September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment
Now that U.S.-led airstrikes – or according to the UAE’s press release, UAE-led airstrikes – have begun against ISIS positions in Syria, it seems we have an actual coalition to size up. Participating in one way or another were the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE, with Qatar the only one of the six to not actually drop bombs or shoot cruise missiles. One of these things is obviously not like the others, and that is Qatar. Aside from the fact that Qatar’s participation is going to remain limited to logistics and support, Qatar’s inclusion in this group is striking given that the four other Arab states represent one distinct camp in the Middle East, while Qatar represents another. There has been lots of talk the past few years about a Middle Eastern cold war taking place between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but there is a separate battle taking place between what I’ll call status quo Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, etc. and revisionist Sunni states Qatar and Turkey. The latter are trying to upend the current regional order, and have thus spent lots of capital – both actual and rhetorical – supporting Muslim Brotherhood groups and other actors opposed to the current regional configuration. It is interesting to see Qatar openly participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, and it is likely a response to the charges that Qatar is tied to terrorism and has been funding shady jihadi and Islamist rebels. Qatar wants to demonstrate that it is not aiding ISIS, and this is the best way of going about that.
Far more intriguing is who is not part of this coalition, and that would be the other member of the Sunni revisionist camp. Along with Jordan, Turkey is the country most threatened by ISIS given its long border with Syria and the growing number of Turks being recruited as ISIS fighters. Turkey’s hostages have just been released by ISIS, so the biggest reason for Turkey’s hesitation has been removed, and yet Turkey is adamantly not joining the coalition. Aaron Stein has a good rundown today of what Turkey is doing behind the scenes to help out, but there are still reasons why Turkey is not going to publicly join the fight. The big one is that Turkey isn’t actually for a particular outcome; it only knows what it doesn’t want. It does not want Bashar al-Assad to benefit from any moves taken to degrade ISIS, but it also does not want ISIS to permanently control territory in Syria, but it also does not want the Kurds to benefit from ISIS being rolled back. Where Turkey runs into trouble is that not one of these outcomes can be realized in its entirety without limiting the success of the other outcomes. Eliminating ISIS will benefit Assad and the Kurds, while removing Assad creates a vacuum that will be filled by ISIS and/or the Kurds, and limiting any gains by the Kurds necessarily means that ISIS is maintaining its strength in northern Syria. Turkey wants a combination of goals that cannot be filled simultaneously, and yet it does not want to or cannot choose between which ones should be shunted aside.
The irony here is that by not throwing the full force of its weight behind getting rid of ISIS, it is risking a bigger domestic problem with Turkey’s Kurds, some of whom are crossing the border to fight with Kurdish forces against ISIS. Turkish Kurds blame Ankara for allowing ISIS to fester and even empowering the group with its previous see-no-evil-hear-no-evil border policy, and thus the more half-hearted the Turkish government behaves with regard to getting rid of ISIS, the harder any Kurdish peace process and any effort to fully integrate Kurds into Turkey will become. In trying to appease ISIS by not taking a public role in the fight against the group – and thereby attempting to head off any jihadi terrorism inside of Turkey’s borders – Turkey is going to reignite an entirely different type of domestic problem. It is also foolhardy to believe that ISIS is a fire that won’t burn Turkey if the country steps away from the issue. At some point, ISIS violence is bound to come to Turkey whether Ankara participates as a full in open partner in the fight against the group or not, and when that happens, the vendetta against Assad and the worries about Kurdish nationalism are going to seem myopic.
