Clash of Communities: Turkey’s Dormant Domestic Cold War

Dr. H. Akın Ünver*


More importantly than ever, Turks need to realize that their compatriots who vote for the rival party are also Turks and not some extraterrestrial entity that popped up suddenly to ‘take over’ Turkey.

Turkey’s September 12, 2010 Constitutional Amendment referendum was perhaps one of the most socially polarizing episodes in its modern history. A slightly higher-profile voting than a general election, this referendum carved Turkey into two sharply divided trenches, a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the proposed amendment package to the Turkish Constitution.

Supporters of the Constitutional amendment package argued that the proposed changes would bring Turkish legal and political system closer to European standards through a number of rectifications regarding economic social rights, individual and judicial reform, and enabling the trial of the 1980 coup generals. The ‘no’ position on the other hand had focused extensively on the judicial reform part of the amendment package, arguing that the proposed reform would do nothing but render the Constitutional Court (the highest judicial organ) subservient to the demands of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), meaning the AKP’s effective control over the entire judiciary.

Although the amendment package was voted in favor by the 58% of the Turkish electorate on September 12 and that the ruling AKP has declared the result ‘a victory’, the vote and its aftermath has exposed Turkey’s long-dormant ‘domestic Cold War’. Turkey emerged from its deeply polarizing referendum even more entrenched in the words of the prominent Turkish columnist Hakkı Devrim: ‘like a freestone peach; which serves as an analogy of Turkish political nature in every incident’. However more interesting than the referendum were the public-political discourses and narratives adopted by both sides of the political continuum in order to increase support and snatch indecisive voters by creating an atmosphere of ‘life and death’. Turkey’s run-up to referendum was marked by Hitler moustaches, ‘asylum-grade’ conspiracy theories and well-known warnings from both sides that if people don’t vote their way, then ‘all will be lost for Turkey’. Such scenes are not unfamiliar in polarized electoral politics of course and unfortunately make up a considerable portion of electoral symbolism and discourse.

However, this time Turkey did not experience its usual ‘partisan polarization’, which identifies a strong separation in socio-politics along political party lines. This was something relatively new; a case of ‘popular polarization’, which defines a situation where the society is pushed towards two extremes that are independent of party politics and relate to issues and topics about which the electorate feels more strongly about. Such determinants are always policy areas and issues that elicit an existential threat within a society, so sufficiently ‘real’ and ‘possible’ that it becomes impossible even to reason with, let alone convince those immersed in such narratives. Competing narratives and ‘realities’ clash with each other so intensely, that the resultant effect is one of alienation and ‘otherness’ within the society. These clashes intensify of course, as other forms of polarization such as wide ideological discrepancy and acute class struggle weigh in.

‘a case of ‘popular polarization’, which defines a situation where the society is pushed towards two extremes that are independent of party politics and relate to issues and topics about which the electorate feels more strongly about.’

One such case was a Hurriyet Daily News report on September 22, about a residential area in the southern Turkish city of Antalya, which had labelled itself as a place only ‘Ataturkist, secularand democratic’ people can live. This political gated community is just one of many examples in Turkey, where Turkish secularists seek to establish ‘glass havens’; invisible and seemingly unsegregated from the society, but serving as a way of drawing strict boundaries between those who adhere to Kemalism and those who do not. One may refer to these gated residentials as a ‘secular ummah’ (ummah (Ar.), or ümmet (Tur.) refers to an Islamic community) where, just as in an Islamic ummah, a certain code of practice is observed with corresponding social and cultural side-practices, while non-adherents are marginalized and kept outside of the community. While the Islamic ummah seeks unquestioning subservience to Mohammad’s deeds, the same rigid obeyance is sought in a ‘secular ummah’; similarly, in the words of a well- known political commentator ‘secular ummah’ goes Anıtkabir (Ataturk’s mausoleum) in the same spirit that the Islamic ummah goes to Kaaba.

Neighbourhoods that are not so rigidly separated, experience clashes (although rarely) between these communities. On September 22, a mob attacked two art galleries that were holding cocktail parties in one of those newly gentrified neighbourhoods in Istanbul, the Tophane district, with batons, knives and pepper sprays. While it is still not clear what the motivation for the attacks were (religious, class oriented or both) targeting choice of the attackers was crystal clear: Istanbul’s secular (though not necessarily Ataturkist) and liberal art community with above average income. In another case, some Turkish newspapers highlighted an instance in which several police officers from Ankara’s Çankaya district have interrogated and asked for identification from the couples who, according to policemen, where ‘holding hands in an inappropriate fashion’ while walking in the park. Given the symbolic nature of the Çankaya district as the ‘ bastion of secularism’ in Ankara, such acts by the security forces create a fear or Basijization (1) and reinforce the appeal of the gated communities among secularists.

