Workers Vanguard No. 916
6 June 2008
For Womens Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
Turkey: Women and the Permanent Revolution
Down With Islamic Reaction! Down With Turkish Nationalism!
(Women and Revolution pages)
The following article is reprinted from Spartakist No. 170 (March 2008), newspaper of the Spartakist Workers Party of Germany, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist).
In the novel Snow, by acclaimed Turkish author Orhan Pamuk, a local official tells Ka, a returning political exile investigating a wave of suicides among young women and girls, “What is certain is that these girls were driven to suicide because they were extremely unhappy.... But if unhappiness were a genuine reason for suicide, half the women in Turkey would be killing themselves.” Pamuk’s novel is set in Kars, in northeastern Turkey. In the southeastern Anatolian town of Batman, a real epidemic of suicides, forced and otherwise, has seen hundreds of young women attempt to take their own lives, and dozens have succeeded. The great 19th-century French utopian socialist Charles Fourier explained that the status of women in any given society reflects that society’s general level of human emancipation. These deaths throw into stark relief the terrible oppression of women in Turkey, revealing a society marked by profound religious and social reaction that is reinforced and deepened by imperialist domination.
The status of women has become a battleground in the political struggles that have been rocking Turkey for some time. The re-election in July 2007 of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his reactionary Islamic Justice and Development Party (AKP) followed massive protests last April in defense of the espoused secularism of the Kemalist Turkish bourgeoisie and against the AKP’s plan to appoint Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül, whose wife wears a headscarf, to the presidency. Some Turkish commentators called these protests in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir a “women’s revolution.” Millions of women, frightened by the danger Islamic fundamentalism poses, were said to have taken part.
On February 9, in spite of mass nationalist protests in Ankara and Istanbul, the Turkish parliament voted in favor of an amendment to the constitution allowing headscarves to be worn at Turkish universities. An article in junge Welt (9 February) described how the Erdogan regime secured, for now, the generals’ acquiescence:
“Less than a year ago the Turkish generals threatened a putsch if Erdogan continued advancing the Islamization of the country. But all of a sudden there’s no objection to be heard. The MP Aysel Tugluk of the DTP [pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party] recently revealed in a speech in parliament that the reason for this was a deal between the government and the armed forces. Erdogan gave the military men free rein on the Kurdish question—and in return he got free rein on the headscarf question.”
On 22 February, at the same time that the Turkish army’s ground offensive against the Kurds in northern Iraq was taking place, President Gül confirmed the lifting of the headscarf ban. There are already calls by the Kemalists and “Non-Governmental Organizations” for mass protests in Izmir and Ankara on March 7, for International Women’s Day, against the constitutional amendment.
The motor force behind the mobilizations was a de facto coalition of the army, the bourgeois Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the constitutional court, presenting themselves as guardians of the “secular legacy” of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the nationalist founder of modern Turkey. The election itself was sparked when in May 2007 the constitutional court, emboldened by the military’s threats against the government, ruled Gül’s appointment unconstitutional. The Ankara protest in 2007 was organized by the Association for Atatürkist Thought, headed by a former military commander currently under investigation for plotting a coup in 2003-2004. Looking to the blood-drenched military as an ally in the struggle for women’s liberation is deadly.
For Permanent Revolution!
Subjugated by imperialism, straddling Europe and Asia Minor, Turkey is a country of massive social and political contradictions. Leon Trotsky, who with V.I. Lenin was co-leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, termed such contradictions “combined and uneven development.” Unique among Islamic countries in that it is officially secular, modern Turkey arose not from a bourgeois revolution, but from the subordination of the clerical Ottoman state to the nationalist forces led by Atatürk. Rising Turkish nationalism also meant the ruthless suppression of national minorities, in particular the slaughter of Armenians and Kurds. To this day, uneven social development is seen in every aspect of Turkish society. A sizable industrial proletariat exists alongside the mass of peasants in the Anatolian heartland still subject to precapitalist forms of exploitation. Behind Istanbul’s pubs, chic cafés, bright malls and unveiled women in jeans or miniskirts, stands a vast country locked in barbaric, centuries-old anti-woman practices, stamped by dire unemployment and poverty.
The forces of political Islam now vie with those of the “secular,” military-backed bourgeoisie over who shall shape Turkey’s destiny and reap the profits. We revolutionary Marxists reject this framework, for these are the “choices” posed by a bankrupt capitalist ruling class incapable of modernizing this country. We look instead to the revolutionary mobilization of Turkey’s powerful multiethnic working class, standing at the head of all the oppressed, which alone can shatter the chains of backwardness.
With its enormous social contradictions, Turkey presents a powerful argument for Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which found living confirmation in the Bolshevik Revolution. Trotsky’s theory provides the program for resolving the fundamental democratic questions posed by combined and uneven development in countries like Turkey that came to capitalist development in the epoch of imperialism. In such economically backward countries, the weak national bourgeoisie, dependent on its imperialist masters and fearing its “own” proletariat, is incapable of taking up the democratic tasks formerly associated with the European bourgeois revolutions: separation of the state from religion, agrarian revolution, national liberation. To assure the completion of these tasks it is necessary for the proletariat to come to power through socialist revolution. Having already divided the world for exploitation, a handful of the most powerful imperialists economically strangles the masses of semicolonial countries. In such countries, Trotsky wrote,
“the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation, above all of its peasant masses.”
