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Farewell to Efendi


From: Christ in der Gegenwart, 50/2009, P. 563 et sequ.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Turkey is changing tremendously fast. The political, social and religious consequences will be of great importance for East and West.


"Turkey is enjoying its past," ran an extensive article in the International Herald Tribune in the run-up to the U.S. visit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In it the author deals with the phenomenon of the renaissance of Turkey's Ottoman past, as it can be observed for some time in that country situated on two continents: Asia and Europe.

Even in commercial advertising there was an allusion to the Ottoman Empire: A fast-food chain offered in the fasting month of Ramadan the special menu "Like a Sultan's Dream." The advertising spot showed an Ottoman elite soldier who recommends the spectators in the restaurant "to leave no burger at all." For, as the TV spot says, Ottoman soldiers did not leave any head on the shoulders of their enemies.

The Ottoman pride is also present in the Turkish youth culture. In Istanbul's discos you meet young people who wear T-shirts with the words "The Empire hits back." What superficially reminds of the science fiction series "Star Wars" ironically illustrates self-confidence by claiming the power of the former superpower. "Ottomanism" is popular. Recently, the burial of a descendant of Sultan Abdul Hamid II got a lot of attention in the population.

No wonder that even the leading political party in Turkey uses that "return of Ottoman" for their goals. The recent steps of the Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) in foreign policy have been classified by some Turkish newspaper commentators as "neo-Ottoman". This refers to the energetic promoting of relations with Arab countries, which the Ottomans had once subjugated, e.g. Syria or Iraq.

The public appreciates such forcefully presented self-confidence. When at the World Economic Forum in Davos Prime Minister Erdogan on behalf of the Islamic world condemned the Israeli war in the Gaza Strip he won enthusiastic praise: "Our Fatih is back!" Fatih means conqueror and stands for Fatih Sultan Mehmet II, who in 1453 had ended the Christian-Byzantine rule by the conquest of Constantinople. Also the recent embarrassing statements by Erdogan to the Minaret-decision of the Swiss can be classed with this direction: the plebiscite, so the Prime Minister, reflected a "fascist and racist attitude" of Europe. The in it expressed fear of Islam was even "a crime against humanity." With strong, tough words the opinion leadership has to be taken over on behalf of the Islamic nations.


Glorious Ottoman Era?

Until now mainly non-Turkish experts spoke of "Ottomanism." Increasingly, however, historians of Turkey share this view. The television journalist Pelin Batu sees the glorification of the Ottoman era by a government the roots of which are in political Islam as an "uprising against the secular cultural revolution", which the founder of the state Mustafa Kemal Atatürk had initiated at the beginning of the 20th century. The orientation towards the Ottoman era, Batu elucidated in the International Herald Tribune, was a late response to Ataturk's attempt "to shift religion and Islam to the margins of society". The vast majority of Turks do not want that. And so the turn to "Ottomanism" can be explained with a romantic admiration for the past, which sometimes also serves as a basis for the critique of the existing system.

But what is the current situation on the Bosporus? Is the impression of a creeping Islamization of society, as it is sometimes asserted - also by emphasizing the Ottoman era -, correct? Or is it about the separation of state and religion?

An answer has to take into account both the complex development from the Ottoman Empire to modern Turkey and the decades of conflicts that in Turkey exist mainly between the urban center and the rural periphery. This is explained by the long-standing Turkey correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Rainer Hermann, in his book "Wohin geht die türkische Gesellschaft?" [Where does the Turkish society go?] (München 2008). Hermann sees neither the Turkish secularism in danger, nor was to be feared some form of Islamism. The overwhelming majority of Turks is religious but not strict, and they accept the separation of state and religion.

The transition from the multinational empire of the Ottomans to the modern Turkish nation-state was painful and happened at the expense of the minorities. The sultans tolerated the diversity and colourfulness of the population or even promoted minorities, whereas Ataturk decided in favour of a demarcated unitary state. All Muslims should henceforth be secular "Turks." The various ethnic groups - ethnic Turks, Bosnians, Albanians, Pomaks, Azerbaijanis, Georgians, Armenians, Circassians, Kurds, Arabs, Cossacks and others - and the religions, including Sunnis, Alevis, Christians, Yazidis, Jews were clamped in a national corset. The central government decreed from above the Turkish national identification symbols, which still unmistakably mark the picture: the red flag with the national emblem of crescent and star, the busts and pictures of Ataturk.

Moreover, the progressive secular urban culture became the model for rural Anatolia, which was regarded as backward. The centre should civilize the province. That was the intention - with severe consequences. Hermann: "minorities that did not want to follow were scorned or persecuted. Campaigns were launched to speak Turkish and to employ only Turks. Those felt sure who became part of the avowed majority culture. But those who did not want to assimilate and became no part of the dominant Turkish culture were discriminated."


"Black" and "White" Turks

The Istanbul journalist and economist Mehmet Altan, one of the leading intellectuals of the country, explained the development to a group of German and Turkish journalists in this way: At the beginning of the 20th century, the founding generation wanted with the help of the military and judiciary as well as with the since the Ottoman era privileged senior administrators, the Efendi, to form the state as a Turkish nation.



The leadership consisted of men and women who, so Altan, "were able to dance and flirt well, who were able to express themselves very well and who had studied abroad, often in the USA," but who deliberately kept distance to Islam.

