Sean R. Singer
World Affairs, Vol. 176, No. 4 (NOVEMBER / DECEMBER 2013), pp. 81-88

On May 28th, around the same time Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the Justice and Development Party (AKP) delegation in Parliament, as he does most Tuesdays, police were ejecting protesters from Istanbul’s Gezi Park. The previous day, environmentalists had begun gathering there to protest the cutting down of trees to make
room for the reconstruction of the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks, which stood on the same plot of land from the early 1800s until 1940. By the end of the week, the protests had grown in intensity, with over a hundred thousand demonstrators and police using tear gas and water cannons to control them. Clashes with police spread from the adjacent Taksim Square to other parts of the city, and later to eighty of Turkey’s eighty-one provinces, with more than two million people participating in a movement thatby the end of June left five dead and thousands injured. Istanbul alone suffered tens of millions of dollars worth of property damage. The heterogeneous protesters – among them Turks, Kurds, liberals, nationalists, Alevis (a non-Sunni Islamic minority) , non-Muslims, assorted leftists, soccer fanatics, LGBT activists, and anti-capitalist Muslims – were united in their opposition to the AKP’s disregard for the half of the country that did not vote for the party in 2011. The protesters chanted for the still popular prime minister to resign. Erdogan has called them bums, drunks, and rodents.

As the fallout continues with protesters returning to the streets this autumn, the AKP’s international reputation has suffered. Numerous journalists who have criticized the government or backed the protesters havebeen fired. But while the future of Turkey’s unrest is now a subject of international discussion, Prime Minister Erdogan thought so little of the
budding protests when he spoke to the party faithful on the last Tuesday of May that he didn’t mention them at all.

On that occasion he did find the time, however, to honor the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Turkish poet and activist Necip Fazil Kisakurek. Erdogan recalled the joys of meeting Necip Fazil and walking “the path” alongside him. The prime minister described the poet’s life and works as a guide for himself and future generations. This was not an isolated reference. Last year, in an interview with a literary journal, Erdogan recalled that “the master and his ordeals helped us, like no other, to make sense of history and the present.” Presumably the capulcus (marauders) of (iezi Park, as Erdogan called them, could also learn a thing or two from ustad, as the poet’s devotees refer to him. Indeed, Necip Fazil’s political writings shed light on the illiberal tendencies, both religious and secular, that continue to plague Turkish democracy, and also help explain why a popular prime minister would risk his international and domestic reputation for the sake of an Ottoman barracks that once stood on the grounds of a municipal park.

Necip Fazil was born in 1904 and grew up in a four-story home with his extended family, not far from Istanbul’s historic Blue Mosque. He lived through a decade of war, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey all before the age of twenty. In 1924, he was among the first Turkish students the new government in Ankara sent to France for further schooling in hopes that a young, Westward-looking elite would return with enlightened ideas that would help build a secular republic. But things didn’t quite go as planned. Necip Fazil’s days and nights were filled with gambling, drinking, and women. In his memoir O ve Ben {He and I), he describes Paris as a “city of nightmares” and says that his religious morals prevent him from fully detailing that period of his life He returned to a country much changed by the laicizing reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and was so offended by the sight of hat-wearing Turks at the port that he compared the dissonant picture they presented to “Englishmen wearing a Hindu turban.”

The trajectory of Necip Fazil’s life changed dramatically during a ferry ride across the Bosphorus in 1934. In his telling, he was seated across from a mesmerizingly peaceful man who directed him to a spiritual guide, Abdulhakim Arvasi, a Kurdish Naqshbandi Sufi sheikh from south-eastern Turkey. Necip Fazil began meeting with Arvasi regularly and experienced a spiritual awakening. The Turkish Republic had banned the tarikats, or Sufi orders, in 1925, driving them underground, after crushing a revolt in Turkey’s southeast led by Sheikh Said, another Kurdish Naqshbandi. “Gentleman, you and the whole nation must know, and know well, that the Republic of Turkey cannot be the land of sheikhs, dervishes, disciples, and lay brothers,” Ataturk explained in 1925.

Inspired by Arvasi and his faith, Necip Fazil became a fierce critic of laicized Turkish officialdom after establishing the journal Buyuk Dogu (Great East) in 1943 and a political movement of the same name six years later. He described their ideal as “a system in the service of Islam, without one iota of compromise.” Necip Fazil articulated a totalitarian vision of the state, the Basyuceklik Devleti, influenced by European fascism, among other ideologies. A single person, the basyuce, supported by a council of intellectual elites, would govern with sovereignty to God. In this utopia, dance, statues, kahvehanes (coffee houses), and much else would be illegal. Historian Carter Vaughn Findley has described Necip Fazil’s political vision as Franco’s Spain with Hitler’s attitudes toward minorities.