—The Permanent Revolution (1930)
In power, the proletariat will expropriate the bourgeoisie and the holdings of its imperialist masters in order to establish a collectivized, planned economy where production is based on social need rather than profit. But short of international extension of the revolution, especially to the advanced capitalist countries, the development of the social revolution will be arrested and ultimately reversed.
The struggles of the Turkish working class have been repeatedly wrecked by Stalinist reformists who, pushing the class-collaborationist program of “two-stage revolution,” have fostered illusions in the supposed “progressives” of the deeply anti-communist CHP. The program of fighting for a “democratic” revolution in league with a mythical “progressive” and “anti-imperialist” wing of the bourgeoisie, relegating the struggle for socialism to an indefinite future, has brought defeat after bloody defeat. From the massacres of Indonesian Communists by Suharto in 1965 to Pinochet’s 1973 reign of terror against the Chilean masses, history has repeatedly demonstrated that the first “stage” of “two-stage revolution” ends in the blood of the workers and oppressed. The second stage never comes. As we wrote in our “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” (1998):
“Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution is the alternative to placing confidence in fantasies resting upon the backward, imperialist-dependent bourgeoisie of one’s own oppressed country as the vehicle for liberation.”
In Turkey, as in other backward countries, the oppression of women is deeply rooted in religious obscurantism and precapitalist “customs” that are manipulated and buttressed by imperialism. Above all, it is the institution of the family that is central to upholding the subjugation of women everywhere.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, developing capitalism spawned social and political revolutions against the aristocracies, monarchies and churches that propped up the old feudal order, to the great benefit of women. The elementary rights that most Western women take for granted—to choose your marriage partner, birth control, divorce, access to education, the right to vote—do not exist for women in the tradition-bound, priest-ridden countries of the East. Christianity and Judaism had to conform with rising industrial capitalism and the bourgeois nation-states, but Islam did not have to adapt, largely because it remains rooted in those parts of the world where imperialism has reinforced social backwardness as a prop to its domination. Bourgeois-democratic gains do not eliminate the fundamental oppression of women in the institution of the family.
In The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State (1884), Friedrich Engels explained that the monogamous patrilineal family arose “to make the man supreme in the family, and to propagate, as the future heirs to his wealth, children indisputably his own.” Along with the state and organized religion, the family is a mainstay of social reaction, regimenting the population, instilling subservience to authority and reinforcing the hold of religion. To the rulers, poor and working-class women serve the purpose of raising a new generation of exploited toilers. Women in the home are isolated from the centers of production. But working-class women, along with working-class men, have great potential social power to overthrow the capitalist system. Only a socialist revolution can lay the material basis for the replacement of the family and for women’s social independence from its confines through collective childcare, laundries and dining halls.
As the demonstrations over the last year headed by the Kemalist bourgeoisie and military show, if women are not mobilized as part of the proletarian class struggle they can be mobilized by other forces for reactionary ends. The fate of women and their struggle for emancipation is a strategic question. Because the oppression of women is integral to capitalist property relations and is bolstered ideologically by religion, women’s oppression cannot be eradicated in capitalist society. At the same time, without a struggle to end women’s oppression, which reinforces all forms of social backwardness, there will be no proletarian revolution.
To unleash the enormous revolutionary potential of the proletariat requires the leadership of a genuinely communist workers party—drawing in women as part of its leadership—armed with a program for the political independence of the working class and for the fight for socialist revolution, as well as a broad vision of a social order of equality and freedom. Such a party will champion full equality for women and their integration into the workforce, where they will acquire social power. Such a party will stand for equal pay for equal work and will lead the fight to end all backward practices, such as “honor” killings, polygamy and bride price. The fight for basic needs and democratic rights—an end to arranged and forced marriages and the seclusion of the veil, freedom from poverty and legal subjugation, the right to education and free health care, including free and safe abortion on demand—is an attack on the foundations of the imperialist-dominated capitalist social order and poses nothing less than a socialist revolution.
The “Headscarf Wars” and Women’s Oppression
The imperialists welcomed the AKP’s re-election last July. A European Union (EU) spokesman declared, “Gül is appreciated in Europe,” and financial analysts in the U.S. were similarly bullish on the AKP. In its prior five years in power, the AKP carried out privatizations, attacked Turkey’s unions and followed the IMF’s dictates to the letter in most cases. As long as Erdogan delivers stability and profits for the imperialists, his goal of resolving Turkey’s contradictions in favor of Islam will not unduly trouble his European and American masters.
