a western observer, when you consider the AKP’s actual political history.

  28. Mizgîn said,

    Good job on the details, Voltaires_Priest.

    I doubt that many people remember Erdoğan’s imprisonment for that Islamist poem, or the fact that AKP tried to ban alcohol or criminalize adultery. Not until a few weeks ago did anyone remember that Erdoğan once referred to Ocalan as “Sayın,” but as soon as they did, they tried to make a big deal about it.

    However, since Erdoğan is not a Kurd, nothing came of it. Unlike the 6-month sentence that DTP’s chairman Ahmet Turk recently received for the same thing, along with another DTP party member, Sedat Yurttaş.

    It is also true that AKP has done nothing for “The Southeast,” not even when Erdoğan promised to get to the bottom of the Şemdinli bombing.

    You are also correct on the atrocious reporting that comes out of Turkey and the dumbing-down effect on any discussion which ends up vastly oversimplifying a very complicated country. After all, where does the word “byzantine” come from? “Byzantine” as in complex or intricate, or characterized by intrigue, especially with regard to political power.

    And that’s before scratching the Deep State.

  29. johng said,

    Discussion with a Turkish Socialist I’ve been having (blogdom is useful for SOME things). Its an attempt to outline my actual analyses as opposed to the imaginary one some enthusiasts here like to engage with. I should say that I think Voltaire’s point about the contradictory basis of many of the votes for the Islamists in Turkey is a good one (indeed if that wasn’t true my argument below would make little sense) but that he underestimates the reactionary core of these demonstrations and the tradition they represent. But obviously one would not write off all those who participated. That would be silly:

    I should say immediately that I know very little about Turkey (I’m actually an India specialist) but have found that the debates around political islam on the wider level have revealed a series of problems which are actually more universal on the left in developing countries. These problems are also problems for what might be described as ‘the new left’ in the new global movements.

    At one level they relate to what has been described as an unedifying choice many face in much of the world: on the one hand forms of cosmopolitanism which are unacceptably elitist and on the other hand forms of mass populism which are unacceptably parochial.

    One way in which these tensions express themselves in the present context (these tensions of course have a much longer history) is projects which involve differential paths of development although both operate within the same broad neo-liberal parameters.

    On the one hand an older, often authoritarian elite, finds itself confronting a crisis due to global restructuring (part of that crisis often involving the rise of the populism it has to confront) which it seeks to carry out whilst hanging onto its privilaged position. On the other hand the populist side embraces essentially the same strategy but because its ire is directed at the older elite it has the appearence of broadening the base of both economic and political power.

    Of course for large sections of the population the results would not be so different but there is a tendency for those below to look towards those forces which at least appear to offer some hope of change, some kind of challenge to the status quo.

    Of course its true that these populist forces will be concerned to marginalise and sometimes even to crush the left (although this is not an iron law of history and I would argue that unlike classical fascism this is not their primary purpose: something often forgotten is that the secular nationalist traditon in many countries also involved brutal repression against the left, although it would make no sense to refer to someone like Nasser as a ‘fascist’). The key task is not making it ideologically easy for them to do so.

    In Egypt there is a small socialist group which over the last six years has grown from a handful to several thousand which the Muslim Brotherhood (in fact the main opposition to Mubarak) can no longer mobilise its members to attack on campuses, on the streets and elsewhere, and is forced (much against the leaderships wishes) sometimes to work with, because their younger activists like them. Their guiding principle has been ‘with the working class-always, with the Islamists-sometimes, with the state-never. They can now actually get away with openly criticising the Islamists when they espouse a neo-liberal rhetoric or when they carry out sectarian attacks on Copts or Shi’ites, having constructed an argument where-in these criticism’s cannot be misinterpreted as backhanded support for the regime which brings misery to so many of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters. In fact their criticism’s are couched in terms of equating the neo-liberal and conservative core of the Islamists program with a compromise with the forces of the state. I will put a link at the bottom of this to an article about them.

