Erdogan And The Bitter Lessons Of Modern Muslim Leadership

"Religion is no longer an ally of the weak, the disenfranchised, the wounded. It is in the service of rulers and is dangerous to anyone who does not wish to capitulate."
"Religion is no longer an ally of the weak, the disenfranchised, the wounded. It is in the service of rulers and is dangerous to anyone who does not wish to capitulate."
Zafer Senocak*


BERLIN — There’s a cold civil war in Turkey. An event like the mining catastrophe and its 301 victims could have united the deeply split country, emotionally. But not even the grief of so many Turks could bring supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan together.

Turkey is split into at least three camps. The Kurds in the southeast are stronger and more confident than ever. Secular, Western-oriented Turks who mainly live in the large cities and along the coasts have a profound dislike of Erdogan. He represents the 40 or so percent of the Turkish population that is bound by conservative Islamic values. They are uncompromising in their support for the prime minister, and have made it possible for the freely-elected head of government of an ostensible democracy to believe he is immune to criticism.

Can this be reconciled with the economic anxiety of the newly emerged middle class? There can be no doubt that this new class exists in Turkey, and that it owes its existence to the neo-liberal economic policies of the AKP government.

Until now Erdogan understood how to fulfill his clientele’s expectations, mainly by using ambitious projects to create a picture of Turkey as a fast-developing nation. Under his government, the Turkish economy has indeed achieved high rates of economic growth.

Before Erdogan, Turkey had only a narrow, secular-oriented middle class. Now there’s also a Muslim middle class of well-educated folks who earn good livings — and fervidly support Erdogan.

But the autocratic behavior of the prime minister after the mine accident could wind up being a turning point, where for the first time a wedge is driven between him and those who voted for him.

Betrayal in the ranks

If, instead, he rides this crisis out again, it is not because his supporters are blind. Some have sworn loyalty to him because they perceive him to be a Muslim leader who has taken on the whole world.

Such fights are familiar from the propaganda repertoire of totalitarian regimes, directed against "traitors" and "conspirators" in one’s own ranks, and serve as cover-ups for misconduct and wrongdoing by the leadership. Erdogan has powerful media at his disposal, and makes targeted use of disinformation. What is surprising is that he has so far come through all this rather well, not only in Turkey but also abroad.

When Erdogan came to power 12 years ago he was a bearer of hope. Religious, traditionally raised, from a simple background, he quickly became a role model for the impoverished masses. But he also held promise for the Turkish elite: a basic reform that would make the country fit to become part of Europe.

He came across as a devout, practicing Muslim who was also a convinced European. At a time when the image of Muslims was severely damaged by Islamic terrorists, Erdogan seemed — also to many in the West — to be something of a savior.

But there’s nothing left now of the democratic Erdogan. He is no longer a reformer, leading Turkey to Europe. He is merely a conqueror who has appropriated the oppressive means that the Turkish state used to employ against its opponents.

Under authoritarian Kemalist secular ideology of modern Turkey's founders, the promise was enlightened modernization, where backward believers in Islam were the main enemy. Now after the advent of Erdogan we know that it was an illusion to believe that a democratic movement could have its inception among those believers.

Twisting Koran's message

Islam in Turkey is very far from being an innovative force. Instead, it makes it possible for a corrupt group of politicians to cement their power. The religion unites but also separates believers for whom emotional shackles exercise stronger power than rational argument.

Muslim-dominated societies have no power of resistance against tyrants. Each individual has a deeply imbedded sense of obedience to those of higher rank which precludes informed public opinion. The secular modernizers of Turkey also based themselves in these authoritarian and hierarchical structures thus blocking the formation of a liberal enlightened society.

If you go to the masses, don’t forget the whip! That was the unspoken motto of Turkey’s modernizers. Anybody wearing a uniform or a suit took precedence over rural folks, or the have-nots who lived in the poor neighborhoods of the big cities. An autocratic mindset set the fundamental tone.

Inside Istanbul's Blue Mosque — Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrissen

Erdogan’s people wear suits. But the power that the Turkish state has appropriated no longer takes its references from enlightenment but from conservative values, from traditional Islam whose propagated fatalism was always the most powerful ally of repressive rulers.

It is always the same lack of values and orientation that draws many people to Islam — they hope to find in it something to hold on to. Why does Islam — which once founded a highly sophisticated civilization and is possessed of a strong social consciousness — fail so miserably as a reference for political and societal life in modern times?

Modernity left out

One of the reasons is certainly that lived, practiced Islam no longer has anything to do with the sense of justice that informed the Koranic message. But do Christians still live the Sermon on the Mount? No, but the consequences of that are entirely different than they are in the case of Muslims. Christianity long ago merged with the modernity, thanks to the Enlightenment.

Jesus could be absorbed into the humanism that marks the values of the West. Muhammed on the other hand stands alone, and when Muslim societies opened themselves up to modernity he was left out.

Very devout Muslims are proud that the lessons of the Prophet are considered timeless and that the Koran an eternally valid word of God. But today they’re paying a high price for that because their religion is no longer a match for human dignity.

Islam is a corset that can hold a body together but doesn’t provide enough air for the spirit. It doesn’t allow consciences to breathe. That becomes blatantly clear whenever a catastrophe befalls people, when as in Syria a country torn apart by civil war needs to find peace, or the wounds of a mine disaster need to be tended, as now in Turkey.

Religion is no longer an ally of the weak, the disenfranchised, the wounded. It is in the service of rulers and is dangerous to anyone who does not wish to capitulate. Its language makes the tongue bold, and can inflict fresh wounds.

Whoever challenges this system is not only breaking the rules, but endangering the entire belief system. So those in power do not see their opponents as mere opponents guilty of lèse majesté, they see them as godless.

*Senocak, a Turkish-born poet, writer and journalist has been living in Germany since 1970, and is a leading voice on issues of multiculturalism and German-Turkish affairs.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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