A nation not at peace with itself

Last week I visited an interesting park in the suburbs.

It has been declared a protected site and the enthusiastic site manager is passionate about keeping it available as the only green space in a neighborhood where cars and buildings jostle and compete with each other for supremacy.

An old road cutting the site in two has been diverted and replaced with a pathway. They are hoping to put benches under the old trees so local people can enjoy the sunshine. Free ecology clubs are run for school children, teaching them about the importance of trees for providing oxygen and the part they can play in conserving nature and water. Volunteers have taught local women to read and write and aim to set up a small community center in a corner of the park.

For those who use the park and enjoy the breath of fresh air it provides, the site manager is a saint. Each visitor was greeted by name and with a cheery wave as we walked around the site, with many saying to me “what a wonderful person” the manager is.

It all seems very positive and idyllic but like the grace and beauty of swimming swans, this hides an awful lot of hard paddling going on under the surface!

If you talk to the park manager you learn that each day is still a battle against an encroaching city, although the battle is now getting easier with the support of a government department and the local mayor. Under the previous mayor part of the site was rezoned for housing and prospective developers even pulled guns out on each other on park land! Officials from a mosque built on a corner of the site a few decades ago without permission are nervous about development plans despite assurances that they can continue to peacefully co-exist. Some locals are still sore that the road access was changed, which resulted in lost access to what was a free car park on ancient land. Others resent the fact that the site manager doesn’t come from their neighborhood, seeing this as outside interference.

“This is a society not at peace with itself,” the manager sighed, when describing this catalog of in-fighting between factions.

The death of former President and Chief of General Staff Kenan Evren this week also revealed a society not at peace with itself. A little under a year ago, he was convicted of obstructing democracy for leading the 1980 coup that deposed then-Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel. He brought in a new Constitution that removed many of the liberties of the previous one and took strong measures to prevent the recurrence of violence between supporters of the left and right. This often took the form of oppression, torture and even execution — with those from the political left feeling they bore the brunt of this heavy weight.

Reactions to Evren’s death were varied. Mothers whose sons disappeared during the crackdown felt that he would now face the judgement of his maker. Others had felt relieved by the coup as it brought safety to the streets. He was buried in a state funeral.

Anyone seeking to understand the political importance of the Evren years would be well advised to turn to a new edition of “Turkey: The Quest for Identity” by Feroz Ahmad. First published in 2003, it is an updated edition of a concise overview of nearly a millennium of history. Ahmad was born in India but has made his reputation as a historian by focusing on Turkey, receiving Turkey’s Order of Merit for his work and becoming a Turkish citizen.

His narrative starts in 1071 when Sultan Alparslan defeated the Byzantines at Manzikert. The history of Turkey then continues with a section focusing on the Ottomans, who “had reinvented themselves from a tribute-levying empire to one dependent on world trade.” Without digressing about other Turkish tribes, he focuses on the rise of the Ottomans and their Golden Age.

Then we move to a period of reform, set against a backdrop of Napoleon and Russia. We are introduced to the Sublime Porte, Sultan Abdulmecid and the Tanzimat restructuring, and then to the Young Turks.

A robust chapter covers the era spanning the lifetime of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who Ahmad sees as a patriot, not a pan-Turkist. All of the material up to this point is well-covered in many other works. The value this book adds to the literature on Turkey’s history is its second part, which covers in detail material often overlooked elsewhere. The death of Ataturk occurs only halfway through, giving Ahmad plenty of pages to devote to the political intrigues and changes to the Constitution and economy that happened after 1938.

The 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s are covered in detail. However, the period after that is somewhat stylized. Sadly, a marvelous opportunity to continue the analysis into the present day with a “revised second edition” has been squandered. The final chapter in the previous edition appears here as the penultimate one, almost unchanged. Writing today, I am sure Ahmad would change his view on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit in 2004, and would surely not say, “The government is likely to focus its attention on getting EU accession talks started.” Sentences such as, “The government [first government of the Justice and Development Party (AKP)] has begun cautiously,” seem an anachronism.

Instead, the publishers and author have opted for a post-script chapter continuing the story up to 2013. Here there is a strange interpretation of the modern period as purely a Republican People’s Party (CHP)-AKP struggle. The Gulen movement merits only one mention: far more attention is given to former CHP leader Deniz Baykal. And in looking at democratization, the only focus is on Kurds, with Turkey’s large Alevi population only referred to briefly as “a marginal group.”

This book offers an excellent analysis of Turkey’s political history. It is immensely readable and covers 1,000 years in just 200 pages, giving a sweeping survey of constitutional trends. All of the different forms of government and variations on democracy are well-described and explored, making it a must-read for any political scientist. Absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, puppet ruler for foreign powers, one-party state, pseudo opposition, military rule, statism (big government), liberalism (small government), government by the elite (“for the people, despite the people”), government by the majority — Turkey has tried them all and the transition from one to the other is clearly tracked.

This is done to such a degree that the subtitle should really be “Quest for a Constitution.” For the sociological aspects of Turkey’s “Quest for Identity” — the quest to become a nation at peace with itself — is not really dealt with. In describing the last 70 years we meet famous names and places such as the town of Menemen, former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, the town of Susurluk, the assassin Mehmet Ali Aica, the Ergenekon organization and Gezi Park. But Ahmad is strangely silent about the events that took place in Dersim, the September 1955 attacks against non-Muslims, the Hotel Madimak fire in Sivas, and even the headscarf issue.

In a quick overview, something has to be omitted. Perhaps it is churlish to criticize Swiss cheese for the holes that are in it, but any reader looking for an updated social history will be sorely disappointed.

“Turkey: The Quest for Identity” by Feroz Ahmad is published by Oneworld. 10.99 pounds in paperback. ISBN: 978-178074301-1 Rating: Three stars out of five

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman