Notes from Jordan: Amman and Ramtha

In response to the Arab Spring, Abdullah’s personality cult has grown even more

There is always something reassuring about Amman. Despite lacking the ancient charm of Damascus, the nightlife of Beirut and the overpopulated pandemonium of Cairo, it’s tame concrete neighbourhoods and sprawling urban centres offer a certain stability lacking elsewhere. Jordan has for decades built an image for itself as a bastion of calm in a sea of instability, attracting much-needed western and Gulf patronage as a result. On my first visit to Amman in 2 years I find Jordan once again surrounded by uncertainty: although the perennial Israeli-Palestinian conflict is quiet for now and Iraq appears to be stabilizing, to the south Egypt remains mired in post-revolutionary political contestation and, of course, to the north overspill from the Syrian uprising prays on the minds of politicians and citizens alike. The Arab Spring has thus far only rattled but not seriously threatened, the easy-on-the-western-eye autocracy of King Abdullah II, with regular protests calling for reform, rather than regime change, and rarely attracting numbers much higher than 10,000. However, with long-standing tensions between its underrepresented majority of Palestinians and the privileged minority of Transjordanians, and a parallel but not unrelated clash between the ruling secular elite and Jordan’s popular Islamist opposition, some fear that instability caused by the Syria crisis could push the desert kingdom over the edge.

Hiding @ Ramadan

I arrived in Jordan on the first day of Ramadan, about which I am always ambivalent when in the Arab world. On the one hand, it is a fantastic festival, which visibly brings communities together. During my stay I have the privilege of sharing Iftar (the breaking of the day’s fast) in private homes and in communal cafes and restaurants and the sense of togetherness on breaking the fast is genuinely impressive and an honour to be a part of. On the other hand, throughout my trip to Jordan, the temperature average is between 35-38 degrees Celsius. Unlike many Jordanians, who tend to slow down during the day while they’re fasting – often sleeping late and leading a more nocturnal life – I still have to work: walking around the city in the sweltering heat. As a good visitor, even though I am not fasting myself, I know its rude to eat and drink in front of fasters, and yet struggled to find anywhere in Amman that would serve me food before 7.45pm. Most cafes simply close and almost all are deserted until Iftar. My salvation comes in the form of ‘Books@Café’, a trendy western-style eatery in the up market district of Rainbow Street in Jebel Amman.

Yet each day when I come to work and eat, I am not alone. Interestingly the café is full, not of westerners, but of Jordanians in desperate search of a place to eat, drink and, seemingly most importantly, smoke. Despite ‘Books’ – as it is known – having several floors and an impressive covered balcony overlooking Amman’s citadel, patrons are instead directed into an internal-facing room, far from the disapproving glare of the rest of Amman’s observant population. This social, almost institutionalized, pressure to fast is common across the Arab world, and I have seen it in Cairo, Damascus and Aleppo previously. Sometimes it actually is institutionalized, from minor laws such as the sale of alcohol being forbidden after 10 o’clock in Jordan, to the excesses of the religious police in Saudi Arabia forcibly enforcing the fast. Returning to Turkey, I discovered that no such practice exists. In Gaziantep – which I will discuss next week – cafes remain full of local patrons eating, drinking beer and smoking throughout the day. I am later told by more experienced voices that this social pressure in Jordan is a relatively recent phenomena, coinciding – not surprisingly – with the general shift towards greater religiosity over the last twenty or so years. Yet, whatever its origin, I can’t help feeling that this takes away some of the purpose of the festival. Surely the communality of fasting, and the shared moment of Iftar only has true meaning if its voluntarily entered into for religious reasons rather than due to social pressure?

The refugees of Ramtha

AP image of Ramtha refugees

The main purpose of my trip to Jordan was to interview some of the Syrian refugees that have recently fled the violence. UNHCR estimates that there are currently 35,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, while the Jordanian government says that there are an additional 160,000 who have not registered, still fearing the reach of the Syrian secret police (the Muhkabarat) even when abroad. Jordan, for the most part, has done the decent thing regarding the refugees. While there were some stories of the authorities turning back Syrians of Palestinian origin – presumably not wanting to swell the numbers of Palestinians in Jordan even further – most Syrians have been welcomed. One farmer we spoke to from Deraa, the neighbouring city in southern Syria where the uprising started, said he was scared of crossing the border with his family illegally because he was worried how the Jordanian army would react. Eventually, after spending 3 months living in the forests outside Deraa, he and his family crossed. When the Jordanian army saw them, the man said he feared the worst, but instead the first soldier approached them and shouted ‘alf ahla’ (a thousand welcomes)! The man wept as he told the story.

