June 16, 2014

Political fundamentalism in Turkey

Abdullah Bozkurt

With increasingly aggressive and intolerant posturing, Turkey's controversial prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been rapidly transforming what used to be a successful progressive party, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), into an organization that mainly features the characteristics of political fundamentalism in this predominantly Muslim nation.

To the extent he makes use, or rather abuse, of religion to defend his own personal interests, Erdoğan's political authority rapidly moved to rest on extremist ideology, one that can shake the very fundamentals of the Turkish Republic if not checked. In fact, both the narrative and policies employed by the Turkish prime minister display most of the features one can find in an extremist ideology, latent if not manifest, such as a blind conviction by followers that the leader is always right in what he says. The hostile discourse he sometimes employs in public rallies against the opposition, media, business and civic groups certainly borders on hate speech, if not openly within the scope of hate crime laws.

The footprints of the religious intolerant fanaticism that exalts Erdoğan and makes no distinction between the individual spiritual sphere and public authority can easily be seen in the remarks attributed to his associates. For example, İsmail Hakkı Eser, chairman of the local party branch of the ruling AKP in the western province of Aydın said on Feb. 3, 2010, that “to us, our prime minister is a second prophet.”

“A two-rakat thank-you prayer should be performed for Erdoğan every day,” said Oktay Saral, a former mayor who now serves as an AKP İstanbul deputy, on Feb. 6, 2010.

“I recognize Erdoğan as a righteous caliph and pay him homage,” pro-government journalist and Erdoğan's supporter Atılgan Bayar said on Aug. 23, 2013.

The former EU affairs minister and chief negotiator, Egemen Bağış, who was forced to resign after the corruption scandal, said on Feb. 10, 2013, that “Rize, İstanbul and Siirt are sacred places.” Rize is Erdoğan's hometown, İstanbul is the city where Erdoğan started his political career and Siirt is where his wife was born and where Erdoğan was first elected deputy. “Believe me, even touching our dear prime minister is a sacred prayer,” said AKP Bursa deputy Hüseyin Şahin on July 21, 2011. Erdoğan never contradicted these remarks. In a way, with his silence over glorifying religious references among party loyalists, he encouraged the creation of a sort of sub-culture called Erdoğanism.

Moreover, the worrying pattern that fuels the extremism in Turkey under Erdoğan's rule includes perhaps the deliberate failure on the part of government to address discrimination against AKP opponents. The manifestation of rampant discrimination has recently been seen in access to government employment, public services, contracts and tenders.

Last year investigative reporter Mehmet Baransu exposed the widespread profiling of unsuspecting citizens by this government based on their ethnic, religious, ideological or political affiliations. Since he exposed the government's dirty laundry, which served the public interest, he should have been rewarded for this; yet, an İstanbul prosecutor is now seeking 52 years in prison for this journalist for “exposing state secrets” after a government complaint.

Another indication that the Erdoğan government has little or no interest in dealing with extremism is that there is a lack of emphasis on civic education. Rather, a special focus has been made on religious education in imam-hatip schools, the kind of school from which Erdoğan also graduated, with special dispensation made for these schools. Erdoğan's relentless attacks against the Hizmet movement, inspired by Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, who has been a pioneer in Turkey on intercultural and inter-religious dialogue efforts, strengthens the hands of extremists in Turkey. By demonizing Mr. Gülen in public rallies with derogatory remarks, Erdoğan also stigmatizes millions who have a deep respect for the valuable contribution Gülen has made in moderating extremism and preventing Turkish youth from slipping into radicalism.

No doubt that extremism can also reach its worst when it condones or even promotes violence. Erdoğan defended the way the Turkish police dealt with the weeks-long demonstrations that began as a peaceful protest against government plans to demolish a green park in İstanbul's central Taksim Square last year. Although the police have been heavily criticized for their use of brutal force in the crackdown on the protests, Erdoğan said police displayed an “unprecedented democratic stance and successfully passed the test of democracy.” On the anniversary of Gezi this year, Erdoğan also once again encouraged the police to clamp down on protesters. He even expressed surprise at how “tolerant” the Turkish police were against the demonstrators. His blamed the so-called "interest lobby," a veiled reference to Jewish financiers, as being behind Gezi, a claim that raised the specter of anti-Semitism in Erdoğan's narrative.

Since Turkish democracy is not yet consolidated and still in a transition phase with many political reforms placed on the waiting list, the risks of extremism in this country are greater. The institutions of democracy, especially the judiciary, which were supposed to fight any extremism, have been weakened by Erdoğan in his quest to save himself, his family members and his close associates from serious legal troubles that originated from a massive corruption scandal.

The tension and polarization in Turkish society, instigated by Erdoğan's exclusionary discourse, also makes it difficult to cope with extremism that requires a broad-based social consensus for the battle to be effective. Unfortunately, the political culture is poisoned, society is divided, people are confused and institutions have been weakened with the lack of accountability and transparency.

Erdoğan's militant wording that feeds fictitious issues as if they were real to the Turkish people and his frequent use of demagogy make it very difficult to move forward in addressing pressing challenges. He often invokes a global conspiracy theory, one that is allegedly supported by the US, the EU and Israel, in weakening Turkey. He openly accuses the opposition, media, businesses and civil society organizations with treachery. When he was confronted with a corruption probe last December, all of a sudden he devised the so-called "parallel state," a reference to the Hizmet movement, to obstruct the investigation and distract Turks from discussing real issues that matter to them.

The current crisis in Turkey's domestic political landscape represents a fight against virulent extremism, one that has little respect for the rule of law, democracy and fundamental human rights and liberties. What makes it more troubling for Turkey is that the competent authority that is supposed to combat extremism -- Erdoğan's ruling AKP -- is in fact perpetuating it.

Published on Today's Zaman, 16 June 2014, Monday