The War Nerd: Turkey's Good, Healthy Riots
I’ve been learning a lot about the journalism business from reading the coverage of the Turkish protests. Apparently, the trick is to pick some other country and then say, “…and what’s happening in Turkey is just like that.” Or, if you’re extra-cautious, “…is somewhat like that.”
The place most journalists have picked to explain Turkey is Tahrir Square in Cairo. I think one reason is that “Taksim” sounds a lot like “Tahrir,” so you can keep the capital “T” and the “Square” part. If you add an adjective, you can get three “t” words in a row, like this gem: “Is Taksim the Turkish Tahrir?”
It may sound weird to claim that simple alliteration is what’s driving all these headlines, but how else do you explain such a clearly dumb comparison? Headline writers even have been finding ways to get another “t” in there without taking the easy way out and using “Turkish.” One site managed it in a unique way, as if they were writing a restaurant review: “A Taste of Tahrir in Taksim.”
I haven’t seen “Tien an Min” yet in a Taksim story, but it won’t be long now. There are only so many famous plazas with names beginning with “T” in the world, and they’re being used up faster than Borneo’s forests. Here’s the lede of CNN’s latest Turkish story: “Taksim Square is Istanbul's equivalent to Cairo's Tahrir Square or London's Trafalgar Square…” Trafalgar Square? That’s reaching, guys.
The jump from Tahrir to Taksim to Trafalgar tells you how ridiculous all these comparisons are. And Turkish people aren’t thrilled at the comparison to Tahrir. We may have forgotten the Ottoman Empire’s glory days, but Turks definitely haven’t, and the idea that Turks, who used to rule the whole Middle East, are taking their cue from a bunch of unemployed Cairo street urchins, is offensive as hell. In fact, Turks have never felt especially close to Arabs. That’s one reason it took half a century for Turkey to cool toward Israel. Until they rediscovered the Islamic common denominator, most Turks looked on the Palestinians’ troubles with a cold, dry eye.
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.
I wrote about how Ataturk’s renaming policy worked out in Hatay Province, a chunk of Syria traded to Turkey by the French in 1939 in exchange for neutrality in WW II: Every single Arabic name is gone now, even though the place was always predominantly Arabic-speaking.
That’s not how place-names work when they change by local preference. Even in Texas, where the Anglos made Mexican-hating part of the Baptist creed, up there with predestination and segregation, most of the place names are still from Spanish.
But in Turkey, every place is officially Turkish and every resident is officially a Turk. Ethnic massacres were common in the Ottoman Empire, as they were in most of the world, and the biggest, the extirpation of the Armenians, was finished in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. So Ataturk didn’t invent it—but he carried on with the policy in a big way, driven by his post-Versailles realization that in the 20th century, “diversity” was deadly to a nation.
One of the bitter ironies of 20th-century Turkey is that the Kurds of southeastern Turkey, who’d been the most ruthless killers and looters of the Armenians, were next in line for cleansing. Luckily for them, they were too tough, nomadic and remote to be wiped out. And too large a group—18% of the population of the peninsula. So Ataturk made them Turks by decree, “Mountain Turks,” in spite of the fact that Kurdish dialects all descend from Farsi, with some Arabic, with no relation to Turkish. Of course a few of the newly christened Mountain Turks, ungrateful for having been rebaptized into Ataturk’s glorious nation, took to the hills in rebellion. The Army was fond of re-educating recalcitrant Mountain Turks by tying them behind a jeep and bouncing them over the mountain roads for a few miles, and other strenuous lessons in Kemalism.
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 hated religion. He said so, in terms that would get him killed these days in most Muslim countries:
“I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions at the bottom of the sea. He is a weak ruler who needs religion to uphold his government; it is as if he would catch his people in a trap. My people are going to learn the principles of democracy, the dictates of truth and the teachings of science. Superstition must go. Let them worship as they will; every man can follow his own conscience, provided it does not interfere with sane reason or bid him against the liberty of his fellow-men.”
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.
