Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The "Soul" of Turkish Politics

Nationalism in Turkey is certainly a harsh downside of Ataturkism. Their great reformer and "Father of the Turks"--Ataturk--was a patriot before anything else. But in the process of forging a modern Turkey, he and his successors have lost the easygoing Ottoman tolerance of a multicultural empire. In fact, one of the five pillars of Ataturk's reform was Turkish "nationalism". This is not just a problem for Kurds and Armenians. The Alevis, an Islamic sect, also feel persecuted. It is dismayingly hard to open a Christian church anywhere, despite Anatolia’s long Christian heritage. And the beleaguered Greek community of Istanbul, the seat of the Orthodox Patriarch and of the (closed) Halki Greek Orthodox seminary, are under pressure as never before. The third pillar of Ataturk's reform is "secularism"--and it means something entirely different from the English usage. Instead of the state being completely separate from its religions, Turk's rely on statism (the fifth pillar of Ataturk) to fund equally, and give equal protection to, its various religious entities. So in fact the state is heavily involved in religion. Yet there is no religion of the state. This is familiar to a long-standing practice of the Seljuks and Ottomans since they ousted the Byzantines in the 11th century, when "enlightened despots" (as the Scottish philosophers used to say) like Suleiman the Magnificent and Sultan Ahmed reigned.

While protests and demonstrations over the soul of Turkish heads of state are not as wild in Istanbul as they were in April or May, the potential for a Turkish uprising, or even a military coup, is highly likely. The Turkish military announced that it would intervene, implying a coup, if the Abdullah Gul was elected president and successor to Ataturk. The military has a strange and eerie constitutional right to be the vanguard of Turkish politics, and to step in whenever the government cannot keep Ataturk's principles before them. This happened several times in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. But since the major parties of that era dissolved into the AKP party, this party has been largely entrusted to kept politics under their orderly rule. The banks, for example, are now independent of the government, which brought inflation down to 9% after being hyper-inflated 153% a few years back. After the currency crises, the New Turkish Lira was introduced.

My task is to uncover the inner-workings and perhaps seediness of Turkish politics, especially the banking sector. To understand the mechanics and informalities of modern Anatolia. As an immense cultural experience, I cannot simply see Turkey from a distance, or through four glasses of raki, like my American colleagues probably will. My goal is to experience Turkey as at once a pilgrim and a scholar. To infiltrate the political and Turkish culture to see how Turks see themselves in its fluctuating political atmosphere. This trip I'm about to embark on will enlighten me about this rich land and its legacy, and gather new ideas and perspectives from which to view the Occident. Since I will have limited internet access in Istanbul, Ankara and Antalya, I will post further blog entries when I return to Freiburg. My flight leaves from Zurich in a few hours. Ciao.

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