Dr Turhan Ozen *
Professor Tahir Abbas**
Turkey is one the largest Muslim countries in the world. It has a history of ambitious expansion that enabled it in the past to create one of the largest Muslim empires in history. Today, Turkey is ruled by an elite with an Islamist agenda but is challenged by the political realities on its borders. With one foot in the West and the other in the East, Ankara is still to achieve a sense of ideological belonging. Yet it has been able to identify with moderate Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, while it forges a working relationship with Israel. It endeavours to secure its borders while supporting some armed groups in Syria. It is a member of NATO but its membership of the EU is blocked. It has strategic links with USA and newly-established alliance with Moscow. Where is Ankara heading today?
Tuesday, 14th February 2017
Chairman: There is a parallel between Turkey and Pakistan where Pakistan was used as a frontier for the Taleban in Afghanistan and you can see the crisis that is facing Pakistan. Potentially I hope Turkey does not turn out in the turn way in that the borders are used to infiltrate into Syria. Both Turkey and Pakistan are very important nations in the Muslim world.
Turkey is one the largest Muslim countries in the world. It has a history of ambitious expansion that enabled it in the past to create one of the largest Muslim empires in history. Today, Turkey is ruled by an elite with an Islamist agenda but is challenged by the political realities on its borders. With one foot in the West and the other in the East, Ankara is still to achieve a sense of ideological belonging. Yet it has been able to identify with moderate Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, while it forges a working relationship with Israel. It endeavours to secure its borders while supporting some armed groups in Syria. It is a member of NATO but its membership of the EU is blocked. It has strategic links with the USA and newly-established alliance with Moscow. Where is Ankara heading today? That is the crucial question. We have two respected specialists in this particular area to address this issue.
Dr Turhan Ozen: I am afraid I did not prepare a speech. I would like to make a few remarks and then engage in a dialogue – if you have questions I will engage with you. I have in my hands Dr Tahir’s book and I believe we will be discussing the topics covered in this book.
I would like to make one remark. He says: “As cracks in the EU project deepen, as intolerance and bigotry arise in the West and as the destruction of Syria plays out before our eyes, Turkey will bounce back, perhaps.” I think this is the most important point. If you have a chance to read it you will find a lot of criticism of the current government despite all the improvements that it has made in the country. This is the point that the people in Turkey feel frustrated about. When anywhere else in the world people talk about Turkey they don’t put it into the context of what is going on in the wider world. When we expect Turkey to deliver on some principles Turkey finds the same does not apply.
There is criticism about how Turkey is handling its minorities, there is criticism about how Turkey is treating women. These problems exist everywhere in the world and Turkey accepts this. It has done a lot in the last four and a half decades.
It was very sincere in its approach to solving the Kurdish problem. It was very sincere when it was trying to engage with the Alawite community in Turkey and the current government started dialogues when it found a counterpart with whom it could engage. In the book the AKP government is portrayed as adopting an aggressively liberal approach. This does not do justice to what AKP has achieved in Turkey. To have the successes it achieved economically it had to allow businesses to flourish. It is true that the struggles were not as difficult to overcome as in the European Union perhaps but when this success in the economy was achieved the resources were shared with the public.
The amount of infrastructure that has been built in Turkey is many times more than in the whole history of the Turkish republic. The amount that is put into the health services is again one of the points where people explain their support for the current government.
When you look at the history of Turkey there is a chapter about the treatment of the Armenian minority. When you put issues like this isolated to one place only than that country, and the people of that country feel that they are being attacked. This is not an isolated case that happened in Turkey and also Turkey is perceived as the only country that has the inheritance of the Ottoman heritage.
This is not fair. The Ottoman Empire spanned over three continents and when it broke up a lot of countries emerged, including many in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. The problems that we see in attribution to this historical follow-up are not unique to Turkey. It is happening in all those countries. Nation building and trying to isolate people into a narrow identity is a problem that is faced in Greece as well. The treatment of the Turkish minority that is living in the north of Greece is no different from that which any minority is facing in Turkey.
