Turkey: Important power in a troubled region

Full text of my talk, presented on the panel with Dr Turhan Ozen, Turkey: Important power in a troubled region, convened by Open Discussions in association with Gulf Cultural Club, Arbar House, Abrar House, 45 Crawford Place, W1H 4LP, 14 February 2017


Chair, fellow panellist and guests in the audience, thank you very much for your time and for the opportunity to be here.

We are here to talk about a subject I have some knowledge of although I can never profess to know everything. One can never know enough about anything at all.

I had the privilege to work and live in Istanbul for nearly six years. I taught at what was a Gülen sit university, although I did not know it at the time.

You may realise that since the failed coup and leading up to the failed coup, many Gülen ist institutions were purged, including schools, dershanas (tutorial colleges) and universities. Many individuals and institutions have suffered from the actions by the state as a result of the events of the failed coup on the night of 15 July.

Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered, from academics, teachers, crèche workers, gardeners, drivers and to other people who are so far removed from the idea of a coup that it would be crazy to try and link them. But this is the situation in Turkey.

Where is Turkey heading under President Erdoğan’s style of governance? Where is it going to go given all the challenges that it is facing in the wider sphere of the Middle East? What are the internal challenges that Turkey is facing?

You may have realised that in the last few days or so there has been quite a concern around the situation of the Turkish Lira, which has been falling relative to the dollar for a very long period. For as long as I can remember living and working in Istanbul the dollar was rising rapidly relative to the lira. This is obviously a huge problem for a massive current account deficit that is propped up by a credit boom. If some of these fundamentals weaken, there could be quite a significant collapse in the Turkish economy.

Having said all that, there are still some fundamental bases of strength that keep it afloat despite the fact that Greece is basically on the borderline of the Euro zone and it could be defaulting on its loan. On the other side, Syria is on fire and has been for the greater part of the last five or six years, ever since the Arab spring.

In many ways, the fortunes of Turkey in the twenty-first century reflect these wider geopolitical developments. In 2001, there was a banking crisis and an IMF loan was needed in order to pull the country up from the brink. Under the leadership of the AKP, with all the political notions of secularism still intact, as part of the policy framework of the party at the time, it brought the people together. It solidified the nation and it led to a period of tremendous growth.

For a decade the GDP averaged 5 percent, which is unprecedented given what was happening in the euro zone, the global financial collapse as a result of the subprime mortgage pyramid that collapsed and also the fact that we have this Arab Spring on the other side.

When I moved to Istanbul it was the European capital of culture. There were cranes everywhere. Hotels were of an extremely high standard. All signs of a flourishing tourist industry. There was a great sense of cohesion and confidence within the nation, too. Turkey was looking and feeling strong, looking east and west and there was nothing that could stop what was described as ‘the miracle’ – the miracle that brought together Islam, capitalism and democracy. It was something for the Sunni Arab world, something for the rest of the Muslim  world and something for Europe when it comes to thinking about its own Muslim minorities, of which there are 30 million in predominately old Europe.

But then it all went wrong in the space of five years. What could go wrong we ask ourselves when you have all the fundamentals: a motivated population, a young population that is technically skilled, technically savvy, and IT literate. Turkey is one of the biggest tweeting nations per head of population, despite the twitter bans, which have been out manoeuvred by dedicated individuals who find a way of getting online.

Turkey is not in a very good position at the moment. There are tremendous issues. In the past 18 months or so there have been 30 terrorist attacks. We hear about the major ones in Ankara and Istanbul – t he places where Western tourists and travellers get killed. But we do not hear about the others which involve the deaths of Turkish citizens.

We have also seen this fail coup with approximately 300 people dead. It is the bloodiest coup in Turkish history. If it was not for President Erdoğan’s facetime broadcast at 3am in the morning encouraging people to get onto the streets and face off the putschists there would have been a very different outcome that night. I hear stories from colleagues who were there on that fatal evening and the emotions are still very much raw. And there are ongoing implications. For example, in relation to the purging 400 academics who were let go only a few days ago.

