Category Archives: Secularism

Turkey referendum – Not a fair fight for No campaign

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I arrived in Turkey just over a week before 16 April’s referendum whose aim was to put the popular stamp of approval on the de-facto concentration of power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The odds were stacked against the opposition, to put it mildly. Here’s my account of the first leg of my reporting assignment.

No campaigners in Istanbul’s Isli district Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 7 April 2017, Istanbul

There’s no escaping the fact that Turkey is holding a referendum. Hundreds of banners are draped across the road from Atatürk airport and billboards address their message to the passing traffic.

It’s not immediately apparent that anyone opposes Erdogan’s proposed constitutional reform, however.

Apart from the huge portraits of Erdogan that have become a sort of Great Leader mood music in today’s Turkey, the vast majority of the posters, flags and whatnot tells you to vote “Evet” (Yes).  It takes some time before you spot the jaunty sun with multi-coloured rays of the “Hayir” (No) campaign.

As we swing by an improvised structure on the banks of the Bosphorus, the taxi driver, with whom I have been discussing the day’s truck attack in Sweden with the help of a translation app on his phone, tells me that it is for a Yes rally to be addressed by Erdogan the following afternoon.

Shock! Horror! Clouds over Istanbul Photo: Tony Cross

Shockingly, by the time I reach my hotel the sky is overcast. I thought it was always sunny here!

Saturday 8 April, Istanbul

The ferry stop in Istanbul’s Karaköy district on a damp Saturday morning Photo: Tony Cross

Up early to talk to our morning broadcasts, I leave the hotel at about 9.00am in search of vox pops and campaigners.

The latter are a slack lot, clearly not judging it worth facing the public before midday.

And it starts to rain.

Finding English-speakers is not that easy – I’ve foolishly decided to do without a fixer/translator in cosmopolitan Istanbul –and, anyway, fewer people seem ready to speak to reporters than during my previous visits.

Eminömü market Photo: Tony Cross

But some are and the first of those are No voters.

Erman, an Armenian, has voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the past because, as with the Kurds, the party used to be more accommodating to his community than the secular nationalist parties.

“They built new churches, new schools but I don’t think this will happen again,” he explains. “Because with one leader everything will involve him and if he says anything everybody will think it is true. But I don’t think one man will change everything. This is not credible to me.”

Some other traders and customers in the bazaar at Eminönü are also in the No camp, one accusing Erdogan of wanting to be a dictator and a “new Sultan” but there are also Yes men, fans of Erdogan who say the extra powers the reform will give him will mean a “strong Turkey”.

Adulation of the president and a desire to see the country walk tall on the world stage are the two main refrains of Yes supporters, repeated as a crowd of thousands descend on the rally at 4.00pm.

“I love you Recep Tayyip Erdogan! I love you Binali Yildirim! Yes, government OK!” cries Ahmet in a not uncommon outburst of enthusiasm.

AKP supporters pose for selfies in front of a montage of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in martial mode Photo: Tony Cross

A little closer to the rally a crowd has gathered in front of a montage of an action film poster with the heads of Erdogan and other AKP leaders on the bodies of the battle-fatigued, gun-toting heroes.

This could be taken for satire but the loyalists posing for selfies in front of it seem to find it a congenial portrayal of their heroes.

Prime Minister Yildirim is warming up the crowd in a turkey-voting-for-Christmas contribution to a campaign whose success would mean the abolition of his job.

That’s a role his predecessor Ahmet Davutoglu declined to take on, putting him in the company of a small number of AKP dissidents that includes Abdullah Gül, a cofounder of the AKP along with Erdogan who alternated as president and prime minister with him between 2003 and 2014.

Deadlines and editing requirements mean I must leave before the president himself arrives in a helicopter to violate his current constitutional obligation of neutrality and speak forcefully in favour of a Yes vote.

The dispatches report that he called for a strong Turkey.

To read my report for RFI of Saturday’s rally and campaigning click here

Sunday 9 April, Istanbul

A Yes campaign boat Photo: Tony Cross

Sunday means another desperate search for people willing and able to speak to a radio reporter.

Several analysts I have interviewed previously don’t answer their mobiles, maybe because it’s the weekend or maybe because they fear joining the ranks of university professors purged since last year’s coup is unclear. The two who answer tell me they are not in Turkey at the moment.

I criss-cross the city on foot and by ferry, metrobus and taxi.

At the suggestion of colleagues I track down activists of the biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

With balloons, flags, leaflets and the sort of stirring music beloved of Turkish political campaigners, they seem a jolly lot.

But they are not happy with the way the campaign is playing out.

“AKP uses everything, especially money, and they don’t give any money to CHP,” said CHP veteran Kamer Demir“So we cannot talk to our people, we cannot tell our things to people.”

CHP No campaigners at Kadiköy, Istanbul Photo: Toy Cross

One casualty of an ambient self-censorship is the 2012 film No that credited an advertising agency with the result of Chile’s 1988 plebiscite.

CHP leaders are reported to be trying to emulate the strategy outlined in the film and their logo is clearly lifted from it, which may explain why the Digiturk digital platform dropped No from its lineup in February.

Another, according to the Turkish Minute website, has been an anti-smoking campaign in the city of Konya.

Its slogan “If you say ‘no’, you have gained your future” appears to have displeased the city authorities and no longer appears on the city streets.

Media harassed

AKP members campaigning for a Yes vote in Karaköy Photo: Tony Cross

Government harassment of the media started well before the referendum campaign and has been particularly intense since last July’s failed coup.

Hundreds of media outlets have been closed since then and dozens of journalists are in jail, described “hostages of this referendum” by Erol Onderoglu of Reporters Without Borders, who has served several months in prison himself.

