Turkey's Kulturkampf*

It’s not easy for political power to create culture. It is far easier for it to interfere in the existing culture, for it to prevent or ban what exists. This is what AKP will eventually resort to in its search for “cultural hegemony”

03 Ekim 2019 11:00

It was Bismarck who joined the word “culture” to “struggle,” becoming the first, as far as I know, to create the term “Kulturkampf”. Again, as far as I know, up until Bismarck no one had thought that “Kultur” could have a “Kampf.” Though there were those who recognised something called “war culture,” Kulturkampf was a term that described a new phenomenon that was the product of the modern world. Until then and throughout history there had been armies, countries, societies who had fought against each other, but cultures in conflict with one another was something new.

In that case, what was the new situation which induced Bismarck to create such a term?

Bismarck is the architect of German unification. The Germans (“German”, “Teuton”, “Goth” and the peoples we know through their various tribal names- Jutes, Saxons, Alemanni, Lombards etc) were present from the early periods of European history though not living in a political union. It is conceivable that Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire was a step in the direction of unification as the majority of those who gathered under that particular roof were of Germanic descent. However soon after Charlemagne’s death, this “empire”, became a ghost, existing only in name; and in any case, under the ideological circumstances of the 9th century there wasn’t “an awareness of Germanness,” and under the technological conditions available there weren’t any opportunities for communication and interaction that might have fostered the birth of this awareness. Germans, therefore, despite what we consider to be a group bound by a common language albeit made up of different dialects, lived as cultural units that were separate and distinct from each other.

We can say that throughout all these centuries the most determinate factor for differentiating people from one other was religion. It was the main source of ideology for all the then existing communities. Internal divisions within religion and the emergence of sensibilities that accused others, induced those, divided by creed to see themselves very differently than the “others” (and hostile towards them). Inhabiting a wide area at the core of Europe, Germans became the people who most harshly and deeply experienced the effect of these divisions. Lutheranism emerged in German-speaking lands and in a reasonably short time built walls, difficult to scale, between people who spoke the same language.

Something similar to this had occurred much earlier in the Muslim world with the Sunni/Shia division. Christians had also lived through the Catholic/Orthodox schism in the middle of the eleventh century. Yet by comparison, the emergence of Protestantism caused far more widespread conflict and violence. The Thirty Years’ War evokes just one fragment of this. Horrific events such as the Civil War in England, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in France are all consequences of this religious schism.

Germans however, especially after stepping into the “modern age,” believed that they themselves were the people who had paid the heaviest toll in the denominational split. Protestantism had not influenced Southern Europe at all; in Spain, in Italy everyone was Catholic. France had experienced a Huguenot problem but had reached the “une fois” ideal by expelling Protestants. The North on the other hand was Protestant en masse. The British had more or less established a balance. But Germans were divided into two: the Catholic South and the Protestant North.

I call it the modern age because concepts and ideals such as national unity are the products of this age. Modernization requires a far more centralized structure. In this case, the religious divide and the cultural schisms largely dependent on it (at least in appearance) emerge as the strongest factor that inhibit this ideal.

Bismarck who forged the unification of Germany, famously, was a Junker, a Prussian aristocrat. Therefore, he was Protestant and was of the opinion that Catholicism was a backward religion. The establishment of German unity was imperative. But adding Catholicism to the mix marred the game.

Establishing the unity of Germany after three wars, Bismarck appealed again to the “war” concept and formally launched his Kulturkampf. The Catholic South went into defensive mode in the face of this “attack” by establishing Zentrum, that is, “the Central Party,” ancestor of the Christian Democratic Union Party of contemporary German politics.

In Germany, this situation went on until 1887, the year Bismarck presented to Parliament the draft of a “Peace Law”. The draft was enacted into law and “the war” ended.

What does “war” mean? According to the generally accepted definition, war is what happens once the opportunity to solve a problem through dialogue and negotiation disappears; sides resort to force and the use of violence and weapons to get the other side to accept their solutions. Was there such a situation which Bismarck referred to by his “Kulturkampf”? How did the war persist and then not even 20 years after its declaration come to an end with the “the Peace Laws?” What was the result of this struggle and who won? Since it was Bismarck who both started and ended it, did he achieve his goal?

Those who lived through the process day to day might recount many events that resemble a war but there are not many events that continue to stand out. From the standpoint of religion, the south is still Catholic and did not decide to be Protestant as a result of the Kulturkampf. If we look at it from the point of view of “Kultur”, the South did not surrender those things they knew or what they identified as their culture. People still wore Lederhosen to the Bierkeller and greeted each other by saying “Grüs Gott--” and so on.

After the World War, the former Zentrum was reborn as CDU and led by Kondrad Adenauer. Adenauer, and after him Erhard, built the new Germany. Kohl who came from the same party ensured the unification. Could Bismarck have expected a “better German” or a more “German” German?

So maybe “Kulturkampf” was a slightly exaggerated label. But, I don’t think there was an insincerity on the part of Bismarck in choosing the word “Kampf”. What we call “culture”, in the final analysis is our way of life. Therefore, it is what most intimately intertwines us all. For that reason, when it comes to this point, our emotions can become exaggerated, without us necessarily even being aware.

Bismarck’s Kulturkampf was an early example of an event that sheds light on something that was repeated in other contexts. A quick review of the process, reveals foremost an ideal of “unity” and of “unification”. The Germans who lived for years as separate political units finally unite under one political roof. Yet for various reasons, throughout these years they observed characteristics in one another of which they didn’t approve. In this context, for instance, when Bismarck looked at Bavaria he saw its Catholicism, i.e. “the desire to unify” and “the existing discrepancy.” It is natural for these two to co-exist. But everyone looks with anger, sometimes with hate at the thing they believe from their perspective creates difference; because the “ideal of unity” is also glorified and exaggerated.

