Ausgabe 29/2007

Turkey's Powerful Prime Minister Who Can Challenge Erdogan?


Part 2: The Smug 'White Turks'

AKP supporters rally as Erdogan makes a campaign appearance Friday.

AKP supporters rally as Erdogan makes a campaign appearance Friday.

Equal rights for women and their liberation from the constraints of Ottoman days are among the fundamental values of the republic, symbolized by Turkey's ban on the wearing of headscarves in schools, universities and government offices. Anyone who challenges this prohibition, say members of the Kemalist establishment, is challenging the legacy of Ataturk and the very framework of modern, secular Turkey.

This legacy includes, aside from the strict separation of religion and state, wide-reaching powers for the military and a lifestyle Ataturk imposed with dictatorial means and consistently demonstrated in his own behavior; he set about storming the bastions of conservative Islam by drinking raki, dancing tango and stripping off to sunbathe. But today Ataturk's legacy has lost some of its allure.

What makes Erdogan's system so powerful are the weaknesses of his opponents. Aside from secularism, which has been elevated to a national doctrine, they lack ideas to counter the religious pragmatist. It is as if they had exhausted the defenses of democracy in their unified struggle against Islamism.

And so those who call themselves "white Turks," the descendants of prominent Istanbul families for the most part, look on as something begins to rise from the ruins of the defeated Ottoman order, something that responds to neither logic nor violence: the yearning of the Turkish people for transcendence.

The "white Turks" have become smug and complacent, says Mehmet Umur. "They are secular, which they believe qualifies them as modern." Umur is the manager of Club Jezair in a basement in Istanbul's trendy Beyoglu neighborhood, where members of the urban opposition to Islamism, who come here to sip white wine and eat ravioli, practically have the place to themselves.

At least until Egemen Bagis walks into the bar. Bagis, 37, is Erdogan's foreign policy advisor and his connection to the White House in Washington. A graduate of Baruch College in New York, Bagis is one of the members of Turkey's cosmopolitan elite that Erdogan has recruited as secret weapons for the AKP in the last few years.

In 1998, Erdogan told his supporters, "Your brother Tayyip is one of the black Turks" -- in other words, those who are excluded from the establishment. Nowadays, however, Erdogan insists that his party is no longer called the AKP, but the "Ak Parti," or "White Party." A man like Bagis, who has no qualms about crossing class boundaries or showing up at Jezair during an election campaign, is perfect for the prime minister's new strategy. He glances at a long table in the middle of the room, where the leaders of the Rotary Club are holding a meeting, and promptly joins the group.

"The different camps are finding common ground," says Umur, the club's manager. Serif Mardin, the doyen of the Turkish sociology community whose résumé includes stints at Harvard, Princeton and Oxford, calls the phenomenon "milieu pressure." With migrants from Turkey's less cosmopolitan regions coming to Istanbul, he says, "people move about more than in the past, causing former cultural enclaves to burst like boils."

Mardin's social theory of shifts within Turkish society suggests that the AKP is pursuing a double-edged strategy. It fights for the votes of the elite by launching a charm offensive in the strongholds of the middle-class intelligentsia, the captains of industry and the opposition parties. The people living in the burst "boils" -- the poor neighborhoods lining the shores of the Golden Horn -- and in the slums known as "gecekondus" on Istanbul's outskirts already support the party.

In the Kasimpasa neighborhood where Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the son of a seaman, was born in a wooden house at Altyumak Street 15, the Istanbul of nightclubs, designer boutiques and art galleries seems a sinful temptation from days gone by. In Kasimpasa, groups of women wearing the black carsaf, Turkey's version of the Muslim chador, huddle in front of houses. The sale of alcohol in the neighborhood was discontinued years ago without the need for any official directive.

It is more than just a footnote in history that here in Kasimpasa, of all places, the old "Valley of Springs," the troops of Sultan Mehmet II dragged their boats across the mountain in May 1453 to launch their decisive assault on then Christian Constantinople.

As if the Turkish population were subconsciously following the traces of its suppressed history, devout Muslims are now settling in areas around historic Islamic sites along the Golden Horn -- places like Eminönü, where hair from the beard of the Prophet Mohammed is on display; in Eyüp, the burial site of Mohammed's standard bearer, who died before the walls of Constantinople in the seventh century; and in Fatih, where it is said that the sheikh of the Iskender Pasa Mosque initiated the later President Turgut Özal and the later Prime Minister Erdogan into the banned Naksibendi Order, a powerful Sufi Muslim brotherhood.

On the bazaar street of Fatih's Carsamba neighborhood, women wearing black robes that reveal only a strip of skin between the nostrils and the forehead already make up a majority. Conservative Muslims deliberately chose the area for its geographic distance from cosmopolitan Istanbul. "Turkey is a bottle," say members of Akder, a women's rights organization. "The Islamic lifestyle and the Western lifestyle are like olive oil and water," she says -- no matter how much the republic's leaders try to shake up the bottle, mixing the two is nearly impossible.

Outside Istanbul, the desire of groups to isolate themselves from modern society and the fear of anything that is different is not as clear-cut. There are cities in which fear of the Islamists combines with fear of the government's sinister machinations and of one's own neighbors.

Malatya is one of these places. The city, more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) east of Istanbul, is the world capital of apricot production and home to 385,000 people, up to a third of them members of the minority Alevi sect of Islam. Malatya is a city that spans East and West or, as the local saying goes, lies "in the East of the West, in the West of the East."

Tilman Geske, a German translator who had settled in Malatya with his wife and three children, died there on April 18. He was found in his office at the Zirve Publishing House, lying next to two murdered Turkish Christians. A towel had been stuffed into his mouth, his body stabbed 156 times, his hands tied behind his back and his skin pulled from his fingers.

Five young male students were charged with the crime. They lived in dormitories operated by the Ihlas Foundation, which has taken up the cause of reconciling Islamism and Turkish nationalism. The attackers were already known to the police. Two days before the murders, they were arrested for using the city's football stadium as a shooting range, but were promptly released.


© DER SPIEGEL 29/2007
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