The majority of media that remain open make no effort to hide their bias.

The satirical paper Penguen says that the Yes campaign has received 10 times more live airtime on television than the No campaign, while the Washington Hatti site has calculated that from 1-20 March the AKP had over 300 hours of national television coverage, “with the 169 hours clocked by President Erdogan alone almost three times that of the [secular] MHP and CHP combined”.

Thousands of people have been purged from their jobs in the public and private sectors since the coup attempt and thousands jailed.

Some of them were involved in the conspiratorial Fehtullah Gülen movement, which the government blames for the failed putsch but others, as I found when reporting from Turkey last summer, were trade unionists, left-wingers and other members of the awkward squad framed by employers or hostile colleagues.

Kurdish left-wingers jailed

An HDP stall in Karaköy Photo: Tony Cross

The left-wing Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) has been hard hit, although few would suspect it of Gülenist sympathies.

Hundreds of its members are in jail, including its co-presidents, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag along with 11 other MPs.

Demirtas’s absence from the campaign is a particular blow, with many commentators seeing him as the natural leader of the campaign, a far more attractive figure than the CHP’s bland and inconsistent Kemal Kiricdaroglu.

The atmosphere is rendered even more oppressive by the rhetoric employed by the president and his supporters, who warn that a No vote is a vote for “terrorists”, a term that is even more catchall in Turkey than elsewhere, applying in Erdogan-speak to coup plotters, PKK guerrillas, Islamic State and other armed groups, and anyone suspected of collusion with any of the above.

The bias in the media is also visible in the civil service, No campaigners tell me.

Government supporters can campaign for Yes during working hours, Emre a doctor and CHP member tells me, but No campaigners are certain to be fired if they do the same.

To read my report of the No campaign struggling to make its voice heard on RFI click here

Monday 10 April, Istanbul

Yasemin Bektas Photo: Tony Cross

Feminist Yasemin Bektas repeats some of those complaints when I meet her in a café in the hip district of Cihangir, where I am staying.

She has two hats, one as a member of an organisation encouraging women to vote in the referendum, the other encouraging them to vote No.

I would say the No hat is on today.

“We are not in equal conditions now,” she says. “It’s easy to say ‘Yes’, it’s so hard to say ‘No’.”

She point to the disparity in posters and other material from the opposition.

“It doesn’t mean we are not working. They are not giving us permission to work.”

She gives Erdogan credit for taking an interest in the women’s vote, despite cultural barriers to women’s involvement in politics.

“I remember in the first meeting he made about the AKP he asked the men ‘Take your wife with you’,” she says. “Some of them came, some of them stayed at home.

“In the second meeting he said “If you don’t take your wife, don’t come,’. He’s a clever man, He knows we’re half of the public.”

It was the first time women could enter the political arena but that didn’t mean the AKP intended to liberate them from traditional gender roles, according to Bektas.

Gender politics and violence against women

“For the first issue is mothering. We are mothers and we have to bear children, we have to care for children. But there’s also gender equality. I don’t have to have a child. Maybe I don’t want to be a mother, maybe I want. Maybe my love is not to a man, I love women, maybe I don’t love anyone.

“We are killed, we are raped. In the past 15 years every day five women [have been] killed in Turkey. There has been significant increases in child abuse, female murders, violence rates.”

The conservative discourse, pushing women into the home and blaming them for rape and other assaults because of their clothing, for example, has empowered men inclined to violence, she argues.

I ask if I can take a picture of her and she leaps up to arrange her hair in a mirror.

I think she’s happy with the result.

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Turkey turns to Russia amid allegations of US coup complicity

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Turkey is executing a dramatic change in foreign policy, aligning itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in part because of the US’s and the EU’s reaction to the purge that followed the 15 July coup attempt. Ruling party leaders say the state of emergency will not last more than three months and that the Kurdish-based HDP will not be left out of national unity efforts. We’ll see about that!

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Atatürk’s mausoleum behind minarets and Ankara rooftops Photo: Tony Cross

Ankara 27-28 July 2016

Accompanying the mayor I meet on Wednesday evening is someone who’s introduced as an advisor to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim – another one who doesn’t want to give his name, but for different reasons to the others I’ve spoken to – along with a couple of gentlemen who apparently have something to do with intelligence and defence.

They say that a key Gülenist, whom they name as Adil Öksüz, was captured at the nearby Akinci airbase during the coup attempt.

Other Gülenists have apparently come forward to confess, including another prime ministerial adviser, known as Fuat Avni, and are spilling a certain amount of beans on the movement.

Avni’s statements led to the arrest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military aide de camp Colonel Ali Yazici, they say, and that has led to other top aides, past and present.

However highly placed they are, the organisation’s cell structure means that defectors can’t name a lot of names, if the information I’m given is correct.

Cells are led by a “big brother”, who reports to a bigger brother, and they all use code names.

Given that the AKP worked with the Gülenists for many years, there must surely be many members in the party, I point out.

They agree and say that an “in-depth investigation” is taking place and that some have already come forward.

The party seems ready to forgive individuals who were attracted by the movement’s ideals but were not aware of the coup plot.

Gülenists ready to explain themselves to the media having always been in short supply – even more so at the moment – I am not in a position to say what those ideals really are.

AKP people say that Gülen claims to be the new Mahdi, who will redeem Islam, and that the movement is a threat wherever it has schools and other interests, ie a number of countries in central Asia, Africa and, as it happens, the United States.

Relations with US under threat

The government found that the US was slow to condemn the coup and this, combined with its criticism of the post-coup purge and its apparent reluctance to extradite Gülen from his Pennsylvania compound, has given rise to accusations that it was aware of and supported the coup attempt.

