The threat to Turkey is SERIOUS

The threat to Turkey is SERIOUS June 12, 2013

[Sorry, this should have gone out yesterday, but missed its schedule!]

The shitstorm going down in Turkey deserves more attention. I mean that our governments should be coming out and decrying the Turkish conservative government’s attempts to drive out secularism in the historically secular country. I get enraged when I read about what is going on there. Here is an ostensibly Muslim country which has remained, against all odds, secular in nature. The tide is turning, though, and outrageous things are taking place. This argue makes me bristle with the injustice of the world. Over to the Guardian.

Secularism: what does it mean to the people of Turkey? Is it simply a question of whether we can buy alcohol when we please, or whether the cabin crew of Turkish airlines are allowed to wear red lipstick? It cannot simply be these eye-catching issues, beloved of the media, that have brought people out on to the streets in their tens of thousands. Let me draw a different picture of the current challenges to secularism in Turkey, as protesters continue to express their frustration with a government that seems to be defined by inflexible religiosity.

Education, for one thing, is in peril. Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party has given the lion’s share of the budget to mosques and religious schools, cutting schools that provide secular education adrift. There are 67,000 schools and 85,000 mosques. Over the past few months, in Istanbul alone, 98 primary schools have been converted into state-run religious Imam Hatip schools. A woman complained to me in my capacity as an opposition MP that her daughter’s school of 1,200 students was turned into an Imam Hatip school with a capacity of only 320. Soon, only children of the well-to-do will be able to receive a secular education. “What are we, the poor, supposed to do?” she asked me.

Freedom of speech is also threatened. It is well known that Turkey hasmore imprisoned journalists than any other country, but as a result of the chilling effect of these prosecutions on the press, many stories never make the news. The government is quick to clamp down on dissent.

The government has embarked on a process of reshaping Turkey. In our country today, politics – and many other aspects of social and economic life – are increasingly differentiated on the basis of how pious people are. It takes great courage to eat in public during the month of Ramadan fasting. Religion classes in schools teach the protocols of worship instead of religious philosophy. Those, such as the Alevis, who do not embrace the Sunni tradition, are considered adversaries by the government. While the impeccable legal status that was previously accorded to women has not been challenged, profound transformations in women’s social status have taken place, and the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, urges them to stay at home and have more children.

Corruption is rampant. The government now employs public sector workers according to their religious knowledge, rather than their scores in the civil service examinations. By securing privileged positions for their adherents in education and the bureaucracy, the government has dealt a serious blow to the already fragile democratic tradition in our country. We shook off the leaden hand of the military only to find that pious politicians who claimed to be working for equality have placed an equally heavy burden of autocracy and intolerance on us.

The same Turkey that today finds itself in this position was considered a beacon after its establishment in 1923, an important laboratory where a modern and secular government was reconciled with a Muslim society, however delicate that synthesis might have been. It was widely believed that Turkey’s transformation set a model for the rest of the Islamic world. The hope was that the reforms of the new republic would be carried over to future generations.

I certainly do not support excluding faith from public life. But political Islam in our country does not content itself with the role of moral guide. Rather it aspires to mould everyone to the same imagined pious Sunni national character by wrapping society in restrictive rules, ostensibly for the public’s own welfare, and then policing citizens and punishing those who disagree.

What is worse is that our rising apprehension about the direction our government is taking finds no audience among those in the west who would never tolerate such politics and restrictions in their own countries. The discourse of the west and the attitudes of its leaders are important because they influence public debate in Turkey. However, the west, understandably obsessed by its own security concerns and strategies, looks the other way at the Turkish government’s abuses. As a member of the opposition, what I want is not for the west to intervene in our internal affairs, but for it to stop shielding a government with such little regard for the values of freedom.

Who else will be able to reconcile Islam, secularism and democracy once Turkey fails? What are the global consequences of this failure?

I urge those in the west who believe that Turkey and the globe benefit from a democracy whose fabric is interwoven with religion to look again at what that fabric looks like today – our society’s rights shredded in the name of yet another intolerant majority.

Bear in mind how valuable a secular Turkey is for the world. Do not forfeit the last secularists in the Middle East to the purge that is taking place in the name of democracy, as if a lower level of rights is somehow “good enough” for our region, when you would never accept such restrictions in yours – just as France used to stamp the university diplomas earned by its Arab colonial subjects “Bon pour l’orient” (good enough for the Orient).

[UPDATE – here is a BBC article explaining the latest developments]

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  • John Grove

    [[However, the west, understandably obsessed by its own security concerns and strategies, looks the other way at the Turkish government’s abuses ]]

    Seriously, what can it do? Invade it like Iraq? The problem with these countries and the Islam mindset is the fact that the Qur’an doesn’t really allow for the separation of church and state that Christianity does, even though Christianity does so reluctantly kicking and screaming.