Then there is the introduction of legislation to generate an executive presidency a bit like Putin. New questions and new struggles are being created in Turkey among its diverse populations, of which 50 percent are under the age of 25, of which one in three are under the age of 15. Like other parts of the Muslim world, Turkey is a young country.

So what has led to this malaise in going go from the European capital of culture, the economic miracle, to what is now seen as a failing country. I am reminded of the term, which was used before – ‘the sick man of Europe’ by European colonialists in the earlier part of the twentieth century. It is not sick and it is not necessarily part of Europe. But it has a few problems.

So what has gone wrong? Why did it go so badly? Well democracy is always an evolving concept, but especially so in Turkey. The system of Kemalism that came after the secular republican period also turned into a system of authoritarianism. And what we are seeing today, in short, is authoritarianism reinvented under the guise of a soft-Islamist paradigm, pumped up by a strong performance economically by a strong subset of the economy. It could be argued that we have some sort of oligarchic Islamist model.

But in the process of the few getting rich, getting educated, getting a cosmopolitan elite profile, there has been a body of people who have not succeeded in the same way. Yet at the same time, it was the Anatolian tigers in the small towns and cities of Turkey who became small businesses that began to manufacture, trade and export that led to this growth in the economic profile of Turkey.

But they also now feel left out because the big contracts in terms of construction in the big cities, the big engineering units, are managed by a small section of people that are  intimately connected to the top of the political party. This makes it a plutocracy, which is the idea that the rich become the rulers.

There have also been issues of ethnic conflict, which at times has seen the light of positive development only to have it enter back into the darkness very quickly. I talk about the Alewi opening and  the Kurdish opening which occurred at the behest of President Erdoğan who led this in spite of resistance from parts of his party, and other segments of society.

This has disappeared off the map. There is no chance of peace on the horizon. We are back to ethnic sectarian conflict in the way that we have seen in Turkey in the past. But in the past, it was quite severe. In the 19080s, people would shoot each other because one was leftist and one was Kemalist or anti capitalist. Political tensions were very much alive and on the streets. It was a very problematic time. We have seen four coups: 60, 70, 80 and one in 1997 known as the ‘soft coup’ and this near coup, which was the bloodiest of all.

So Turkish Kurdish relations have been problematised again. There is effectively a civil war. These Turkish-Kurdish relations also affect how Turkey acts in Syria with regard to the YPG because it realises that the YPG have close associations with the PKK with regard to the Kurdish nationalist endeavour. But having said that it is they who have been making the greatest gains against Daesh, until recently.

So this is a bit of apolitical football for Erdoğan who has taken a very hard stance against anybody, anyone or any institutions who disagree with him. This is incredibly unhealthy for any democracy especially in the light of the fact that we have seen good times in Turkey and now we are seeing very much the bad times. This silencing of the opposition means that 95 percent of the media outlets are in the hands of government affiliated individuals. Newspapers and television channels have all been seized by that state in the light of events leading up to the failed coup and since.

The coup did not start the conflict between the AKP and the Gülen movement. Relations between the Gülen  Movement and the AKP were fracturing over a much longer period. But they created each other. They defined each other over a period of ten years. They grew stronger as a result of each other and benefitted from each other’s co-operation, but a civil society organisation began to aspire to political ambitions and the political party in power wanted greater reach among its more traditional followers, which came through the Hizmet movement.

So it became a clash over not just the future direction of Turkish Islam but also the future power base of the country. These issues are still unresolved. We still do not really know what happened on the night of the failed coup. We have many theories and lots of conjecture but there is no evidence to support any of it.

At the Royal United Services Institute, we have had various Turkish parliamentarians come and speak to us and emphasise that Gülen  was behind the coup all the way but where is the evidence we asked? It is not up to us to judge, but any third party individuals who want to know what is going on would say let us look at the balance of arguments, let us look at evidence and let us try and find out who is right or wrong so that we can take a fair and just set of actions forward.

