Military Takeover Fails in Turkey

Turkey experienced four occasions in the 20th century when military officers overthrew the legally constituted government – five if you count the time Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (as he later became known) founded the modern Republic of Turkey, in the process consigning the Ottoman Empire to the pages of history.

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PM Menderes – ousted and hanged in 1960

The Republic came into existence in 1923, and from then until 1950, was a one-party state governed without troubling ordinary citizens to cast a vote. As soon as those citizens got the chance they opted for a new party, the Democrats, led by Adnan Menderes. In 1960 that party was overthrown by a faction within the military. Menderes and two of his ministers were hanged after a hasty ‘trial’. Dilek’s father, a career staff officer with the rank of colonel, was forced into early retirement, along, we can assume, with others who had been reluctant to support the revolt.

Two more military coups followed in 1971 and 1980, the latter resulting in several years of military rule characterised by severe oppression, arrests, torture, disappearances and forced exile of ‘dissidents’. Turkey’s current constitution was written by the leaders of the 1980 coup, and one of its key features was measures aimed at ensuring that parties representing the political Left and the Kurdish people would not be able to gain representation in parliament.

When I first came to Turkey in 1995 there was clearly an atmosphere of restraint, if not fear. The word ‘Kurdish’ could not be uttered in polite conversation, and use of the language was proscribed. Platoons of soldiers with automatic weapons jogged along public streets, and people I knew would say they were ‘protecting’ the country’s democratic and secular constitution. The country was suffering from horrendous hyperinflation and governed by weak coalition governments formed by an ever-changing square-dance of corrupt, self-seeking political parties, none of which was capable of achieving more than 20% of the popular vote. In 1997 there was a ‘post-modern’ coup when the military commanders politely advised the Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan to step aside or face the consequences – which he wisely did. Erbakan was leader of Turkey’s equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood, and had gained the top job as the result of a questionable deal with centre-right, Kemalist, economics professor and the country’s first woman prime minister, Tansu Çiller.

It was a strange, surrealistic time, and Turkey was something of a pariah on the international stage. I have written elsewhere about what has happened in the intervening nineteen years – but critics of the present government should certainly familiarise themselves with the country’s recent history before racing to exercise their tongues or typing fingers. There is no doubt in my mind that, had the AK Party government of Mr Erdoğan not succeeded in pre-emptively subordinating Turkey’s armed forces to the rule of law, they would long since have been ousted and imprisoned, or worse.

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What happens when a tank runs over a car

Friday night’s attempted takeover by a section of the military failed for a number of reasons. First, as one commentator has observed, it was an old-school coup in the social media age. Television came late to Turkey, and for years, radio and TV broadcasting was a state-monopoly. In days gone by generals took over the TRT building and announced a fait accompli to people who had no other source of information. This time state TV channels were reading a prepared statement from the coup-leaders while viewers were watching a different story unfold on outlets run by the private sector. The government was using social media to call people out on to the streets and oppose the attempted takeover. There was no news blackout as in the past. Holidaying in Bodrum far from events in Istanbul and Ankara, with our TV sitting rarely used in a corner, the first we heard of the uprising was when Dilek’s daughter called from America to learn if we were ok.

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Not pepper spray this time – live ammunition!

Another reason for the failure is that Turkey, whatever you may hear to the contrary, is well on the road to becoming a mature democracy. There are still some who believe that ‘democracy’ needs to be imposed by military force when the ignorant masses prove incapable of making the ‘right’ choice, but they are an ever-shrinking minority. The AK Party government has given a voice to large sections of Turkey’s population who were formerly repressed, oppressed or suppressed. There is now a large middle class, and increasing numbers of people who feel a debt of loyalty and allegiance to the government for their improved standard of living. Hundreds of thousands of these people were prepared to brave the tanks and automatic rifles of soldiers on Friday night to oppose the coup. You may have seen horrific pictures of a soldier beheaded by a ‘lynch mob’. It is not altogether surprising that civilians who went out to face trained, well-armed troops with only iron bars and knives, seeing friends and neighbours shot by their fellow-countrymen, might seek vengeance when the tide turned in their favour. Civil wars are notorious for vicious cruelty. However, it is undoubtedly true that police and security forces, after accepting the surrender of rebel soldiers and forcing them to lay down their arms, worked hard to control the righteous anger of citizens, and prevent hotheads from laying hands on the discarded weapons. More heads could have rolled otherwise – and certainly would have if the coup had succeeded.

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Turkish policeman protects surrendering soldier from angry mob

Several theories have emerged about the background to the uprising. A small group of cynics, or anti-government loudmouths, are insisting or implying that the action was orchestrated and stage-managed by Mr Erdoğan and the government to cement their hold on power. There are several reasons why I do not accept this. First, the AK Party government has been gaining increased support anyway as a result of its ongoing struggle against terrorist activities. Second, I don’t believe that Mr Erdoğan and his people would be so cynical and power-crazy as to precipitate a possible bloodbath on their streets. Third, those coup-leaders have been humiliated, and vilified by their own people, and now face the wrath of the law. Some voices are calling for reinstatement of the death penalty. Is it likely that educated, intelligent, high-ranking officers would put their lives at risk to advance the ambition of politicians?

A more persuasive theory is that the government knew there were still elements within the military who opposed them to the extent that they were considering seditious action. It is difficult to deal with such a threat, however, before potential rebels have actually committed themselves to open rebellion. Therefore, the argument goes, officers loyal to the government encouraged their rebellious colleagues in the belief that a coup would have wide support, in order to flush them out. Again, however, it is obvious that even a small-scale coup attempt by true believers carries the likelihood of much bloodshed, and the possibility that it will be successful – too much of a risk, in my estimation.

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Some righteous anger of course. In this case, only a belt.

So why would they do it? Well, there is no doubt that some people in Turkey, and beyond its shores, hate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with a passion beyond reason. These people are deaf to any argument suggesting that the AK Party government has actually made Turkey a better place to live for the majority of its citizens, and improved its credibility and standing on the world stage. Most of these people talk only to like-minded others, accept wholeheartedly the most absurd and patently false propaganda, and have persuaded themselves, in the absence of effective political opposition, that the only way forward is for the military to step in and restore . . . whatever it is they want restored, as it has so often in the past. One can only think that there was a coterie of high-ranking officers who believed the rhetoric and saw themselves as saviours of the secular republic, in the tradition of Atatürk himself.

Sadly for them, and the soldiers who followed their orders, there will now be a stiff price to pay. No government can accept armed rebellion by its own people, and such treason carries a mandatory death penalty in the USA. New Zealand abolished hanging for high treason in 1989 – but as far as I know my country has never had a military coup, unless you count the overthrow of indigenous Maori sovereignty by white settlers in the 19th century. Turkey, following EU demands, did away with capital punishment completely, so it is probable that lengthy jail sentences await those convicted of participation in Friday’s revolt. If they do, it will not be a ‘purge’ as one international headline asserted. It will be due process of law punishing citizens who knowingly and deliberately committed the most serious crime in any country’s statute books.