    Your concerns are genuine ones, but I really don’t know what the answer is as long as Islam can thrive. The last time I visited England I had never seen so many Muslims. I recently went to the Philippines, they are there as well. They are all over France. Where ever they seem to go, you will notice a trend of turbulence and violence that they leave behind in their wake.

    This makes me think of Sam Harris book on ‘The End of Faith”. I recall he presents data from the Pew Research Center which showed that significant percentages of Muslims worldwide would justify suicide bombing as a legitimate tactic. As long as this kind of mindset can thrive, we will live in a most unsettling world.

    • Andy_Schueler

      The problem with these countries and the Islam mindset is the fact that the Qur’an doesn’t really allow for the separation of church and state that Christianity does, even though Christianity does so reluctantly kicking and screaming.

      Seperation of church and state worked really well in Turkey for a very long time (better than in many western democracies!) despite the vast majority of turkish people being muslims. I think Turkey has demonstrated that Islam can be “tamed”, just like Christianity was tamed during and after the enlightenment. However, there will always be some fundies left – and even a relatively small group of fundies can successfully work against the seperation of church and state. What muslim fundies did with the turkish military is the exact same thing as what christian fundies are currently doing with the US military, for example. And american fundies also try the same infiltration approach with the US government. Whether it´s muslim fundies or christian fundies – if the non-fundies are not fighting for a free press and for seperation of church and state, the fundies can win this battle, even if they do not represent the majority.

      • There does seem to be a sort of wedge strategy, slowly slowly eroding secular values, in all of these examples.

        I just think other EU? nations should not just sit back and let this happen. These are human rights issues. We should be holding it over Turkey. We should be actively pressuring them. They are going backwards (as many countries in the world appear to be doing in light of small but powerful minorities – the UK govt is full of fuckwits who are just making things slowly more conservatively backkward).

        • Andy_Schueler

          I just think other EU? nations should not just sit back and let this happen. These are human rights issues. We should be holding it over Turkey. We should be actively pressuring them.

          Yup. That and we should lead by example – the way freedom of press, freedom of assembly, labor rights and social security is eroded in many EU nations is completely unacceptable. The neoliberal assholes with their austerity programs are just as evil and even more dangerous than religious fundies IMO.

      • John Grove

        [[Seperation of church and state worked really well in Turkey for a very
        long time (better than in many western democracies!) despite the vast
        majority of turkish people being muslims.]]

        I am not sure I would say that it worked “well”, but maybe it worked “enough”. It seems once you get a few radicals in there, trouble brews and it is hard for it to stop.

        • Andy_Schueler

          I am not sure I would say that it worked “well”, but maybe it worked “enough”

          “Well” in the sense that until a few years ago, they actually had less problems with the fundies influencing politics than the USA after Reagan ;-).

          It seems once you get a few radicals in there, trouble brews and it is hard for it to stop.

          Yup. What happens in Turkey should be a wakeup call for moderate Christians in the USA (and other countries). If you don´t stop the fundies early, you might run out of non-violent solutions to stop them. And if the fundies win – moderate Christians will suffer just as much as Atheists, Jews and Muslims.

          • John Grove

            I recall reading books when I was a fundie about those trying to climb Mt Ararat looking for Noah’s Ark and having huge problems with the fanatical locals there who almost killed them for simply trying to scale the mountain.

            [[if the fundies win – moderate Christians will suffer just as much as Atheists, Jews and Muslims]]

            Very true unfortunately.

          • Andy_Schueler

            I recall reading books when I was a fundie about those trying to climb Mt Ararat looking for Noah’s Ark and having huge problems with the fanatical locals there who almost killed them for simply trying to scale the mountain.

            Wow… But there used to be (and still is) a huge difference between the mentality of the people living in rural areas of Turkey and the more urban areas like Istanbul or Ankara. The people living in rural areas always tend to be more conservative / traditional / religious on average than those in urban areas, but in Turkey, this difference is pretty extreme from what I´ve heard.

          • John Grove

            I recently got back from visiting the Phillipines with my girlfriend and I was near Pampanga and Angeles City. There was a big volcano near the airport, I told my girlfriend that I would love to scale that. She said, “You want to get shot, those people will kill you for that since you are white and don’t know you”.

            Not sure if she was exaggerating or not, but that was pretty unsettling to hear. Actually, I found the people there very nice and they actually tried very hard to go out of their way to be hospitable. (Maybe because they all wanted a tip?)