None of this is forthcoming. Yet there are claims made for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen, which the Trump administration is looking at with different eyes, given the nature of the Turkish administration.

So what now? [In Turkey] we have vast urbanisation, we have a fantastic infrastructure: great  hospitals, some of the best cancer treatment facilities, roads, a transport mechanism that Turkey did not have ten-fifteen years ago. It would take three of four hours to get from one part of Istanbul to another. Istanbul is now 100 km wide and still growing with unofficially 20 million people in the city. I saw the population rise from 15 to 20 million people and you feel it when you try to go about the city on the public transport systems. Mass urbanisation is occurring in Turkey. More and more and more people are living in cities than at any time in recent history, and in Turkey too.

Yet these urban issues create worries in the context of gentrification. You see parts of historic Istanbul where the indigenous minority communities such as the Roma have been removed and replaced with Sunni capitalists who have the advantage of political and economic power. And this distorts the nature of the fabric of the city. There are parts of Istanbul which have a tremendous history [but they are slowly disappearing].

In terms of its diversity, there are only 100,000 or so minorities left and I mean by that religious minorities such as Jews and Christians. And yet under the Ottomans there were considerably more in the Ottoman territories.

A lot has let to this outcome, including notions of Turkish nationalism, notions of what it means to be Turkish. Many of the Jewish groups left because of the formation of Israel, which gave them a source of encouragement. With the Greek population exchange during WW2, it encouraged the movement away of other Christian groups from parts of Istanbul and other bigger cities.

So we have a 99.9% nominally Muslim country, which is literally divided half way down the middle: 50 percent are pro-AKP. Whatever the AKP says and does is gospel. It is divine. It is the truth. Everybody else is a mixed bag of leftists, rightists, conservatives and traditionalists, but all with a genuine feeling of disillusionment at the hands of the AKP.

The AKP continues to maintain its power. It continues to introduce legislation, for example on disbanding the HDP. The only person to have been able to make Erdoğan’s worry about his political situation is Demirtaş the leader of the HDP who at one point had 80 seats but after the second election, it was reduced to around 60 because Kurdish voters switched back to the AKP once they were given the view that Kurdish identities are equated with terrorism.

So to summarise: we have many ongoing concerns in Turkey. Turkey is still nevertheless the bridge of civilisations, it is still the centre of the world, it is where east meets west, it is where every single major power has travelled through. I have had the opportunity to travel through a fantastic geography:  there is everything there from Roman ruins to Hittite caves to Armenian churches that are 1,000 years old and still virtually intact in the mountains of the northern areas by the Caspian Sea. The Arab influences are still to be seen in the south. It is a tremendous country. Istanbul is not Turkey and Turkey is not Istanbul. We know this.

But going forward, there are still some challenges. We have the problems with Daesh and the Reina nightclub attack, which was vicious, targeting VIPs and high value Turks knowing that there would be media outcry and the coverage it would get.

With the purges, with the hundreds of thousands of people who have been sacked from the intelligence services, from the police, and from the security services. People picking up the phone here do not have the equivalent in Ankara to try to figure out where we go with security, where do we go with trying to improve our security apparatus in the fight against Daesh, etc

So there are major gaps, major fissures, major concerns and when I talk to my friends and colleagues who are still in Istanbul there is a sense that the future is dark and worrying with no clear sense of how things will pan out. I do believe that things will work out. I am always very mindful of the strength of Turkish national identity and I know that Turkish society has seen dark times but it has come through every time, so let us live in hope.

Thank you for your time and your thoughts and I look forward to your comments.

My latest book, Contemporary Turkey in Conflict: Ethnicity, Islam and Politics, was published by Edinburgh University Press if December 2016.