Interestingly, international news sites that were headlining reports of a military coup in Turkey have now relegated its failure to their back pages – replaced by news of Pokemon-induced chaos in New York City and events of similar global significance. Not in disappointment, I hope, though I suspect there are some out there who would be happy to see Turkey revert to military rule so they could go back to belittling the country as a primitive backwater whose citizens are incapable of governing themselves. What is it about English toffs with the surname ‘Blair’ I wonder? Someone of that name writing for the Daily Telegraph has penned an article entitled: You thought Erdoğan was bad before? The worst is yet to come’. Well, that probably sums it up, in fact. If you were one of those blinkered souls determined to condemn Turkey and its government despite all evidence to the contrary, of course you will continue to do so. The more open-minded will use the eyes and the brains that God gave them.

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The 1955 Istanbul Riots – Democracy in the good old days

One of the big changes I’ve noticed during my time in Turkey is the freedom that now exists to speak about topics that were once taboo. The government may not have apologised for whatever happened to the Armenians back in 1915; Kurdish citizens may not be 100% happy with their lot; Alevis have some reservations about the government’s good intentions – but at least the issues are open for discussion, without which no solution could ever be found.

Aftermath of the 1955 Istanbul riots

Aftermath of the 1955 Istanbul riots

Obviously complex situations that have developed over centuries of history are not going to be unravelled overnight. Syria’s bloody civil war has been going on for four years with no peaceful end in sight. The Basque minority in Spain, or at least a significant part of it, seem keen on establishing an independent state: Russia’s interests in Ukraine, Crimea and the Caucasus require constant attention and continue to threaten violence. New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people pose ongoing political dilemmas. Racial tensions in the United States seem always close to eruption – reducing their own native population to a state of virtual invisibility. Even their white citizens don’t seem altogether happy – if the frequent mass shootings of innocent children in schools is any indication.

So I am still hopeful that, in spite of renewed violence in the southeast of Turkey, a peaceful solution here is not beyond the bounds of possibility. From my own experience in New Zealand, I know that there are extremists among the Maori people who will not be happy until all descendants of the invading white race have returned to Scotland, or wherever we came from. There are others who want to assimilate into the globalised world and have no wish to identify with the traditional language and culture; and between these two polar opposites there is a spectrum of opinion such that generalising about the wishes of the native people as a whole is impossible. I suspect the same is true of Kurds in Turkey. Complicating these situations everywhere is the existence of provocateurs inciting the gullible to violence to advance their own aspirations to power, or out of mere cussedness.

Illustrating both the new spirit of openness in Turkey, and the difficulty or arriving at the truth of historical events, is an anniversary that attracted some media attention earlier this month. The 6th and 7th of September 2015 marked the passing of 60 years since a tragic event known variously as the Istanbul Riots, the Istanbul Pogrom or Septemvriana.

Scenes of destruction the day after

Scenes of destruction the day after

Briefly, what happened was that mobs of Turks went on a rampage of violence lasting for 9 hours on the night of 6 September 1955. In the course of the violence, more than four thousand houses, one thousand workplaces, 73 churches, one synagogue, 26 schools and 5,000 other premises were attacked. Most of these places belonged to non-Muslim citizens, the majority of them of the Greek Orthodox religion. Fifteen people died, hundreds were injured including, it was claimed, some men forcibly circumcised and many women raped. Damage was estimated at around $US 54 million (480 million in today’s dollars). Eyewitnesses claimed that police not only failed to intervene to prevent the rampage, in some cases they actively encouraged the rioters. Few individuals were ever brought to justice for offences committed, and the government of the day reneged on promises to compensate victims. A state of emergency lasting for six months was declared and the National Assembly temporarily closed down. In the aftermath of the riots there was increased emigration of religious minority groups from Turkey.

Of course there is some variation in actual figures depending on which source you look at, but no apparent denial that the event actually took place. What surprised me was that this year was the first time I had seen any reference to the riots in any Turkish newspaper. Well, maybe one might say a diamond jubilee makes an event more newsworthy – but it seems to me that a lid had been lifted off a pot that had been well covered in this country for more than half a century. This feeling was borne out by the protestations of ignorance that met informal inquiries I made of Turkish friends and colleagues. The event doesn’t seem to have warranted much attention in school history courses.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of information to be found online. A more recent and related event I should have been aware of but wasn’t, was the organised disruption of a photographic exhibition held in Istanbul to mark the 50th anniversary of the riots in 2005. The photographs had been in the possession of the military prosecutor at the time, who entrusted them to the Turkish Historical Society with instructions to exhibit them 25 years after his death! A clear indication that powerful forces might not want them to see the light of day. Sure enough, a mob of militant nationalists raided the venue chanting slogans and damaged many of the photographs. Interestingly, two of the instigators were later taken into custody in the course of the Ergenekon investigation which dealt with an alleged plot to overthrow the democratically elected government. One of them was an ultra-nationalist lawyer ‘famous for filing complaints against more than forty Turkish journalists and authors’, among them, Nobel prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk.

Also interesting is that the government of Turkey is generally assumed by foreign commentators to be pursuing prosecutions against writers under Section 301 of the country’s penal code. While it is true that this law was enacted by the present government, it is also true that it replaced an earlier, more draconian Section 8 of the Anti-Terror law; that article 301 was subsequently amended; most of the prosecutions have been brought by private citizens (particularly the above-mentioned lawyer) and, according to Wikipedia, most prosecutions resulted in acquittal.

The Wikipedia entry goes on to suggest that the ‘nationalist old-guard’ in Turkey have been making deliberate use of article 301, contrary to the spirit of the legislation – and that would seem to be borne out by the fact that the only actual conviction they have found was when two sons of murdered journalist Hrant Dink were given one-year suspended sentences ‘for printing Dink’s words that the killings of Armenians in 1915 was a genocide’. Certainly, you have to be careful about that one in Turkey.

PM Adnan Menderes on the cover of Time - and the background is interesting

PM Adnan Menderes on the cover of Time – and the background is interesting

Well, I read and hear a lot of criticism by opponents of the present government, local and foreign, that democracy no longer exists in Turkey, and the county is becoming a dictatorship. So I would like to summarise briefly for you what I have been reading about those unpleasant events back in September 1955. Most of the articles I read more or less corroborate the following statement I am quoting from an article by Dilek Güven in the European Journal of Turkish Studies: ‘The events of 6/7 September were planned by the Democratic Party (DP) government of the period, and were accomplished with the participation of the Secret Service, the DP’s local administrations and organisations guided by the state such as student unions, youth associations, syndicates and the “Association of Turkish Cyprus” (KTC).’

One of the articles I found, published by the International Association of Genocide Scholars, claimed that ‘The Istanbul pogrom was a phase in the Ottoman/Turkish policy of eliminating Greek communities from their 3,000 year-old homelands in Asia Minor, Thrace, the Aegean and Constantinople itself.’ Well, I don’t want to go down that road. I’ve looked at this issue before, and I have to tell you, I don’t have much respect for the academic objectivity of genocide scholars as a class.

A more objective piece appeared in a journal of the arts, Red Thread. Discussing the attack on the exhibition referred to above, the author writes that ‘people involved in the organization and execution of the incidents of September 6-7 included the then-president Celal Bayar, prime minister Adnan Menderes and other members of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), secret service operatives, and members of KTC, student organizations and labour unions instructed by governmental and state actors. In the trials held in İstanbul, no members of the government or the secret service were prosecuted in relation to the attacks, and KTC members suspected of involvement were acquitted. However, the Yassıada Tribunals, held after the 1960 military coup, convicted Bayar, Menderes and Foreign Affairs Minister Zorlu of instigating the events, in addition to other crimes.’