If Washington refuses extradition it will be taken as proof of involvement, the adviser says, and that will mean a complete change in relations between Turkey, a key member of Nato, and the US.

There were already accusations that Gülen is a CIA agent and my informants seem to believe them, one of them throwing in a claim of German involvement for good measure.

EU criticism of the Turkish government’s reaction to the purge have also been poorly received and there is already evidence of a major realignment of Turkish foreign policy, which would mean Turkey joining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to establish a bloc to rival the West on the world stage.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek on Tuesday announced that Erdogan would visit Russia on 9 August, while he himself was on a visit to Moscow along with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci.

Russia is, of course, strictly non-judgemental about the reaction to the coup and has lifted a damaging embargo imposed when the Turks shot down one of its jets over Syria last year.

Even before the coup attempt there were indications that Ankara may normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad, a prospect that stunned Syrian rebel groups.

Is military weakened? Will national unity last? The AKP line

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Ak party vice-president Mehdi Eker Photo: Tony Cross

AKP vice-president Mehdi Eker refuses to “speculate” on what will happen if Gülen is not extradited when we meet him at the party’s huge headquarters in Ankara.

“We know, and are very sure – we have a lot of evidence – that Fetullah Gülen is the leader of this organisation, as it has been confessed by many members who were involved in the military coup,” he says. “We have conveyed these files to the US. President Erdoğan called [US President Barack] Obama and asked for the extradition of Gülen, and PM Yıldırım also had a phone conversation with [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and asked him officially.”

So “an ally and friendly country” is bound to “act according to international law and according to bilateral relations on this issue”, he declares.

Eker is defensive on defence.

The 8,000-plus personnel dishonourably discharged is a small percentage of the huge Turkish armed forces, he points out, but has to concede that then over 40 per cent of generals and admirals fired could be damaging.

“The Turkish army is traditionally very strong and powerful,” he says with masterly understatement. “Of course, as far as they get the support from the people and administration, they will recover. I have no doubt whatsoever about it. In previous coup attempts, for example in 1971 there was again a coup attempt, it recovered. It will again recover. No problem!”

He confirms reports that responsibility for the gendarmerie and the coastguard will be transferred from the defence to the interior ministry and that the polie may be given heavy weapons.

The Kurds – the elephant not in the national unity room

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HDP co-vice-president Saruhan Öluc Photo: Tony Cross

Like the CHP’s Tezcan, he is enthusiastic about the post-coup spirit of national unity.

“The people are all together, hand in hand,” Eker declares. “All the people from different statuses, different backgrounds, different parties all stay together.”

But one party was absent from Erdogan’s meeting with opposition leaders on Monday – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

When I met HDP vice-president Saruhan Öluc in Istanbul on Tuesday, he was worried that this meant the formation of a nationalist bloc against Kurdish rights.

To read my interview with Saruhan Öluc click here

But Eker, who is himself a Kurd and represents a constituency in Diyarbakir where the conflict with armed Kurdish groups rages on, insists that the HDP will be involved in future talks.

“As long as they take a firm stance against coups and any other anti-democratic affairs, we are together. They are elected by people so they are legitimate.”

The gendarmerie being deployed in rural areas, their transfer to the interior minister may mean more involvement in security operations in the south-east.

Torture hasn’t happened but, if it has, it will be punished

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Human rights lawyer Sercan Aran Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier today lawyer Sercan Aran told us that soldiers detained since the coup claims to have been abused, tortured and even raped.

Some had been deprived of food for three days, others housed in stables or kept in stress positions for the same length of time.

A general said he had been sodomised by a police truncheon – one suspects an element of resentment from the lower ranks – but refused to file a complaint because of the shame he would feel if his family knew.

There was evidence of other similar cases, Aran said, and lawyers had faced obstruction and physical assault while trying to represent detained soldiers.

To read my report for RFI on torture allegations click here

“Everything is done under the rule of law,” Eker insists, describing Amnesty International’s report on the torture allegations as biased.

But the charges will be investigated, he says, and if any cases come to light “of course they will be punished”.

Prosecutors have been given exceptional powers, including the right to search premises, including lawyers’ offices, without a judge’s warrant and the right to seize documents from lawyers.

Plotters, including officers who tried to assassinate Erdogan, are still on the loose, Eker says, so exceptional measures are justified.

But, he adds in reference to France’s eight-month state of emergency, Turkey’s will probably not last more than three months.

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How far will Turkey’s post-coup purge go?

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Turkish President President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is furious at foreign criticism of the crackdown that has followed the 15 July coup attempt. What does anyone expect after a military power grab? he wants to know. So has the West been holier-than-thou its reaction? And have innocent people been swept up in the purge?

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The road between the Turkish parliament and armed forces headquarters where civilians confronted soldiers during the coup atttempt Photo: Tony Cross

 

Ankara 27 July 2016

Her husband said he’d divorce her when she was suspended from her job teaching in Ankara school.

“I never knew I was living with a Gülenist,” he said.

He was joking. In fact, they both thought it was pretty funny.

“I laughed,” she told us in a local office of education union Eğitim Sen. “I thought it was a joke because it seemed like a joke and funny for a leftist and democratic person such as myself to be a part of such a frame.”

But the next day the seriousness of her situation was beginning to sink in. She could lose her job. She could be labelled a coup supporter for life. Even if she is reinstated, the suspicion could remain.

This teacher, who didn’t want her name given, was one of about 21,000 teachers in public and private schools to be suspended.

Only 88 of them are members of Egitim Sen, which does not recruit in the private sector, but Ankara organiser Kamuran Karaca was amazed to find any.

