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.
July 18, 2014 § 9 Comments
If Prime Minister Erdoğan is to be taken at his word, we can officially declare Israeli-Turkish rapprochement dead. Speaking this morning, Erdoğan announced that under no circumstances will Turkey’s relationship with Israel improve as long as he is in power – which after the presidential elections next month, will be for a long time – and that the West can protest all it likes to no avail. Erdoğan also accused Israel of committing genocide and of knowing best how to kill children, which was a repeat performance from yesterday when he alleged that Israel has been committing systematic genocide against Palestinians during every Ramadan since 1948. This comes after more delightful outbursts earlier this week, during which Erdoğan claimed that there have been no rockets fired into Israel since there have been no Israeli deaths and compared Israeli MK Ayelet Shaked to Hitler, among other things.
Never one to be left out of the action, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu accused Israel of crimes against humanity and revealed that he has never taken Israel Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman seriously (although to be fair, that last point bolsters the case for Davutoğlu’s good sense). Ankara’s mayor Melih Gökçek, fresh off the heels of tweeting out pro-Hitler sentiments, urged his government yesterday to shut down the Israeli embassy in Ankara, referring to it as “the despicable murderers’ consulate” and stating that “they are 100 times more murderous than Hitler.” Not to be outdone, Bülent Yıldırım, the odious head of the “humanitarian relief NGO” IHH – the same NGO that organized the Mavi Marmara flotilla – warned Jewish tourists (yes, he said Jewish rather than Israeli, and yes, that was deliberate on his part) not to show their faces in Turkey and threatened Turkish Jews that they would pay dearly for Israel’s actions in Gaza.
While Yıldırım may have come to the conclusion of collective Jewish guilt on his own, he also could have been influenced by Yeni Akit reporter Faruk Köse. Köse wrote an open letter in his newspaper on Tuesday to the chief rabbi of Turkey in which the phrase “Siyonist/Yahudi Terör Üssü” – which translates to Zionist/Jewish terror base and is his oh-so-clever term for Israel – appeared seven times while he demanded that the rabbi and his flock apologize for Gaza because Turkey’s Jews have lived among Turks for 500 years and gotten rich off them and now support the terrorist Israeli state. Or perhaps Yıldırım is a dedicated reader of Daily Sabah, the English language AKP propaganda organ where Melih Altınok argued yesterday that not only Turkish Jews but Jews everywhere need to, in his words, “make a historic gesture” and denounce Israel publicly. According to his logic, Israel’s actions are solely responsible for increasing anti-Semitism in the world, and “hence, nationalist Jews as well as the humanist and anti-war Jews have to calculate the situation” and do what is necessary in order to stem the inevitable backlash against them. Lovely, no?
What a surprise and shock it must have been then when last night, mobs that included MPs from the AKP attacked the Israeli embassy in Ankara and consulate in Istanbul, leading Israel to reduce its diplomatic staff in the country and to send the families of diplomatic staff home. The police in Ankara, who are never hesitant to break out the tear gas, truncheons, and water cannons against Turkish civilians protesting things like government corruption, were mysteriously somehow powerless this time as they stood on the sidelines and watched. Of course, there can’t possibly be a connection between the rhetoric of high government officials lambasting Israel as a genocidal terror state and mobs attacking Israel’s diplomatic missions and chanting for murder, right? This is clearly all a misunderstanding and emanates not from Erdoğan using ugly and hateful tactics to improve his political standing but completely and entirely from Israel’s actions. Now please excuse me while I go wash off the sarcasm dripping from my keyboard.
