How to Maintain a Burning Story?
by Ayse Çavdar
When a self-appointed narrator-in-chief attempts to govern Turkey.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan addresses the Turkish people via a FaceTime call on CNN Türk, amid the so-called attempted coup, 15 July 2016
Once Raw, Then Cooked, and Burned in the Market1
Stories bring people together. Since ancient times, people have sat down around a fire and told stories to each other. This habit is one of the most substantial ways to maintain both individual souls and the soul of that particular human assembly. Stories people tell each other make the unknown universe a place to live where the hierarchy of the collective and individual has an order according to clear guidelines.2 The most popular and durable stories have a fundamental point in common. It is not the narrator but the hero(ine) who belongs to another time and place, disconnected and thus benevolent. The heroes of cherished, recognised and human-gathering stories are rarely (directly and physically) fully known to the narrator or anyone else in that assembly. There must be two reasons for this phenomenon. The first is that acquaintances, orators and listeners are all mortal and imperfect beings. Thus, their existence cannot be as mighty as to transmit the moral of the story.
The second reason must relate to the sovereignty of the narrator over the story. If the protagonist of the story is in the assembly, the narrator’s hegemony becomes vulnerable. In this case, there is no way to avoid disputes about the storyline and the moral of the story.3 Thus, not being directly witnessed, the stories of heroes, distant in the sense of both time and space, are as generous and flawless as the fire enfolding the assembly. Gods, mythological creatures, ancestors with their timeless and integrated sagas open space to ordinary humans to enjoy their time in a painfully temporary present.
Right now in Turkey, in fact for a while, there is an authority aspiring to be the sovereign narrator of the future and attempting to change the story of the country. Being like a bridge over troubled waters, which no longer flow between East and West, South and North, Turkey is trembling from this attempt. The fire on the bridge is getting out of control. That is why, instead of bringing the people of the bridge together to listen to each other, the fire seems to burn their stories.
Novel Stories on the Bridge
A couple of years ago, while I was still living in Istanbul and researching the problems between refugees and host(ile)s in the peripheral neighbourhoods of the city, something very odd happened. Strolling in one of the areas, I stopped to talk to a shopkeeper and asked: “Could you suggest to me any other person to speak to about this matter?” He responded: “Yes, there is a guy in the second shop over there. He is a religious guy, but you can still trust him.” I thanked him and stepped out of his shop towards the other shop he had referred to. For a couple of seconds, his sentence echoed in my mind: “He is a religious guy, but you can still trust him.” It was not, “he is a religious guy, you can trust him.” The ‘but’ and the ‘still’ altered everything. Did it mean, “religious guys are not trustworthy, but he is an exception”? Really? Since when? I visited the religious guy. He was a kind man, as his neighbour said, but I felt ashamed because of the conversation that had taken place just minutes ago. I did not ask anything about religion or religiosity. That information was still too fresh for me. On my way home through Kurtuluş (Tatavla), a neighbourhood near the famous Gezi Park, I tried to reflect on that short but loaded sentence: “He is a religious guy, but you can still trust him.”
Another memory emerged, from almost one year prior, right after the Gezi Park protests. I took a bus from Tatavla to Eminonu. At the second stop, a guy in religious costume (a green cap in his hand, a white and long robe, and baggy trousers in light green, probably a member of the Naqshbandi order called İsmailağa) took the same bus and sat on the seat next to mine. After a couple of minutes, we passed by Gezi Park and Taksim Square. It was a horrible sight, with machines hurrying to clean up the remnants of the resistance. I could not stop myself from saying out loud what I thought: “Look at this. How shameless they are in destroying everything. Is this Taksim Square, an ocean of cement?” The guy responded: “What is wrong?” I said: “Everything. They brutalise everybody to keep their corruption hidden. This view is just a reflection of what they do while governing the state. They destroy everything and cover it up with cement.” The guy asked: “What corruption are you talking about?” I listed a few big incidents. He responded calmly, “What is wrong with that? Everybody steals, even the Evliyas (Muslim saints).”
