Whether on the road from Istanbul or from Esenboğa Airport, a strange sight welcomes visitors to the capital of Turkey: an opulent city gate, dressed up in neo-Ottoman designs, spans the highway through which vehicles pass on their way to the central city. Reminiscent of Türkmenbaşı’s gates of Ashkabad, these new monuments testify to the solidity and whimsy of Mayor Melih Gökçek’s twenty-year reign over Ankara just as do those gates to that of the natural-gas kingpin over his Central Asian country.
Gökçek has changed the face of Ankara scarcely less than Türkmenbaşı that of Turkmenistan. Removing the classical nude statues from parks in the central city, he turned once-stately Atatürk Boulevard into a highway with tunnels and interchanges. The string of shopping malls lining the main east-west thoroughfare into the city went up on his watch, as did a highway cutting through the campus of Middle East Technical University, whose construction sparked a battle between students and police in which part of the campus was set on fire.
Yet Gökçek’s legacy and that of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that he, already mayor, helped found, looks most attractive in the very heart of the city, in the historic district going back to Roman antiquity and earlier. The oldest part of Ankara is the neighborhood within the ancient castle walls, an area already inhabited by the Galatians of Biblical times. Here in the last five years the city has spruced up the façades of the cragged and overlapping houses one sees on the way to the castle ramparts, putting an impeccable Ottoman finish on the homes of poor migrants from the east of the country. Their glistening white walls and timber frames recall such boutique holiday spots as Amasya and Safranbolu a few hours to the north.
A closer model may be the Hacıbayram neighborhood down the hill, within sight of the castle walls, the seat of a celebrated medieval mosque in whose back garden lie the excavated remains of earlier Roman structures. The pristine half-timbered façades of the neighborhood’s homes belie the desperation still faced by many of their inhabitants: an economic and social exclusion so acute that the neighborhood has become known as a recruiting ground for the “Islamic State.”
Fredric Jameson has characterized the widespread tendency of developing countries to commodify their own pasts for tourism as a significant component of the postmodern globalized culture industry. The fairy-tale reconstruction of pre-modern life enchants tourists fleeing the gray of modernity, and can even leave a stamp on the host country’s self-image. To foreigners in any case, a country’s Disneyland façades are always more visible than its dark satanic mills.
Yet these too have received due attention in the global media this year. The collapse of a mine at Soma, killing over three hundred miners, was only the tip of an iceberg of “work accidents” so prevalent in contemporary Turkey as to form part of its political economy. A German labor advocacy group aptly characterized the situation of industrial work in Turkey’s mines and construction sites as “a kind of permanent massacre” (eine Art permanentes Massaker). Much has by now been written, even in mainstream financial digests, of how heavily dependent Turkey’s current growth is on just such marginalized labor, as the real estate and construction sectors make up almost all of Turkey’s growth since the temporary slump of 2009.
With the sensations of Hacıbayram’s IS recruits splashed across the international page of the New York Times, western eyes have also wandered across town to the new palace built for President Erdoğan on public land, using public funds undisclosed even to the country’s parliament. Containing over a thousand rooms, the palace was the perfect place for the new president to treat his Kremlin counterpart to a tableau vivant using National Theater actors as “dress manikins” in nineteenth-century Russian costume, even amid plans to privatize or close state theaters in Ankara.
Nor have global audiences been able to ignore the Turkish state’s violent repression of Kurdish protest during the IS siege of Kobani. Over forty died at the hands of police or in clashes between rival groups, amid widespread suspicion of Turkish support for the jihadists’ drive to wipe out the autonomous Kurdish community of northern Syria. Tactical support for the fundamentalist armies—some of them now proscribed by Turkey’s NATO allies while others have been rebranded as “moderate rebels”—may in the recent past have ingratiated Turkey with a West intent on overthrowing Assad. Now it is more than anything a stumbling block to the government’s long-stated goal of reaching a negotiated settlement with the Kurdish national movement in Turkey.
