These are testing times for Turkey’s main opposition party. As Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s inheritor, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is rooted in ethnic nationalism, but whenever they make a stand against President Erdoğan’s power grab and his lethal attack on democracy, they find themselves alongside the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and so risk alienating their own nationalist members and supporters.
The CHP’s Turkish nationalism has ensured their full support for Erdoğan’s invasions of the Kurdish areas of Syria. In the 2014 presidential elections they fielded a joint candidate with the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), who was himself an MHP member; and in 2016 they voted for lifting parliamentary immunities from MPs, clearing the way for the imprisonment of the HDP co-chairs and others. In 2018, they formed an opposition electoral alliance that included the Good Party (IYI) of Meral Akșener, who had split from the MHP, but which excluded the HDP. When the local elections took place in March 2019, the HDP stood no candidates in western Turkey and instead called on their supporters to vote for the CHP opposition, so bringing about the defeat of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Istanbul, Ankara, and other important cities. While the CHP thanked Kurdish voters, they made no public acknowledgement of the role of the HDP.
Despite their claims to social democratic politics and their membership of the socialist international, it would have been unimaginable for the CHP leaders to take the steps made by Erdoğan early last decade (though now completely repudiated) of negotiating with the Kurds and meeting with the PKK.
Recently, however, the CHP have felt the need to speak out in defence of democracy, and that has meant a cautious defence of the HDP, or at least the HDP’s right to exist and not to be closed down with its members jailed.
In an interview for Reuters, made from his prison cell last week, the HDP’s former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaș, wrote, “All parties which want to fight side-by-side for democracy must come together”. And he argued that one of the aims of the closure case against the HDP was to act as a trap that could cause divisions in the opposition.
Turkey’s political history ensures that coordinated action won’t be easy.
Writing in the New York Times after the opposition wins in the local elections of 2019, Halil M. Karaveli claimed, “The opposition coalition of the Republican People’s Party, the C.H.P., and its electoral partner, the Good Party — an offshoot of Mr. Erdoğan’s ultranationalist partner — is simply another version of the right-wing nationalism of the ruling coalition of the A.K.P. and the M.H.P.” In his view “the history of Turkey has been shaped by class politics that are obscured by a misleading narrative that pits Islamization against secularism. Closer inspection reveals that Turkey’s secularists and Islamists represent the two shades of the same right-wing ideology, which includes a commitment to unrestrained capitalism, hostility to labor, conservatism and nationalism.” And he argues that even ostensibly secular leaders have used Islam as a counter to socialism. (Nationalism in the Turkish case means forced assimilation to the unitary Turkish state and no recognition of Kurdish or other minority rights.)
Although it is clear that religion has long been used as a conservative force to a much greater extent than the secularist narrative would allow, it is also the case that, in the last two decades, its prominence in Turkish politics has grown to a degree that makes this now qualitatively different.
Erdoğan comes from a religious background, and in his pursuit of power he has been ruthless in his exploitation of religious allegiances, employing a divisive and toxic mix of right-wing populism and Islamism. Last week, International Christian Concern raised their worries about Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), which, they noted, has seen an increase in its budget of nearly 2,000% under AKP rule. They wrote, “The Diyanet, originally created to ensure proper separation of church and state and religious education, also directly works with the nation’s mosques by prepping sermons and appointing imams. However, what was once a means of ensuring educated teachers, now has become increasingly politicized.” Diyanet sermons preach the AKP’s authoritarian nationalism, and not preaching them can cost an imam his job. In an online academic seminar on Wednesday organised by the University of Southern California, Nihat Celik described how those sermons have been used to stifle dissatisfaction with a failing economy that is bringing real hardship to many lives. People’s material difficulties are transmogrified into a test of faith, and those who don’t complain – and refuse to blame the government – are reassured that they will be rewarded in the afterlife.
One of the reasons that Erdoğan has come down especially hard on the now deposed HDP MP, Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu, is that, as a devout Muslim, Gergerlioğlu gives the lie to the AKP’s attempts to paint the HDP as anti-Muslim and themselves as the defenders of the faith. Gergerlioğlu was arrested and imprisoned a week ago on the basis of a tweet calling for peace. We now know that one of the police officers who arrested him was someone Gergerlioğlu had unveiled as a torturer in a speech in parliament, and that when Gergerlioğlu was eventually taken to intensive care after suffering heart problems following his violent arrest, he was kept in handcuffs.
That the overriding imperative for those in power is the suppression of socialism (as described in the New York Times article) is hardly unique to Turkey. And, in many other places, too, this has been achieved through boosting conservative religious groups. This is how, for example, the US ended up supporting the groups that evolved into the Taliban. Despite their “war against terrorism” and its focus on Islamists, the US has continued to support reactionary Islamist groups where this appears to suit their strategic aims, as has been evident in Syria.
Abu Mohammad al-Jolani – now leader of Hayat Tarir al-Sham (HTS), and formerly a Daesh commander and the leader of Jabhat al Nusra, the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda – is the subject of a forthcoming Frontline documentary produced for the American Public Broadcasting Service. He has used this as an opportunity to make overtures to the US government to remove him from the terrorism list, though Frontline notes UN documentation of human rights abuses committed by HTS and its earlier incarnations. The documentary also talks to James Jeffrey, the former US Special Representative for Syria Engagement and Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, who has often acted as though he held a Turkish brief rather than an American one. As last week’s article about the programme records, Jeffrey suggested that al-Jolani could be an “asset” for US strategy in Idlib.