I remember in my high school years a quarter of a million people were running away from a massacre in Bulgaria and they settled in Turkey. Very recently in Bosnia a very serious massacre happened. When you speak about a terrible memory of history like the Armenian sufferings you do not put this into the context of what is happening. You do not mention, for example, what happened in Bosnia, you do not mention what happened in Crete when Crete got its independence the people were all Greek but some of them converted to Islam. Now there is no trace of Islam in Crete.
When we say that the Armenians were treated badly in Turkey what about the Armenian country itself now. The capital city of Armenia was 90 percent Muslim. Now there is no Muslim living there. There were 14 mosques in the capital and they are all gone.
We have to put this into context. What happened to the Cassarians? Five six times in the book Professor Abbas says that there is not enough evidence to say that a genocide happened yet he is very assertive in saying that it was a genocide. Each time there is an explanation: it was a war environment, there was no evidence. I want to see the same assertion about a lack of evidence about a calculated massacre.
There is one point mentioned about the Armenians. This was used in the courts in the Hague but it was dismissed because it did not have credible backing. When I read that I thought why the reference to the Armenians? Not long before that Germany committed terrible atrocities in Africa. Professor Abbas should have said well what happened to the Namibians. They do not complain about this now.
This is one point that I want to make. In history there are lessons to be learned but this should not be turned into cornering people into submission into giving up their dignity, their identity, their standing in the world community. This is a problem from which none of us are sin free and we have to put all these cases on the table and take a lesson altogether and not turn this into realities that we seek vengeance for. What happened in the past should not be a reason for a further crime in the present time.
If we come back to present day Turkey when Professor Abbas is talking about the recent coup attempt he is not as assertive as he is with the Armenian case. He puts a lot of doubt on what happened. The movement that is accused of plotting this coup attempt is not the only movement (the only network) that has similar principles in spreading its ideology of the world to the world. It is actually a very small movement compared to the bigger, stronger religions or ideologies. For Turkey it was something to be proud of, to create something that was internationally so successful in setting up schools in deprived areas which were providing opportunities for people to get educated.
Let me put it this way. If you go to Istanbul what you will see is that it is a beautiful city but when you look at the infrastructure and how the houses are built without the proper enforcement of regulations of architecture you think it must be really corrupt, all the corners are cut etc. This was done for a long time because it was the only way to construct such a big city where a lot of dwellings were provided for the people. Now it is inevitable if you enforce the regulations of an earthquake zone in Istanbul you could not have accommodated so many people there. Now that people live there they are creating wealth. Turkey is now in a position to replace those dwellings.
Similarly in a lot of things countries that are developing cannot always apply the standards of the West when they are building and when they are developing education. They have to accelerate the process. This is the experience of the Hizmet movement that is mentioned by Professor Abbas. It expanded quickly and the bases were not very strong. Therefore when it came into a conflict with the government it did not know how to handle it. It appeared as if it was stronger than the state. It wasn’t able to see that it did not have support.
This movement has reached every person in Turkey. It has been to the houses of all the students or to their institutions. What happened? Why couldn’t they mobilise the people? It is because it did not have the support of the public. The reason for this is that it wanted to be the only institution that delivers this service to the public. It did not allow other similar groups to flourish and this created animosity among the public and when the government had a problem with this movement when it was tackled it was not supported by public so it failed.
It should not have grown so big without having the people to maintain such an infrastructure. It would have realised that it is not in a position to fight the state. It should have sacrificed some of the power that it had.
In 2008 for example there was a serious problem in the finance industry in the UK. The finance industry is well equipped with a lot of educated people. They realised that they do not have any support from the public because what they did was causing a problem to all the population. They did not fight the government when the government said that it was going to break up the banks. They did not say anything when the government said we are going to put some regulations to make sure that these kind of scams did not happen again. Instead the banks negotiated and when they negotiated they got their way.
