|A protester holds up a Turkish flag with a picture of Kemal Ataturk on it.
Image Source: AP Photo/Kostis Sniroris. 3 June 2013.
The riots and protests that rocked Istanbul this week have taken many in the West by surprise. I have been astonished at how poorly Western outlets have explained what these riots are about and why they are happening. There is a basic disconnect between the narratives Westerners are using to interpret Turkey’s political dynamics and actual events on the ground. Fortunately, Gary Brecher offers a corrective dose of sanity in his most recent War Nerd column. As his articles are hid behind a pay wall two days after publication, I will post a longer excerpt than usual:
“Turkey isn’t like any other country in the world. That’s why all these analogies are futile. What happened to Turkey in the 20th centuries is one of the great, bloody epic tales of all time. I suspect that’s why so few non-Turks know much about it: It’s too grim. There was a lot of grim around, in the first half of the last century, but even in that gory anthology the Turkish story stands out. The Ottomans sided with Imperial Germany in WW I, fought well but fell with their allies, and lost everything. The Allies handled the defeated Ottomans as vindictively as they did the Germans, and reaped the whirlwind much sooner. By 1919 Ottoman rule was limited to the northern part of the Anatolian Peninsula, and the Sultan seemed willing to settle for this shred of former Ottoman territory. But now came Young Turks 2.0, led by one of the greatest leaders of the century: Mustafa Kemal, later called Kemal Ataturk, “Kemal, Father of the Turks.” He earned that epithet by taking back the entire peninsula against pretty much the whole world. The Allies wanted to hand Western Turkey to the Greeks—and the Greeks had a good case that the Mediterranean coast was and always had been Greek. But Kemal, seeing that the days of multi-ethnic empires like the Ottoman were finished, took Wilson’s lessons deadly seriously and was determined to make the whole Anatolian Peninsula a mono-ethnic Turkish country. He collected hardcore Turkish vets in the center, near Ankara, while a Greek invasion force landed in Smyrna, ferried there by an Allied fleet.
Smyrna is now Izmir, which tells you how that campaign turned out. It was a horrible, bloody campaign of massacre, or what we now call “ethnic cleansing,” with no mercy on either side. Kemal retook Smyrna, which had been a Greek city for thousands of years, and renamed it Izmir. He renamed everything he conquered. Turkey was going to be 110% Turkish. This is what people flinch from seeing: Ataturk saw very clearly how the 20th century was going to go: toward mono-ethnic enclaves like the “small nations” Wilson was blithering about. And he was going to make sure the whole peninsula was one of them….
Ataturk was as tough with actual Turks too. He wasn’t cruel for the fun of it; he had a plan, a more effective, intelligent and farsighted plan than just about anybody else from his era. Ataturk and Mao have more in common than they’re given credit for. Mao said “Women hold up half the sky,” but Ataturk did more than just talk: He outlawed the veil and encouraged women to join the workforce. Even now, a Turkish woman who wears a headscarf is making a pretty shocking statement that she’s an Islamist, a conservative. The wife of Abdullah Gul, the President, wears the headscarf, and for coastal types, Kemalist secularists, that makes her husband the enemy.
….Ataturk’s people were going to have the most thorough makeover since Peter the Great turned the Boyars’ assembly into a barber college. His top-down reform covered everything. Clothes: suit and tie for men; no more fez and slippers; no veils for women. Language: before Ataturk, Turkish was written in the Arabic alphabet; he singlehandedly strongarmed Turks into remaking their language into Roman script. He made a point of violating Islamic law by publicly gulping Raki, the Turkish variant of Ouzo.
For Ataturk, the less Turkey resembled any other Muslim country, the better. He gave his life to make analogies like Tahrir/Taksim impossible. Turkey joined NATO and ignored Palestine. The Turks that foreign writers met made it look like Ataturk’s transformation was totally successful. Time or Newsweek would send some idiot, all expenses paid, to Istanbul and he’d look out over the well-dressed crowds hustling off the ferries to work in ties and high heels, and he’d tell us that Turkey was just Manhattan with a little exotica thrown in, and cheaper souvenirs.