According to a distinction of the sociologist Nilüfer Göle from the nineties, they had moulded a contrast image and distinguished between "black" and "white" Turks. The "white" Turks, that is the by Altan identified urban upper class, which is rich and looks down on the "black" Turks of Anatolia. Since the eighties in Anatolia, a highly motivated middle class grew up, which was supported by a steady economic advancement of small and midsize businesses and which gained also increasingly political influence. That's why the political lines of conflict run between this new elite and the old ruling class.


President's Wife with a Headscarf

The ranks of the "black Turks", including many former guest workers who have returned to Turkey, present now the government and President. For example, President Abdullah Gül, whose wife always appears with a headscarf, which is a red rag for the representative of the old elite, is son of a craftsman from the Anatolian Kayseri. Altan: "It is the first president who does not come from the so-called mansion junta." Prime Minister Erdogan, who grew up in Istanbul in a poor parental home, has frequently referred to himself as "black Turk".

The two dignitaries have their roots in the political Islam of the former Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan. But they distanced themselves from his attempt in the nineties to establish a society that is consistently moulded by political Islam. At that time, Erbakan's project was stopped by a military coup.

The conflict between the old elite and counter-elite can also be observed in the current landscape of political parties. The Republican People's Party (CHP), which was founded by Atatürk and is considered the guardian of the Kemalist heritage, is the party of "white Turks". In 2007 half of the richest fifth of the Turks gave its vote to the CHP. This party is currently in opposition. During a discussion with journalists the vice-chairman Önur Öymen castigated the lack of secularism in Turkey. When they inquired him after the minority policy of his party, which was several times part of the government, he claimed that the CHP had always cared for the protection of religious minorities. But in the last thirty years his party has de facto not supported these groups and e.g. prosecuted a radical marginalization of the Kurds.

The ruling AKP, in turn, is the party of the counter-elite. In 2007 it gained more votes in every age group than any other party. 51 per cent of women voted for it. In 69 of Turkey's 81 provinces the ACP was clearly in the majority and defeated the CHP even in its former strongholds. Rainer Hermann: "With the election victory ... the chances to correct the birth defects of the Republic and also in Turkey to establish a modern democracy have never been so good."

In the AKP, not only conservative Islamic forces are united but also liberals and leftists. It has become a true people's party. President Gül and Prime Minister Erdogan belong to the strongest wing. They advocate a policy that emphasizes both the individual rights and Islam as important parts of Turkish identity.

The publicist Afi Bula, who is respected in Turkey as mastermind of a democratically oriented Islam, explained how this development of an independent Islamic path of modernization looks in everyday life. The Koran demands that devout Muslims have to be respectful and grateful towards their parents. As a rule, this means that father and mother have the right of abode in the house of their children. That's why in the countryside almost no old people's homes exist. When in major cities such facilities would nevertheless be run - because more and more Western individualization took place there -, the adhering to the commandment of the Koran was by no means wrong. "Due to the Islamic orientation of its population, Turkey can bring this ethical difference to the Western way of life into the EU", expects Bula.

In view of the EU procedure for accession, the foreign ministers have once again encouraged Turkey to accelerate the reform efforts, particularly as regards the freedom of press and the freedom of expression, religious freedom and minority rights. During the journey of the journalists almost all Turkish interlocutors spoke of a certain EU-fatigue. Some even spoke of aversion. That's why some see in the foreign-policy contacts of the new Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu with Russia and Iran a clever move, according to the motto, "If you as EU do not want us, we will just go elsewhere ...


As if there were no Telephones

However, the AKP government has been for decades the first political power that, on the basis of broad support in the population, takes into account also the minorities, which were excluded in the previous system - although not always with the expected energetic action. So it wants at last to resolve peacefully the Kurdish conflict waged as a bloody war for 25 years. President Gül declared this to be most important domestic task; and he initiated in Parliament a process of democratization, which allows the Kurds their own media. It is intended that the Kurdish language, which had been disregarded for such a long time, is introduced as a school subject. It is uncertain whether there will be eventually a certain degree of autonomy of the Kurds.

The Christians, who have been waiting for an improvement of their situation by the EU accession negotiations, are disappointed. The recognition of their rights is still pending. One is almost tempted to speak of a stand still. The churches, said Dositheos Anagnostopoulos, a close associate of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, "do simply not exist for Ankara. The main problem is that we have no legal status." If the governor of Istanbul, under the authority of Ankara, wants to communicate something, an envoy of the patriarch is summoned to the city prefecture where a letter is handed to him. "But there are Internet and telephone."

The law on foundations has admittedly been twice be reformed - for Father Dositheos "a hopeful step forward" - but many requests gather dust in the offices. Father Dositheos is convinced that you cannot expect much consent from a bureaucracy that had been commissioned to maintain the status quo of Kemalism, i.e. to keep all minorities in check.

An even greater problem for the only 2000 Greek Orthodox Christians in Turkey - since 1955 their number massively decreased due to the restrictive policy on minorities - is that they cannot train priests since the state has closed the seminary on the island of Halki. It demands that the priests must be Turkish citizens. But how is this to be done, if the already small number of Christians is not allowed to train locals, so that they become priests? A solution is not in sight. In summer the Turkish Interior Minister and the Minister for Europe had said that the reopening of Halki could happen quickly if the theological faculty would be affiliated to a state university. But this has been rejected by the patriarchy by pointing out that it was better to remain independent from the state.

The Turkish society goes with many burdens into the 21st century. There will be needed many efforts to integrate the minorities and to enforce their civil and human rights.


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