By Sungur Savran. This article was first published on Socialist Project.
The dramatic events that unfolded in Turkey on the night of 15 to 16 July have been excessively confined to the internecine struggle of two different Islamic currents, that of the AKP under the iron fist of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and its latter day nemesis the Gulen fraternity. This is misleading in two senses. On the one hand, it hides from view the distinct possibility or even more and more certitude that other tendencies within the Turkish armed forces (the TSK in its Turkish acronym) were involved in the planning if not the final execution of the failed putsch. On the other, it prevents us from seeing the more fundamental contradiction that besets Turkey today – a contradiction that relates to the country’s position in the world system.
Rabia – the official symbol of the movement (right hand with the thumb turned inside), “four” in Arabic.
We have already taken up the first question in an earlier article titled “Turkey: A War of Two Coups” (originally posted on the web site RedMed, but also published at mrzine.monthlyreview.org). We held there that, in addition to the Gulenists, the coup organizers included “a whole gamut of sensibilities in the armed forces which could be called pro-NATO and pro-U.S. for that is the common denominator that brings them together.” We also added that, hence, “it is an alliance of the pro-U.S. seculars and the adepts of a religious fraternity under the protection of the U.S. that led the putsch. There is evidence to show that the defeat of the coup owes, partially, to the seeds of dissension within this alliance contre nature.”
Additional evidence that has since surfaced not only confirms this observation, but in effect sheds new light on the coup that radically alters the earlier impression that the coup was organized outside the chain of command. In effect, both the intelligence agency (the MIT) and the top brass hid for hours on end intelligence regarding the coup that had reached the MIT by 4 p.m. and both also refused to respond to the phone calls made by Erdogan. The latter claims he learned about the coup around 8 p.m. from his “brother-in-law,” probably short-hand for the intelligence agency of a friendly power, say Qatar. Erdogan’s prime minister has also said that he learned of the coup from “friends and relatives.” The commander of the air force, for that matter, claims he was alerted by his wife!
This obviously changes the whole nature of the failed coup. If, as seems to be the case, the chief of the general staff and at least some of the commanders of the principal services (army, navy, air force and the gendarmerie) were involved in the planning of the coup, but retracted their support at the last moment, and additionally, if the all powerful leader of the MIT, Hakan Fidan, were also involved, then Erdogan and the AKP government would today be standing in thin air, with no army or intelligence backing behind them. In effect, their whole policy stance since the coup goes to confirm this. Although a very harsh state of emergency was declared and ratified by parliament and torture and other breaches of the law are rampant, this is directed exclusively to the coup plotters, at least for the time being. And Erdogan personally has gone out of his way to establish a warm relationship with the opposition, a stunning turnabout when considered in the light of his perennial style of constant feud with his opponents. Moreover, he now, all of a sudden, seems to have developed a liking for Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the republic (of whom more below): the headquarters of the AKP are now adorned with a gigantic poster of Ataturk!
We will have to wait and see how the bewildering anomalies that have surfaced will be explained. However, there is no excuse any more for believing credulously the original AKP version of the unfolding of events presenting the Gulenists as the only culprit. This they continue to do, for reasons we have already explained in our previous article: “to ostracize the Gulenists and to hide from view that a much wider array of forces within the army have taken up arms.” It is now incumbent on everyone who interpreted the coup in the light of this crass AKP propaganda to rethink the nature of the coup.
All this really strengthens our second point: that the coup is the expression of the more fundamental contradiction that has been tearing Turkish society and politics asunder in recent years. To put it succinctly, this is a war between the traditional Atlanticism of the Turkish ruling classes and what we would call the Rabiism of Erdogan and his cohort. Turkey has stood out in the Muslim world as the only such member of NATO for the entire historical period since World War II. However, under Erdogan and the AKP, the country has for the first time turned its face toward Muslim unity, to be reconstituted under Turkish leadership. This is what we call Rabiism for reasons that will become clear in a moment. It is this new orientation that is coming more and more into a clash with Turkey’s entrenched Atlanticism.
What is Rabiism?
The despotic drift of Erdogan and the AKP is there for all to see. In effect, the provocative title of our earlier piece, “Turkey: A War of Two Coups,” was intended to draw attention to any misplaced conception that what was salvaged from the failed coup of the military was “democracy” in any meaningful sense of the term. Erdogan has ridden roughshod over the Turkish constitution by arrogating to himself powers that the constitution does not give the president, this being a largely ceremonious position. His whole politics is obsessively concentrated on converting the parliamentary system into a supposedly presidential one, a euphemism in effect for autocracy. He has destroyed any semblance of independence for the judiciary, trampled unabashedly on the freedom of the press, practically banned the right to strike and almost entirely denied the freedom of assembly in protest. The wholesale destruction of Kurdish cities since last summer under conditions of round-the-clock curfews that last for months on end has left speechless all those who have witnessed the resulting rubble of whole neighbourhoods or even entire towns. Thus Erdogan’s despotism is an incontrovertible fact.
