Zoltán Pogátsa's blog on economics in English

Zoltán Pogátsa's blog on economics in English

Monday, 3 June 2013

Turkey: caught between modernisation in postmodernity and Islamisation in Islamophobia

The current crisis in Turkey was sparked by government insistence to build a mall, shaped as a one time Ottoman barracks, in place of the last remaining patch of green around Taksim square. Obviously, the government went overboard. When thousands demonstrate against change in the city landscape, you suspend the bulldozers, not shoot tear gas canisters at the protesters. Then hundreds of thousands went marching into the streets across Turkey, beating pots and pans,indicating that more was at stakes than trees.

The events arise from much deeper tensions within Turkish society. There are actually two Turkeys living side by side, mixed but apart, like oil and water. Ataturkists believe themselves to be westernisers and modernisers. They wish to join the EU, although decades spent in the waiting room of the organisation make it seem more like a living room. In fact it is clear Turkey will never be allowed to join, yet no one wants to be the first to say so.

Kemalism is not equivalent to a Western style democracy. Ataturk's rule was within a one party state, with a strong cult of personality, limited press freedom, and an overly strong military. Above all, its active secularism is not shared by any EU state apart from France.

It is intriguing that in a country where almost everyone is a Muslim, no Islamic party was allowed to exist. The AKP came very late to fill that gap. Had Kemalists been a little more accepting, the AKP could have become the functional equivalent of a Christian democratic party on a Western political spectrum. This could have made Turkey a model democracy for the other Muslim societies in the Middle East. Kemalists, however, stuck to active secularism. Of course the Islamophobia engineered by the United States governments did not help. All this made Erdogan and his party more radical. To be sure, AKP is popular: they have been reelected twice. The economic figures also look good on paper. The per capita GDP has been tripled over the last decade, although it is still only half of that of Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, regional differences are enormous. While Istanbul and the Mediterranean coast might easily be at around 80% of EU average GDP, in the Eastern provinces it is about 5%.

As a consequence, the enormous internal migration leads to overurbanisation, and the east and middle part of the country is emptying out. Most of the fast development is unsustainable. Istanbul has grown from a city of a few million to 18 000 000 inhabitants, although the authorities lost count at 12 million. (Similar overurbanisation took place in Ankara and along the Mediterranean coast.) Since figures are very unreliable in Turkey, it is difficult to tell how much of the GDP grow is highly unsustainable overurbanisation. The AKP has been balancing between traditionalist cultural policies and neoliberal economic policies. It has also developed a cozy relationship with major construction companies. Unsustainable bulding projects include a number of environmentally damaging dams in mountainous areas, highways in Istanbul, a third Bosphorous bridge, a third airport for Istanbul (Europe's largest), a canal to connect the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and now the Gezi Park shopping mall.

It takes two hour to leave Istanbul by car, and about four to get from one end to the other. The city is a utopian urban jungle of fifteen storey housing blocks, highways and plazas. It is essentially the nightmare scenario of what happens when the developing the world begets a middle class similar to the west. Dirt, pollution, cars and concrete. Although unreliable official figures speak of low unemployment, it is impossible to know how many migrants really find work here. Only high end shops give you an invoice. Modernisation in the age of postmodernity.

Thus the difference between the two Turkeys is cultural. Erdogan wants a Muslim country, the Kemalists want a westernised one, As the case of the foreseen Taksim plaza shows, however, both sides are in the pocket, of the constriction industry.

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