I know only of one great evliya in Muslim/Sufi history and his act of stealing from the rich to give to the poor. He is Abu Dhar. Ali Shariati, the Iranian Muslim revolutionary thinker, wrote about him to provide an example of the emptiness of private property.4 His rebellion against Khalifa Uthman (the third khalifa after the Prophet Muhammed) was a call for justice. However for Uthman, Islam was all about “ceremonies, external show and the pretence of piety and sanctity”. Shariati conceptualises Abu Dhar via Pascal’s definition of God—God is the axiom of the heart, not of the intellect—and Proudhon’s ‘extreme socialism’. So, the guy sitting in the bus with me must have been thinking that Erdoğan steals from the rich to feed the poor, just like Abu Dhar. Is this true? While I was thinking in this way, he repeated the slogan produced by the supporters of Erdoğan, “Yes, they (Erdoğan and his guys) steal, but they work, too.” This slogan continues with some evidence mostly about the public services. “Hospitals are better now. They build bridges and roads. Before him, all the streets were covered with dirt. Workers were striking all the time …” Then, the sentence ends with references to some particular policies: “Look, our veiled daughters can go to university and work everywhere. And, we can freely send our kids to imam-hatips (religious vocational schools).”
Most of the hospitals are privatised, and the state subsidises private investors in the health sector with tax breaks. That’s why everybody can go to whichever hospital they want to without paying cash. But services in those hospitals are not free. The public pays the cost. When it comes to bridges and highways, the same model applies. All those infrastructures are built by private investors endorsed by the government. They profit both from the state and from the ones who have to use the roads and bridges. This means that everybody pays for those private highways even if they never use them. The education system is a dramatic failure. However, the number of religious vocational schools has increased because most of the secular schools have been converted to religious ones. The workers cannot strike, as labour unions have been quashed for many years. The veiled women, finally, are free to go wherever they want. However, the violence against women increases every day while the percentage of the female workers decreases dramatically. Yes, the veil is free, but not the women.5
However, I am sure the guy sitting next to me would not listen to any of these arguments. As a researcher dealing with middle-class religiosity, I am familiar with how such discussions flow. Talking about the numbers or the apparent failures in the public sphere and in services would not change his mind. The debate would end, “He (Erdoğan) is a religious guy and serves religious people. That’s why nobody likes him.” He would just ignore any evidence challenging the story. Is this because he thinks that he is the hero of this story? No, this is not the reason. Something more is at stake. He sees himself as the initiator of the winning party. This old guy knows very well that he is not the hero, but the one who authorises him. In this way, he does not take any risks. The hero will fight against everybody (for him) and our guy in the white robe will not suffer any wounds. This scenario provides something more than satisfaction. In the end, he is the one changing the faith of everybody by just voting for the hero. There is only one catch. He needs to ignore the facts and all the criticisms regarding his hero. The weird aspect of the story is that even if he listens and accepts all the counter-arguments I listed above, it does not make any sense to change his mind. His response would be concise: “My daughter, everybody stole everything until now. Why is it a problem when Muslims do?” Does he mean, “Why do you expect something better from my hero? He is no different. He represents nothing better.” This acceptance must be the worst form of the prevailing pessimism. Is this pessimism causing the guy I talked to before to think that religious people are not trustworthy? Religion and the religious persona were not like this before. No, this is not nostalgia. Something about religion has been dramatically changed in just a couple of decades. A couple of decades ago, in the textbooks (of our compulsory classes of religion), it was written that Muslims are the ones everybody can trust. The nickname of Muhammad was “Muhammad-al-Emin”, (Muhammad the Trustworthy). How and when did this guy in the green cap give up this story to adopt a new one about the “thieving evliyas”?
The Near (Hi)story of the Present: The Market as Heaven
Starting in the 1980s, the religious circles of Turkish society began to engage in the market mechanism more than ever thanks to the ‘neo’ version of economic liberalism. The passage to this version of economic liberalism began with a coup d’état in 1980 packaged under the ideological title of Turkish-Islamic synthesis.6 The state needed religious circles and communities for two reasons: First, they could be the best counterforce against the leftist ideas increasing among youngsters who ‘dared’ to fight against social and economic injustice. Secondly, religious families were the ware-houses of the new consumers of the liberalising market mechanism. There was another ‘privilege’ coupled to these religious communities, which has not been accounted for at that time. While the whole state apparatus and the economic institutions were jolted by the ‘rites of passage’ of the liberalising regulations, the religious brotherhoods were providing safe shelters of trust among their entrepreneur members. The sheik was not only a spiritual leader but also a business mediator among the devout: “Trust your brother! Do not cheat your brother! Help your brother! Muslims should blanch each others’ shame.” What about outside the brotherhood? With a new fashion started in the late eighties, the outside of the brotherhood became Dar al-Harb, the house of war.
