Showing posts with label Turkish Islam. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Turkish Islam. Show all posts

Thursday, November 25, 2010

A Boycott for Mr. Naipaul


What is it about Turks and winners of the Nobel prize for literature? Their own home-grown one, Orhan Pamuk, has more-or-less been hounded out of the country for alleged insults against the nation. And now V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidad-born 2001 winner of the prize, has been forced to cancel a speech he was to make in Turkey because of an uproar over alleged insults he made against Islam.

The story's background, via the Wall Street Journal:
Nobel Prize-winning author Sir V.S. Naipaul has pulled out of a writers' conference in Istanbul that starts Thursday, pressured by religious conservative media in Turkey that objected to statements he has made on Islam.
The move sparked two Turkish authors to pull out of the event, its organizers said Wednesday.
Mr. Naipaul, author of some 30 books, had been due to give the opening speech at the European Parliament of Writers, a literary event organized here to mark Istanbul's status as a European Capital of Culture this year.
For the past week, however, religious conservative Turkish newspapers, including Yeni Safak and Zaman, have been campaigning against the decision to honor Mr. Naipaul, a 78-year-old Trinidadian of Indian origin. While some Turkish authors supported his right to attend the conference, defending him on grounds of free speech, others said they would boycott the event if he attended.
"How can our writers bear to sit by the same table with Naipaul, who has seen Muslims worthy of so many insults?" wrote poet and Zaman columnist Hilmi Yavuz, who initiated the planned boycott last week and described Mr. Naipaul as "an enemy of Islam" and "a colonialist."
Is it me, or is there an ill wind of intolerance blowing through Turkey these days? From television stations being fined for what guests said during debates, to ministers suing columnists for perceived insults and armed gangs attacking art gallery openings, there seems to be a worrying trend developing here.

The great irony regarding the scratched Naipaul visit was that the cantankerous author was actually in Istanbul this past July and not a peep was heard. At that time, he came as a key speaker in something called "Istancool," an arts and culture festival sponsored by Turkish Airlines and the Turkish Ministry of Tourism. Four months later, Istanbul doesn't seem so cool, at least not on the cultural front.

Turkey is trying to position Istanbul as a global capital of, among other things, culture. The Naipaul affair is a sign that, at least for now, the internal forces and contradictions that continue to tug at the Turkish sense of self-identity will prevent the city from playing that role. Indeed, as Sameer Rahim, the Daily Telegraph's assistant books editor, wrote in a column about the affair, Naipaul's writing probably has a lot to offer Turkey:
Naipaul, like Turkey, contains unfathomable contradictions. (He does, after all, have a Pakistani wife.) Those Turks who opposed his entry might do well to ignore his provocations and read his powerful novels of inbetweeness.
A very interesting 2005 New York Times profile of Naipaul, meanwhile, sheds more light on his complicated and sometimes problematic approach to Islam, but also shows that the author and the two books about his travels in parts of the Muslim world, which have been the source for some of the criticism leveled against Naipaul, might also have something to say for today's Turkey. From the article:
The books raise but don't necessarily answer deep and vexing questions: Is secularism a precondition of tolerance? Does one necessarily have to abandon one's individual cultural and religious identity to become part of the West? Why do people willingly choose lives that restrict their intellectual freedom?

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Heavy Mossad


Tomorrow marks the start of Sonisphere, a three-day metalfest in Istanbul that will bring together for the first time the "big four:" Metallica, Slayer, Megadeath and Anthrax. The powerpacked bill also includes German shock rockers Rammstein and a host of other big names. Needless to say, music lovers from across the region are rejoicing, with Iranian metalheads already arriving in Istanbul.

Another example of Turkey's ability to straddle different worlds? Not for the folks over at the Islamist Vakit newspaper, who are having none of this musical bridge between east and west business. In an article published yesterday (here -- in Turkish and with a graphic photo from a Rammstein concert), the paper exposed Sonisphere for what it really is: a Mossad plot to mock Turkey.

From the Hurriyet Daily News's account of the story:
Turkish daily Vakit yesterday harshly criticized the festival and called for officials to cancel it. Defining the festival as “disgrace,” Vakit reported that Akbank, affiliated with Sabancı Holding, sponsored the festival, which is being organized by an Israeli company and will host Europe’s most scandalous music band, Rammstein.