Brits take over Cyprus from the Ottomans, 1878

Brits take over Cyprus from the Ottomans, 1878

This last reference to the 1960 military coup interested me because I had been feeling sorry for PM Menderes, executed by hanging after being convicted by those tribunals. The unfortunate man was subsequently vindicated to the extent that at least one major airport in Turkey was named after him. Now I’m wondering if the soldiers were right in calling him to account. Nevertheless, overthrowing of democratically elected governments by force is not generally considered the done thing in civilized societies, and hanging is a rather final solution when the crime may be open to some debate.

Dilek Güven, author of a book on the subject, makes an interesting case for linking the 1955 riots to the Cyprus issue. In 1955 the island was part of the British Empire and a key location for military bases in the eastern Mediterranean to protect the Suez Canal, the route to India and Middle East oil. In that year EOKA was founded, an organization of Greek Cypriots aiming to achieve union with mainland Greece through armed struggle. Other sources agree that the British adopted their normal policy of ‘divide and rule’ and they encouraged Britons and others in Cyprus and elsewhere to stir up Turks in order to combat and neutralize Greek agitation.

The trigger for the actual violence seems to have been a news article widely circulated in Turkey that Greeks had bombed the house in Thessaloniki where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, revered founder of the Republic of Turkey was born. It subsequently turned out that a bomb had been set off by a staff member of the Turkish Consulate, but the actual house suffered no damage. Nevertheless, the spark was sufficient to ignite the fuel that had already been prepared.

To what extent were British agents involved in the plot? Who can say? The Wikipedia entry on the Istanbul pogrom insists that ‘The riots were orchestrated by the Tactical Mobilization Group, the seat of Operation Gladio’s Turkish branch; the Counter-Guerrilla, and National Security Service, the precursor of today’s National Intelligence Organization’. This in turn suggests the involvement of the United States government and the CIA, since they are considered to have been behind the Gladio stay-behind operations throughout Western Europe.

Gladio - NATO's secret armies

Gladio – NATO’s secret armies

You ask, why would they? The purpose of the Gladio operation was to prevent the spread of Soviet-led communism in Western Europe during the Cold War years. Its activities were directed at left wing political parties and organisations, and one of its methods was carrying out acts of terrorism (false flag attacks) which were then blamed on communists, thereby stirring up public fear and hatred, and justifying arrests and suppression. Coincidentally, the first response of the Menderes government to the riots was to blame communists. Interestingly, two later Turkish prime ministers, Bülent Ecevit and Turgut Ozal, publicly acknowledged the existence of Gadio, and both narrowly survived assassination attempts.

Once again, how can we know the truth? Such claims are difficult to substantiate, since, if they are true, the perpetrators are, by definition, professionals, expert at covering their tracks. I’m just happy that it is now possible to discuss issues like this in today’s Turkey. I suspect the motives of anyone who claims that this country was more democratic in the past; and I take comfort that national military forces seem to be more occupied these days in preserving Turkey’s security against outside threats than in overthrowing elected governments and silencing popular dissent.

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An interesting blog on the subject can be found here

Dark Clouds over America – Democritic hypocracy

Dark clouds over America - But still they're in denial about climate change

Dark clouds over America – But still they’re in denial about climate change

I keep reading in US and other foreign news media that Turkey has more journalists in prison than any other country in the world. Most recently, I read an editorial in the New York Times asserting that the president of Turkey, Tayyip Erdoğan ‘has a long history of intimidating and co-opting the Turkish media.’ I confess I don’t know what the NYT editor means by ‘co-opting’ here – but I assume ‘intimidating’ implies that there is a threat of being sent to prison with the hundreds of other Turkish journalists who dared to criticize Mr Erdoğan and Turkey’s AK Party government.

Now I have to tell you, as one who has lived in this country for most of the last 20 years, who exercises no vote and has no political party affiliation, that the level of democracy in Turkey seems to me to have risen exponentially since I first arrived in 1995. I don’t know why those ‘journalists’ are in prison – if they actually are journalists, and if they are actually in prison – but I can confidently say it was not for simply criticizing Mr Erdoğan or his party’s government. Since the day the AK Party was elected to govern Turkey at the end of 2002 its representatives (and their spouses) have been subjected to torrents of criticism and personal abuse, much of it outrageously distorted if not outright lies.

Bradley/Chelsea Manning - shut away for life for telling the truth

Bradley/Chelsea Manning – shut away for life for telling the truth

The United States government, on the other hand, has shut away Wikileaks whistle-blower Chelsea (Bradley) Manning for 35 years for telling the truth about what the US military was doing in Iraq. If they can get Edward Snowden out of Russia, his fate will be pretty similar. As for Australian citizen Julian Assange, the brains behind the whole business, you can be pretty sure that Swedish rape stuff is a ruse for the Yanks to get hold of him too. So far the Ecuador government is keeping him safe, but it can’t be much of a life, holed up in their London embassy for three years and no end in sight. So, public-spirited truth-tellers, or treacherous enemies of the state? Depends on your point-of-view, I guess.

Four times from 1960 to 1997, elected governments in Turkey were ousted by military intervention – and there is little doubt in my mind that, had Mr Erdoğan’s government not succeeded in pre-emptively pulling the teeth of the generals, he and his team would have gone the same way. That NYT editor further states that ‘some critics of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan fear a new crackdown is starting to ensure that his Justice and Development Party wins’ the upcoming general election. Again, the meaning is not crystal clear, but the implication, I guess, is that the ‘crackdown’ will involve some electoral jiggery-pokery, if not outright violence. Well, I can inform the Times editor and his readership that many of Mr Erdoğan’s supporters have good reasons for believing that the United States had a hand in activating those military coups d’état. Does he know anything about that?

Turkish democracy in the good old days

Turkish democracy in the good old days

The first military takeover, in 1960, resulted in the overthrow of one of the country’s most popular and long-serving prime ministers, Adnan Menderes. The poor man was peremptorily hanged along with two of his ministers – though later posthumously pardoned and his reputation restored. The third, in 1980, precipitated a bloody reign of terror and produced a rewritten constitution aimed at ensuring that Kurdish people and other undesirable left wing elements would not be represented in the country’s legislature. The leader of that 1980 coup, praised by Time Magazine at the time as the man who was ‘holding Turkey together’, General Kenan Evren, died last week of natural causes at the age of 97 – and there are many in Turkey who would have preferred a different end for him. In fact he died as Private Evren, having been demoted and sentenced to life imprisonment for his political activities. As far as I know, no United States representatives attended his funeral, which is sad, perhaps, given that most local politicians stayed away too.

Sad end of a democratically elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes  1960

Sad end of a democratically elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes 1960

But getting back to the New York Times and its prestigious fellow ‘newspapers of record’, can anyone tell me why they are so concerned that Turkey’s AK Party government should not be returned on 7 June? Wikipedia informs me that the United Nations has 193 member states. A record 206 countries participated in the 2012 London Olympic Games; and the CIA World Factbook recognizes 267 world ‘entities’. I can’t tell you, off the top of my head, how many of those states, countries or ‘entities’ hold regular elections whose results in any way reflect the wishes of their people – but I am reasonably confident that Turkey does. I am equally optimistic that the June 7 election will be a fair reflection of public opinion. Can the same be said of presidential elections in the USA?