Dar al-Harb is better understood when it is conceptualised along with its antonym, Dar al-Islam. Dar al-Islam means the house of Islam, the place in which the Islamic code of conduct (and of the market, too) rules. These Islamic rules are inclusive of the banishment of riba (interest) in any form along with typical ethical codes like “do not cheat anybody”, “be just in waging” and “keep your promises and contracts”. The Dar al-Harb is the house of war, in which Islamic rules are not operative for Muslims. In Dar al-Harb anything works as long as it benefits the Muslim(s). The riba is free, so violating contracts, being unjust in waging, cheating if you can. It is not easy to get big benefits from an Islamic market because of strict regulations, while Dar al-Harb provides endless freedom for the believers. Two Islamist intellectuals, Sadreddin Yüksel, a Naqshbandi molla and Hüsnü Aktaş, a radical writer, separately declared Turkey as Dar al-Harb soil. Although their original intention was to provoke Muslims against the secularist laws of the state, by adopting the idea, many brotherhoods and individuals used Dar al-Harb as a cover for their deeds in the market mechanism. In short, the idea of Dar al-Harb (initially stemming from Sunnah sharia) liberated Muslims from all Islamic rules of conduct allowing them to become perfect players in the liberal market mechanism.
Meanwhile, the guarantor role of the state became weaker and weaker, along with other institutions like labour unions, chambers, and more. In the economic sphere, religious brotherhoods used the advantage of not being regulated by any law (since they were not officially recognised) and embraced any opportunity to provide ‘food’ to their members. They built networks of trust to ensure limited but secure domains to move into. It was like revisiting the course Introduction to Capitalism 101, though religions are not new to the market. For an extended period in the history of humanity, religion was the market, until the market became the religion.7 In this new phase, religious brotherhoods created small (parallel) markets within the market, and in this way, they converted their ‘webs of virtue’ into virtual webs of market ideology. In this new phase, the border of the community was the border of trust in the market. This also explains why they are not at peace although they believe in the same god and religion.
In the mid-nineties the religious communities had a wide-ranging opportunity to carry an Islamist party (Refah Paror Welfare Party) into government. The promise of the Welfare Party to pious masses was profoundly universal in direction: prosperity and vertical mobility. The trick was about the audience of this commitment (in line with the idea of Dar al-Harb): this promise was not for all but only for the pious crowds and thus conditional. The condition is evident: you need to be a devout Muslim to receive your part of this joyful pledge. That was the transformative aspect of the Islamism of the Welfare Party. In the political language of the Welfare Party, the working class was no longer the working class, but the poor. Vertical mobility was not from working class to middle class. There was no time for that. It should be from poor to rich! And for that, you needed a considerable capital. Religion was there as the most legitimate asset being claimed by nobody but Islamists.
By that time, the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP or Justice and Development Party) had become the umbrella of diverse and contesting Islamisms of Turkey and established control over them. The hegemonic project of the AKP and various similar Islamisms changed and transformed within the framework of collaboration and confrontations with each other and the non-Islamist actors of the political sphere. Let’s summarise this transformation with a metaphor adopted from Sufism: Islamism in Turkey, before the nineties was raw; then cooked in the nineties in the fire of (neo)liberal market capitalism; and finally burned within the heart of the political and economic state apparatus of the AKP period.
A Revolutionary Iftar
Right After the Gezi Resistance
It was a couple of weeks following the Gezi Resistance in 2013. Anti-capitalist Muslims made a call for an open iftar (the dinner to break the fast during Ramadan) in the famous Istiklal Street. The name of this particular dinner was the ‘Iftar of the Earth’ referring the Anatolian tradition to eat on the floor making a circle around a little table. In such a setup everybody can see each others’ faces while sharing food. For years, pious and poor Muslims, as they represent the migrants coming from the villages to the city, have been portrayed around such dinner settings. Most participants of this ‘Iftar of the Earth’ were secular people who participated in the Gezi Resistance. This was not a surprise as the Anti-capitalist Muslims’ call for iftar had already been an attempt to reappropriate the Gezi Park and Istiklal Street after the resistance. People brought some newspapers and food to make their earth tables. In a couple of minutes, the length of the table reached the entire length of Istiklal to the Taksim Square (next to Gezi Park).