Last but not least, Gezi Park is still on the world’s radar screen. It is also still in the government’s plans, in spite of the court order that halted construction last year. The government hopes to reconstruct the shell of an Ottoman-era artillery barracks (topçu kışlası) to house a shopping mall. And not just any barracks: the site of a 1909 uprising by conservative officers against the modernizing Committee of Union and Progress (İttihat ve Teraki Cemiyeti) which had by then gained ascendency in the Ottoman state. The revolt failed, and in the aftermath of the empire’s Great War defeat, some Committee members would go on to found the Republic. The building’s resurrection perfectly symbolizes the cultural program of today’s ruling party: on the inside, capitalism triumphant; on the surface, the undoing of the very birth of republican Turkey.
On the Inside
Surfaces are not indifferent to what lies within. There is a reason the Ottoman décor has appeared once the country had turned away from the developmentalist economic model that went hand in hand with cultural modernization in Turkey from the 1930’s onward.
Turkey before the 1980 coup was a mixed economy with significant state-owned enterprises and a heavily unionized labor force (with a union density of 30% in 1979). Import-substitution policies built up the country’s industrial base while keeping it relatively sheltered from the ebb and flow of the international market.
Neoliberalism came to Turkey in the same way it did to many other places: on the wings of a military coup. Subsequently, privatizations and the weakening of the unions opened new avenues to profit for foreign investors. The ensuing increase in the exploitation of wage labor has accelerated since 2002, when the AKP came to power promising to implement an IMF stabilization package its predecessors had accepted in response to a crisis the year before.
Supplementing the rise in surplus value through increased exploitation is a dynamic Erinç Yeldan terms “speculative growth.” Here as in other corners of the developing world, all eyes are on the U.S. Federal Reserve, whose policy of quantitative easing has flooded peripheral financial markets with cheap credit since crisis hit the core capitalist economies in 2008. Now more than ever, high-risk, high-yield markets like Turkey attract short-term financial capital, called “hot money,” in the form of investments in portfolio accounts and of loans between banks.
As core western currencies become more plentiful their price comes down, encouraging a rise in import consumption, and augmenting the orientation of the country’s export industries toward the production of import-dependent goods, whose value added is typically low. An example of this latter is the production of auto-parts in which minor components are added to the imported part before being re-exported. Like other countries that have taken this route, Turkey has run up a high current account deficit, though this has come down somewhat in the last year, as economic growth itself has slowed. That growth has been financed through increasingly unsustainable levels of foreign debt.
Turkey’s speculative growth accommodates a high level of real unemployment. While the official unemployment rate hovers around the customary 10%—its quarterly fluctuations reflecting the ebb and flow of seasonal work—this February, government statistics put the labor force participation rate (LFPR) at the remarkably low 49.1%, down from 51.6% at the peak point of summer 2013. By contrast, the corresponding figure for the United States, currently at a thirty-year low, is 62.7%. Supplementing these figures is a certain amount of employment off the books, not subject to the legally mandated social security coverage that otherwise falls to the employer, nor even to the minimum wage requirement. As of 2012, government figures showed 6% of households in Turkey taking in only 430 TL per month, slightly over half of minimum wage. Whereas in 2000 the top 10% controlled 67% of the country’s wealth, that figure now stands at 77%.
For all that, one cannot really accuse the AKP of neglecting the country’s poorest. Aside from pension funds, government spending on transfer payments has risen, up for instance from 0.9% of GDP in 2006 to 1.8% four years later. Erdoğan’s government has raised the minimum wage on which roughly 40% of Turkish households depend solely for their livelihood; economist Özlem Onaran thinks these raises sufficient for an increase in purchasing power, though some union representatives have disputed such claims. Poorer citizens are grateful for a cancellation of privileges formerly enjoyed by public servants in access to professors in public hospitals. The government’s current plans to relocate the hospitals to the outskirts of cities and subcontract their management to friendly businessmen—effectively privatizing the public health care sector to the detriment of its doctors and other professionals—have not yet had any effect on popular thinking. Having just released its plan to privatize power companies, roads, and bridges, the AKP government continues to demonstrate that privatization and charity can coexist.
“Their Delicate Frames”
A key component of the economic picture is the underemployment of women. The LFPR of what President Erdoğan terms the more delicate sex stands at 29%, well below the world and European averages. In 2011 an IMF focus group wrote that female LFPR “has hovered around 50% over the past two decades,” reaching 50% in Europe and Central Asia and only 21% in the Middle East and North Africa. For the first time factoring the income gap between the sexes into its measure of “the gender gap in human development achievements” in 2014, the United Nations Development Project placed Turkey 118th out of 148 countries studied.