I do know that an Arab Spring revolt in 2011 led to the removal of Egypt’s US puppet-president Hosni Mubarak; and the subsequent election, whose fairness no one (as far as I know) disputes, brought Muhammed Morsi to power. Within a year Mr Morsi had been ousted in turn and replaced by a military regime that has now condemned him to death – with not a peep of protest, to my knowledge, from the US government or the New York Times. The ‘entity’ of Palestine, whose people had been living in that location for millennia before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, has no official representation at the United Nations – yet the United States government and the editor of the NY Times seem quite comfortable with that.

On the other hand, that anonymous editor is also quite comfortable ending his piece with a call to action: ‘The United States and Turkey’s other NATO allies should be urging [Mr Erdoğan] to turn away from [his] destructive path.’ Destructive of who, or what? The country’s economy and the living standards of most of its people have improved enormously in the last 12 years. Small wonder that Turkey’s president is accusing the New York Times of making provocative attacks on his country’s government, and unacceptable meddling in its internal affairs two weeks prior to an important parliamentary election. And in my opinion, President Erdoğan is absolutely right on this one. At the very least, if US business and political leaders won’t adopt consistent standards in their judgment of the political situation in other countries, they might work on getting their own house in order before presuming to interfere in the affairs of other sovereign states.

Trusting in God - since 1956

Trusting in God – since 1956

The NY Times did publish in March a piece written by the author of a book “Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America.” Kevin M Kruse argues that, from the 1930s to the 1950s, big business leaders countered the anger caused by their complicity in two world wars and a Great Depression by enlisting corporate evangelists like Billy Graham. ‘During these years, Americans were told, time and time again, not just that the country should be a Christian nation, but that it always had been one. They soon came to think of the United States as “one nation under God”. They’ve believed it ever since.’

Another NYT piece, A Pacific Isle, Radioactive and Forgotten, dated 4 December last year reports a visit to a Pacific Island where the US military tested 67 nuclear weapons between 1946 and 1958. The island, Enewetak in the Marshall group is still dangerously radioactive, although the former inhabitants were allowed to return and the United States has no interest in cleaning up the mess it left behind.

'I did not have sex with that woman' pales into trivial insignificance!

‘I did not have sex with that woman’ pales into trivial insignificance!

Late last year the US senate released a report which found that ‘the CIA misled the White House and used practices that could be classified as torture on detainees.’ Former vice-president Dick Cheney defended his government’s actions, arguing that ‘We did exactly what needed to be done in order to catch those who were guilty on 9/11 and prevent a further attack. We were successful on both parts.’

In spite of Mr Cheney’s assertion, however, a widely circulated AP article earlier this month reported ‘Iraq war judged a mistake by today’s White House hopefuls.’ And not just the Democrat hopefuls. ‘All these Republicans said last week that, in hindsight, they would not have invaded Iraq with what’s known now about the faulty intelligence that wrongly indicated Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction.’

Some might feel ‘hindsight’ to be a weasel word implying ‘If we knew then what we know now . . .’ when, in fact, United Nations observers and the US’s own intelligence had provided adequate information about the true situation. In spite of that, GW Bush’s administration, for whatever reasons of their own, had decided they would invade Iraq. And they were self-righteously angry with France and Turkey for not supporting their war on truth and innocent Iraqis. Now there are many who believe that ill-advised invasion created an environment in the Middle East which led directly to the current chaos in the region, including the rise of ISIS – these days coming to be known as Daesh.

Adding to the tension, according to a recent Time Magazine article, relations between the United States and the Arab GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) nations are at a low ebb. Their oil dependent economies are being hurt by US determination to produce expensive and environmentally disastrous shale oil in the interests of self-sufficiency. The Arabs are responding by driving down the price of oil to thwart the American plans. The extremely undemocratic Saudis and UAE states are also nervous about which way the USA will jump if popular uprisings occur. Their anxiety is further increased by America’s sudden interest in cosying up to Iran.

Nevertheless, rather than admitting the dreadful error made by his predecessor, President Obama last November authorised sending a further 1,500 US troops to Iraq, and requested an extra $5.6 billion in funding to fight ISIS/Daesh. Where will the money go? you may ask. Well, according to another article I read recently, The Fraud of War, a good chunk of it will disappear into ‘theft, bribery and contract-rigging crimes’ run by US military personnel. As far as I am aware, this report did not appear in the pages of the New York Times.

At present, the GCC Muslim brotherhood have been doing America’s dirty work in Yemen, supposedly dealing to al-Qaeda’s breeding ground in that failed state. Iran, on the other hand, is opposed to outside interference in Yemen; and if US-Saudi relations deteriorate, who knows what will happen? According to Robert D Kaplan, writing for Foreign Policy, ‘It’s Time to Bring Imperialism back to the Middle East.’ His thesis is that the collapse or decline of the Ottoman, British and American empires, which hitherto ‘bestowed order, however retrograde it may have been’ is the reason for the current chaotic situation. No fan of democracy, Kaplan’s family is Jewish, and he actually served in the Israeli army before resettling in the United States and becoming a senior adviser to the US Department of Defense. And those guys are criticizing the state of democracy in Turkey!!

'We don't like you - but thanks for letting us use your bay'

‘We don’t like you – but thanks for letting us use your bay’

Closer to home, another former bête noir that the White House has been attempting to build bridges with is the nearby island of Cuba. A stumbling block in the ‘normalisation’ process, however, is the United States’ refusal to consider handing back control of Guantanamo Bay to its rightful owners. The Bay was commandeered by the US in 1902 after their victory in the Spanish-American War. It became the site of a US naval base and, in 2002, of the infamous Guantanamo Prison – which presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to close down, but has so far been unable to do.

As if the Middle East were not providing enough problems for America, the US government has recently decided to apply sanctions to Venezuela which it claims poses an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States”. Possibly Robert D Kaplan will be encouraged at these signs of rejuvenated US imperialism – but I suspect he would prefer to see them concentrate on looking after Israel’s interests.

I could go on to mention the disastrous drought in California, exacerbated by the thirst for water of the oil-fracking industry. Our friends at the New York Times published an opinion piece earlier this month entitled ‘The End of California?’ Also in the Sunshine State, a ‘war zone’ has apparently erupted in the Mission District of San Francisco where gentrification is resulting in the displacement of the poor Mexican and Central American migrant families who have traditionally lived there. So Ferguson, Missouri, where police used rubber bullets and stun grenades to disperse crowds protesting the killing of 18 year-old Michael Brown, is not the only war zone in the Land of the Free.

Well, an 18 year-old these days is pretty much considered an adult, I guess – but a Human Rights Watch report last year revealed that, on farms in North Carolina, ‘Children as young as 7 years old are suffering serious health problems from toiling long hours in tobacco fields to harvest pesticide-laced leaves for major cigarette brands.’ On a more microcosmic scale, I read the other day about a driver in Fredericksburg, Virginia who was driving erratically as a result of suffering a stroke – and was sympathetically tasered and pepper-sprayed by an over-enthusiastic police officer. And then there’s the woman in West Palm Beach, Florida, who was arrested for contempt of court after fleeing with her four-year-old son because the child’s father was determined to have the little fellow’s foreskin sliced off.