In the wake of its victory, the AKP wasted no time in this regard. New constitutional amendments were announced scrapping the longstanding ban on the headscarf in colleges and public institutions and replacing a clause in the current constitution that obliges the government to “ensure equality for both men and women” with one that describes women as a “vulnerable group in need of special protection.” Meanwhile, the emboldened forces of Islamic reaction are starting to change the political and social landscape of Turkey, including in cities like Istanbul. Some government offices are organizing work schedules according to prayer times, and boys and girls are being separated in high schools, a wholly reactionary measure. During the month of Ramadan last fall, which is holy to Muslims, most restaurants stopped serving alcohol and the police brutally beat people for smoking and drinking. The effect of more than two decades of rising political Islam in the Near East is apparent in Istanbul, where the veil and headscarf are increasingly prevalent. Today, some form of veiling is worn by more than 60 percent of Turkish women.
The ban on the veil harks back to the early days of the republic when Atatürk, in his drive to modernize the country at gunpoint, campaigned vigorously against religious symbols and issued decrees banning all forms of religious dress in schools and public institutions. The current “headscarf war” dates back to the early 1980s, when the military, self-appointed guardians of “secular order,” reinforced the ban after their 1980 coup. The rising forces of Islamic fundamentalism naturally opposed it.
When the Islamic Welfare Party of Necmettin Erbakan surged to power in 1996 and allowed veiling in government offices, the military again tightened the ban on the veil as part of its effort to stem the tide of “Islamic subversive activities.” Erbakan was forced out of power by the military in 1997, and in 1998 his Welfare Party was banned. It was in this context that a medical student, Leyla Sahin, expelled from Istanbul University in 1998 for refusing to remove her headscarf, launched a legal challenge to the ban. In November 2005, the bourgeois European Court of Human Rights ruled on her case, upholding Turkey’s ban on women wearing headscarves in universities.
We are opposed to the veil, no matter what its form, as both a symbol and instrument of women’s oppression, but we are equally unambiguous in our opposition to state bans or restrictions on it. As Marxists we uphold the democratic principle of separation of religion and state and oppose both state funding of religious schools and religious instruction within public educational institutions. We are for free, secular education for all. Islamic fundamentalists will use any easing of the ban on the headscarf to exert social pressure on women to cover themselves. Nonetheless, we oppose state interference in private religious practices, which paves the way for the state to meddle in the lives of religious minorities and to repress workers and leftist organizations.
We also oppose the bans against veiled Muslim girls and women that have spread across West Europe. These bans are simply racist and have seen girls expelled from school and women driven from jobs and public places. The oppressed Muslim minority in Europe suffers the daily humiliations of racism, segregation and police violence. The anti-veil hysteria also serves as an extension of the racist “war on terror” directed in the main against Muslims.
In Turkey, as in West Europe, barring religious women from education and universities because they refuse to remove their headscarves can only deepen their isolation from secular currents, increasing the hold of religious reaction and family domination. Moreover, cases like Sahin’s, or Erdogan’s daughters, who were sent to study in the U.S. where they could wear the headscarf, become lightning rods for religious reaction in the name of “democratic” rights. The mass of Turkish women, who are mostly poor, have no options such as those available to Erdogan’s daughters. Their fate will continue to be forced marriages, stultifying household drudgery and successive pregnancies.
Contrary to Erdogan and Islamic women’s groups, the veil is not an exercise in “religious freedom” or a sign of submission to a deity. Nor is it simply a reactionary symbol of religious affiliation like the Christian cross or Jewish yarmulke. The veil is the physical symbol of the submission of women to men, the permanent, imposed affirmation of their inferior status. It represents the extension outside the home of the seclusion imposed on women by reactionary sharia law (Islamic law).
To depict the covering of a woman’s body as a quaint cultural attribute or merely a “choice” of dress is liberal nonsense. Such “cultural relativism” prettifies hideous oppression and Marxists reject it. The headscarf might be less onerous than the chador or niqab, prisons for the body beneath which the wearer suffocates, but they all reflect the view of women as property, less than fully human. The veil is the glaring manifestation of the social program of the reactionary Islamist forces operating in Iran, Saudi Arabia and beyond, and it means nothing less than total servitude for women.
Atatürk and the Limits of Bourgeois Nationalism
With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and its defeat in World War I, the Near East was carved up between the British and French imperialists. The rapacious Treaty of Sèvres saw the Ottoman Empire dismembered and driven out of the Balkans. However, the imperialists did not reckon with the Bolsheviks. The 1917 Russian Revolution—and its extension to largely Muslim Central Asia in the course of the bloody three-year Civil War against the imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary White armies—triggered a series of national revolts and popular uprisings in the broad swath occupied by British forces from Egypt through the Fertile Crescent to Iran. In Turkey, a 1919 peasant revolt gave mass backing to Atatürk and his bourgeois-nationalist forces. Emerging from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish republic was founded in 1923 following a fierce war that drove out the imperialist forces, notably Britain, which was pushing to assert its domination over Turkey. The defeat of the British-sponsored military offensive was achieved through extended economic and military support from Soviet Russia under Lenin.
Atatürk and his Republican People’s Party inherited an economically retarded country lacking a concentration of modern industry. Insofar as a small capitalist class existed, it was Armenian and Greek, with a smaller Jewish component. To build the national capitalist state, the Kemalist movement used Turkish nationalism as a weapon. The Armenians—victims of a genocidal campaign in World War I—were driven from the country, as were the Greeks, and the Jews were subjected to pogromist violence.
