National Security Lessons Scraped: Democratisation, De-Militarisation, or Neither?

I just read a rather interesting and upfront article in Sabah (28/01/12) by Emre Akoz talking about the government's move to give the teaching of Milli Guvenlik, or 'National Security', classes in schools a dishonourable discharge.

Once a week, Turkish middle-high school students are visited by a Turkish army commander, who enters the class in full military garb. They are taught about such matters model (soldier) citizenship and the importance of the army for the protection of the rights of the nation (because there's no 'I' in army).

The classes have been existent since 1979, and so represent a relic of the coup years when the army's power was displayed en force. Within a few years it was coupled by the introduction of religious education classes, brought in to usher a sense of non-partisan unity and provide a third way to the youth, caught up in mass street violence between the materialistic ideologies of capitalist nationalism and socialism. 

Democratisation and De-Militarisation 

The Prime Minister announced the decision as being based on EU observations. Why were soldiers teaching in public and private educational institutes? According to the PM, the more harmless 'citizenship' aspect lessons will be observed in other classes by regular teachers. I gather that this means greater emphasis on the Sosyal Bilgi, or 'Social Science' lessons. Don't be fooled by the name though, this class' textbooks focus solely on Ataturk's message, Turkish history with all its official red line issues and depending on the age group, an emphasis on morals and ethical behaviour. This is worrying to me because of the Turkish state's impoverished view on real humanities study, which is based on the pondering of questions and exploring issues, rather than stated facts and self-congratulatory truisms like the morning pledge "I am Turk, I am right".

Emre Akoz asked the question therefore, as to whether removing the armed forces from schools would simultaneously signify the removal of Turkish Militarism and introduction of Democratisation. "Only by an inch," the writer said ("zerre kadar"). Akoz related his observations on the way the 30th August celebrations were held by the military across Turkish cities in 2009; 

"In all the big cities posters everywhere were saying 'Powerful Army, Powerful Turkey.' This slogan was a straight-up lie, because however strong  a country is (economically), the army may be powerful. History is full of examples of this."

'National Security Course is now History' The headline works
on two levels - one implying that from now on the work will be
left to history teachers.
According to Akoz, the real message was simple however;

"Soldiers are more important than civilians [...] Love your soldiers, respect them, whatever they say is true whenever they ask for money never ask for it back, if the solders rise up in a coup d'etat, do not go against them"

In any case, militarism will still be a feature of the curriculum (mufredat) but children will no longer see the friendly face of a fifty-year old Turkish commando. I don't know if it's cynical to say this is just another straw on the back of the military, but I think it is as it takes away their presence within public space it is a small but significant step in the AKP's cold war with the military. As far as EU reports are concerned, it is good to see them getting a mention again, but as the last term has so-far been characterised by a lack of concern with government interference in the judiciary and anger at EU states France and Germany, I have to conclude it is simply being used to cover-up the political implications. 

Reaction in Schools

Not to say that this is not an important step, no matter what the politics behind it. Teachers will be happy that strangers in military uniform will no longer be peering into things at the school. My own religious school in Bagcilar will be particularly pleased, as having states officials round means putting the whole school on alert, lest anyone find the female students or teachers wearing hijab. A plan is put into action and the bottom two levels of the school are restricted only to those students who don't choose to wear the scarf.

In one meeting, the principle pointed out that our security was perhaps a little too stringent as, every time the commander came in, he commented on the lack of noise "so be aware," he said. On another occassion, the risk even reached our teachers room. There were rumours that the commander had decided to take a look around. The site of five adult women lingering around the 'blind-spot' of the staff room, leaping behind a well-positioned cupboard whenever anyone knocked on the door is as good an example as any, to prove the ridiculousness caused by French-brand secularism and the power of its interference in people's private lives.

Education Union, Egitim Bir Sen gave the news their backing. As with anything, if Egitim Bir Sen sense the whiff of more jobs they will support it. Their report was accompanied by badges (pictured above) saying "Soldiers for the Barracks, Historians for Schools" and "Soldiers have alot of work, Historians have none!" The sense here, was that solders have been taking the role reserved for history teachers, despite having important national security work.