From a psychological perspective, it is of course impossible to explain to a frightened person that whatever frightens him or her has nothing to do with the object of fear, but all to do with the meta of fear itself in his or her own subconscious. Also from a psychoanalytical perspective, it is not the perceived object of fear (i.e. spiders, altitude, dying etc.) that causes the sensation of fright, but rather a person’s low neurological treshold of resistance to startling stimuli causes the sensation of being afraid. A September 2008 reflex test study published in the Science journal had discovered a direct correlation between 46 test subjects’ lower resistance to frightening stimuli, their tendency to identify themselves as ‘conservative’ and their hawkish responses to potentially threatening policy areas such as gun control, military expansion, foreign aid and the Iraq war. One of the co-authors of the study, University of Nebraska political scientist Kevin Smith claimed: “Historically speaking, politicians have appealed to the ‘be afraid’ response in the electorate in an attempt to mine votes […] people with stronger responses are more sensitive to potential threats in their environment”.

“In the post-referendum era, Turkey is witnessing its ever-present political polarization evolving into social polarization. A great deal of this has to do with the ‘fear mining’ policies that have been imposed upon the public by all walks of political leadership.”

Although the debate on the ethics of using fear exploitation tactics in politics is inconclusive within the political science literature, societies that have been exposed to long-term ‘fear mining’ practices resemble less to a society over time, and more to a country within which different ideologies and beliefs are at an undeclared domestic Cold War. Not surprisingly, such societies and states bestow an arcane and transcendental value to notions such as ‘national unity’ and ‘one country, one nation’, yet they end up deepening societal polarization through creating new trenches of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ through this rigid understanding of ‘national unity’.

Turkish society, having been subject to protracted and profound fear mining state practices almost since its transition from empire to republic, is dangerously moving towards an irreconcilable societal separation. This does not only relate to the Kurdish question, which many Turks believe to be the ultimate test of national unity, but also relate to other important social stratification factors: religious versus secularist, conservative versus liberal, west versus east, rich versus poor and so on. Today, many radicalized secularist Turks believe that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) takes direct orders from Washington and Brussels, yet at the same time, they also believe that the AKP is trying to convert Turkey into an Iran-like theocratic autocracy and that this is in the interests of the United States and Europe. While many Turkish ultranationalists today believe that the United States is directly supporting the Kurdish nationalist secessionism, they are also the most vocal advocates of buying more U.S.-issued advanced weapons systems due to their fear of losing the fight. On the other hand, while many radical Islamists in Turkey fear the proliferation of alcohol consumption, prostitution and homosexuals in their neighbourhoods perhaps more than anything else, they throw in their lot with the Justice and Development Party, which spends a considerable amount of its time trying to convince people that there is ‘no such thing as neighborhood pressure’.

In the post-referendum era, Turkey is witnessing its ever-present political polarization evolving into social polarization. A great deal of this has to do with the ‘fear mining’ policies that have been imposed upon the public by all walks of political leadership. Today, if this tension does not get diffused, Turkey will experience more and more intra-communal tension, which will sporadically translate into violence and more deeply entrenched gated communities.

Now, rather than later, all of the political parties must take active steps to reduce this tension and leave aside populist rhetoric. More importantly than ever, Turks need to realize that their compatriots who vote for the rival party are also Turks and not some extraterrestrial entity that popped up suddenly to ‘take over’ Turkey. Sooner, rather than later, Turks need to see that the monster they think was hiding under their bed, was in fact in their minds all along. PR

Notes:
* Dr. H. Akın Ünver is the Ertegun Lecturer in Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies at the Department of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University.

1) This refers to the Iranian ‘Basij’ volunteer militia. For more on this, please refer to: Bayat, Asef. ‘Squatters and the State: Back Street Politics in the Islamic Republic’ in Middle East Report No. 191, Iran’s Revolutionary Impasse (Nov. – Dec., 1994), pp. 10-14.

 

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