Turkey in Conflict Today

Dear friends and colleagues, thank you for taking the time to be here this morning at the official launch of my new book, Contemporary Turkey in Conflict, published a few short months ago.

I also want to thank RUSI for graciously hosting this launch, and my good friend and colleague, Dr Elshimi, for kindly agreeing to moderate the event.

If there’s one thing that ignites more passion than anything else, save for football if you’re a fan of one of the three major teams in the city, it is politics. Politics is guaranteed to polarise, divide or even make warring enemies of siblings. It could even get you killed. I wanted to understand why the passion and from where it originates, and at a time when compared to its neighbours, Turkey has been doing better than ever; and, when economic growth has led to more opportunity for most among the population, especially for those left behind in the past. I could sense tensions from the outset, especially when the question ‘where are you from?’ was arguably more a question of ‘how much like us are you?’

Dr Elshimi addresses the audience with his opening remarks

In living and working as a professor of sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul, by the time I had been there for around three years, I felt I had the makings of a book project, one that captured my interests. But one that I was sure was going to lose dear friends while making others along the way. Working at the flagship Gulen movement university in Istanbul, I was losing friends for asking challenging questions. I was then losing AKP friends for seeking to answer them! Secularist colleagues thought me too critical of Kemalism but too uncritical of Kurdishness. Suffice to say, the Kurds loved me!

This book explores the nature of ethnic relations in a political context where the role and position of Islam in society has changed in the light of the emergence of the AKP in 2002. For a decade, Turkey was growing strongly and inclusively, building a confident national project. But from 2010 onwards, matters began to change.

The change was due to internal fissures but also to disengagement by the EU and other western powers when the Arab Spring created new challenges for the region as a whole. When I moved to Istanbul to teach sociology in 2010, there was a still a sense of a confident Turkey. But by the time I left the country, ten days before the failed coup of July 2016, the country was deeply divided between pro-AKP supporters that had grown to half of the population, and everyone else.

Thinking that my British passport would rescue me if I truly got into trouble for pushing matters a little too far, I followed my researcher heart – which is to tell the story from the point of view of those most affected by change, displacement or violence, especially if at the behest of external actors, including the state, and wider government policy.

During the six years I lived and worked in Istanbul I was able to carry out research on all the topics that were of interest to me, namely ethnic minorities, ethnic conflict, social and community relations in a political context, political violence, the urban context and questions in relation to identity.

To this end, I carried out original field research talking to family members of the PKK in Yüksekova, a remote town essentially at the bottom of Turkey. I also explored the Gezi Park events by talking to those camped inside the park itself and then facing the wrath of the Turkish police – both pepper spray and water cannons loaded with CS gas are nasty ways of carrying out crowd control, I assure you. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

I also analysed secondary data from the European Social Survey to explore questions of social capital and political trust. This data allowed me to understand how majoritarian nationalism was mobilised to politically augment the AKP from the late 2000s onwards – we call this populism in everyday terms today. I also explored ethnic gentrification in Istanbul, another contentious topic. As the renowned Professor Ferhat Kental of Istanbul Sehir University said to me when I showed him an early draft, ‘you have hit all the sensitive points of Turkish politics and society in one book – you’ve left nothing out – don’t you have any friends?’

The book attempts to uncover the sociological and political layers of Turkey, but not to discredit the national project. Rather, the attempt is to present the challenges facing Turkey as a function of the remnants of a hasty retreat from the Ottoman Empire and the embrace of secular republicanism. In trying to reconcile Islam and Europe, East and West, Turkey was prematurely re-imagined. In the process, it created political structures that remain deeply intractable to change.

In many ways, as a sociologist, my aim was not to please or to displease sections of society, nor to tell a one-sided story, but to present a mosaic of different aspects of social and political life in Turkey from the point of view of those most deeply affected by it, namely minorities and others outside of the mainstream. It is only possible to test the virtues of a democracy by understanding how it treats minorities: a well-established dictum. This was my first and last aim. I also wanted to go beyond the romanticism that plagues too many accounts on Turkey.

President Erdogan will become the executive president of Turkey, once these 18 amendments to the constitution are implemented from 2019 onwards. As such, there is a chance that authoritarian and populist post-Islamism will become the norm. It is important to state, however, this authoritarianism is not generated in isolation. It is a response to internal challenges and external pressures, especially as the EU withdraws all its support in relation to entry into the union, which has always been tentative, but is now at an all-time low. The conflict in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State, as well as the need to host nearly 3m refugees, has meant that Turkey faces new threats and challenges that were entirely unexpected a few short years ago.

President Erdogan has managed to win every election and referendum that has been held in Turkey since the AKP came to power in 2002. In the context of a state of emergency, the recent referendum occurred at a time of immense tension between a divided population still coming to terms with a failed but bloody coup. While the result was narrow, the victory was decisive enough for Erdogan and the AKP. The social and political divisions in society, however, could not be wider in the current climate.

Right now, a period of healing is still needed in relation to the events of the failed coup, especially as there are so many unanswered questions. This will take time. All that was good in relation to peace processes, openness to differences, within society and without, and an internally and externally orientated confidence as a major player in the Middle East will also take time to re-work. As history has shown us, Turks have resolve, pride and an immense sense of identity, however fractious, that is resilient in the face of adversity. Turkey will bounce back, but exactly what this new Turkey will look like remains unknown in the current period.

One thing is for sure. As transformation is necessary in the light of globalisation and as power globally steadily shifts from the West back to the East, Turkey remains at the centre of the world.

Thank you.