What I would have liked to see was for the Gulan Movement to realise this as well and instead of fighting the state it should have accepted that the mandate is with the government. The government will do what the people want and if it is going to cost closing down some of the institutions or cutting some of the financial resources of this movement it should look somewhere else to grow. Instead they chose to fight and when they did not succeed they ended up plotting a coup.
At the moment there are purges and there is a lot of effort by the government to break this entity up. I am going to give you an example of how it feels for the Turkish people. A friend of mine was appointed to lead a women’s organisation and she wanted to understand how it runs. She wanted to understand how it runs as she was just parachuted in. She wanted it to run efficiently so she asked everybody who was working in the organisation to produce one side of an A4 paper explaining what they are doing and why they should keep doing it so they can organise the institution better. She put a deadline of week.
Everyone delivered but one person did not. She asked her to come in. She realised that this person was used to the old way of running the institution. She thought that she could get away with not producing it. She told her she was dismissed. “You will no longer work”, she said. And the women started to say I have children I have to feed. My friend said she did not change her mind. She had one week and she did not make the effort and she sacked her. But when she left the room she closed the door and cried.
This is exactly how Turkish people feel about what is happening now. It was a good idea. It was implemented in a shallow way, the content was not there, the idea was there, the schools are beautiful but the education was not to the quality that was promised and when you have two thousand people injured, 250 people killed and when they say that the person who killed and the person who died both go to heaven you cannot reason with this and you have to start afresh.
This is exactly what Turkey is experiencing now. There are a lot of other religious organisations that feel this might affect them as well but hopefully they will not make the same mistakes in an environment where all of them are able to flourish. They will find some people who have philosophies. In religions we have different sects. It is because they cater to different characters. Everybody is created with a different nature and similarly different ways of following up the religion are also going to find followers.
One of the problems of the current days is that we are unfortunately lacking morals. In the UK it started as a financial centre. When the US flourished I find that the influence of Qakers – people who were preaching some moral codes were really important. At the moment, unfortunately, everything is driven by greed. This is what has caused the 2008 crisis and unless we put morals and looking after each other as a more important priority we will not be able to solve these problems so for this reason there is space for religious communities to enforce moral codes in society but it should not be at the expense of fighting with the state and the mandate that was given by the people to run the country.
There are a lot of topics that we can discuss. Let me stop here and give a change to Professor Abbas to respond to my criticisms.
Chairman: I think your concluding remarks of morals and ethics are crucial for any debate whether it is in Turkey or in Britain. When the dimension of morals and ethics is reduced then we have a chaotic situation in the financial services sector or running a nation state as maybe the case with Turkey. Thank you very much for highlighting the positive aspects of what is happening in Turkey. Perhaps it was worthwhile to have a perspective from your angle on that.
Profesor Tahir Abbas: Chair, fellow panellist, guests in the audience. Thank you very much for your time and for the opportunity to be here. We are here to talk about a subject I have some knowledge of although I can never profess to know everything. One can never know enough about anything at all. I had the privilege to work and live in Istanbul for nearly six years. I taught at what was a Gulanist university although I did not know it at the time.
You may realise that since the coup and leading up to the coup many Gulanist institutions were purged. Schools, dekshanas (tutorial colleges) universities. Many individuals and institutions have suffered as a result of the actions by the state around the events of the failed coup on the night of 15th July. Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered: academics, teachers, crèche workers, gardeners, drivers people who are so far removed from the idea of a coup that it would be crazy to try and link them. But this is the situation in Turkey.
Where is Turkey heading under President Erdoğan’s style of governance. Where is it going to go given all the challenges that it is facing in the wider space of the Middle East? What are the internal challenges that Turkey is facing?