According to Murat Alan’s story, while many festivals are cancelled in the country in order to mourn martyrs who died because of terrorist events, the Sonisphere Festival will poison young Turkish people for three days.

“The most striking name of the festival is a band named Rammstein, whose pornographic music videos are banned in many countries. The videos of the band air after midnight in European Union countries since they encourage violence, masochism, homosexuality and other perversities. The band will be on stage Friday at the İnönü Stadium. Also, there is no age limit for concerts and a ban on alcohol.”

The festival was organized by Israeli company Purple Concerts and the security will be provided by ICTS company, established by Israeli Mossad agents, according to the story. “This means to make fun of our citizens who lost their lives at the hands of the Israeli government as they carried humanitarian supplies to Gaza on the Mavi Marmara ship.”
Full article here.

The "Israeli company" in question is Purple Concerts, a big concert promoter based in Germany and run by two Israelis. The company recently brought to Turkey unwitting Mossad stooges such as Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood and the members of the "WrestleMania Revenge Tour."

(Photo: Metallica's James Hetfield. By Flowkey, Wikipedia Commons)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

I have a briefing up on the World Politics Review website looking at the domestic component of the tragic Gaza flotilla incident -- both before and after the Israeli commando raid on the Turkish-led aid convoy. From the piece:
With a general election coming up in about a year's time, the AKP now faces a resurgent Islamist right that has gained renewed political clout because of the flotilla incident. Meanwhile, a reformed secularist opposition with new leadership is promising to go after the government where it is most vulnerable: over issues such as unemployment and corruption. As a result, the AKP could find it expedient to continue turning the heat up on the Israel front, taking an increasingly more populist line on the issue.

"This is now going to be part and parcel in the internal tug of war between the AKP and the other political parties in Turkey," says Gencer Ozcan, a professor of international relations at Istanbul Bilgi University. "In this case, [Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan is not going to defuse the tension."

Speaking on Sunday, Erdogan already went after Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the new leader of the Republican People's Party, the main secularist opposition party, for his approach to the flotilla incident. "Some people speak in the name of Tel Aviv, advocate for Tel Aviv," Erdogan said. "They question our way of diplomacy."

But beyond electioneering, increased tension with Israel could also help the AKP make further gains in its ongoing effort to reduce the Turkish military's control over the state. As Israeli researcher and Turkey expert Anat Lapidot-Firilla recently put it, such an approach would emphasize "the support of the defense establishment and the Kemalist bureaucracy to immoral Israel and the lack of interest in the fate of their Muslim brethren in Palestine."
You can read the full briefing here.

In a Today's Zaman column from the other day, Yavuz Baydar also touches on the domestic aspect of the AKP government's response to the flotilla incident. Meanwhile, Milliyet foreign affairs columnist Semih Idiz has a good piece in today's Hurriyet Daily News where he looks at some of the domestic questions that the recent events raise for Turkey, particularly regarding how a group like the IHH (a "Governmental Non-Governmental Organization" as he puts it) came to commandeer Turkish foreign and domestic policy over the last few days. From his column:
As for the Turkish side, there are equally – if not more – serious questions to be asked and we are happy to see that they are slowly but surely surfacing now. The most important of these questions must of course be this: How can such a large country as Turkey with interests in four continents, and with an export and investment driven economy requiring extra caution all around the globe be dragged to the brink of war by a nongovernmental organization?

To many in and outside Turkey, the answer seems to be simple. This happened because the NGO in question is what a friend humorously referred to as a “GNGO,” in other words a “governmental-non-governmental-organization.” While there may not be any evidence of a direct link here, there can be no mistake that the Erdoğan government is morally and politically behind this group – the İHH – that has now gained international fame according to some, and notoriety according to others.

Neither is this the first instance of this group putting Turkey in a difficult situation diplomatically after it was aided and abetted by the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. It will be recalled that the same group tried to force its way through the sealed off Rafah gate between Egypt and Gaza some months ago, only to end up clashing with Egyptian forces and straining ties between Ankara and Cairo.