When something is called a “war,’ it is because it doesn’t seem possible to abolish this “difference” dynamic by dialogue or agreement. If that’s the case, it has to be destroyed through fighting.

Of course, it wasn’t easy for the Germans to reach a settlement. At the beginning, Hitler’s problem wasn’t “Kultur”, but it did end as “Kampf”. And consequently, the addition of the “culture” front to that war was not delayed. Nazism entails the massacre of everything most of us would place under the rubric of “culture”, but it was trying to establish a specific culture that was only possible through a “war”. I see the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” (Entartete Kunst) that Goebbels opened and the fiasco in which this project resulted in becoming one of the significant reference points of this war. However, Nazism maintained its war with tools more appropriate to its nature (like the SS or Gestapo) and when we look at it using objective measures, within the framework of “dominating society”, it was incomparably more successful than Bismarck’s Kulturkampf.

The event that happened in China was not called “Kulturkampf”, but “Cultural Revolution”. But the event itself was not very different although far more widespread and severe than what happened in Germany. It got its name because communists preferred the concept of “revolution.” The fight against “evil” entailed destroying it through “revolution”. Nonetheless the evil was not “religion” as it had been in Germany in 1871. There was a malignancy which may have encapsulated religion but was based on class. Even if you were to eliminate that class, it’s not so easy to remove the mind-set, hence the need for “revolution.”

In fact, that mind-set was stronger than even Mao assumed, since after “the Gang of Four” came Deng, and some time after that Xi and the Chinese Communist Party’s massive Chinese capitalist development project.

The notion of a Kulturkampf (or in this case “Cultural Revolution”) does not form part of the history of every society. But similarities to the events this term describes, do occur in the history of many societies.

For example, we don’t see many chapters in books titled “‘Kulturkampf’ in Japan”; but hasn’t Japan gone through this process or isn’t it rather still going through it? India?

How about Turkey?

The directive “You must change!” emerged at a certain stage in history and in nearly every nook and cranny out of the necessity to Westernize. At the root of the need to be like the West lay the Industrial Revolution and the technological level the West had reached through the innovation of mastering the power of steam. At this stage, Turkey (before it was even called Turkey), too, was in the Westernisation queue. It was even quite near the front of that queue. Westernisation had been the agenda at the beginning of the 18th century –but could not quite take root.

Ahmed III, at the beginning of the century in question, and Selim III by its end, made much effort in this direction and although both were not overtaken by forces from below as much as it is made out, ultimately both lost their thrones (and lives) through uprisings supported from below. These, in the upcoming years and centuries, were events that were at the basis of a tense and broken relationship between those who said “let’s change” and those who said “let’s not change.” A term such as Kulturkampf” was not used much in the Turkish history in the sense of not being the name of a specific historical period; but the phenomenon– meaning “the war itself” – was always there. Usually it was latent but every now and then it became real. It can be said that the process started off as unpleasant but necessary, even before it had the chance to concretely affect people’s lives.

People did not want their lives to be affected –or so we may conjecture. Their resistance is totally comprehensible, On the other hand, those who were in a position to give orders to march left, right, did not do so with flimsy justification. The power and dynamic that gave those commands was not of the sort to be taken lightly. The fact that a similar process, albeit in different guises, occurred in different world historical contexts probably shows it was not contrived.

The issue in Turkey (and I think there are many cases similar to this) in a sense, was a “disconnectedness.” I have tried to explain this elsewhere, but I make the point again here:

The situation here was like that underlying the unification or formation of Germany: the problem of building a “homogeneous” society, a nation-state. In Germany, there was the issue of regional peoples (these “regions”, meaning the kingdoms, principalities etc. who had lived independently until then) who had not lived together throughout history coming together and creating a harmonious unity. In Turkey, the people who had lived in the same empire without having proper contact with each other, sharing a nationality in a culture that was now to be considered “homogenous”.

Both of them, are arduous processes, I don’t need to go into details here, but in short, a society is being asked to surrender what it “is” or its defining characteristics in order to become something it isn’t!

Who should be the “subject” of the process to be undertaken, if such a transformation is to take place?

I can think of no answer to this question other than “society itself”.

But, was that what happened? Let’s leave other examples aside; is that how it happened in Turkey?

No, that’s not what happened. Here society did not become “the subject” of the process but “the object”.

What am I trying to say? What is the difference, literally speaking?

A society is told “it’s necessary to change”. Why? Was this explained? Maybe society has an objection; was it asked?

Let’s say society is convinced of the necessity to change. How will it be done? What role does it play in this process, what role does the state play? Obviously, it requires a “combined” effort, how will the establishing factors of this be determined?

In other words, is there a democratic process. Is there willing participation?

Of course, I know full well that “democracy” doesn’t happen by sitting and chatting in the front parlour. The issue is not the establishment of a parliament to discuss the questions I asked above. The issue is for all segments of society to take ownership of these issues and this is something that takes time), to be what the old Republican community centres (halkevleri) wanted to be but couldn’t, establishing communication (true criticism, objections etc.) and mechanisms that work not in a single direction, “from above to below”, but also “from below to above.” However, to realise all this and more depends on being able to look at, and give form to that group we call “the people”. This does not have a calculable formula or recipe. It’s like deciding if someone you meet is a genuine person or a charlatan, distinguishing those whose principles remain on paper from those who believe in them. Some will pull this off, probably more often they won’t. But in the last analysis this is not something that you can learn in “10 lessons,” it is an intuitive ability.

According to Şerif Mardin:

“In the empire’s period of decline, Ottoman administrators did not lend the necessary importance to the thoughts and lifestyles of the lower classes –in terms of expanding the parameters of the upper class and including the lower classes in a collective national life-. This was one of the most important structural characteristics of a modernization slowly forming the social systems of the countries the Ottoman Empire found against itself in the last two centuries. In this sense, Ottoman administrators had placed themselves apart from modernization in the years of decline. (Şerif Mardin, Makaleler 4, Türk Modernleşmesi, İletişim, İstanbul, 1995, s. 25).”