The other regional player absent – although this is altogether unsurprising – is Iran. John Kerry and others have expressed hopes that the U.S. and Iran can cooperate together against ISIS given that the group presents a common threat. While I don’t rule out an eventual U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement (although I am skeptical), there is never going to be open Iranian cooperation with the U.S. on any shared goal such as the fight against ISIS, despite the optimism running rampant today following Hassan Rouhani’s charm offensive in New York. Iran is an ideological state, meaning that it references explicitly ideological claims or a programmatic mission in justifying political action and allows those claims or mission to constrain its range of actions. Ideological states behave very differently from non-ideological states because ideology is used as a source of regime legitimacy, and so fealty to the state ideology is crucial for the regime to maintain its rule. To the extent that the ideology is institutionalized, its protection becomes vital, as a blow to the ideology is a blow to the state’s legitimacy among its citizens. The ideology also becomes the most important feature of the regime’s legacy, and no true guardians of the state ideology want to be responsible for its downfall or delegitimization. A large element of the Iranian regime’s ideology is opposition to the U.S.; it is the reason that the regime has harped on this point for decades on end. When you base your legitimacy and appeal in large part on resisting American imperial power, turning on a dime and openly helping the U.S. achieve an active military victory carries far-reaching consequences domestically. It harms your legitimacy and raison d’être, and thus puts your continued rule in peril. Iran wants to see ISIS gone as badly as we do, if not more so, and ISIS presents a more proximate threat to Iran than to us. Despite this, Iran cannot be seen as helping the U.S. in any way on this, and simply lining up interests in this case is an analytical mistake as ideological considerations trump all when you are dealing with highly ideological regimes. The same way that the U.S. would never have cooperated with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War to defeat a common enemy – despite being able to come to agreement on arms control negotiations – because of an ideological commitment to being anti-Communist, Iran will not cooperate with the U.S. against ISIS. Those naively hoping that ISIS is going to create a bond between the U.S. and Iran are mistaken.
September 11, 2014 § 6 Comments
I am no expert on ISIS and I won’t pretend to be. I don’t know what their true capabilities are, whether they are a function of U.S. troops invading Iraq or a function of U.S. troops leaving Iraq, or whether they would exist if we had armed less extreme Syrian opposition groups at the outset of the Syrian civil war. I do know, however, that President Obama’s statement last night that we will “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS can only partially be true. The U.S. can certainly degrade ISIS’s capabilities based on the military plan Obama laid out, and perhaps it can even defeat the group itself by some metric of victory. But ISIS is not a prime mover; it is a symptom. At its core, ISIS is an ideology, and even if the group comprised of jihadi fighters is defeated, it will simply be reincarnated with a different name because ideologies – with very rare exception – do not die on the battlefield. They die when their utility is proven worthless or when they lose out to a superior idea. Unfortunately for the U.S., airstrikes and logistical support for Iraqi and Kurdish troops is not going to translate into a defeat for the ideology that is motivating ISIS.
One of my newest pet peeves is referring to ISIS as nihilistic. ISIS is actually the very opposite of nihilistic; it does not believe that life has no meaning or purpose, but in fact has a very concrete belief in what the purpose and meaning of life might be. Its wanton disregard for human life is not the same thing as nihilism, and it absolutely believes in something. The fact that it believes in its purpose and mission so vehemently is why any military victory over it will be hollow. Political ideologies offer a criticism of existing society contrasted with a vision of a “good” society and propose the means by which attainment of a “good” society will be achieved. Just because ISIS’s vision of a “good” society does not resemble anything we would recognize as good does not make it nihilistic. Ideologies are ideal types that involve some programatic element, which in ISIS’s case is establishing a caliphate over a large section of the Middle East, so while it is a bloodthirsty and brutal movement, nihilistic it is not. It is rather highly ideologically motivated, to a point that harkens back to an age when political and religious ideologies were far more paramount in global politics.
The reason ideology is so dangerous is because it can be overwhelming and impossible to stamp out. Ideology is a powerful force, and those steeped in an ideology can come to exude a level of commitment that transcends other interests. First order values and beliefs cause an ideology’s followers to act in order for those beliefs to be realized, and a military defeat does not render those values and beliefs invalid in the eyes of the ideology’s adherents. The guardians and enforcers of an ideology, who have built a political order upon an ideological foundation, should not be expected to simply let their ideology, which they have fought to impose and which has guided their decisions, lapse just because they lose to a superior fighting force. Ideology exerts such a powerful influence because it imbues a regime’s actions with spiritual or existential authority in addition to secular authority, and while this is true of secular ideologies, it is all the more true of religious ideologies such as that espoused by ISIS. Leaders and citizens make themselves over in the image of the ideology, creating no space for dissent from ideological norms. The process is designed to penetrate individual consciousness and alter perception so that a situation where the ideology does not reign supreme is unimaginable. If ISIS is beaten by some combination of the U.S. Air Force and the Iraqi army, it doesn’t alter this fundamental dynamic of belief in ideological supremacy. The heirs to ISIS will not concede ideological defeat along with military defeat, which is what makes the fight against radical jihadi groups so difficult.