You may have realised that in the last few days or so there has been quite a concern around the situation of the Turkish lira which has been falling relative to the dollar for a very long period. For as long as I can remember living and working in Istanbul the dollar was rising rapidly relative to the lira. This is obviously a huge problem for a massive current account deficit that is propped up by a credit boom. If some of these fundamentals weaken there could be quite a significant collapse in the Turkish economy.
Having said all that, there are still some fundamental bases of strength that keep it afloat despite the fact that Greece is basically on the border line of the Euro zone and defaulting on its loan. On one side Syria is on fire and has been for the greater part of the last five or six years since the Arab spring.
In many ways the fortunes of Turkey in the 21st century reflect these wider geo political developments. In 2001 there was a banking crisis and an IMF loan was needed in order to pull the country up from the brink. Under the leadership of the AKP, with all the political notions of secularism still in tact as part of the policy framework of the party at the time, it brought the people together it solidified the nation and it led to a period of tremendous growth. For a decade the GDP averaged 5 percent, which is unprecedented given what was happening in the euro zone, the global financial collapse as a result of the sub prime mortgage pyramid that collapsed and also the fact that we have this Arab Spring on the other side.
When I lived in Istanbul, Istanbul was the European capital of culture. Cranes everywhere. Hotels with an extremely high standard. A flourishing tourist industry. A great sense of cohesion and confidence within the nation too. Turkey was looking and feeling strong looking east and west and there was nothing that could stop what was described as ‘the miracle’ – the miracle that brought together Islam, capitalism and democracy. Something for the Sunni Arab world, something for the rest of the Muslim world and something for Europe when it comes to think about its own Muslim minorities of which there are 30 million in predominately old Europe.
But then it all went wrong in the space of five years. What could go wrong we ask ourselves when you have all the fundamentals: a motivated population, a young population that is technically skilled, technically savi and IT literate. Turkey is one of the biggest twitters per head of population, despite the twitter bans which have been out manoeuvred by dedicated individuals who find a way of getting online.
Turkey is not in a very good position at the moment. There are tremendous issues. In the past 18 months or so there have been 30 terrorist attacks. We hear about the major ones in Ankara and Istanbul – the places where Western tourists and travellers get killed. But we do not hear about the others which involve the deaths of Turkish citizens.
We have also seen this coup with approximately 300 people dead. It is the bloodiest coup in Turkish history. If it was not for President Erdoğan’s air time broadcast at 3am in the morning encouraging people to get onto the streets and face off the putschists there would have been a very different outcome that night. I hear stories from colleagues who were there on that fatal evening and the emotions are still very much raw. Given the ongoing implications in relation to the purging 400 academics were let go a few days ago.
There was the introduction of legislation to generate an executive presidency a bit like Putin. New questions and new struggles are being created in Turkey among its diverse populations among which 50 percent are under the age of 25, of which one in three are under the age of 15. Like other parts of the Muslim world Turkey is a young country.
So what has led to this malaise to go from the European capital of culture, the economic miracle to what is now seen as a failing. I am reminded of the term which was used before – ‘the sick man of Europe’ by European colonialists in the earlier part of the 20th century. It is not sick and it is not necessarily part of Europe. But it has a few problems.
So what has gone wrong? Why did it go badly? Well democracy is always an evolving concept but especially so in Turkey. What was a system of Kemalism that came after the secular republican period also turned into a system of authoritarianism. And what we are seeing today in short is authoritarianism reinvented under the guise of a soft Islamist paradigm pumped up by a strong performance economically by a strong sub set of the economy. It could be argued that we have some sort of oligarchic Islamist model.
But in the process of the few getting rich, getting educated, getting a cosmopolitan elite profile there has been a body of people who have not succeeded in the same way. Yet at the same time it was the Anatolian tigers in the small towns and cities of Turkey who became small businesses who began to manufacture and trade and export that led to this growth of the economic profile of Turkey.
But they also now feel left out because the big contracts in terms of construction in the big cities, the big engineering units are managed by a small section of people that are intimately connected to the top of the political party. This makes it a plutocracy which is the idea that the rich become the rulers.