The refugee’s stories were harrowing. All who we spoke to had come from either Deraa or Homs, which have seen some of the worst violence in the regime’s crackdown. One girl from Homs told us how the ‘Shabiha’, the militia formed by the Assad regime responsible for some of the worst atrocities so far, had ‘occupied’ the house of her friend’s family for a week, repeatedly raping the women before killing all but one of the inhabitants and looting the homestead. Sexual violence and torture, against both men and women, were prominent in the stories of all that we spoke to, although none of my interviewees were victims themselves. Indeed, it was fear for the safety of his daughters that eventually prompted the farmer from Deraa to leave after a year of escalating violence. “I love my country,” he said, “but it was no longer safe.” He had been in Jordan for 12 days.

This desert life

The Jordanian government is doing its best to accommodate the refugees. In Ramtha itself there is a UNHCR camp hosting several thousand, but most live with relatives or in rented accommodation. The refugees we spoke to were being hosted in the town of Turah, a few miles outside of Ramtha, and it was local charities that were taking the lead in providing homes and support. Abu Nabil, the man who took us from home to home to meet the Syrian refugees was a retiree charity volunteer from the town rather than a government official. The government recently received a $100m grant from the US to help with the costs of helping the refugees. The eldest son of one man we spoke to, Abu Mohammad, was taking a catch up course so that he could start the school year in a Jordanian school in September. Another man from Homs had had his hearing severely damaged when shells had exploded in his furniture shop. He was being treated free of charge at the local hospital. Grants will cover these costs for the time being, but one must question whether Jordan’s already stretched infrastructure can cope with much more. Following clashes between Jordanian residents and refugees in Ramtha last week, a new law was passed stating that future refugees must live in the camps rather than where they wish, acknowledging the problems of this over-stretch. The real fear is that numbers will jump suddenly as the violence worsens: while 100,000 is just about manageable, 500,000 may not be.

Syrian overspill in Jordan

As well as the numbers of refugees overburdening the Jordanian state, there are two other serious concerns. Firstly, that the fighting might spill onto Jordanian soil. On my final night in Jordan Al-Arabiya was reporting that the Jordanian army had clashed with the Syrian army who were pursuing refugees headed for the border. A four-year-old Syrian boy was reportedly killed. It is difficult to verify some of these clashes. On the one hand the Saudi-owned media such as Al-Arabiya opposes Assad and seeks to play up any events, while at the same time the Jordanian government has been careful not to become too embroiled in the Syria conflict and seeks to downplay things. Even so, whatever the truth behind this incident, clashes are likely given the ruthlessness with which the Syrian regime pursues refugees along with Jordan’s commitment to protect them. But King Abdullah is carefully walking a fine line. Much to the chagrin of the refugees we spoke to, despite publically calling on Assad to step down, the King has not shown outright support for the rebel Free Syria Army (FSA). This is quite unlike Turkey, which hosts the FSA and is, allegedly, funneling Saudi and Qatari funds and weapons to them. Even more than Turkey Jordan fears a long-lasting civil war in Syria which could provide a base for anti-regime Jordanian groups and destabilize the whole region. Faced with this prospect, the King’s line appears to be to publically toe the line of its allies Saudi and the US regarding Assad, but practically pursuing a damage limitation exercise: protecting the refugees and defending his borders but avoiding anything that could encourage more fighting. The FSA thus have a weaker base in the Hawran district that sprawls over southern Syria and northern Jordan, than it does in the southern Turkey / northern Syria Idleb region – primarily due to a lack of support from Jordan.

3 Kings? Abdullah’s image makers prepare a cult for his son, Hussein, as well. The ‘Hafez plan’ if you will…

The second major issue is not unrelated to this, which is divided opinion within Jordanian society itself. While the vast majority of Jordanians I spoke to were adamantly against Assad, a few voiced concerns. Some Jordanian Christians were worried of the fate of the Christians in Syria if Assad fell, aware of the exodus of Iraqi Christians when Saddam Hussein fell. There was a general fear, not unlike that found among some Turkish secularists, that if Assad fell, Syrian Islamists would take over, increasing the pressure on the Jordanian government to embrace the Islamic Action Front (Jordan’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood). I was even told that several pro-Assad voices can still be read in Jordan’s newspaper columns, something I saw for myself on reading an op-ed in the Jordan Times stating that, despite all of Assad’s faults, he was better than a repeat of Iraq in Syria. While this pro-Assad (or at least, anti-Syrian opposition) group is evidently a small minority, it is potentially important given most come from the King’s core support. After all, it is the Liberals and Islamists that are most actively anti-Assad – the same groups who are calling on the King to reform. It would not be surprising if, deep down, despite repulsion at Assad’s behaviour, King Abdullah himself might fear what will come next.

