Book review of Joshua Hendrick, Gülen: the ambiguous politics of market Islam in Turkey and the world, 2013.

This review was solicited by the Journal of American Studies of Turkey in 2014. It was accepted that year and slated for publication in January 2016. I received notice the week before publication that, due to what editors deemed the “contentious” nature of the topic, this particular review would not be published. I reproduce it below in its originally accepted form.

Gülen: the Ambiguous Politics of Market Islam in Turkey and the World.  Joshua D. Hendrick.  New York: New York UP., 2013.  H/bk 276 pp.  ISBN 978-0-8147-7098-6.  Price $49.00.

hendrick-gulen-coverHendrick offers a political ethnography of the Gülen Movement (GM), a controversial community inspired by the Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen that includes interests in education, business, finance, and media both in Turkey and throughout the world.  Though the descriptor “faith-based” is often used to describe the GM, and many critics refer to the group in alarmist terms that reference Islamic revival, Hendrick’s account emphasizes the market-oriented decision-making that works at all levels of the group, suggesting that members are “best presented as products of, rather than as a fundamentalist reaction to, the processes of neoliberal globalization” (9).  His fieldwork, conducted primarily between 2005-2008, with supplementary work continuing through 2012, included attendance at numerous conferences, over 100 conversations with members, sympathizers, and critics of the movement, 55 formal interviews, and 1000 hours of participant observation at the GM’s Akademi in İstanbul, a publishing house, think-tank, and place for prayer and education that serves as the nerve center of the GM.

Hendrick approaches the intersection of Islam and politics in market terms, and his account is filled with the language of markets.  In his own words, “this book explains how neo-liberal economic restructuring in the 1980s provided new actors with greater access to wealth accumulation, and subsequently, with increased ability to affect the development of public opinion in a privatized marketplace, which facilitated a shift in Turkish Muslim politics from the politics of revolution to the politics of participation” (16).  The GM in particular has participated in such a politics in two ways: first by becoming the “leading private producer of ‘Turkish Islam’ for the twenty-first century religious marketplace” (24), and second by producing and distributing a wide range of goods and services in global capital markets.

Hendrick provides a brief account of the political economy of Muslim politics in Turkey, with the history of tension between secularists and Islamists as a background.  He notes that the religious marketplace became far more active in the wake of the 1980 coup and suggests that the ascendance of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) regime since 2002 has brought about a shift in which “contemporary political divides in Turkey are less defined by ‘secularism’ versus ‘Islamism’ than by ‘defensive nationalism’ versus ‘conservative globalism’” (53).  One of the key concepts Hendrick relies on to explain the GM’s success is strategic ambiguity, a reference to the lack of clarity about the goals and structure of the movement.  Such ambiguity is pervasive at all levels, characterizing issues ranging from Gülen’s US residency application to the ties that exist between various would-be Gülen affiliates.

In discussing these affiliates, Hendrick offers a hierarchical model for understanding the various levels of association: the cemaat, a core community of close associates; the arkadaşlar, a loosely-knit group of devoted friends; the yandaşlar, who come from a variety of backgrounds and sympathize with some of the group’s goals; and the consumers who purchase goods and services from the GM with or without knowledge of the group simply because they meet needs.  Though the spiritually devoted congregate towards the core community, Hendrick stresses that participants at all levels employ instrumental rationality in their choices to participate in the group, as a number of benefits are offered to those who choose to engage.  Among the most tangible of these benefits is educational support, as education is one of the biggest sectors in which the GM is involved both in Turkey and globally.  In Turkey, the GM started by offering housing, tutoring, and other forms of support to university students in the 1970s.  After the 1980 coup, major shifts in the educational system prioritized standardized testing and a new sector of privatized test-prep courses, dershane(ler), arose in response.  GM affiliated courses have been among the most successful and lucrative in this sector, and they also serve as recruitment centers for those who might wish to join the community.

Addressing the GM’s finances, Hendrick touches on two key practices among the community.  The first is himmet, the regular donation of funds to the movement by members, many of whom have in turn benefitted from such funds.  The second is the tendency for community members to start business ventures in any area where goods and services are needed by the group and then to practice preferential trading within networks of GM affiliation.  GM affiliated firms are present in sectors including publishing, educational supplies, architectural design, energy, banking, and media.  In reference to the latter, Hendrick provides a chapter-length discussion of the various Gülen-affiliated media bodies, foremost among which are the Feza Group, which owns Turkey’s highest circulating daily paper, a popular English-language daily, and two television channels among others, and the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), which publishes books and journals related to Gülen and distributes tolerance awards.

