In early June, some 30,000 high-level diplomats, state delegations, specialists and academics from around the globe will gather in Istanbul for the century’s last world summit, the Second UN Conference for Human Settlement, or Habitat II. As the delegates come out of their sessions in the “conference valley” and head for Taksim, Istanbul’s entertainment and cultural district, they will see evidence of some of the policies of their host, the Turkish government, with regard to issues of habitat. Thousands of shoe shiners, waiters, beggars, peddlers and street sweepers will display to them the reality of “rapid urbanization”: the emergence of a huge underclass of urban poor. Istanbul, which had a population of 7 million in 1990, is now home to some 12 million people. Altogether, Turkey’s six largest cities account for more than one half of Turkey’s total population of 65 million (the other cities are Ankara: 7 million; Izmir: 5 million; Adana and Bursa: 4 million each; and Mersin: 3 million).

In Istanbul and in other Turkish cities, moreover, a significant proportion of those hundreds of thousands who have fled the countryside over the past ten years are Kurds. In the southeastern part of the country, economic incentives to migrate have been supplanted by the Turkish army’s “scorched earth” campaign to uproot a 12-year old armed insurgency. By July 1995, this campaign had leveled an estimated 2,600 villages and hamlets and at least 2 million have had to flee their homes. Many of these displaced Kurds from the southeast have moved into the shantytowns that have helped make Istanbul, in addition to its other many features, the largest Kurdish city in the world.

When Habitat II was scheduled, during the 1991 Rio Earth Summit, Turkish leaders figured that such an international gathering would enhance the profile Turkey was promoting for itself in the post-Cold war order — a prospective “bridge” between the capitalist world and the former Soviet Central Asian republics; a model of “market reforms” for future economic restructuring of scores of newly formed states in the region; a prototypical secular republic on the “front line” of the Islamist challenge from Iran and from movements in the Arab world. “The coming century will be a Turkic age,” Turgut Özal, Turkey’s president at the time, professed to believe. Süleyman Demirel, then Turkey’s prime minister, spoke of a Turkic world “from the Adriatic coast to the Great Wall of China.”

Five years later, these fantasies have been supplanted by an official paranoia: Turkey is threatened by adversaries who challenge the very territorial integrity of “the last Turkic state in history.” The list of Turkey”s “enemies” and “rivals” is a long one, including Iran, Iraq, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, Russia and Armenia. Even “brotherly” Azerbaijan is considered “unnecessarily” close to Moscow. In its neighborhood, Israel may be Ankara’s closest ally.

The list of adversaries includes Western critics of Turkey’s human rights record: the European Union and most of its member states, and even key segments of the political class of the United States — all Turkey’s military allies. According to a recent study published by the Turkish War Academy, “The Allied forces exploit the ongoing Operation Provide Comfort, with the aim of carving out an autonomous zone for the Kurds of northern Iraq, an attempt that inevitably undermines Turkey’s territorial integrity, and eventually aims at dismembering the Turkish Republic.” The list of friends is a short one, but high on it is the US Department of Defense, whose weapons sales and bilateral Defense Cooperation Treaty provide Turkey with an enormous arsenal.

Crisis of Hegemony

Only five years have sufficed to awaken Turkey from its daydream of having a regional “sub-imperialist” role in the new order to the stubborn reality of a country with little real economic power or cultural influence over its presumed realm of hegemony. It is not just the champions of the republican establishment who are stricken with a sense of prevailing crisis of hegemony. Virtually all elements of the Turkish political scene are caught in the grip of the same crisis. This includes what remains of the Turkish left, and even the Welfare Party. The Islamist rival of the secularist political and economic elite is itself caught up in the nationwide sense of political and cultural uncertainty.

