Is the fight between secularists and Islamists about money?
ADNAN R. KHAN
It has all the hall-
marks of a thriller: in the dark underbelly of Turkey’s political and military establishments, a shadowy group of ultra-nationalists plots to topple the democratically elected Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. A coup is planned for 2009, the details of which are allegedly discovered in the diary of a retired admiral. In January 2008, the government swoops in: dozens are arrested, including writers and intellectuals, and the dreaded term—“deep state”—re-enters Turkish political discourse.
In response, the ultra-nationalists, selfappointed vanguards of the kind of extreme secularism that Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s founding father, advocated as the immutable principle of the Turkish state, file a case against the AKP in Turkey’s Constitutional Court that would dismantle the party. They accuse the Islamist-rooted AKP of undermining “Kemalist” fundamentals—citing among other things constitutional amendments passed by the AKP-dominated parliament that would
repeal a law banning head scarves being worn at Turkish universities. The standoff escalates. The AKP accuses the ultra-nationalists of operating as a “deep state” with the name Ergenekon, after the legendary homeland of the original Turkic people. It is the ghost in the machine, AKP leaders warn, functioning as an arm of the right-wing establishment, carrying out assassinations and bombings intended to sow enough chaos and fear that the military would feel obliged to intervene with yet another coup.
The July 27 twin bombings in Istanbul’s Güngören shopping district, just hours before judges began deliberating on the future of the AKP, only increased the tension. That attack, the worst in Turkey since a series of coordinated bombings in November 2003, killed at least 17 civilians and injured another 150. And while investigators are hinting that Kurdish separatist rebels were responsible (a charge the rebels deny), many analysts also see the hand of Ergenekon.
This is Turkish politics at its most sordid, threatening what has so far been a stellar 21st century for this nation of 72 million as it contends to join the European Union. A 2,455page indictment against dozens of men and women with alleged links to Ergenekon,
released by Turkish prosecutors on July 14eight days after further arrests, including two generals—accuses the alleged conspirators of everything from sedition to inciting people to enmity and hatred. That case is still pending, although the case against the AKP was resolved on July 30, leaving the party intact but reducing its state funding by half for 2008.
That decision not to close the AKP may look like vindication for the ruling party, but six of the 11 judges voted for closure, missing the constitutionally required consensus by a mere single vote. Ten of the 11 agreed that the AKP is involved in anti-secular activities, reinforcing the belief that the Constitutional Court remains ideologically bound to the right-wing establishment. So the decision, according to some commentators, may only be a stay of execution, and the message it sends is clear: the AKP should watch itself.
But is the AKP in fact priming Turkey for an Islamist takeover? “The AKP is not trying to create a Taliban-style Islamic state in Turkey,” says Ertugrul Kurkcu, a Turkish journalist and founder of Bianet, a media watchdog and press freedom advocacy group based in Istanbul, “ft is, however, trying to instill Islamic values in society.” But Kurkcu adds that after six years of AKP rule, Turkey has
remained secular and has moved closer to a European model of social norms. So the power struggle between religious conservatives and ultra-nationalists, while real, may have more to do with economics than ideologies. In the end, it’s about the money.
Since the AKP took power, Turkey has been booming. Structural reforms demanded by the European Commission as part of negotiations for EU membership have opened the doors to foreign investment, prompting a flood of dollars and euros. Massive tourism revenues are turning derelict districts in Istanbul and other tourist destinations into gilded hot spots. But the spoils of economic success haven’t been spread equally. In a 2005 article written by Middle East Quarterly editor and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Michael Rubin, numerous Turkish businessmen complained about the iron grip the AKP has on the economy, promoting its own interests ahead of the broader business community. “The growth of the Islamic business sector is apparent across Turkey,” the report says, “and appears intricately linked to the AKP’s rise.”
That sector, reportedly headed by a group of Islamist businessmen calling themselves the Anatolian Tigers, is based in central Anatolia, Turkey’s religious heartland. And it seems poised to dominate Turkey’s economic future. “The changes the AKP is introducing have an economic dimension, which involves the implementation of a
totally unregulated liberal economy model,” says Ayse Bugra, professor of economics at Bogaziçi University in Istanbul. “That would mean the opening of the way to a significant capital accumulation in the hands of new businessmen close to the AKP.” The windfall has already been significant: the AKP is insulated from threats to its finances by a large hoard of private funds.
But where is this money—“green money,” as it’s being called, in reference to its Islamic roots—coming from? The theories are many: Saudi investors are one significant source, says the Middle East Quarterly report. In the first year following the 9/11 attacks, the author argues, Saudi investors pulled anywhere from $100 billion to $200 billion from U.S. holdings. That has been invested elsewhere, up to $20 billion of it rumoured to have gone into Turkey’s unofficial economyincluding into the hands of Islamist businessmen through a vast network of Islamic foundations, which have deposited some of it into AKP coffers. That has helped the AKP privately underwrite some popular projects,
like passing out free school textbooks in Konya, a city in the heart of Anatolia, and reducing taxes on some consumer goods.
But a party dealing in the dark world of shadow economics is nothing new in Turkey. “This is always the case when a new government takes over,” says one Kurdish mafia leader with links to Turkey’s vast underworld, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Control of the unofficial economy follows the people in power. That’s the way it’s always been.” In this case, the “greening” of Turkey’s unofficial economy, which was estimated to be worth as much as US$83 billion in 2003, has benefited previously marginalized Turkish groups with strong religious credentials, muscling out the secularist ultra-nationalists—even as the AKP has hit the mafias thought to be associated with its rivals.
For some Turks, these new groups represent a new and ever-more-powerful Islamic underground. “Turkish politics has always been run like a mafia,” says one writer in Istanbul with close ties to Turkey’s Islamic foundations. “The foundations themselves operate like a mafia. They’re not involved in illegal activities like drugs and smuggling—these are deeply religious people—but they run their businesses like mafia outfits.” Indeed, the close relationship between the AKP and religious foundations like the Naqshbandi order (Abdullah Gúl, Turkey’s president, is reported to be a former member) has created a nexus of politicians and businessmen whose agenda, some secularist Turks claim, threatens to turn Turkey into an Islamist-run family business. Considering the financial windfall it represents, that economic domination does have the potential to incite a political war.
Was that the impetus behind the court case brought against the AKP? It’s difficult to say, but what is beyond doubt is that, in the past, the benefits of the unofficial economy went to ultra-nationalists in the deep state, often through their mafia intermediaries. “Now the flow of money has changed hands,” says the Kurdish mafia leader. So is Turkey facing an underground war? If so, round one appears to have gone to the Islamists—their benefactor, the AKP, will not be closed. But in the film noir of Turkish politics, the end will be near impossible to predict. M
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