Acting as the vanguard of the nascent Turkish bourgeoisie, the Kemalists embarked on a program of reforms aimed at removing all obstacles to the development of a modern capitalist nation-state. Dismantling the strongholds of institutionalized Islam, they proclaimed the country a “secular” republic and abolished the caliphate (office of Islamic ruler). Islam, which does not recognize national boundaries, was in contradiction to the Kemalist aim of constructing a Turkish nation-state, and it ceased to be the state religion. Sharia law was replaced by a constitution based on the Swiss Civil Code and the Italian Penal Code, polygamy was prohibited, and religious orders and brotherhoods were outlawed. Religious symbols—the veil in schools and public institutions, and the fez everywhere—were banned. The Latin alphabet was introduced and the Western calendar was adopted.
The social position of women also changed. The huge loss of men in the imperialist carnage of World War I and in the Turkish War of Independence created a labor shortage. As a result, women were drawn into the labor force. They were granted the right to vote in the 1930 local elections. In 1934, they won the right to vote and run for office in parliamentary elections, well before women in many European countries. In the 1937 elections, 18 women deputies were elected to parliament (a result never again equaled).
Atatürk saw himself as a modernizer who could, with a few strokes of his pen, drag the country from the medieval age into the 20th century. Grafted onto a backward society, 80 percent of which was rural and dominated by feudal relations, his reforms were necessarily partial and prone to challenge and reversal. Turkey lacked not only a national bourgeoisie but also a significant proletariat, which alone could transform the country and lay the basis for continued social progress. As Trotsky wrote in The Permanent Revolution:
“Under the conditions of the imperialist epoch the national democratic revolution can be carried through to a victorious end only when the social and political relationships of the country are mature for putting the proletariat in power as the leader of the masses of the people. And if this is not yet the case? Then the struggle for national liberation will produce only very partial results, results directed entirely against the working masses.”
In the first instance, the results in Turkey were directed against the fledgling Communists. Although Atatürk had lifted the ban on the Communist Party following the Soviet-Turkish Treaty, once the British-backed Greek military was defeated in 1922-23, Atatürk crushed the Communists, murdering their leaders. The young Soviet state and the Communist International had sought to advance the cause of socialist revolution in Turkey, and the Comintern denounced “these new crimes of the ruling classes in Turkey.”
Atatürk’s reforms could not resolve the basic democratic questions. There were no attempts at land reform or expropriation of the landlords. Far from resolving the question of national minorities, especially the Kurdish question, Atatürk unleashed a bloody assault against the Kurds in the name of fighting religious backwardness. By the late 1930s, 1.5 million people were either massacred or forcibly transferred. Public use and teaching of the Kurdish language was prohibited. The caliphate was abolished, but genuine separation of mosque and state was never carried out. Rather, the religious hierarchy was brought under the control of the state through the Directorate of Religious Affairs. Today, with a staff of 80,000 imams (Muslim religious leaders), this institution controls a network of nearly 77,000 mosques, religious education, foundations and charities and even dictates the content of the Friday sermons.
Urban women, especially those of the ruling class, certainly benefited from the Kemalist reforms. But the lives of the overwhelming majority of women, especially in the backward, conservative countryside, changed little. The headscarf ban, instead of a liberating measure, deepened women’s exclusion from school, government service and public life. The gulf between the secular, educated bourgeoisie and the illiterate masses, between city and countryside, widened. Indeed, nothing is more cynical than the Kemalist elite’s posture as partisans of women’s rights. The same Turkish state that banned the veil in schools in the guise of liberating women, for years forced virginity tests on schoolgirls, women in police custody and girls in state-run foster homes, a practice banned only after five girls attempted suicide in 1999. Women’s inferior status is reinforced by textbooks pounding children with the message, “The father is the head of the family, and the wife, who does the cooking and looks after the children, is his assistant and companion.”
For Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!
The social transformations in Soviet Russia, especially in Central Asia, stood in powerful contrast to the Turkey of Kemal Atatürk. Between Kemalism and Bolshevism lay the gigantic achievement of a thoroughgoing proletarian revolution. Having expropriated the bourgeoisie, nationalized the land and collectivized industry, the Bolshevik Revolution gave national rights to the myriad oppressed peoples in the tsarist “prison house of peoples” and abolished the estates of the landed nobility. The first steps taken by the workers state toward planning the economy in the interests of the toilers brought enormous gains to working women.
The Marxist understanding of women’s oppression as linked to private property and especially to the oppressive institution of the family was integral to the Bolshevik program and strategy for building socialism internationally. The Russian Revolution sought to bring women into full participation in economic, social and political life (see “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 59, Spring 2006). But the Bolsheviks were keenly aware that they could not overcome the backwardness and poverty of Russia simply by decree—they knew that without qualitative economic development that would lay the material basis for replacing the social functions of the family, the full liberation of women was a utopian fantasy. That is why they built the Communist International and fought for the international extension of the revolution to the advanced industrialized countries.