Turkey’s official ideology, Kemalism, remains a set of eclectic principles and aspirations aimed at legitimizing the hegemony of the Turkish republican elite. Kemalist nationalism has served the dual function of forging a nation-state out of the multi-ethnic remnants of the Ottoman Empire and combating all claims of disparate ethnic identities. This policy of forced assimilation remained as a basic Kemalist premise until 1991. In March of that year, the armed struggle of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), launched in 1984 with the aim of achieving self-determination for Turkey’s 15 million Kurds, was compounded by the flight toward Turkey of some 800,000 Kurds from northern Iraq, as the armed forces of the Saddam Hussein regime in Baghdad moved to crush the popular uprising triggered by Iraq’s defeat in the Gulf war. This crisis shattered the Kemalist illusion that “no other nation but Turks existed in Turkey.” “We accept the Kurdish reality,” was how then-Prime Minister Demirel put it on his tour of southeastern Turkey following his 1991 election victory. He subsequently headed a coalition government with the Social Democratic People’s Party, which owed a regional landslide to the presence of pro-Kurdish Labor Party candidates on their ticket. This sequence of events exposed the most serious crack in the Kemalist version of reality.

The Insolvency of Turkish Secularism

A second element of the crisis involves Turkey’s conflicted identity as a mainly Muslim country governed by a militantly secularist elite. In the early fall of 1995, when Turkey joined the European Customs Union, the EU governments justified overlooking Ankara’s deplorable human rights record by determining that the union was essential to promote Turkey’s attachment to secularist values. Just three months later, the Welfare Party won a plurality of votes in the December 1995 general elections, raising the prospect of an Islamist presence in the government. Many of Turkey’s biggest cities, including Greater Istanbul and Ankara, the capital, have had Welfare Party mayors since the 1994 municipal elections. Turkey’s elites, after decades of painstaking efforts to reshape the society to comport with values and norms of “Western civilization,” are witnesses to the wreckage of their ambitions in their own strongholds. Turkey’s very gateways to Europe have been taken over by the Islamists.

The apparent insolvency of Turkish secularism is rooted not in any inherent contradiction between secular state and Islamic society, but rather in the conciliatory approach of the state toward political Islam following the military coup of September 1980. In the bigger cities in the west of the country, once the promised land of Turkish industrialization, three decades of incessant migration from the countryside combined with IMF-imposed “structural adjustment” programs have overwhelmed the capacity of the economy to provide new jobs. The IMF program marked the end of state subsidies to Turkey’s private manufacturing and agricultural sectors. The “political stabilization” needed to implement this painful structural adjustment had initially been provided by the US-backed military junta that took power. Unemployment grew in the urban centers while migration from the impoverished countryside continued. The Turkish left, inadequate champions of the worldly aspirations of these masses, was crushed under the brutal military crackdown. Trapped between a past to which they could not return and a future without promise, millions of urban poor directed their hopes to heaven, but more so to its earthly representation in the Islamist solidarity networks.

“Green Belt”

It was under the rule of the military-dominated National Security Council between 1980-1983 that the Islamists achieved their greatest influence within these state apparatuses specializing in administration and ideology. A major public justification of the 1980 army takeover was the threat of radical Islam embodied in Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party. As it happened, this forerunner of the Welfare Party functioned as the ideological tool of the generals, the self-proclaimed saviors of the Kemalist secular republic. The constitution drafted by the military rulers, for instance, deemed religious courses obligatory for all levels of pre-university education, and set up religious seminaries which served as seedbeds of Islamist ideology. This was much more than any civilian government, in a political compromise with the Islamists, might have dared to try.

One of the points of origin of this approach was a “green belt” strategy promoted in some Washington circles following the revolution in Iran and the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan. The idea was to confine Soviet southward expansion and to combat radical Islamist power in Iran and potentially elsewhere in the region by constructing a bulwark alliance of US-backed Muslim countries. The basics of such an approach were laid out in a 1983 Heritage Foundation report which saw merit in preserving a “protective Islamic belt” such as had “for several centuries functioned as the front line between the Russian and British empires’ spheres of influence in Asia” and had been “a permanent element of US policy” after World War II. Alexander Haig, who served as Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state, had something similar in mind when he promoted his notion of “strategic consensus” in the Middle East. “The geography of this strategic consensus in my mind extended from China, from where the Soviet threat started, to Pakistan, Egypt, Turkey and Israel,” Haig told a National Press Club audience in 1985.