Notes from Turkey: Ankara

The view from MK’s place

The house that MK Built

Old games…

What to say about Ankara, Turkey’s capital? Well firstly, it’s no Istanbul. Not that we should expect it to be. After all, prior to Ataturk establishing his base here in 1920 at the beginning of the Turkish War of Independence, it was a small town with a population of 30,000. Today it boasts 4.5 million residents, so it’s come a long way in a short time. Even so, it feels a little like Washington DC to Istanbul’s New York: charming enough, but primarily designed to be a functional seat of government rather than an organically evolved metropolis with layers of history on every corner. Of course the designer, as such, was Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (MK), who didn’t set foot in Istanbul from 1919-1927 in an attempt to establish his new (more easily defendable) city as the centre of his new country. Not surprisingly then, Ankara has a clearly Kemalist character. Cafes pepper the tree-lined streets where secular Turks spend the evenings drinking Efes beer and playing board games – now recently joined by rows and rows of big screens for the city’s many students to play football video games. Even more than central Istanbul, very few women are veiled.

…and new

Yet despite the various ministries, think tanks, universities and political party headquarters that have drawn me here, Ankara’s most interesting site is actually one over which Ataturk had no input: his tomb. It took almost 20 years to complete after the big man’s death in 1938, but the Anit Kabir, located on a hill overlooking the capital, is suitably imposing. At once peaceful and intimidating, the complex draws on both modernist and classical styles with a huge marble square surrounded by colonnades leading up to the Lincoln memorial-esq mausoleum. In a tribute to MK’s maxim of, ‘peace at home, peace in the world’, the complex sits within a large public ‘peace park’ where local families promenade throughout the day. Beneath the tomb itself stretches a massive museum featuring Ataturk’s life and the war of independence, the stuffed remains of his favourite dog(!), and a selection of his clothing – dapper! Interestingly, the vast majority of visitors were Turks. There were a handful of foreigners such as myself and the rather irritating tour of Malaysians in bright turquoise polo shirts, but most were nationals who seemed to be on something of a pilgrimage. Strikingly, large numbers of veiled girls and bearded men queued up to have their photo taken beside the 40-ton cenotaph representing Ataturk’s body – ironic given that he was the one who banned the hijab from public buildings. Yet it struck me that perhaps respect for Turkey’s founding father is something that transcends the secular and religious divide that seems to seep into most other aspects of society.

Rest in peace…

Divisions run deep

I’ve discussed these divisions before but this week I thought I’d focus on the political manifestations of Turkey’s secular-Islamist dichotomy. It was perhaps fitting that my stay in Ankara coincided with the conference of the centre-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ataturk’s party and now the main opposition to the ruling moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). As such, banners with the CHP logo (six arrows representing Ataturk’s six principles of republicanism, nationalism, statism, populism, secularism and revolutionism – thank you Wikipedia!) adorned Ankara’s streets. The continued success of the AKP, winning three general elections in a row since 2002, has snapped Turkey’s secular parties awake. Throughout the 1990s various leftist, nationalist and centrist secular parties came and went in coalitions and minority governments in an era defined by divisions among the political elite and the continued interference of the military. However, the seeming unstoppable behemoth of Prime Minister Erdogan’s AKP has forced a lot of secularists to coalesce around a single party with a rejuvenated CHP the main beneficiary after years in the wilderness. It improved its electoral performance from 9% of the vote in 1999 to 25% in 2011. Though they’re still way behind the 50% won by the AKP, they have now emerged as the main opposition party – effectively turning the current political arena into a two-party system.

With its Kemalist roots I wasn’t surprised that the CHP appeared popular among the few Ankarans I spoke to (though the AKP won the parliamentary seat in 2011, suggesting the hinterland is more conservative than the secular centre). One taxi driver, a self confessed Leninist-Marxist, said he thought that Erdogan was, “crazy.” The only people who vote for the AKP, he said, were, “poor people who need their heads checked.” But, he conceded, they were popular, once again emphasizing the dilemma of the secular minority when confronted with an Islamist party that genuinely appears to reflect the will of the more religious majority.

6 Arrows

I actually visited the CHP headquarters the day before their conference began to discuss their foreign policy agenda. I had earlier attempted to speak to someone at the AKP but no one was available for comment. In fact my experience of the two parties couldn’t have been more different. While the AKP building was surrounded by police and eventually unenthusiastic about helping me, I was able to waltz into the CHP building unannounced and, after a five minute wait, invited up to the office of the Vice-chairperson in charge of foreign relations for an interview. This probably says more about how busy and security conscious the party of power is in contrast to the opposition, but still, it left the impression of the CHP being more welcoming. Or, perhaps, that they were keener for the outside world to hear them.