    Importantly however the left in doing these things must have some sense of proportion about their own relative strength and think hard about how to make its arguments effective. Abstract denunciations in the name of the left tradition will not work simply because often, the populist base of these organisations has been taught to treat such denunciations with contempt, something which is easy to do given the way in which the left was often associated with support for authoritarian state projects (again this is a general argument and not an argument about Turkey in particular: in every particular country these tensions will have their own pattern: my claim is though that these tensions are what generate the particular patterns we have to deal with).

    So my argument is not a) about having illusions in the progressive potential of such populist politics or b) about pandering to such illusions. Its about creating a space for left arguments in a situation where the old left has been widely discredited often for reasons which require hard and honest assessment of the lefts own failings, which is sometimes impossible (especially for those sections of the left most imbued with the politics of the Stalinist tradition) and on the other hand to have a proper analyses of what these populist movements actually represent socially and politically (if they represent a ‘false consiousness’ its important to be clear what kind of a false consiousness this actually is. In some cases an analyses based on an understanding of reformism (of a rather rough and ready kind) is more useful then an analyses based on ‘fascism’ (something in the middle east unfortunately ubiquitous).

    So when we confront what has been described as this ‘democratic revolution with undemocratic consequences’ we need to be aware that as well as a hostile ideology we are confronting at a popular level the result of the disapointments of the hopes and dreams of a generation for a better life, for a more just social order, and for more social inclusion. It is this mass base rather then the leadership that the left needs to find a way of addressing.

    Here I would tell a brief story about my time in Bombay. I’ll always remember attending a meeting of some Maoists (in India called ‘ML people’ or ‘Naxelites’) who were discussing a strike led by a leader who had an unpleasent reputation on sections of the left, both for opportunism and for, it was rumoured, connections with a vicious chauvinist organisation called the Shiv Sena, which has also succeded in growing on the basis of some of the connections outlined above. They were excited by the strike and wanted some way of relating to it. I had just been down there and had been invited to the union office were all the workers seemed friendly enough and quite eager to talk with this strange English Socialist. They told me tales of their fights and struggles over the years.

    However the maoists told me they could not go there because the workers would beat them up. This they attributed to their ‘fascist’ leader. Then I found out what was written on their leaflets. They denounced the workers leader as a gangster and a fascist. I said this was crazy. Here they were under attack by the bourgoise media for their strike, harrassed by Congress goons and thugs trying to break their strike, and a section of the left turns up to denounce their leader as a fascist. ‘Of course they’ll beat you up’ I said. I suggested that they should produce a leaflet hailing the leader for calling the strike (lots of praise) but then suggesting it was neccessary to spread the strike and build solidarity with power workers (then also on strike). I suggested they should bring a power worker down to speak in their strike headquarters, not demanding anything, but suggesting co-ordination in collecting money. ‘Oh no’ they said. That would be to build illusions in the leader and that would be wrong…we must break the workers from him. That is our task. We must not give him credibility.

    I spoke with another trade union leader who was a friend of mine that night in some despair. She burst out laughing. ‘he already has credibility’ she said. ‘Its they who have none. And they refuse to recognise this. They really think that he needs credibility from them? They have none to give’.

    It was an object lesson really. Incidently this leader had succeded in building up a union in the communal stronghold of the Shiv Sena. The rest of the left denounced her for not spending all her time ‘denouncing’ them. But after a year or two a big demonstration of the workers represented in her union marched through the communal stronghold shouting abuse at the organisation and their leader. She was able to shrug her shoulders and say ‘its not me its the workers’ when threatened by the Sena. Then they were forced to treat the union with respect. It had a real base and was not simply an angry leaflet. The left could then move in the lanes and by-lanes of this tough working class area without fear of being attacked (a small but real achievement whose longetivity is clearly dependent on wider developments in the medium to long term). The real question then is raised about actually taking them on. But this is a different question. First you have to be in the position to raise it before you can see what that would look like.