It was telling then that one of the leading “activists” on the Turkish side in that event was Murat Mercan, a key AKP figure, a parliamentary deputy and the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee in Parliament. Turkish-Egyptian ties are still recovering from what happened at that time. But it is clear that the latest events in the Eastern Mediterranean were watched closely in Cairo too, where there must have been further displeasure among the leadership over Prime Minister Erdoğan’s agitation of Arab streets.

As for the images from Turkey that were reflected across the globe following last week’s incident, it was a purely Islamic one, with headscarved and turbaned protestors chanting Islamic slogans under Islamic banners, and invoking the name of Allah for days on end in front of Israeli missions in this country. Certain remarks by Prime Minister Erdoğan, on the other hand, only went to reinforce this impression, especially when he told a visibly Islamic crowd in Konya a few days ago that Hamas was not a terrorist organization.

It was inevitable then that all of this should have started to turn the tide in the Western media against Turkey, as is apparent from a number of commentaries that have appeared over the past few days. If one considers that there is still an Iran crisis that has to be played out between Turkey and the West and particularly between Turkey and the U.S., it is clear that this impression is only going to crystallize further in the coming days and weeks in ways that Foreign Minister Davutoglu would obviously not want to see.

Put in a nutshell, the sympathy that Turkey initially garnered as a result of the lethal way that Israel conducted this operation is set to evaporate in the West if the AKP government does not begin to chart a more balanced course on Iran and Hamas, a course which is more in keeping with the country’s international commitments as a NATO ally.

It’s all very well for Turkish officials to shower Israel and the Netanyahu government with negative adjectives, no doubt most of them deserved in this case. But Turkey has to tread cautiously in such matters because of a host of reasons to do with its own long term interests. It also goes without saying that Israel cannot afford to squander its longstanding ties with Turkey, no matter what the anger in that country may be toward the Erdoğan government.
Full column here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Hoca Speaks


You know you've been covering Turkey for too long when you breathlessly tell an editor in the U.S. about something significant that Fethullah Gulen just said and the editor says, "Fethullah who?"

Still, an interview with the U.S.-based Gulen in today's Wall Street Journal does seem very significant, at least in the Turkish domestic context. No matter how you look at it, Gulen is among the most powerful figures in Turkey, even without living in the country. Which makes his criticism in the interview of the recent Gaza flotilla fiasco, an event that has brought Turkish-Israel relations to brink and unleashed a wave of fury in Turkey, very interesting. From the WSJ article:
Speaking in his first interview with a U.S. news organization, Mr. Gülen spoke of watching news coverage of Monday's deadly confrontation between Israeli commandos and Turkish aid group members as its flotilla approached Israel's sea blockade of Gaza. "What I saw was not pretty," he said. "It was ugly."

Mr. Gülen said organizers' failure to seek accord with Israel before attempting to deliver aid "is a sign of defying authority, and will not lead to fruitful matters."

Mr. Gülen's views and influence within Turkey are under growing scrutiny now, as factions within the country battle to remold a democracy that is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East. The struggle, as many observers characterize it, pits the country's old-guard secularist and military establishment against Islamist-leaning government workers and ruling politicians who say they seek a more democratic and religiously tolerant Turkey. Mr. Gülen inspires a swath of the latter camp, though the extent of his reach remains hotly disputed.

His words of restraint come as many in Turkey gave flotilla members a hero's welcome after two days of detention in Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the ruling Justice and Development Party condemned Israel's moves as "bullying" and a "historic mistake."

Mr. Gülen said he had only recently heard of IHH, the Istanbul-based Islamic charity active in more than 100 countries that was a lead flotilla organizer. "It is not easy to say if they are politicized or not," he said. He said that when a charity organization linked with his movement wanted to help Gazans, he insisted they get Israel's permission. He added that assigning blame in the matter is best left to the United Nations.
The full article is here.

My own read on this is that Gulen and his (wide) circle of supporters, who represent a more moderate approach, must be alarmed by the legitimacy the flotilla incident is giving to the Islamic far-right in Turkey and are intervening before things go any further.

