Human Rights, Democracy and Islam in Turkey and the Middle East

The longer I live in Turkey the more I come to understand the incredible diversity of this allegedly homogeneous country. One of the first statistics a visitor learns is that Turkey’s population is ninety-nine percent Muslim. One of the most quoted sayings of the nation’s founder and first President MK Ataturk is the one that goes: ‘How happy is the one who says I am a Turk!’
One face of Islam in Turkey
The official homogeneity, however, masks on-the-ground reality. A superficial indicator of this is the clothing worn by women in Turkey. The wearing of some kind of headscarf is traditional in this part of the world, and you will meet every variation, from the black burka covering all but the eyes, to the brightly coloured silk Armine fashion accessory complementing designer jeans and stylish make-up. Young ladies in the latter category are quite likely to be seen strolling the streets arm-in-arm with a bare-headed mini-skirted female friend, or publicly embracing a male one (probably without a miniskirt). Those women enveloped in black from head to toe are anathema to the secular fashionistas of Nişantaşı and Baghdad Ave, many of whom nonetheless fast during the holy month of Ramazan.
On a deeper level, it is estimated that ten to twenty percent of Turkey’s population belongs to the Alevi sect, whose brand of Islam stems from the Shi’ites, one of the two main branches of Islam. Origins of the split date from the early days when the Prophet Mohammed died without making it clear who should take over his leadership role. Turkey’s Muslims are predominantly Sunni, but the Alevi group, while maintaining a distinct identity, seems to have little in common with the fundamentalist Shi’ites who hold sway in Iran, or even the Alawi dictatorship of beleaguered Syrian president, Bashar al Assad. Further complicating the matter is the fact that many, though by no means all Alevis are ethnic Kurds, another twenty percent demographic who supported the foundation of the Republic of Turkey, but have resisted cultural and linguistic assimilation.
Apart from these major subsets, the boundaries of the republic contain several other ethnic, linguistic and religious groups: the Laz of the Black Sea region, Arab speakers in the southeast, descendants of Circassian refugees from the Caucasus region. Communities of Armenians and Eastern Orthodox are to be found, their churches and cemeteries occupying prominent sites, especially in Istanbul. Jews remain, still performing rites in the Ladino dialect their ancestors brought from Spain in the 15th century. There is a sprinkling of Catholic and Protestant churches catering, one assumes, to small local congregations, with a little proselytising on the side – and one or two evangelical Christian sects clearly carry out missionary activities.
As a result of the foregoing, there are two conflicting forces at work in modern Turkey. One is the homogenising assimilating process set in motion of necessity by the republican founders back in the 1920s when armed struggle alone would save the land from division, partition and annihilation by the victorious allies after World War One. That struggle could only be initiated by creating a national identity with common roots of history, religion, language and culture, whose owners’ sacred duty was to defend the land on which they stood. Creating and sustaining this identity required a certain amount of myth-making, propaganda and suppression of dissent.
The other force, steadily gaining strength, is one acknowledging the diversity of Turkey’s population, and seeking recognition and equal rights for all citizens. Tension between these two forces has been causing conflict such as the so-called ‘Gezi Park’ protests in the early summer. Perhaps surprisingly, far from indicating a failure of democracy in Turkey, this tension is entirely healthy. The democratisation process implemented by Turkey’s government over the past ten years has been slowly granting acceptance and equality to groups previously marginalised. Ironically, this reforming government is the one accused by some citizens of harbouring an ‘Islamist’ agenda – while the protesters are the conservatives supporting military enforcement of exclusive, so-called secular Kemalist values.
On location in Mardin, SE Turkey
I try to keep a finger on what’s going on in the world of Turkish soap operas. It’s a losing struggle, since there seem to be dozens of them, and they generally run for two years at most. Many of them are obsessed with intrigues in the lives of the rich and famous, showcasing palatial houses in the stratosphere of Istanbul’s top-end residential market. While channel-surfing the other day, however, I did come across one that provided a refreshing alternative to the usual fare. ‘Adını Kalbime Yazdım’, (I’ve Written Your Name in My Heart), moved, in the episode I watched, between that Istanbul world of wealth and privilege, and the southeastern city of Mardin near the Syrian border, where the architecture is distinctly Arabic and many of the locals speak Turkish as a second language. The main man, Ömer, a tribal leader, is evidently making a life for himself in the western metropolis, and is engaged to a fashionable young city girl. His mother, however, back in Mardin, has taken it on herself to promise her number one son to the daughter of a rival clan chief, in an attempt to patch up the blood feud that has been seething for years. Our guy speeds back to his hometown to sort things out, but has clearly lost touch with Mardin realities. Rejecting the local girl after agreement has been reached is an unforgivable affront to the honour of both families. His own brother feels obliged to cleanse the sin in the time-honoured tradition – with a bullet.
Recently there was a conference in the Mediterranean coastal city of Antalya: An International Symposium on Children At Risk and In Need of Protection. A press release announced that one in three new brides in Turkey is under eighteen on her wedding day, and that thirty-five percent of these girls are actually ‘second wives’ – understood locally to mean a girl taken by a man in an unofficial ‘religious’ ceremony when he feels he needs a little more excitement than his first wife is providing.
The point I want to make here is that there is more to Turkey than what is common among the secular elite of Istanbul who move from fashionable Etiler, Nişantaşı or Baghdad Avenue to the ski slopes of Uludağ and the beach resorts of Bodrum and Antalya and back, with trips abroad for variety. Undoubtedly the gnomes of Brussels who oversee the European Union are well aware of this, which perhaps explains their reluctance to see Turkey’s eighty million people gain free access to their civilised Christian club. It is certainly a better reason than their stated objections to the Cyprus problem, abuse of human rights and police violence against citizens.