Furthermore, ISIS’s ideology is a revolutionary one seeking to overturn the status quo and to constantly expand, which makes it particularly susceptible to living on beyond the elimination of its primary advocate. Much like Voldemort’s life force after he attempts to kill Harry Potter as a baby, ISIS’s ideology will not die just because its host body is decimated. It will lurk around until another group seizes upon it and resurrects it, and much like ISIS seems to be even worse than al-Qaida, whatever replaces ISIS is likely to be more radical still. The problem with Obama’s speech yesterday was that it set an expectation that cannot be fulfilled. Yes, ISIS itself may be driven from the scene, but the overall problem is not one that is going to go away following airstrikes or even ground forces.
The stubborn nature of ideological survival is not unique to ISIS, religious ideology, or jihadism. If you want to see the power of ideology in a different, less violent context, look at what is happening in Scotland, where the simple ideas of nationalism and independence have a good chance of subsuming what is in Scotland’s economic and security interests. There seems to be little question that Scotland’s economy will be better off as part of the larger economy of the United Kingdom, and certainly it will be less able to weather financial shocks should it become independent. I also cannot envision a scenario in which Scotland’s national security is made safer by removing itself from the protection of the second largest army in the EU and a nuclear power. Yet, ideas are powerful stuff, and the notion of Scottish independence exerts a hold on many people that falls outside the bounds of economic rationality.
Now, none of this is to suggest in any way that the U.S. is engaged in a clash of civilizations, or that the U.S. cannot be safe until Islamism – whatever that might constitute – is defeated. It is rather a way of pointing out that our expectations need to be recalibrated, and that beating ISIS into submission is not going to be the end of the problem. Groups like ISIS are going to keep emerging until those most susceptible to buying into the idea of jihadism are won over by a more compelling idea. I don’t know what the U.S. can do, if anything, to hasten that process along, but airstrikes aren’t going to be enough.
August 14, 2014 § 2 Comments
Now that Prime Minister Erdoğan is set to take over as President Erdoğan, analysts are pivoting to figure out what comes next. While many are speculating about who the next PM will be (I still think it comes down to Ahmet Davutoğlu or Numan Kurtulmuş), Soner Cagaptay has an op-ed in the New York Times looking at a much longer time horizon. He argues that Turkey’s future after Erdoğan will be a liberal one because the AKP’s support has peaked, and while the last great wave to sweep over Turkish politics was a conservative religious one, the next wave will be a liberal one. Thus, Cagaptay predicts that once the younger and more liberal generation turns its grassroots angst into political power, the AKP’s time at the top will be over.
It’s a compelling theory, and certainly one for which I am hopeful, but I’m not entirely convinced just yet. For starters, Cagaptay relies on the fact that the AKP has plateaued in order to argue that it will be replaced, and he cites the fact that 48% of the country voted against Erdoğan on Sunday as a measure of the country’s polarization. I agree that the AKP has almost certainly reached the apex of its support and that the only direction in which its voteshare can go is down, but the relevant question is not whether more people are going to start voting for someone else; it’s whether enough people will start voting for the same someone else. Based on the presidential vote, Turkey is not close to being at that point. The 48% who were opposed to Erdoğan voted for two candidates from three parties, with CHP/MHP candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu receiving 38% and HDP candidate Selahattin Demirtaş receiving 10%. There is still a 14% gap between Erdoğan and Ihsanoğlu, which is obviously lots of ground to make up. Furthermore, CHP and MHP do not see eye to eye on a number of issues and banded together for this election, but the parties are not going to merge and are going to fragment the opposition vote even further come parliamentary elections in 2015. So while 52%-48% makes it sound like the AKP could be imminently be in trouble, the real story is quite different.
