Threat to close pro-Kurdish party echoes long tradition in Turkey’s politics.

HDP may be added to long list of left-wing and Islamist parties shut down over the decades by the Turkish state

Supporters of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) demonstrate against the party’s closure in front of the Turkish parliament on 8 December 2009 (AFP)

By Alex MacDonald

Published date: 20 March 2021 10:41 UTC

In 1998, the Constitutional Court of Turkey closed down the Welfare Party, at the time the largest in parliament, with chief justice Ahmet Necdet Sezer citing the party’s “actions against the principles of the secular republic”.

The move was condemned internationally, including by Washington, which called on its Nato ally to “enhance democracy” and allow a wider spectrum of political participation.

The party’s leader, Necmettin Erbakan, a stalwart of Turkey’s religious conservatives who had previously held the position of prime minister, said the closure would rebound on its opponents, only spurring on their supporters’ determination.

‘As a political entity we may not be able to survive this onslaught on our party, but definitely as a people, as a movement, we are going to survive’

– Hisyar Ozsoy, HDP

“Whenever they put obstacles in our path, our support only increases,” he said at the time.

Twenty-three years later, his protege Recep Tayyip Erdogan – once the Welfare Party mayor of Istanbul and now president – is facing criticism from the other side of the fence, as his hand-picked chief public prosecutor applies to close down the left-wing, pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP).

The Welfare Party and the HDP are far from the only parties shut down by the state in Turkey’s history.

Since the founding of the republic in 1923, the country’s constitutions have always limited political pluralism to one degree or another.

Left-wing parties, Communist ones, those supporting various minority groups, and Islamist movements, have all been subject to closures and bans over the past century. Just since the adoption of the 1982 constitution, almost 20 parties have been forcibly closed.

‘Onslaught on our party’

The indictment being levelled against the HDP this time, however, is somewhat different: it calls not only for the closure of the party but for the banning of 687 political figures associated with it.

Hisyar Ozsoy is an HDP MP in the party’s core base of Diyarbakir, and his name is one of those listed in the indictment to be banned from political office.

He told Middle East Eye that the party’s central board was examining a number of options for the upcoming parliamentary elections – set for 2023, but possibly occurring earlier – should the application to the Constitutional Court be successful.

“It may be another political party, it may be independents, using the list of an already existing party,” he said, via phone.

“These are all options, but they may even try to prevent the HDP from running as a different political party.”

Noting the repeated obstacles that have been thrown in the way of progressive political parties in Turkey in the past, he said that, regardless of what happened, the HDP as a movement would not disappear.

“The HDP is not just some headquarters, some building, some people. We do have a powerful historical tradition of diverse struggles in Turkey,” he said.

“So they may shut down the HDP as a political entity, but the political struggles that we represent are going to stay there and will be impacting Turkish and Kurdish politics in the country.

“As a political entity we may not be able to survive this onslaught on our party, but definitely as a people, as a movement we are going to survive.”

A history of closures

When the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power under Abdullah Gul in 2001 (due to Erdogan still being banned from political office), it pledged that there would be an end to the era of forced party closures, not least because of its own roots in the forcibly closed Welfare Party and the enduring fear it might be subjected to similar treatment.

Mustafa Akyol, a writer and senior fellow at the Cato Institute, said he had once been optimistic about the AKP as a force for ending the authoritarian practices of the Turkish state.

“In its early years in power, Erdogan’s AKP was boldly against all the illiberal and anti-democratic features of the regime of ‘Old Turkey’,” he told MEE.

Demonstrators commemorating the 28 February 1997 ousting of the Welfare Party government in 2013 with posters reading: "We have not forgotten February 28" (AFP)
Demonstrators commemorating the 28 February 1997 ousting of the Welfare Party government in 2013 with posters reading: “We have not forgotten February 28” (AFP)

“But in a mind-boggling turn, once they consolidated power, their ‘New Turkey’ began repeating – in fact, often doubling – all the authoritarian habits of the past.”

The forcible closure of political parties in Turkey has a history dating right back to the early years of the republic.

The Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) was one of the first victims in 1925, despite the crucial role the Bolsheviks had played in helping establish the republic. Semyon Ivanovich Aralov, Soviet ambassador to Turkey, is among those displayed on the victim monument in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

Until the 21st century, political parties with the word “Communist” in their name were effectively banned in Turkey, though many operated illegally or used alternative monikers.

Further right on the political spectrum, the Liberal Republican Party was founded in August 1930 as an early attempt at multi-party democracy at the insistence of republic founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, but was swiftly closed in November that same year after it drew too many elements opposed to Ataturk’s secular-nationalist reforms.

Unlike later closures, the party was shut down by its founder rather than forcibly closed, but it left the country as a one-party state under the Republican People’s Party (CHP) at the end of the Second World War.

Since that period, the Turkish state has repeatedly banned parties from across the political spectrum: on the one hand, Communists over their internationalism, atheism, anti-capitalism and opposition to US influence in Turkey; on the other hand, Islamists, whose desire for religion-based rule undermined the secular underpinnings of the republic.

Kurdish parties closed

One of Ataturk’s founding principles for the republic was a belief that ethnic and cultural homogeneity would promote stability and peace.

As such, there have long been strict bans on political parties that promote the rights of minorities, which are regularly shut down on the accusation of threatening the territorial integrity of the country.

Parties promoting the interest of Kurds, the country’s largest ethnic minority, have been most regularly subjected to closure, often over accusations of links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group.

Not even counting illegal or extra-parliamentary groups, the list of pro-Kurdish parties closed since the beginning of multi-party democracy is extensive.

In the past 30 years alone, after the first overtly pro-Kurdish politicians began being elected to parliament, the list includes the People’s Labour Party and the Freedom and Democracy Party (DEP) in 1993, the Democracy Party in 1994, the original People’s Democracy Party in  2003 and the Democratic Society Party (DTP) in 2009.

Many of the same people were involved in each party, which were often just re-constituted versions of each other. Many are also members of the HDP, which was founded in 2012 as an alliance between the Kurdish movement and other left-wing parties.

Layla Zana, later an HDP politician, scandalised the country in 1991 when, after taking her oath to be sworn into parliament (and in spite of attempts to drown her out), spoke the line: “I take this oath for the brotherhood between the Turkish people and the Kurdish people” in Kurdish, which was effectively illegal at the time.

She would later be stripped of her parliamentary immunity after the party she was then a member of, the DEP, was banned, and would spend many years in prison.

Zana, who was an HDP MP between 2011 and 2018, is also named among the 687 politicians to be banned from office in the most recent indictment.

The later banning of the DTP – after the Constitutional Court declared it had become the “focal point of activities against the indivisible unity of the state, the country and the nation” – came the same year as the court ended a similar investigation into the AKP, which declared the party had become “a centre for anti-secular activities” but only cut its state funding, rather than banning it outright.

“Closing down pro-Kurdish parties with implicit ties to the PKK was one such habit of ‘Old Turkey’ that the AKP used to criticize,” said Akyol.

“But first they began purging the elected mayors of the HDP, to replace them with their own loyalists.

“Now they are taking the ultimate step, completing the full circle in going back to the ‘Old Turkey’ – or its new version which now they dominate.

“Every fair political observer knows that closing down a party that gets 10 percent of the national vote will not bring any good to Turkey, but it may help boost the ultra-nationalist coalition that Erdogan has built.”

‘Indivisible integrity’ of Turkey

The application made by Bekir Sahin to the Constitutional Court on Wednesday accuses the HDP of threatening the “indivisible integrity” of Turkey and of having an “active role in providing personnel” to the PKK.

The court now has to make a decision on the indictment, but few believe it will issue a decision that goes against the government’s wishes, though it is also possible the eventual decision could stop short of a full closure.

The EU condemned the move on Thursday.Turkey: Erdogan’s human rights initiative raises eyebrows of beleaguered activistsRead More »

“Closing the second-largest opposition party would violate the rights of millions of voters in Turkey,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and enlargement commissioner Oliver Varhelyi said in a statement, adding that it “undermines the credibility of the Turkish authorities’ stated commitment to reforms”.