The union is resolutely secular, campaigning against religion in schools, and its activists tend to be left-wing, while Fehtullah Gülen, the man the government accuses of being behind the failed putsch, is a right-wing Islamist who, according to his opponents, works within Turkey’s secular democracy in order to subvert it.

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Karuman Karaca of Egitim Sen Photo: Tony Cross

The union is no stranger to legal action, however.

Six of its members are currently awaiting trial, because of their role in strikes and their support for Kurdish rights, according to the union – one of them having been charged since the coup attempt.

The evidence against the suspended members appears to be mainly that they have taken loans from an allegedly Gülenist-run bank, Bank Asya, or have bought books or office supplies from shops believed to be run by the movement.

Karaca points out that, since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) for a long time worked with the Gülen movement, many of its members must have done the same.

“We are concerned that there is a tendency to regard the oppositional segments of society as putschist as well,” he remarks.

Lazmi Özgen’s shares that fear.

He’s an organiser for the Kesk public-sector trade union, 32 of whose members have been in prison since January for offences he says are linked to their union activism.

Over 50,000 public-sector workers were suspended within two days of the coup attempt. So how did the authorities know who to pick?

It is common knowledge that the lists already existed, Özgen claims. Tens of thousands of public employees had been illegally profiled “Gülenist, separationist, Alevi, Atheist, secular” and so on.

The teacher we met mentioned that she was an Alevi, a religious minority that was often persecuted in the Ottoman era and whose followers tends to have anti-establishment opinions.

To read my report for RFI Turkey’s purge becoming witch-hunt, activists click here

Erdogan angered by purge criticisms

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Taxi driver Ahmet, who confronted troops and tool the wounded to hospital on 15 July Photto: Tony Cross

The scale of the purge, in the public sector, the armed forces, the media and industry, has given rise to expressions of concern in Europe and the US, which in turn has infuriated Erdogan.

AKP supporters point out that France has had a state of emergency for eight months because of a series of terror attacks, which for all their gravity were not an attempt to seize power by arms by people involved in a longstanding conspiratorial network.

Of course, France hasn’t suspended more than 50,000 people from their jobs, detained thousands of soldiers and given prosecutors the right to search lawyers’ offices and seize documents.

And Erdogan was already well down the road to authoritarianism before the failed putsch, building a megalomaniacal presidential palace, effectively taking political power into his own hands, pushing out prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu for being a potential rival, purging the magistrature and the police following an allegedly Gülen-inspired investigation into AKP corruption,  prosecuting hundreds, including two opposition party leaders, for a republican version of lèse majesté – he has magnanimously declared that those charges will be dropped since the coup – and harrying critical media.

His desire to be a new sultan is widely mocked. But he is not the only ambitious politician on the planet.

Sure, abuses of France’s state of emergency have been relatively limited – alleged troublemakers banned from ecology and anti-labour reform protests and some apparently arbitrary house arrests, for example.

But I hate to think what powers French Prime Minister Manuel Valls or, for that matter, former president Nicolas Sarkozy, would give themselves if there was a serious attempt at a military coup in France.

The Turkish coup attempt was a serious threat to a democracy that has been overturned on four occasions, apparently launched by a network that has infiltrated the state, the media and private industry.

Since it was defeated, it has strengthened Erdogan and allowed his government to purge that state machine, a purge which, the evidence already shows, is unlikely to be confined to people who really did plot to seize power.

Who defeated the coup and why?

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CHP vice-president Bülent Tezcan Photo: Tony Cross

“If they had let us, we would have got into those tanks. We would! It was our duty to kill those two soldiers inside,” Ahmet, a taxi driver who’d confronted the troops in front of parliament on 15 July, told us.

Little doubt that he is an AKP supporter. Little doubt that most of those who faced down the tanks were, judging by the divide between AKP and secular supporters I witnessed on the rallies in Istanbul.

So, although the popular mobilisation was certainly to defend a democratically elected government, can we really describe it as a mobilisation to defend the principle of democracy, as the Turkish government claims.

Like the rest of us, Turks tend to be most enthusiastic about democracy when it produces the results they desire.

Of course, opposition MPs courageously went to parliament on the night of the coup, as the vice-president of the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP), Bülent Tezcan, reminds me at the party’s huge Ankara headquarters.

As jets flew overhead, they held a special session, even discarding the jacket-and-tie dress code given the circumstances, although they took to the bunkers when the bombs started falling.

“We call the Turkish parliament a veteran parliament,” Tezcan declares in poetic-historic mode. “Because this parliament managed the independence war and this parliament was built through that battle, that struggle. And that night the parliament showed that it is a veteran parliament.”

The following day all the parties, including the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) whose members had not been in the parliament building overnight, signed a declaration in support of democracy.

“The unity that emerged out of the struggle against the coup still continues, we are working for it to continue and we are working for it not to dissipated,” Tezcan says. “I hope it will continue.”

CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has made a big play of national unity, in part, one suspects, for defensive reasons. The secular camp is afraid that a strengthened Erdogan could use the state’s beefed-up powers against them and is anxious to make it politically difficult to do so.

For the moment Erdogan is playing along, inviting Kılıçdaroğlu and right-wing secular leader Devlet Bahçeli to a meeting, along with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim.

How far is the CHP prepared to go?

Erdogan said that there appeared to be consensus to “minor changes” to the constitution, a puzzling formulation when referring to a state’s fundamental law.

“What was discussed was a quick amendment in the provisions of the constitution concerning judicial processes,” Tezcan says. “Our position concerning judicial process has not changed. We have previously stated that we stand for the primacy of independence and impartiality of the judiciary. For all the amendments we will approve, our basic and essential condition will always be the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”

But Erdogan had already hinted that the secular parties might be ready to go along with his pet plan of establishing a presidential system.