Şerif Mardin takes this attitude back to “Ottoman administrators”. No doubt, he is right. The root of everything that happened in the Republic is in the Ottoman Empire. It can be said that from time to time and from place to place “the Administrators of the Republic” acted out the verb “to segregate” even more radically than their predecessors. In the end, a serious line of discrimination was drawn here: Among the elite there were those who believed that the goal of “salvation” was in the West and there were those who didn’t believe this- but the discussion was confined to the elite. There were also masses which for a long time were not even aware of this. They were devoid of the intellectual tools to think these issues through. Only when they were subjected to a clash at some point in their daily lives would they become “aware” of such a situation. This situation caused also a general attitude of “retreat” among that section of the population still living a traditional life. Many individuals or families chose not to permit the things that came from the West to enter their lives. The majority, though, looked for, and found, compromise.

In this way, life split was “vertical” among the elites; but the masses mostly remained on the conservative side. Among all of the Muslim states, the Ottoman state, was one where the non-Muslim segment was more populous than the “Muslim” segment. So, it wasn’t unknown (or unaccustomed) in Ottoman society for smaller communities to live different lives within the framework of their own beliefs and values.

The 19th century was a period in Western Europe, when industry was established in the iron and coal basins (of Great Britain, Northwest Germany, Northern France and Belgium) and thus the Industrial Revolution gained momentum. The innovation and transformation that the Industrial Revolution brought about was not an easy experience there either. But this is another long story. The significant difference is that in the West, the dynamics that forced change were native; in Turkey, the push came from outside. Ottoman society remained nearly completely outside such developments as industrialization. The multi-linguistic, multi-religious, multi-national social structure also prevented the formation of what Benedict Anderson called “print revolution” and an intellectual life that he considers to be one of the fundamental dynamics of nationalism. A “homogenization” deprived of this pillar of modernization advanced by its own rules: through independence movements on the one hand and through “ethnic cleansing” on the other. At this stage, “homogenization” followed a religious rather than an ethnic path.

In the eyes of the common people, a Westernized elite began to assume the role of the “other” previously played by non-Muslims. This was because class, was still constituted on the basis of education (and within the frame of “civil service”) rather than on the basis of ownership of substantial property. This new elite formed under new conditions, especially during the sultanate of Abdülaziz, began to frequently express the concept of “constitutionalism”. This showed that they wanted to have a share in ruling and decision-making. However, nowhere to be seen was a tendency to seek out a popular basis for this. It was simply out of question for the people as “subject” to be included in the transformation process I’m talking about. What was under discussion, was who would be giving the orders. No one doubted that the orders had to be carried out. This approach that came to the “elite” from “the high stratum” re-enforced the already existing division between the commonality and the educated.

Since a way to render all of society “elite” has yet to be discovered, this division exists in all societies. But the relationship between these two segments does not have to become as pronounced as it did in Turkey. Nor, according to circumstances, did it have to take on such a hostile complexion. For example, “the caste” system in India is probably a system where the “the bottom rung” suffers the toughest living conditions. Despite this, the masses try to acquire their knowledge of life from the upper castes. Similarly, in Culture and Anarchy published in 1869, Matthew Arnold talks about the populace in Great Britain trying to abide by the values created by the aristocracy, but capitalism and the bourgeoisie spoiled this accord. Such examples are observable in many societies in the West.

Years ago, Brazilian economist Edmar Bacha gave his country the name “Belindia”. This metaphor suits many societies we know of as “Third World.” What does it mean? In a society such as this, the segments we would call “prosperous” live like Belgians (in that income bracket but also with their cultural values), while the poorer classes are in the same income bracket and have similar educational opportunities as the poor in India do. Yet even in some of these societies where the “rich/poor” division brings into existence such a dramatic contrast, you don’t see a “common people/intellectual” problematic. Yakup Kadri’s Yaban  (Outsider) has expressed this problem from the perspective of the “distinguished intellectual” of its day. How well it has given an objective account of the reality of the problem is another matter; but at that time (and surely afterwards too) this was how many intellectuals who “observed society” perceived the situation to be. More than the accuracy of his depiction of villagers, the true achievement of Yakup Kadri in this novel, in my opinion, was his ability to exhibit fairly clearly the problem of the intellectual. To do this, he had to find a discourse that went against “the Great Turkish Nation” rhetoric the intellectual milieu had been repeating without believing.

Commemorating Yakup Kadri also brings us to the period of the Republic. The Republic, did not change the concepts of the problematic I’ve been talking about until now. On the contrary, the problematic stood out more solidly and  acquired a more viscid texture. We can say that it radicalized the issue by increasing the speed of change. However, this did not mean that “society quickly Westernized” at the stage in question. The process had not accelerated but the dosage of “difficult” elements had increased. As a rule, measures from “top to bottom” were taken to westernize society, at the same time, most traditional institution’s (such as dervish monasteries-small dervish lodges) were being abolished. But despite this, the implementations did not turn society into “a Western society” as was hoped for. Nor did society react against these measures by revolting. There are no other examples similar to the Menemen Incident [in which religious rioters in 1930 clashed with troops]. But society didn’t take on all that was being issued to it, adopt or accept it. This can be called a type of “passive resistance” spread over time. According to the terminology I am using, society that was not allowed to be the “subject” of the transformation, avoided to the best of its ability to become an “object”. It progressed, choosing only what it wanted from what was on offer. There wasn’t much to do with democratization among what it liked and chose. Those who suffered most from the lack of democracy did not demand it or perhaps didn’t know how to demand it. That “justice” was added in our Second Constitutional era to the trio (liberté, égalité, fraternité”) of the famous slogan of the French Revolution, we can probably say goes a long way in explaining the expectation that good things were expected to come from above.