    Anyway here is that link:


    And here is a commentry on it by a lefty friend of mine who spends his time in that junk world of blogdom (!):


  30. http://modernityblog.blogspot.com/ said,


    interesting and lucid points, a nice change 🙂

    I think the key passage from the above article is:

    “Today, the majority of factions on the left still stand opposed to (or express caution about) joint actions with the Islamists, most notably the newly evolving Democratic Left (a reformist tendency centered around al‑Busla magazine), the Egyptian Communist Party, the People’s Socialist Party and a faction of the human rights community”

    so it fact a it is minority of Egyptian Left that work with the MB, not the majority.

  31. voltaires_priest said,


    Firstly, to second what Modernity said – that’s a very thoughtful contribution, for which many thanks.

    On your point about opening up spaces etc, I don’t think that Turkey is quite comparable to Egypt. There is already space for discussion of left ideas: indeed, the main problem in doing so is not because of a popular lack of will to discuss ideas, but rather because of state repression as on the May Day demos this year. I also think we need to get past this idea of “Muslim” and “non Muslim” organisations, in order for one of my main points to be understood.

    There will have been almost no-one on those demonstrations (or indeed on the one which I understand is scheduled for Izmir today) who would not describe themselves as a Muslim. They would also overwhelmingly describe themselves as secular – there isn’t a dichotomy there between “secular” and “Muslim” in the sense that you seem to be assuming. It’s for precisely the reason that most people would call themselves secular and Muslim that the AK Party has had to trim its theocratic sails in order to become electable. The Saadet Party (the other wing of the old Refah that did not become AK) has tried to maintain Erbakan’s Islamist stances by and large, and has disappeared into irrelevance as a result – the latest poll I’ve seen has them running at less than 2%.

    Furthermore, I doubt very much that most of those demonstrators want a military coup. The attitude of the unions is quite instructive – I’d imagine that most Hak-İş members for instance are probably supportive of the demands of the demonstrators but also opposed to military intervention in the dispute. As you’ll see, most of the unions’ public statements (and most of the unions are dominated by left-Kemalist types) have centred around democratic demands, which are surely to be strongly endorsed.

  32. johng said,

    But I simply don’t see how it can be a ‘democratic demand’ to suggest that normal consitutional arrangements should not be abided by because the prime minister in question is not a kemalist. Of course its true that there is no divide between being a Muslim and being Secular. Its the definition of secularism that is precisely in question (ie what is to count as a secular position in this context). For all the serious limitations, when it comes to national minorities there is a good case that the soft islamists have been rather more secular (in terms of attitudes to citizenship) then the Kemalists.

    In any case on Egypt this is an update. Whilst Turkey is very different in very many ways I think some of the concerns about ‘representation’ raised by the Eygptian trots quoted, have relevence to this discussion:


    On another issue entirely this is entirely off-topic, but I found it so moving that I’m posting it about. As harrowing an 11 minutes and 15 seconds as you’ll ever find.

  33. voltaires_priest said,

    But I simply don’t see how it can be a ‘democratic demand’ to suggest that normal consitutional arrangements should not be abided by because the prime minister in question is not a kemalist.

    The democratic demands I spoke of were precisely that the unions were upholding AK’s democratic rights, in spite of their disagreements with Erdogan. All of the unions opposed military intervention. Several of them have even gone further and supported Erdogan’s call for a change to the electoral system to enable direct public election of the President.

    My point was that they did this in spite of being people whose basic issue-by-issue political sympathies would be with the left-Kemalist opposition. Ergo, those forces are not as reactionary as you think they are, I would suggest.

  34. johng said,

    ah, but they DID’NT attend the demo. I think this would be a crucial political divide despite aspects of a shared ideology. I’m pleased to hear it.