In 1946, Necip Fazil published a partial Turkish translation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he introduced as an “official and public statement of the hidden face of Jewish ambition.” In 1949, he characterized Henry Ford’s rabidly anti-Semitic The International Jew as “a particularly valuable work.” Elsewhere he compared the Jews to an octopus with
hidden arms controlling Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, the Hejaz, Egypt, and Libya. For all his claims about the absolute division between East and West, Necip Fazil’s works, and his antSemitism, bear the imprint of European influence.

In his 1968 book Ideolocya Orgusu {Ideological Web), he wrote, “Every step will be taken to cleanse [the Turkish fatherland] from top to bottom of traitorous and shadowy elements.” This cleansing would begin with the Donme, the descendants of seventeenth-century Jewish converts to Islam. Denied the opportunity to convert to Islam, Donme and Jews would have
to “flee” the fatherland. Next came the Greeks and Armenians, followed by other small minority groups, who would also lose their property; unlike the Donme and the Jews, they would have the option to convert to Islam and stay.

Necip Fazil did not limit himself to attacking non-Muslims. Alevis, a non-Sunni Islamic minority that comprises fifteen to twenty-five percent of Turkey’s present-day population and that has suffered under both republican and Ottoman rule, were another target. He considered them
heretics to be Sunnified. In September 2011, when Erdogan addressed one of the greatest tragedies in Alevi history, the 1937-38 Dersim Massacre in Eastern Anatolia, in a speech to Parliament, he did so citing Necip Fazil. The prime minister’s recognition of and apology for one of the ugliest episodes in modern Turkish history was indeed historic, but his framing of the episode merits a closer look.

In the late 1930s, the ruling Republican People’s Party (CHP) sought to bring the mountainous, remote, and heavily Kurdish-Alevi Dersim Province under state control. After encountering tribal resistance, the military answered with brutal force. Eyewitnesses described women and children hiding in caves, only to be suffocated when Turkish soldiers blockaded the entrances or lit fires in front of them. Ataturk’s adopted daughter, a pilot, after whom one of Istanbul’s airports is named, participated in attacks from the air. More than ten thousand people died in what social anthropologist Martin Van Bruinessen has described as “the culmination of a series of measures taken in order to forcibly assimilate the Kurds,” a process he terms “ethnocide.”

As Van Bruinessen notes, the massacre disappeared from most versions of Turkish history. Scholars like Bernard Lewis, Stanford Shaw, and Ezel Kural did not address it in their standard works. But Necip Fazil had tackled the subject as early as 1950, and in his 1969 book Son Devrin Din Mazlumlari ( The Previous Era’s Oppressions of Religion ) he continued his unwavering campaign against the abuses of the authoritarian and secular CHP of the single-party period (1925-1946). The book, which Erdogan has described as life-changing, details the sufferings of religious Muslims under the allegedly anti-Islamic governments of the late-Ottoman Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) and the republican-era CHP. In his chapter on Dersim, Necip Fazil, Erdogan said in his speech to Parliament, didn’t mention Alevis, Kurds, or Armenians. He simply “related a human tragedy to us.”

But Necip Fazil’s omissions were not so humanitarian. By neglecting to mention that the victims of Dersim were neither Sunni nor Turkish, he could use the tragedy to advance a simplistic narrative of Turkish history of the struggle of the pious against authoritarian secularists. That Turkish troops relied on translators because Dersim ‘s people spoke Kurdish languages goes unmentioned.

Herein lay a certain irony. For all his withering criticism, Necip Fazil embraced the pillars of the official ideology: a Turkish nation resting on a foundation of Sunni Islam and Turkishness. But there was one twist: in his vision, the former was subordinated to the latter. There was some room for Kurds, but only as Muslims who happened also to be Kurdish. Such an approach, in many ways similar to the AKP’s own civilizational discourse and “National Unity and Brotherhood Project,” could never meet present-day demands for Kurdish, or Alevi, rights.

Son Devrin Din Mazlumlari begins its narrative of the struggle against secularist repression with the so-called 31 March Incident, the event that made the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks in today’s Gezi Park such an enduring symbol.

In 1908, the CUP, which Necip Fazil described as the “puppet of Jews and Masons,” came to power in the name of constitutionalism. On the night of April 12-13, 1909 (or March 31st on the Rumi calendar), a mutiny broke out across the city and the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks became the insurrection’s focal point when Macedonian soldiers posted there took their officers prisoner. Religious students and some lower-ranking ulema (Islamic scholars) joined the uprising, though senior ulema condemned the revolt.

