Introducing this week's theme: New Turkey and Old Troubles


On April 16, 2017, Turkey endured one of its most problematic referendums in its history, not so much a new beginning as an important turning point in Turkish history. This week we explore its implications and effects.

Mehmet Kurt
26 May 2017

Erdoğan claims victory while supporters celebrate near Taksim Square, Istanbul. Depo Photos/PA Images. All rights reserved.On April 16, 2017, Turkey went through one of its most problematic referendums in its history. Among many reports and testimonies of fraud, allegedly two and half millions votes, mostly from the Kurdish regions of Turkey, remain at the centre of debate. Despite the narrow window between the yes (51.4) and no votes (49.4), the new president of the new Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his victory hours before the official results were announced and invited his supporters to celebrate it on the streets.

Just 6 weeks after the referendum, Erdogan has already become the supreme leader of his party, where he has initiated important changes in administrative rankings. He is now getting ready for a cabinet change and hence another battle, this time within the party. What lies ahead for Turkey’s citizens is further segregation, hatred, unemployment and economic collapse, silence and fear. While western interests are very much focused on the 3 million Syrian refugees, millions of Turkish people are also seeking ways of escaping Turkey and finding another life in dignity and peace, one where they might secure the basic protection of law, citizenship, health care or social support.

This week’s special theme offers a range of insights into Turkey’s referendum and its aftermath. In a country where there is no freedom of expression, critical thought and any decent institutional platform that could nourish a free debate on society and politics, critical minds have to find an alternative platform to continue sharing their opinions and analysis. Throughout the week, a number of critical voices from Turkey will contribute to this special week  – academics in exile who are scholars on their country but who are also subjected to the current regime’s ire and stigmatization.

We who are from different disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, live or are forced to live across Europe, the UK and the US, due to the increasing suppression of critical thinking and freedom of expression in Turkey. We believe that a threat to democracy in this key geographical area is a threat to human rights and democracy globally.

This Saturday, we began with the problematic approach to the Kurdish cause which for a century has been a crucial issue not only in Turkey but also in Syria, Iraq and Iran where 40 million Kurds live without equal citizenship rights. Omer Tekdemir questions whether the new Turkey will attempt a kind of Ottoman millet system within an overarching Muslim Brotherhood notion of Islamic unity, or whether opportunities for self-governance could emerge, based on a democratic federalism. Turning to the revival of conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state after the failure of the peace process, Tekdemir detects a wait and see policy on both sides, in the broader context of the destabilized Middle East and the regional dynamics affecting the Kurdish issue.

Deniz Yonucu took up the Kurdish issue where Tekdemir left off, with Kurds as a common enemy uniting the Turkish political imaginary across the entire spectrum. Yonucu drew our attention to the June 7, 2015 election as a game changer in recent Turkish political history, by displaying the strong ties between colonial practices and Fanonian resistance strategies to it. She discusses HDP’s importance for the democratisation of the country, yet argues that Turkish colonial envy views the Kurds as incapable of ruling themselves. Hence any success on the part of the Kurdish liberation movements in and out of Turkey are a nightmare not only for the AKP and MHP, but also the CHP, the so called social democratic party.

For Karabekir Akkoyunlu this Monday, Turkey’s regime change is the result both of global tendencies and failure in the process of democratization in Turkey. Akkoyunlu highlights the historical background of the Turkish case from a comparative perspective. Referring to Bourdieu’s habitus, he explains why the impatient optimism of yesterday and the despondent pessimism of today rely on a teleological understanding of history and on expectations of immediate change. He suggests, and we share, that there will be a tomorrow for Turkey and invites us not to abandon hope!

Halil İbrahim Yenigün draws on Islamic political thought. He outlines the proto-Islamist Tunisi’s dream of liberty and good governance as the core of Islamic rule, emphasising collective decision-making, described in Islamic terminology as 'Shura'. Yenigün argues that in the current situation the political ethics of Islamism, a main political driver when Muslims were oppressed, is ignored: Turkey under the Erdogan regime is heading towards one man rule with no check and balances. Yenigün distinguishes between two forms of Islamic thinking, Muslimism and Islamism, on the intersection of power and justice. Tunisi’s dream for countries with a Muslim majority has now become Erdogan’s nightmare as Islamism is reduced to a power struggle with no place left for ethics.