Syria: something more to argue about

The dichotomy runs deeper than just active politics, however, it penetrates and characterizes think tanks, academia and the media – with the pro and anti AKP sides clearly defined. I argued with one professor at Ankara University that this is no different to most political societies, such as Britain or, more obviosuly the liberal-conservative divide in the US. But he argued there was a difference: the increasing authoritarian streak of the AKP and its reluctance to accept criticism. In his mind, academics and think tanks aligned with the AKP were too sensitive to Erdogan’s refusal to be questioned and lined up behind him and foreign minister Davutoglu in their books, papers and op-eds. While in the past under secular governments, secularists like himself would happily have critiqued policy, today under an Islamist government, Islamist scholars were not extending the same service. In his mind, this undermined democracy given that any leader does better when criticized by friends than surrounded by sycophants.

This criticism was partly born out by my interviews with pro-AKP scholars and think tankers on Syria. To them, the government’s policy towards Damascus is the best that can be hoped for in difficult circumstances. Turkey was correct to engage with the Ba’athist regime in the 2000s, they were also correct to try to persuade Assad to embrace reform when the Arab Spring began and then, when it was clear that he was not going to, they were correct to cut ties and call for his removal. The opposition, feel quite differently. The critics accuse the AKP of lurching from one extreme to the other: being too close to Assad in the past and now rushing too far the other way by calling for a neighbouring regime to be toppled and, allegedly, arming the opposition. As the vice-chairman of the CHP told me, “There is nothing with which we agree with them [the AKP] on Syria.” The leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, reiterated this point in public a few days later when he proclaimed at the conference that ‘Turkey does not want war with Syria’. Columnists and academics who oppose the AKP have been even more critical to me in private, calling its Syria policy, ‘naïve’, ‘arrogant’, ‘hypocritical’ and ‘unwise’. Of course, the pro-AKP academics retort that such critics are just criticising for criticism’s sake and that they would oppose any AKP policy whatever it was. Nevertheless, it illustrates quite neatly how divided Turkish politics and society are between (loosely) supporters of these two main parties. Even on an issue that one would think was black and white: a Syrian dictator killing 15,000+ of his people, the battle lines are drawn.

ADDENDUM – Syrians in Taksim

The students want the fall of the regime!

As I was passing back through Istanbul from Ankara to Amman, I came across a small group of Syrians protesting in Taksim Square, Istanbul’s central public space. The group was small, maybe 20 people at most, and they waved the Syrian opposition’s green, white and black ‘Istiklal’ (Independence) flag. Talking to them for a while, it transpired most were students who were already studying in Istanbul when the troubles in Syria broke out. A few, though, were recent arrivals such as one student’s younger brother who fled his home in Homs a month ago due to, “all the trouble there.” Another was a Syrian tourist who lived in Saudi Arabia and was just visiting Turkey with his wife when he stumbled across the protest and joined in.

Despite the fact that the – mostly very young – crowd was beaming following the news that four senior regime figures including Bashar al-Assad’s feared brother-in-law Assef Shawkat had been killed in a bomb attack the day before, it was noticeable how small the protest was. “People [Turks] here support us,” said one student, “but it is the middle of the day and it is too hot. More will join in later.” I was not convinced. Worthy though the small group’s protest was, as I have said before, in my time here I’ve generally detected ambivalence among Turks towards the Syrian uprising. No one likes Assad or the mass slaughter he is conducting (indeed my Leninist-Marxist taxi driver in Ankara described him as ‘like Hitler’) but it doesn’t seem to concern Istanbullus enough to take to the streets. After years of deliberate detachment from the Arab world, irrespective of their government’s recent reengagement (for better or worse), most residents of Istanbul and Ankara still seem to see the Middle East as a world removed from them. One suspects that until the crisis actually overspills directly into Turkey (as it did briefly with the Jet crisis), this attitude won’t change. Nevertheless, I wished my young Syrians friends luck with their protests and hoped that we would meet again in free Syria, before heading to Jordan.


Notes from Turkey: Istanbul (Part 2)


Today is my last day in Istanbul. I have held off writing a second post on the city, where I have now been researching for just under two and a half weeks, until the eve of my departure to give a fuller picture. Tomorrow I head to Ankara in search of interviews with government officials and NGOs, so before then, under the shadow of the Dolmabache Palace – another fine setting besides the Bospherous – in sweltering heat, I’ll offer some more thoughts.