Şerif Mardin rightly defends the view that another reason why the modernization movement stalled, was not that women were excluded from this movement per se but primarily because they were never included in the general life and functioning of society. The ones responsible here in the first degree, of course, were the conservative segment, i.e. the ones on the side of remaining “traditional”. Although, again as Mardin pointed out, when the topic turned to women, those who defended Westernization and “progress”, easily could switch over to the conservative side of the fence. Women, too, in the period in question and as a consequence of the educational conditions, were thoroughly conservative. It is just not possible for societies who don’t ensure the equality and independence of women, or more to the point, oppose and prevent this, to achieve great “successes.”

I said that Westernization in the Republic period was more radical and extensive compared to the styles adapted in the previous periods and the desire to get results as soon as possible encouraged such radicalism. Another difference that needs to be considered, is the Republic’s refusal to follow, in terms of the previous perspective and practice, the pains reformers had taken since the Tanzimat (Reform Period) not to offend religious institutions. The Republic’s view was that religion was responsible for most of the negative factors. Along with sabotaging and delaying the westernization movement, it was after all, responsible for Turkey remaining backward compared to the West. From this “perspective”, attitudes towards the institution of religion were to become harsher. “The Ulema” (scholars of Islamic doctrine and theology) were to lose the position of respectability to which it grew accustomed. With the establishment of a government organization like the Directorate of Religious Affairs, religious people, too, in every detail were bound to the “secular” state. An arrangement like this, surely, was not “secular” at all but the variant of secularism which Turkey chose. Subjecting religion to state control, in fact, was also a part of the Ottoman state tradition (we can trace this practice back to Byzantium); but with the new government’s loyalty to Islam becoming so very contentious, it seemed to the traditional/conservative segment an anomaly for the government to regulate religious institutions in this way. The attitude adopted against religion during the Republic, transformed the “modernization” effort into tension between Islam and secularism, when in reality it was a far more comprehensive phenomenon as was the reaction it provoked. This situation caused people to perceive tension or conflict in the framework of these two poles. When one end of the “polarization” is “Islam”, the ones who stood up for it were able to spread the belief that the “laicism” (a foreign word) they opposed was some sort of godlessness.

Indeed, ever since the problem of westernization took shape, a current of thought and political formation that we can call “Islamism” took shape as well. But just as this Islamism was not against the adaptation of the West’s technology (there never was such a movement) it did see the West itself as the “adversary”. With the Republic “the adversary” became those who would locate Westernism inside Turkey. Islamism too, established its political identity by criticizing and judging its enemy rather than explaining its own program.

As a result, step by step, cultural duality ruled the day. While on one side there emerged a bourgeoisie and after a while a working class, this duality created its own influences on these new formations. For example, in the Sunni-Alevi divide, which is an old problem of society, because of the long-rooted conditioning (and the oppression they underwent) Alevis chose to be on the Western wing. While the bourgeoisie that was shaped through the “monopolist-government-capitalism” method in the early periods of the Republic took its place on that same front, the provincial Anatolian bourgeoisie that arrived on the historical stage much later went for an Islamic mind-set. This tension today has materialized into [the rival business confederations] TÜSİAD/MÜSİAD. It’s a complicated situation: what is the actual dividing line? Is it the contradiction that is seen everywhere between the high bourgeoisie/the middle bourgeoisie? So is it something that the economic structure generates? Or is it a consequence of an ideological structure that is particular to Turkey? Or is it a reflection again of the distinction between the metropolitan and the provincial?

But questions similar to this are valid for all stages, all layers of this phenomenon. Just as it is wrong to call the East/West component as ideological or superstructure (and so rejecting the relative autonomy of the superstructure) and to look for an “economic” explanation, it would be inadequate to try to understand it as a phenomenon immune to economic dynamics.

When we reach to the last gasps of the Ottoman period, we see the ideological duality institutionalizing. Education was a conspicuous locus of this duality. While the old institutions (the neighborhood school, the medrese, the Muslim theological school etc.) continued to practice traditional methods, there were Western educational institutions particularly military schools, the Imperial Naval School, Galatasaray Lycée, Fevziye Schools [founded by the Dönmeh or crypto-Jewish community in 1885), and the Mülkiye (political science faculty) – some that were established through the initiative of government and some others through societal groups. Law also demonstrated these same characteristics. On one side, there were the traditional courts grounded in Sharia, and on the other side were the new courts based on the West’s understanding of legality and generally charged with hearing higher level trials. This dualism naturally created problems and contradictions.

Let me cut a long story short to take a longish leap without over- dwelling on the years in between, into the present. But, to do this, I have to talk briefly about certain structural circumstances.

The ideological-political structuring creates an opposition whose dimensions may vary from one society to another. The content of this opposition, logically speaking, is the antithesis of the government’s beliefs and practice. However, despite this antithesis, concrete circumstances existing in some areas, may open the way for the opposition’s behaviour to be determined and become identical to that of those in power.

The attitude embraced by the state that I am trying to summarize above, is of a style and approach described by the adjective “Jacobin.” The small minority that holds in its hands the monopoly to take decisions, acquires this through relations of loyalty it forms with a set of determining institutions (often, this may be “the military”). In this situation, the opposition to such an order, embraces a style and approach we generally describe as “populist.” It seeks to base itself not in the elite, but among the masses. This is an antinomy.

Yet when it comes to the degree of democracy, such an antinomy might lead to an “identicalness”. The dictate of the minority may be replaced by the dictate of the majority but there is no difference in “the dictate”.

In the “modernization” process that in our history began in earnest with Mahmud II, “the power elite” that I summarized in the first place, while undergoing various stages in its own right, was always dominant. This dominance was first surrendered with the ascendency of the Democrat Party [elected in 1950]. There are still today, those who criticize the second president of the Republic, İsmet İnönü, for introducing multi-party elections before necessary preconditions were met. Even if we accept uncritically the foundations on which such an approach is based, one would probably need an explanation as to why this elite in power for more than 150 years could not fulfil these “necessary preconditions”.