Last week saw more revelations of abuses by Islamist militias. Lindsey Snell wrote in North Press about the growing use of child soldiers by Syrian opposition forces, especially al-Jolani’s Jabhat al Nusra and, later, the Turkish backed factions. Her source, himself a former child soldier, told how Turkey had lied to them about the war in Afrîn – claiming the Kurds were fighting alongside ISIS and for an exclusive Kurdish state – and described the sexual abuse of young boys by the commanders as becoming more common than ever before. Snell has also highlighted social media photographs of children in Turkish-occupied Afrîn making the Turkish fascist Greywolf sign as they pose with a Turkish NGO worker and a Turkish soldier. Turkey is currently recruiting mercenary forces to fight for Ukraine against possible border attacks from Russia, while some of the mercenaries they sent to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh are protesting that their commander never paid them.
Also in Turkish-occupied Afrîn, Medya News has reported on plans for new housing for Turkman and Arabs being built as part of Turkey’s policy of demographic change. The main contractor is reported to be a Turkish religious organisation that receives funding from the EU/Turkey refugee deal.
And outside the occupied areas, autonomous North East Syria is increasingly feeling the effects of Turkey’s water wars. Turkey has reduced the flow of the Euphrates River well below the level stipulated in the agreement made in 1987, with severe consequences for electricity generation, agricultural production, and food costs.
In Turkey itself, there have been further detentions of activists from Rosa Women’s Association, which struggles for the recognition of basic rights in an increasingly misogynistic society. In the latest attack in what has been nearly a year of official harassment, their building was raided as well as many of the women’s homes. The association president told the Mesopotamia News Agency that, “As a result of the operations and attacks since May 22 , an investigation has been launched for almost every woman involved in the women’s liberation struggle in Diyarbakır”. And an Assyrian priest was given a two-year prison sentence for carrying out his Christian duty to provide food and water for passing travellers, who coincidentally were members of the PKK.
A more unusual demonstration of the Turkish government’s obsession with control was provided by their response to an open letter by 104 former naval officers, which was published on Saturday night. This warned of the officers’ concerns that, as a consequence of the much-criticised Istanbul Canal Project, Turkey might be considering pulling out of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which regulates military shipping in the Bosphorus Strait and the Black Sea. As the signatories of the letter are no longer serving officers, there should have been no conflict in them making their concerns heard, but the government chose to regard this as a proto-coup, and ten retired admirals are now under arrest.
Last week did bring one chink of good news, when Turkey’s Constitutional Court struck down the law that allowed media organisations to be closed without a court ruling. It would be a mistake, though, to allow this to give the impression that Turkey’s justice system is generally healthy – and, of course, the MHP has already called for the closure of the Constitutional Court.
Nothing in all this troubled the visit to Ankara of the EU Council President, Charles Michel, and EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen. While they paid lip service to humanitarian concerns, the tenor of their discussion was summed up in this initial tweet from von der Leyen: “Good first meeting with President @RTErdoğan. Turkey has shown interest in re-engaging with the EU in a constructive way. We are ready to work on a new momentum in our relationship ahead of the June #EUCO.”
But what excited international media was the failure of the Turkish hosts to provide a chair for von der Leyen, who was side-lined onto a sofa while the two men, Erdoğan and Michel were seated centrally by their respective flags. This diplomatic slight may have opened a small window onto Turkey’s structural misogyny, but it hardly begins to illuminate the fascist nature of the regime with which the EU is so eager to engage. The European Parliament’s Turkey rapporteur, Nacho Sanchez Amor, tried to add some perspective with a tweet that read: “Beyond whoever is to blame for the regrettable SofaGate episode, the lost seats that I’m really worried about in Turkey are those of the HDP MPs, mayors and those in newsrooms & clasrooms. Let’s not lose focus on what seats are at stake!”
On the same day that the EU leaders were re-engaging with Erdoğan, the Syrian Democratic Council in Washington hosted a seminar on Turkish occupied Afrîn, including heart-rending testimony from Zeinab Ahmed who survived two years in prisons run by Turkish Islamist gangsters in the Turkish government-sponsored militias. The prisoners were civilians and mostly women, and they included children. She described a system where their captors enjoyed the power of senseless brutality, inflicting torture, gang rape, and murder, and driving people to suicide. And she asked only that the world open their eyes and enable the people of Afrîn to go back home.
Other international organisations, besides the EU, have also been missing in action when it comes to protecting the Kurds. Kurds have been holding weekly protests outside the United Nations building in Geneva to demand international action for the freedom of Abdullah Öcalan and to draw attention to the mass hunger strikes in Turkey’s prisons in his support. (The UN is also deeply implicated in the existential threat that continues to hang over the Yazidis in Șengal, which I discussed in last week’s column.) And anger continues to grow at the inaction of the Committee for the Prevention of Torture (CPT) in Strasbourg, and their failure to demand to visit Öcalan in prison. On Monday, a group of Kurds climbed the gate to protest with their flags in front of the main door of the CPT’s offices. They were dragged away by police with batons and pepper spray, and the Council of Europe’s spokesperson tweeted, “Thank you to Strasbourg police for having – once again – rapidly dissolved a violent intrusion of PKK demonstrators on the property of the Council of Europe and ensured the safety of CoE staff on site.” Not only was there not a hint of violence, but as it was a bank holiday there probably weren’t many staff there either. He could, instead, have observed that the danger was not from peaceful protestors but from Member states such as Turkey who don’t comply with the council’s rules and judgements.
Since we know that governments don’t act outside elite interests without significant pressure from below, there will need to be a lot more protests.