In the historically Muslim regions of Central Asia, the Bolsheviks undertook the enormous task of trying to liberate women. When they spoke of “martyrs fallen on the women’s liberation front,” they were talking about the dedicated and heroic activists from the Department for Work Among Women (Zhenotdel), who put on the veil to bring to the women of the Muslim East news of the new Soviet laws and programs that would change their lives. In Central Asia, where a small but significant proletariat held state power, the workers state was able to invest some of the economic surplus from the more advanced urban areas of the Soviet Union. It took a couple of decades before the productive capacity of the planned economy had developed sufficiently to provide jobs, education, medical care and social services on a scale wide enough to undercut primitive Islamic traditions. But by this time, the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary program had been supplanted by Stalinism’s nationalist ideology of building “socialism in one country” and its counterrevolutionary glorification of the family. Notwithstanding the degeneration of the Soviet workers state, the planned economy demonstrated its superiority in the great advances achieved for women and the historically Muslim peoples in Soviet Central Asia, where conditions before the Bolshevik Revolution had been as backward and benighted as in Afghanistan today.
It is the oppressive institution of the family that is at the heart of the increasing number of “namus,” or “honor” killings, in Turkey, a barbaric practice steeped in the backwardness of rural societies. In 1983 we reviewed Yilmaz Güney’s film Yol, in which a husband murders his wife as punishment for adultery, and a young couple, forced to flee to get married because the parents disapprove, is hunted down and killed by the bride’s family (Women and Revolution No. 27, Winter 1983-84). Twenty-four years later, at least 200 girls and young women are thought to be murdered each year by their families. The real number is likely far higher, as most “honor” murders are hushed up and go unreported or take the form of “forced suicides.” A UN report puts these barbaric killings worldwide at over 5,000 a year, a number that surely understates reality.
Young girls have been strangled, buried alive or stoned to death for such “crimes” as having a consensual sexual relationship outside marriage, rejecting an arranged marriage, wearing a short skirt, dating, stealing a glance at a boy or being raped by a stranger or relative. Malicious neighborhood gossip can incur a death sentence. Until recently, murderers received lenient sentences, as the law provides “unjust provocation” as an available defense.
In impoverished rural Turkey, where a woman’s “honor” is a measurable commodity, young brides are humiliated by having to display a bloody sheet after their wedding night. Anatolian girls are often married off at a very young age to men they have never seen, treated little better than cattle to be purchased at the proper price. Divorce, considered a social taboo, is extremely rare; only 2.6 percent of Turkish women over 30 are single. Interethnic and interfaith marriages are not allowed. Crossing these lines can mean a death sentence for women (and the men who marry them).
The travails of Turkish and Kurdish women do not end when they emigrate to Europe. In the segregated immigrant communities, all the reactionary, oppressive traditions are preserved through ties to the homeland. Young immigrant and minority women are trapped between the racism of these societies and oppressive, rigid family strictures. Unable to find jobs that provide financial independence, life for them is an endless saga of miseries. The 2005 murder by her brothers of Hatun Sürücü, a young Kurdish mother in Germany, shows that women may pay with their lives. Her “crime” was to leave an arranged marriage, seek an independent life with her child and choose a Western lifestyle. As we explained in “‘Honor’ Killings in Germany” (Workers Vanguard No. 850, 10 June 2005):
“The concept of ‘family honor,’ i.e., control of the sexuality of women by their family, is not exclusively Islamic, but rather connected to a mode of production where a clan—a series of related extended families—holds and works the land in common.”
Indeed, “honor” killings in the Near East take place in Christian families as well as Muslim ones. Engels put it trenchantly: “In order to make certain of the wife’s fidelity and therefore of the paternity of the children, she is delivered over unconditionally into the power of the husband; if he kills her, he is only exercising his rights.”
Islam Rising, Women Falling
Erdogan has taken pains to show that he is not a Turkish version of the Iranian fundamentalist mullahs, and there is some truth to that. But he and the AKP have always been open about their goal of breaking down all barriers to Islamic domination of social life. “Thank God Almighty, I am a servant of the Shariah” (Wall Street Journal, 19 October 2006), Erdogan once boasted. After his election as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he proclaimed himself the city’s imam, opened public meetings with prayers and banned alcohol in municipal restaurants, a ban now extended to 61 of Turkey’s 81 provinces. Erdogan opposes abortion and contraception and he tried, without success, to criminalize adultery. He would not shake a woman’s hand. He has rejected any suggestion that Turkey is a “moderate” Islamic state, declaring, “Islam is Islam” (Today’s Zaman, 10 October 2007).
This reactionary climate, in which religious violence vies with nationalism, is a deadly danger. A 92-year-old professor of Sumerian history was put on trial for publishing a book linking the origin of the veil to prostitutes in Sumerian times. In the 1990s, secular writers, academics, feminists and journalists were killed in a spate of attacks by fundamentalists as well as by nationalists and circles close to the military. More recently, several intellectuals and writers were put on trial for “insulting Turkishness.” Among them was Orhan Pamuk. The charges against him were dropped after an international outcry. Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, an advocate of exposing the mass killings of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, was less fortunate. His murder by a Turkish nationalist was the direct result of his conviction for “insulting Turkish identity.”