Though Gülen interests are present worldwide, Hendrick focuses on those based in Turkey for most of the book before moving to a case study of the GM’s educational endeavors in the US.  Gülen-affiliated organizations took advantage of new laws that encouraged charter schools in the 2000s, founding schools that quickly gained a reputation for excellent educational standards.  Hendrick counts at least 136 such schools across 26 states by November of 2012.  Starting in 2009, controversies about the schools began to emerge due to allegations of sexism in hiring and promotion, the preferential hiring of Turkish teachers from abroad over US candidates, and questions related to the schools’ ties to Islamic teachings.  Though there was little evidence of the latter, school administrators were far from transparent when answering the questions of concerned parents and community members, leading to even greater mistrust in a pattern that Hendrick identifies as a backfire of strategic ambiguity.  Moving to a conclusion, Hendrick suggests that the market Islam exemplified by the GM aims not to overtake the state but, rather, to privatize religious revival and to sell goods and services to the broadest possible market.

This is a well-grounded account of certain aspects of the Gülen enterprise that is rich in ethnographic detail, providing useful insights in the market logics that clearly have much to do with how the group operates.  Theoretical engagement is not foremost among Hendrick’s tasks, but his occasional reference to Gramsci clarifies some of the social dynamics affecting the community.  The book came out just as the relationship between the Gülen community and the AKP began to deteriorate, and some of the commentary appears extremely dated as a result.  Hendrick was aware, for example, of the strong allegations that GM affiliates had systematically taken positions of power among the Turkish police and judiciary, and his choice not to address such allegations, which would have called the market-oriented thesis he offers into question, is problematic in retrospect.  This market-oriented understanding of the GM also elides some of the coercive patterns that are prevalent in familial and gender relations across much of Turkey, meaning that Hendrick’s emphasis on the rational choice of actors may be overstated.  Finally, his decision not to engage with one of the key questions regarding the GM — its approach to gender relations — is understandable for a male ethnographer with limited access, but readers should be warned that the book says almost nothing on this issue.  That said, this account has much to offer both in terms of descriptive depth and analytical insight, and Hendrick’s attempt at objectivity on an issue that is usually left to admirers or harsh critics of the movement is highly laudable.

Josh Carney

University of South Florida

 

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NOTICE

5 Yorumsuz – 5 Without Comment is on a temporary hiatus due to other demands. That series will resume as soon as possible.

5 Yorumsuz – 5 Without Comment – 2015-05-05

1 – Press freedom and censorship – The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has released a new report noting the strong moves against critical journalism in the country. Yavuz Baydar’s article on the CPJ website summarizes the situation, and his former newspaper, Today’s Zaman, also covers the story. Freedom House released its new report on global press freedom, ranking Turkey “not free” once again, with a worse score than last year, Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zaman report. On the heels of such reports, it is perhaps little surprise that even AK-Party officials find it hard to claim Turkey has a free press. Writer and professor Osman Özsoy, who lost his job at the pro-government paper Yeni Şafak after he criticized the government in the wake of corruption allegations, has been detained on suspicion of terrorism. The case of journalist Sedef Kabaş, in trouble for Tweeting about the same corruption scandal, has been sent to a higher criminal court in Istanbul. Pro-government paper Star and its writer Ergun Babahan have been fined for a piece written against media mogul Aydın Doğan in 2012. Prominent journalist Cüneyt Özdemir took to Twitter to note the heavy pressure his channel, Kanal D, is under from the government. As Today’s Zaman notes, he later edited some of his tweets to less directly implicate the government. Pop singer Sevval Sam has been questioned for her participation in a video commemorating Berkin Elvan. The Carmina Burana was removed from a performance schedule in Antalya at the last minute after Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say, who has been penalized and censored for his criticism of the government, pointed out that the piece touches on topics such as sex and alcohol. Journalists marched in Istanbul for press freedom on World Press Freedom Day (May 3rd) and also held a screening of the documentary Persona Non Grata, which deals with press restrictions in Turkey.