The left in Turkey has been quick to label this “fascism” and Erdogan a “dictator.” Photoshop images of Erdogan with a Hitler moustache abound on social media. To call the current (i.e. pre-coup) Turkish regime “fascist” would be a travesty since it still has many features of bourgeois democracy alive. Such a label would also hide from view the fact that Erdogan and the AKP have to go a long way to achieve the establishment of the kind of regime they aspire to and thus would prevent us from seeing the concrete contradictions of the near future. However, in our opinion, it is not useful to call “fascist” even the accomplished form of that regime, if ever established fully. Leaving aside the complex question of the distinctive characteristics of fascist regimes, which would take us too far away from the topic at hand, we think that what is called for is a category peculiar to the Islamic world, since the whole political agenda pursued by Erdogan is clearly focused on that world. What facilitates the job for us is that Erdogan and the AKP themselves offer a solution for us. The official symbol of the movement is now the rising of the right hand with the thumb turned inside, thus yielding the number four, in remembrance of the victims of the Cairo neighbourhood of Rabia al-Adawiyya, where the forces of General al Sisi gunned down reportedly hundreds of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood protesting against the ouster of the elected Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi during the Bonapartist coup of July 2013. (For details concerning the coup itself, see our “Bonapartist coup in Egypt.”) Erdogan’s regime has thus found its symbol. It remains for us to create the label Rabiism out of the name Rabia, which means “four” in Arabic.
This symbol and name are appropriate for Erdogan’s movement, for the whole idea behind the movement is revanchism that feeds on a kind of feeling of victimization in the Muslim world in general and Turkey in particular. We cannot but be schematic when explaining what lies behind this victimization. (Some of the ideas here explained are elaborated upon in a longer piece of ours: “Class, State and Religion in Turkey” in Neşecan Balkan/Erol Balkan/Ahmet Öncü (eds), The Neoliberal Landscape and the Rise of Islamist Capital in Turkey, NewYork. Berghahn Books, 2015.) The Islamic world, in particular in its heartland that has always been the societies of the Middle East, experienced the rise of industrial capitalism in Western Europe and the subordination Islam suffered as a result in a manner quite different from many parts of the world. From the 7th century on, Islam had dealt with the Christian Western world, Europe for all practical purposes, on an equal to equal footing and even nibbled away at some of its territory for a time, Spain in the west and the Byzantine territory of Asia Minor and the Balkans in the east. From the 19th century onwards, if not somewhat earlier, Islamic civilization fell under the domination of the West, mostly in the form of colonies established by Western powers, though, in the case of the Ottomans (Turks), Iran and Afghanistan, this took the form of semi-colonial oppression. This colonial or semi-colonial subjugation was experienced in differential manner by the various social classes. The cultural-religious humiliation was, of course, shared. Otherwise, the peasant, the humble artisan and tradesman, and later, the proletarian masses lived in abject poverty and experienced Western domination as straightforward plunder, while the ruling classes, even when they were made junior partners in the pillage of the wealth of these countries and the labour of working classes, grudgingly remembered their days of glory and splendour and yearned for a nostalgic return to those times when they themselves were the plunderers. The Islamic religion, as in many other similar cases of the oppression of a people by another, remained the common medium of these very different grievances and very often acted as the vehicle of domination used by the ruling classes in Muslim societies in holding the labouring classes at bay, while at the same time being presented as the repository of a holy cause that binds the whole society in solidarity. This is, beyond all conjunctural factors, what explains the extremely strong appeal of Islam to the masses in this part of the world.
For historical reasons, Turkey has had a unique experience within this overall development. First, it is the only country in the whole Islamic world to have made a great leap toward secularism in undisguised manner. Even today, the word “secular” is taboo in the Arab world, the closest term used being “civil state.” Even Erdogan had to learn this aversion at his own expense when he, exceptionally, lauded secularism on his visit to Egypt under Morsi (those were the days!). Turkey’s secularism is not without its inner contradictions that really offset many of the gains this principle would normally bring, but, nonetheless, secularism has been a mainstay of the regime, at least nominally.
