Turkish voters sent a strong message to its long-standing ruling party and its leader on March 31, 2019 that the government’s authoritarian turn has not fully succeeded. In nationwide municipal elections, for the first time in a quarter century, the political movement largely associated with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan lost control over both the country’s economic and political capitals, as well as numerous other districts throughout the country. The symbolic and economic significance of losing both capitals, especially Istanbul, cannot be discounted. This article explains why this happened.
Mücella Yapıcı is an architect and activist, known for her work against urban renewal projects and environmental destruction in Turkey. She is the secretary and spokesperson of the activist group Taksim Solidarity, which was one of the leading organizations during the June 2013 Gezi Park protests. MERIP editorial committee member Elif Babül spoke to Yapıcı on June 22, 2018 in Istanbul at the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, shortly before the 2018 presidential elections took place. The interview has been edited and condensed for publication.
In 2017 İhsan Fazlıoğlu, an Islamist professor of philosophy at Istanbul Medeniyet University, was visited by a group of concerned teachers and parents from the İmam Hatip high school (a government-funded secondary school that trains Muslim preachers) he once attended. The visitors wanted his advice on the growing trend of deism and atheism among young people and what was to be done about it. The professor responded with a shocking observation of his own: In the past year, of the many religious students who came to consult with him, no fewer than 17 women had confided that although they continued to wear a hijab (headscrarf) they had left Islam and considered themselves atheists.
Government-funded religious İmam Hatip schools have expanded considerably across Turkey since the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2002: from 84,000 students in 450 schools in 2002 to 1.3 million students in over 4,000 schools by 2017. The Ministry of National Education (MEB) justifies this expansion as a natural response to what they claim to be “high demand from parents” but recent reports reveal that these schools draw about 50–60 percent less students than their capacity each year.
Often peppered with religious references, “family values” rhetoric has become a trademark of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. His frequent encouragement of early marriage and criticism of childless women illustrate an ever-expanding repertoire of conservative pronouncements regarding gender, reproduction and the family. During an iftar dinner in 2014, for example, Erdoğan urged female college students not to be picky in selecting a prospective spouse “because our dear prophet advised us to get married and to procreate, so that he could take pride in the sizable presence of the ummah in the afterlife in comparison to other [religious] communities.” At a ceremony hosted by the Women and Democracy Association in 2016, he claimed that “A woman who abstains from maternity by saying ‘I have a job’ means that she is actually denying her femininity … She is lacking, she is an incomplete person, no matter how successful she is in the business world.”
The Turkish energy sector—companies involved in the exploration and development of oil or gas reserves, drilling and refining, or integrated power utility companies including renewable energy, coal or nuclear power—has experienced major and systemic transformation and growth since the early 2000s under the rule of consecutive Justice and Development Party (AKP) governments.
Turkey has undergone major socio-economic transformations that have generated numerous contradictions since the 1980s. One of the most significant has been Turkey’s transformation from a predominately rural and agrarian society to a largely urban society as it enters the new millennium. The fast pace of urbanization, coupled with a decrease in agricultural employment and an increase in service sector employment transformed Turkey into a largely working-class society by the mid-2000s. This unprecedented urban and socio-economic development has in turn generated, and in some cases heightened, pressing social and economic problems such as unemployment, stark income inequality and restricted access to adequate housing.
Academic freedom has always been limited and under threat by the state in Turkey. But since the beginning of 2016, academic freedom in Turkey—and the broader field of higher education—has been subject to a sustained campaign of state repression that is unprecedented in the history of the Turkish Republic.
On March 21, 2013 in the symbolic Kurdish city of Diyarbakır, on the symbolic new year’s day of Newroz, in front of a crowd composed of almost a million people and broadcast live by most Turkish news channels, a letter from the imprisoned Kurdistan Worker’s Party’s (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan was read. The letter urged Kurds to end their nearly 30-year armed struggle against the Turkish state and open a new page for democratic politics within the framework of Turkish sovereignty.
Turkish foreign policy throughout the Cold War was limited and largely predictable: narrowly focused on national security and preserving the sanctity of its borders while hewing to a predominantly Western orientation. Turkey’s foreign policy reflected the constraints of the bipolar international system, which granted little room for smaller powers to adopt independent policies. As such, Turkey pursued membership in key Western multilateral frameworks (the Council of Europe 1949, the OECD 1948 and NATO 1952) in order to improve its negotiating capacity; to enhance its security and status; and to compensate for its relative lack of an independent foreign policy. Membership in these Euro-Atlantic institutions also enabled Turkish policymakers to assert their affiliation with Western culture.
Today, the crisis of Turkey is both a crisis of capitalism and a crisis of the Republic.