2 – Film and festivals – The banned film Bakur (North), dealing with Kurdish guerrillas in Turkey, was also screened for the first time on May 3rd, in an invite-based event that took place at Bosphorus University. The 10th annual Labor Film Festival opened on May 2nd in four cities, and its Istanbul gala was preceded by a march against censorship. The upcoming 18th annual Flying Broom International Women’s Film Festival will start in Ankara on May 8th.

3 – Erdoğan’s image – Turkey’s president has been a constant feature in the news this week, making headlines for insulting the newly elected President of the Turkish Republic of Norther Cyprus, Mustafa Akıncı, and making repeated claims and threats against the Gülen movement (here, here, and here), in the lead-up to Turkey’s June elections. Erdoğan has responded to criticism from HDP party co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş, who claimed that the president was abusing his office by campaigning on behalf of a particular party and doing so at taxpayers’ expense. (The president is bound by oath to be impartial.) Erdoğan claimed he has every right to hold such rallies because he won the presidential election with 52% of the vote. Meanwhile, a pro-HDP ad has responded to taunts from Erdoğan, who recently asked rhetorically of Demirtaş, “who are you?” (implying, who are you to question me?), by releasing an ad inviting Erdoğan and voters to get to know the party. The ad is here. On a related note, government channel TRT made headlines for switching from live coverage of AK-Party leader Ahmet Davutoğlu to that of Erdoğan the moment the latter began to speak in a different part of Turkey. As always, the list of those detained, on trial, or penalized for insulting Erdoğan continues to grow, with developments in cases against journalist Bülent Keneş, lawer Umut Kılıç, and columnist Mümtazer Türköne. An interesting addition to this list is the case of a Turkish Armed Forces commander, M.E.A., who, under order from an AK-Party appointed regional governor, Musa Işın, became involved in an altercation with the PKK in early April. Many had speculated that this was an AK-Party tactic to increase nationalistic votes but, if so, the intended nationalist fervor did not reach great heights, in part because no Turkish soldiers were killed (some sources say this is because PKK guerrillas intentionally shot only at soldiers’ feet), and in part because HDP members intervened quickly to transport wounded soldiers to safety, an effort that was verified by the armed forces. Now, according to Taraf and reported in English by Today’s Zaman, the head of the unit that led the attack, M.E.A., is under investigation for insulting Erdoğan via social media in 2012.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 7.29.01 PMOn a somewhat lighter note, British cyclist Mark Cavendish became a social media phenomenon when he tried to leave the podium in the midst of a very long speech Erdoğan was giving after the Tour of Turkey. He was forced to return to the podium for the remainder of the speech. Finally, the story of severely botched restorations at a mosaic museum in Antakya was given a comic twist when Penguen cartoonist Selçuk Erdem tweeted an image of one of the restorations with the comment: “maybe the goal of restoration in the museum was to make it look like Erdoğan.”

4 – May Day –  Amidst reports that 351 workers in Turkey have already died in 2015, the government decided, once again, to ban demonstrations in Taksim on that day. A number of groups made plans to head there nonetheless, and pro-government paper Vahdet made headlines when it reported on a poster from one such group, the United June Movement (BHH). The poster features an image of the Beatles, but Vahdet claimed it was “Gezi activists.” When this mistake was brought to the attention of editors, they claimed to be proud not to know who the Beatles were. Both Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zaman report on various clashes between police and protestors that took place, with a total of 339 people reportedly being detained. Numerous outlets reported on a group of shopkeepers who apparently beat activists attempting to get to Taksim and then later bragged that the police had thanked them for the help.

5 – TV developments – Turkish TV and radio regulator RTÜK granted permission for the Ismailağa sect to open a channel. Popular cleric Cubbeli Ahmet is among the most famous members of the sect in Turkey and will likely appear on the channel. Turkish TV drama Kurt Seyit and Şura, which received massive investment in Turkey but was nonetheless cancelled due to poor ratings, has started airing in Spanish on Mundo Fox TV in the US. And Oktay Alkaya writes for Radikal about the 1990s TV program Plastic Show, noting that Turkey’s situation has really changed in terms of what’s admissible on TV in the form of political satire.