A further aspect was Turkey’s desperate hard currency deficit. Saudi Arabia was a potential source of generous loans in return for increased Turkish attention to the northern Islamic countries. “The US maintains close ties with some if not all theocratic regimes in the region,” observed former Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit. “The US implies that it would like to see Turkey depending more on these Middle East regimes.” Constitutional amendments encouraged an influx of Saudi capital while Turkey’s military rulers increasingly promoted the Sunni interpretation of Islam close to that of Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi ideology vis-a-vis Shi‘i revolution exported by Iran’s victorious spiritual leaders.

As the time approached in 1983 for handing power over to a parliamentary government, the military junta launched an effort to modify the official ideology of Kemalism — which they felt was unnecessarily revolutionary in some of its aspects — with a “Turkish-Islamist synthesis.” The new stratagem was directed at countering revolutionary sentiments, particularly among Kurdish youth, with the traditional conservatism of local Kurdish tribe leaders and of Islamic scholars. A greater state emphasis on Islamic values, so the reasoning went, would more closely bind influential Kurdish community leaders to the state while cutting off the “Marxist-Leninist” and “atheist” guerrillas from public support. Allowing increased Islamist influence in the system seemed like a modest price to pay for a transnational ideology of Islam that would contribute to the territorial integrity of the Turkish nation-state.

The “Turkish” part of this equation aimed at revising Kemalist nationalism, which had been fairly free of ethnic Turkish bias. Kurds had not been barred on account of their ethnic origins from high state posts, as long as they remained loyal to the state. Adoption of the “Turkish-Islamist synthesis” effectively granted the Turkish fascist movement a strong position within the state apparatuses. Alpaslan Türkeş, leader of the fascist National Action Party (MHP), had been one of the officers involved in the 1960 army takeover and was known for his role in clandestine state-sponsored “counter-insurgency” operations against “communist” activities.

By the time the army took over again in 1980, Türkeş had already gone a long way towards carving out a parallel organization within the state bureaucracy, particularly among the police and the intelligence services. Türkeş’ youth militia, the Gray Wolves, was responsible for the cold-blooded assassination of thousands of leftist intellectuals, activists and trade union leaders. After the 1980 military takeover, MHP leaders were arrested and the party banned along with others. One of them, Agah Oktay Güner, now Motherland Party minister of culture in the present cabinet, when tried by the military tribunal on charges of murder, sabotage and arson, used his defense to summarize the idiosyncrasy of the situation: “Our situation is so unique that our bodies suffer in prison while our ideas are in power!”

The “Turkish-Islamist synthesis” regularized this situation by coopting fascists and Islamists into the state security services and other parts of the state bureaucracy in return for their suspending independent organized activity. This occurred during the prime ministry of Turgut Özal, who took over the government with 47 percent of the vote in the military-organized 1983 elections. Özal recruited a significant number of his Motherland Party staff from among former MHP ideologues and organizers, many of whom were seated in Özal’s cabinet as soon as they were released from jail. All of these men, like Özal himself, were also affiliated with the Naqshbandi Sufi order. Thus the first civilian government following the 1980 coup became a practical embodiment of the Turkish-Islamist synthesis.

Özal’s Constituencies

Turgut Özal became president in 1991, and died in office in April 1993. The memorial services that followed displayed the schizophrenic nature of the relationship between state and society in Turkey in the early 1990s. At the official ceremony in Ankara, a military orchestra, playing Chopin’s “Death March,” led a solemn funeral procession — Özal’s coffin on an artillery cart — along the capital’s main Atatürk Boulevard. Attendees, mostly public servants and their families, stood respectfully along the sidewalks.

By contrast, in Istanbul, where Özal was buried, hundreds of thousands of people participated in special noon prayer at the Süleymaniye mosque, and chanted “Allahu akbar” (God is great) throughout the procession to the grave site (which lay near that of former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, tried and executed by the military rulers of 1960 and rehabilitated during Özal’s reign). This was not because of what Özal had done for the Welfare Party, though he had removed legal barriers to Islamist propaganda. In fact, the Islamists had kept their distance from Özal while he held office, and regarded Motherland as “the party of America.” Rather, this outpouring of public grief reflected appreciation both for Özal’s economic policies that had allowed the urban middle classes to trade within the extended realm of capitalist circulation and for his part in promoting the role of Islamic sects within civil society. In other words, it owed more to the earthly fruits of his rule than to heavenly attachments.

