Snowsuits and Headscarves

A free, throw-away commuter newspaper made its debut in Istanbul during the past week and its timing could not have been more auspicious. As far as this observer is aware, the paper's debut has coincided with an event that has not occurred since the Czarist Russian offensive through the Caucasus during WWI - the last time Turkish soldiers were thrown into a mountainous winter campaign beyond the borders of Anatolia. Turkish military sceptics, including this observer, were generally surprised to learn that the military had chosen to undertake a winter operation in light of the added level of difficulty. The Turkish media has accordingly taken great pains to capture the exploits of the military's adventure into snowy northern Iraq. Photos of Turkish soldiers wearing white snowsuits have been the highlight of the media's coverage partly to emphasize the operation's degree of daring and surprise, but also due to the simple fact that the Turkish military has not allowed sufficient media access for the creation of alternative images.

The winter surprise attack on PKK positions in the Qandil Mountains region in northern Iraq has thus far yielded two main story lines in the international media and in the Turkish media to a lesser extent. First, there appears to be a general level confusion concerning what the Turkish military has actually accomplished. While body counts of dead "terrorists" as well as Turkish "martyrs" are provided in order to give the public a sense of progress, there does not exist a single source beyond the Turkish military's website or a press conference with General Büyükanıt to corroborate or qualify such statistics. (What delicious irony that the Turkish military, the country's staunchest defender of secularism, has appropriated an Islamic term to describe its combat dead.)

In addition, there appears to be a second point of confusion surrounding the question of why the Turkish military has maintained such a media freeze over the operation. This is particularly bewildering in light of the military’s comments that the operation has specific objectives, which are supposed to be limited in duration. It is unclear what the military has to gain from this approach.

It is still quite likely that the Turkish military will reveal the scope of military achievements for its latest operation once Turkish forces begin to conduct their pullout. The military seems to have so far maintained the view that it is turning the winter elements to its advantage with the added help of the element of surprise. The snow will hamper the Turkish forces, but it will also impede PKK fighters from fleeing the scene of attack. However, this observer also wonders whether PKK forces have truly decided to sit around the camp fire holed up in the snowy Qandil mountains for an entire winter season, as opposed to settling at lower and warmer elevations for the winter while waiting for the Turkish military to venture out in the spring. Whatever is the case, the Turkish military will undoubtedly label its operation a success whenever the time comes to make such announcements.

Another point worthy of consideration is to question whether Turkey’s winter offensive was truly intended to have decisive military implications. Rather, it seems quite possible that it was conceived for sheer political convenience. This view comes to mind when one considers the dominant fashion statements plastered across the entire spectrum of the Turkish media over the last eight days - either soldiers in white snowsuits or female university students wearing headscarves.

Combat operations against the PKK have always functioned as a unifying mechanism in Turkish society. This is no more apparent than when viewing the constant footage on all national news broadcasts that depicts the official funeral ceremonies or the grieving families of the Turkish combat dead. Faced with the incredible degree of polarization that has resulted from their successful initiative to legalize headscarves for women attending Turkish universities, it seems logical for Erdoğan and Gül to have encouraged the military to trudge around in the snow for a few weeks. A winter operation would distract the public away from its social crisis since it would remind them that there exist more critical and immediate threats to the livelihoods of the Turkish people compared to the headscarf. Judging by the fact that combat operations have been constantly featured as the lead story on the evening news during the past week, their tactic seems to have worked.


Further Reading: "Minority Rules"

Meline Toumani's New York Times Sunday Magazine article, "Minority Rules", is simply phenomenal. Her account of the contemporary situation of Kurds in Turkey, which is based on an interview with Diyarbakır's former mayor, weaves together all of the most necessary threads to describe the current state of affairs.

Click here, or


Toward the conclusion of her article, Toumani admits to her Armenian heritage. Sadly, this will most likely result in her article being discredited and ridiculed by many circles in Turkey. Even more criticism will be aimed at her choice to feature Diyarbakır's mayor, whom Ankara sacked after Toumani first conducted her interview.


Head Scarves and Socio-Economic Mobility in Turkey

Few individuals in Turkey or beyond lack an opinion about the AKP's proposal to give young women attending university the legal right to wear head scarves in university facilities. The mere political progress made by this reform convinces many of the country's secular citizens that their country is five years away from resembling Iran - a type of doomsday "back to the future" scenario considering the last great Islamic revolution was in 1979. Western voices, which laud the democratic or Western aspects of these impending reforms, are chastised by the secular elites for not understanding the critical threat of "politicizing" religion in such an important public sphere of Turkey's legally secular society. These elites furthermore derive a feeling of abandonment and perhaps betrayal from the West’s tendency to cite Turkey as an example of the potential for democracy to cohabit with Islam.

