Mainstream european and american opinion likes to consider Turkey as an example of democracy to the Islamic world, and the governing AKP as the chief ‘democratizing force’ in the country. This matches the American-made project of a ‘moderate Islam’, celebrated after 9/11 as the cure for radicalism in Muslim societies. The AKP's Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the answer to HAMAS or Hizbullah in the Middle East, just as Malaysia’s Anwar Ibrahim was the model for Southeast Asi-a. As former US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke put it, ‘there are only two moderate Islamic democracies in the world: Turkey and Malaysia’. Ibrahim, dubbed a ‘Golden Asian’ by Newsweek, was a staunch friend of Malaysia’s corporate elite and defender of IMF policies, who liked to underline his liberal-internationalist credentials by stressing his fondness for Elvis. AKP leaders show a similar proclivity to demonstrate their familiarity with Western ways. After a well-received speech in Oxford about the AKP’s democratic virtues recently, Erdogan’s spin doctor Egemen Bagis raised his glass to the assembled scholars: ‘You see, I drink wine!’ The meaning was clear: moderate Islam, just as you like it.
But the wine of moderate Islam has soured in Turkey. A turning point was the assassination of the Turkish-Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink, on 19 January 2007. Dink had been charged several times with ‘insulting Turkishness’, a crime under the Penal Code. Erdogan and his advisors like to complain to their EU supervisors that retrograde Kemalist state and military forces are holding back their attempts to democratize this relic of the 1982 Constitution, drafted by the military dictatorship of the time. But if anything, the AKP’s revision of the Constitution in June 2005 made it worse. The original 1982 Article 159 had stated that prosecutions for ‘insulting Turkishness’ had to be authorized by the Ministry of Justice. The Erdogan rewrite, Article 301, removed this requirement and so opened the door for ultra-nationalists to lobby individual prosecutors to lay charges of this (still undefined) crime against anyone they please. At the time, the AKP government told critics of Article 301 to ‘wait and see how it is applied’. It was applied very concretely by Dink’s assassin, who told the police, ‘I killed him because he insulted Turkishness’—the very text of Article 301. Dink was killed, in fact, because he defended dialogue between Turks and Armenians, and pointed out that Armenians had once lived in Anatolia. A mass protest was called in response to his assassination: a hundred thousand marchers chanted ‘We are all Hrant! We are all Armenians!’ The slogan touched one of the most sensitive nerves in Turkish nationalism, and a counter-slogan was rushed forward by establishment opinion-makers: ‘We are all Turks!’ The effect was chilling: it amounted to a condonation of Dink’s death.
During the following months the witch-hunting fever mounted higher. A turf squabble erupted between the AKP and the opposition Kemalists over the choice of the next presidential candidate, an appointment technically decided by the National Assembly. The president’s office was seen as the last bastion of the ‘secular’ establishment, and the AKP was about to conquer it. The Army, a powerful political actor in Turkey, declared its disapproval. Erdogan called an emergency election for July 2007. The nationalists mobilized a series of ‘flag meetings’ in the run-up to the vote, directed against the AKP candidate Abdullah Gül—no less a NATO man than themselves. For a moment it seemed as though the Turkish flags on the street might be a symbol of secularism, as well as nationalism. But when coffins started to arrive from the Southeast, carrying soldiers killed by the Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK, the demonstrations rose to a jingoistic pitch. Young rednecks began filling the streets, calling to account anyone who did not have a flag hanging from their balcony. At this point, middle-class secularists and liberals began leaving the scene. Istanbul’s Kurdish districts almost reached boiling point one night in May, as young men gathered in front of buildings and shouted for Kurdish people to come out.
This atmosphere of ultra-nationalism prepared the political environment for the biggest military campaign yet against the PKK. Clearly, the decision had been made long before the demonstrations began, and the establishment media was right behind it. Once the war started, the news bulletins immediately assumed the character of Fox TV during the invasion of Iraq. ‘We’ was the subject, ‘cleaning’ was the verb and the targeted object was always ‘them’—as if Kurds do not live in Turkey; as if the militants of the PKK facing bombs and artillery fire do not have relatives in the Kurdish parts of Turkey. But who would dare to question this discourse, when the streets were strewn with flags and the nationalist gangs were made out to be ‘legitimate’ by the media?