As I stated above, the Democrat Party prime minister, Menderes acquired power in 1950 by adopting “populist” policies and upping the level of populism in government even more. The response to government falling into populist hands through the multi-partied system, would appear only 10 years later (1960) with the 27 May coup- and then in the coups that were to follow, one after the other. The ones who came to power again through elections (Süleyman Demirel, Turgut Özal), after a period of short-term coups, despite the various differences between them were united in their “populism”. The relationship they formed with society was shaped through their populist attitude. After a seesaw game of elitism and populism that followed one another for years, in the beginning of the 21st century it was AKP’s turn.

AKP’s founding members were reared in the fold of the (Naqshbandi rooted) “National Vision” movement headed by Necmeddin Erbakan. This movement, which founded parties like “Milli Nizam”, “Milli Selamet”, etc. was Islamist and for that very reason it was not exactly “populist”. Populism, obliges one to take a fairly flexible attitude when it comes to doctrine because the masses that keep populism afloat through their votes do not have a dogmatic doctrinal attitude (and culture). After this Islamist movement was suppressed harshly through the February 28 demi-coup, the cadre that launched the AKP enterprise learned the lesson to be more flexible. This flexibility was also the number one reason for the positive course of AKP in its first years. This flexibility continued for another 10 years. But after this it began to change.

The radical turn occurred with the attitude Tayyip Erdoğan assumed against the Gezi Park resistance. There were events on a modest scale which presaged that a moment like this was approaching. One such is Tayyip Erdoğan commending three children per family. This was an interference (in the name of the state) in society, in the private lives of people that probably could not be considered “liberal”. The demolition of a monumental statue (criticized as “hideous”) in Kars is another similar event. Tayyip Erdoğan had begun to hint for instance in his speeches on alcohol, (“they drink until they choke” [from a 2011 interview in which he said he was not interfering in the drinking habits of country] or mention of “two drunkards” [in 2013 and assumed to be a reference to Atatürk and İnönü, the first two presidents of the Republic]) or in his words “one should ask the ulema” that the ideal society of his dreams was quite different than the one existing in Turkey. Still, it was not easy to predict that these would crystallize into the dictatorial post-Gezi policies.

Around the same period as Gezi, Tayyip Erdoğan’s war with the Fethullah Gülen movement began. When AKP won the election in 2002 the government had formed a close alliance with this movement. This was a historical first as “The National Vision” approach which was the cultural expression of the Naqshbandi order did not harmonize with the Nur movement which was established as a reaction to modernization. Indeed, the latter, for the most part, supported the Justice Party in elections.

Like all proponents of “political Islam”, Fethullah Gülen who is considered as a founding sage by an important branch of the Nur religious order, sustained the ideal of a Muslim government coming to power. However, he chose a strategy in which this would happen without head-on conflict. More accurately, if there was going to be a conflict, this would be delayed until such a stage as when the victory of his side would be assured. In simpler terms, his strategy was “infiltration” into the state. We can also say that the measures he took were the product of an “elitist” vein. For this reason, he had decided to undertake his fundamental struggle in the area of education and to train cadres who would handle Muslim governance. Hiding their ultimate goals, these cadres would be serving in various ranks of the government. Thus, Gülen policy was one of “infiltration”. Strangely enough, everyone knew that to be the case. So, the words “open secret”, given as an example of an “oxymoron” in books on rhetoric, was fitting.

As a result of “the sheikh’s” own interest in education, Gülenist cadres, were made up of individuals who were relatively better educated, and with these qualifications represented a type of authority that the AKP administration did not possess. For that reason, in the first period of its rule, AKP benefited immensely from the alliance with the Gülen movement. The AKP government, in return, did everything it could to protect the Gülenists. For comprehensible reasons, the principal target of the Gülenist “infiltration” strategy was the military and because the military was aware of this, it was meticulous in its efforts to identify and expel such infiltrators. In the first years of AKP’s rule, these disputes would make headline news every August [the month when military promotions and demotions were made].

While Tayyip Erdoğan was almost certainly busy with preparations to launch his Kulturkampf, the two allies had a terminal falling out. This, in the struggle that was to ensue, decreased the amount of ammunition the Muslim cultural front had at its disposal, but it also stimulated a spirit of struggle of those hanging onto power. They became more militant as a matter of life and death.

Tayyip Erdoğan, to a large extent, succeeded in overcoming this crisis induced by the Gülen movement, protecting his own position by collecting the reins of power in his own hands. His party’s trust in him of his party also increased. Probably it was thought that the time to create the desired “Muslim society” had come. The cultural isolation of the government’s own voting base – and a militia which could be called on as the need arose- was deemed to be one of the necessary first steps. This segment, had to be protected from the intellectual influence of the segments foreign and “harmful” to Islam. Indeed, such a decision had already been taken and AKP’s course already charted in the aftermath of Gezi. AKP was already determined to switch to an unregulated presidential system and to create a government whose power would be total. This was the direction it would be headed with a “Kulturkampf” or without. Therefore, what was being done on different levels were actually complementary of each other; but it was obvious that the political level was decisive.

Throughout the years that AKP had been in power, we have often witnessed Tayyip Erdoğan being entirely comfortable saying things that completely contradict things which he had said earlier. Does this demonstrate, as some have believed and said, that Tayyip Erdoğan is lax on the subject of doctrine? That he is a pragmatist and not dogmatic?