Not the Middle East

An Istanbullu friend reading my post last weak complained that I instinctively compared Istanbul to other Muslim cities I had encountered rather than with the great cities of Europe that it aspires to be. I hold up my hands in fault. I am uncertain whether it is because I personally focus my attention on the Middle East, or if this is something that all westerners do, harking back to the 18th century Orientalists who longed for the exoticism of Constantinople, but my frame of reference for Istanbul has always been as the ‘beginning’ of the Middle East. The classic, ‘east meets west’ cliché, if you will. While I have always seen the other city that claims this mantle – Beirut – as a bit of a fraud, effectively being a Middle Eastern city desperately trying to hide its true identity with nightclubs, bars and skyscrapers, in my imagination Istanbul was the true convergence of cultures. However, in my two weeks here I have reassessed this position. Though perhaps not for the reasons some might assume, to me Istanbul feels more European than it did eight years ago and, irrespective of that, it feels wrong to label it ‘Middle Eastern’.

Too frequently people, including myself at times, wrongly conflate ‘Middle Eastern’ with Islam. Islam has had a permanent presence in Europe (in different places) since the 8th century. Even if people want to question the ‘European-ness’ of the children of Muslim migrants from non-European lands (which they shouldn’t), Bosniaks, Albanians and, yes, Turks, still provide sizable indigenous Muslim communities in the continent. At the same time, Christianity is as much Middle Eastern as it is European. Therefore why should we automatically equate the presence of Islam and Islamic symbols in Istanbul – mosques, women in headscarves etc – with the beginning of the East? To do so seems depressingly essentialist and Huntingdonian. I may discover as I delve deeper into Turkey that parts of the country do indeed deserve the ‘Middle Eastern’ label – whatever that may mean – but its largest city, the majority of which still sits on the European side of the Bospherous, does not. Indeed, I may discover that, these days, we should just jettison the superficial labels of ‘east’ and ‘west’, and settle with ‘Turkish’.

Secular ambivalence towards ‘green money’

Istanbul side 1

From personal experience, I would argue that actually Istanbul feels more ‘European’ that it did during my last visit in 2004. This seemingly goes against the popular narrative of Turkey today: embracing conservative Islam more and, under the AKP, slipping further away from the Europeanising project of Ataturk. However, the increased practice of religion is only one of the things to change recently. The other is the enormous wealth generated. As I noted last week, the city feels bubbling with money and confidence. Infrastructure has been overhauled (my entire metro line has been constructed since 2000), public spaces cleaned up, shopping malls, hotels, stadiums, hospitals and schools all look new and, for want of a better word, ‘developed’. This is a far cry from (according to Orhan Pamuk) the grey misery that characterized the city’s development in the first few decades of the republic. And, of course, the Europeanised middle class that embraced Ataturk’s project, and their children and grandchildren, have not suddenly disappeared despite the influx of a new generation of conservative migrants to the city. They have embraced and utilized the newfound wealth to project their image of Istanbul more fully. Beach clubs have sprung up along the Black Sea coast, where thousands of bikini-clad, beer-drinking Turks spend the summer weekends, listening to Ibiza-style club music (sprinkled with Turkish pop) while lounging on the sand. The new Istanbul modern art gallery in Karakoy, which has been picketed at times by Islamists for its ‘distasteful’ content, is a worthy sister of London’s Tate modern. At nights the streets of Tunel and Beyoglu are awash with young Turkish hipsters (“dickheads”), sporting the latest trends to be found in Shoreditch or Williamsburg. Yet these are no crude imitations, but a unique Turkish secular take on current ‘western’ fashion, most obviously seen in the fantastic array of live music in bar after bar that blends traditional Turkish music with contemporary rock and pop.

Istanbul side 2

Yet at the same time, there seems to be ambivalence on behalf of secular Istanbullus towards the source of this new wealth. After the 2001 economic crisis, it was the AKP’s policies that rebuilt the economy founded on the twin policies of increased European economic integration and promoting the entrepreneurialism of inner Turkey, the so-called ‘Anatolian Tigers’. One secular friend describes it as ‘Green Money’, in that both the AKP and most of the Anatolians who have driven the new economy are Islamist. Here lies the contradiction of the new, vibrant Istanbul: the Kemalists may like the material benefits that the boom has brought, allowing the city to begin to match the other European capitals for style and structure, but they don’t like the conservative Islamic practices that come with it. While I see the infrastructural developments that appear superior to Athens, Budapest or Prague, they see the growing number of hijabs, niqabs and beards and shudder.

Turkey and Syria: who wants war?