However, there was another setting there in front of the Atatürk Cultural Center. It was the call for iftar by the Beyoğlu Municipality, the local administration of the area. It is true that the municipality organises iftar every year, but it was the first time they located this official iftar in the square. That’s why I name this second iftar the contra-iftar. The organisation of the iftar did not have any resemblance to the pious Anatolians portrayed in the movies or books. It was more like the Republicans criticised by Islamists for being too Western in the past: big tables covered with white satin fabrics, chic chairs for the elites. Most of the guests were bureaucrats and famous actors and actresses. Around their circular tables, they looked onto the Atatürk Cultural Center, the Marmara Hotel or the stairs of the Gezi Park.
Right before the call to prayer (ezan) marking the break of the fast, the strangest thing happened. An armed police vehicle stopped the flow of the ‘Iftar of Earth’ as it was about to surround the contra-iftar. The ‘Iftar of Earth’ kept its Istiklal direction. And the armed vehicle was not enough to hide it from view. The world and the story were upside down. The centre, the square was occupied by the contra or official iftar organised by the municipality at the behest of the Islamist party, while the secular resistants of Gezi Park were breaking their fast around a table on earth organised by the Anti-capitalist Muslims.
The story of the AKP and the hegemonic project of Islamism ended symbolically right there. The increasing violence of Erdoğan and the AKP is the first evidence for that end. Erdoğan and the AKP try to maintain their story via some synthetic additions calling back Abdülhamid II or referring to the Ottoman Empire’s ‘just’ colonialism. However, these artificial additions do not seem durable in the fire.
Erdoğan and his team are trying to keep up with violence not only within the country but also abroad. That trust is the last piece of the networks of trust that pious Muslims have created together to survive in this infamous bridge over the troubled water named Turkey. However, it seems there is nothing left in the hands of devout Muslims after having sacrificed faith in each other in order to gain advantages in malfunctioning market conditions and then having created a ‘hero’ like Erdoğan to protect their new domain in the eponymous market. Is violence an appropriate tool to keep a story alive although it is unable to carry a moral? Is it imaginable to kill all those who believe neither the story nor the moral of the story? Is it possible to maintain a story without a moral? What if the violence itself is the evidence indicating that the story no longer exists?
1 From the the most famous Anatolian Sufi, Mawlana Jelaleddin Rumi: “I was raw, I was cooked, I burned.” For him, being raw means being worldly, full of profane desires. The Sufi path is the place to be burned with the love of God. Then, the Sufi gets burned, cleaning her/himself from the dirt (load) of the profane world. However, especially in the past three decades, in many schools of divinity in Turkey, Sufism is conceptualised as a tradition misguiding Muslims by offering to get rid of their worldy desires. This is a very old discussion. And it is interesting how this curious discussion arose while Islamist rule has extended from the religious domain to the state and society.
2 Christina Pratt, An Encyclopedia of Shamanism, Volume II, New York, Rosen Publishing, 2007, p. 473.
3 There is another reason for that phenomenon: “The unhistorical character of popular memory, the inability of collective memory to retain historical events and individuals except insofar as it transforms them into archetypes” Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return, trans. Willard R. Trask, New York, Harper and Row, 1959, p. 46. However, this reason is at the same time a consequence of the perspective above defined. The inability and the fear to face its incomplete story could be the cause of the “unhistorical character of popular memory”. It is a very long and painful discussion regarding the politics of memory. Taking memory as a branch of rhetoric just like it was in the ancient world, the term ‘memory’ and the act of remembering becomes even more controversial. See: James Fentress and Christopher Wickham, Social Memory, London, Blackwell, 1992, p. 11. From this point of view, the complete story of the dead ancestor or the timelessness and placelessness of the fantastic protagonist puts a distance between the protagonist and the listener and protects them from the imperfections of the present. This instinct must also be one of the ways to maintain the moral of the story of the damages of the time.
4 Ali Shariati, And Once Again Abu Dharr, Chicago, Kazi, 2012.
5 Recent statistics published on a pro-government newspaper website confirm that 409 women were killed in 2017, in most of the cases the perpetrators were relatives: https://www.dailysabah.com/turkey/2018/01/02/violence-against-women-rises-sharply-in-turkey-409-women-killed-in-2017
6 Yildiz Atasoy, Islam’s Marriage with Neoliberalism: State Transformation in Turkey, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p. 91.
7 Remember the first sentence of the famous and very short essay by Walter Benjamin, “Capitalism as Religion” (Fragment 74): “One can behold in capitalism a religion, that is to say, capitalism essentially serves to satisfy the same worries, anguish, and disquiet formerly answered by so-called religion.” In Religion as Critique: The Frankfurt School’s Critique of Religion, ed. Eduardo Mendiata, New York, Routledge, 2005, pp. 259–62.