5 Yorumsuz – 5 Without Comment – 2015-04-27

1 – Clampdown on expression – Meral Tutcali, a second year university student, has received a suspended sentence for retweeting a satirical article about the governor of the province of Adana from Zaytung, Turkey’s equivalent of the Onion. Both Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zaman report that members of the press were prevented from attending a meeting with Turkey’s first lady Emine Erdoğan, apparently at the behest of her security team. Lawyer Umut Kiliç was arrested after a job interview for a judge position on the grounds that he insulted Erdoğan by calling the president a fascist, leading other lawyers to object. The European Parliament criticized Turkey for its crackdown on independent media at a seminar on Wednesday. One of the invitees for this seminar, Zaman newspaper editor Ekrem Dumanli, had to participate via video stream because he is currently under investigation on charges of terrorism. Gültekin Avci, a former prosecutor, is facing a life sentence for retweeting audio that implicates President Erdoğan and his son Bilal in corruption, as reported by Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zaman. A number of artists have been sued for releasing a video commemorating the death of teen Berkin Elvan, who was shot by police during the Gezi Park protests and died months later. Today’s Zaman reports on the effects of new “penal courts of peace” that were established by the AK-Party and appear to be used to censor critical media. The same paper reports on the fate of professor Sedat Laçiner, an AK-Party critic who has been asked to stop writing for news site internethaber.com and who was removed from his position as rector of Çanakkale 18 Mart University by President Erdoğan.

2 – Election roundup – President Erdoğan has released a video commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gallipoli (referred to as Çanakkale in Turkey), which many are taking as an AK-Party election ad. An ad by the president for such a purpose would be illegal both on the grounds that the president is supposed to be impartial and that use of the flag and religion for political purposes are banned, but there is a clear history of both Erdogan and the AK-Party ignoring both of these grounds (Touched on here and, more recently, here). Both Hürriyet Daily News and Today’s Zaman cover the ad.

Government broadcaster TRT provided 1:20 and 1:17 of coverage for the manifestos of the AK-Party and main opposition CHP, respectively, while giving only 15 minutes to the HDP, a party on the border of passing the 10% threshold to enter parliament. The AK-Party-appointed governor of Erzincan province, Süleyman Kahraman, denied the HDP a permit for an election rally on April 25th, with the excuse that the AKP had the same public square reserved for the 26th. Abit Nasiroğlu, son of a former AK-Party deputy, has been killed in an attack on AK-Party headquarters in Batman by unidentified attackers, while HDP offices in Yalova have also been attacked with gunfire, though nobody was injured.

3 – Turkey, Armenia, and the world –  Both President Erdoğan and the Turkish Foreign Ministry have reacted strongly to proclamations from other nations that the massacres and mass deportation of Armenians 100 years ago, which are commemorated on 24 April, constitute a genocide. The withdrawal of Turkish ambassadors from the Vatican and Austria in the wake of genocide claims brings to seven the number of countries from which ambassadors have been removed in recent years. On the local front, a nationalist group left threatening wreaths in front of Armenian newspaper Agos, where journalist Hrant Dink was editor and where he was murdered in 2007. Hürriyet Daily News reports that students marching to commemorate genocide at Istanbul Technical University were attacked by police and that academics from Bilgi University released a statement against that university’s choice to cancel a conference bearing the word “genocide” in its title.

4 – Film festivals – In the wake of Istanbul Film Festival’s pulling of Bakur (North), a documentary about PKK guerrillas from its lineup under pressure from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MOCT), the Ankara Film Festival, which also pulled Bakur and a number of other films, has started with a much-reduced lineup of films and competitions. Meanwhile, while the MOCT has yet to comment on charges of censorship, it has opened the 7th iteration of its own Turkish Film Festival in Sarajevo, with a host of nationalist and popular films, as well as Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da (Once upon a time in Anatolia) by Turkish auteur Nuri Bilgi Ceylan. The IŞÇI (Workers) Film Festival, taking place in Istanbul, Ankara, Diyarbakir, and Izmir starting on 1 May, has released its program for the year.

5 – TV and cinema – Süleyha Kurtuluş, the final manager of Istanbul’s historical Emek Cinema, has for the first time released a statement on the events that led to the cinema’s demolition despite massive protests, saying that, contrary to accusations by Levent Eyüboğlu, a partner in the project that’s been built in Emek’s place, she never asked for that firm’s help or handed over the keys to the building. Serdar Akar’s Kara Kutu (Black Box) series, which was airing on Kanal D, has been cancelled due to poor ratings. It is a Pana Film production and it recently received a 700,000TL fine from RTÜK for “advertising beer” as part of everyday life. FOX has revealed that its 7-years-running series Unutma Beni (Forget Me) will end this year after more than 1,450 episodes.