After a few rounds of interviews with think tankers, academics, newspaper columnists and members of the public, I’m beginning to get a better idea of the main subject I’m here to investigate: Syrian-Turkish relations. Despite the sabre-rattling that’s been taking place in recent weeks, with Syria downing a Turkish jet and Turkey deploying extra troops on the border while using confrontational rhetoric, it’s safe to say the idea of war is very unpopular here. A recent newspaper poll stated that 73% of Turks surveyed opposed war. Several columnists I spoke to described this as an inevitable consequence of Turkey’s new found wealth: who would want to disrupt trade and spend vast amounts of public money on war? Some opposition is more political than that, however. One middle aged Kemalist we chatted to while he sunned himself by the Black Sea, stated that he was ideologically opposed to war too. Much as he hated the violence in Syria, he saw the only beneficiaries of a Turkish intervention being the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. “Then we would be surround by Islamists on all sides, Iran, Iraq and Syria. No thanks!”

Of course, Turkish foreign policy has not traditionally taken public opinion into account as much as elsewhere, given its less-than-democratic history, so this does not necessarily mean that military action should be ruled out. However, even policy makers and opinion formers seem to think that war is unlikely. One analyst at the think tank TESEV stated that Turkey fears being seen as the aggressor in the Arab street. “If we made a move it would be seen as an invasion, and the Arabs would remember this for a long time,” she said. Of course, Turkey has infiltrated Arab territory before, temporarily invading northern Iraq in both 1995 and 2008, plus it had a military showdown with Syria in 1998, with invasion a very real possibility. Yet all three of these incidents were part of Turkey’s longstanding fight with the Kurdish separatists, the PKK, and such military moves were seen as essentially an extension of domestic policy. Any military move against Syria would be quite different. It would have next to nothing to do with the Kurds, therefore lacking the domestic legitimacy of previous incursions, and would be directly intended to topple a neighbouring regime. This would be a major departure from traditional Turkish foreign policy.

Has Bash got one of these?

Erdogan vs history?

Despite its huge military – the second largest in NATO behind the US – Turkey has always been a status quo power, with its leaders cautious above all else. Turkey was neutral in the Second World War and, though it picked sides in the Cold War, this was defensive (due to genuine Soviet aggression by Stalin at the time) rather than confrontational. Though the Cyprus issue has been the exception – one area where military force has been used – Turkey has always been particularly cautious about its former Ottoman lands, particularly the Arab world, keen not to be misinterpreted as having irredentist claims. Ataturk’s famous maxim, “peace at home, peace in the world,” is still plastered over the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s website.

Yet has the Arab Spring made current Prime Minister, Erdogan, abandon this traditional caution? While the last decade saw a more assertive Turkey under Foreign Minster Ahmet Davotoglu’s ‘zero problems with neighbours’ doctrine, this still allowed it to remain neutral to all sides, whether Israel, Iran, Syria or the US. However, first with his confrontation with Israel after Gaza and the Mavi Marmara, and now more blatantly with threatening Syria, Erdogan is taking sides more visibly than before. As one columnist said to me, “For the first time in the history of the Republic, you have a Turkish government openly calling for the downfall of a neighbouring regime.” Even if Erdogan was considering military action then, and it is unclear whether this is any more than just empty threats, he would be acting not just against public opinion, but against nearly 90 years of Turkish history.

Notes from Turkey: Istanbul (Part 1)

In a departure from my usual blog posts, which tend to be (admittedly sporadic) commentary on current developments in the Middle East, particularly Syria, in the coming weeks I will post my observations from field research currently underway. I am spending the next six weeks in Turkey (and briefly, Jordan) as part of a new project looking at Syrian-Turkish relations. This will take me to the power centres of Istanbul and Ankara as well as Gaziantep and Antakya (Hatay), close to the Syrian border. The purpose of these posts is not to present fully-formed theses or detailed research, which hopefully will follow in the months after this trip, but instead to offer a few thoughts based on what I have seen and who I have talked to. In particular, I want to focus on several central themes that centre on Turkey’s changing position both domestically and internationally, the first of which will be the Syria-Turkish relationship. I will discuss the other two in more detail below. So, as I type this first entry, confirming all orientalist clichés by sipping sweetened Turkish coffee whilst staring out across the sun-soaked Bosphorous from the cobbled square of  Ortaköy, I hope readers find some interest in what follows. All comments are welcome.

