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Friday, November 15, 2002


Turkey’s Euro-Islamism

Alexander Kitroeff wrote the following upon returning from Istanbul on special assignment for

Anyone who thought that the inhabitants of Istanbul would be losing sleep on the eve of a Turkish general election in which the polls pointed to a clear Islamist victory would only be half-right. The city’s residents were actually staying up late to enjoy the city’s rich nightlife, rather than worrying about Islam or yet another round of political instability.

As dusk fell on the famous city, a human river of people poured out of central Taksim Square and made its way down Istiklal Caddesi, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Less than a century ago, this was the Grand Rue de Pera, the hub of old, cosmopolitan Constantinople. Trolleys were introduced in the late nineteenth century as a means to transport Europeans from their homes in Pera to their places of business in the Galata district. Now, the street is a mile-long pedestrian mall that functions as the main artery of the city’s nightlife, with side-streets full of bars, cafes, restaurants, and nightclubs.

When Refah Partisi (the Islamic Welfare Party) won the municipal election in 1995, they pledged to clean up the area and, for awhile, they eliminated the racier aspects of went on in its many lanes, big and small. The mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, even tried to do away with outdoor seating at the tens of restaurants in the area, claiming that the sight of people enjoying themselves eating would be offensive to the poorer residents of the city. This particular measure, however, went by the wayside even quicker than the clean-up efforts.

Islamism with a human face?
Erdogan has changed since then, which was probably an important reason for the calm with which Istanbul awaited his victory in the general election, beyond doubt according to the polls. Other Refah moderates joined with Erdogan to form the Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP, or Justice and Development Party), better known as the AK (White) Party, which they portrayed as modern, conservative, and secular. As its percentages skyrocketed in pre-election polls, Turkish and foreign pundits rushed to confirm its commitment to political and economic development, and its embrace of Europe. Indeed, the AKP distinguished itself as one of the few parties that talked about social problems caused by inflation and unemployment. Its appeal reached well beyond the Islamic faithful and included a sizeable percentage of the population concerned with issues of social justice; hence the presence of many women without traditional Islamic garb at its election rallies.

The polls got it right. The AKP eventually won with 34 percent of the vote. Its spokesmen were quick to reiterate the party’s commitment to Western-style democracy. The question now, however, is if one can have a pro-European Islamic party, or if we are headed for Turkish ungovernability?

Those who began their promenade down Istiklal by arriving at Taksim Square would have noticed a statue of the father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Indeed it is difficult not to notice Kemal in Istanbul, for he is everywhere. His face adorns the banknotes of every denomination of the Turkish lira, and his image and sayings are plastered on many public buildings. On one end of Istiklal, one can find the Ataturk Cultural Center, while, at its other end, is the Ataturk Bridge that spans the Golden Horn.

A gallery on Istiklal hosts an exhibition of old election posters. Its displays are a reminder of the Turkish political status quo that the AKP threatens. Exhibit A is a poster featuring Ataturk and Ismet Inonu, who served as the Republican People’s Party prime minister during Kemal’s presidency. There are no Islamic or, for that matter, communist party posters.

Ataturk saw Turkey’s modernization, most famously, as an emphatic turn away from religion and toward secularism, and the Turkish army’s pledge to uphold the Kemalist legacy in its role as moderator of the country’s political life is enshrined in the constitution. Will the generals accept the AKP’s self-proclaimed moderation, or will they intervene? Again, the pundits are optimistic, and a leading political scientist has spoken of the army not as an interventionist force but as an integral element of the political process, a kind of benevolent ombudsman that will get involved only in extreme situations.

  If this really happens, then we might witness, not an ungovernable Turkey, but an interesting cohabitation of Islamic politics and Western-style democracy. The 1970s and 1980s produced Eurocommunism when communist parties in Europe renounced the idea of a revolutionary transformation of society; instead, at best, they sought a peaceful transition to socialism while, at worst, talked about the need for a historic compromise with the old class enemy. Perhaps the twenty-first century will offer up Euro-Islamism, a historic compromise between Islamist politics and Western democratic norms.

