Je Suis Cumhuriyet: Charlie Hebdo as Seen from Turkey

Seeing the crowned heads of Europe march in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo has aroused vigorous dissent from many liberals and leftists in western countries — aimed both at the display of European unity and at the content of the cartoons themselves.  Are these images bold anti-clerical statements or rather racist caricatures of a despised minority?  Employing a hermeneutic of suspicion, some suggest that the cartoons’ meaning is not to be found in the sphere of religion at all.  Their potency stems instead from a manifold crackdown on Muslim life in Europe, featuring economic exploitation, limitations on religious freedom, and prejudiced police power.

Criticism of the periodical reflects an underlying critique of French secularism itself.  Bolstered by the post-secularist turn in contemporary cultural theory, many view laïcité as inherently discriminatory because it cannot accommodate the more visible religiosity some of them see as inseparable from Islam.  Some also blame the rhetoric of laïcité for underwriting imperialist violence against the Middle East — even if most recent western interventions in the region have made the targeted countries far less secular: the NATO-enforced regime change in Libya, in which France played a leading role, is a prime example.

Ankara Standing Up for
Secular and Scientific Education

We Are Not Afraid
#Ayaktayız / #WeTakeAStand

While many western leftists castigate Charlie Hebdo for furthering a discourse of Islamophobic oppression, Turkish socialists have been speaking a very different language.  Most striking has been the emphatic support shown by leading voices of the Left for the decision of Turkey’s flagship secular nationalist newspaper to reprint a selection of Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

As soon as the January 14 edition of Cumhuriyet (“Republic”) hit the press, the government sent police to disrupt the paper’s distribution.  Over the next few days, a series of articles appeared in the socialist daily BirGün (“One Day”), many titled or subtitled Je suis Charlie.  Several columnists have placed the assassination in the context of repression by right-wing forces closer to home, whether of an Islamist or an ultranationalist complexion.  Ercan Kesal published a brief memoir recalling his own experience reading Charlie Hebdo in Paris in 1995, interspersed with memories of the repressions he witnessed during the same period in Turkey against those sympathetic to, or even reporting on, the Kurdish movement.

For his part Alper Taş, chairman of the Freedom and Resistance Party (ÖDP), has praised “the struggle for secularism” as part and parcel of the “class struggle.”  Even Selahattin Demirtaş of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), whose disproportionately Kurdish constituency no doubt includes many religious Muslims, said that Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu should “thank Cumhuriyet for taking a stand in favor of freedom of expression.

BirGün and the ÖDP and HDP are hardly bastions of Kemalist secular nationalism of the sort once associated with the country’s judicial and military establishments — and with Cumhuriyet.  On the contrary, writers and activists from these circles have in the past shown support for efforts to dislodge Kemalist hegemony, including relaxing secularist strictures where these appeared to stand in the way of democratization.  Their closing ranks now around the imperative to republish Charlie Hebdo cartoons reflects a determination to defend freedoms from a government increasingly fond of jailing opponents for “insulting religious values.”

The reaction from the government and its allies was swift and uncompromising, once the diplomatic pieties of Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s walk in Paris were through.  Fresh from his travels, Davutoğlu denounced the reprints as a “provocation” and an “insult that we cannot leave unanswered.”  One pro-government paper ran a column with the headline “I Do Not Condemn the Attack” and later printed a cartoon of a Cumhuriyet reader with a bull’s-eye drawn over him.  With apparent impunity, twitter users have proposed coordinating a violent attack on the newspaper’s headquarters.

One columnist has even alluded favorably to the Sivas massacre of 1993, in which fundamentalists set fire to the Madımak Hotel, site of a conference for minority Alevi and secularist intellectuals, in an attempt to kill writer Aziz Nesin.  Nesin had made himself hated by translating part of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which he defended with the incendiary statement “I am not required to be a Muslim.”  In the Fatih district of central Istanbul last week, Islamists rallied under banners picturing the Kouachi brothers and Osama bin Laden and reading: “if your freedom of speech is limitless . . . then prepare yourselves for our freedom of limitless action.”  Odd, since the freedom of those reprinting the hated cartoons has not been limitless in Turkey.

It is telling that conservative newspapers have themselves reproduced the latest Charlie Hebdo cover online — with the prophet’s body made a blur.  With this omission the pro-government press has made clear that their sticking point is not the message or tone of the caricatures but rather their choice to represent the prophet at all.  As one Turkish theologian pointed out in a television interview, images of Muhammad are widespread in the Muslim world.  While veiling his face has been a common practice for Sunni artists since the early Ottoman Empire, outright interdiction became standard only with the rise of Salafism since 1800.

Attempts on the part of the Turkish Left to cultivate a more liberal version of public Islam have an uncertain future and a markedly unsuccessful past.  The female theologian and feminist activist Bahriye Üçok enjoyed a prominent double career as professor of theology and parliamentarian until killed by a fundamentalist’s bomb in 1990.  İhsan Eliaçık has more recently gained notoriety in Turkey with his egalitarian interpretations of the Qur’an, but his Anti-Capitalist Muslims are small in number and nowhere on the electoral map.

Wherever progressive Islam is to be found in contemporary Turkey, it should be clear by now that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is not the place for it, and not only because of that party’s neoliberal leanings.  The word “moderate” in the label “moderate Islamist” long attached to the AKP is code for “pro-western, capitalist” and has nothing to do with the character of the public religiosity the party advocates.

Two years ago the government passed an education reform law enabling pupils to enroll in “distance learning” instead of public school from the fifth grade onwards — on the advice of an association of Imam-training-school graduates who urged that girls not have to attend school with boys past the age of menstruation, “in accordance with Islamic beliefs.”  Such disregard for girls’ education — and in consequence for women’s place in the workforce — may well dovetail with the current requirements of jobless growth in an economy driven by financial speculation and the patronage-heavy construction industry.  But compatibility with crony capitalism is not the AKP’s only criterion for passing such laws, and it should not be the only motive for resisting them.  Turkey’s leftists understand this.

Of course, such arguments in favor of secularism in Turkey do not begin to address the objections that liberals and leftists in the West bring to bear on the very different cultural landscape of French laïcité, where Islamists’ best hope of taking power is in a Houellebecq novel.  Yet if the view from Turkey does not dislodge the post-secularist perspective of many on the western Left, it should at least complement it.

“Solidarity” is a value dear to western leftists, but a tricky one; it may not cost you anything to offer it, but if offered on the wrong terms it can come at someone else’s expense.  If there is violence in Turkey in response to Cumhuriyet‘s publications, I hope that western leftists will stand unambiguously on the side of its targets.  It is good to know who one’s friends are.

Some of Justus Links’ previous writings may be read in the LeftEast section of CriticAtac.