No doubt among the mourners were many Kurds, for Özal had been the first high Turkish official to assert the need for open discussion towards a solution to the Kurdish question. Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK, even speculated that Özal had been allowed to die by the Kemalist establishment for going “further than the regime would tolerate.”

Yuppies, Daisies and Godfathers

“Yuppies,” in Turkish usage, refers to a particular class of “new breed” businesspeople, creatures of Ozal’s economic policies of export promotion. Most of them are managers, graduates of American universities, and personal friends of Özal’s son Ahmet. Özal, by lifting trade barriers and procedures for obtaining foreign currencies, had “integrated” Turkey into international markets and the “yuppies” introduced Turkey to the new world of global franchises and brand-name import-export. The more prominent — Bülent Semiler, Engin Civan, Cengiz İsrafil, Cengiz Ulusoy, Rüşdü Saraçoğlu and Ali Tigrel — were installed as heads of state-owned banks and industries with the mandate to restructure them for privatization. Ozal had provided them with their footing in an operation aimed at removing barriers to the circulation of international capital inside Turkey.

The “Daisies” are a group of women coopted by Özal’s wife Semra into the “Foundation for Promoting Turkish Women,” the wives of magnates of construction firms and export-oriented industries who owed their rise to their closeness to the Özal family. Among them were the wives of prominent Turkish capitalists, such as Şarık Tara, owner of ENKA Holding; Selim Edes, owner of ESKA construction company; Halıs Toprak, owner of Toprak Holding; and Omer Çavuşoğlu and Mehmet Kozanoğlu of Çukurova Holding. Özal had allowed them, without any certification, to secure innumerable and vast loans from state banks, and colossal public contracts without requiring any legal documentation, as long as they turned a certain share of their gains over to the Özal family treasury.

The largest conglomerates, Koç and Sabancı, were represented among the “daisies” by relatively insignificant family members. Koç and Sabancı owed their unmatched hegemony in the domestic market to past protectionism. They certainly appreciated and supported Ozal&rqsuo;s program to integrate Turkey’s economy into international markets, but they also expressed concern for his doctrinaire attachment to “unlimited competition.”

Among those who mourned Özal were also Turkey’s “godfathers.” Most of them had personal ties with Özal family members and favorites. They had lost a statesman who valued the role of their money laundering operations in extending hard currency circulation in Turkey. Özal had lifted all kinds of legal barriers to hard currency circulation, and Turkey under Özal had become a favorite locale for “hot capital,” the influx of which necessarily involved underground links.

Neo-Ottomanism vs. Kemalism

In the aftermath of the Gulf war and during talks with foreign diplomats regarding post-Gulf war arrangements in the region, Ozal outraged champions of the indivisible and secular Turkish nation-state when he opened for discussion the reshaping of Turkey along “moderate Islamic” lines.

Özal believed that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the defeat of Iraq in the Gulf war opened a “unique” possibility for a regional leadership role for Turkey, but such a bid for transnational influence necessitated an ideological framework more comprehensive than that of Turkish nationalism. More functional would be a “moderate Islamism” that combined capitalist norms with Islamist mores and culture, and could gain the consent of Turks, Kurds, Azeris, Uzbeks and Bosnians alike. A Turkey reformed around “moderate Islamic principles” would grant a degree of autonomy to 15 million Kurds at home, privatize the state sector and replace the million-strong Turkish armed forces with a more efficient professional army. The scheme, Özal believed, would be complete with a decentralized national government, giving increased authority to local governments, shifting the power base from the capital to provinces and relieving the central government of many public expenditures. Under such a scheme, the Kurdish provinces would hardly be exempt from the implications of self-government.