I have a piece up now on the Christian Science Monitor's website that looks at the rise of the IHH, the Turkish NGO behind the flotilla and how it reflects a kind of mainstreaming of the Turkish Islamic far right, particularly regarding the discourse on Israel/Palestine. From my article:
At the heart of the diplomatic crisis between Israel and Turkey over the Gaza 'Freedom Flotilla' lies the rise of the previously obscure IHH. The Turkish Islamic NGO bought and manned the Mavi Mamara, by far the largest boat in the flotilla and the one that saw a fatal skirmish between rod-wielding activists and Israeli commandos who killed nine activists after resorting to gunfire.

It was the financial heft of the IHH that set this flotilla apart – even before the Israeli raid – from previous convoys that had bobbed toward the blockaded Gaza Strip with little effect. But Israel is troubled that its ally Turkey has in effect paved the way for such a group to rise to a position of such strength and influence.

Indeed, some very profound changes, both promising and troubling, have reshaped the landscape of Turkish society. The Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was driven a wide-reaching effort at democratization and liberalization since coming to power in 2002. This has allowed civil society organizations to flourish – a phenomenon that has been especially pronounced for Islamic groups, which had previously been targeted by secularist state institutions.

“They have more room to operate in Turkey now,” says Soli Ozel, a political analyst and columnist for the Haberturk newspaper. “The more room comes from the fact that we do have a party in government that doesn’t see them as alien creatures.”

So far from seeing the IHH, which had been targeted by the government in 1997, as alien, Turkish authorities helped make the flotilla possible by selling the Mavi Mamara, a decommissioned 1,000-passenger cruise ship formerly owned by the Istanbul municipality, for a mere $800,000.

The blessing Ankara gave IHH's lead role in the Gaza aid convoy is also reflective of a potentially troubling move of groups from Turkey’s Islamist far right into the mainstream, particularly regarding the volatile Israeli-Palestinian issue, says anthropologist Jenny White of Boston University.

“What it says to me is that the far-right Islamists have captured the political issue of Gaza and the government is using this for their purposes,” says Prof. White, who is currently working on a book about Islam and Turkish nationalism. “It doesn’t mean that society is becoming more radicalized but the radical segment of society has captured the issue of Gaza and the anti-Israel sentiment, which has a lot of political capital behind it.”

The question now, she adds, is to what extent the government will feel a need to pay back those radical groups and leaders.
Full article here.

Is the fallout from Israel's flotilla attack going to lead to an internal struggle between Turkey's perhaps now rival Islamic camps? The blowback from the flotilla incident may end being more unpredictable for Turkey than previously expected.


Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ties and Minarets


There are two interesting news items in the Turkish press that strike me as connected and instructive regarding some of the domestic challenges facing Turkey.

First up, from the town of Cizre, in Turkey's predominantly-Kurdish southeast, where a local principal and shopkeeper were detained after they were accused of distributing school ties with the likeness of jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan on them, rather than that of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. From a Hurriyet Daily News report:
According to reports, a police officer saw the tie given to his daughter and lodged a complaint. The local prosecutor’s office was told the figure on the tie “looked like PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan.”

An investigation was launched and an expert appointed by the prosecutor’s office supported the claims.

Both the school principal and the shopkeeper who sold the ties were detained by police Tuesday and questioned while the school collected the ties.

The shopkeeper said he had asked a company in Istanbul to produce 115 ties and had placed Atatürk’s silhouette on them as per the school’s order.

He said he and the principal were questioned a day before being released pending trial. “The Atatürk silhouette on the tie doesn’t look anything like Öcalan anyway.I can’t imagine how they came to that conclusion,” he said.
(You can see a shot of the offending tie here. To my eye (and Kamil Pasha's), it looks a lot like Ataturk, but go figure. As the article reminds readers, this is only the latest phantom Ocalan sighting that has led to legal action. In July, an Ankara lawyer found himself in trouble after authorities charged him with having a photo of Ocalan up on his office wall. Turns out the man with the bushy mustache in the photo was the lawyer's deceased father.

Next, from Istanbul, a very interesting story about the blurring of the boundaries between mosque and state. As several papers have reported, the minarets of five historic mosques were recently strung up with lights that spelled out nationalist slogans. The lights, known as "mahyas," are usually hung during Ramadan and deliver blessings and religious sayings. This time, the messages included the famous slogan "How happy is he who says he is a Turk," as well as "The country comes first," and "We owe our gratitude to the army."

