Turkey: two steps forwards…

AT FIRST BLUSH it would seem that Turkey is taking a turn towards becoming a more pluralistic entity. Last week Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that elective Kurdish language courses could be taught in government schools. This follows on the recent announcement that one of the municipalities in Diyarbakır would offer courses in Armenian.

While students may now choose from a more diverse portfolio of language classes, Turkey’s diverse ethnic communities (indigenous communities, to all intents and purposes) are also finding voice. The ISTOS publishing house recently opened in İstanbul’s Karaköy neighbourhood. Run by members of the Greek minority, ISTOS plans to publish in both Turkish and Greek. Meanwhile, in the Midyat district of southeastern Anatolia, Sabro, a monthly newspaper created by the Christian Syriac community, began publication in March. (The headline on the front page of Sabro in this Hürriyet story translates as a rather endearing, declarative: “We Are Here Too”. The title of the newspaper translates from the Syriac as ‘Hope’.)

All of this is a far cry from the dark days of the 1990s when even musing about the teaching of language courses – other than those of Western Europe – was flatly and definitively declared to amount to ‘separatism’.

Meanwhile, a group of Turkish journalists joined with some of their Armenian counterparts at the end of May to tour cities on both sides of the closed Turkish-Armenian border in a move to promote dialogue and share ‘face time’ with their neighbours. Journalists of both nations called for the border to be opened, a move that would be highly symbolic as well as making a great deal of economic sense if the volume of Turkish-Armenian trade that I witnessed passing through Georgia in 2007 is any indication.

On the political front, the CHP, the party created by Atatürk, which has consistently pushed the nationalist-Kemalist barrow, seems to be making reasoned steps towards resolving the Kurdish issue in conjunction with the ruling AKP. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP, met with AKP’s Erdoğan to discuss the Kurdish situation and reported that some progress was made on the subject. Perhaps predictably the hardline MHP – more given to outrageous nationalistic statements and gestures than the CHP ever was – grumbled about attempting to solve a non-existent ‘issue’ through discussion and mediation.  Some people are musing that after decades in the political wilderness the perennial bridesmaid/opposition CHP, under the leadership of Kılıçdaroğlu, may be able to recast itself as a ‘New CHP’. Who knows? A more vital and vibrant opposition would certainly not be an unwelcome development in Turkish politics.

Of course, it remains to be seen how well attended any of these languages course will be, or how much of a readership Greek literature and Syriac newspapers will find, or how much progress will be made in resolving the Kurdish and Armenian issues…

But then, as always in Turkey it’s a case of two steps forward, one step back, and sure enough a worrying backward step happened. A group calling itself the Anatolian Youth Association recently rallied outside the Aya Sofya/Haghia Sophia Museum in the old city of İstanbul demanding that the Sultanahmet landmark operate as a mosque again. It should be recalled that the Aya Sofya/Haghia Sophia was built in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian and served as a cathedral for 800 years, not becoming a mosque until the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453.

One of the organisers of the rally, which included a large group performing the namaz (prayer) in Sultanahmet, claims that the proscription of Islamic prayer in the building is a symbol of ‘our ill-treatment by the West’. Just who he claims to be speaking for is unclear: Turks? Muslims? What is abundantly clear is that ‘the West’ had absolutely nothing with curtailing  any group from being able to prayer in the Aya Sofya. That was  a decision made in the early years of the Turkish Republic during Atatürk’s modernisation project, a central plank of which was a very clear attempt to decrease the role of religion within the public sphere.

It would be easy to see the bold move of the pro-mosque crowd as a symptom of the increasing ‘shariahisation’ of Turkish society that some say is inevitable under the Islamist-informed AKP. Alternatively, it may be Turkish nationalists who made up the numbers of the hitherto unheard of Anatolian Youth Association, nationalists bristling at all of the initiatives that have been allowed under the AKP’s watch that are aimed at allowing non-Turkish groups more air time and exposure and voice – something long perceived as a threat to national sovereignty by many a Turk-on-the-street.

It is certainly true that the AKP sees a greater role for Islam in the public sphere than earlier Kemalist-inclined governments. It may well be that the AKP sees Islam as a suitable replacement for the homogenous Turkishness beloved of the MHP (and ‘old’ CHP) and promoted as the only mechanism that will bind together the nation. The AKP is sometimes accused of conspiring in favour of a neo-Ottomanist model whereby homogenous Turkish ethnicity no longer underpins the republic, but Islamic identity, accommodating ethnic – and even religious – diversity, becomes the glue holding together the nation-state.

Perhaps this is true: we may be witnessing a flush of ethnic pluralism within the context of the increasing grip of Islam on Turkish society. Or it may be that the notions of social justice and equality that run through the Islamic creed, combined with the failure of the you’re-either-Turkish-or-against-us ethos of earlier years, are informing governmental and societal moves to accommodate disparate and diverse voices.

What is certain is that there will be lengthy debates on all of these topics. To say nothing of acrimonious name calling and general flinging of vitriol: just look at the comments field of the Aya Sofya story in Today’s Zaman

Interesting days ahead…

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