Nil Mutluer on Tuesday disputed the gender profile of the ‘New Turkey’ in a damning account of how women have been excluded from power-sharing and equal rights while serving as a discursive instrument to shift public debate, manipulate public perception and mobilize the masses. Women’s movements in Turkey have always played a major role in dismantling hegemonic power and resisting fear, since the end of the Ottoman period. Mutluer elaborates on violence and gender inequality and how the normalisation of violence against women has led to yet more forms of violence. She emphasizes the issue of impunity, especially against the bodies of women and Kurds, showing how this biopolitics works under Erdogan’s regime.

Oguz Alyanak also questions the capacity of a state response to resistance and discontent. He offers a glimpse of three significant women’s movements in the referendum process and highlights their effectiveness in dismantling state power. Alyanak brings James Scott’s book, Seeing Like a State, into play to question whether Turkey can silence society fully. His answer acknowledges the catastrophic results of the process under way. But concludes: ‘Despite the costs we endure, the future, after all, is ours to make!’

This Wednesday, Mehmet Ugur shows how rating agencies and economic elites, nationally and internationally, prefer stability over democracy. Right wing authoritarian regimes, like the one in Turkey, may be preferred by the business elites: self-fulfilling economic prophecies have been beneficial for big investors. However, he warns that this prophecy is not sustainable if the property market, tourism and connected businesses are in a steep decline. Economic fragility could change the political structure, with disastrous effects for the economy and the people.

Tunç Aybak argues that the Turkish-style presidency should be referred to as Neo-Sultanism, with Erdogan sitting on the tip of an iceberg that represents a historical power bloc originating from the late Ottoman period. Comparing Abdulhamid II (1876-1909) and Erdogan (2003-?), he points to the ‘great’ and ‘crazy projects’ by which Erdogan positions himself as the last in the line. Aybak differentiates between fascist regimes, those which organize masses around a strict ideology, and unsustainable sultanistic regimes, which serve the interests of one man, deploying the state apparatus only when necessary.

On Thursday Gulay Turkmen-Dervisoglu offers a detailed analysis of referendum demographics across Europe and shows how conflict at home divides Turkish, Kurdish and Alevi communities in Europe. Europe’s steady divergence from liberal European values creates a politics of resentment even after four generations among Turkish/Kurdish immigrants. She points both to the social backgrounds of the voters and political psychology and explains how these intertwined dynamics play a role in voting (or not voting) behaviors and its implications for European countries in the future.   

Zafer Yoruk provides a personal account of the ideas of home and exile – not concrete meanings but repeatedly uprooted, and alienated. His open letter, initially written to an international conference in Athens, Greece, reflects on the prevalent concerns and fears among critical minds who have preferred to remain or were forced to stay in the country.

On Friday, Ece Algan charts conditions in the media under Erdogan’s rule, and different ways to silence them. The state’s accusations mainly involve a link with a terrorist organization, or several, as power is not afraid of contradicting itself, provided that the media are forced to comply with the government line. Noting the 2017 World Press Freedom Index that places Turkey 155th out of 180 countries, Algan describes how Kurdish media is the easiest target, which has suffered from state violence the most. However, Algan also indicates the importance of alternative media platforms and their moderate but growing influence and capacity to host many forms of resistance in the drastically changing political climate of Turkey. 

The week finishes with my contribution on the ‘success’ of political Islam in the Kurdish case in defining and manipulating discourses, bodies and languages. I explain how Islamist politics, in the hands of the Turkish state, has mobilized its subjects across the ethno-religious political spaces of the Kurdish regions of Turkey. A distinction between radical and moderate Islam does not encapsulate the result. I propose to go beyond that dichotomy to analyze the different ways in which Islamist movements attempt to impose hegemonic discourses and practices at the local, national and international levels. 

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