This is Tarlabaşı

I always wonder about the dark side of Istanbul – the slums, the gece kondu (“put up in a night”) favellas that form the back-drop of the city on countless Turkish cinema classics from the 70s. Such pockets still exist, places like Gazi Osman Pasa, a poor migrant area occupied and effectively put under martial law in the 90s. Other well-known slums include my place of employment – Bagcilar, otherwise known as Istanbul's 'Wild West.' Bagcilar is the most populated local borough in Turkey, housing around a million people in a maze of concrete apartments.

Gazi Osman Pasa is now just one of many internal immigrant suburbs around Istanbul. As for Bagcilar, recent tramway connections, and a new metro station plan have provided a life-line to the city's finance and employment centres, drastically improving its prosperity and security.

All the while, a stone's throw from the heart of the city lies Tarlabaşı.

Driving from Galata bridge to Taksim Square, one is lead along Tarlabaşı Caddessi. The road climbs uphill steeply surrounded on all sides by the shimmering nightlights of the entire city. The breath-taking view provides some comfort when one is held up in the inevitable traffic leading up to the square. The street snakes round and gently straightens out until it goes exactly parallel to Istiklal Caddessi, the glimmering shopping and party capital of the city. The right side of the road is full of hurried taxi stops, shoppers, families and groups of students and tourists filtering out of the side streets of that spectacular, mile-long high 

No-one looks left. After all, who would? There are no lights, shops or obvious cafes, and the silhouette of the areas typical turn-of-the-century houses reassures any passers by that this is simply where party ends and the residential city begins. I went to have a closer look. The following observations take place within spitting distance of Istiklal Caddessi's shopping vitrines.

I got out of the taxi at the square and crossed to the other side as it were. Closer to the square, the street mirrors the Taksim area; banks, shops, kebab places and the like. One crowded bus stop marks the end of this. One empty, boarded-up house with a crumbling roof welcomes you to the Tarlabaşı zone.

After a two minute walk down the busy main street my attention was taken by the row upon row of huge, empty housing, blackened by fire and the intensified by the absence of street lights. The glistening lights on the other side gave me comfort in the form of my own shadow beeming onto the wrecks. While my sites were locked onto the architecture around me I suddenly felt a hand on my lower back. I turned to see the jet black hair, leather jacket and crooked grin of a transexual hooker. I grabbed by bag and uttered a “no thanks” only to find myself in the middle of a horde of others waiting outside a bar whose dim lights shone through a discreet blind in its small windows. I swung out to the curb to continue my journey. The woman had simply enter one of the empty houses with its face completely demolished, to ask for tea from an old moustachioed gentlemen who had rather strategically set up a tea stand for the workers, it being a chilly evening to wear a latex mini-skirt.

I realised I should look where I'm going as I then left the mainroad and headed into the interior of the slum, walled in on all sides by the haunting shells of the 19th century bourgeoisie housing. I followed the sliver of lighted streets, peering into the darkness of the adjacent alleys only long enough to make out children playing in the rubble. The lights ran out and I continued, walking towards a golden light and what looked like a colourful crowd a few blocks ahead. Would I re-emerge in an average working class neighbourhood? On the dark street young men stood outside their repair shops, locking the doors with elaborate chains and smoking at the end of a long shift. I continued towards the light, the people, and the noise. No sooner had the noise reached the height of shouting and chanting than it was accompanied by the unmistakable smell of the spice markets of the south east region.

I had gone from sensing my way through a darkness, to an explosion of colour and light. The market air was laced with dust and the scent of freshly watered vegetables. The crowd was like no other I had seen in Istanbul's many local weekly market places. I identified several accents, languages and forms of dress; ‘Khalo!’, ‘Khaltiye!’,‘Rojbash!’ the sellers cried. Many of the customers and street sellers were gypsy Roma, Kurds and Arabs – forming and age group that betrayed the fact these were no mere descendents of earlier internal emigrants.

After a few minutes bewildered by the sudden burst of activity, I pushed by way through the crowd. Aside from the mix languages and dress, the thing that made this bazaar different to rest was that behind the tent material hung around each stall, the pitch darkness of the ruined suburb made its presence known. I had taken a brief shortcut through part of this area last summer in the day time, I assumed that the apartments had been recently vacated and gutted to make way for some new improved shopping district or housing estate. After all, the rest of Istanbul had been undergoing a heavy make-over since the elections, and hadn't they recently thrown the gypsies out of France Street on the other side of Taksim to make way for trendy bohemian bars?