I understand why Turks are upset about the images and news reports coming out of Gaza. Just as Diaspora Jews feel a deep sense of kinship and brotherhood with their Jewish brethren in Israel, there is a genuine sense of pan-Muslim solidarity between Turks and Palestinians. While I believe that Israel tries in good faith to minimize civilian casualties, not only do mistakes happen but sometimes Israel makes intentional decisions – like every other country in the history of the world that has ever fought a war – that it knows will lead to civilian deaths. I get the anger and frustration, and I see it personally from Turkish friends on my Facebook feed and my Twitter stream, who are furious with Israel not because they are Jew-hating anti-Semites but because they deplore the mounting civilian death toll in Gaza, which they see as disproportionate and excessive. And it isn’t just the AKP; anger at Israel is widespread among all segments of the population, as evidenced by the multiple leftist Gaza solidarity rallies taking place in Turkey today and by joint CHP/MHP presidential candidate Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu bashing Israel’s actions in Gaza and the CHP generally trying to score points over the last few days by absurdly trying to paint the AKP as in bed with Israel and complicit with its actions. Israel isn’t exactly popular in Turkey, to make the understatement of the decade, and to expect Turkish politicians to hold their tongues completely or to support Israel’s actions in Gaza is unreasonably naive.
But there is a world of difference between criticizing Israel out of a deeply held difference of opinion versus comparing Israelis to Hitler, equating Israel with Nazi Germany, throwing around the term genocide, openly advocating violence against Israeli nationals and property, and threatening Jews over Israel’s behavior. It is completely beyond the pale, and anyone who cares a lick about liberal values should be denouncing it loud and clear without qualification. Erdoğan is appealing to the darkest forces imaginable in order to win a presidential election and bolster his laughably pathetic standing in the Arab world, and let’s not forget that he said straight out today that he will never normalize or even improve relations with Israel while he is in office. He has dropped the charade that this has anything to do with the Mavi Marmara or even a set of fulfillable demands that Israel is not meeting, so let’s all remember that the next time someone blames Israel for the impasse in the bilateral relationship. Erdoğan is anti-Israel because he does not like Israel, full stop. If Israel withdrew its forces from Gaza, stopped responding to Hamas rockets with missiles, ended the blockade, and awarded Khaled Meshaal the Israel Prize, Erdoğan and Davutoğlu would just find some other reason not to normalize relations. Yes, the situation in Gaza undoubtedly plays a big role in all of this – just look at Israeli-Turkish relations under the Erdoğan government between 2002 and 2008, which were cordial and cooperative – but it’s about more than that at this point. Erdoğan and the AKP have gone too far down the garden path of anti-Israel rhetoric at this point to ever turn back.
July 3, 2014 § 5 Comments
Michael Cohen published an article in Foreign Policy a couple of days ago in which he argues that the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship will be marked by “less cooperation, more disagreements, and greater tension.” The piece is headlined “The Democrats Are Finally Turning Away From Israel” with the inflammatory subhead “And it’s high time they did,” but this does not reflect Cohen’s core arguments, and I am 100% confident that he had nothing to do with the title in any way (having been published in FP on numerous occasions, I can say from personal experience that the editors choose the title on their own and the first time the writer even knows about it is when it goes live on the website). What Cohen argues is that the relationship is being strained and slowly pulled apart by bad personal relationships between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel actively trying to prevent a deal between the U.S. and Iran by working Congressional channels, differing strategic priorities in the region, and a widening gap between the two countries’ worldviews.
In Cohen’s analysis, all of these factors mean that support for Israel in the U.S. will wane as the U.S. government finds it increasingly difficult to justify or explain bad Israeli behavior – particularly on the Palestinian front – and that the U.S. will no longer rush to defend Israel from pressure coming from Europe. Furthermore, Cohen foresees the politics of Israel changing in the U.S. as support for Israeli behavior among American Jews wanes and as Israel identifies more and more with Republicans, making support for Israel less politically important for Democrats.
Cohen astutely identifies a number of points of tension between the U.S. and Israel, and he is not exaggerating things such as the distrust between the elected leaders or the frustration among administration officials over Israel’s handling of settlements and peace negotiations. Nevertheless, I do not entirely agree with the analysis, and I think there are some angles that Cohen either misreads or leaves out, particularly on the strategic front.