Secondly, however, early republican Turkey under Kemal Ataturk did not only resort to secularism but launched a full-scale attack on the mores, values, practices and cultural forms of Islamic-oriental society, adopting wholesale alternative ones imported from the West, called “contemporary civilization” by the unrivalled leader. It was a kind of civilizational cleansing. To the mind of the whole society, it appeared that secularism and the civilizational shift were Siamese twins, inseparably linked to each other. Thus, the profound dislike that the popular masses developed toward the civilizational shift also marked their attitude to secularism. The masses, peasants, the humble petty-bourgeoisie of the cities and later the proletariat regarded the Western ways of the bourgeoisie as the cultural outward appearance of the class divide. Class and culture were identified and anything smacking of Western manners was suspicious in the eyes of (a majority of) the popular masses. The rise of a new fraction of the bourgeoisie from the 1970s on expressed itself in opposition to the firmly entrenched original fraction of the bourgeoisie resolutely tied to Western institutions, mores and ideas. For this reason, Islamism was to be its ideology. Erdogan, of humble origins although later turned capitalist merchant, seemed to the masses to be “one of us.” This confluence of social (class) and cultural (religious) factors is what explains the enduring charismatic influence of Erdogan on the popular masses. Need it be added that this is no doubt a kind of deception on the part of the masses for classwise Erdogan is not “one of them,” but is firmly anchored in the new wing of the bourgeoisie.
Thirdly, and most importantly for our discussion on what we have named Rabiism, being the heirs to the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish ruling classes also had the advantage of holding the Caliphate as a weapon. However, Kemal Ataturk did not only put an end to empire and declared a republic in 1923, but on the heels of this, abolished the Caliphate itself in 1924. A part of the ruling classes of Turkey have never forgiven this. In their eyes, the Caliphate was not only the personification of the unity of the umma, the worldwide community of believers, but also the key to Turkish glory and splendour in the bosom of the Muslim world. This is why Turkish Islamism has always also been very nationalistic, despite the overriding importance of the umma as the religious community.
Rabiism is the ideological movement that strives to unify the Sunni-Muslim world around the leadership of Erdogan. ”
It is now this Turkish glory and splendour that Tayyip Erdogan wishes to revive and re-establish. He has posed his candidacy to being the “Rais” (leader, chief) of the whole Sunni-Arab world to begin with, although he also has claims on the Muslims of the rest of the world, starting with the Balkans and Transcaucasia. Rabiism is the ideological movement that strives to unify the Sunni-Muslim world around the leadership of Erdogan. Whether he will go so far as to take upon his shoulders the mantle of Caliph if given a chance is a moot point, though not unimaginable by any means. His most staunch followers have of late certainly started to treat him in reverential awe bordering on religious sanctification.
Objective Bases and Subjective Conditions
Predictably, this kind of a socio-political programme is neither the product of one man’s fantasies nor even the awakening of a long-dormant political idea. It has its material basis in the growing of the Turkish bourgeoisie into a force capable and in need of opening to the rest of the world for markets and investment. This does not yet mean that Turkey is becoming an imperialist power in its own right. It has rather joined that league of countries in the international system that occupies a midway position between imperialist countries and those that are still anchored in the underdevelopment of their productive forces and dependent on imperialism in the classical sense of the term. We are here talking of countries such as Brazil, India or South Africa, which despite themselves being still beholden to many of the scourges of underdevelopment and dependency, nonetheless have started to distinguish themselves from what was once known, as a single totality, the “Third World.” This is a process that is continuing, whose outcome is difficult to gauge. We should, however, beware taking a dogmatic approach that freezes countries into the categories of imperialist and dependent, without any intermediate shades and, even more importantly, without the prospect of countries moving up and down in the imperialistic hierarchy.
Turkish capitalism reached this important phase with the consolidation of the domination of finance capital (in Lenin’s sense) under the military dictatorship of the early 1980s. This development coincided with the crisis and then the final demise of the experience of socialist construction in Eastern and Central Europe and the Soviet Union, to be accompanied by the internal decomposition of the Maoist experiment in China. Turkish capital turned its face to the new geography arising from the ashes of this experience and the Turkish bourgeoisie adopted a wholesale programme of extending its influence economically, politically and culturally to the new countries. Turgut Ozal and Suleyman Demirel, both leaders of the traditional centre-right serving successively as presidents of the republic from 1989 to 2000, turned their gaze to the Turkic world that was emerging in Central Asia and the Caucasus as a result of the decomposition of the Soviet Union, not neglecting the Balkans. Necmettin Erbakan, the historic leader of the Islamist movement made a different attempt, during his brief premiership in the mid-nineties, at forming an alternative to the G-8 group in the form of a self-styled D-8 (D for “Developing”), composed exclusively of Muslim countries. So by the time the AKP of Erdogan, successor to Erbakan as leader of the Islamist movement, came to power in 2002, Turkey already had at least 15 years of experience in practical attempts to extend its sphere of influence. It may be added that, ironically, the system of educational institutions that Fethullah Gulen, who allegedly masterminded the military coup of 15 July single-handedly, has established around the world, including many poor African countries, was conceived in exactly the same spirit and was eulogised by the very people, starting with Erdogan himself, who now compete in vilifying the imam!