5 Yorumsuz – 5 Without Comment – 2015-04-21

Protestors pass a police TOMA on Istiklal Caddesi on 18 April as part of a march against the censorship of Bakur (North)
Protestors pass a police TOMA on Istiklal Caddesi on 18 April as part of a march against the censorship of Bakur (North)

1 – Ban on Bakur – Following last week’s ban of Bakur from the Istanbul Film Festival under direct threat from Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MOCT), cinema industry groups, other festivals, and viewers have banded together in a series of events to show solidarity with the film and to demand changes in the cinema law. The most comprehensive coverage of this multi-faceted story in English is as follows: Constanze Letsch provides a good summary of the situation overall while Yeşim Burul discusses the “certificate issue” used by the MOCT to justify its ban. Today’s Zaman covers the industry press conference in response to the ban, including a list of demands, and also notes IFF’s response to the MOCT’s attempts to place blame on the festival. Alisa Lebow offers useful context on the anti-Kurdish politics that clearly figured in the ban, while Hürriyet Daily News notes some aspects of the spread of this crisis to the Ankara International Film Festival. Beyond these it is worth noting that hundreds gathered for an anti-censorship march on Istiklal Caddesi on Saturday and then for a screening and forum on censorship in Abbasağa Park that night. The next steps may include a protest or march on the Ministry in Ankara this week or next, as part of the Ankara festival. (UPDATE: There’s also my recent piece on the issue for Variety.)

2 – Panic about Armenian past – In the lead-up to the 24 April 100th anniversary commemoration of the mass deportation and execution of Armenians by Ottomans, Turkish politicians and public personas have been in great panic about whether such events should be called “genocide.” Responding to Pope Francis’ use of the word “genocide” President Erdoğan urged the Pope not to repeat this “mistake,” PM Davutoğlu claimed the pontiff had joined a conspiracy against Turkey, and Ankara mufti Professor Mefail Hizli said that such speeches could lead to Hagia Sophia, currently a museum, being re-opened for Muslim worship. Meanwhile, the US called for a “frank” discussion of the facts surrounding the issue, while the European Parliament called the events a genocide. The latter led to Turkey’s three biggest political parties (AKP, CHP, MHP), which can agree about little else, issuing a joint statement of condemnation, and to PM Davutoğlu asking rhetorically why the US and Australia don’t recognize their own genocides of indigenous people. In the midst of this crisis Davutoğlu’s advisor, Etyen Mahçupyan, himself Armenian, said the events were a genocide, an event which coincided with his official retirement from his advisory role. Bosphorus University, in the mean time, has agreed to host a conference titled “Armenian Genocide: Concepts and Comparative Perspectives,” that was originally scheduled to be held at Bilgi University, but temporarily cancelled when the latter withdrew.

3 – Social research – Numerous outlets reported on the results of a recent social research project called “Politics in Turkey, freedom of Press and Internet.” Today’s Zaman highlighted aspects of the report dealing with censorship and the economy, while Hürriyet Daily News interviewed one of the reports’ authors, political science professor Ali Çarkoğlu.

4 – Trials and censorship round-up – President Erdoğan’s son, Bilal, lost a case against Cumhuriyet newspaper journalist Canan Coşkun for alleged insults, but won a case, alongside his farther, against BirGün newspaper journalist Bariş Ince on similar charges. Numerous columnists at Cumhuriyet are currently facing charges of insulting Erdoğan as well, while BirGün journalsit Zeynep Kuray was temporarily detained for alleged slander. Two reporters who have recently been critical of the AK-Party, Ali Aslan Kiliç and Uğur Telil, have been banned from parliament, though Parliament speaker Cemil Çiçek encouraged them to address the ban through legal means, noting he doesn’t want to be known as the speaker who banned the press. The main opposition CHP has filed a complaint against state TV channel TRT over censorship of a political ad, and pro-government media has continued a campaign of what its targets call hate speech, as reported by Today’s Zaman, which is part of the targeted Gülen community media. Finally, Turkey’s constitutional court has upheld a law requiring prison for those found to store what it terms “unnatural” pornography, a category that includes oral, anal, group, gay, or lesbian imagery.