Ah well, at least cases like that may win America some support among the more extreme Muslim groups. I’m not sure it’s something to be particularly proud of, though.

Democracy is a Difficult Path – but the alternative is a lot worse!

My Turkish newspaper today has an article on the front page about a proposal to turn one of Istanbul’s islands into a museum. Yassiada was where three members of Turkey’s democratically elected government were imprisoned, tried and executed by the perpetrators of a military coup which ousted the Democrat Party government of Adnan Menderes on 27 May 1960.
 
Menderes has been forgiven (for whatever he was supposed to have done) by subsequent Turkish governments to the extent that he has a large mausoleum in his honour next to the ancient walls of old Istanbul/Constantinople. His name is remembered in numerous avenues and boulevards around the country, as well as the international airport of Turkey’s third largest city, Izmir.
 
Nevertheless, those three politicians suffered the ultimate penalty of execution by hanging, and all have living relatives for whom forgiveness of the generals may be more difficult. Two of them, the wife and daughter of Finance Minister Hasan Polatkan, are objecting to the proposed museum, calling the site the island of tears, a  bitter pun on its name in Turkish. 
 
Turks who experienced the 1960 coup are getting on in years – and even the military takeovers of 1971 and 1980 are fading into history. Nevertheless, the possibility of a repeat performance has not gone away. I draw your attention to an article in the English edition of Zaman newspaper:
 
Selling our democracy to the West
Ali Bulaç
The Islamic Revolution of Iran and the explosions that have been erupting in the Middle East since 2010 have made it clear that autocratic regimes will be replaced by their Muslim counterparts.
Although its inception dates far back in time, this process had been halted by the West. The first blow came when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the first round of elections in Algeria in the early 1990s. France rushed to put juntas into action and made them stage a coup in Algeria. By releasing a grant of $292 million to the military-ruled Algeria one week later, the European Union shamelessly supported the coup. In 1996, the Welfare Party (RP) of Turkey secured 21 percent of the national vote and was entitled to form a coalition government with the secular True Path Party (DYP). However, it was overthrown with the coup of Feb. 28, which was made possible with collaboration from the US and Israel and endorsement from the EU. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) approved the closure of the RP without being bothered with concerns of legal legitimacy. In 2006, fair elections were held in Palestine and Hamas won; Carter announced the elections were fair and proper. Israel arrested more than 40 elected deputies, ministers and the speaker and sent them to jail; the US and the EU said that Israel was entitled to do so. The presidential elections in which Mohammed Morsi secured 52 percent of the vote were extremely fair and legal. But one year later, the junta overthrew him with collaboration from the US, Israel and the EU. Read more