First, while Obama and Bibi have long been and likely always will be at odds, this duo only has two more years to go, and that means that the relationship can be reset in a heartbeat. The low point of the George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir pairing was followed by the apex brought about by Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin, so I am reluctant to predict any longterm trends based on the two men currently in office. If Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden end up winning the White House in 2016, their track records and both public and private comments indicate that the relationship with Israel will improve irrespective of what happens with settlements and the peace process, and that goes double for any Republican not named Rand Paul. That is not to say that U.S. frustration with Israeli settlement policy is a mirage or only resides in the minds of Obama White House officials, since it absolutely permeates a much deeper group of politicians and foreign policy bureaucrats who rightly worry about the consequences of Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Rather, it is a problem that must be considered in light of a larger strategic context (more on that below), which makes it important but not necessarily an ultimate driver of U.S. policy toward Israel.
Second, while it is absolutely true that support for Israeli policies among younger American Jews seems to be on the decline, the jury is out as to whether that support will increase as younger American Jews get older, and more saliently there is a question as to whether support for Israeli policies directly overlaps with support for Israel more generally. Furthermore, none of this may matter anyway if support for Israel among the general public remains strong, or if within the Democratic Party there is a gap between grassroots progressives and elite policymakers and opinion leaders. On the question of support among the general public, favorable views of Israel are at historical highs with a clear 55% majority of Democrats still holding favorable views, and historically Americans tend to sympathize with Israel versus the Palestinians at even higher than normal levels when Israelis are the victims of terrorism and violence, as was tragically the case this week. I am also not convinced from conversations with progressive politicians and thought leaders that they are on the verge of abandoning Israel wholesale, and there is a strong recognition among Democratic elites that Israel is not and should not be entirely defined by its settlement project, as deeply problematic as that project is.
Most importantly though, in his focus on divergent strategic goals, Cohen glosses over a newly strengthened recognition that Israel’s strategic value as an ally is going up. It’s clear that Israel and the U.S. differ on their respective threat perceptions of Iran, whether Iran should be contained, and whether Iran can be contained, but in seeking to contain the fallout coming from the rest of the region as it implodes, Israel is pretty much the only reliable ally left standing. Despite an American desire to pivot to Asia, the Middle East cannot be ignored just because the U.S. finds it thorny, as the recent crisis in Iraq demonstrates all too well. The U.S. is going to be involved to a greater extent than it desires, and as I heard from multiple Israeli foreign policy and security professionals and experts when I was there last month, the Israeli government is well aware that the country is an island of stability amid the chaos. Iraq is a mess, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, Egypt is teetering dangerously on the brink of becoming a failed state, Saudi Arabia is dealing with massive uncertainty amidst a succession crisis, Jordan has been in constant crisis management mode since 2011 and now has to worry about being overrun by ISIS, Turkey is dealing with all sorts of internal problems and has proven itself to be a notoriously unreliable and myopic ally with its disastrous flirtations with jihadi groups in Syria…the list goes on and on. Israelis are of the view that the U.S. almost needs them more than they need the U.S., and while this is overconfident hyperbole, it is based on a foundation of truth. U.S.-Israeli coordination is now more vital than ever, and this is a variable that is not going to change for the remainder of this decade given the Middle East’s unraveling. When I wrote two years ago that Israel was going to benefit from the Arab Spring as a result of its neighbors being too busy with their own domestic unrest to worry about making trouble for Israel, I didn’t anticipate the positive externality of Israel becoming an even more crucial American ally, but that dynamic has arrived.
I share Cohen’s concerns about Israeli policies, and anecdotally there seems to be softening support for Israel among younger Democrats. Ultimately, however, I think the political tension in the relationship is fleeting, and the genuine and widespread disappointment at Israeli settlement building is a long term problem that needs to be addressed but that for next few years will be outweighed by larger strategic concerns. Surveying the state of things, I am not nearly so confident as Cohen that the U.S.-Israel relationship is destined to be remade.