5 – Erdoğan visits drama production – In a gesture marked by multiple symbolic overtones, President Erdoğan visited the set of the Ottoman TV series Filinta and sat in the director’s chair. While there, he and his wife Emine chatted with one of the show’s stars, German actress Wilma Elles. Emine reminded Elles that Erdoğan wants all women in Turkey to have three children, while Erdoğan himself encouraged the actress to become a Turkish citizen.

5 Yorumsuz – 5 Without Comment – 2015-04-13

1 – Mixed messages on the Kurdish situation pre-election – The AK-Party’s shifting stance on the Kurdish situation became even more confusing this weekend after a clash between the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) in the eastern province of Ağrı. Details on the reasons for the clash are unclear, as both sides have blamed the other, and the number of casualties involved is also in dispute, but at least two people (at least one of them a PKK soldier) have died and a number of Turkish soldiers were injured. President Erdoğan and PM Davutoğlu blamed the PKK and attempted to implicate the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) after the incident, but HDP co-chair Selahattin Demirtaş said the operation was staged, and pointed out that it was HDP members who went to rescue the injured soldiers, sharing links to photo and video on social media to back this claim up. The TSK released a statement thanking the civilians who helped the soldiers today, to some degree supporting Demirtaş’s claim.

This situation puts a fragile peace process in question. For the past three years, the AK-Party had been making moves towards peace, negotiating with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Ocalan and conceding to some aspects on language rights and regional autonomy desired by many Kurds in Turkey’s southeast region, often called Kurdistan. More recently, however, President Erdoğan, who is nominally unaffiliated with a party but still overtly acts as the head of the AK-Party, reversed his stance on the so-called “Kurdish opening” simultaneous with the celebration of Newroz, the spring holiday most closely identified with Kurds. This was interpreted by many as Erdoğan’s move to coax nationalist voters, known for their anti-Kurdish stance, in the run-up to the 2015 parliamentary elections. Numerous polls show the AK-Party losing ground and the HDP moving towards the 10% threshold necessary to enter parliament as a party, and this likely has Erdoğan very worried. Up until now, HDP members have been running as independent candidates since they were not likely to pass the 10% threshold, but this situation greatly decreases their representation in parliament while simultaneously increasing that of the AK-Party. So the political calculation in Turkey currently hinges on the fate of the HDP, and the AK-Party has every incentive to prevent their passing the threshold.

Given these circumstances, the timing of the Ağrı conflict is interesting, because it is likely to damage the HDP’s political image and improve that of the AK-Party. The TSK’s statement, however, might change this calculus.

Potentially linked to these events is the Istanbul Film Festival’s choice, under direct pressure from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s Cinema Directorate, to cancel the screening of a documentary filmed in the PKK camps. Bakur (North) was scheduled to be shown on 12 April but, hours before the screening, the IFF announced its cancellation. Numerous Turkish filmmakers involved in the festival held an impromptu meeting after this and decided to withdraw their films from the festival, calling into question whether key competitions will continue. Specifically, 7 out of 9 films in the national feature and 9 our of 13 films in the national documentary competitions signed a statement withdrawing their films.

2 – Media wars – Pre-election tensions are also playing out in mainstream media as pro-government media sources have made a number of moves to attack non-aligned media. Perhaps most notably, state run (and theoretically impartial) broadcaster TRT has refused to run commercials for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), giving as rationale the fact that the commercials criticize the ruling government. At the same time, pro-AK-Party media outlets Yeni Şafak and ATV have both published claims against the Doğan Media Group, charging it with support of terrorism in line with similar statements by Erdoğan. Doğan has filed slander charges against Yeni Şafak in response. Yeni Şafak also filed a story claiming that Turkey’s second President, Ismet İnönü, was responsible for having Mustafal Kemal Atatürk killed with poison. These claims and their alleged documentation have been the source of ridicule in other media, and columnist Mustafa Akyol commented on why such claims would come out now.

3 – Social media bans and reactions – Reactions to last week’s government ban of YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook have begun to mount. Early in the week there was a threat to block Google as well, but this has not yet been executed, and the social media sites are now back online. These bans have not gone unanswered, as Today’s Zaman reports:

Two Turkish academics on Tuesday appealed a court order that allowed authorities to block access to Twitter and YouTube for several hours this week, a crackdown they say reflects Ankara’s growing authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, Hürriyet Daily News reports on international critique of the ban:

Bans on social media networks are “not appropriate” according to basic democratic standards, said European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who held meetings with a number of senior officials in Turkey, adding that he expected “meaningful answers” from Ankara on the issue.