To the extent that it is a crisis of capitalism, of a financialized regime of accumulation, its own internal business cycles are synchronous with the cycles of global capitalism. Even though the current economic crisis takes the form of stagflation (a high inflation rate combined with recession), its driving factor is the increased default risk of the highly-leveraged corporate sector. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), governing an economy fully-integrated to the international financial system since 2002, enjoyed the benefits of global liquidity as it consolidated its hegemony. Today, as the crisis hits corporations and households alike, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP resort to anti-imperialist jargon to pass the proverbial buck, and cover up their helplessness in the face of the vast scope of the crisis.
Turkey has undergone a dizzying array of crises over the last five years. Beginning with the repressive crackdown against the Gezi Protests during the summer of 2013, the country has gone from being cited as a model Muslim democracy to taking pride of place on the growing worldwide list of democratic reversals. Pundits now lump Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in with populist authoritarian leaders ranging from Hungary’s Victor Orbán to the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte. On some indices Turkey leads the pack, jailing more journalists than any other country, throttling the independence of the judiciary and establishing a near total stranglehold on the media.
The Gezi Park protests were the first time that the AKP faced significant public resistance from below to their urban transformation project. The term “below” is important because the AKP’s legitimacy rests on the claim that it enjoys widespread support from below. The protests, however, revealed an alternative “below,” one that shared nothing with the AKP. Furthermore, the site of the protests—Taksim Square, Gezi Park and the surrounding streets and buildings—was the very place from which many of the pro–AKP religious upper-middle-class families of Başakşehir were fleeing to protect their morality. Encountering this forgotten “below” in Taksim Square held tremendous meaning for the AKP, as that encounter resulted from Erdoğan’s plan to destroy the place’s symbolism and replace it with new symbolism.
Turkey’s Islamist hegemons in the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been losing their grip on reality for some time. Anti-Western conspiracy theories have multiplied in the country since the attempted coup by Turkish military officers on July 15, 2016. Members of the religious-political Gülen movement, which split from the AKP in 2013, were involved in the power struggle with the AKP government that culminated in the coup attempt. Since the leader of the Gülen movement, Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, is based in Pennsylvania, suspicion has also fallen on the United States. Further confounding the AKP-led government and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are the mixed messages coming out of Washington. Initially, the AKP believed that Trump as president would help their efforts to extradite Gülen. Yet, Turkey’s rulers cannot square their assumption of Trump’s sympathy for them with his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and his inability (or unwillingness, in Erdoğan’s eyes) to put an end to the politically sensitive US trial of Turkish banker Hakan Atilla.
The AKP, in pushing the expansion of the Diyanet for political purposes, also has enhanced the capacity of the institution to pursue its own agenda. Indeed, the unprecedented expansion of the Diyanet in recent years demonstrates its ability to seize opportunities arising from its common cause with AKP to expand its role in order to pursue, in tandem, the expansion of the religious field and Islamization of public space and morality.
Dilsa Deniz, an anthropologist of the Alevi-Kurdish religion, was fired from her position as an assistant professor at Nişantaşı University in Istanbul after she signed the Academics for Peace petition issued in Turkey on January 10, 2016. More than 1,000 scholars signed the petition to protest the Turkish government’s disengagement from the peace process with the Kurdish opposition and the killing of civilians in several Kurdish towns. Under the auspices of the Scholars at Risk network, Deniz left Turkey in August 2016 to take up a visiting lecturer position at the University of New Hampshire.
Deniz, along with five colleagues who also signed the petition, was fired without due process or right of appeal. The authorities detained several signatories as well. The dismissal of these and many other faculty was a harbinger of the much broader purges that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan pursued after the failed military coup of July 15, 2016. As of the following April, as reported in the New York Times and elsewhere, an estimated 130,000 civil servants and military and university personnel had been discharged from their positions. Using the coup as a pretext, the government has targeted legitimate Kurdish institutions and representatives. The government has sacked approximately 12,000 Kurdish teachers as well as 24 elected mayors, closing Kurdish-language media outlets only recently legalized and generally creating a climate of intimidation and repression. The government’s return to casting all Kurdish opposition as terrorists associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party has taken the country back into open conflict. Clearly rattled by the military success and de facto territorial control achieved by Kurdish fighters in northern Syria, the government has opted to intensify military operations in the Kurdish regions of Turkey.
Jeannie Sowers, a political science professor at New Hampshire, spoke with Deniz in December 2016 about her activism, the situation of scholars in Turkey and the Turkish state’s renewed attacks on Kurdish culture, language and political participation.
Alevis are the second largest faith community in Turkey. As a religious collective incorporating aspects of Shi‘i Islam into their teachings, Alevis have faced systematic state exclusion since the 1923 establishment of the Turkish nation-state, which privileges Sunni Islam despite its avowed secularism. Although the community constitutes 15-20 percent of Turkey’s population, their places of worship, cemevis, have no legal status and do not enjoy the state economic support accorded to mosques. A glass ceiling blocks Alevis from obtaining high-ranking government jobs, and various other forms of daily discrimination push members of the community to hide their identity in public.