x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

'White Turks' and 'Black Turks' at odds over future of republic

Turkey's secular elite, a traditionally powerful minority, feel increasingly threatened by the growing wave of support for Islamic values.

Supporters of Turkey's secular system display a giant national  flag outside the tomb of the national hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara.
Supporters of Turkey's secular system display a giant national flag outside the tomb of the national hero Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in Ankara.

ISTANBUL // When Nurgul Yilmaz, a doctor in Turkey's metropolis, Istanbul, decided to take up tennis, she found out that although she had the willingness to learn and the money to pay for lessons, there was an insurmountable obstacle that prevented her from joining a prestigious club: her headscarf.

According to news reports last week, ENKA Sports Club on Istanbul's European side rejected Dr Yilmaz's membership application because the club's by-laws say members had to wear "modern clothes" and were not allowed to spread political propaganda.

"I offered Yilmaz to attend tennis courses with a hat, but she declined," ENKA's general director, Ekrem Ay, said. "My headscarf does not keep me from practising sports and is not an ideological thing," Dr Yilmaz, an obstetrician, told Turkish media. "I want to make use of my rights."

For decades, such elite institutions as tennis clubs, posh shopping malls, good schools and the higher echelons of politics, the judiciary and the bureaucracy were the realm of "White Turks", a term used for a class of Turks that regard themselves as modern, secular and western-oriented.

"White Turks" have always been a minority, albeit a powerful one. The word "white" connotes that members of this class have lighter skin than pious "Black Turks" from Anatolia and that the men do not have moustaches.

The ascent of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister, that came to power in November 2002 with the votes of the "Black Turk" majority challenged the position of the "White Turk" elites. High-level positions in the country, including the office of state president, have been filled with AKP members.

But a new study has concluded that even after more than six years of AKP rule, Turkey's traditional elites have still not accepted the rise of more conservative Turks and continue to look down upon what they regard as upstarts. "Traditional elites, who see themselves as carriers of the republic's values and achievements, regard the 'newcomers' as occupiers who have no right to be 'there'" in positions of power and prestige, the study concluded.

Turkey's traditional elites feel threatened by "the perceived rise of Islamic parts [of society] and their symbols". The work, Elites and Social Distance, by Fusun Ustel and Birol Caymaz, political scientists at Istanbul's Galatasaray University, was supported by Bilgi University in Istanbul and by the Open Society Foundation of George Soros, the financier, and published last week. It is based on in-depth interviews with 40 representatives of Turkey's traditional elites from Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.

"Until I was 14 years old, no headscarved woman ever sat next to me," 23-year old Ebru, one of the participants of the study who were only identified by their first names, said in an interview.

"Now I am constantly confronted with a headscarved woman."

Another woman, Serpil, 32, told the interviewers she never had a friend who covered her hair and would never have one. "I am very understanding, I am a very good human being, I love people," Serpil said. "But no, on this issue I am prejudiced."

Secular opponents of the AKP staged a series of demonstrations in 2007 to prevent the rise of Abdullah Gul, then the foreign minister, to the post of president. At the time, the military issued a coup threat against the AKP. The move by the army triggered general elections, which the AKP won with a landslide. Mr Gul was elected president shortly afterwards. In the study, one participant voiced support for a coup against the AKP.

"Even if it is anti-democratic, here the armed forces have a right to use force," Kemal, 31, said. "These armed forces can be paramilitary, they can be guerrilla-style, they can be forces that are part of the state." Kemal said he supported possible coup plans against the Erdogan government "because I am against the AKP, because it would be a progressive move". The study also dealt with the elites' views on Turkey's non-Muslim minorities and the country's Kurds, but it was the part dealing with the rise of conservatives that sparked bitter comments by observers close to the AKP.

"They have been to Turkey's best schools. They are rich. They think they are the cream of society," Ihsan Dagi, a columnist of the pro-government daily newspaper Zaman, wrote yesterday. "But they are intolerant, fanatical, stupid and opponents of democracy."

A visit to a tea house in any Anatolian village would produce more tolerant and more democratic views than those expressed by the "White Turks" in the study, Dagi wrote.

"Those 'White Turks' that look down upon ordinary people are much, much more backward than the people."

Taha Akyol, a columnist of the mainstream Milliyet newspaper, which is not close to the government, also called on the secularists to "stop watching their surroundings with hatred from within a glass bowl". For its part, the AKP had to accept that secularists had fears. "The AKP has to see this reality, it has to try and ease those fears," Akyol wrote.

tseibert@thenational.ae