Tezcan claims to believe that he won’t push that too far. “I don’t think he will damage conciliation with a discussion of the system of government. The president of the republic may argue for a presidential regime, we defend parliamentary democracy. To have differences of opinion should not prevent dialogue, conciliation and working together.”

To read my my report Will Turkey’s political unity last? click here

Lokman Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross
Kazan distct mayor Lokm Ertürk Photo: Tony Cross

That evening in a sprawling restaurant on the outskirts of Ankara I meet the mayor of the district that is home to the Akinci airbase, from which the planes that bombarded parliament took off.

He proudly describes how residents surrounded the base, set fire to their furniture and bales of hay to prevent the planes taking off and eventually forced the rebels to surrender, capturing key plotters.

Eighty-four people are still in hospital after having been wounded.

The mayor is given to professions of loyalty to democracy and the president.

Bosnian, Turkmen, Arab and Syrian immigrants live there, he says, people of all ages are “standing together, waiting, guarding”  in response to Erdogan’s appeal in case of a new attack on democracy.

“Until our president and our superiors tell us to go home and stay home, we are going to be guarding the streets.”

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Two rallies and a purge – Istanbul after Turkey’s failed coup

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Patriotism was on show everywhere in Istanbul a week after the 15 July coup attempt, cars flying Turkish flags blasted out songs praising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There were nightly rallies on Taksim Square, whose edifices were covered in huge banners declaring a victory for the nation. All parties had opposed the putsch … but there were fears that the ensuing purge could go further than supporters of Fehtullah Gülen, the US-based imam alleged to be behind the power grab.

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The sun sets behind the Atatürk statue on Istanbul’s Taksim Square Photo: Tony Cross

Friday 22 July 2016

“Erdogan, Erdogan …”

As the sun sets behind the Atatürk monument, Taksim Square fills with a crowd waving Turkish flags – street-sellers are doing a healthy trade – responding to an appeal by President Erdogan to occupy the centres of Turkey’s towns to prevent a repetition of last Friday’s coup attempt.

I’m just off the plane and haven’t met my fixer/interpreter yet, so have to find English-speakers, which rules out a large part of the crowd.

Those who do speak to me, apart from the Algerian woman who tells me in French she has come to see what’s going on, are Erdogan loyalists, proud that a popular mobilisation faced down the tanks and soldiers with deaths and injuries on both sides.

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Flag-sellers make the most of the patriotic mood Photo: Tony Cross

As a new hit song – chorus “Erdogan, Erdogan …” – blasts out, Mesut, an IT engineer, tells me “we are not supporting any party” but he has confidence in the government.

“Because we are living in 21 century, it shouldn’t be, this kind of thing,” he says. “We are supporting our democracy, that’s all.”

Turkey is a European country, he adds, “We are not Middle East any more.”

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Flagwaving in front of one of the big screens ahead of Erdogan’s speech Photo: Tony Cross

Neither he nor Songül, who has come back from Belgium where she lives and works, believe that Erdogan will abuse the powers he has assumed in the aftermath of the failed putsch.

“I think that the people now have the knowledge that Erdogan is for democracy, is not a dictator, which is said by many countries, she comments. “I think he is supporting democracy and the people love him. It is possible that he has more power now but he is not a dictator.”

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Young men pose for a photo during the rally Photo: Tony Cross

As the crowd swells, Erdogan appears on one of the giant screens that loom over the square, giving a speech, which is presumably broadcast to the crowds on the squares of towns across the country, to an audience that claps regularly, more regularly in fact than the crowd on the square.

The speech is long and is followed by music and more speeches that will last all night, as I find out when I return to my hotel, conveniently close to Taksim, inconveniently close to the noise.

I don’t imagine people staying on the luxury hotels that look onto the square, or residents of the streets that surround it, get any sleep at all.

To read my report of the rally for RFI in English click here

Saturday 23 July

Conscripts, cadets rounded up with coup-plotters

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The Istanbul Palace of Justice guarded by the police and army Photo: Tony Cross

There are few people on the vast esplanade in front of Istanbul’s maIn court house.

Barriers prevent access to most of it, behind them sit a couple of armoured cars, down the side of the intimidating structure, in the pompous pomo style, is a long line of buses commandeered to transport police to raids on barracks and military academies.

Amog the few people here – either in the cafés or leaning on the barriers in the blazing sun watching for signs of activity – are relatives of soldiers detained inside.

Most of them don’t want to speak, indeed one man denounces us as interfering foreigners who want to do down Turkey, but one man, who refuses to give his name, tells us that his son, a cadet, was one of 300-400 cadets detained at the air force academy four days after the coup.

Either he has a military family’s confidence in authority or he is anxious not to speak out of turn and jeopardise his son’s chances of being freed, as 1,200 soldiers were in Ankara this morning.

“The state will decide,” he says when asked what will happen to the boy. “The state will interrogate people and the guilty ones will be punished. That is it. But my son is not guilty. Because, he was a student and he was at the school and he was taken together with some 300-400 other students. They took him just to have his testimony.”

Other people we meet have limited sympathy for the detainees.

A couple who run a small restaurant say they were on the streets to oppose the coup.

“You are talking about the conscripts,” says Savas. “They are detained because they have to be interrogated. We saw what happened, they are doing this for the sake of the public. They wll be released after two or three days.”

“No-one will be able to divide this country,” his wife butts in. “We will fight together under this flag.”

“They planned to create panic and turn Turkey into Syria or Egypt,” is furniture-maker Turgay Dogany’s view of the coup-makers. Some innocent people have probably been detained, he admits, quoting a Turkish proverb that indicates a phlegmatic approach to potential injustice.