The crux of Cagaptay’s argument though is that the next big trend in Turkish politics will be liberalism as a response to AKP rule, and I partially agree with him on that count. Many Turks are fed up with AKP authoritarianism and demagoguery, and at some point soon the economy is going to crater thanks to Erdoğan’s bizarre ideological obsession with low interest rates, which will cut hard into the AKP’s electoral support. Much as the conservative and religious wave that the AKP rode to victory was a logical response to Turkey’s history of military coups and enforced secularism, a liberal backlash to AKP rule makes sense in a host of ways. The question, however, is whether this liberal wave will be enough to overcome Turkey’s religious and conservative majority. As I wrote with Steven Cook last week, the notion of Muslim-ness is well-entrenched in Turkey and the AKP is the only party poised to capture the gains from this dynamic. While a liberal opposition can tap into discontent on other fronts, I find it difficult to imagine a liberal party easily grappling with the majority of Turks who strongly feel this Muslim identity. While secularism and liberalism do not always go hand in hand – and in fact, they traditionally have not in Turkey – let’s not forget that the CHP in its current incarnation has attempted to meld these two together and has failed miserably.
Let’s set this aside for the moment and assume that a liberal party can manage to appeal to strongly self-identified Turkish Muslims. There is the larger problem of turning this liberal undercurrent that has mobilized for protests into concrete political action. Cagaptay’s conclusion is instructive here:
The liberals do not yet have a charismatic leader or a party to bring them to power, as Mr. Erdogan and the S.P. eventually did for Islamists in the 1990s. The country’s opposition, the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., is a mix of secularists and die-hard leftists. It needs to undergo a metamorphosis to become a real force. And although the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party, or H.D.P., has promoted a decidedly liberal message and increased its share of the national vote from 5 to almost 10 percent, it’s still a small party and having violent Kurdish nationalists among its ranks won’t help win broader support.
Turkey’s future liberal movement will have to bring together liberal Kurdish nationalists and liberal secular Turks. Its leader is yet to emerge. But the energy and ideology are there, and he or she will one day step forward to transform Turkish politics the same way Mr. Erdogan revolutionized the country after surfacing from the youth branch of his party.
He will go down in history as the leader who transformed Turkey economically, but the liberals will transform it politically.
There is an enormous gap right now between energy and action. I see it with my Turkish friends, who are primarily young, secular, liberal, and outraged at Erdoğan and the AKP, but do not know how to translate that into political power, or even political change. Some vote for the HDP despite not being Kurdish because they view that as the only appropriate way of expressing their electoral liberalism, but a plurality of Turks are never going to vote for a Kurdish party with a history of too-close ties with the PKK. Most simply express apathy with the entire system. Translating energy into action is the phase where protest movements and nascent political groundswells die. Look at Egypt, where millions of Egyptians went into the streets to oust Hosni Mubarak – and where a vast majority of protestors were not affiliated with or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – and yet could not translate that into political organizing or electoral victory. Think about the dearth of new parties right here in the U.S., where granted the barriers to electoral victory for a new party are enormous due to the first-past-the-post voting system, yet massive discontent with both parties has not turned into a serious third party organizing effort. It is one thing to be outraged, another to spend all of your time recruiting candidates, writing party platforms, organizing voter drives, raising campaign money, building support, amassing a party organization of professionals and volunteers, and on and on.
I think Cagaptay is correct to highlight liberalism as a significant trend, but it’s far too early to assume that this means a liberal future for Turkey. New parties have enormous barriers to entry (not to mention the 10% vote threshold in the Turkish parliament), and the CHP is so feckless that despite being Turkey’s founding party, it has not been the leading vote getter in a parliamentary election since 1977. Many in the party believe that Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu’s attempt to infuse liberalism into the CHP has been an electoral disaster, and the electoral results do not contradict this view. How a vehicle for the significant subset of liberal Turks functionally emerges I’m not sure, but Cagaptay is a bit too sanguine about its inevitability. He is right that the mood is there, but unfortunately when it comes to politics, the right mood is never enough.