Days of Rage – in Turkey

I get angry sometimes. I try not to, but occasionally I can’t help it. It’s a natural human emotion. Mostly I get angry about things I can’t control – which is stupid, I know, but again, I think, quite normal. I hate it when I see people in power abusing their positions of responsibility. I get angry when I see the powerful oppressing and exploiting the weak. I feel frustrated when I see weak people kowtowing to those in authority in order to advance their own careers.
Years ago in New Zealand I stood as a candidate for parliament. I tried to work through the system to bring about meaningful economic and social change for the benefit of the country. I saw close up the dirty tricks of the wealthy elite determined to hold on to power no matter the cost. I saw smear campaigns, electoral gerrymandering and control of the media. I saw the government of the day deliberately stir up an issuewhich polarised the nation and provoked violent street demonstrations leading to a crackdown by the forces of law and order. The result infuriated me. If I hadn’t had a wife, three young children and a mortgage, I might have been tempted to violence myself.  Gradually the fury gave way to sadness, and eventually to resignation.
Well, donkeys live a long time, as a former colleague used to observe (thanks Alan). On Sunday morning I took my bicycle over to Taksim, the main centre of Istanbul’s entertainment industry, five-star hotels and foreign diplomats. My plan had been to take part in a ride across the Bosporus Bridge, organised by environmentalist groups. I knew it would be cancelled, but I went anyway. Partly I was psyched up for a good bike ride, and partly I was curious. I wanted to see for myself the situation in the square after the previous day’s demonstrations.
Demolished buses by Taksim Square
Taksim Square and the surrounding streets looked a little like the pictures we saw from the recent tornado in Oklahoma: footpaths torn up, bricks and stones lying thick all around; makeshift barricades, shells of buses, overturned cars and minibuses, burnt out police vehicles, everywhere graffiti (much of it obscene), bottles, beer cans, vast quantities of rubbish, and one or two small bands of determined protesters – a few supporters of the Kurdish BDP, a larger group of Marxist Leninists around the flag-draped Statue of the Republic in the centre of the square, homeless sleeping off the excitement or sitting around fires still burning in the disputed park.
I saw a couple of young students picking up rubbish around the statue, and I joined them with plastic bags purchased from a nearby supermarket. In the store, my eyes and throat were burning from traces of the pepper spray or tear gas employed by police the night before. As I filled my bags with the detritus of democracy, I was approached by a young man who identified himself as a reporter from ‘Foreign Policy’. I guess he was happy to find someone he could interview in English. ‘Do you think Turkey has become increasingly polarized?’ he asked.  ‘Do you think this event has united all the disparate opposition groups in Turkey?’ No, and no again – and I’ll tell you why.
Cleaning up after the party
Since I came to Turkey, in fact, pretty much since the beginning of the Republic, Taksim Square has been off-limits for large political gatherings. Apparently there was a brief experiment in the mid-1970s. On 1 May 1977 there was a huge gathering known to history as the Taksim Square Massacre. Forty people were killed and 120 badly injured. Some, including the Leader of the Opposition, Bülent Ecevit, claimed links to the undercover Gladio organisation. Prime Minister at the time was Süleyman Demirel, later removed from office by the military takeover of 1980. He remained, or perhaps became, a staunch Kemalist and republican, returning to office in 1991, before resigning in 1993 in favour of his protégé, Turkey’s first woman PM. In gratitude, Tansu Çiller had him appointed to the Presidency, a role he filled for the next seven years.
In 2009, the Turkey’s AK Party government made 1 May an official holiday. However, there was anger in some circles this year when they refused to allow a commemoration of the 1977 incident to be held in the square. Good call or bad? Who knows? A government may not feel that large political demonstrations under the noses of well-heeled foreign tourists are good for the country’s image.
To be fair, the AKP government has achieved much since taking office in 2003. They curbed Turkey’s banana republic hyperinflation and have presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, evidenced by a rapid increase in the proportion of citizens in the middle classes. They have provided the longest period of political stability Turkey has seen since free elections began. They kept the country out of the Iraq invasion while staying friends with the USA, and more recently have applied some much-needed pressure to the Israeli government over its intransigent attitude to the Palestinian question. Internally, they have opened up discussions addressing the country’s problems with its large Kurdish and Alevi minorities. They have maintained interest in European Union membership while making it clear that Turkey is not desperate to join. I could go on, but you get the picture.
Getting back to the build up of rage. Turkey’s (Istanbul’s) secular Kemalist elite have had things their own way pretty much since Day One of the modern Republic. Atatürk himself managed fifteen years as President without troubling himself to hold an election. His successor, Ismet İnönü held two – the first in 1946, more for show than anything else – the second, in 1950 leading to the election of a new governing party, the Democrats, and Turkey’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes.
Saying unkind words
about the Prime minister
There was a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the country’s politics for the next fifty years. Menderes himself was ousted by a military coup in 1960 and subsequently hanged along with two of his ministers. Elected governments were again removed by direct military intervention in 1970 and 1980; and once less violently when the generals had a quiet word in PM Necmettin Erbakan’s ear in 1997, following which he quietly left of his own accord.
One of PM Erdoğan’s more controversial achievements in his ten-year stewardship has been the trial in civilian courts of senior military personnel accused of plotting another coup to remove him – and overseeing amendments to the constitution allowing the courts to try officers involved in the brutal 1980 coup. Undoubtedly Tayyip Bey has made a few powerful enemies.
Again, from pretty much the first day of taking office, Erdoğan upset the secular Kemalists by appearing in public with his headscarved wife Emine Hanım. A good number of his ministers committed the same offence, arousing the fury of the Istanbul urban elite. To make matters worse, his government lifted the ban on the wearing of headscarves by female university students. Tayyip Erdoğan is a devout, practising Muslim – a fact which, in a country where ninety-nine percent of the population are of that faith, certainly helped him to become the first Turkish PM in living memory to lead a government with a parliamentary majority.
Ironically, their parliamentary ascendancy is perhaps one of AKP’s major disadvantages. Turkey’s biggest problem in the last ten years has been the lack of a credible parliamentary opposition. Underlining the dearth of ideas in the secular urban elite camp, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) returned from the political wilderness in 1992 (whither it had been sent by the generals after the 1980 coup). With little going for them other than their claim to be the direct descendants of Atatürk’s very own party, they became the second-largest group in parliament after the 2002 elections. Since then they have distinguished themselves by saying ‘NO’ to pretty much everything proposed by the government, and doing their best to stir up popular unrest, while, at the same time, failing to come up with a single positive idea of their own.
This is just the beginning, it says
Predictably, this seems to have led to a growing arrogance by the Prime Minister and his party. As English politician and historian Lord Acton famously said, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ No doubt this arrogance has been encouraged by the fact that Turks actually like (and perhaps need) a strongman. Nevertheless, the number of Turks getting p—d off with the government has undoubtedly been increased by a feeling that self-righteous religiosity has begun to replace reasoned public debate.
Who would ever have thought that Turks could be stopped from smoking a cigarette whenever and wherever they chose? Now smokers are under threat of extinction and, even as a non-smoker, I am starting to feel sympathy for them. While I agree that smokers, alcohol-drinkers and drivers of huge SUVs should contribute to the environmental and health costs associated with their addictions, it does seem unfair that Turks, with an average income at the lower end of the OECD spectrum, should have to pay the highest petrol prices in the world. A little study of US history would show that banning alcohol will inevitably have undesirable social consequences – and driving prices sky-high with exorbitant taxation will stimulate a black-market whose main beneficiaries will be organized crime syndicates and political dissidents.
Personally I have no problem with the building of two or three symbolic mosques in high profile locations on the Asian side of Istanbul – but I’m not happy to be woken every morning before sunrise by five minutes or more of highly amplified Arabic chant summoning to prayer a public, large numbers of whom intend exercising their democratic right not to go.
Artillery barracks demolished
in 1940 – to be reincarnated
as a shopping centre,
museum, arts centre . . .
However, I apologise for straying from the main point of this post, which was, I admit, to address the matter of the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in dozens of other cities around Atatürk’s Republic. Ostensibly, the protests were triggered by the plan to rebuild an Ottoman military barracks on a not-very-large park adjacent to the iconic meeting place. Now if you know Istanbul you will be aware that Taksim Square is a singularly stark and barren concrete space whose most interesting feature is a large sculpture representing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. On one side is the 1960s soviet-style Atatürk Culture Centre, adjacent to another relic of the tasteless 60s, a 20-storey hotel from the glass-box school of architecture, thankfully known as the Marmara. Opposite the culture centre is a windowless brick structure that I think is a reservoir, and on the fourth side a kind of bus terminal behind which, and largely invisible unless you are in it, a small park generally occupied by homeless individuals and itinerant alcoholics. In the middle of the square is a large island where you can access a major line of the city’s underground Metro system – if you can reach it, given that the island is isolated by a circular speedway around which hurtles an unbroken torrent of buses, yellow taxis, minibuses and private cars.
As far as I can understand it, the plan was to divert traffic underground and turn the whole area into a vehicle-free zone which would then be landscaped. The bus terminal and little-used park area would be redeveloped by building a replica of the architecturally striking 19thcentury artillery barracks demolished in 1940. The intention was to utilize the rebuilt structure as hotel accommodation, shopping, a museum, cultural centre, whatever. Not such a bad thing, you might think.
The problem seems to be that the cutting of trees in the park became a focus for the pent-up rage that has clearly been building up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities for several years. To return to the questions posed by Justin, the reporter from ‘Foreign Policy’: ‘Has Turkish society become polarised in recent years? And has this event united the political opposition? In the sense that opposition to the present government has brought together a host of unlikely bed-mates, from residents of Istanbul’s plushest districts to the most radical of communist ideologues, yes. But if you are asking whether this ‘unity’ will translate into anything resembling a credible political party with a serious alternative political agenda, I fear not. As the 16th century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther said, ‘The mad mob does not ask how it could be better, only that it be different. And when it then becomes worse, it must change again. Thus they get bees for flies, and at last hornets for bees.’
 
Nevertheless, citizens of Turkey have ample grounds for dissatisfaction. Workplace rights, conditions, wages and salaries are substandard, especially in the private sector where collective bargaining is a no-no. The education system is in a sad state with little chance of fulfilling Atatürk’s dream of producing a modern educated populace. There is an appalling gulf between the extremes of rich and poor. I am currently reading ‘The Histories’ of Herodotus, and I came across a delightful solution for this last problem: The Egyptian Pharaoh ‘Amasis,’ he says, ‘established an admirable custom which Solon borrowed and introduced at Athens . . . this was that every man once a year should declare before the provincial governor, the source of his livelihood; failure to do this, or inability to prove that the source was an honest one, was punishable by death.’
On the other hand, conditions for the majority in Turkey have improved out of sight since I first came to the country. What worries me now, in fact scares me would be a better word, is that the country may descend into a chaos from which only another period of martial law will save it. Sadly, I also fear that there are forces outside of Turkey who would welcome that, and have been working behind the scenes to make it happen.