In response, the Turkish foreign ministry told those who “dare to meddle in our domestic affairs to respect the judicial process led by independent courts”.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, Ozsoy said, it was just one more incident in the long struggle for pluralism and representation in Turkey.

“[The government] don’t have anything to offer to the Turkish people as a positive agenda, to resolve the economic crisis or other issues,” he said.

“They are cooking the same dish and trying to serve it to people. Whenever there is a crisis or an unstable situation in the country they consolidate their power base by attacking the HDP.

“Even if Erdogan totally wipes out the HDP, the HDP people are not going to vote for him in the presidential elections… if Erdogan shuts down the HDP, he will totally lose the Kurdish vote.”

The Pendulum Swings Again: the Desecration of Hagia Sophia

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The Pendulum Swings Again: the Desecration of Hagia Sophia ...

Stephen Karganovic

July 18, 2020

The Turkish President should have consulted the prophecies of St. Paisius of the Holy Mountain rather than whatever kitaps he was reading before embarking on his risky provocation. In plain Greek, several decades ago St. Paisius was educating Turkish leaders about the sequence of events that the reconversion of Hagia Sophia would set in motion: “When the cathedral of Hagia Sophia is turned into a mosque, Turkey will disintegrate”. He also added reassuringly, for the benefit of his audience, that “I will not see that happen, but you will.” The saint left us for better pastures in 1994. As a footnote to his vision, he also noted that in the ensuing turmoil Constantinople would remain under Russian control for some time before again being returned to Greece. When and if that happens, it does not exactly sound from the tenor of his prophesy that it will revert to just being a museum.

If Mr Erdogan was so keen on tinkering with the status of this major Orthodox holy place, instead of pursuing short-sighted electoral advantage in a state presumably without a future, he should have done better had he chosen – as Americans are fond of saying –to be on the right side of history. He could have done that simply by returning the temple to the religious community which erected it and to which it rightfully belongs.

But, of course, it would be fatuous to expect from a mere politician with declining ratings a gesture of such dazzling magnanimity.

Hagia Sophia was built and consecrated as an Orthodox place of worship in the 6th century by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I. It is a structure of great architectural beauty and even greater symbolic value for world Orthodoxy, as its prime cathedral. Upon the conquest of Constantinople and demise of the Byzantine empire in 1453, it was turned into a mosque by the commander of the conquering army, sultan Mehmed II, and functioned in that capacity until 1934, when the reformist President of the Turkish Republic, Kemal Ataturk, made it a museum. The magnificent structure is under the protection of UNESCO (for whatever that is worth) and is the most visited historical site in Turkey.

What is the significance of the second forced reconversion of the Orthodox cathedral of Hagia Sophia into a mosque? It has to do entirely with internal Turkish politics. It is part of a larger design of the current rulers to reconfigure Turkey back from a secular republic to a resurgent neo-Ottoman state, reinforced with a strong religious identity. Given that the local economy is in poor shape and that the government’s foreign policy initiatives have been generally unsuccessful across the board, descending to religious demagoguery is a more or less natural and predictable recourse. For Orthodox Christians and, hopefully, civilized people of all backgrounds this crude reassertion of the right of conquest, targeting not material goods suitable for pillage, but the spiritual patrimony of one of the great world religious traditions, is nothing short of an act which constitutes the fusion of vandalism and blasphemy.

Of course, it could also be said with some justice, this issue is larger than Erdogan and will outlive him. It is clothed in the garb of a regular court order invalidating Ataturk’s earlier decree, and it was confirmed by a cabinet decision after a meeting lasting all of 17 minutes. As far as provocations go, it could also be argued that in terms of bellicosity it is far less dangerous than shooting down a Russian fighter jet in Syria. Also, as worldly logic might have it, the Hagia Sophia ceased to function as a consecrated church and has not served as consecrated Orthodox Cathedral for more than 550 years. Even before the Ottomans arrived it was ransacked and desecrated during the Western Fourth Crusade, and was then turned into a Roman Catholic cathedral during the Latin occupation of the city. Its history has been long and harsh. A friend of mine has argued that “frankly at least as a mosque it will serve as place of worship and fulfil a spiritual and religious function and not be a tourist attraction, which is a greater desecration, literally speaking.”

