Anyone who follows Turkish politics and society long enough will realize that there are four basic categories of people in this country: conservatives, Kemalists, Turkish nationalists and Kurdish nationalists. Or, the standard voters of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Republican People’s Party (CHP), Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), respectively.
Until about a decade ago, the dominant group among these four was the Kemalists -- the self-proclaimed followers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founder. They had a very strict understanding of secularism, which aimed to erase all traditional religion from the public square.
However, with the unstoppable rise of the AKP, Tayyip Erdoğan’s party, and all the social forces aligned with it, there has been a silent and slow-motion revolution: The Kemalists have gradually lost all their “citadels” (in their own words), such as the military and judiciary. Meanwhile the conservatives, who have always had more voting power, have acquired full political power. The state, it could even be said, passed from one camp to another.
But was this bad news for Turkey? Did the country move away from its “secular” (i.e., liberal, democratic, progressive) foundations, and head toward an “Islamist” (i.e., dark, ugly and scary) future?
That was certainly the way some saw it. But I disagreed, and have devoted a lot of time and effort in this column to arguing that:
1) “Secularism” is overrated. Yes, it is a good idea when it implies a separation of religion and state, as in the United States. But merely being “secular” does not make a political actor democratic, liberal or open-minded. In fact, most dictators and fascists in our part of the world are secular.
2) “Islamism” might not always be the bogeyman that it is believed to be. Especially in Turkey, where “Islamists” have evolved into “conservatives,” they have at times proven relatively more liberal than the secularists. The AKP decade is full of many examples of that.
Now, the reason why I am telling you all this is not just to offer some basic Turkey 101-type information. It is also to put my response to a criticism I recently received from Burak Bekdil, my column neighbor and “sparring partner,” in perspective.
In his piece titled, “Nutty professors -- here and there,” Mr. Bekdil basically argued that there are “nutty” (illiberal, paranoid, bigoted) figures among both secularists and conservatives, but it is the latter that matters now, because they are in power. He also implied that I was overlooking that bitter fact.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bekdil’s alleged evidence supporting this argument was factually wrong – the AKP government does not have a problem with the term “ecumenical” in the name of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as Erdoğan said openly two years ago. But his main point, that there are “nutty” figures in all of Turkey’s camps, including the conservatives, was certainly right.
However, my intention has never been to score points in a competition to determine “which Turks are the nuttiest?” What I try to do in this column at times, rather, is to trace the ideological roots of Turkey’s political problems. And I find quite a few of these roots within Kemalism, which imposed a monist straitjacket on Ottoman plurality – an obsession with “unity” that even some of the so-called “neo-Ottoman” conservatives still share.
If you would like to see a current example, please just look at how the Supreme Court of Appeals rejected the recent Alevi
demand for non-Sunni houses of worship, which I fully support: They did it by referring not to the Quran, nor the Sunna, but to the “Revolutionary Laws” of Atatürk.