Ideologically, there can be no question where the AKP stands on the role of women. Having inherited a Women’s Ministry from its predecessors, their government has renamed it the Ministry for Family and Social Policy. Its leader has denied ex cathedra that men and women are equal and asserted that every woman should have at least three children: an assertion duly echoed by the Health Minister. Erdoğan has repeatedly singled out female journalists for condemnation and treason allegations, leading to thousands of rape and death threats from male AKP supporters. A similar treatment awaited Republic People’s Party (CHP) parliamentarian Aylin Nazlıaka after she called for the investigation of a matchmaking show on television whose hostess happily entertained a male participant who said he was looking for a new wife because he had killed his previous one. The show was eventually taken off the air, but not before the hostess could deride Nazlıaka as “a minority” and get enthusiastic backing from the Ankara mayor.
In the realm of legislation, the government has been more circumspect but no less determined. It has added to the marginalization of working women with measures pretending to combat it: the set of laws termed the “Womens’ Employment Package” (Kadın Istihdamı Paketi) of 2013. Mandating that companies open onsite facilities for breastfeeding and diaper changing if they choose to hire over 150 women, one section became known colloquially as the “don’t hire women law.” Further clauses promote “flexible” contracts for women considering interrupting their work life to become mothers: these the Womens’ Labor Forum (Kadın Emeği Platformu) was quick to debunk as means to make female labor still more precarious, deepening the “double exploitation” of women at home and work. Another measure established microcredit for female entrepreneurs, with a focus on small-scale home industries. Televised spots promoting the new policies feature women with sewing machines, working only with other women.
Educational policy has been another arena for the government’s cunning strategy of passing laws that do effectively the opposite of what they claim. In 2012 the parliament passed an education law claiming to raise enrollment by increasing years of mandatory schooling, for the first time making secondary school obligatory. Yet a provision enabling pupils to complete their education by correspondence from the fifth grade on drew suspicious glances from women’s groups, who predicted that more families would take their daughters out of school in preparation for early marriage. The parliamentary commission drafting the law considered a report submitted by an association of imams urging that girls not be required to attend school with boys once they start menstruating, “in accordance with Islamic beliefs.” Since the same law lowered the legal “apprenticeship” age to 11 years, many also feared that male pupils would leave school early to become workers.
Statistics on school enrollment released in the last year in fact show marked decreases: in one semester the rate of enrollment in the fifth through eighth grades dropped by 5%, and the number of female pupils removed from school after the eighth grade doubled. Emboldened by their recent successes in reforming access to education, some voices close to the ruling party now call for full sex segregation in the public schools. Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) parliamentarian Levent Tüzel reports that such a policy is already underway at the Ministry of Culture, with separate rooms for male and female employees.
Changing the Cultural Code
Just as important as the decision about who goes to school and with whom is the matter of what children will learn there. Proposed changes to the curriculum betray a project of social engineering in which ostensibly radical departures from the secular nationalist imaginary mask an underlying continuity with previous governments.
The junta government of 1980 first introduced mandatory religion classes as part of General Kenan Evren’s search for unifying values to fortify the nation against “anarchists” and those teaching “ideologies other than the one Atatürk brought us” (i.e. socialism in all its variants). The three decades since have seen a steady expansion in the number of Imam-Hatip schools run by the state for the express purpose of training Sunni clergymen. This long-term development has climaxed over the last year in a series of high-profile cases of secular and even non-Muslim pupils enrolled automatically in Imam-Hatip schools, and traditional public schools closed to make way for their religious counterparts.
The Cold War discourse animating the initial campaign for public religiosity still surfaces in the pronouncements of the current rulers, as in Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s revealing comment that today’s students should have to read Islamic texts just as he himself was once forced to read Marx. In the teeth of a decision by the European Court of Human Rights that obligatory classes in Sunni Islam violate the civil rights of the Alevi minority, Davutoğlu not only defended the course but gathered an education commission that would recommend instituting it yearly beginning in the first grade.
