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Turkey, A Nation Divided -- Politics (Part 1)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara in January.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara in January.

In today's Turkey, there is not one, not two, but at least three major areas that deeply cut society into occasionally quite antagonistic fronts: politics, religion, and, more importantly, ethnicity, which is being translated into terror. All of them intertwine.

The first deep divide is about politics.

In Izmir, there are two grocery shops (markets or “bakkal,” as they are called in Turkish) just a few steps from our home in a middle-class neighborhood where hundreds of government employees also live. These two markets are divided along political lines.

One shop owner is a tough, secular, pro-Ataturk retiree who does not miss any opportunity to criticize the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The other shop owner has a portrait of the president hanging in his store and every small manner of his speaking and behavior suggests that he is a devout Muslim.

The first shop owner greets you in a traditional Turkish manner with “gunaydin” ("nice day") and the second in a traditional, Islamic way: “Selamun-Aleykum.”

Finally, the second shop owner sells no alcoholic drinks whatsoever, not even beer, in a city that has traditionally been quite secular. The first shop owner used to sell any sort of alcoholic drink in the past, especially the Turks' favored raki (Greek ouzo). But with increasing pressure, direct or indirect, by the Islamic-leaning government of Erdogan, our secular "bakkal" started to cover the shelves holding "undesired" drinks. No law (yet) bans the sale of alcohol and the secular bakkal keeps selling it. But the shop owner doesn't want to incur the protests of loyal government employees, either.

Depending on your political point of view and to which party or personality you lean toward (and that can vary,) you don't trust parliamentarians a word, nor TV moderators, nor in fact TV channels, or newspapers, or neighbors and co-workers considered to be supportive of the other side.

The deepest political divide is between seculars, who think of themselves as true followers of principles of laicism and a democratic republic introduced in 1923 by Ataturk, on the one side, and those who claim to be faithful and committed to Islam and tradition, on the other.

The second group is far more conservative and primarily religious in all aspects of life, from women wearing Islamic clothing to men publicly going to mosque to pray during work hours.

The seculars are in fact more “democratic-minded” in some sense of Western standards. Not only do they not pressure women to wear head scarves, but they even encourage them not to do so, although their mothers or at least grandmothers usually went out with their heads covered in the traditional way (different from the "political" hijab that became fashionable among the Islamic movements of the Erdogan era.)

The seculars usually don’t pray but still fast during the month of Ramadan. Also, drinking beer or raki, and more recently the more fashionable wine, is a normal thing for them. Family relations are more liberal but still very traditional. They are oversensitive to any criticism of Ataturk and the Turkish Army and history. They usually don’t like the Ottoman sultans, especially the last ones before the founding of the republic, and believe most of them had become puppets of Western colonial powers in the early 20th century.

But ironically their understanding of democracy is usually very anti-Western and generally overwhelmed by diverse and occasionally incomprehensible conspiracy theories that are impossible to prove, although sometimes difficult to deny. All bad that has come upon Turkish society was and still is from the West, as well as Israel and Armenia. All the world is plotting against the Turks and now the West is helping the Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria, and inside Turkey to split their country, as they did with Iraq and Syria. Their political representation is mostly in the main opposition “social democratic” party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), but also in the main nationalist party, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

In many aspects, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Unity Party (HDP) also shares a lot of these political concepts. Probably they are more areligious, called secular, and more liberal toward women, at least in urban and politically rather leftist circles. But before anything else, they are heavily ethnicity-focused -- with the Kurdish community in Turkey and neighboring countries as their guiding compass.

Many of the conspiracy theories enthusiastically defended by seculars and the Kurdish groups, and more, and in different variations, are shared by the conservative/religious group that is politically represented by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The outbursts by Erdogan that we regularly hear and read in local media are partly played for political consumption, but are generally genuine, though embarrassing. They are, in essence, Islamic-minded with a quite strong, though not MHP-like, nationalism that borders on racism.

This brings us to the second factor, the religion dividing the Turkish nation, before we talk about the main divisive cut through society: the Kurdish issue and the ethnicity problem.

Stay tuned.

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.