5 thoughts on “Turkey: Important power in a troubled region

  1. Thank you for an informative article Tahir – I was in Turkey last 5 yours ago – Erdogan’s propagation of the ” Myth of Mehmet the Conqueror” really stood out for me in Istanbul – he was offering the Turkish people himself as a reincarnation of a figure of historical significance who had contributed significantly to the rise of the Ottoman Empire – he was fostering the re- emergence of a dominate Islamist Entity in the middle of a troubled Arab world – much like Mehmet and the Osmali’s did all those centuries ago – like you – I fell in love with Turkey and the positivism and opportunity that seemed to be everywhere – the hopes for equitable outcomes were being sold as as the great benefit of “trickle down” economics – as in the West – this has proved to be a miserable failure it seems – great disparity has ensued – the elites who had a genuine opportunity to do use their Islamist ideals for the greater good have since failed the people??? – greed killed their good intentions – the Muslim people who helped put these elites into places of power and privilege on the promise of change have seen these opportunities whittled away – in its place – instability and insecurity have returned , the leadership claim they need to purge the unrest and Ibn Khaldun’s take on “history and empire” is once again upon us…. and Erdogan is in the Centre of all of this – purging his opponents while desperately blaming everyone else for the failure of a system he promoted that had offered so much…

    I dream of returning to Turkey – of moving safely and freely around the country again but I suspect that day is somewhere off…

  2. Please keep going on to talk in Western media about Turkish democracy problems. We, as the people who live in Turkey, need mouths that can speak in the name of us. More than anything.

  3. Tahir, Your articles are full of detailed observations on current situation under leadership in Turkey. What is more, they are so frank, honest and open portrayal of this country that I much wanted to and still would like to visit remembering its rich heritage of Mowlana Jalalludin Rumi the Sufi master rich in intellect rather that fanaticism of riotous so-called ‘Muslims’ associated with terrorism that beside some European countries like France, Germany even Spain, Turkey too had become subject to. You go on from there to attempts of ‘regime change’ dare I say that has worsened whatever democracy was there in Turkey that is affected by coup and counter coup in the last couple of years.
    I hope you wouldn’t mind me sending your lecture link to a few progressive contacts I have. Please keep on writing but also take care!

  4. Every one looking to Turkey from their own prospective. There is pure democracy in Turkey and HDP still active and not band.if you go back and look to Turkish democracy befor you will see many parties had band like salamat party ,Rafah party and on that time even not allowed any one to speak Kurdish lungage in media,but now there is many Kurdish chanals and still not band from the media and they have many presentitve in parlamehouse. offcourse if you treator and you dealing with terorests like Pkk you will band band.Turkey under Erdogan leadership has achieved alot but like I said every one looking through thier prospective if you like Erdogan you will be happy for his achivment and his leadership and if you are not you will see him as a dictator .for the sake of God so why millions of people going out to listen to his speech.Anywy the system in Turkey going to transfir to presidency system and 16 March will be the day ,if Turkish people agreed with the system so there is nothing to say because Turkish people are deciding and for us we have to respect that. I am expecting %55 or %60 that Turkish people will vote for the new system.

    1. IMAD; if people’s decision are always right, then Hitler was a great leader for Germans. Because they “agreed with his system so there is nothing to say because German people are deciding and for us we have to respect that”. And also, in Turkmenistan, Gurbangulu Berdimuhamedov took 97% of the votes. Then, do we have to respect his regime? You do not know anything about totalitarian regimes. If you do not have free media, then you cannot respect what people decide. Because, state media determines what people should think. Turkish people cannot see the “other side” of story. There is not free media, judgment in Turkey. Turkish people have to listen Erdoğan and prime minister for hours on news channel every day! You cannot show me any meeting/conference of Erdogan that does not broadcast (live) on TV channels. Propaganda is every time and everywhere!

      But, I think you cannot understand what I am trying to tell you unless you become a target of AKP and/or Erdoğan. I know that I cannot change your mind. It looks that your perspective is very manipulated by your ideology and AKP’s propaganda.

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