Many are called, few are chosen
And while we wait, it is well worth remembering that the AKP beat its opponents fairly and with great ease. The only serious challenger to Erdogan’s party was the venerable Republican People’s Party founded by Ataturk in 1923. It was suppressed (along with the other parties at the time) by the 1980 military coup and has never recovered. Although pre-election polls showed it lagging well behind the AKP, leader Deniz Baykal could not quite bring himself to invoke issues of social justice, and his party ultimately finished second, far behind with 20 percent of the vote. No other party managed to cross the 10-percent threshold needed to enter parliament.

  As one walked down crowded Istiklal, a multitude of paper banners hanging from the grand old French Baroque-style and neoclassical buildings were a reminder of the multitude of parties competing in Turkey’s elections: 18 parties sought the people’s vote on November 3. “Political divisions in Turkey are the same as everywhere else,” explained Bosporus University professor Caglar Keyder to me, “but the difference is that none of the ideological divisions are contained within parties; they form into separate parties instead” – and this despite the extraordinarily high 10-percent minimum required for parliamentary representation.

Most of the hopeful smaller party’s political banners were red and white – clear evidence that many of them refused to listen to the “It’s the Turkish economy, stupid!” message coming from the electorate, and chose instead to play the time-worn card of Turkish nationalism. Among them was the brand-new Genc (Young) Party led by Turkey’s Silvio Berlusconi, media magnate Cem Uzan, who is being sued for $2.5 billion by telecommunications giants Motorola and Nokia. The Western companies filed a racketeering lawsuit against the Uzan family in a New York court in January, hoping to collect on debts owed to them by Uzan’s cellular-phone company, Telsim. The Genc Party won popularity with vows to kick out the IMF, give land to the poor, slash taxes, and quadruple the number of universities. Its rallies featured free meals and concerts by top pop stars. And, of course, the aforementioned lawsuits notwithstanding, Uzan vowed to eradicate corporate corruption.

Fluttering in the warm breeze were also the banners of none other than Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit’s Democratic Left Party, which had led the previous coalition government. It was the largest party until the summer, after most of its leaders and deputies abandoned ship when Ecevit refused to relinquish control although he had fallen seriously ill; he had also refused to do anything to fight rampant government corruption. The sick man of Turkey was left to contest the elections in splendid isolation, and his party’s exit from parliament was a foregone conclusion.

  Former foreign minister Ismail Cem, the co-architect with George Papandreou of Greek-Turkish rapprochement, was one of those who abandoned Ecevit and founded the New Turkey Party. Along with former prime minister Mesut Yilmaz’s Motherland, it stood for a pro-European Turkey. By contrast, nationalism was a big part of the agenda of former prime minister Tansu Ciller’s True Path Party and of the Nationalist Action Party.

While the European Union lies beyond Turkey’s reach for the time being, the outgoing government showed a spirit of liberalization and European-style openness in allowing a range of parties to compete. These included the Turkish Communist Party, several other Marxist-Leninist parties, and the Democratic People’s Party (DEHAP), which actually had a small chance of reaching the 10-percent barrier. DEHAP is a pro-Kurdish alliance of the People’s Democracy Party, the Toil Party, and the Socialist Democracy Party. In one Kurdish neighborhood in Istanbul, no party other than DEHAP even bothered to put up election banners.

With none of these parties receiving 10 percent of the vote, the AKP emerged as the clear winner. Now, all it has to do is deliver on its promise to combine a European and Islamic perspective. From the vantage-point of Istanbul, sliding back into traditional Islam is unthinkable. Combining both seems not impossible in a city that bridges Europe and Asia, and in which taxis that drive past mosques calling the faithful to prayer play Greek music on the car radio.

You are what you eat
A large part of the crowd that snaked down Istiklal was headed toward the many restaurants crammed around the city’s Balikli Pazar, the fish market. The rituals associated with eating in a Turkish taverna are salutary reminders that Istanbul, at least, is part of Europe. This is evident not only in the chic, Kolonaki-like Tesvikiye district, but even in the proximity of the fish market. The meal begins with a slice of melon served with feta, a combination well known to Greeks and an appetizer that echoes Italian cuisine’s prosciutto con melone.

Then comes a very large tray with many different kinds of meze. The waiter explains that, if so desired, a customer can review an even wider range of appetizers. One cannot help but recall De Gaulle’s famous remark that it was impossible to govern a country with over 300 types of cheese. Maybe we should not pass quick judgment on the AKP’s ability to govern a country with over 300 types of meze.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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