The messages drew the indignation of civil groups, which held demonstrations in the streets of İstanbul yesterday. Rıdvan Kaya, the chairman of the Freedom Association (Özgür-Der), termed the nationalist messages in mahyas a source of “ugliness” and “provocation."

“We want authorities to reveal who led to such ugliness. Are they still not aware that such moves aim to drag Turkey into an atmosphere of war? While the government is exerting efforts to settle the Kurdish issue, some are attempting to provoke the people,” Kaya said....

....No body or institution has yet claimed responsibility for the controversial mahyas. Today's Zaman asked the Directorate of Religious Affairs about the move, but directorate officials denied responsibility. “We are in control of the mosques, but they are owned by the General Directorate of Foundations. The Directorate of Religious Affairs is fully outside of this mahya issue,” they said.

The General Directorate of Foundations, however, pointed to the Regional Directorate of Foundations in İstanbul and the İstanbul Governor's Office as responsible bodies in the determination of messages spelled out on mahyas.

The director of press and public relations of İstanbul Governor's Office, Nazır Şentürk, said İstanbul Governor Muammer Güler would call a press conference on the mahya controversy. No press conference was called by the time Today's Zaman went to print. The mahyas were spelled out on the occasion of the anniversary of the liberation of İstanbul from occupation by foreign powers following the War of Independence.
(As a side note, Turkey watchers may recall that prior to taking office, prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan spent time in jail, accused of inciting religious hatred by reciting a poem that said: "The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers..." In light of that, it's interesting to see messages in support of the military being strung from minarets.)

Both these stories strike me as having a lot to do with Turkey's struggle to define it's post-Ataturkist identity. School ties and minarets now seem to be yet another battleground in this continuing fight.

(Photo -- an Istanbul mosque with the message "How happy is he who says he is a Turk" strung up in lights between its minarets. From Today's Zaman.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

In Central Asia, Gulen Schools Under Increasing Fire


Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has a very interesting story about the increasing pressure being put on schools opened up by the Turkish Gulen movement in Central Asia. Named after scholar Fethullah Gulen, the highly successful movement has been active in opening Turkish schools in Central Asia since the mid-1990's and has also been opening up schools in other parts of the world, including the United States. In Turkey, the movement is a powerful - and controversial - force in politics and media (Zaman, Today's Zaman and several other print and tv outlets are affiliated with it). 

From the RFE/RL article:
Throughout Central Asia, Turkish schools are known for their strict educational methods and discipline and are highly regarded by students and parents.

The majority of national and regional education contests are won by Turkish lyceum students. Easily passing English-language tests, many graduates win scholarships to Western universities.

Parents go to great lengths to enroll their children in Turkish schools, hoping such education will guarantee bright futures for them.

Yet, Turkish educational institutions have come under increasing scrutiny in Central Asia. Governments as well as many scholars and journalists suspect that the schools have more than just education on their agendas.

In Turkmenistan, education authorities have ordered Turkish lyceums to scrap the history of religion from curriculums.

In the only Persian-speaking country in the region, Tajikstan, the government, as well as academics, are wary of the possible spread of pan-Turkic ideas. They fear that these schools promote Turkish influence and the Turkish language in their country.

However, it is Uzbekistan that has taken the toughest stance toward Turkish schools. In 1999, Tashkent closed all Turkish lyceums after its relationship with Ankara turned sour.

This year, the authoritarian Uzbek government headed by President Islam Karimov took things a step further by arresting at least eight journalists who were graduates of Turkish schools. The journalists were found guilty of setting up an illegal religious group and of involvement in an extremist organization….

….Uzbek officials have expressed suspicions that Turkish-school graduates in government offices and other key institutions use their positions to weaken the secular government. They charge that graduates of Turkish schools promote an aggressive form of Islam and even a role for Islam in political life.
You can read the rest of the article here. For more on the Gulen movement, take a look at this analysis piece (pdf) from Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst.

(Photo: A sign at Dushanbe's Haji Kemal Joint Tajik-Turkish Boarding School. By RFE/RL)

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Iftar Rising

My article in today's Christian Science Monitor about how iftar, the traditional dinner that breaks the daily Ramadan fast, is turning from a family affair into a lavish, corporate event in Turkey and other parts of the Muslim world.