As in much of the Near East in the last two decades, Islamic fundamentalism as a mass political force in Turkey is a reactionary outcome of disenchantment with the ineptitude, corruption and bankruptcy of bourgeois nationalism, Stalinist betrayal and, above all, the absence of a viable communist alternative. The frustration, anger and despair of the masses that grew out of their dire misery and degradation have provided fertile ground for the spread of Islamic fundamentalism. Not only is religion the opium of the people, as Marx said, but also:
“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.”
The millions of dispossessed peasants, unemployed youth and low-wage migrant workers in the shantytowns ringing Turkey’s major cities find a comforting retreat in religion. They direct their hopes not only to heaven, but more so to its earthly representation in the Islamic solidarity networks of clinics, schools, charities, cooperatives and other free personal and social services that have become a vitally necessary alternative to scant government services gutted by IMF-imposed austerity measures. They have provided a bottomless pool for recruitment to the ranks of Islamic fundamentalists who pose as anti-imperialists, saviors from mass poverty and promoters of social justice.
It was under the rule of the “secular” military generals in the early 1980s that Islamic fundamentalism began to flourish. Islam was viewed as a potential bulwark against communism and trade-union militancy. The generals’ constitution made religious instruction compulsory at all pre-university levels. The religious schools set up for the imams were seedbeds for Islamic ideology and provided activists and leaders for the Islamic fundamentalist movement. The number of religious school graduates increased fourteen-fold, compared with a tripling of those from the secular state schools, during the military’s rule.
The watershed for the Islamic fundamentalist movement was the 1979 Iranian “revolution.” In the minds of many impoverished Muslims, this mass upheaval, which overthrew one of the most oppressive, Western-backed regimes in the region, redefined (falsely) Islamic reaction as an anti-imperialist ideology of liberation. While most of the left around the world tailed the Iranian mullahs, the International Communist League (then the international Spartacist tendency) declared: “Down with the Shah! Down with Khomeini! For workers revolution in Iran!” Once in power, the mullahs enslaved women under the veil, slaughtered thousands of workers, leftists and homosexuals, and intensified murderous repression against Kurds and other minorities.
The growth of Islamic fundamentalism was further augmented in the 1980s by U.S. imperialism’s massive arming and organizing of the Afghan mujahedin holy warriors against the Soviet Union’s 1979 intervention in Afghanistan. This was the CIA’s largest covert operation ever, and it turned Afghanistan into the front line of the imperialists’ relentless drive to destroy the Soviet Union through capitalist counterrevolution. We hailed the Red Army intervention, for it opened the way to the liberation of the Afghan peoples, especially the horribly oppressed women, and we called to extend the gains of the October 1917 Revolution to the Afghan peoples. In the first war in modern history in which women’s emancipation was a central issue, the Red Army battled the murderous imperialist-armed and -financed Islamic fundamentalists, who threw acid in the faces of unveiled women and killed schoolteachers who taught young girls to read. We denounced the 1989 withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan as a betrayal of women and the oppressed Afghan peoples. The Red Army pullout was a pivotal event directly linked to the final collapse of the USSR itself, which was a historic defeat not only for the peoples of the Soviet Union, but for the whole of the international working class.
We Trotskyists fought until the last barricade to defend the Soviet Union and, earlier, the deformed workers states in East Europe. We were guided by our Trotskyist program of unconditional military defense of these states against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution and of proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracies. During 1989-92, the International Communist League intervened uniquely, first in East Germany and then in the Soviet Union, fighting in defense of the gains of the 1917 October Revolution. Despite the victory of counterrevolution in East Europe and the Soviet Union, about a quarter of the world’s population still lives in countries over which the capitalist exploiters do not rule. Today, we fight to defend the remaining deformed workers states—China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea. Capitalist counterrevolution would be devastating and embolden the capitalists internationally to launch more savage attacks on workers, rural toilers, women, minorities and immigrants.
The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union has enormously fueled the growth of religious obscurantism worldwide: Islamic fundamentalism in the Muslim world, Protestant fundamentalism in the United States, Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism in Israel and the ever-expanding reach of the Catholic church. In the Near East, as a result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, socialism is seen as at best a failed experiment, not as a viable alternative. In a region where allegiance to communism once flourished, today the masses widely perceive the nationalists on the one hand or the Islamists on the other as the only two credible alternatives.
It is the task of the working class in Turkey, leading all the oppressed behind it, to overthrow the rule of the Turkish bourgeoisie. Key to this perspective is the forging of a Marxist workers party. Such parties must be built throughout the Near East to unite the diverse proletariats in struggle against imperialism and against their own capitalist rulers. The fight for workers rule in the Near East includes shattering Turkey’s ally, the Zionist garrison state of Israel, through Arab/Hebrew workers revolution. The Stalinized Communist parties of the Near East—which made a mockery of this revolutionary perspective through their subordination of the proletariat to mythical “progressive” bourgeois forces—share responsibility for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism among the working and oppressed masses. The construction of revolutionary workers parties is essential to implant genuine Marxism and break the Near Eastern proletariat from nationalism and fundamentalism in the struggle for socialist revolution.