The same commission has now created an even greater stir in the Turkish media by advocating the instruction of the Ottoman Turkish language as another required course. To fully appreciate this move may require more familiarity with both the Turkish educational system and the history of Atatürk’s “language revolutions” than I can hope to give here.
It has long been fashionable in some circles of the Turkish intelligentsia to lament the loss of the Arabic script and literacy in the language of the Ottoman court, marking what some have presented as a traumatic break with the past brought on by Atatürk’s “revolution from above.” This is, broadly speaking, the viewpoint familiar to western readers from such treatments as that of Geoffrey Lewis, tellingly titled, The Turkish Language Reform: a Catastrophic Success. But this idiom whose loss some intellectuals find so traumatic did not much penetrate beyond the small elite of court and clergy. By contrast, the thirteenth-century poetry of Yunus Emre, written in the language of the common people, is still broadly comprehensible to Turkish readers today. While much can be said for the study of Ottoman—as indeed of any language—the “trauma” narrative of Romanization should not go unchallenged. There is a strong case to be made that what Atatürk’s lieutenants did was forge out of the language actually spoken by Turks an idiom capable of carrying affairs of state.
Secular Turkey never lacked institutions and scholars to teach the Ottoman tradition. One thinks of Halil Inalcık, prolific doyen of Ottoman history and the recently deceased poet and literature scholar Talât Halman, staunch secularists both. What it lacked, until recently, was a political movement determined to substitute the study of Ottoman for that of modern foreign languages, in the interest of teaching that the cultural reforms of twentieth-century Turkey were a mistake. If obliging the study of Ottoman were a sincere attempt to reconnect with a cultural past, then why has the AKP government dismantled an important Ottoman literature archive in Istanbul to make way for a hotel? Over the objections of the architects’ bureau and of secularist historian İlber Ortaylı, the documents were moved to a new building in a riverbed, where some of them have reportedly rotted. Why teach students a language without preserving the texts it would enable them to read?
As a well-known Professor of International Relations and thus the chief intellectual in the AKP inner circle, Ahmet Davutoğlu may be a fitting face for the transformation of the schools, but its mastermind is and remains President Erdoğan. The “master” (usta) has made sure to steer the debate on educational reform with guiding insights into little-known historical facts. How many of us knew that Muslims discovered America centuries before Columbus, who arrived in Cuba to witness the stirring sight of a mosque on a high promontory? His Minister of Science chimed in with the reminder that the curvature of the earth was the discovery of a Golden Age Muslim, long before Europe’s Age of Discovery.
Both claims piggyback on mistakes widespread in Turkish education. While Erdoğan’s misreading of Columbus’s diary hinges on a failure to distinguish between metaphorical and literal speech, the Science Minister’s assumption that the medieval West did not know that the earth was round reflects a belief widespread among first-year Turkish university students who (for some reason) ascribe this discovery to Galileo, just as American students traditionally ascribe it to Columbus, misled by a Washington Irving short story.
Educators are aghast to see such popular mistakes repeated by state officials and then enshrined in educational policy. Some also detect an echo of long-mocked excesses of nationalist mythology, such as the “sun theory” from the 1930’s, which sought Turkic origins for words from languages all over the world, and subsequent historical theories seeking to expose various world peoples, from Hittites to American Indians, as Turks. Ironic, since Erdoğan continues to present himself as a liberator freeing Turkish education from the suffocating grip of secular nationalist dogma.
While education serves as a long-term strategy of social control, in the short term there are the police. When anger over Kobani boiled over onto Turkey’s streets, the government reacted to the renewed wave of protests with a set of security laws expanding police power. The new measures facilitate search and seizure without a warrant from a judge, and preventive detentions. Another clause enables police to shoot anyone brandishing molotof cocktails or firecrackers. The consequences of such preemptive measures are visible in recent cases in the United States, in which fear on the part of the policeman has been seen to justify the killing of unarmed men. There is little doubt that more will share the fate of Ethem Sarısülük, dead of a policeman’s bullet during the Gezi protests, once the police are explicitly allowed to shoot anyone they think is holding an improvised weapon.