There have also been issues of ethnic conflict which at times has seen the light of positive development only to have it enter back into the darkness very quickly. I talk about the Alawi opening and the Kurdish opening which occurred at the behest of President Erdogan who led this in spite of resistance from parts of his party, parts of society and other segments of society.
This has disappeared off the map. There is no chance of peace on the horizon. We are back to ethnic sectarian conflict in the way that we have seen in Turkey in the past. But in the past it was quite severe. In the 19080s people would shoot each other because one was leftist and one was Kemalist, anti capitalist. Political tensions were very much alive and on the streets. It was a very problematic time. We have seen four coups: 60, 70, 80 and one in 1997 known as the soft coup and this neo coup which was the bloodiest of all.
So Turkish Kurdish relations have been problematised again. There is effectively a civil war. These Turkish-Kurdish relations also affect how Turkey acts in Syria with regard to the YPG because it realises that the YPG have close associations with the PKK in regard to the Kurdish nationalist endeavour. But having said that it is they who have been making the greatest gains against Daesh until recently.
So this is a bit of apolitical football for Erdogan who has taken a very hard stance against anybody, anyone or any institutions who disagree with him. This is incredibly unhealthy for any democracy especially in the light of the fact that we have seen good times in Turkey and now we are seeing very much the bad times. This silencing of the opposition means that 95 percent of them media outlets are in the hands of government affiliated individuals. Newspapers and television channels have all been seized by that state in the light of events leading up to the coup.
The coup did not start all this. Relations between the Gulan Movement and the AKP were fracturing over a much longer period. But they created each other. They defined each other over a period of ten years. They grew stronger as a result of each other and benefitted from each other’s co-operation but a civil society organisation began to aspire to political ambitions and the political party in power wanted greater reach among its more traditional followers which came through the Hizmat movement.
So it became a clash over not just the future direction of Turkish Islam but the future power base of the country. These issues are still unresolved. We still do not really know what happened on the night of the coup. We have many theories and lots of conjecture but there is no evidence to support any of it.
At the Royal United Services Institute we have had various Turkish parliamentarians come and speak to us that emphasise Hezbat Gulan all the way but where is the evidence we ask? It is not up to us to decide but any third party individuals who want to know what is going on would say let us look at the balance of arguments, let us look at evidence and let us try and find out who is right or wrong so that we can take a fair and just set of actions forward.
None of this is forthcoming. Yet there are claims made for the extradition of Fethullah Gülen which the Trump administration is looking at with different eyes given the nature of the Turkish administration.
So what now? We have vast urbanisation, we have a fantastic infrastructure: great hospitals, some of the best cancer treatment facilities, roads, a transport mechanism that Turkey did not have ten – fifteen years ago. It would take three of four hours to get from one part of Istanbul to another. Istanbul is now 100 kms wide and still growing with unofficially 20 million people in the city. I saw the population rise from 15 to 20 million people and you feel it when you try and go about the city on the public transport systems. Mass urbanisation. More and more and more people are living in cities than not in recent history.
Yet these urban issues created worries in the context of gentrification. You see parts of historic Istanbul where the indigenous minority communities, the Roma, have been removed and replaced with Sunni capitalists who have the advantage of being able to have political and economic power. And this distorts the nature of the fabric of the city. There are parts of Istanbul which have a tremendous history.
In terms of its diversity there are only 100,000 or so minorities left and I mean by that religious minorities such as Jews and Christians. And yet under the Ottomans there were considerably more in the Ottoman territories.
A lot has let to this outcome, including notions of Turkish nationalism, notions of what it means to be Turkish. Many of the Jewish groups left because of the formation of Israel which gave them a source of encouragement. With the Greek population exchange during WW2 it encouraged the movement away of other Christian groups from parts of Istanbul and other bigger cities.
