Friday, May 12, 2017
In between the lines of this blog, you can see a dichotomous and hierarchical interpretation of Turkish politics and society. This is a perspective I am borrowing from the works of Şerif Mardin. I have recently re-read a Mardin piece on "the Just" where he is reiterating this interpretation that posits a westernizing and secularizing elite vis-a-vis the bulk of the lay folk who are best summarized by tradition and Islamic values. In Mardin's account, this divide is rooted in the very structure of the Ottoman Empire where a small military and bureaucratic elite governed the rest of the society. However, with the Tanzimat reforms, a cultural divide, once dormant, started to grow. As the Ottoman elite were making their peace with Western values such as progress and secularism, they were losing their cultural connection with the rest of the society - the pious and the just.
In other works, Mardin carries his argument on the divide between the modernizing elite and the traditional society into the Turkish Republic. In this account, it is the Kemalist elite (not only soldiers and judges, but also doctors and teachers) who took it upon themselves to educate the ignorant rural masses. It is possible to read Republican People's Party's political conflicts with the Democrat Party (or the Justice Party that came after) with these lenses that underline a repetitive meta-conflict between the center and the periphery. Mardin does not go that far, but it is also possible to interpret AKP's (Justice and Development Party) cooptation of the Republican regime as the periphery's decisive victory over the center. If we wanted to be fancy, we could identify contemporary Turkish politics as the centralization of the periphery and the peripherilization of the center.
My focus on Mardin's argument and extrapolating it to explain contemporary phenomena should not mean that the center-periphery dichotomy is the only significant fault line in Ottoman and Republican Turkish societies. Economic, religious, and ethnic divisions obviously played (and continue to play) important historical roles. Major issues such as the changing geography of the class structure, the Sunni-Alawi divide and the Kurdish resistance movement notwithstanding, I want to focus on the center-periphery dichotomy as it still signifies how power flows in contemporary Turkish society.
The unwavering belief of different official elites in the necessity of imposing overarching yet unpopular reforms in Turkey throughout the past two centuries was a sharp diversion from the liberal path West European countries followed. As new bureaucracies and institutions emerged in Europe to shape the modern subject, they were accompanied by the continuous development of a legal framework that imposed limits on the power of these institutions. In other words, after long struggles and lots of bloodshed, the individual's rights were protected against arbitrary state control. It is a separate discussion whether these protections were sufficient or whether they made a significant change in social and political hierarchies; however, it is my claim that the Ottoman and Republican Turkish story took a different path.
As I often do so on this blog, I will continue with broad speculations and generalizations (something that does not befit a lowly assistant professor I tell myself -- if only I could remain a grad student...)
State centralization, rule of law and legitimacy went together to a great extent in the European experience. Again, it is a separate discussion whether legitimacy was sustained through sheer coercion, social contract, or institutional discipline. However, it seems a foregone conclusion that almost all European societies accept the dominance of the modern nation-state, and accept the limits brought by the rule of law on individuals and the state. Moreover, this is considered as the blueprint for a just society. Mardin's key insight on how the top-down modernizing Ottoman central elite lost touch with the cultural priorities of the traditional and pious periphery constitutes the starting point for the different path that the Ottoman/ Republican Turkish centralization/ modernization took. The modernizing elites extended the growing tentacles of the centralizing state to the remote corners of the country and codified this expanding official apparatus in law. However, the state always operated in a fog of illegitimacy. The uneducated and uncultivated masses that the elites wanted to educate never completely believed in the process and in the legitimacy of the modern secular elites. Two centuries of institutionalization and indoctrination undoubtedly had many successes, however the central state and its rule of law never completely conquered the minds of Turkish citizens as it did in Europe.
This observation opens up many interesting comparative questions. Is the divergent Ottoman and Turkish experience because of a weak state vis-a-vis the society? In other words, did the supposedly strong Turkish state actually lack the power to penetrate its own society? Or maybe, it was not a weak state but simply a strong and entrenched civil society? These are important and interesting questions but I am more interested in tracking the evolution of the ambiguous relationship between the rule of law and the just when a consensus on either of them were never reached. In other words, when Turkish state centralization and modernization copied the path of legal codification as it took place in Europe, but never completely reached the hearts and minds of the people, what happened? Let me exaggerate the question: What happens when the rule of law fails to achieve legitimacy?
In Turkey, the immediate result was instrumentalization of law both by the official authorities and the public. One of my favorite people wrote her MA thesis on how the Constitutional Court, based on the changing dynamics of the Republican elite coalition, used the law for counter-majoritarian purposes (Belge, 2006). In this post's terms, the center interpreted the law in instrumental ways to limit the periphery's (Kurdish movements, leftist revolutionaries, Islamic movements) access to political power. In other words, the law was malleable - fitting to the immediate needs of the elite whether it was closing the political party of a Kurdish or Islamic movement; or granting almost complete immunity to law enforcement which were suppressing the members of these movements. Nevertheless, it is important to note that despite this heavy instrumentalization, the Republican elite never gave up the facade. Everything was done according to the book. There was always prima facie evidence for the existence of a strong regime of rule of law, unless you cared to scratch the surface.
Available studies show that the public also adopted an instrumental relationship with the law. Koğacıoğlu's ethnography on the everyday life of the law at an Istanbul court showed that the urban poor, even when they were not completely sure about the language or the promise of the law, did not hesitate to mobilize their rights when they thought it would benefit them. Neither befuddled with its glorious promises, nor angered with its perpetual failures, Koğacıoğlu argues that the urban poor in Istanbul went to the courts when they saw an advantage.
What changed in the 21st century with AKP's rise was the abandonment of the facade. The Republican elite in its last-minute efforts to block AKP, and AKP after its victory in eliminating the last remnants of that elite, stopped bothering about sustaining even the image of the rule of law. The list of the legal atrocities would take pages, but the bogus decision of the High Election Board at the recent referendum is a perfect example. Even though AKP still pays lip service to the rule of law, it practically and obviously defies it almost daily. The Emergency Rule that was declared after the coup attempt in July 2016 was perhaps the last nail in the coffin.
This leaves us at a dead end for prospects of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey. The rigid rejection of the old Republican elite in opening up the political arena for the "uneducated masses" was simply disgusting, yet hope remained as naive social scientists, such as myself, pointed at the facade that was the rule of law and identified it as slow institutionalization. When AKP dismantled the old elite and established its own rule, the premise of the center-periphery dichotomy did not change. Now we are ruled by another center that imposes its own order top-down. The history of counter-majoritarianism in Turkey ended with majority rule that imitates the authority structure of the regime it had conquered. The cultural divide remains. However, this time it seems that the new center has merged the state with the just and the pious, but left the rule of law aside, as it had become redundant. The new center does not need the facade of the rule of law to sustain legitimacy. It inherently represents the just and the pious.
We live at very sad and dangerous times. I am pathetically mourning for the loss of a facade. However, without the facade of the rule of law, we remain 50%-50% divided with no immediate common ground to bridge the cultural gap. This is where two centuries of top-down modernization that could not instill a sense of legitimacy leaves us.