Erdoğan himself has asked why Turkish cops are under so much scrutiny when their American counterparts have killed innocent people. That he notices the parallel is not reassuring. Ostensibly a criticism of American conditions, such comments can easily slide into a defense of police immunity as practiced in the big brother country; during the protests themselves, Erdoğan had reminded his supporters that “in the most advanced countries, they even fire bullets!”
Unlike some American grand juries, the Turkish courts have not yet dared to make killers in uniform immune to prosecution, but the state has found a way to balance the discipline by putting victims’ family members in prison when they protest the meagerness of the sentences or their own treatment by court and police. Ahmet Şahbaz, the officer who killed Sarısülük, was sentenced to eight years in prison for manslaughter, but prosecutors now want to see Sarısülük’s first-degree relatives sentenced to ten years each for calling Şahbaz a “murderer” during a break in the proceedings. The same happened to a woman taken to an Izmir police station late one night in 2011 after failing to produce an ID in a nightclub, only to be beaten by several policemen. Caught on surveillance cameras, the cops each face jail time of up to a year if convicted when the trial resumes next month, while the woman faces a possible eight years for “insulting” them. Police beatings may not go unpunished, but neither does the shameful act of being subjected to them.
Turkey’s new province: Pen-sil-ván-iya
These police actions form part of a larger strategy of surveillance including the step-by-step muzzling of the news media. Since a 2010 referendum reorganizing the judicial system greatly increased the government’s sway over the courts, prison sentences for “insulting public officials” and “insulting religious values held by a portion of the population” (invariably the Sunni, conservative portion) have become commonplace. For many western news outlets the straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have been the police raid this past week on Zaman newspaper, the leading press organ of the Gülen movement and a vanguard supporter of the government until Erdoğan fell out with Fethullah Gülen late last year.
That Gülen’s allies in the bureaucracy and media uncovered and publicized evidence of massive corruption in Erdoğan’s cabinet one year ago is now common knowledge in Turkey and abroad. The disclosures followed threats from Erdoğan to close down many Gülen-owned businesses, out of fear that the Pennsylvania-based preacher was becoming too powerful a figure within the Prime Minister’s own conservative coalition. Courts under Erdoğan’s thumb have since discarded the corruption charges and chosen to go after the whistle-blowers instead. Moreover, the government has outlawed coverage of the topic by the press; such “publication bans” (yayın yasakları) have become ever more frequent over the last year.
Not so widely known is that Gülen’s hands are hardly clean. His Turkish followers were almost certainly behind the fabrication of “evidence” leading to the convictions of scores of military officers and civilian dissidents, including prominent journalists, in the Balyoz (“sledgehammer”) and Ergenekon trails of 2012. But you would not have learned that from CNN this week, nor was there much hand-wringing in the western media or in State Department press conferences when writers of secular nationalist or leftist orientation were jailed two years ago on grounds that their writings comprised evidence of participation in plotting a coup. In that connection Izmir parliamentarian Mustafa Balbay, a well-known columnist for Cumhuriyet newspaper, spent almost four years in prison before being sentenced.
Ahmet Şık, whose manuscript purporting to expose a Gülenist infiltration of the police force the police confiscated and tried to destroy in 2011 (and would have destroyed had he not hidden a back-up copy which quickly made the rounds on the internet), received an apologetic message from Zaman columnist Ali Aslan as police took his colleagues into custody. Şık had just tweeted that “resistance to fascism is virtue,” even if when its targets are those who have participated in “fascism” in the past. To his credit, Aslan thanked Şık for his support and acknowledged that his own camp had not done the same for him when he was under investigation or in prison in 2011. Neither the radical leftist Şık nor the mainstream secularist Balbay is a household name to educated western readerships most accustomed to having their hackles raised over violations of free speech when the speaker in question advocates views in line with U.S. interests.
Even before the Zaman raid, Turkey under the AKP had risen to the top spot in international rankings of countries by number of journalists in prison. What sets the current crackdowns apart from their predecessors is its attack on a faction more or less overtly aligned with the United States. Since he fled his native country in 1999, Fethullah Gülen has thrived in his new American home, protected by a veritable private army on his estate and bolstered by the profits of his far-flung charter school enterprises. He has basked in sympathetic interviews from such liberal mainstays as The Atlantic as recently as last year, and the occasional critical piece—such as the one in Jacobin this fall—has been careful to disavow any hostility to his Islamist leanings. Meanwhile, his influence on his native land continued to grow, thanks to a dedicated cadre of followers whose education and professional credentials made them the natural cohort for Erdoğan to rely on to staff a bureaucracy otherwise loyal to secular nationalism.
