Turkey has always been riddled, somewhat swimming between the shores of two identities but unable to truly dissolve into either. Rendered too historically tied to the East to be part of the West, a remnant of the Muslim caliphate and its empire as it is. Simultaneously, far too accepting of western culture, too close geographically, even, to the cities of Christianity to be anything more than semi-religious. In recent history, Turkey’s government has been moving like a pendulum, from one side to the other but always falling back down again, never quite strong enough to beat the effect of gravity.
Perhaps, this can be linked to its continued extremism, in its passionate legislation that worked first to reject the religion of the masses and, more recently, to enforce it. After WW1, when the Ottoman Empire was broken up, her various parts distributed to neighboring states and enemies, Kemal Ataturk came into power. He and his Young Turks set up a sectarian state in 1923, letting go of the conservative ideas of the past and instating, instead, a new philosophy of liberalism. However, this reeked of Westernism, the desire to let go of memories from the past and to embrace instead a new image, a foreign image. One that had no sign of its own culture or religion. Not only did they abolish the one-state religion, they made it hard to follow, they called themselves sectarian, modern, and homogenous. In truth, they were anything but liberal in the way that women did not have the option to wear hijabs. Those that did were prostitutes.
This can be understood. Turkey had become the ‘sick man of Europe’, the dying image of an old king, the bed-chamber of one that had ruled for years but was now being put to sleep, just as Europe was awakening all around him. It seemed then to the Young Turks, and understandably so, that to succeed they must be like the succeeding masses and so they wore the cloak of liberality and acceptance while breeding in Turkey a fear, an identity crisis, which permeates into the present as the love-child of Memory’s glory and the desire to relive it. This was a fault; it was against the wishes of the masses, and, so, it alienated them and made them thirstier for the expression of their beliefs.
Perhaps, this is what led to the extremism of the 2000s in a new direction, taking the shape of the conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Erdogan that fights for an end to secular Turkey. Instead, it works to create an ‘Islamic state’. To not only legalize the hijab but to beat women on the streets for wearing ‘inappropriate’ clothing or for not being Muslim enough. It seems that the Turks have no comprehension of the idea of neutrality, of compromise, or any notion of a middle ground. They simply sweep from secularism to the so-called Islamization, after being a Muslim Empire they turn to canceling Islam and from that, they turn to forcing people to be religious.
What the Young Turks did was lose Turkey’s identity as Eastern in an attempt to become what they were not. A simple liberalization would have sufficed but by banning what was dear to the majority, they bred discontent and an extremist desire. While the law changed, people were still inwardly conservative, just not allowed to illustrate that. As trams were rid of barriers between the genders, men and women still remained on opposite sides. Whether this was right is besides the point but what was made was an impractical and superficial attempt to make a place at the table of European society. Turkey was unable to make it to that table. Instead, the people of Turkey were seen as semi-faithful Muslims, unequal to even the Club of Islam and the East. Turkey in rejecting its own histories and memories became an outsider in both continents. AKP deputies recount being doubted as to having the knowledge of Islamic practices during Pilgrimage, being seen as less than, as contemptible.
That is why it is easy for us to see how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came to power and won support, he had only to awaken a deep-seated desire, give light to the want for expression. But when oppressed for too long, one often fights for more than what he deserves and the conservative Muslims of Turkey have sought to dominate the political and social sphere again both for themselves as well as their international image. However, this has done little in the way of profit and proves just how there is no concept of neutrality. It is always extremism and totalitarianism in Turkey, the way this is expressed depends on what side of the country has come into power.
The AKP is not only passionate but also violent and extremist. Moreover, it has the support of the majority of the country despite the fact that it endangers the minorities and the liberals. However, the laws it has brought have not been so pleasing in the international forum. Turkey has completely changed its course of action. It did not just create a safe place for Muslims but an unsafe space for all others. The government regularly issues controversial laws related to abortion, adultery, and even the arts. There is less tolerance for those that drink or make physical displays of affection in public. Erdogan imposes general bans on alcohol consumption and sale despite the fact that research proves the average Turk consumes no more than 1.5 liters of alcohol per capita which is below the average of the EU.
Furthermore, according to research from the Turkish Statistical Institute, 83.9 percent of Turks aged 15-24 have never once consumed alcohol. Instead, groups regularly chant religious slogans while attacking people that dress inappropriately, do not fast during Ramadan, or are found kissing in public. Erdogan states on one hand that “we don’t want our children drinking night and day wandering around tipsy, they are going to be alert, their heads full of knowledge” further going on to say it will affect their education. On the other hand, he submits, “if you are going to drink, then drink alcohol in your own house.” This illustrates his hypocrisy and superficiality, a perfect mimicry of those that precede him simply to change his country’s image and to make society at least outwardly ‘pious.’
Not only has the AKP been increasingly dominating the education sector since the coup in 2016, changing courses and excluding topics deemed unethical like those on Evolution in favour of topics like Jihad but it has even channeled investment towards the building of and conversion of former schools to Imam Hatip schools that are meant to give a religious education. These are met with support by a lot of the society that feels wronged by the years of secular society. However, this is at the expense of other groups like the minority Alevis that note how funds are invested on Muslims only and they feel oppressed.
Furthermore, it creates a conservative extremist outlook for the country and Erdogan went as far as to call Osama bin Laden of the Al-Qaeda “a national hero.” He often uses distorted religious references and appeals in his speeches. However, this is heavily damaging the image of Islam, making it look extremist and turning it into a political tool rather than a personal belief. In a time when all the world is so terrified by terrorist groups and the word “Jihad” he uses it often for example in calling for Jihad against the Kurds and calling his army, “Islam’s last army”. While Turkey’s former leaders would have blushed to act as such, Erdogan has created a fertile environment in, not only Turkey, but even in other Middle Eastern countries for terrorism. His government is authoritarian in nature, dismissing around 152 000 officials and academics that supported the coup. This coupled with the fact that there are around 25 million, and mostly illegal, weapons in the country increases its potential threat to itself in the form of a civil war and to the International community as an extremist state fighting in the name of religion.
However, the APK keeps winning elections. This works to illustrate just how futile the efforts of the Young Turks were to change the beliefs of the citizens. This foreshadows, at the same time, how futile Erdogan’s actions and efforts will be to convert his population. Still, he poses a looming threat to world peace and to the development of his own nation. As he increases the pressure to be more religious, people drift further from religion to show how impossible it is to impose an ideology on the masses, it seems he has failed to learn from the past and history does, indeed, repeat itself as Marx said: “first as a tragedy then as a farce”. Erdogan should soon learn that by distorting and politicizing religion he will lose the support of those that are already staunch Muslims, he will break his country with his inherited paranoia and authoritarianism.
The writer can be contacted at @Hiba95590692 on Twitter.
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