Despite such reactions, threats against social media may actually be on the rise, as Today’s Zaman reports:

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has a tendency to put everything he sees as a threat against his authority in the country’s “National Security Strategy Concept Paper” (MGSB) — often referred to as the “Red Book” — may soon be adding social media platforms, according to a story in the Cumhuriyet daily on Thursday.

4 – Censorship, trials, and lawsuits – The weekly round-up of lawsuits and trials for those deemed to have insulted the AK-Party continues, as Hürriyet Daily News reports,

A local court in Ankara has ordered main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) head Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu to pay 10,000 Turkish Liras in compensation to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for “insulting” him.

Erdoğan was not alone in his actions this week, as Today’s Zaman reports,

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has filed a new legal complaint against Today’s Zaman Editor-in-Chief Bülent Keneş over a blog post, saying the piece, an English version of which was published as a Today’s Zaman column, insulted him.

Some of the charges are more serious than insults against individuals, as Today’s Zaman reports,

Turkish prosecutors seek up to four and a half years in prison for two columnists, Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya, who write for the Turkish Cumhuriyet daily, over featuring a front cover of Charlie Hebdo magazine which depicted Prophet Muhammad in their pieces.

5 – AK-Party’s Neo-Ottoman overtures – Finally, the AK-Party continues to employ Ottoman pageantry in political appearances. As Hürriyet Daily News notes, this week’s ceremonies involved both PM Davutoğlu,

Continuing the new trend of cosplay started at Turkey’s new presidential palace where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan resides, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Deputy Prime Minister Yalçın Akdoğan were welcomed by policemen dressed in Ottoman-era costumes on April 10 in Ankara.

and President Erdoğan,

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was welcomed during a ceremony on April 10 with the “New Turkey Anthem” performed by an Ottoman military band, which praised him as “Our Leader.”

Though quite visible, such overtures are not necessarily a way to success with the public, as the same paper noted in covering the fate of a number of “candidates for candidacy” who had vied for position on the AK-Party candidate list, which was decided this week:

Several candidates had launched Ottoman-themed campaigns to be nominated for the AKP. However, none of the “Ottomans” were able to break the glass ceiling of modern politics when the ruling party announced its candidates for the June 7 general elections on April 7.

Milat’tan önce* Valley of the Wolves – Nationalist drama borrows heavily from predecessor

*”Milattan önce” is Turkish for “before Christ,” but here means “before Milat.”

2198762-Milat-bilboardTurkish national TV station TRT’s latest effort in a series of moves to rebrand the channel through a combination of big-budget projects and pro-government messages appeared on April 3rd in the form of the new international spy drama Milat. As with the channel’s biggest success to date, the pre-Ottoman costume drama Diriliş Ertuğrul, the new series borrows heavily from an already established program. But while Ertuğrul‘s homage to the globally popular Magnificent Century is primarily a question of inspiration,[1] Milat openly adopts the themes, characters, and plot of the 12-years-and running Valley of the Wolves franchise, tweaking the formula in only one respect: whereas Valley weaves open praise of the current AK-Party government throughout its plot, Milat is such overt propaganda that it threatens to destroy the willing suspension of disbelief so necessary for drama to work.

Both shows center on the actions of a central male figure who was orphaned as a child and comes into a national intelligence service. In the case of Valley it is Polat Alemdar (né Ali Candan) who joins the fictional KGT (Kamu Güvenlik Teşkilatı – Public Safety Organization); in Milat it is Hamza who joins the “real” MIT (Milli Istihbarat Teşkilatı – National Intelligence Organization). (In fact, the show’s name, “Milat,” is the Turkish for “the birth of Christ,” but the logo is designed to reveal the letters “MIT” in reference to the group.)

In both cases there is a father figure who represents traditional values and to whom our hero can turn in times of trouble. Valley’s Ömer Baba, Polat’s adoptive father, was known to viewers as a muezzin who played the ney and practiced ebru; Milat‘s Agah Bey appears to be a retired intelligence operative who practices Islamic calligraphy.

kurtlarvadisipusuAn action drama can’t take place without a love interest and Milat has taken a move from the Valley playbook in positioning Duru, an optimistic lawyer who wants to do good in the world, under the wing of a father who heads a large and corrupt holding company. This is Ender in Milat, the head of Ender Energy, and his Valley counterpart would be Davut Tataroğlu, the media magnate whose daughter Inci had a troubled relationship with Polat, at one point bearing his child.