Debasing the Currency – Dismantling Turkey’s secular state

It seems the Turkish government has recently issued a batch of one-lira coins and the customary portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founding father of the Republic, is not on them. Clearly, some say, this is a further indication of the ruling AK Party’s hidden agenda to overturn the secular state and return Turkey to religious shariah rule. So, if not Ataturk’s, whose face will grace the obverse side of the new coin? An Ottoman Padishah’s? That of the current president, AK Party’s Abdullah Gül, or some historical religious leader?
Commemorative coin provokes debate
In fact, I gather that the new minting is to mark the tenth anniversary of an event which has been a major cultural success for the people of Turkey – the so-called Turkish Language Olympics. One side of the coin, a limited edition of one million, will bear the usual denomination of value, while the other will carry a special commemorative design. In addition, wealthy enthusiasts will also be able to purchase a sterling silver fifty-lira coin. Now you might wonder about the pretentiousness of such a grandiose title for competitions in a language that has no serious claim to lingua franca status, and furthermore, poses major challenges to would-be learners from other language backgrounds. I can personally attest to the difficulties English-speakers face. A language based on the principle of adding multiple suffixes to a root word such that a single word can require an English sentence to translate, and moreover insists that every vowel in attached suffixes must harmonise with the root according to complex rules that most Turks find difficult to explain, clearly has more in common with Martian or Betelgeusian than any terrestrial language.
Nevertheless, in the ten years since the first Turkish Language Olympiad was held, the number of participating countries has grown from seventeen to one hundred and thirty-five. Students from these countries compete in tests of grammar, oral skills, writing essays, reciting poems, singing songs, theatre and general culture. If I were a Turk, I think I would be pretty proud of this event, and the way it was raising the global profile of my language and culture. Evidently the government is, and its members made the decision to issue a commemorative coin. 
It’s not such an uncommon thing to do, in fact. Many reputable nations with democratically elected governments do it from time to time, without arousing the ire of, or even much interest among their citizens. Since 2004, for example, there have been 126 different commemorative two-euro coins issued by Euro-zone countries. The United States Mint has a similar programme producing quarter dollars for commemorative purposes. There is a branch of learning, numismatics, involving the study of coins, ancient and modern, and some people actually engage in it as a hobby.
Nevertheless, it is still possible that the present government of Turkey has some more sinister motive in its minting of the new coin. So I did a little digging, and here’s what I turned up . . .
Ataturk’s picture was put on Turkish money when he became the new Republic’s first president in 1923. Interestingly, after his death in 1938, a law was passed requiring Turkish currency to bear a portrait of the current president. Accordingly, for the next twelve years the face of Ataturk’s close friend and successor, Ismet Inönü, could be seen adorning liras and kurushes throughout the land. The change back to Ataturk occurred in 1950, when Turkey’s first democratically elected Prime Minister Adnan Menderes came to power. Sadly for Menderes, his support for the revered founder was not enough for at least some members of the secular Kemalist military, who ousted him in a coup in 1960, convicted him of violating the constitution and had him hanged along with two of his ministers.
When the AK Party government erased six zeroes and issued the new Turkish Lira in 2005, it was remarked by many that the previously grim face which had adorned the hopelessly devalued old currency (1,700,000 to the US dollar) had been replaced with a smiling Atatürk. Some saw this as a sign that the great man was pleased to see his nation’s money returning to credibility. Undoubtedly, wherever he was, he must have had serious misgivings about the competence of his political successors, who were powerless to curb the hyper-inflation that had turned the TL into a joke of Weimar German proportions by the 1990s.
I have observed before that I have a long-standing suspicion of politicians of all political persuasions. I tend to judge them by their actions and results rather than their words, which can be misleading to say the least. I have no loyalty to any political party, certainly not in Turkey, where I do not have the right to vote. I can say, however, that the last nine years have seen a period of political maturity and stability such as Turkey had not experienced for some considerable time. The AK Party was brought to power in polls whose fairness has not been questioned as far as I know; and has been resoundingly returned in two subsequent elections. In that time inflation has been reduced to internationally acceptable levels, and economic growth ranks with that of powerhouses like China, India and Brazil. The Turkish government has pursued a foreign policy which has reached out to neighbouring states in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, while maintaining ties of friendship with Europe and the United States. At the same time, Turks have resisted pressure to involve themselves in regional conflicts such as Iraq and Syria, despite strong pressure from Uncle Sam, and provocation from Bashar al-Assad.
Again, if I were a Turk, I think I would feel some pride in the way my country’s international standing had risen in recent years and in the manifest signs of increasing wealth and growing national self-confidence all around me. I might feel some misgivings about the continuing disparities of wealth distribution, and the obvious lack of a credible opposition party in the legislature. But I hope I might try to channel these feelings into positive political action, rather than constantly harping on about peripheral issues like headscarves and whose picture is on the back of my one-lira coin.

True religion in Turkey and elsewhere

We live in a godless world, and that’s a fact. Now whether it’s because God is actually dead, as Friedrich Nietsche asserted, or because He has just given up on the human race and planet Earth, and taken His attentions elsewhere, I can’t say, but it must be one or the other. How did I come to this conclusion? I did what people usually do in this post-modern world when faced with a difficult question or an existential dilemma . . . I did a Google search. I keyed in ‘true religion’, and I want to share my findings with you. I must admit, I didn’t check out all 226,000,000 results, but of the thirty-three on the first three pages, twenty-six were links to a brand of jeans. Sure, seven of them would take you to sites with a more spiritual content, but four of those were on page three – and I’m not sure how many Google-searchers get even that far.


There it is – Search over!

Well, Nietzsche published his famous statement in 1882, so I can’t claim to have made an astonishing new discovery. Nevertheless, as with all complex ideas, one can read and intellectually engage with it, but not immediately experience or internalise its full import. Many years ago, as a student in a senior English literature class, I remember our professor asking how many of us had read the Bible. Few hands were raised, and certainly not mine. ‘Then how,’ asked the professor, ‘can you presume to study English literature when you haven’t read its single most important influence for most of the centuries of its development?’  