I do not share this opinion. First of all, Tayyip Erdoğan is not an intellectual; and his relationship with the culture of Islam does not extend all the way to the refinements, especially of, Sufi Islam; however it is obvious that he was raised in a particular Muslim culture (the type that can be called “pietist”) and he genuinely became attached to the values he acquired along that way. This culture, which also incorporates a large amount of prejudice, forms the cornerstones of his ideological world. The topics on which he professes to change his mind are very different from these. At the beginning of his time in power, Erdoğan who had spoken of not being bound by ideological trappings, or in his own words “removing the National View shirt,” spoke in a balanced way that was respectful of views that were not those of his own supporters. Nor, in general, did he feel the need to embrace “the credo” Turkish nationalism. However, as the dark clouds gathering over both himself and his party began to disperse, Erdoğan’s confidence in himself increased rapidly. His need to bargain with those outside his own circle decreased just as quickly. There is a relatively new idiom in Turkish, often used in the political context about “returning to the factory settings.” Erdoğan went back to what looks like his “real self”: this means, he is for bringing back the death penalty; opting for belligerent policies and attitudes as a rule; hostility to the EU and to “the West”; adopting a highly nationalistic language in general.

And Erdoğan wants all of society to embrace these values with him. But achieving this part of the goal is not at all easy. Erdoğan won all the elections (referendum etc.) he participated in so far [written before the March nationwide local elections in which the AKP vote suffered]. This is an achievement that cannot be underestimated. And this is a web that grows stronger over time, binding his supporters to him. In contrast to this success, when we look at the votes he gets, we see that half of society- or maybe more than half- are not in favour of living the lifestyle that Erdoğan offers them. Besides, it is not very clear how the young population we might call “lumpen-Muslim” like Marx’s “lumpen-protelitariat” is inclined to a lifestyle that requires a certain degree of disciplined religious devotion.

Therefore, “the Kulturkampf” that Erdoğan has waged is a complicated situation because it is not obvious how much of it is religion and culture or “Ottoman revival”, and how much of it is the “war” to bolster his ability to govern. You can tell that his first target, is Turkey’s Kemalist past, but since for Erdoğan the principal sin of this regime is Westernization, the entire Western World can be considered to be the opposing front and in fact many Western countries, for a number of reasons, are targets for Erdoğan’s slurs and attacks.

The re-arrangement of Istanbul’s Taksim Square appears as both a summation and symbol of this undertaking. As the Atatürk Culture Centre on one side of the square is demolished and disappears from sight behind builders’ screens, a new concrete mosque is rising on the other side. That the mosque renders the Republic Monument [by the Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica] stuck in between less visible was probably one of the intended consequences. I presume that in time the Taksim Military Barracks (an example of the orientalist style) will soon be erected to form part of this composition. This, also, is important as a symbol that proclaims “I am a man of my word.”


2013 must be reckoned as an important year in AKP’s history. Gezi happened that year and this above all occasioned Tayyip Erdoğan to undergo a radical transformation in response. But this probably wasn’t an “unpremeditated” transformation; because a few months before Gezi, AKP’s Istanbul Provincial Chairman Aziz Babuşçu made a very important statement:

“In this or that way, somehow the Liberal segments became stakeholders in this process but the future will be a period of construction. The construction period will not be how they’d want it to be. Therefore, those stakeholders will not be with us. Those who somehow walked with us yesterday, this time tomorrow will be shareholders with the powers against us. Because the Turkey that will be constructed and the future that will be rejuvenated will not be a future that they will agree to. That is why our job has become even harder.”

The “change of direction” that these words announced cannot have popped out of the mind of a “provincial chairman.” This is a decision that only the head of the party could take. This means that Tayyip Erdoğan had reached his decision before Gezi. When the Gezi resistance began, he immediately took a sharp stance (by nudging the other “higher ups” of the party) and he set about the path he is still treading today. There was a falling out with the Gülenist crew right after Gezi as well, but this certainly had its own background for which the Gülenists had been making their own preparations.

When we say these things, are we reinforcing the “takiye” theory of religiously sanctioned deception, a charge that was repeatedly made in particular milieus when the AKP first came to power? This is an area where I have no certain knowledge. I have some guesses, but they do not go beyond guesses. I do not think that there was a planned deception. I am of the opinion that specific coincidences played a fairly important role. Though this is not our main topic, given where we are, let me explain my own conjecture.

The AKP movement was incompatible with the Republic regime. For that reason, especially in its first years of its power, the need to avoid words and behaviour seriously challenging the established order was definitely taken into account. Of course, it’s possible to call what happened up to this point as takiye/deception. However, beyond this I don’t think there was a detailed plan about what would be done. On one side, Erdoğan was providing a sort of “guarantee” by saying that he had “taken off the shirt of the National View movement,” but on another day, he did not desist from comparing democracy to a tram he could step off at any moment. It can now be seen more clearly that he did not intend to maintain a close relationship with the segment that his provincial chairman called “liberal” for a long time. But a decision about the duration of this was not determined in the beginning.

In the “scenario” devised from the flow of events I have observed, the Davos meeting with Shimon Peres has an important place. Erdoğan achieved the peak of his popularity with his “vhan minut [one minute]” outburst and if I’m not mistaken, it made Erdoğan think that he might be the leader of not only Turkey but also the Islamic world. Although at the same time, it must have made him think about the possible dangers of taking a stand against Israel and acquiring the position of “Islamic leadership.” Tayyip Erdoğan is one of those people who understands politics as a series of “conspiracies.” This can be discerned from the language he began to use at that period and how the dosage of that language was to gradually increase. Erdoğan saw the eruption of Gezi three-four years after his outburst in Davos as confirmation of his fears. He applied terminology like “the interest lobby” at that time. The coup attempt in 2016 and similar events provided fuel to this perception. Ever since then, his self-confidence has become interwoven with a fear of being “played”. He was suspicious about the U.S. plotting against him and he has been voicing his suspicions since the attempted coup of 2016.

I believe that populism cannot be very doctrinaire and that AKP remained on populist ground in spite of its new attitude. Much of Tayyip Erdoğan’s behavior, especially a facility to retract something he just said, has induced some opponents to see him as a “pragmatist.”