Something overpowered me about the buildings though. A feeling I had sensed frequently during my stay in Izmir, staring at its vacant, rotting mansions and clinical seafront that was the site of a gruesome massacre with no memorial. The sense of abandonment lingered too strongly and intentionally to owe to poor council planning. Tarlabaşı was no project I thought, the buildings were being left to rot, the marks of the fire were too extensive to have been a freak accident.

I stopped to survey by a small police station attached to the area back on the main road. A police tank was parked outside, surrounded by make-shift fencing. I approached a man in his fifties smoking a cigarette outside whether there was recently a fire in the area.

He pointed his thumb behind him, rolling back his eyes. “Oh way back”.

It all started to make sense. The decrepit slum I was touring was an unmarked mausoleum of the Greek community, whose churches and cathedrals mark tourist sites on Istiklal Caddesi, two hundred metres away. In the 1950s this was the site of an atrocious climax of racism that had built up in Turkey during the single-party era after the war. Istanbul's economy was still, to a large degree, run by its Christian population despite mass Turkish Muslim migration to the city. As a means to finish the job started in the war, a false rumour was spread that Greeks had vandalised Ataturk's former home in Thessaloniki and pogram was organised with all the killing, looting and raping that entails. What followed was the flight of the Greeks from Istanbul, the final nail in the coffin for Eastern Rome.

I wondered further down an alley into the silent darkness. Tiny faces peered through the window frames. There were children everywhere, some throwing glass bottles against a wall. Down another alley way young men were sitting around a fire. I continued, walking in the middle of the road – a boy of about twelve threw a large rock on the ground to my side. His friends stared at the rock and back up to the boy, stood nonchalant and all drifted back into the darkness as I continued.

Suddenly, up ahead three lights shining directly into my eyes came thundering towards me. Police on motorbikes, or 'dolphins' were hurtling through the street. I slipped onto the pavement to give way but they stretched to a halt right behind me. I turned to see what looked like the one on the left screaming through an empty window. Then one of the children standing on the corner looked up at me; “they're calling you” he said.

I stopped and turned again. Two officers dismounted and started walking towards me. One took his helmet off and stood to my left while the other kept his on, masking his face so that only his furious eyes could be seen. The guy on the left asked 'why didn't you stop when we called you?' Before I could answer the masked police jutted in helpfully with 'Idiot! Why is it you didn't stop?'

Having had a number of encounters with Turkish police I was used to this tone, but I still had to take a moment. I stopped to look into his eyes disapprovingly. Turning to the evening's 'good cop' of the role play I explained I didn't know they were calling me, “Well now you know” was the simple reply.

I spent about a half a minute riffling through my pockets to find my residence permit, while the young boy updated another newly-arrived bunch of street kids on the situation so far.

Dickhead, do you have your passport or not?” “Here” I said handing bad cop the small booklet.

After analysing every page he snapped it shut he looked at me and gave a nod that said 'that's as much fun as I'm able to have.' Thank God it's not like Izmir, I thought. Over there, I was driven around in a cop car and teased incessently by civil police just for kicks. I guess Tarlabaşı can provide enough entertainment for them without my help. I walked ahead for five minutes, back to the hussle and bussle of Taksim Square.

Facts on Tarlabaşı

There was actually a planned regeneration in 2006 following a petition from the council calling into use the newly legislated 'Protection of Deteriorated Historic and Cultural Heritage through Renewal and Re-use' bill.

The last news update on the project website, www.tarlabası yenileniyor.com is dated as January 2010. The note quotes Beyoglu councillor Ahmet Misbah Demircan as stating his intention to make Tarlabaşı for Istanbul what the Champs Elysee is for Paris.

Amnesty International stepped in to stop people getting evicted from the area last year.

This video report by NPR sheds some light on the difficulties facing the inhabitants of the suburb.

Tarlabaşı is about 20,000 square metres, consisting of 9 blocks and 278 plots.

Tarlabasi Community Centre website http://www.tarlabasi.org/gonulluluk.html

Photography Project aimed towards the smiley-faced foul-mouthed kids! http://onorthodox.com/?page_id=20


Book Review: Islam, Kurds and the Turkish Nation State

Christopher Houston is an anthropologist possessing exceeding insight into Turkey's Kurdish and Islamist 'communities.' The apostrophic wrapping I've given the term should go some way to revealing just how much the book has increased the level of sensitivity I now give the tangled and mangled-up world of Turkish, Kurdish, statist, laicist and carnival Islamists, pushing around the debate on the nature of the state and modernity.

