Talisman Gate

Monday, September 25, 2006

Return of the Gazi

September 25, 2006 Edition > Section: Opinion >

Return of the Gazi

September 25, 2006
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/40236

Psychoanalyzing the Turkish nation is a favorite pastime for many analysts since Turkey's recurring identity crisis gives ample material for all sorts of conjecture: Is it trying to be Western? Is Turkey trying to rediscover its eastern roots? Is it getting more comfortable with its Ottoman inheritance?

This has been going on for decades, with some haughty Westerners finding it bemusing that a Muslim nation is trying so hard to put on sophisticated — read European — airs. Well, now Turkey's existentialism is no longer eccentrically cutesy. Whichever way Turkey lands could potentially determine the outcome of a war between two civilizations — the West and Islam.

Consider the change. The usual hot-button issues for regular Turks used to be Cyprus and all things Greek, leftist and rightist politics, Kurdish terrorism, and other assorted threats against the secular nature of the state. Otherwise, soccer rivalry was the remaining topic that could engender enflamed passions in coffee shops. The Middle East for those lay Turks was a place full of Arabs — a people who euphemistically stabbed the Turks in the back during World War I.

But recently, Israel, Hezbollah, and the war on terror have been inflaming Turkish passions. Some blame the pseudo-Islamist AKP — Justice and Development Party — politicians for orchestrating an inch-by-inch reorientation of Turkish popular sentiments back into the Islamist fold and away from the Kemalist — that is the nonaligned, militantly nationalist, and secular — heritage. Regardless of who is behind this shift, it is still to be determined whether these changes will take on a dangerous strategic dimension.

Still, how serious is the change? Finding evidence that the stringent secularism of Kemalism is being undermined is hard to come by. It is done in nuances and whichever way the Islamists can get away with it. One way is to rewrite history and overturn some of the symbolism. At the tomb of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II — the Muslim conqueror of Constantinople, who was buried on a hilltop that also at one point held the remains of the Byzantine emperors before him, including Constantine — one finds the following biographical excerpt to educate English-savvy tourists, "He spent most of his life engaged in campaigns. He finally destroyed the Byzantine Empire and conquered Istanbul. He changed St. Sophia into a mosque and willed whoever should abolish this, may he be cursed by Allah the Almighty." The English version then goes on to say that he was poisoned by a Jewish doctor at the behest of the Venetians.

The corresponding Turkish text makes no mention of divine curses. It matter-of-factly clarifies that St. Sophia was a church for 1,127 years and then a mosque for 482 years more, and that in 1934 it was changed into a museum — its current status. There is also no mention of a Jewish doctor. The person who altered Aya Sophia's status was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, and hence, the English text is implying that he is cursed by Allah.

Atatürk is also challenged elsewhere. Across the main north-south thoroughfare traversing Istanbul another location is teaming with conflicting legacies. The area of Vefa has undergone some major changes since it was first claimed by urban habitation. A mosque that was once a church still bears the solemn fragments of saints in mosaic. A Muslim holy man, with some role in conquering the city, is buried nearby. The Greeks who lived here throughout the Ottoman era were pushed out in more modern time, and in more modern quarrels. The mildly fermented drink called Boza they made is still being sold in a shop that has been in business for more than 100 years, and still displays the glass that Atatürk imbibed from during a visit there. The Valens Aqueduct, a massive Byzantine structure, casts a long shadow over a small convention hall, where a very peculiar topic is being discussed. Here, panel upon panel of speakers are facing an overflowing audience of young men in unkempt beards and young ladies in headscarves. The topic is taboo and illegal in most countries of the Middle East: a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the "martyrdom" of an Egyptian thinker called Sayyid Qutb.

Qutb was executed by the Egyptian authorities in 1966. He was one of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood there, but he veered away from his organization's policy of working through the system and counseled the violent overthrow of the ruling regime. His theory of hakimiya — the rule of Allah over all the affairs of man as espoused in the Koran — is still the animating tenet of jihadists everywhere. Interestingly, peering out over the congregants at the seminar was a poster whose title incorporated one of the Kemalist slogans calling for "hakimiyeti milliye"— rule of the people. This is the clash between political Islam and modernity at its simplest: Who's in charge? The voting public or the divine? A similar celebration was held 10 years ago at the 30th anniversary, and no violent overthrow of the Turkish regime has occurred since then, but that still does not go a long way toward explaining why such a radioactive topic is being discussed so blatantly.

One well-placed security source dismisses all these signs — subversive hagiographies in English and seminars on terror's godfather — saying that "Turkey is much more democratic than 10 years ago." A decade ago, the southeast of Turkey was engulfed in bloody strife between Kurdish secessionists and the Turkish state. Today, it is more or less quiet, with Turkish authorities turning a blind eye to such provocations as having mayors of major towns acting as fronts for PKK — Kurdistan Workers Party — terrorists.

The town of Surgucu in Mardin province has elected a mayor whose son, Heytham Anik (codenamed Alan) is fighting alongside the PKK in the mountains nearby, the source tells me, but the state did not interfere, which is a marker of democratic progress. However, there may be some holdouts within the security regime that are having a hard time with this touchy-feely policy toward PKK sympathizers, and they may have had a hand in orchestrating a violent incident in the town of Shemdinli a year ago to abort an unofficial channel of communication between influential Turks and the PKK leadership hiding in Iraq's Kandil Mountain.

But there is no doubt that Turkey has come a long way toward a more reasonable policy toward its Kurdish problem. It would seem that the Turkish state has mellowed out and is more confident in its permanence, and hence the loosening up on talk of secessionism or a return to Islam.

So, is the radicalism that is coming to a surface just a natural measure of popular sentiment expressed benignly and hence nonthreateningly, whereas in the past it was suppressed and thus escaped the notice of many Turkey watchers? Or is the radicalism a symptom of a trend in Turkey that is taking it deeper into the vortex of the Middle Eastern mess?

The decision to send troops to enforce peacekeeping in Lebanon was couched by the AKP as necessary for Turkey's regional prestige — a historical role that harkens back to Ottoman suzerainty over the Middle East. In order to sell it to the public, the politicians had to promise that Turkish troops will not open fire on their Muslim brothers and will not disarm the warriors of Hezbollah. Some analysts understand this move as the opening gambit of engaging Turkey as a powerful Sunni power to check the mounting challenge posed by Shiite Iran, and explain the recent trip by the Saudi king as part of this strategy. What is certain is that Turkey is now involved, and every little story emerging from over there will be played up by the home press to further fan the flames of radicalism on the issue of an Islamic confrontation with the West and Israel.

When the Ottomans sat down to write the story of their fathers, they preferred to remember them as warriors for the Islamic faith doing battle against Christendom. Such a warrior is called a gazi, who fights on the borderlands being claimed for Islam. What is more likely is that the early Turks were fighting for plunder rather than for faith and that their ranks included a substantial number of Christian mercenaries. But that did not leave subsequent generations awestruck with the glorious victories of their forefathers, so memories were modified. The emerging radicalism in Turkey, and especially its Islamist component, may not mean much at this point, but many young Turks may be in danger of being lured into the gazi myth: to see themselves as the inheritors of that sword-wielding legacy on the behalf of the Prophet Muhammad's call. The world should be on notice that Turkey — which is still very secular and more or less friendly, and an emerging regional powerhouse — may be in danger of slipping back into a similar role down the road.

Mr. Kazimi was recently in Turkey and can be reached at nibraska@yahoo.com