“For sure! Wet leaves may be burned with dry ones. You cannot choose. It is not all the military, just some gangs in it. It doesn’t mean that all 50,000 people are guilty.”

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Relatives of soldiers watch the court house for signs of activity Photo: Tony Cross

Many of the 7,423 soldiers detained are conscripts or even cadets of 14-16-years-old, according to Senaly Karatas, who we meet in the poky but centrally situated offices of the Human Rights Organisation in Istanbul.

The organisation is more used to handling the cases of victims of the military’s offensive in the Kurdish-majority south-east, where 100 soldiers are reported to have been detained.

Many families are scared to ask for help, she says. “We have written applications and 30 verbal applications.”

“Military service is obligatory in Turkey and it is not possible for a conscript to disobey orders,” Karatas points out, describing the young soldiers’ fate as “most tragic part of this situation”.

Many families have no news of their sons and don’t know how to find out where they are or how they are being treated.

“One family saw the photo of their son in the newspaper Posta, where it was clear that he had been subject to violence and was being detained,” she explains. “They went to his unit, they said he was arrested, but the family could not find him at places where he could be detained. In the end we found that he was in Silivri prison.”

He has been charged with involvement in the coup.

The family of one high-ranking officer did not dare file a complaint but told the human rights group that they were frequently insulted and obstructed as they trailed round police stations and courts searching for him.

“The declaration of the state of emergency greatly increases our concern,” Karatas says, citing official figures that show 10,410 people detained, 7,423 of them soldiers, 2,014 of them judges and prosecutors, 44,530 civil servants and other public-sector employees and have been suspended from their jobs, and 241 civilians and 24 coup-makers were killed during the coup.

The first measures of the state of emergency, announce today, were the closure of 15 universities and 600 other educational institutions and the extension of the limit of detention without charge from four to 30 days.

To read my report on Cadets and conscripts caught up in Turkey’s post-coup crackdown click here

“Terrorists in uniform”

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The mosque where prayers were said for Senol Sagman in Besiktas Photo: Tony Cross

Late in the afternoon friends of Senol Sagman gather at a mosque in Besiktas district to pray for him.

Two large wreaths of yellow flowers stand by the small cemetery next to the mosque, men perform their ablutions at the fountain in the centre of the mosque’s courtyard.

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Wreaths outside the mosque Photo: Tony Cross

Sagman’s friend Mustafa Gülenc, who ran a catering business with him, describes how his friend died.

“We went out into the streets, the soldiers were in front of us, we were saying ‘Allahu Akbar’, ‘Allahu Akbar’, Gülenc recalls. We told the soldiers ‘Don’t fire on us. A Muslim cannot kill a Muslim!’ They said ‘Don’t say Allahu Akbar!’ First they shot in the air, then they shot at us. I lay down and when I got up I saw that my friend was dead.”

The soldiers were “terrorists in uniform”, he says.

To read my report for RFI on the mosque honouring Senol Sagman click here

Sunday 24 July 2016

“After this they will take us”

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CHP supporters march down Istiklal Caddesi Photo: Tony Cross

Taksim is packed again on Sunday. Coachloads from the provinces arrive, streaming down Istiklal Caddesi in the sweltering afternoon heat, one group in file carrying an enormous banner they will unfold when they arrive at the square.

This rally has been called by the largest opposition party, the People’s Republican Party (CHP), which like all other parties represented in parliament opposed the coup.

CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu has called for the national unity in defence of democracy to continue and Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has responded by declaring its support for the demonstration.

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Women arrive at the CHP rally Photo: Tony Cross

There are no “Erdogan, Erdogan” songs this time, however. The last post for the victims of the coup attempt is head in perfect silence, then part of the crowd joins in with the national anthem.

There are many portraits of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish republic who is the secular camp’s idol and apparently as few AKP supporters as there were CHP supporters on Friday.

Searching for English-speakers, I find a group of Afghans, Hazaras horrified by the Islamic Sate attack on a protest in Kabul that has killed 80 people and injured 230.

Abdurazzak, a Libyan, pays a heartfelt tribute to “the new face of democracy”.

“We are supporting Turkish people who face this army who want to take authority by force because in Libya we are still suffering from this,” he says. “We are still fighting to get our democracy.”

As for the Turks, none of those I speak to have been on the night-time rallies called for by Erdogan during the week.

Many are worried that Erdogan will profit from the boost in his support and the emergency powers granted to the state to clamp down on the secular camp.

“He is more powerful,” comments Hussein, a . “You know the extraordinary situation in Turkey now. They are taking everybody from this corporate [Gülen’s organisation]. But we know that after this they will take us.”

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The crowd listens to the national anthem at the start of the CHP rally Photo; Tony Cross

Turkey has the secularists to thank for its democracy, he argues. “We supported and established democracy in Turkey, not the other people.”

Hayri, a middle-aged man, says he has come to show that he is opposed to the coup but also because he fears Erdogan will take advantage of the situation to make “antidemocratic rules”.

The big powers should learn not to “play with the card of Islam, which they did in Syria”, he argues.

“Everything that is going on from Munich [scene of a recent shooting spree by a teenager] to here is because of this dirty game and Turkey is also partly responsible, with Saudi and Qatar.

“I also believe the European Union should think about Turkey in a very serious way,” he adds. “Because this is a very important moment for the future for the democracy of Turkey.”

The secularists feel threatened, political analyst Behül Özkan told me earlier in the afternoon.