  35. voltaires_priest said,

    I don’t think that’s right – there’ll have been many, many trades unionists on those demos. You’re still seeing support for them as being the same as support for a military coup, and it isn’t.

  36. johng said,

    But the fact that the trade unions refused to participate is an honourable thing. These were reactionary demonstrations. You can of course point to nuance and whathaveyou and contradictions (they’re always there) but in the end you have to politically say what these demonstrations represented. Nothing good is the answer. Whats good is that a large number of trade unions understand this. You also need to see this against the backdrop of huge numbers of people showing solidarity with the armenian guy who was murdered (simply unprescedented) as well as recent (very marginal) gains by Kurds, all of which are hammer blows against the core of Kemalist ideology (although to be sure some Kemalists will be moving in that direction). Those demonstrations represented the opposition to all this. At least thats how I see it at the moment…

  37. voltairespriest said,

    The shows of solidarity with Hrant Dink were marvellous (and of course largely unreported by the UK left – no “anti-imperialist” mileage in Armenian Christians I guess), but hardly a “hammer blow against the core of Kemalist ideology”. Most of the people on them will have been the same secular liberals that are now demonstrating against Gul. So no, the two sets of demonstrations do not represent opposition to each other in that sense.

    If you mean “the trades unions refused to participate” in the sense that they proclaimed their members shouldn’t go on these demos, called on the public not to support them etc, then that just isn’t what happened as far as I’m aware. I think you’ve totally misunderstood this, really. And as I say, there will undoubtedly have been many trades unionists on the protests, which were not the reactionary phenomenon that you’re claiming – the reality is more complex than that.

  38. voltairespriest said,

  39. johng said,

    Sorry I was going by what you said (or misunderstanding it: I suddenly realised that the call for the direct elections are a direct response to the situation…why should there be a change? why should there be a crisis?). What on earth is progressive about it? And you seem to be very much downplaying Turkish chauvinism and how much of a break with the past those demonstrations where. I know of the tensions here that existed just in terms of trying to call a memorial for the guy. Can’t download that article of yours.

  40. johng said,

    I should perhaps explain the grounds of my puzzlement with your position. I’ve just had a brief exchange with a Turkish leftist, who would no doubt have many, for all I know justified criticisms of my position, but the one thing they emphasised in terms of the respect for the Islamists (which is also an empirical fact, after all they’ve been elected) was that they had a history of standing up to the military. Now we all know, even if we don’t know much, that the Turkish military has played a large role in Turkish politics, and that that role has been, amongst other things, viciously anti-left. Lest the person I’m talking to be dismissed as unrepresentative, its also true, that like most leftists in London, I’ve met quite a few Turkish leftists, some of them Kurdish some of them Turkish. I have never, ever heard any of them refer to the military as even remotely a progressive institution, and it is simply unimaginable that they would speak of a widespread respect for the military as anything else then a terrible problem. I just wonder whether your relying on reports from Turkish liberals rather then the left (I might be wrong, this is not an attempt to return to hostilities) and in doing so you might be neglecting the many types of disengenuity charecteristic of liberals in developing countries.

  41. voltaires_priest said,

    Link to the TDN should be working – try just copying http://www.turkishdailynews.com into your browser if not. It’s today’s headline article.

    In terms of chauvinism, I don’t think that the phenomenon that gave rise to these demonstrations and that which gave rise to the upsurge in ultranationalism or the return of the MHP, are the same thing. The latter is most certainly a question of chauvinism, however those whipping it up or following it would not be natural backers of the CHP, for all that organisation’s faults.

    Do I think that demonstrations of liberal secularists (and I’ll guarantee you that many of these were also on the demonstration for Hrant Dink) against a neoliberal government with a recent history of religious revanchism, are totally reactionary? No of course I don’t, at least not in terms of what motivates people to go on them. However, does that mean that I support military intervention in Turkish politics? No I don’t. I don’t like the AK government, but they were duly elected, like many other governments I don’t like (Blair, Sarkozy, Bush, you name it). Therefore the military don’t have the right to remove them from power, and for that reason the unions took the stance that they did, and for that same reason I agree with their stance.

