Ankara’s problems: the veil, the Kurds and foreign policy
Marco Cesario 31 May 2010

The problem posed by nationalism

Active in the markets of the Mediterranean basin and in trade with Asia, Turkey is attempting to combine the legacy of historical Kemalist nationalism with the rampant liberalism of commercial relations. According to Fuat Keyman, professor of International Relations at the College of Administrative Science and Economics at Koç University, a new form of nationalism is taking shape today next to the historical Kemalist tradition and the radical anti-Western and anti-Semitic kind. It is the liberalist nationalism that sees the marketplace as a fetish and is based on the exclusion of classes. Emphasis is placed on Turkey’s economic successes and on the fetishist use off the Turkish flag. Other forms of nationalism continue to survive, merging and often exploiting official nationalism. The Kurdish nationalist movement, however, questions the totality of this paradigm.

The Kurdish issue

The Kurdish issue is more difficult and thorny. Dilek Kurban, a researcher at the European Centre for Minority Issues, observes that in spite of the interruption of the military offensive in northern Iraq, it remains one of the country’s greatest problems. Having abandoned the military option, there is now an attempt to find a “political solution.” Turkish nationalism tries to exploit the Kemalist judicial legacy to deny minorities their rights. While before the problem was special and linked to the Kurds’ historical territories, with the diaspora it has broadened and become a national one. Thanks to Turkey’s process for joining the European Union and pressure applied by the international community, the Turkish establishment has begun to address the Kurdish issue. In spite of positive initiatives (inauguration of a TV channel in the Kurdish language), Kurds still remain segregated. Their language is studied in private and forbidden during election campaigns. The word ‘Kurd’ does not exist in Turkish legal texts.

Internal politics: the issue of the veil and the rebirth of radical Islam

The problem of the relationship between religion and politics in Turkey is anything but simple and can be summarised by the issue of the veil. Yesim Arat, professor of International Relations at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul, reminds one that it was the Diyanet, the Presidency for Religious Affairs, that since 1924 organises the Islamic religion and manages religion in the public sphere, that promulgated the famous ban on wearing the veil in public offices and universities. With the AKP’s ascent to power, there appears to have been an overturning of the paradigm. Considered an extension of patriarchal control over the bodies of women, the veil today has become the cutting edge of a moralising campaign attempting to delegitimize the role of women in the public sphere. Arat spoke of the dangerous religious infiltration in public life providing the significant data that 70% of Turkish women wear the veil nowadays. In various working contexts women who do not wear the veil are discriminated against. Religion is also infiltrating the national educational sector and employment criteria in offices. Women are encouraged to work in the home and not outside it. According to Arat, an attack on Turkey’s secular tradition is currently underway.

The double-edged sword of the AKO’s foreign policy

Soli Özel, professor of Political Science and International Relations at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, sees a powerful ideological component behind Turkish activism at an international level, starting with the most recent event of the agreement between Turkey, Brazil and Iran for transferring abroad a significant quantity of Turkey’s enriched uranium. Özel is not at all vague and even spoke of an “Islamisation of foreign policy,” with solidarity for other Muslim nations as the core issue. Özel quotes the case of a visit by Sudanese President Bashir, and Erdogan’s visit to Darfur where he said, “I do not see any genocide” and the denigration of the state of Israel in daily political speeches. Özel also quoted a BBC survey on Obama’s election. The only two countries in which the perception of change in American foreign policy is considered zero, are Pakistan and Turkey. These are all disquieting signs that have led Özel to say that Erdogan’s AKP is progressively transforming Turkey into a ‘soft’ Islamic state. In addition to these shadows, Özel does see some bright spots. In spite of its ideological component, the AKP remains a moderate political party and one ready to establish a dialogue with the West.

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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