Things grew uglier when a couple of high-school students sliced their fingers and used their blood to paint a Turkish flag. They framed it and sent it to the Military Chief of Staff. Reporters were on hand to witness the General crying as he received the ‘bloody mail’ and unfolded the sacred flag. Tercüman, a nationalist-conservative newspaper, published a colour photograph of the flag painted in children’s blood, so the blood multiplied as the paper’s circulation increased. When I wrote an article criticizing this in Milliyet, they printed my photo under the headline: ‘She insulted our flag’. What was the attitude of Turkey’s ‘democratizing force’ during all this? Prime Minister Erdogan leapt on the bandwagon, plastering the AKP’s billboards with the slogan: ‘One Nation, One Flag’. In the July 2007 elections the AKP won 47 per cent of the vote, which translated into 62 per cent of National Assembly seats under Turkey’s distorted representational system: an outright majority, but not the two-thirds required to make constitutional changes which they had had in their first term. When the AKP’s new draft Constitution—with its clause allowing students to wear headscarves at university—ran into opposition, they took up the offer of a parliamentary alliance from the ultra-nationalist mhp (Nationalist Action Party) to allow them to get it through. The mhp’s quid pro quo seemed clear: the Erdogan government would burnish its piety by liberating the headscarf but at the same time it would retain Article 301—now lightly amended to criminalize ‘insulting the Turkish nation’—and step up the military campaign against the Kurds.
The new alliance brought back memories of the 1980 coup d’etat, which had given birth to ultra-nationalism and Islamism at the same time, while decimating the large and militant Turkish Left. Between 1980 and 1983, 30,000 people were stripped of their citizenship, another 30,000 fled the country, 458 people died during torture, 50 were executed and an unknown number disappeared. A generation of progressive men and women was destroyed. The only parties permitted to organize by the dictatorship were the Islamists and ultra-nationalists. Twenty-five years later, their heirs are renewing the alliance as they work together on amending the junta’s constitution. Under the new draft, banning political parties will be as easy as it was under the old one. Religion lessons will remain compulsory in primary and secondary schools. In deference to free-market requirements, a harmless clause about the right to live in a healthy environment has been deleted. Freedom of association for civil servants is still limited, and they are denied the right to strike. The nationalist-Islamist alliance maintained a prudent silence about Article 15, which grants immunity from prosecution to the coup generals. When cornered about it, Ergun Özbudun, the AKP-appointed head of the Constitution Drafting Committee, announced that the AKP would abolish Article 15: ‘But this doesn’t mean that we will hold the coup to account. Even though some crimes might have been committed, they are subject to prescription.’
Like the Kemalist CHP, Erdogan preferred to keep the focus on the headscarf issue, reiterating: ‘The AKP is the only hope for our oppressed women, after years of grief.’ (In fact, there was no written law against women wearing a headscarf in public buildings; it is only since the late 1990s that a series of court decisions has contributed to a legal ‘case’ on the question.) Erdogan has made a speciality of this discourse of suffering—the ‘oppression of the Muslims by the establishment elite’—since the start of his political career. In doing so, he borrows the anti-colonialist discourse of Islamist movements in Egypt or Algeria, creating ‘imagined colonialists’ in Turkey, which has never been colonized. Erdogan likes to speak of ‘them’ oppressing ‘the people’, without ever making clear who ‘they’ are. Obsession with the headscarf succeeded in crowding out all other issues—doctors protesting the privatization of the social security system; teachers asking for a salary high enough to feed their families; Kurds asking for representation in the legitimate political sphere; Alevis (a progressive sect of Islam mostly defined as deviants by the Sunni majority) asking for recognition by the state; women complaining about the growing conservatism in Turkey. Instead, TV and newspapers devoted themselves to the scarf.