Meanwhile, back in the boondocks of Central Anatolia, they wore the required uniform, white shirts and flat Andy Capp hats, but none of it sat well, any more than the Sixties sat well with the mud turtles in Missouri or Indiana. We’ve got a silent, sullen majority in the US; we know that. But we never seem to figure that most other places have one too.
In every revolution of the last decade, pundit after pundit announces that it’s “spring” and that the people will soon vote into power some nice moderate pro-Western technocrat. Tunisia, Libya, Egypt—they were all going to elect somebody Jon Podhoretz could praise in the op-ed pages. Any day now. Except it didn’t happen. Because those pundits talk to Tunisians, Libyans, and Egyptians from the educated urban elite, and just assume that such sharp, reasonable, cultured folks will naturally slide into power.
If only they’d look at America’s recent history, they might notice that when the silent majority makes its preferences known, it’s not always the suave urbanites who come into power. It’s much more likely to be some sleazy pseudo-hick who puts on a fake Texas accent and talks about God and Jesus. That’s what silent majorities like. And the more the coastal elite mocks him, the more stubbornly the inland hicks cling to him—because one aspect of their votes is revenge for being pushed into places they don’t want to go.
That was us, in the first decade of the millennium. Now imagine how much harder the silent Turkish majority has been pushed in the 90-odd years since Ataturk tore their culture apart. Their empire became a country, their language changed its entire written form, their beloved leader openly despised their religion…it’s a lot to handle. If you were one of the lucky kids from a liberal, educated family, you’d cling to Ataturk’s reforms like grim death—which is what those kids are doing at the moment in Istanbul.
….The issues that set off this round of protests were the bulldozing of an Istanbul park area and “restrictions on the sale of alcohol. “ That sounded familiar to me after Saudi, where booze is a felony, but I was shocked when I found out what these restrictions were: No sales between 10pm and 6am, warning labels on bottles, no advertising. That’s all? Treating booze like cigarettes? It actually shows you how totally different Turkey is from most Middle Eastern countries that rules like that could be seen as radical Islamization. Make it 2am instead of 10 and you’ve got California’s booze laws, and last I heard we weren’t under Sharia yet, no matter what the Freepers think.
What seems to be happening in Turkey is more like a red-state/blue-state fuss than the second coming of Riyadh….
So this is politics as usual. Including the riots. Riots are a fundamental part of politics and always have been. I’m old enough to remember the “Burn, Baby, Burn” era, growing up in a white-trash neighborhood, and believe me, it was fear that the fires would spread that won whatever concessions those “urban minorities” got. What’s happening in Istanbul now involves another urban minority; it just happens to be a richer one. There’s no clear break between rallies, riots and civil war; you go as far as you need to, along that spectrum, until your group feels it’s got the best deal it can get. At the moment, after Erdogan’s JDP won two national elections by huge margins, the inland religious hicks have been strutting a little, throwing their weight around a bit… [and] it’s no wonder the smart people on the coast were looking for a reason to express themselves with sticks and bandannas and rocks in the classic manner. There’s only so much of that heartland idiocy you can take, and when Erdogan announced that he was going to tear down some of the last trees left in downtown Istanbul to make way for a shopping complex modeled on an Ottoman barracks, it was the mall that broke the hipsters’ backs. It was a perfect trigger: nostalgia for the very un-secular Ottoman past, crass commercialism, no sense of the value that the downtown crowd places on green space. Pure hick-ery, in other words.
Erdogan had the votes on his side, but the rioters in Taksim had advantages too. Above all, they showed that they could shut down Istanbul, where 15 million people live. Heartland people can vote, but nobody cares if they shut down their hick towns, but when you can shut down the city that holds a fifth of the whole country’s population, you have power.
So the riots were a perfectly standard democratic way of indicating to the red-state administration that they better take it a little easy on the coastal folks, or risk serious embarrassment—not to mention some very insulting comparisons to Cairo. For all the news-wonk gibbering, these riots have gone off very politely—firmly, because these are Turks and they don’t f* around—but politely, as in very few dead, no live ammunition fired at people, no cops beaten to death with rocks.”