Turkey and the Imperialist Order: From the Cold War to the EU
For more than one hundred years, since the late years of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has been both a pawn and a prize for the imperialists. With the largest NATO army in Europe, during the Cold War Turkey served as a strategic bulwark in the anti-Soviet imperialist military alliance. Today, Turkey is under the military thumb of the U.S. and economically beholden to German imperialism. It provides a strategic center offering a crucial energy route into Europe, preserving and extending imperialist interests in the Near East. In 1991, Turkey served the U.S. imperialists as a launching pad for their bloody war against Iraq.
The army generals, who are the self-conscious custodians of Atatürk’s legacy, combine bonapartist bourgeois nationalism with pro-Western “secularism” and fierce anti-communism. Acting as agents of Western imperialism and the domestic national bourgeoisie, they have staged three bloody imperialist-backed coups to quell popular unrest, in 1960, 1971 and 1980. The generals are sworn enemies of labor and the left, and the “path of Atatürk’s legacy” is strewn with the corpses of thousands of Kurds, Communists and labor-union leaders. According to a leaked parliamentary report, security forces and the fascistic Gray Wolves death squads were responsible for many of the 14,000 unsolved murders and disappearances during the 1990s. On May Day 2007, workers demonstrating in Istanbul were brutally attacked by police; close to 600 were arrested.
The issue of Turkey’s admission to the EU colors all aspects of political life in the country. For years, the Turkish ruling class has been campaigning to join the European Union and has come under pressure to clean up their “human rights” record as the price of admission. While prospects of EU membership are dimming, many Turks think or hope that the EU will bring “democracy” and “prosperity” to the country. Some Kurds think the EU will put an end to their oppression, and many women believe the same. Nothing could be more mistaken.
We are against the EU, a cartel of the main European imperialist powers centered on improving their competitiveness against their American and Japanese rivals and deepening imperialist exploitation of the weaker member states. Such an alliance can only be at the expense of the multiethnic proletariat in Europe and those under the boot of neocolonialism.
For the Right of Self-Determination for the Kurds
The Kurdish question is pivotal in Turkey. The 25 to 30 million Kurdish people in the Near East constitute the largest nation in the world without a state. Kurds make up a fifth of Turkey’s population. Kurdistan extends from eastern Turkey through a portion of Syria, across northern Iraq and into Iran. Since the mid 1980s the Turkish army, backed and armed by the U.S. and Germany, has been waging a bloody war against the oppressed Kurdish minority in which some 37,000 people have been killed and several thousand villages have been burned. So intent has been the Turkish bourgeoisie on stamping out any hint of Kurdish separatism that for years speaking Kurdish in public and the use of Kurdish names were outlawed. Kurdish people were referred to as “mountain Turks.”
In recent years, the Turkish bourgeoisie introduced cosmetic reforms intended to appease the EU. They cynically allowed Kurdish-language classes in private schools, which few impoverished Kurds can afford to attend. Kurdish radio broadcasts were limited to four hours per week and television broadcasts to two hours. None of this interfered with the AKP government’s incessant attacks on Kurds. In March 2007, Ahmet Turk, a Kurdish leader of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) was sentenced to six months in prison for giving Abdullah Öcalan, jailed leader of the Kurdish-nationalist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a respectful title by calling him the “Sayin,” meaning “esteemed” or “Mister.” He was also sentenced, along with a DTP deputy leader, to 18 months in prison for distributing party literature in the Kurdish language. We demand: Freedom for Öcalan! Hands off Ahmet Turk and the DTP!
The situation of the Kurdish people in Turkey has sharply deteriorated in recent months. On 21 October 2007, during a Turkish military anti-Kurdish offensive near the Iraq border, PKK guerrilla fighters attacked a military convoy, killing 12 Turkish soldiers. In response, Erdogan declared, “Our anger, our hatred is great.” This signaled a massive outburst of Turkish nationalism that saw 300,000 marching on October 27 in the Anatolian city of Kayseri. Thousands of runners in Istanbul’s Eurasian Marathon carried Turkish flags and chanted anti-PKK slogans. Mob attacks on Kurdish businesses went largely unreported in the press, while many Kurds sought to allay pogromist violence by hanging Turkish flags on their homes and workplaces.
On February 22, with the blatant aid of the U.S. imperialists and after having launched massive air raids into Iraq in December, the Turkish military sent ten thousand troops over the border to “hunt down” Kurdish PKK fighters. Already last December, the military bragged that they had killed “hundreds of terrorists” in attacks that hit villages, schools and hospitals, forcing some 1,800 people to flee their homes, according to a UN report. While we give the PKK no political support, we say that the Turkish regime’s bloody terror attacks must be condemned by the international workers movement—including in Turkey—which must stand for the military defense of the PKK against the Turkish state. By mobilizing against these attacks, linking this to opposition to the U.S. imperialist occupation of Iraq and defense of Kurdish national rights, the powerful Turkish proletariat could strike a blow in the interests of all the oppressed. U.S., NATO, Germany out of Afghanistan! Turkey—Hands off the PKK! U.S. out of Iraq! Turkish army out of Kurdistan!