Later, as a teacher of literature myself, I would sometimes need to explain to my students a reference in a text we were studying. It shocked me a little to find how few students in a New Zealand high school had even second-hand knowledge of the best-known biblical stories. Interestingly, those who did were more likely to be of Maori or Polynesian, than European descent. The quotation is variously attributed to Jomo Kenyatta and Bishop Desmond Tutu, but it applies equally to New Zealand: ‘When the whitemen came, we (Maori, African, Native American . . .) had the land and they had the Bible. They taught us to pray with our eyes closed, and when we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.’
I have written elsewhere of how coming to Turkey gave me new insights into the influence of politics and government on the development of the ‘belief’ systems of Christianity. At the same time, I found myself looking with new eyes on the Muslim religion which was now all around me. Like Western visitors before me, I was fascinated by the call to prayer, emanating eerily from the minaret of my local mosque. As a child of the 60s, I turned to Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens, for information. Not every Turk can tell you what the holy gentleman is saying, so, for those needing assistance, this is it:
(4x) Allāhu Akbar                                                 God is [the] greatest.
(2x) Ash-hadu an-la ilaha illa llah                     I bear witness that there is no deity except God.
(2x) Ash-hadu anna Muħammadan-Rasulullah     I bear witness that Muhammad is the Messenger of God.
(2x) Hayya ‘ala s-salah                                          Come to prayer
(2x) Hayya ‘ala ‘l-falah                                           Come to success.
(2x) Allāhu akbar                                                  God is great
La ilaha illa-Allah                                                  There is no deity except God
It’s Arabic, of course, which bears a similar relationship to Turkish as does Latin to English – that is, it is the traditional language of religion and higher learning. To correct a misunderstanding in the minds of many Westerners, the word Allah is the Arabic for God, preceded by the definite article al-, and not the name of some pagan deity entirely unrelated to the focus of Christian worship. In the Muslim religion, Christians (and Jews) are ‘People of the Book’, part of the same great monotheistic tradition, and therefore brothers (and sisters) or at least cousins in religion.
Now no doubt some of you are thinking – this guy has been in Turkey so long, and seems so sympathetic, he’s probably become a Muslim himself. But no. In the first place, I incline to the Mahatma Gandhi, Donovan school of thought. I’m equally Buddhist, Baptist, Jew and Muslim, and equally none of them. And in the second place, I have an aversion to pain, and a strong attachment to that intimate part of my anatomy the removal of which seems to be regarded by institutional Islam as an important component of true belief. This, then, brings me back to the problem I experienced above with my search for true religion.
Check all the sources you like, you’ll find that religion is a difficult concept to tie down. The 19th century German philologist Max Müller wrote that the original meaning of the Latin word religio,from which our word religion is derived, was ‘reverence for God or the gods, careful pondering of divine things’. In other words, it was a personal business, a feeble attempt by human beings to deal with the metaphysical, existential problems that most of us encounter in the course of a lifetime. This denotation of religion you will still find in modern dictionaries. However, it is the conflict between this and the other meaning of the word that causes most of our difficulties. The other meaning of course, is an ‘institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices’. It was institutional religion which persecuted Christians in Roman times, and which, when its turn came, used the tools of the Inquisition to torture and murder. It was institutional religion which Karl Marx called ‘the opium of the people’ for its power to induce acceptance of oppression instead of revolt.
Well, the struggle goes on, not only between religions, but within them as well. I have no intention of examining the struggle between Christendom and Islam. Enough nonsense has been written elsewhere, based seemingly on the assumptions that such a thing as Christendom still exists, and that Islam has some kind of unified integrity. Similarly, the tension within Christianity between the individual search for spiritual truth and the need of the institution to control by the imposition of doctrinal and ritual uniformity are well documented. What I want to look at is the situation in contemporary Turkey where the forces of secular modernity are supposedly in conflict with the AK Party government, whose secret agenda is said to aim at returning the country to the Shariah rule of orthodox Islam.
The personification of secular modernity in Turkey is the founder of the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who inspired and united nationalist forces, building a nation from the ashes of the moribund Ottoman Empire. One of the six principles on which he established the new state was the separation of church (mosque) and government. He saw religion as an anchor holding back his people from taking their place among the world’s modern states. To break the stranglehold of religion, he banned traditional forms of clothing (such as the fez), replaced the Arabic alphabet with a customised Latin-based one, outlawed the mystical dervish sects which constituted a serious threat to his programme of reform, and mandated the use of the Turkish language in place of Arabic in religious services – including the call to prayer. For eighteen years from 1932, the words heard from minarets in Turkey were these:
Tanrı uludur
Şüphesiz bilirim, bildiririm
Tanrı’dan başka yoktur tapacak.
Şüphesiz bilirim, bildiririm;
Tanrı’nın elçisidir Muhammed.
Haydin namaza, haydin felaha,
Namaz uykudan hayırlıdır.
Well, there’s something about the vernacular that appeals to populist philosophies, yet is anathema to organised religion. One could probably trace a correlation between the availability of the Christian Bible in English and other native tongues, and the long slow decline in religious observance in those countries. Probably Atatürk knew this. Surprisingly, then, it was the Democratic Party government of Turkey’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, that reinstituted the use of Arabic in Turkish mosques, among other Islam-friendly moves. Menderes epitomises for me some of the contradictions that perplex the foreigner in Turkey. He oversaw a period of rapid economic growth and Westernisation, while making major concessions to his majority Muslim electorate. He achieved a kind of superman reputation in his lifetime as a consequence of surviving a plane crash that killed most of his fellow passengers, yet ended his life on the gallows, hanged by the perpetrators of a military coup that seized power in Turkey in 1960.
Menderes was later exonerated, and his reputation restored to the extent that his name is honoured today in boulevards, airports and prestigious state high schools throughout the land. But the fact remains that he undoubtedly began the process of undoing Atatürk’s secularising reforms which has continued under subsequent regimes. Many of those secular Turks mentioned above, who maintain that the AK Party government has a secret Islamic agenda, see signs of this in PM Erdogan’s moves to pull the teeth of the Turkish military. In Turkey, the army has been seen by ‘secularists’ as having an almost sacred role to ensure the sanctity of the secular state, to the extent that they have applauded the generals when they have staged coups to overturn democratically elected governments.
Somewhat ironically, then, the last such military regime, which seized power in 1981, was also happy to make major concessions to the Muslim electorate, appealing to religion and extreme nationalism in order to suppress left-wing dissent. When the generals stepped back and handed power over to a civil administration, their choice for Prime Minister was Turgut Özal, formerly MP for an overtly Islamic party. Again, somewhat ironically, the Prime Mister deposed by the coups of 1970 and 1981 was a certain Süleyman Demirel, who later returned to office and installed a puppet PM in his place, before having himself appointed President of the Republic. In spite of this, when I first came to Turkey in the mid-1990s, Demirel too seemed to have restored his reputation and become a pillar of Kemalist secularism.
In another strange mating of secularism and religiosity, Demirel’s female successor Tansu Çiller, at the time a great symbol of Turkish progressiveness, formed a coalition with the Islamist Party of the day, allowing Necmettin Erbakan to become the republic’s first openly Islamic Prime Minister. Erbakan’s tenure was short-lived, however, and he was politely urged to stand down by the generals, in what has become known as Turkey’s ‘post-modern’ coup of 1997.
Returning then to our consideration of religion above, it’s hard to see much ‘reverence for God or the gods, or careful pondering of divine things’ in all these political machinations.  There is ample evidence in Turkey’s recent history that secular politicians and even the military guardians of secular Kemalism have been only too ready to play the religion card when it suited their purposes. So it does seem a little hypocritical now for the same people, and/or their followers to ride the high horse and attack PM Erdogan and his government for introducing relatively innocuous reforms such as allowing women wearing headscarves to study at university.
I do feel that a country such as Turkey, which struggles with serious inequalities of wealth distribution, could leave the building of mosques and the payment of religious leaders to local congregations and independent organisations. But funding of these by the state is not an innovation of the present government, and even the secular opposition are not interested in making such change an election issue. At the same time I have some sympathy for those who wish to see minarets continue as a feature of the modern Turkish skyline. I remember another of my professors drawing attention to an engraving of 17th century London, in which church spires were the prominent architectural feature. His point, as I recall, was that a comparison with the same view today might suggest something about modern-day priorities.
Of course, the problem is vastly more complicated, and I have no wish to oversimplify. Those 17th century London churches were representative of a religious establishment inextricably bound up with the government and the ruling elite of the day, and not necessarily a sign that their builders had any great interest in a search for spiritual truth. And I have similar misgivings when the muezzin of our local mosque wakes me around 5.30 these summer mornings with six minutes and 30 seconds of Arabic amplified by modern electronics and broadcast through loudspeakers attached to the highest point of his minaret. Perhaps he is genuine as he intones that extra line inserted into the morning edhan: ‘As-salatu khayrun min an-nawm’ (praying is better than sleeping)– but I would credit him with more sincerity if I knew he had actually climbed the spiral staircase to the lofty balcony, and used the unassisted decibels that God had given him.
Well, I don’t know if I have helped any of you here in your search for true religion. If the search comes to nothing, we can at least take consolation from the fact that globalisation is bringing our disparate institutional religions closer together. Witness the Shard Tower, recently opened in London, and now the highest building in Europe, financed, apparently by the Royal family of Qatar. And if you want a quick personal solution, get yourself a pair of those jeans.