Turkish Cultural Policy

Continuity and Change

The diversity of literature presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair also illustrates the contradictions in Turkish society today. Ömer Erzeren with an essay on Turkishliterary and cultural production between Kemalism and the religious conservative AKP

The diversity of literature presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair also illustrates the contradictions in Turkish society today. Ömer Erzeren with an essay on Turkish literary and cultural production between Kemalism and the religious conservative AKP

Protest against AKP in Istanbul (photo: AP)
Despite stubborn resistance, Kemalism has passed its sell-by-date as a political system. Today's Turkey is governed by men who spent their formative years in political Islam, Erzeren writes


"Turkey in all its colours" is the country's motto as guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Yet even the most superficial look at Turkey's intellectual establishment reveals that we are not facing a fascinating rainbow, but a split into irreconcilable camps. Individual standpoints on political Islam, the ruling AKP and Kemalism are the subject of bitter debates among Turkish intellectuals. This is a debate on Turkish identity, no less, dealing with the country's past and projecting for its future.

Where are we coming from? And where are we going?

Kemalism, named after the founder of the Turkish Republic Kemal Atatürk, is not only the official state doctrine to the present day; it was also the breeding ground of literary production in the decades after the republic was founded in 1923. The intellectuals were part of the political elite, addressing the ambitious project of constructing a modern nation state on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Turkey took its orientation from the West, modelling itself on Europe's bourgeois revolutions. Laicism, the separation of church and state, was one of the founders' most important instruments. Nationalism was to provide an identity for the new state's citizens, not religion.

State-enforced cultural reorientation

Turkey's Enlightenment was prescribed from above – state-enforced cultural reorientation. The introduction of the Latin alphabet was a huge fracture in the country's cultural life, blocking access to old books for the younger generation with a single blow. And how impressive the 496 philosophy and literature titles the Turkish Ministry of Culture had translated and published in the 1940s: Shakespeare, Baudelaire, Goethe, Flaubert, Rimbaud, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov, plus Rousseau, Plato, Galileo and Kierkegaard. Kemalism has passed its sell-by-date as a political system. Today's Turkey is governed by men who spent their formative years in political Islam movements. The institutions that still regard themselves as the spearhead of Kemalism – above all the military – have suffered humiliating defeats. The desperate attempt to ban the governing party through the constitutional court was one of these failures. Little by little, political power is being taken out of the hands of the Kemalists, and the movement's ideological dominance is starting to crumble. An interesting aspect of this development is its expression in culture. The best way to trace it is in the political columns in the past decade's newspapers.


New reading of Kemalism

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: AP)
Like the Kemalists before them, Erdogan's AKP is continuing the tradition of state intervention in culture – simply under a different auspice


Many intellectuals have developed a new reading of Kemalism. One innovation is the daily newspaper Taraf, founded by the Turkish author Ahmet Altan, which confronts the issue on a daily basis. Many of today's columnists are firmly within the political stable of liberalism, regularly attacking the repressive Kemalist state and its totalitarian traits. The AKP as a political party, in contrast, is seen as an expression of civil society standing up against the nanny state of the old elites. Hence, it is liberals who currently see the main contradiction between anti-European, authoritarian laicists and pro-European, Muslim democrats. The former include the army, the justice system and the opposition parties, whereas the latter take the form of the AKP in the eyes of these commentators. Despite its conservative character, the liberals regard the AKP as a dynamo for democratic change in Turkey, with many European politicians and journalists also adopting this interpretation.


AKP and culture

Sugar Festival in Istanbul (photo: AP)
A symbol of "cultural erosion" for the AKP government: the correct Islamic name for the "sugar festival" is supposed to be "Ramadan festival"

​​A closer look at the AKP's standpoint on culture is revealing, however – not so much its official representation such as at the Frankfurt Book Fair, but culture in everyday life. The famous writer Latife Tekin, invited to a cultural festival in the city of Karabük in June, criticised the government's energy policy of promoting the construction of nuclear power plants in her speech. The local AKP mayor took offence at this "malicious" comment. He reacted by stepping up to the platform, tearing the microphone out of her hands and shouting out insults and threats against her. Tekin had to leave the city. The filmmakers Aydın Kudu and Rüya Arzu Köksal had a similar experience at a showing of their documentary on the ecological consequences of highway construction along the Black Sea coast in Inebolu. The mayor himself interrupted the screening and launched into a tirade against the filmmakers. The events in Karabük and Inebolu are not isolated cases of eccentric local bigwigs; they reflect the state of mind of many AKP functionaries. Intolerance and the negation of the right to other opinions certainly fit in with their reactionary religious worldview.

State-prescribed identity under a different auspice

The Kemalists prescribed a new dress code for the Turkish people and banished words with Arabic and Persian roots from the language. And Prime Minister Erdogan is only too happy to pick up this tradition of state intervention, albeit under a different auspice. Erdogan's identification of cultural erosion says a great deal about him. He recently criticised all those who refer to the festival after Ramadan as the "sugar festival". The correct term, he maintained, was Ramadan festival. In actual fact, the name sugar festival has been in use since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan wrongly thought the term had been coined by anti-religious forces. Once again, the Turkish state is attempting to take control of its citizens' language – this time under an Islamic portent.

The AKP espouses neoliberal economic policy. Its government has embraced privatisation as never before in Turkish history. In times when state regulation is condemned as a communist evil and the government has trade union May Day demonstrations dispelled by baton-swinging police, the state is trying its hand at expropriating people's language and culture. Yet the project of a state-prescribed identity was a failure under the Kemalists. And there is no indication that an eclectic political movement that links religious conservatism with neoliberal economic policy might create a new national identity. So there are stormy times ahead, as we can tell by looking at the motifs and subjects of modern Turkish literature. The Frankfurt Book Fair, showcasing many Turkish titles translated into German, provides an opportunity for readers to discover the contradictions of Turkish society for themselves.

Ömer Erzeren © Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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