The struggle for independence for the Kurdish people not only intersects powerfully the struggle for women’s liberation, but is also a crucial measure of revolutionary integrity of any party claiming to lead the working class. It is integral to the struggle for proletarian power, requiring the overthrow of bourgeois rule in Turkey, Iran and Syria and an end to the American imperialist occupation of Iraq. But the Kurdish nationalist leaders actively and militarily collaborated with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and today act as pawns of the U.S. occupiers. As we wrote in “The U.S. Occupation and the Kurdish Question,” (WV No. 871, 26 May 2006):
“This is a cynical parody of self-determination for the Kurdish people, who have endured generations of oppression at the hands of various colonialist and nationalist regimes. The Kurdish nationalist leaders in Iraq have subordinated themselves to the American-led occupation forces. And many Iraqi Kurds mistakenly look with favor on the occupation as a guarantor against Arab conquest. Any fight for Kurdish independence that does not take as its starting point opposition to the occupation and to the nationalist parties that serve it will necessarily be subordinated to the occupation
“As part of the multinational proletariat of the Near East, Kurdish workers can play a leading role in bringing down the rotten structure set up to serve the imperialist overlords. Kurdish and Turkish workers in Europe, especially in Germany, can serve as a living bridge linking the Kurdish struggle for independence to the fight for socialist revolution in the Near East and the advanced capitalist countries of West Europe. This struggle requires the leadership of internationalist workers parties, which will inscribe on their banner the call for a Socialist Republic of United Kurdistan, part of a socialist federation of the Near East.”
For the Communism of Lenin and Trotsky!
IMF-imposed austerity measures generated mass workers strikes that shook the country throughout the 1990s. In 2003, amid large trade-union dominated protests in cities across Turkey, the government denied the U.S. use of Turkish territory for deployment of troops, preventing the opening of a northern front in the Iraq war. In recent years, however, because of cyclical economic crises, a series of natural disasters, massive unemployment following the brutal IMF and EU austerity and privatization measures, and decades of betrayal and disorientation by the Stalinists, the working class has taken significant defeats.
Though presently beleaguered, the integrated Turkish/Kurdish proletariat has not ceased its struggles. On International Women’s Day in March 2007, thousands of women, joined by workers unions, demonstrated in Istanbul. Their banners read: “Do Not Interfere with My Body and My Honor,” “Our Body Is Ours” and “No Honor Killings.” They demanded equality and nurseries for children of working women. They called for an end to IMF interference and an end to the occupation of Iraq. Kurdish women joined the demonstrations, demanding peace, and courageous gay and lesbian activists protested their oppression. These demonstrations touched on many of the burning questions that confront revolutionaries seeking the road to the overthrow of capitalist class rule in imperialist-dependent Turkey.
Among the demonstrators, in T-shirts and baseball caps, were striking women workers from the German- and Italian-owned Novamed factory, in an Anatolian export zone. The strike of these women workers, which ended after 16 months, put a spotlight on the brutal conditions of women workers. Company abuse, which included a “pregnancy list” to regulate when women would be “allowed” to become pregnant, was supplemented by grinding social oppression. The Novamed strikers had to win the support of their husbands and families before even launching the union. This strike sparked widespread solidarity and won a collective agreement and wage increases. A strike in late 2007 by 27,000 workers at Turk Telekom against union-busting and for a new collective agreement had an impact in towns and cities across Turkey.
In the Near East, the struggle against imperialism and its neocolonial surrogate regimes cannot be resolved within the confines of a single country. Justice for the Palestinian people, national emancipation for the Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities, freedom for women from the veil and Islamic law require sweeping away the capitalist regimes from Iran to Egypt to the shores of the Bosphorus and establishing a socialist federation of the Near East. The struggle for proletarian power in the Near East must be linked to the fight for workers rule in the advanced capitalist countries, and it demands the forging of internationalist workers parties to win the working masses of the region to the communism of Lenin and Trotsky and fight intransigently for working-class power.
The way out of the Turkish impasse lies in forging a revolutionary leadership of the proletariat at the head of the peasant masses, on the model of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and based on the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution and the political independence of the proletariat. Like the Bolsheviks, such a party will recognize that the struggle for the liberation of women is a motor force for revolution. As Trotsky wrote of the Muslim women of Central Asia in 1924 (reprinted in “Communism and Women of the East” in Spartacist No. 60 [English-language edition], Autumn 2007):
“The Eastern woman who is the most paralysed in life, in her habits and in creativity, the slave of slaves, that she, having at the demand of the new economic relations taken off her cloak will at once feel herself lacking any sort of religious buttress; she will have a passionate thirst to gain new ideas, a new consciousness which will permit her to appreciate her new position in society. And there will be no better communist in the East, no better fighter for the ideas of the revolution and for the ideas of communism than the awakened woman worker.”