August 9, 2014 § 4 Comments
This post is a co-production with my friend and colleague Steven Cook, and is cross-posted on his blog From the Potomac to the Euphrates.
When Turks go to the polls on August 10 to directly elect their president for the first time in the Turkish Republic’s history, the potential leading vote getter will be a man of impeccable religious credentials. This candidate has a graduate degree from al-Azhar University and previously served as the secretary-general of the Jeddah-based Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC). Before being appointed to this position that he held for eight years, he was the founding director-general of the OIC-affiliated Research Center for Islamic History, Art, and Culture. While in Saudi Arabia, he proved himself both an adept and savvy leader of the multinational organization in his charge as well as a faithful servant of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its worldview. He has decried the loss of spirituality in Islam and is himself the son of a well-known Islamic scholar. Yet this candidate is not Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; it is Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, who is carrying the banner as the joint candidate of the secular Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the rightwing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
For all of its militant secularism and decades of dominating Turkish politics, the secular old guard has lost the battle with the political forces that represent piety and religious conservatism, a fact that they implicitly acknowledge with Ihsanoglu—their white flag of surrender. Despite his formal training as a chemist, Ihsanoglu has devoted a considerable portion of his career to religious study and outreach. Of Ihsanoglu’s 25 books, nine are devoted to Islamic thought and culture. That Turks are being offered a choice between two religious candidates should be the final death knell for the meme that Turkey is a state being pulled apart by a battle between Islam and secularism. The truth is that religion won out a long time ago, and the fundamental divides in Turkish politics and society are organized around different fault lines.
Today in Turkey there is an unmistakable sense of “Muslim-ness.” Conventional accounts of Turkish politics since the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) rise to power often use “Islamist” and “Islamism” to describe the party, but these terms have become one-dimensional and suggest parallels to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood without capturing the true nature of Turkey’s ruling party. The Justice and Development Party’s Muslim-ness is less targeted and more diffuse than Islamism, and while it certainly belongs within a broad classification of Islamist groups in the Muslim world, its underlying philosophical concerns and agenda are quite different from those organizations. This is a function of the Turkish experience, in which Muslim-ness involves a style of politics and a social setting in which piety flows through society. Limits on alcohol consumption or women donning the hicab reflect this religious sensibility, but Muslim-ness is broader. Toward this end, Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party have made exploration and expression of one’s Muslim identity not only safe and acceptable, but indeed valorized. Erdogan himself personifies the new Turkish man whose singular quality is being both proudly pious and Turkish. And the new Turkish woman, best represented by the wares of upscale fashion houses like Zühre or its down-market cousin, Armine, is quiet, confident, gorgeous, and covered. What is striking about these developments is how unremarkable they are in a political setting where not long ago, the hicab and public expressions of religiosity were indicators of reactionary backwardness.
Of course, drawing conclusions about the direction of society on the extent to which Turkish women are covering their hair in public is bound to be fraught with misunderstanding as well as bad social science, but taken with a range of other developments, the hicab is an important sociological and anthropological factor in the story of Turkey’s religious evolution, which is not as dramatic as one might assume. Observers of Turkish politics and society have long assumed that because Turkey was an officially “secular” republic, the Turkish people had unquestionably accepted the secularizing reforms of the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal . This was likely a function of the fact that scholars of an earlier generation and policymakers wanted to see in Turkey what they wanted to see, rather than a complex society that is extending well beyond the municipal boundaries of either cosmopolitan Istanbul or Turkey’s dreary republican capital, Ankara. It was also the result of dominant non-religious—or even irreligious—elites who were the primary interlocutors with the outside world. This group fervently believes in Kemalism, and when it ruled during the first eight decades of the Turkish Republic’s existence, its members enforced secular politics and secular social mores through a variety of non-democratic political, economic, and cultural mechanisms.