In addition to the rhetoric of politicians, Turkey’s secular community has made most of the headlines with flag-waving political demonstrations. There nevertheless exists a less publicly assertive portion of Turkish society, which is a less-widely reported, but is nonetheless growing in importance for the Turkish social landscape. This segment is composed of individuals who are less concerned with issues such as secularism or political symbolism. They desire equal opportunities for religiously observant woman, who want to remain faithful to the commandments of their religion while in the act of receiving a Western-style education in Turkey's universities.

Arguments concerning the validity of religious symbols have enveloped the domestic and international discussion of head scarf reform in Turkey, obscuring other extremely important and equally symbolic aspects of the political initiative. Not simply an issue of religious political symbolism clashing with the original secular values of the Turkish Republic, the crisis over the head scarf is perhaps more importantly symbolic of frictions related to the socio-economic evolution that defines modern Turkey.

As is the case in many fledgling nations, accumulating wealth, increasing one's standing in society or simply creating a sense of security have all been a function of a citizen's proximity to the state. For the first five or six decades of the Turkish Republic's economic history, the state was almost the exclusive orchestrator of economic development in Turkey. Foreign investment was non-existent, entering the economy only by way of various aid packages from the United States and other allies in the West.

The development of many of the substantial conglomerates, which currently rule Turkey's modern economy, accordingly followed this rule of proximity to the state. Vehbi Koç, the founder of Koç Holding, was a mere grocery owner in Ankara during the 1920s. Tapped by
Atatürk to become one of Turkey's early captains of industry, his descendants now control an empire of 98 companies that ranks 358th in the Fortune Global 500 of 2006. While the Koç story is extraordinary, it is nonetheless indicative of an economy strongly influenced by the state. Successful participants in Turkey's private sector, in addition to generations of Turkey's armed forces and other state organizations, traditionally acquired great wealth or more moderate financial security due to their affiliation with the Turkish state. Such affiliation naturally included their adoption of state-sponsored social mores - unabashed secularism chief among them.

Free market reforms during the 1980s, which were implemented under the leadership of then Prime Minister Turgut Özal, would prove to have a dramatic, and perhaps unintended, influence on the socio-economic dynamics of Turkey. Privatization of state assets allowed the Turkish economy to develop in new ways and slowly increase its interaction with global markets. This in turn paved the way for a customs union with the European Union in the mid-1990s, greater foreign investment, and ultimately the economic conditions in which a non-state affiliated lower-middle and middle classes could emerge.

This phenomenon was marked by free market economic growth that was not restricted to the traditional Turkish industrial centers such as Istanbul, Bursa or Ankara. During the 1990s and most prominently since 2001, unprecedented levels of prosperity, which were still extremely low by European standards, were also felt in traditionally underdeveloped places like Gaziantep, Kayseri and Konya. Business Week-type clichés such as "Anatolian Tiger" were accordingly coined to describe a phenomenon that would not have been possible two decades earlier. Turkey's president and AKP leader, Abdullah Gül, started his political career in Kayseri. Much of the AKP's current domestic political punch is thanks to the influence of wealthy businessmen from Kayseri and other regions in Anatolia that had been neglected by economic development prior to the free market reforms.

From the perspective of social values, these traditionally poor areas of Anatolia had understandably not bought into the mores of Ataturk's republic quite as enthusiastically as the more economically developed centers. Moreover, the social values and political concerns that had always held sway in these areas did not necessarily evolve due to the greater levels of economic development. Rather, they gained a more prominent political voice since they no longer represented a strictly poor cross-section of society as had traditionally been the case. With the gradual economic development of a non-state affiliated middle class in interior Anatolia starting in the 1990s, values common to interior Anatolia would come to develop a stronger political voice at the national level.

The development of the poorer regions in Anatolia has been a priority of the Turkish Republic since Atatürk's time. While it is true that the state did invest in these regions, it was ultimately capitalist free market actors that would appear to have generated the greatest momentum for socio-economic mobility. While Atatürk no doubt hoped that such an "Anatolian Tiger" renaissance would some day occur in Anatolia, it is doubtful that he would have appreciated the interior Anatolian social values that it has assisted in bringing into the national political arena.

It is ultimately within this framework that one can further consider the great paranoia of the secular Turkish elites concerning the current head scarf crisis. In particular, the emergence of the head scarf issue serves as a reminder to Turkey's secular elites that conservative social-values no longer exclusively belong to the domain of the poor in interior Anatolia. Rather, these values are espoused by Turks, who are steadily growing into sizable middle classes, and who consequently have a much greater will and ability to realize their social interests through politics. While still solid, the secularist economic power base established by Atatürk maintains a weakening grip on the direction of the country.

Further Reading: Headscarves, generals, and Turkish democracy

The following article is an exhausting, yet extremely comprehensive, sketch of the most important issues in contemporary Turkish society. The author, Niels Kadritze, is the editor of the German edition of Le Monde Diplomatique. While Mr. Kadritze's essay is somewhat lacking in terms of the organization of ideas, the quality and range of his observations are absolutely first rate.