    Much like in other situations (condemning 9/11 whilst opposing the Afghan war being a situation that springs to mind), it seems to me that it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time. This situation is no exception to that rule; it’s possible to oppose calls for military intervention whilst simultaneously understanding the genuine mood of concern about creeping theocracy in Turkey.

  42. johng said,

    My disagreement is the notion that the ‘mood of concern about creeping theocracy’ is not deeply ideologically mixed up with other things. I don’t believe that this is what those demonstrations reflected but then again, we’ll see.

  43. voltaires_priest said,

    I don’t reckon most of the participants were as ideologically worked-out as you seem to think. It was mostly more of an upsurge of worried liberals, in my view. But I guess we’ll see what happens, as you say.

  44. johng said,

    “was mostly more of an upsurge of worried liberals”

    Keeping an open mind and all that but I think this is very naive. I know you won’t buy the source but on one of them one of the chants was ‘we are not Armenians’ (thats in this weeks SW).

  45. johng said,

    Or to put it another way, precisely because its quite likely that it is ideologically not worked out its VERY likely that chauvinist elements will be playing a role. For a very different perspective (as you might expect) turn to SW.

  46. voltairespriest said,

    Oh, I’m quite sure there are some chauvinists among the demonstrators – and that the MHP will try to make hay out of it too. But I simply don’t think that would have been the motivator for most people who were there.

  47. http://modernityblog.blogspot.com/ said,

    JohnG wrote:

    ever heard any of them refer to the military as even remotely a progressive institution,

    indeed, and neither has any one suggested that the Turkish military are a “progressive” institution, quite the opposite (see above) and anyone knowing the history of military coups in Turkey would know that, but that would not detract from volt’s point of it being seen by many Turks as “one of the most universally trusted institutions in the country,”

    the two do not naturally go together, as the latter is an opinion held by people and capable of a degree of measurement, whereas the former is an individual political judgement, they are different and should not be confused.

  48. johng said,

    I just wonder whether the cliche which you lambasted in your piece might not contain a nugget of truth, perhaps it might be called a misleading truth, but one we have to contend with. I still think your underestimating the extreme repressiveness of the constitutional state and what that means for large sections of the population: this situation is of course part of the order the demonstraters want to defend: or at least thats how it might appear to their opponents. I would very much compare these demonstrations with the ones in Beirut: both containing no doubt very many genuine liberals, but both representing a demand which for large sections of the population means the mantaining of their misery (without all of the demonstraters neccessarily being consious of this). There is nothing unusual about this in the sense that formal liberal ideology works like that as Marx taught us. But my point is that in developing countries the resulting tensions are furiously sharp, and produce precisely, unexpected relations between ideologies and social groups. The fact that people like us get confused by this is probably the least of the problem.

  49. johng said,

    In Turkey Liberalism and Kemalism are twins. Thats the other thing. Liberalisms dark face (it has a dark face everywhere) is darker here.

  50. modernityblog said,

    JohnG wrote:

    In Turkey Liberalism and Kemalism are twins.

    I am surprised that you make such an absolutist statement, when previously you claimed that you were not an expert on Turkey and it is fairly obvious that nowadays Kemalism covers many shades of opinion, from right to left.

  51. johng said,

    Its not an absolutist statement. twins are not neccessarily identical. It is however the case that the two are historically connected. The fact that Kemalism covers many shades of opinion is a reflection of the hegemony of an ideology, something which is not to be celebrated but interrogated.

  52. johng said,

    Liberalism as well covers many shades of opinion

  53. tim said,

    JohnG s socialism includes cheering on Hamas and Hezbollah, and dabbling with supporting Takfiris.
    A very wide range.

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