So we have a 99.9% nominally Muslim country which is literally divided half way down the middle: 50 percent are pro AKP whatever the AKP says and does is the gospel. It is divine. It is the truth and everybody else is a mixed bag of leftists, rightists, conservatives and traditionalists but all with the genuine feeling of disillusionment at the hands of the AKP.
The AKP continues to maintain its power. It continues to introduce legislation for example on disbanding the HDP. The only person to have been able to make Erdogan worry about his political situation is Demirtaş the leader of the HDP who at one point had 80 seats but after the second election it was reduced to 60 because Kurdish voters switched back to the AKP once they were given the view that Kurdish identities are equated with terrorism.
So to summarise. We have a lot of ongoing concerns in Turkey. Turkey is still nevertheless the bridge of civilisations, it is still the centre of the world, it is where east meets west, it is where every single major power has travelled through. I have had the opportunity to travel through a fantastic geography: there is everything there from Roman ruins to Hittite caves to Armenian churches that are 1,000 years old and still virtually intact in the mountains of the northern areas by the Caspian. The Arab influences are still to be seen in the south. It is a tremendous country. Istanbul is not Turkey and Turkey is not Istanbul. We know this.
But going forward. There are still some challenges. We have the problems with Daesh (Islamic State) and the Reina night club attack which was vicious, targeting VIPs and high value Turks knowing that the media outcry and coverage it would get.
With the purges, with the hundreds of thousands of people who have been sacked from the intelligence from the police from the security services. People picking up the phone here do not have the equivalent in Ankara to try and figure out where do we go with security, where do we go with trying to improve our security apparatus in the fight against Daesh etc
So there are major gaps, major fissures, major concerns and when I talk to my friends and colleagues who are still in Istanbul there is a sense that the future is dark and worrying with no clear sense of how things will pan out. I do believe that things will work out. I am always very mindful of the strength of Turkish national identity and I know that Turkish society has seen dark times but it has come through every time so let us live in hope. Thank you for your time and your thoughts and I look forward to your comments.
* Dr Turhan Ozen was born in Turkey. After obtaining a BSc in Engineering from the Middle East Technical University, he studied at Imperial Collage for an MSc and at the University of Leicester for his PhD. Before moving into private sector, he worked at Nottingham University as a research fellow. Dr Ozen currently works as a software engineer at a finance company. He is also active in politics. He was a Liberal Democrat European Parliamentary Candidate for London in 2014 and a Parliamentary Candidate for Tottenham in 2015. In January 2016, Dr Ozen was elected to chair the UK Branch of the Union of European Turkish Democrats (UETD) an organisation that promotes active participation of the Turkish Community in politics.
Profesor Tahir Abbas is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London (2016-). He specialises in urban ethnicity and minority-majority relations. Having just completed his book on ethnicity, Islam, and politics in Turkey, he is writing on areas of Islam, Islamism, Islamophobia, radicalisation, identity politics and social conflict in Western European contexts. Previously, he was Professor of Sociology at Fatih University in Istanbul (2010-2016), Reader in Sociology at Birmingham University (2003-2009), and Senior Research Officer at the Home Office and Ministry of Justice in London (2001-2003). He has held visiting professorships or fellowships at the Remarque Institute of New York University, the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, the Institute for Religious Studies at Leiden University, the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue at the International Islamic University in Islamabad, and the Graduate School of the State Islamic University in Jakarta.
Abbas is the author of The Education of British South Asians (Palgrave-Macmillan), Islamic Radicalism and Multicultural Politics (Routledge) and Contemporary Turkey in Conflict(Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming). He has published numerous (co)edited collections with Zed, Edinburgh University Press, IB Tauris, Routledge and Hurst. He has also published in many sociological, educational and , Islamic studies, geography and political science journals. Abbas has written for The Guardian, The Times Higher Education, NZZ, Prospect, Open Democracy, Prospect, New Internationalist and Fair Observer among others.