Gülen’s Turkish media—with Zaman front and center—advanced the AKP’s pragmatic, ideological and discursive agendas from 2002 right up until the eve of the corruption scandal in December 2013. Yet when Erdoğan swerved from the Washington foreign policy consensus by sending the Mavi Marmara flotilla to challenge Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip in 2010, Gülen pointedly distanced himself from Erdoğan in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, calling on Islamic principles of respect for worldly authorities. Here was an Islamist Washington could treasure when the otherwise reliable Erdoğan looked wayward. At a press conference this past weekend, a State Department spokeswoman declined to comment on how the US would respond to a Turkish request to extradite Gülen.
It remains to be seen whether the intensified war on the cemaat (as the Gülenist “community” is known) signals a willingness on Erdoğan’s part to risk a more serious rift with the United States. Diplomatic alignments are not always legible from the cultural rhetoric surrounding them. AKP Turkey’s relationship with Israel is a case in point. Hamas leader Khaled Mashal attended the AKP party congress in 2012, and earlier this year drivers in Ankara could see public billboards along major roads graphically decrying the blood running in Gaza’s streets—usually twinned with exhortations to rally in support of Mohammed Morsi. Besides whipping up anti-Semitic hysteria in Turkey, the main effect of this advocacy has been to reframe the Palestinian national struggle as an affair of political Islam. Meanwhile, Turkish trade with Israel has grown fourfold under AKP rule, and it includes military technology. One of the point men appears to be Erdoğan’s son Burak, a shipping magnate.
Between the Kremlin and the Caliphate
The Turkish government’s readiness this month to sign on to a pipeline project to divert Russian natural gas through Turkey en route to Europe shows some measure of independence from Washington. It is also clearly in the national interest, lowering natural gas prices for Turkey. Yet this newfound cooperation with Russia—cemented by Vladimir Putin’s visit to Erdoğan’s new palace—does not extend to the civil war in Syria, where Ankara continues to be indispensable to Washington’s plans. Earlier this year the US announced a CIA program to train anti-Assad rebels in southern Turkey, giving an official patina to what many had suspected of having gone on long before. And while Turkey’s comportment toward the YPG/PKK defense of Kobani from the “Islamic State” displayed at best hostility and at worst tacit support for IS, the Turks did allow a caravan of the US-friendly Iraqi Kurdish forces to pass through Turkish territory on their way to reinforce the besieged town, at the request of the Americans.
America’s partial abandonment of the Islamist wing of the resistance in Syria must have angered Erdoğan, left holding the bag while his image in the West worsens, but at the same time the West seems unable to do without him. With Ahmet Davutoğlu, theorist of “strategic depth” and architect of Turkey’s foreign policy in the Prime Minister’s office, the AKP state will most likely continue to try to calibrate its ambitions for regional hegemony with the plans of the global hegemon.
East is West and West is East
Over the last twelve years, many in the West thought they had hit upon a pleasant surprise: a Middle Eastern government that could placate traditionalist cultural strivings while strengthening a pro-western, neoliberal agenda. In truth this should not have been surprising, any more than it is to see western newcomers to Ankara charmed by auto-orientalist kitsch. In the “new Turkey” political Islam has proven itself the most effective ideological cover for the neoliberal agenda.
At the behest of global finance capital, the country remains trapped in a pattern of shallow growth that does little to expand its overall productive capacities, leaving a large portion of its citizens excluded and dependent on charity public or private. Ideologies undermining the emancipation of women and promoting charitable largesse over working-class collective action are perfectly suited to this economic regime. The crackdown on dissident voices in culture and the media works to prevent the emergence of any social alternative to capitalism with religious underpinnings. The Ottoman fantasy is the objective correlative to a society that has learned all the wrong lessons from globalization. It is a dream from which, hopefully, Turkey will soon awaken.
 Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future. London: Verso, 2005. 215-6.