Second impressions

This is only my second visit to Istanbul, and it has changed. When I lived in Aleppo I visited Turkey a few times, whether to pop over to Antakya, or to make more adventurous excursions to Van and beyond, but I encountered Turkey’s largest city only once, as a tourist for a week in 2004. Obviously as a tourist my focus was more on the stunning ancient mosques and palaces of Sultanahmet or the trendy bars and restaurants of Beyoğlu rather than on the politics and society that I now attempt to comprehend. Even so, it strikes that even from my limited experience of eight years ago, Turkey’s largest city (with population estimated conservatively at 13 million) is now in a different place. The first thing that struck me is the affluence. Not that it felt anything like a poor city in 2004, but now the signs of the economic boom of the 2000s are everywhere. People appear well dressed and healthy looking; new cars (and taxis – all Fiats and Hyundis – the true sign of how developed an economy is) clog the roads, while teenagers play with their iphones and ipads in the Starbucks that seem to have made it to every corner. Speaking to various people I am aware that this wealth does not stretch across the city, and that there are much poorer neighbourhoods. However, this is not a wealthy, elite bubble such as in central Beirut, Cairo or Damascus, but a genuine middle class. I have traversed the metro line and walked and ridden far beyond the city centre (based around the vibrant Taksim Square) and am yet to see this affluence severely drop from the scene.

 My second observation would be the city’s obvious youth and optimism. While Istanbul is ancient, its people are not and, compared to London, it appears that young people outnumber the old wherever you go. A professor I interviewed at Boğaziçi  University informed me that every year 1.5 million students head to university, many to Istanbul, which might explain the youth glut. Presumably Turkey also has experienced something of a demographic boom yet, unlike the Arab world where youths languish in underemployment on street corners and outside family shops, the Istanbullus youth appear energized and are doing things. The rapidly expanding economy has clearly come at the right time for this generation. All this contrasts sharply with the picture painted by the Nobel prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, which I am currently reading. Pamuk paints a city consumed by melancholy, living in the shadow of its imperial past, aware that it will never regain the importance it commanded in the Ottoman period. Yet maybe this is what has changed since Pamuk published his memoir (it came out in 2004, soon after which Pamuk himself relocated to New York after a lifetime in Istanbul, following being put on trial for his stance on the 1916 Armenian genocide). Perhaps the economic boom, overseen by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party (more on whom later), and the increased weight given to Turkeys place in the world as a result of its (now seemingly defunct) ‘zero problems with neighbours’ policy, has allowed this new generation to finally escape Pamuk’s ‘shadow of the past’. Perhaps more than their parents and grandparents Istanbul’s youth look forward with optimism.

The shrinking aquarium: Secularism and Islam

Erdogan’s AKP, who have dominated Turkish politics for the last decade since coming to power in 2002 fascinate me. For years I would speak to Syrians who would hold up the AKP as the ideal model of the kind of government they wanted at home: Islamist, moderate, pro-business and democratic. The same sentiment and admiration can be seen across the Arab world and, indeed, western governments now tend to hold up the party as the ‘kind of Islamists we can do business with’. Yet despite this admiration abroad, the AKP seem to divide opinion at home. Democrats are concerned that Erodgan has an authoritarian streak. “You can’t critcise the government here,” one young man told me, “there are a lot of journalists in jail.” Even so, both he and his wife admitted a grudging respect for the party, even though they didn’t support them: “They are very good at politics. They know what a lot of people want, and they have been very good with the economy. No one else can compete at the moment.” More notably secularists, those who remain committed to Attaturk’s vision of a Europeanised Turkey (Kemalists), where religion remains private rather than public, are worried by the increasing presence of Islam in society and the AKP’s role in encouraging it. This issue of secularism versus growing Islamism in society and politics is the second key theme I hope to explore whilst here.

An Istanbullu friend described secular society in the city as ‘the shrinking aquarium’. The number of young people, she said, who like to drink alcohol, go out to clubs and bars and live what some would call the ‘western’ lifestyle is limited and getting smaller. For an outside observer like me, these claims seem a little exaggerated. Compared to Tunis and Beirut – which are far more secular than other Arab cities such as Cairo or Aleppo – Istanbul is a secular model. In the part of town where I am staying, Şişli, a middle class area home to a large shopping mall, I would estimate that maybe 20% of women wear hijab. Yet its is the rest of the women wearing miniskirts, holding hands (and even kissing in public) their boyfriends, and the very visible presence of alcohol almost everywhere (especially Raki and Efes beer), that sets the area apart from supposed ‘western’ corners of the Arab world. Unlike Beirut, for example, these parts of Istanbul feel secular in society as well as appearance, at least on the surface. Moreover, glancing at Turkish television and advertisements on the side of the streets, the central message to society is certainly secular – apparently controlled by large, Kemalist-orientated companies. From what I have seen, no female characters (save for old women in soap operas) wear hijab, and the ideal presented to the consumer is of a modern, uncovered, ‘western’ woman. This is not unlike the image deliberately constructed on Syria TV by the secular Baathist regime that I have observed in previous research.