It is difficult to say he isn’t a “pragmatist,” but I think there is a definite image of an “Islamic world” in Erdoğan’s mind. He might accept a delay in the realization of this because of certain concrete obstacles, but he can’t give up on the project. An example would be Haghia Sophia becoming a mosque again. Erdoğan is a person who has been reared in a Muslim culture, and that continues to be defining even though it’s gradually waning away and he is sincerely attached to the values he has acquired from this environment. It probably cannot be said that Erdoğan, who has no intellectual formation, no affinity with the mystical aspects of Islam; he comes from a more “pietistic” tradition. Nor is he outside the experience of Turkish popular culture. I suppose this is a factor that ensures the persuasiveness of his populist politics and therefore his success.

By ordering the Provincial Chairman to make the announcement I quoted above, Tayyip Erdoğan opened the door for the historical process we call “Kulturkampf.” There, the message is clear enough that “the time has come to construct a Muslim society. We will cut off communication with the secular side of society.” It is not very clear from this what will happen to those who insist on culture remaining secular, but the threat naturally is there.

So, when we look at the examples in world history – those that exist and those that don’t- we seem to have reached a point in Turkey where the Catholics are starting a “Kulturkampf” against the Protestants.

Tayyip Erdoğan himself, expressed a few times that he is not satisfied with the course and the achievements of the war he started. He said “for so many years we have enjoyed political power, but we haven’t been able to achieve cultural power.”

Can the concept of “culture” and “power” come together, and how would this happen? The concept itself is complicated, it has a very wide scope. For that reason, it is not easy for these questions to be answered. The word “culture” can be considered to be relatively new. It comes from a Latin root and has religious connotations (“cult”), but it derives in fact from “cultivare” meaning “planting” or “reaping.” That’s why the equivalent we find in “pure” Turkish is “ekin”. Before this Ziya Gökalp had preferred to use the word “hars” which means “to plough”. This choice of word seems accurate to me, because “culture” is not “natural”, it is man-made. In fact, when necessary it is against what’s “natural”. At the same time, it is open to change: when we began to cultivate wheat, how much did we sow? What is this percentage now? The grains we call oat, rye in the beginning were not even grains, but were weeds considered to be pestilent.

Therefore an “essentialist” perspective pertaining to “culture” is not right either.

Let’s continue with the comparison: we said that “culture” is a human construct, it is not “natural” (of course, the root of everything, including “human” is in nature). But both the crop on the field and the crop (culture) in society, exist within the frame of their own rules, they experience change within the frame of their own rules. You can’t command wheat that produces one to ten to produce one to twenty. Therefore, the social institution that is the most distant to culture is political power and the very expression “cultural power” is laden with contradiction. If you think the expression through it is an indication of not understanding what “culture” is all about.

Political power has culture in its own way. For sure, all human communities have “culture” – “the barbarians” who we think of as typifying the opposite, do so too. But there is no such thing as “cultural” power (that is to say in the “political” sense). It’s not necessary to scan “Western” sources to understand this either. For example, reading what Ibn Haldun wrote about the rise and fall of civilizations, the destroyers and creators, gives a sufficient idea.

Then, doesn’t “political power” influence culture? Without doubt it does. In fact, it does at every moment. However, the gulley that discharges its water to the reservoir we call “culture” is not just politics, and it is not just political power. The whole of “intellectual” (and of course through it “material”) life fills the reservoir and creates the existing complicated culture. This includes opposing currents. The culture’s own mechanisms determine the synthesis that will come out at the end. This synthesis, according to conditions, as much as it can agree with the expectations (and contributions) of political power can be completely contrarian too. For example, just as Erdoğan is avowedly and explicitly calling for the ideal of “rearing a religious generation,” social indicators of piety are in decline.

History is full of rulers (political power) who have tried to convince society of the belief, ideology and “culture” they have themselves embraced. In the old days, the main channel for this was “religion”. From Kerbelâ to Saint Bartholomew no blood has been spared to this effect. Haven’t these bloody events influenced societies? Of course, they have. But none of the things attempted by those who set out to use power to change culture ever worked out as intended.

When all is said and done, “political power” gives the illusion to those who wield it that they rule over everything and that can determine the direction that history will flow. Along with religions in the Modern Age we saw flashes of this with secular ideology as well. In this age also, political power, launched a “Kulturkampf” like Bismarck or a “culture revolution” like Mao. And both Fascism and Communism, caused the death or suffering of millions of people in order to install their own ideal society (and “culture”). The result?

Why is Erdoğan complaining about not obtaining “cultural power”? The first rung to answering this probably begins on the “information”. “Culture” has a compulsory, causal relationship with the information we receive. This is because in the last analysis “culture” is something we do with “information”. As a conclusion, based on our knowledge, we decide to live this way or that. When Tayyip Erdopan looks at the population that brought him to power and to which he feels he belongs, he also sees there a lack of knowledge. Is there such a deficiency? Without doubt, there is.

People from the Islamic front attribute this also to the Occidentalism of the Republic. An ideology was created in such a way and alongside such an education system that the pious segments found themselves either excluded or not wanting to be a part. Therefore, they remained culturally weak.

There are those who make this point.

In all probability Fethullah Gülen took a position very similar to this. Because in his strategy, education assumes a central role. After all, an important goal is to infiltrate government (“to conquer the fortress from the inside”) but Gülen believes that after conquest “ideological hegemony” is necessary –just as Erdoğan does. Therefore, schools, both in Turkey and abroad, is Gülen’s number one field of operation - or was. As a result of this, there were some relatively well educated cadres in this movement. Because there was a close alliance with the Gülen movement in the early period of AKP rule, the government benefited from the “know how” of these cadres. After the abrupt end to this alliance, the faction that remained inside AKP was not one that distinguished itself through knowledge or its deep cultural understanding. When Babuşçu was declaring the decision to break ties with the “liberal” segment he was giving warning that “our task will be more difficult now”. At that time, the breaking of ties with the Gülen congregation was not even on the agenda. So the whole business became more difficult.