This multi-faceted and convoluted subject is expanded moving out steadily from Houston's alienated Islamist friends who are introduced sipping tea on the park benches of Kuzguncuk. Subsequent chapters expand to the national before returning back. For this reason the book is highly accessible, although prior knowledge of the characters and the Turkish political scene will only enrich appreciation.

Once Islamism's internal dynamics and differences are interrogated, the problem of the Kurds' position in modern Turkey forms a pivot with which to explore these differences.

The problem facing the Kurds is explained as succinctly as possible on all levels:

"For the state the Kurds are a problem to its guardianship of the cultural homogeneity of the nation. For the armed forces the Kurdish guerrilla resistance presents a threat to their instituted aim of defending the country's territorial and national integrity. For the civilizing bureaucracies Kurds constitute an enormous challenge to the efficient carrying out of their duties (lanugage problems, problems of access, of cultural difference [and post-PKK to their very presence in the region]). For intellectuals, especially those employed at state universities, the Kurdish problem represents an uncomfortable taboo that picks away at the scab formed over the post-coup reorganization of the tertiary education sector and the self-aggrandizing discourse of the independence of science and research. For the political parties, pulling in the vote (by local candidates, patron-client ties, populist policies, lentil crop price-rises, religious manipulation, circumcision ceremonies, ect.) subsumes their interest in the Kurdish problem. For conscientious citizens the effects of the Kurdish situation (and the states reactions to it) on the very checks and balances meant to safeguard democracy in the republic as a whole must dominate their concerns. For human rights workers the Kurdish problem translates as a bottomless well of human suffering."

I had considered myself a subscriber to the simple notion that Islam was the only thing that brought Kurds and Turks together in the good old days, and thus a state whose temporal depth has been based on the superiority of ethnic Turks (as reflected in the school books, mantras and psychological hold on history seen especially strongly since the French recognition of the genocide) is destined for failure.

(Grey) Wolves in Sheeps Clothing

Houston portrays the downfalls of this typically Turkish Islamist view in practice, by explaining that while Islamism's hopes are for Kurds to conveniently tuck away their national identity in the name of the ummah, a similar thing is in no way expected of Turkish Muslims. In short, Islamism in Turkey has left Kurdish Muslims the choice to simply be discontent at the states' mistreatment and manipulation of Muslims (and Islam), rather then the double discontent of the state's mistreatment of practicing Muslims and ethnic Kurds. For Houston, if this is the best Islam can offer, then its procurement is no different to the assimilating discourse offered by Kemalism. The high electoral gains of Islamist parties in Kurdish regions is explained as being due to the respite offered by the cosmopolitan Islamist ideal, even if the corporatist and nationalist-guided reality is different.

The writer shows a great degree of precision in research and effectively asks the right questions from the right people. Some interviewees include Kurdish shiekhs and even on of the ancestors of 1926 rebel leader Shiekh Said and the Gulen movement's response is pushed aside with key soundbites.

Houston also shows great personal passion with the subject. Personal notes in stream of consciousness provide an introduction and epilogue to the discussion, and we see rare glimpses into the theological value Houston places on the discussion towards the end when one is reminded, to paraphrase relevant the Qu'ranic verses "Allah delights in diversity."

For many commentators and political observers, the rifts in Turkish society are simply the back and forth of temporal political actors. It is nice to be reminded of the beauty that fuels their albeit misdirected zealotry. By giving equal weight to the input of friends, people on the street, and at one point - his barber, Houston demonstrates an appreciation of the social-ness of social science, and the benefits of immersion.

From my experiences working in an institute schooling a great many Turkish Islamists, Houston has enhanced, reinforced and refined my views on 1) the deficiencies of State and 'Carnival' Islam, and 2) the Kurdish Islamist critique. I have also gained a interest in the value of architecture in the ideological battle with city space in Turkey. I aim to follow this up with further investigations.

As Turkey emerges from a repressive modernizing project, various political identities are emerging and competing for influence. The Islamist movement celebrates the failure of Western liberalism in Turkey and the return of politics based on Muslim ideals. However, this vision is threatened by Kurdish nationalism and the country's troubled past.

Is Islamist multiculturalism even possible? The ethnic tensions surfacing in Turkey beg the question whether the Muslim Turks and Kurds can find common ground in religion. Houston argues that such unification depends fundamentally upon the flexibility of the rationale behind the Islamist movement's struggle.