So in a very well-defined sense, Erdogan’s Rabiism is a policy that caters to the needs of the Turkish bourgeoisie in gaining new spheres of influence in the less developed parts of the world in Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans (in particular Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania). However, it is also a divisive policy for the Turkish bourgeoisie, based as it is on a clearly revanchist orientation vis-à-vis Kemalism. As we have been emphasising over the years, the traditional and well-entrenched fraction of the Turkish bourgeoisie is entirely committed to the Western alliance, i.e. it is Atlanticist through and through. For the very same reason, it is an ardent partisan of the principle of secularism that is a hallmark of the state founded by Kemal Ataturk. Thus, the two fractions of the bourgeoisie, besides their struggle over resources, loans, markets, state procurements, public tenders etc. are also at loggerheads as to where the country will be heading in the 21st century. This, in its entirety, is what we have called the “political (bloodless) civil war of the bourgeoisie” that has dominated the scene throughout the 14 years during which Erdogan has been in power.
In this struggle between the two fractions, the closest allies of the Westernizing-secular wing are the United States and the European Union. Since the Turkish armed forces (the TSK) have been such a bulwark of NATO first against the Soviet Union and now against resurgent fundamentalist Islam, NATO is of pivotal importance in this struggle between the two fractions. As we have already pointed out on more than one occasion, the idea of Turkey’s Pakistanization, i.e. the TSK becoming, as in the case of Pakistan, a vehicle for the promotion of Islamist politics, is premature, to say the least, simply because the TSK is a NATO army through and through. So the drive to establish a despotic regime in Turkey under the specific traits of Rabiism has to come into clash with this definite characteristic aspect of the TSK. The failed coup of 15 July was, in our opinion, a first showdown between these two contradictory forces. It was, as we said in the introduction to this article, in all probability, not the making of the Gulenist faction alone, but a product of the contradictory alliance between the secular pro-NATO forces in the TSK and the adepts of the Gulen fraternity.
We said “a first showdown.” Now that the putschists have been defeated, it may legitimately be asked why the qualifier “first” is used. The trouble is that evidence implicates almost the whole officer corps, including the majority of the top brass, and the intelligence agency as the planners of the coup. There are innumerable questions that are waiting to be answered and contradictions to be explained with respect to the behaviour of the top brass that night. So unless Erdogan and the AKP do not proceed smoothly and skilfully to eliminate the still existing risks, there remains the danger of a new attempt at the ouster of the government. Should that happen and the new putsch succeed where the first one has failed, the “success” will only be relative, since the resistance put up by the followers of the government has shown that the most likely outcome is a civil war. A first mini-civil war broke out on the night of 15 to 16 July. This will in all likelihood form the model of the more durable civil war that will break out if the country faces another attempt.
Turkey is a powder keg. This is where what we have called the (bloodless) political civil war of the bourgeoisie has brought the country. That political civil war now threatens to break out into the open, growing into the military form. Articulated as it is to the progressive Syrianization of Turkey as a result of the government’s complicity with ISIL and Erdogan’s all-out war on the Kurds ever since he lost the June 2015 elections, this war threatens to immerse Turkey in a tragedy next to which the Syrian drama will pale into insignificance. And that is a lot to say.
Atlanticism and Rabiism are both reactionary by their very nature. Atlanticism has made the Turkish capitalist state the bulwark of the defence of imperialist interests in the Middle East. Rabiism, on the other hand, is no anti-imperialism. It is the political programme of a class (or class fraction) that wishes to restore its right to plunder a part of the world on the basis of a reactionary ideology and it is despotic through and through. Nonetheless, should war break out between the masters of NATO and Turkey, Marxists in our opinion are duty-bound to come out against imperialism, without a shred of political support to Rabiism and Erdogan and through independent military means of their own, if this is achievable.
So we are now facing two reactionary alternatives. Up until recently, there was certainly another alternative emerging on the horizon. Turkey was shaken by three momentous social movements in the space of two years: the people’s uprising of June-September 2013, the Kurdish serhildan (revolt in Kurdish) connected to the defence of Kobanê in Syria against the forces of ISIL between 6-12 October 2014, and the metalworkers’ wildcat strike that gripped tens of thousands of workers in May-June 2015. However, the deep divisions between these movements, the misplaced policies of the Kurdish movement and the deplorable lack of leadership of the working class movement have combined to lead to a situation where despite these remarkable episodes of social struggle, the exploited and oppressed masses have not been able to form an alternative organizational pole and an alternative programme.
Yet it is too early to say if the potential that burst forth in those memorable episodes is totally spent. Surely, the only way to save the country from internecine slaughter is to count on that potential and tirelessly build a third alternative to the twin dangers of Atlanticism and Rabiism. •
Sungur Savran is based in Istanbul and is one of the editors of the newspaper Gercek (Truth) and the theoretical journal Devrimci Marksizm (Revolutionary Marxism), both published in Turkish, and of the web site RedMed.