Tayyip Erdoğan, accepts his flock’s inability to assume “cultural hegemony” as a given factor. At the same time, he is engaging in an application that will surround this populace inside the culture of today and isolate it against “the outside”. Tayyip Erdoğan wakes up one day and says “in reality Muslims discovered America.” He volunteers to rebuild the mosque in Cuba that Columbus saw(?) up a hillside.

Is this “culture” capable of establishing hegemony?

“Deutschland über alles,” “A Turk is worth the world”, “Rule Brittannia” and many more, are chauvinistic expressions without any sound basis. But, at least, it is understood immediately that they are words uttered in the “subjunctive mood”. The sentence “Muslims discovered America” is in the “indicative mood”; meaning, you disregard and distort empirical reality. And then you expect to benefit from a “culture” that you build on this falsehood.

Maybe it’s too soon but is there an obstacle to stop someone from coming out one day and declaring “The first to land on the moon were Turks”?

This concrete example alone is sufficiently enlightening about the quality of the “cultural hegemony” that Tayyip Erdoğan envisions.

I said that political lines that might seem to be against each other can at times be identical: Atatürkism and Erdoğanism. For the first you had to believe that within the “Sun-Language Theory” framework Confucius was a Turk; for the second, the yarn about America.

The belief that “with the power of the state I can create a culture” is at the root of both.

“State power…” Yes, this is the safest tool and method a despotic administration will find to interfere in cultural life. It’s not easy for a “political power” to create a “culture”. It is easier in comparison for it to interfere in the existing culture, for it to prevent or ban what exists. This is what AKP will eventually resort to in its search for “cultural hegemony.”

Rather than what is done and will be done to achieve “cultural hegemony”, all of AKP’s operations, its political and ideological activities, are influenced not so much by culture of democracy but directed towards the creation of an “obedient” society. This necessarily involves political violence pure and simple. We live in a political atmosphere that keeps people in prison without convincing justification. This situation perpetually affects those in prison in one way and those not in prison another. The latter are forced to learn how to be silent in order to not to join the former. The reason the masses do not raise their voices when confronted with this repression is not that they approve of the things that are done or believe in the accusations. For various reasons, they are afraid. Just as there are some who are afraid of going to prison like the people they defend, there might be ones who are afraid of losing certain concrete benefits or of being blamed for selling out the cause by aligning with the enemy. But at the end of the day, fear is decisive. And living in a regime of fear is not a healthy form of “cultural” existence.

At this stage, the ones who feel the weight of AKP’s pressure politics the most are from the Gülen congregation or those who are accused of being so. Up until a day or two ago these people, were on best terms with those who remained inside AKP. Now they are practically condemned to starvation. This is not a set of circumstances that will elevate human morality.

On the other hand, some of those from the Gülen congregation cannot be called lily white, either. While blatantly playing with the facts while sharing power, they were not uncomfortable living with the information [about the wrong doings] they flagged about their allies as they became estranged.

After overcoming the initial shock, it can be seen that the AKP side was not exactly disturbed by this “information” either. Simultaneously with the shocking allegations of “bribery” etc., the slogan “çalıyorlar ama çalışıyorlar” (meaning “they steal, but they deliver too”) came about. This is not the “sound basis” for an ethics. Goebbels’ tenet to keep repeating a lie in order to have people believe it, is valid for the huge propaganda mechanism built by the AKP.

Accusations [circulating in the pro-government press] about secularist youth drinking alcohol in the mosque or peeing on women wearing headscarves are baseless, though it did not prevent in any way the trolls who are in the service of the AKP to continuously repeat them. The number of those who feel like they are supposed to believe these things (or at the very least sound as if they believe them) because they are from the “right side” is not inconsiderable. With these characteristics, this side, before constructing a “hegemony of Islamic culture”, has built the “post-truth” hegemony in keeping with the post-modern age. What the one with the loudest voice says is true. The one who will be loudest will be the government, of course. These are methods known since Goebbels for those who are interested in the art of “propaganda”. No matter what the truth may be, you will continuously repeat your own claim as loud as you can.

What is the “culture” that AKP, or more accurately Tayyip Erdoğan wants in “power”? In the beginning this was an ideology that was trying to exist not by saying what it was, but defining what it wasn’t. We say that “everything has overtaken us since this society embraced the program of Westernization”; but “everything” is not exactly valid in reality. A long time has passed since the beginning of this process and many things that were once considered “novelties” when they first happened, through time, have become a part of life– and no longer seem strange. “The Islamic culture” which is positioned (imposed) as an opposite to this mix is also lacking in the “unadulterated purity” claimed to exist. For example, does the Burj Khalifa represent a pure Muslim culture?

In time this concept of “non-western” became “Ottomanness”. But this did not define the target goal better–especially in the context of “culture”. This Ottomanness that Ahmet Davutoğlu constructed and which Tayyip Erdoğan was to shoulder was more apt when used in politics. First of all, it embodies a motif of a golden age” (and, of course, past glories that needs to be re-won) which is a building block for all types of populism. This means replacing the principle of separation of the powers which is a product of Western history with an arbitrary “unity of power” and establishing the principle of “absolute obedience to the ruler”. When we look at the aesthetic implications, it is not, for instance the elegance but the size of Süleymaniye which becomes the measure. A sensibility that is directed towards quantity and size that we can call the “Dubai aesthetic” takes shape.

This, in combination with “the morality” I described above forms the foundation of the “cultural hegemony” Tayyip Erdoğan aspires to and which he is trying to get the rest of society to embrace as well.


*Translated from the Turkish by: Melek Hamer