AKP supporters drove through their neighbourhoods chanting Islamic slogans after the defeat of the coup. “The exact word is, the secular people feel trapped.“

To read my report Turkey’s secular opposition rallies for national unity click here

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Who was behind Turkey’s military coup?

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An attempt by part of the Turkish military to stage yet another coup has failed – ignominiously, judging by reports of fighting between troops and police, masses of civilians stopping tanks and seizing bridges, pustschists rounded up and officers asking for asylum in Greece. But who dunnit?

The Turkish military has staged several coups in the past, all of them more successful than this.

Past coups have been motivated by anticommunism, opposition to peace with the Kurds and, above all, the military’s vision of itself as the defender of the secular legacy of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Who could have plotted this attempt to seize power?

  • Fethullah Gülen: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames the exiled leader of a movement that has pursued a strategy of accepting secular democracy while infiltrating state institutions that suited Erdogan fine when he was on his way to power but turned into a rival network once he was had won a couple of elections. The AKP leader has been in a power struggle with the Gülenists since a split over their plans to expand their schools network and it has got really nasty – exposures and allegations of corruption by Erdogan allies and relatives, leading to purges of the police, the magistrature and the media, with plenty of non-Gülenists being persecuted as well. So this comes under the heading of “He would say that, wouldn’t he?” Whether they were involved or not, Erdogan would have profited from the occasion to clamp down further on the movement. Which doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t. They might have wished to preempt further purges and repression of their network. Gülen’s movement in the US has denied it, however. One has to ask whether, after several years of attrition, the Gülenists had enough support in the military to put substantion numbers of tanks and troops on the streets.
  • The Kemalists: It wouldn’t be the first time, although we were beginning to believe it was the last, that the military has stepped in to stop a trend towards Islamism. Officers raised on loyalty to a secular state have plenty to worry them in Erdogan’s Turkey. The old AKP, which argued that its relationship to Islam was the same as the German CDU’s relationship to Christianity, is no more and the desire to Islamise Turkish society has advanced in tandem with the president’s growing megalomania. The putshcists’ statement apparently used Kemalist phraseology, although it also promised freedom of citizens, regardless of religion, race or language, an apparent reference to the rights of the Kurds and other minorities that is not classical Kemalism. But they seem to have neglected to warn the secularist parties, the CHP and MHP, both of which condemned the coup with their MPs going to parliament to defend it. In the past the “social-democratic” CHP has proved more committed to secularism than democracy, although it is in the process of revising its position, and the MHP is an authoritarian right-wing party that has openly collaborated with the military. It’s unclear how high up the ranks the conspirators were and whether they planned a classic military dictatorship along the previous bloodstained lines, although it’s probably what they would have ended up with, like it or not.
  • Erdogan himself: This being the Middle East, there has to be a conspiracy theory and, sure enough, social media are full of claims that the whole thing is a put-up job to strengthen the president’s power. If we follow the logic of cui bono, it has to be admitted that is where we end up. Millions have turned out to support the elected government, an increasingly dictatorial leader can now pose as a defender of the people’s will, there can be a further purge of the army, the rest of the state apparatus and, if needs be, the media and civil society. But it would have been a hell of a gamble wouldn’t it? Turkey’s internal divisions and instability have once again been advertised to the world. The government will reap short-term benefits but the long-term effects may be less favourable. Plus, are there really military officers so devoted to their duty that they are ready to risk execution by implicating themselves in a pseudo-coup to benefit the president?

My guess is that the coup was the work of a combination of Gülenists and Kemalists. But it’s a guess, made in France with limited information. So you might like to draw your own conclusions.

All the political parties, including the secular nationalists, left-wing Kurd-based HDP, opposed the coup. Sadly, they are unlikely to receive much thanks. With IS active in Turkey, as well as Iraq and Syria, the war in the Kurdish region in full swing and continuing attacks on freedom of speech and other basic rights, the future looks grim for Turkey.

Read my reports from the second Turkish election in 2015 for RFI here

There’s more on this blog Turkey, to start click here

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Charlie and me – Islamophobia, racism, freedom of expression and equality in France

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It’s difficult to write frankly about Charlie Hebdo – it was difficult to do so in the aftermath of the massacre and it’s only a bit easier now. In France there was shock, of course, a kind of solidarity and, let’s be honest, a lot of self-righteousness. But the French don’t have the monopoly on self-righteousness, as the debate on Charlie abroad has shown. I think the experience has much to say about France – and the world – today.

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Tributes to police officer Ahmed Merabet, killed protecting the Charlie Hebdo staff Photo: Azurfrog/public domain

Do I have to say I was horrified by the massacre at Charlie Hebdo and the murders in a kosher supermarket that followed? Maybe I do. It’s easy these days to find oneself accused of holding opinions one doesn’t hold and entertaining sympathies one has never entertained, of advocating when trying to analyse (for the record this piece doesn’t aspire to neutrality).

Last January Charlie Hebdo suddenly found millions of passionate defenders – many of whom had clearly never read it or, so far as the more famous among them were concerned, only done so in search of grounds for legal action. Of course, they had the right to be angry at the violence and to defend their perception of freedom of expression. But it was exasperating to be lectured on the nature of a paper one had once read regularly in formulations culled from press coverage rather than formulated from personal experience.

Then the debate took a different turn, in the English-speaking world at least, and I got exasperated with critics who had also clearly never read Charlie. No, anglophone friends, the paper is not entirely devoted to Islamophobic and racist bile. While there’s no defence for some of its cartoons – Riss’s latest on Aylan above all – others were satirising the attitudes many of you believed they were propagating. Like lots of things in life, it can be good and it can be crap.

Here’s my confession of a Charlie reader who gave up.

When I came to France 22 years ago I soon discovered Charlie Hebdo. And I loved it.

