Ergun Babahan
Sep 10 2018

Caught between the Quran and the speech

We can no longer use the phrase “caught between the mosque and the barracks” to describe Turkey because the mosque now controls the barracks, or at least those institutions have formed an Islamist-nationalist alliance that was unimaginable 10 to 15 years ago.  

Turkey today is caught between two texts; the Quran and the 1927 six-day speech by the nation's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. The speech (nutuk) is the most significant source for understanding the blend of secularism, statism and nationalism known as Kemalism that dominated the thinking of those in power before President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamists came to power in 2002.

Both sides of the political chasm that divides Turkey believe they can solve the nation’s by going back to what they see as the golden ages that these books represent; the seventh century for the Quran, or the peak Kemalism of the 1930s.

The Quran is primarily a book seeking solutions for the communities of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century. As nomadic tribes settled, their values quickly became corrupted, the culture of helping the needy disappeared, and both the accumulation of wealth in the hands of few and poverty rapidly increased.

The Quran is the prophet Muhammad's answer to this corruption. It aims to build up a sense of solidarity; it is inclusive, it suggests extending a hand to the poor and needy. The Quran proposes new rules without wiping out traditional ones. Muhammad is more of a reformist than revolutionary; without ignoring the old traditions, he proposes remedial steps for the community.

And as a monotheistic religion, the Quran does not limit solidarity to a single tribe or ethnicity - anyone who believes in God and accepts that Muhammad is his messenger can be part of this solidarity.

Ataturk's speech is about a people rising from the ashes of a fallen empire to regain their identity and place in the world through a brand-new concept; nationalisation. It is a revolution in the sense that it cut the people’s connections to their past. But it is somewhat an incomplete and distorted account of this history since it ignores the founders of that movement in Turkey, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), a liberal movement that rose to power in the last decades of the Ottoman Empire.

Many of the measures later adopted by the newly founded Republic of Turkey originated with the unionists, such as Turkification, clothing reforms, changes to the alphabet and language. But for Turkey's secularists the story of the republic is that told by Ataturk in his speech.

Ataturk wrote the speech when nation states were popping up all around the world. He believed that Arabs and Muslims had betrayed the Ottoman Turks and so turned the new republic towards the West and opted for French-style secularism.

But while Western civilisation has become more liberal and inclusive, Turkey still clings to the old unionist theories that lie at the heart of all its troubles domestically and internationally; the denial of every identity that is not Turkish and not Muslim.

These unionist ideals have now reached such a point that the republic denies even the rights of Kurdish minorities in another country, Syria.

The unionists, disguised as Islamists today, are claiming the existence of the country depends on suppressing Kurds all over the region. That is why those who have killed Kurds in the mainly Kurdish parts of Turkey now advocate human rights in the Syrian rebel-held province of Idlib, as a way to counter-balance Kurdish influence in northern Syria.

The unionists today use Islamist vocabulary, but those who grew up believing in the secularist ideal also support unionist theories. They condone the disregard of human rights and the rule the law in order to keep the unionist model alive.

Turkey needs a new way. The unionist view has hit the wall. It failed in both its secular and its Islamic forms and will collapse under Erdoğan's Islamist-unionist government.

New stories demand a new consensus. The only things the unionist discourse brought this country are economic crises every 10 to 15 years, an uneducated populace, a culture of plunder and endless threats to our existence. When the public does not yet feel the crisis, you can manipulate the people by fear mongering. But remember the electorate first did not vote for Erdoğan out of fear, they voted for hope.

The pious people of Anatolia wanted to exercise their beliefs freely, but at the same time, they wanted to live the life of the urban secular Turks.

They wanted a house, a car, summer vacations and a good education for their children.

Now they are losing their chances to achieve those goals. The unionist story is exhausted.

Unless this country comes up with a new story, a new solidarity, the rest is just empty words.