The mutineers called for, among other things, the restoration of the serial (sharia law.) It was an odd demand since the CUP had not eliminated the serial in the first place. But in Necip Fazil’s paranoid reading of history, this righteous demand would prompt the Jews, Donme, and Masons – who had transformed “the fatherland” into “a Jewish synagogue” – to depose Sultan Abdulhamid. CUP members either fled Istanbul or went underground before organizing a military force under Sevket Pasha to retake the city. Ataturk and Ismet Inonu, who would later serve as the first and second presidents of the Republic of Turkey, respectively, both held positions in the Action Army, which entered Istanbul on April 24th. Necip Fazil described this force as a band of ” capulcus of Macedonian origin,” using the same Turkish word Erdogan used to describe the Gezi Park protestors. There was only one site of meaningful resistance to the Action Army: the Halil Pasha Artillery Barracks, the site Erdogan sought to rebuild.

The suppression of the revolt was more violent than the revolt itself. The mutineers were defeated, tried, and roughly eighty were executed. Even the sultan’s tobacco mixer didn’t escape alive. On April 27th, the two houses of Parliament voted to depose Abdulhamid, even though he had kept his distance from the revolt and would always deny playing any role in it. On April 28th, the CUP sent him into internal exile aboard a train to Thessaloniki, where he would live in the palatial Villa Allatini. For Necip Fazil, the sultan’s house arrest in a villa built by, and bearing the name of, the city’s wealthiest Jewish family was part of “Judaism’s revenge on Abdulhamid.”

As leading historian Erik J. Zürcher has written, for secularists the incident would long serve as a reminder of the dangers of religious fundamentalism. In fact, the mutiny’s instigator was likely the liberal opposition in the Parliament who opposed the CUP’s creeping authoritarianism. As Zürcher notes, the religious rhetoric of the mutineers should not obscure
the fact that their demands, even if expressed in religious language, were hardly fundamentalist and reflected myriad grievances with CUP rule.

But such nuances have no place in the official republican narrative of history. The same can be said of Son Devrin Din Mazlumlari, albeit with the heroes and villains reversed. Necip Fazil transforms the republican struggle for progress in the face of religious reaction into a righteous struggle against secular authoritarianism. Perhaps Erdogan was referring to the
parables of Son Devrin Din Mazlumlari when on May 29th he instructed the Gezi Park protesters to “research and take a look at what the history of that place called Gezi Park is.” The barracks were demolished in 1940 in favor of a park originally named after Inonu, whom Necip Fazil loathed and Erdogan has labeled a “fascist dictator,” thirty-one years after Inonu
helped crush the mutiny centered there. While the proposed construction in Gezi Park is part of a larger urban transformation process, for students of the Necip Fazil school of history this particular piece of real estate is a symbol of the wayward path of modern Turkish history.

In Necip Fazil’s understanding of democracy, there was no place for opposition or independent institutions. An electoral mandate empowered the state’s leadership to do whatever it liked in the name of the “national will” ( milli irade), respect for which was also the central theme of the political rallies Erdogan organized across the country in response to the protests of early summer. The prime minister has accused the protesters of opposing the national will. Yesterday’s Action Army soldier is today’s gas mask-toting protester, and they are both capulcus. The nefarious outside forces are the international media, the “interest rate lobby,” and, for one of Erdogan ‘s deputy prime ministers, “the Jewish Diaspora.”

Erdogan has skillfully rallied his base in the face of the Gezi Park protests, with support for the AKP only falling from fifty to forty-four percent, according to one poll. Aided by a heavily censored or self-censoring media, the government’s narrative of the events has become dominant. Still, with local elections coming up in March, the protests already have changed the political calculus in Turkey. Erdogan ‘s plan to shift the country from a parliamentary to a presidential system, a risky move for a country with weak democratic institutions and one long controversial within the AKP itself, is off the agenda. The party’s intolerance for dissent
and a stalled peace process with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party have drawn the AKP’s desire for reconciliation with the country’s Kurds into doubt though there were many skeptics from the beginning.

The fractured parliamentary opposition, united by little else than their distrust of the AKP, is not in a position to seize the moment. But despite a government crackdown, the potential now exists for the emergence over time of an opposition that can bridge some of the divides of Turkish society. Erdogan, of course, has other plans. Term-limited by party by-laws, he
is the leading candidate to be Turkey’s first popularly elected president in 2014 and unlikely to relinquish his leading role in the AKP and Turkish politics. The words of Necip Fazil may guide the way. As thousands greeted Erdogan upon his return from North Africa to an Istanbul rocked by protests in the early morning hours of June 7th, the prime minister quoted one of ustaď s poems, which concludes: “Indeed tomorrow is ours, ours indeed! /The sun rises, the sun sets, eternity is ours!”


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