Özal’s visions are gone with Özal, and the Turkish bourgeoisie and the Turkish state have yet to adopt or abandon his schemes for restructuring the hegemony of Turkish capital. The Turkish army, following a brief period of hesitation, has renewed its assault on PKK guerrillas, using “special warfare” units. Police and gendarme forces, totaling as many as 50,000, recruited from among the Nationalist Action Party cadre, play a major role in maintaining martial law in the Kurdish provinces. The “village guard” system introduced under Özal has conscripted a tribal army of 70,000 Kurds to fight other Kurds. It is true that the ten Kurdish provinces under emergency rule are effectively beyond the control of the government, but this is not the sort of autonomy that Özal had in mind.

The war against the Kurds is partly responsible for the collapse of social expenditures in the face of sharply higher defense expenditures. In 1993, 10 percent of the budget was allotted to education and 3 percent to health, whereas defense and security expenditures comprised 40 percent of the total. Economic restructuring, supported by Turkish capitalists, has ruined the agricultural sector and caused massive unemployment. According to official figures, the share of national income going to agriculturalists has fallen from 31.8 percent in 1970 to 16.3 percent in 1988, while the share of salaries and wages have dropped from 31.15 percent in 1970 to 15.6 percent. In the same period, rents, interest and profit shares have risen from 37.7 percent to 69.1 percent. According to TÜSIAD, the Turkish Businessman’s and Industrialist’s Association, in 1989 the richest 20 percent of Turkish society controlled 60 percent of the national income while the poorest 20 percent controlled only 4 percent.

It is apparent from 1994 statistics that the situation for workers and peasants has grown even worse in the first half of the 1990s. According to a recent TÜSIAD report, “The Turkish Economy on the Threshold of Year 1996,” unemployment in 1994 has risen to 16.6 percent from that of 15.3 percent in 1993. Whereas, according to the same report, during the same period, the net sales and profits of 185 companies whose bonds are transacted in Istanbul’s stock market have risen by 35 percent and 114 percent respectively.

The growing rifts between the poor and rich, between speculators and productive labor, between officialdom and individual citizens, coincide with a growing crisis of authority. Turkey’s military campaign in the southeast in 1994 cost $7 million, equivalent to the country’s budget deficit that year. Broad sections of Turkish businesspeople and industrialists have called for cutting expenditures on war. The “peaceful solution” to the Kurdish question they envision would reduce the massive influx of Kurdish poor from the southeastern countryside to the cities, and reductions in the defense budget might provide necessary funds for social expenditures.

Paradoxically, the aspirations of the bourgeoisie have gotten little response from Turkish political parties who, regarding major foreign and domestic policy issues, have proven themselves incapable of challenging the military-dominated National Security Council, which has the constitutional authority only to “recommend” government policy on issues of war, peace and arms purchases.

In late April of this year, the New Democracy Party, headed by textile magnate Cem Boyner, reputed for outspoken schemes to reconstruct the state to conform with new social realities, declared its closure, just two years after its founding. Although Boyner had won acclaim from Istanbul’s establishment for his reasonable Kurdish policies, he did not get their political support, as his political plans clashed with that of the National Security Council. And his social schemes, promising increased unemployment for public sector workers, gained him only 0.05 percent support from the public in December’s elections.

While the bourgeoisie abandoned New Democracy in its first contest for power, the working class for its part abandoned the social-democratic Republican People’s Party (CHP). As a partner in former Prime Minister Tansu Çiller’s first coalition government, the CHP lost its traditional trade union support due to its “privatization” policies. During the center-left coalition between 1991-1995, Turkey’s human rights record hit bottom, with 2,000 extrajudicial executions and daily reports of torture during custody. The social-democrats voted regularly every four months to extend emergency rule. Hardly attaining the national election barrier of 10 percent, the CHP, the country’s oldest and, for decades, only party, suffered its worst election defeat in 70 years of existence. Workers, urban poor, Kurds and Alevis charged the bill to the CHP. The party of the founder of the republic was almost ousted altogether from the parliament while the republic’s age-old foes, the Islamists, have come to the fore as Turkey’s largest political movement, trapping the country in a crisis that is unlikely to be solved through conventional petty politics.

How to cite this article:

Ertugrul Kurkcu "The Crisis of the Turkish State," Middle East Report 199 (Summer 1996).

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