But if you were a poor family with no stake in the reforms, it might seem weird to you that your country had to turn its back so completely on everything that made it what it was. You might, if nothing else, just want a little rest. Turkey hasn’t had a lot of rest in the last century, and cultures sometimes just say, “OK, that’s it, I’m gonna go watch Beverly Hillbilllies reruns for a while, just leave me alone.”
We should understand this, after all. Look at all the fuss about gay marriage in the US. It’s exactly the kind of issue that seems obvious, overdue, a no-brainer to the coasts but makes the sullen majority even sullener. Well, living through the last century in Turkey was like having a culture-bomb like that go off in your face every day for decade after decade. It’s actually surprising Turkey hasn’t rebounded much, much harder to the reactionary side, like Iran did after the Shah, who was a kind of Ataturk wannabe, tried to drag it forward on the Turkish model.
Turkey could very easily go much further to the right even now. We’re in the middle of a huge Sunni revival that’s reached Toronto and Moscow, so it’s hardly a surprise that Sunni parties have made a comeback in the country that once claimed the Caliphate. Other Turkic peoples—Uzbeks, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz—have donated plenty of fighters to jihads all over the world. But you’ll notice that Turks, actual Turks-from-Turkey, don’t come up in those stories about dead Salafists being found with ID cards from some unlikely place. Dead salafists from Toronto, sure—plenty of them around. But not from Istanbul.
Turkey just isn’t like any of these places. Turkey’s an actual democracy, and the vote that put Erdogan and Gul into power was, by all accounts, a clean one. Their mandate, as far as I can tell, was to bring Turkey a little more into line with the wildly Sunni revival going on all around it—not to turn it into another Saudi Arabia.
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. There’s a map circulating these days that shows you the division in Turkey very clearly:
Erdogan’s “moderate Islamist” party, the JDP (AKP in Turkish abbreviation) won the whole of the Anatolian Peninsula, the huge yellow bloc—except for the red fringe on the Mediterranean coast, where the Kemalist party, the RPP (CHP in Turkish) won. In the Kurdish southeast, the Kurdish ethnic bloc won solidly.
Those red provinces were the Greek provinces before Ataturk’s big cleansing. That doesn’t mean they still think of themselves as Greek. The cleansing was very, very thorough. It’s more that they’re literally more oriented toward Europe and more dependent on the tourist trade (and tourists need booze). It’s the classic liberal demographic, as demonstrated by the fact that there’s one little red blot in the middle of that yellow heartland: The teeny province of Tunceli. Tunceli voted Kemalist for classic liberal reasons: students and minorities. It’s the only province with an Alevi majority, and there’s a big university there.
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, making grand statements in the manner of bigoted hicks everywhere. The mayor of Ankara, Melih Gokcek (a real reactionary, as the Dude would say) is famous for making classic red-state blurts that infuriate the coastal elites. A lot of them would be familiar to anybody who reads the news from the flyover states, like when Gokcek weighed in on abortion with this gem: “Why do babies die because of their so-called mothers? Let the mothers kill themselves instead.”
After having to listen to that kind of crap, 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 fuck around—but politely, as in very few dead, no live ammunition fired at people, no cops beaten to death with rocks.
I keep wanting to quote that annoying line, “This is what democracy looks like.” It is; it’s a way of saying, yeah, OK, you got the vote but we run the big city so show a little respect. And Erdogan’s government is responding just as politely, in spite of all the hot jabber coming from both sides. The government ordered the police to withdraw from the Square when it got a little too violent, and the protesters took advantage of the lull to sweep up all the debris of their skirmishes, like those “Adopt-A-Highway” signs you see on the Interstate: “This Square Adopted by (in spraypaint) THE REVOLUTION.”
This really is what democracy looks like, in one of its milder, more pleasant aspects. The fact that we can’t generate a decent stateside riot from our urban/secular elite is bad news for us; the fact that Turkey can have such well-modulated, mutually-understood displays of strength—such good, healthy riots--is good news for them.