As suggested above, a major irony of the Middle East these days (and for our purposes here let’s include Turkey by reason of its Muslim identity) is that so-called ‘Islamist’ political parties are often the ones championing human rights, participatory democracy and national sovereignty. ‘Secular’ leaders, in contrast, are more likely to be reactionary, authoritarian and subject to undue influence by foreign powers. This creates difficulties in the minds of ordinary citizens in Western democracies, who are accustomed to associating religion, especially the Muslim religion, with intolerance and backwardness.
Take Iran as an example. Persia has been a land of high civilisation and culture since the dawn of history. This continued until the 18th century when the Great Powers of Europe, especially Britain and Russia, began playing their expansionist games. The games turned to frenzy with the discovery and rise to prominence of oil as the energy to power the 20th century. Anglo-petroleum interests moved in, the Middle East was occupied and divided into ‘spheres of interest’ and ‘mandates’ after the First World War, and a gentleman by the name of Reza Khan emerged from village obscurity and ascended to the throne of Persia with a little help from the Brits. Shah Riza himself apparently offended his erstwhile allies by insisting on Iran’s remaining neutral during the Second World War, and was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, the latter we must assume being more amenable to British Imperial interests. Fifty years passed with exploitation of the country’s oil wealth by foreign interests aided and abetted by the local elite who enriched themselves at the expense of the ordinary Persian.
Finally, locals, in 1951, managed to elect a more sympathetic and effective Prime Minister who promptly nationalised the oil industry and encouraged the departure of Mohammed-Reza Shah. The new dawn didn’t last long, however. The British government, keen to protect its own interests but lacking former imperial might, persuaded the new US President Dwight D Eisenhower to get involved. The ensuing CIA-sponsored coup d’etat ousted PM Mossadeq and reinstated the Shah, who restored the status quo and ruled with an iron fist of oppression for twenty-six years until the Islamic revolution led by the Ayatollah Khomeini overturned the puppet monarchy in 1979. Well, I’m not extolling that gentleman’s virtues or holding modern Iran up as a model of democratic freedom – but you might want to ask, who is responsible?
Similar case studies can be offered in Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States government supported and armed the Afghan Taliban fighters in their struggle against Russian invasion in the 1980s, then left the country to sort itself out after the Soviets had withdrawn. Saddam Hussein too was initially a useful US ally back then when he sent his military against the demon Iran. Unfortunately, the enemy of my enemy may quickly cease to be my friend, and become my enemy too. Sad to say, the US government seems still not to have learned this lesson. Instead of addressing the root causes of frustration and anger among Middle Eastern populations, President Obama’s administration is continuing a policy of unilateral aggression, using its unmanned drones and SEAL commandos to invade the sovereign territory of other states and take out people considered hostile to its interests regardless of collateral casualties and damage to property.
Three examples. In early October, according to an article in Time, the CIA and FBI working with US military forces captured Abu Anas al-Liby, an alleged Al Qaeda leader in Tripoli, Libya. A few weeks later, in apparent retaliation for government complicity, the Libyan Prime Minister was kidnapped at gunpoint by local militia apparently working with ministerial personnel. I was talking to two exchange students from Libya the other day. They were keen to talk and their English was remarkably good. I couldn’t resist asking how things are in their country these days. ‘Much better’, said one. ‘Nowadays everyone has a gun. In the old days it was just the police and the soldiers.’
Around the same time as the action in Tripoli, a contingent of SEALs (what a nice innocuous name for a murderous organisation) entered Somalia and inflicted casualties while failing in their objective of capturing or eliminating a leader of another terrorist group, Al Shabab. Just the other day a US drone strike was reported to have killed a Taliban leader in Pakistan, along with anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity at the time.
Successive US administrations supported the military dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt for 29 years until he was overthrown by popular demand in 2011. His major appeal in the West was support for Israel, not something Egypt had been noted for in the past. Subsequent elections produced a government with Islamic connections (not altogether surprising in a country whose population is ninety percent Muslim). A military coup in July this year ousted the new democratically elected government and is bringing its leader, Mohammed Morsi, to trial. The US government was conspicuous in its refusal to acknowledge the event as a coup, but more recently has been obliged to take punitive economic measures against the military regime in the face of mounting international criticism of police and military brutality.
A new report by Amnesty International has accused the Egyptian regime of persecuting and rejecting refugees from the ongoing civil war in Syria. Of course it is a major problem for any country to deal with flows of penniless displaced persons from a neighbouring state, but these people are Muslims and fellow Arabs. In contrast Turkey, often the target of criticism by the Amnesty International people, has so far allowed around half a million fleeing Syrians to take refuge within its borders and is doing its best to provide for them. Fortunately the government of Turkey has managed so far to keep the country from descending into the sad state of its Arab neighbours. Anti-government protesters these days seem largely content with pressing the emergency stop button on the new rail link joining European and Asian Istanbul that passes through a chunnel beneath the Bosporus.
I wouldn’t, in normal circumstances, look to a blond Hollywood movie starlet for guidance on political matters, but I was interested to see an article about Blake Lively in our local newspaper last weekend. The Turkish journalist had apparently caught up with her in Paris, and they were burbling on about the usual film star stuff – how the poor girl’s biggest problem in life is trying not to eat chocolate so that she won’t lose her figure. Before finishing, however, the interviewer couldn’t resist seeking Ms Lively’s opinion about democracy in Turkey and police abuse of human rights. I don’t know anything about politics, she said, but I really want to go and see Turkey for myself. The young lady went up considerably in my estimation. Perhaps she could invite that sensitive novelist Paul Auster along when she comes.

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