Characters are not the only thing reprised by Milat, as actors Demir Karahan, Volkan Özgömeç, and Yasemin Öztürk all had roles in Valley as well. The stylistics of the show are also similar, particularly when it comes to action scenes. Milat may actually outdo Valley, however, in one of that show’s key claims to fame: the glorification of violence. The first episode contains an extremely graphic medium shot of the head of a militant being gunned down by one of the MIT team in Nigeria. (This also appears in the introductory sequence at the start of show. Of note, the militants in this attack are described as fake Islamists financed by the “west” to interrupt Turkish Airlines traffic to the region, thereby retaining “western” control of Africa. ) Images far more tame than this got Valley censured in its early years, but since Milat airs on TRT, it may have less to worry about from RTÜK, the state-run commission tasked with regulating TV.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of mimesis comes not through characters, cast, or style, but, rather, the overarching effort to create a world that straddles the line between fact and fiction. In only the first episode we are introduced to two corporate tycoons (the aforementioned Erdem and the ascot-garbed Yıldıray), who are clearly meant as references to some of the “old Turkey” magnates that have managed to weather the rise of the “new Turkey” (read AK-Party). Two of the prime candidates here would be Turkey’s enormously powerful Sabanci and Koç families and, in a reflexive turn that already has internet chat rooms buzzing and puzzling, multiple scenes involving Yıldıray are actually filmed at Istanbul’s well-known Koç Museum of Transport, Industry, and Communication.

Milat Koc museum
Scene from Milat featuring Yıldıray at the Koç Museum

A third candidate for these roles is Aydın Doğan, head of Turkey’s largest media empire, and this is where things get strange. In Valley, the aforementioned Tataroğlu was clearly meant to evoke Doğan, and depictions of him shifted depending on what channel happened to be airing the show at the time. In Milat it’s too early to tell yet what direction these characters will take, but by making such clear mimetic overtures, the producers have set up and uncanny echo-chamber for those familiar with Valley. Courting an audience already conditioned for games of reference, they seem to be trying to add yet another dimension to the field.

Whether this will prove to be too much for viewers remains to be seen. My own uneasy moments while watching came not from puzzling over who represented whom but, rather, trying to stomach the overt propaganda of the show. One example should suffice. Early on we’re introduced to a family in a shantytown who have had their natural gas cut off by Ender Energy. The daughter of this family writes a letter explaining the situation to the Minister of Energy and he promptly responds with a personal phone call to her house and an audit of the company. He takes these steps despite the fact that he’s also in the midst of intense negotiations for the country’s energy future which include, among other things, a trip abroad on which his associate, the head of MIT, is assassinated.

A bit much, perhaps. In a country where the government routinely expropriates residents from such shantytowns so that AK-Party affiliated construction and investment firms can make a killing on real estate. Where the real Minister of Energy, Taner Yıldız, has presided over the worst mining disaster in the country’s history and retains his position despite a troubling record of failures to enforce workplace safety. Where unexplained blackouts come at very strange times and where electricity rates have jumped not least due to a series of privatization and speculation measures put into effect by the AK-Party. Where anyone who has ever tried to hook up, alter, or discontinue a utility is well aware of the countless lines, repeat visits, myriad copies of multiple forms, in short the Kafka-esque bureaucracy that is unavoidable in such situations.

The question is whether audiences will gloss that over. Milat is delivered with the same dose of nationalist verve that Valley viewers have come to expect and, coupled with the high production values and, thus far, admirable acting, it is certainly a step up from many of TRT’s efforts of the past. But such blatant propaganda rarely goes unremarked, and this is all the more true when it flies in the face of personal experience.

Milat premiered at 5th in the ratings on the night of Friday, April 3rd. That’s not bad for a new program, much less one appearing on TRT. The norm in the Turkish sector is four to five weeks for a series to prove its mettle but, since TRT is not accountable to commercial interests, its shows often get a longer run regardless of ratings. In the case of Milat, I’m guessing we’ll see it through the first week of June, at least. Just long enough for a trial run in the alternate ratings system of parliamentary elections.

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This post published simultaneously on End Times Cafe.

[1] For an exploration of some of the other efforts to follow Century and their failures, see Carney (2014).