As a result of this ingrained secular commitment on the part the Kemalist elite, Ihsanoğlu’s nomination was not without controversy. When leaders of the Republican People’s Party and Nationalist Movement Party announced their surprise challenger to Erdoğan, prominent commentators immediately declared it a cynical gambit intended to siphon religious voters from the AKP that was bound to fail. That seemed like a fair interpretation. Why else would the CHP choose someone like Ihsanoğlu, who violates core secularist principles and who neither looks nor sounds like traditional CHP standard bearers? Predictably, the nomination caused a firestorm within the CHP especially, whose more militant factions reacted with anger and vows not to vote for Ihsanoglu, dooming him from the start. What was shaping up to be a debacle would not be the CHP’s first misstep of the Erdogan era. There was a 2010 sex tape that felled the party’s longtime leader Deniz Baykal and more recently there was the party’s open support for Bashar al Assad in his blood soaked campaign to save his regime.
Baykal’s peccadilloes and the party’s strange position on Syria are a symptom of CHP fecklessness rather than its cause. Over the last decade the party has struggled to expand its constituency beyond its traditional bastions of support in Izmir, Aydin and other cities along Turkey’s western rim. It is the CHP’s electoral weakness that has made it what seems like the perpetual also-ran of Turkish politics, which is why its leaders and those of MHP turned to Ihsanoglu. Ihsanoglu must have seemed like a low risk-high reward gamble. Since neither the CHP nor the MHP had a chance of winning the election and toppling Erdoğan no matter who they nominated, why not join forces in an effort to expand their narrow constituencies and cut into the AKP’s base by running someone with strong religious credentials? As the thinking goes, if the Ihsanoglu experiment fails, then CHP and MHP will have lost no ground since it will be just the latest failure in a string of them dating back to the rise of the Justice and Development Party in 2002.
Yet the idea that CHP and MHP can dabble in religion for purely instrumental electoral reasons misinterprets where Turkey stands in 2014 on religious issues. The West’s romantic notion of Turkey as a secular country is a myth. According to the 2012 Pew survey of Muslims worldwide, 97% of Turks believe in God, 67% of Turks say that religion is very important in their lives, 44% of Turks attend mosque at least once a week and 42% pray multiple times a day. Religion is ingrained in a way that elides a meaningful religious-secular distinction. This phenomenon is the natural result when the AKP lifted the drab conformity of Kemalism, allowing Turks to express their Muslim identities in new ways without fear of punishment or discrimination. Even among the ardently secular, religion is an important means of cultural and political expression. A young secular Turkish woman recently declared that among her many problems with Erdogan was that he “did not believe in God.” When challenged, she declared that nobody who believes in the God in whom she believes could ever act the way the prime minister does. Religion is baked into the Turkish cultural pie, which is why it was actually a crucial ingredient for Atatürk, who coopted Islam in his effort to forge the Turkish Republic in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Justice and Development Party has merely buttressed and extended these social and cultural dispositions with the Islamization of Turkey’s institutions—rules, laws, decrees—that has been underway throughout the AKP era. This is a process in which Islamic legal codes, norms, and principles are either incorporated into existing laws, or supplant them. By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, the Justice and Development Party has created an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized. It is not just restricting sales of alcohol or lifting the ban on headscarves at publicly funded universities, but also less obvious but more lasting measures like laws allowing graduates of preachers schools to enter the bureaucracy or alterations to the way judges are selected an promoted that will further embed Muslim-ness as a defining feature of Turkish society. In this way, society will transform state institutions rather than the other way around.
This is why Ihsanoğlu’s candidacy does not actually represent a radical departure. It is a logical progression of trends that have been in place for years, and is a harbinger of things to come rather than an outlier. The AKP’s success has been built on many factors besides for an appeal to religion, including nationalism, economic growth, and regional political power. Even if a majority of AKP voters—in the last parliamentary elections AKP voters represented a majority of the country—do not vote for AKP primarily because of its religious appeal, they are nevertheless made comfortable by the religious sensibility that the party conveys. The CHP and MHP have finally bowed to the demands of the electorate and through Ihsanoğlu have communicated that they understand this message. The dividing lines in the presidential race have nothing to do with religion, but rather revolve around the role of the state, Turkey’s place in the West, its treatment of minorities, and economic inequalities. Those looking for staunch defenders and guardians of a secular tradition that never really existed to begin with are fated to be eternally disappointed.