However, I do still sympathise with my friend. Kemalists have long feared that the majority of Turks from mainland Anatolia (who flocked to Istanbul following the rapid economic development of the 1980s) would rather return to the more Islamic society of the Ottoman era and now, with the repeated success of the AKP, this appears to be finally happening. 20% in a hijab sounds like a small number compared to parts of the Arab world, but if it something that has only happened in recent years and, compared to no covered women in the past, it must be quite a shock to secularists who feel like an ever increasing minority. My friend said that there were now areas of the city she felt she could not live in or even visit because of her secular views. Presumably the secularists used to feel that their right to live a lifestyle not dominated by religion was protected by the government, and this is what has changed following the repeated success of the AKP. The dreaded conservatism of the masses now appears endorsed by government policy. Such fears we realized in the last week when Erdogan announced (with no opposition) a new law that effectively made abortion illegal (permitting it up to 4 weeks only), prompting a wave of protests from women’s groups and medical professionals. Though this looks likely to be revised for now, secular fears that the government – which has also called for a new generation of more religious Turks to be encouraged – are overseeing the deconstruction of Attaturk’s legacy are understandable. I am sure that the more time I spend here, and the more I see of the more conservative parts of Istanbul and Anatolia, I will learn much on this subject.

‘Terrorists’: The Kurdish issue

A further thing that has struck me has been, for want of a better word, the ethnic diversity of Istanbullus. I’m ashamed to say that I had a bit of a stereotypical view of Turkish ethnicity and was thus surprised to see many Turks with blond hair, blue eyes and other variations. I have since learned from both Pamuk and Philip Robins’ excellent, Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy since the Cold War, that Turkey’s multi-ethnic make up stems from the final few Ottoman decades when many retreating Muslims from the Balkans emigrated to Istanbul and Anatolia as the empire crumbled. Attaturk’s way of integrating all these different groups was to foster a strong sense of Turkish identity based on the Turkish language and a very loose cultural Islam (in that ‘Turks’ were Muslims, as opposed to Christian ‘Greeks’, even those who spoke Turkish as their first language – see Louis De Berniere’s Birds without wings or Andrew Mango’s Attaturk). However, this left no space for non-Turkish speaking Muslims such as Arabs and, most notably, the Kurds. The issue of Kurdish cultural political rights has been ever present since the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, but it gained extra impetus in the 1980s when the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) launched an armed insurgency and the state responded with a harsh military response that continues, in some from, today. The role of the Kurds in Turkey is the third theme I will explore, stemming from my interest in the current debate over the role of the Kurds in Syria.

I won’t dwell too much on this subject for now as I’m sure it will be a recurrent issue, but I am struck by how salient it is among those that I have spoken to. I arrived in Turkey at a time when violence in the eastern Kurdish regions was on the rise, possibly related to the carnage in neighbouring Syria. An important thing to remember is that Turkey has a conscript army. Apparently all young men do at least 6 months military service if they attend university, and 15 months if not. That means that, as in Israel, when someone is killed in service there’s instantly greater empathy from society given that everyone has a son, brother, father or uncle who has served or will serve. On the day that I arrived 17 people were reportedly killed in the East, 10 more the day after. With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that I found little sympathy for the Kurdish cause among those I spoke to. I am limited to those that speak English, given my non-existent Turkish, which means I was speaking to mostly middle class educated respondents, yet even they were relatively one-sided. One man I spoke to put it bluntly: “We have a terrorist problem in Turkey. The Kurds are killing our young men.” My secular friend offered a more balance response: “it’s not that I have a problem with them learning their own language, who cares? But it’s about what that might lead to, and I don’t want to see Turkey break up.”

The young couple were also more nuanced on the issue. “I have some friends who are Kurdish, they’re fine,” said the young man, “though a lot of Kurds keep themselves separate in Istanbul, living in Kurdish-only neighbourhoods. They’re proud to be Kurdish and don’t want to integrate.” His wife chimed in, “…and this is the problem. They don’t want to learn our language, only their own. This is our state and they should speak our language. I feel the same about Turks who have moved to Germany, who only speak Turkish. They choose to live in Germany, so they should learn German, its only right.” I didn’t bother highlighting to her that, whilst Turks had emigrated to Germany, the Kurds had always lived in the territory that suddenly became part of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Rather like Hispanic families who for centuries lived in Mexican Texas or California and yet are now considered immigrants, actually ‘the border crossed them’.