“Buildings are buildings,” he has asserted, “they are monuments to faith but no substitute for living faith or a living church which is the Body of Christ. [In the large sense, he does have a point there.] This will only happen when Hagia Sophia is reconsecrated, Orthodox Liturgy is held, the sacred mysteries enacted, and of course when the Eucharist is served once again.”

All these, arguably, are good points. But they miss the emotions this symbolically charged act (going to its core, beyond short-term and short-sighted electoral consideration) evokes among the Balkan Orthodox who still have vivid collective memories of Ottomanism (never mind its neo- variety that is being reinvented today). Nor do they fully take into account the emotions of the Russian Orthodox believers whose faith goes back, in a direct historical line, to that very spot in Constantinople where Vladimir’s bedazzled emissaries, while observing the religious services and magnificent decorations, wondered whether they were on earth or in heaven.

So besides the purely practical and realpolitik aspects to this, there is also a much deeper dimension that challenges Orthodoxy to its core. Its chief representative in Constantinople, the “Ecumenical Patriarch” with a plethora of impressive titles but hardly any flock, a man who few would be so naïve as to regard as a designated vessel of the Holy Spirit, but who certainly is an agent and close collaborator of Western intelligence services to whom he owes his precarious position in an increasingly hostile environment, has been resoundingly silent. Shockingly, Patriarch Bartholomew has been hiding in his Fanar rabbit hole while controversy over what should be his main cathedral has been raging all around him. He is more concerned, one imagines, about avoiding a potential indictment for involvement in the Turkish coup attempt several years ago than in reclaiming the jewel of his ecclesiastical heritage or at least protesting for the record its renewed desecration. The setting up of a false and heretical “church” in the Ukraine under his patronage was apparently a matter he thought more pressing and deserving of his public attention that an outrage to his communion being perpetrated literally in his back yard.

Mosques, Museums and Politics: The Fate of Hagia Sophia

When the caustic Evelyn Waugh visited the majestic sixth century creation of Emperor Justinian, one subsequently enlarged, enriched and encrusted by various rulers, he felt underwhelmed. “‘Agia’ will always win the day for one,” he wrote of Istanbul’s holiest of holies, Hagia Sophia, in 1930. “A more recondite snobbism is to say ‘Aya Sofia’, but except in a very sophisticated circle, who will probably not need guidance in the matter at all, this is liable to suspicion as a mere mispronunciation.”

In a somewhat cool reaction, Waugh struggled to reconcile the pop mythology, at that point elevated by celebratory brochure and tourist packages, with the sight of it. “We saw Agia Sophia, a majestic shell full of vile Turkish fripperies, whose whole architectural rectitude has been fatally disturbed by the reorientation of the mihrab.”

Such snobbery could not impeach the historical pedigree of Hagia Sophia. Seat of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, religious edifice of the Byzantine Empire, it became a mosque once Constantinople was successfully captured by the Ottoman forces of Mehmet II in 1453, officially terminating the vestigial remains of the Eastern Roman Empire. This was a function the structure served till 1934, when the secularist ruler Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ordered its conversion to a museum. Doing so served to secularize and neutralise a site of religious jostling.

That said, the 1934 decision could hardly be seen as a mark of pure benevolence. It was a year when Turkification policies were being applied with gusto, best characterised by Settlement Law of 1934 (Law No. 2510). It was an instrument designed to resettle (or not, in some cases) populations within the state into three zones with a focus on concentrating Turkish populations in some areas, while relocating and resettling populations “whose assimilation into Turkish culture is desired.”

That same year, pogroms against Jews in Eastern Thrace also took place to resolve, in the evocatively sinister words of İbrahim Tali, inspector general of Thrace, the “Jewish problem”. The Jews, he argued, had not Turkified themselves with sufficient rigour. They were also economically advantaged while disadvantaging Muslims in lending them money at high rates of interest.

The museum status of the edifice has had its fierce detractors. The poet Necip Fazil Kisakürek described it in 1965 as “a sarcophagus in which Islam is buried.” Under the rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hagia Sophia has been sporadically threatened with a change of status. In 2004, the Turkish Union of Permanent Vakifs of Historical Monuments and Environment issued a plea to the government to change the standing of the building. It was politely ignored. In 2005, the Union petitioned the country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, to return Hagia Sophia back to its standing as a mosque. Ever persistent, that same body sought relief in the Constitutional Court, an application that was rejected in 2018.

In November 2013, deputy prime minister Bülent Arinç expressed the view that the approach of treating former mosques as museums was due for revision. He did so like a mystic, claiming that the structure was speaking to the Turkish state in mournful longing. “We look at this forlorn Hagia Sophia and pray to Allah that the days when it smiles on us are near.” Despite stirring up a fuss with the secularists and irate voices in Greece at the time, he had reason to be confident, given the abolition of the museum status of the Hagia Sophia in both İznik and Trabzon. In both cases, the General Directorate of Pious Foundations, overseen by Arinç, were active and eventually successful.

The effort to de-museum Hagia Sophia have tended to receive billowing encouragement with undesired remarks in foreign quarters about Turkish policies, past and present. Demagoguery is ever on the permanent hunt for excuses. In 2015, Pope Francis chose April to use a word illegal in Turkish law to describe the treatment by Ottoman forces of Armenians a century prior. The deportations, massacres and rapes constituted, in an address by the Pope at a Mass in the Armenian Catholic rite at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, “the first genocide of the 20th century”. To conceal or deny “evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”

The remarks had their shaking effect in Ankara. Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu dismissed the statement, “which is far from the legal and historical reality”. It was not for religious authorities “to incite resentment and hatred with baseless allegations.” Domestically, eyes turned to the status of Hagia Sophia. The mufti of Ankara, Mefail Hızlı, saw a change as imminent. “Frankly, I believe that the pope’s remarks will only accelerate the process for Hagia Sophia to be reopened for [Muslim] worship.” That same month, the first recitation of the Quran for 85 years was made by Ali Tel, imam of the Ahmet Hamdi Akseki Mosque in Ankara.

The wheels were in motion and reached a terminus with the conclusion by the Council of State that “the settlement deed allocated it as a mosque and its use outside this character is not possible legally.” The 1934 decision ending the building’s “use as a mosque and defined it as museum did not comply with laws.” A delighted Erdoğan rushed off the decree to the state’s religious affairs directorate enabling the reopening of the structure as a mosque. The decree was celebrated by AK members in parliament.

As with many sites of religious contestation, conquest comes with grievance and hot tears of indignation. The Russian Orthodox Church, through spokesman Vladimir Legoida, expressed the view that “millions of Christians had not been heard.” The “need for extreme delicacy in this matter were ignored.” UNESCO’s World Health Committee is planning to review the status of Hagia Sophia, claiming it “regrettable that the Turkish decision was not the subject of dialog or notification beforehand”.

Erdoğan’s concerns lie elsewhere. He has had little truck with ecumenical politics and practises, battering down the secular divides within his country. His agenda is that of an up-ended Attatürk. As Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy remarks, “Just as Attatürk ‘un-mosqued’ Hagia Sophia 86 years ago, and gave it museum status to underline his secularist revolution, Erdoğan is remaking it a mosque to underline his religious revolution.” The ancient monument of emperors and sultans promises to be a stage of much self-promotion, with the court decision coming in time for prayers to take place on July 15, the date marking the failed coup attempt.

To keep matters interesting, the Turkish president is remaining oblique on what will happen to the tourist trade. (Last year, 3.7 million ventured to the edifice.) Spokesman İbrahim Kalın has told the Turkish news agency Anadolu that, “Opening up Hagia Sophia to worship won’t keep local or foreign tourists from visiting the site.” Capitalism and finance are often near neighbours of holiness and spirituality.


By Binoy Kampmark
Source: Oriental Review

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