The schoolboy humour naturally struck a chord, me being a Brit. The politics was anarcho-leftist-Jacobin, which mostly suited me. And it is true that its contributors mocked everyone, although not equally, as some of the never-read-its claim. Not very much humour on the Holocaust, happily. And lots of scurrilous attacks on the Front National and its then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, also happily.

But, after a while, it seemed to change.

There were more and more sneers at Islam. I didn’t analyse how many cartoons and articles were devoted to each religion or set of political beliefs – I just stopped reading it – but Islam seemed to me to be becoming an obsession and I found it a distasteful one.

After the Charlie attacks a TV journalist became a French YouTube hit by showing that Charlie Hebdo’s covers over a given period of time featured few cartoons attacking Islam. This quite literally superficial analysis has no pertinence whatever.

Firstly, there was plenty on Islam inside.

Secondly, as former Charlie Hebdo contributor Olivier Cyran pointed out in 2013, attacking a minority religion, associated with an immigrant-origin population that is disproportionately underprivileged,  is not the same as attacking the Catholic church, “which had – and still has – newspapers, MPs, lobbies, salons and enormous property holdings”.

Catholics, one might add, never have their very right to live in Europe challenged, nor is their religion declared foreign to European culture, despite its provenance.

I can’t put a date on when I gave up reading Charlie. Cyran says it took a radical turn for the worse after 9/11. And he tends to blame Philippe Val, an ardent supporter of Israel who was later appointed director of Radio by Nicolas Sarkozy (not so iconoclastic as all that, eh?), and Caroline Fourrest, a hypersecularist who is rarely absent from TV, radio and the written press these days, thanks to her support for gay marriage, her opposition to hijab and her penchant for sniffing out Salafist conspiracies.

On RFI, January 2015: How will the Charlie Hebdo attacks change France?

On RFI, January 2016: One year later, how have the Charlie Hebdo attacks changes France?

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An idealised version of a sans-culotte during the French revolution, Louis-Léopold Boilly (1761-1845)

But this hypersecularism is not unique to Charlie. It is very widespread in France – in its arrogant rejection of religion and the religious it was a sort of New Atheism avant la lettre.

It turns out that secularism is one of those container words that you can fill up with any number of meanings, like Liberté, égalité, fraternité or democracy, for that matter.

And, when a term becomes a sort of dogma, no longer examined critically, it lays itself open for exploitation by all sorts of cynical demagogues and authoritarians manqués. We know that from the history of religion, don’t we?

You can see secularism as a truce between non-believers and believers – you keep religion out of my state and I’ll keep my state out of your religion – or you can see it as a more aggressive measure to keep religion completely out of the public eye. That view tends to segue into an apparent desire to wipe religion off the face of the earth. In which case it’s not really secularism, is it? It’s state-sponsored atheism, which hasn’t worked very well.

France’s 1905 law on religion is in fact the first of these alternatives – a more aggressive anti-clerical faction lost the argument – but many French people interpret it as the second, with a tinge of the third, increasingly so these days.

When I first went to Turkey, to cover the 2007 parliamentary elections, some supporters of the secular parties used the French term laïcité to distinguish what Mustapha Kemal Atatürk had put into practice in Turkey from mere secularism.

Like the French version, Turkey’s secularism was born from a violent rupture with the past.

It was an attempt to break the hold of religion on the minds of the masses and end habits regarded as backward according to the Young Turks’ identification of modernity with Europe.

You can understand this zeal in the context of the French revolution. The revolutionaries needed to break the power of a Catholic church that was a powerful part of the ancien regime and, if we bear in mind today’s revelations of clerical child abuse in countries where the church went unchallenged, there must have been an awful lot of residual bitterness over priestly abuses of power, which may explain the violence of some anti-clerical exactions.

Post-Ottoman Turkey, too, had to replace a regime of which religion was an integral part  and create a state capable of standing up to the Islamic clergy, although, if we look at Turkey’s current political and social condition, we would have to conclude that it has been a mitigated success.  The largest secular party, the CHP,  seems to have recognisew this and is revising its hardline position.

But where is the relevance for France today?

When right-wing Catholics and assorted bigots turned out en masse to oppose the Socialist government’s same-sex marriage law – singularly failing to mobilise Muslims, by the way, despite some efforts to do so – there were few appeals to secularism. Indeed, right-wing politicians who have seen fit to call for pork-only menus to be served in school canteens were happy to play fast and loose with the god-botherers.

Because, excuse me for stating the obvious, it’s all about Islam. Nobody thought to ban “ostentatious signs of religion in schools, until a couple of Muslim girls turned up in hijab. (In that debate, which is now being recycled as a debate on cover in universities and workplaces, there is a strange confusion between those in authority and those over whom authority is exercised. Of course teachers should not proselytise, they represent the state, but why shouldn’t their pupils manifest religious convictions? Is it even realistic to expect them not to? In this respect the French are as prudish about religion as the British are about politics.)

On RFI i 2010 France’s burka bill, background to a bitter debate

That explains why many right-wing ideologues can one minute invoke Europe’s Christian or Judeo-Christian roots and the next pose as ferocious defenders of secularism, just as many of the political successors of the late 19th-century and early 20th-centur anti-Semites are now ardent defenders of Israel.

This form of secularism has become an assertion of the superiority of the Occident over the world it once colonised, tinged with class hatred, given that many of its exponents will happily mix with well-off, “integrated” persons of foreign origin, but like to whip up fear of a lawless mass in the banlieue.

Of course, Muslims are equal in France. Secularism applies to everybody just as “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread”, to quote Anatole France.

As Emmanuel Todd says in Qui est Charlie? – the book that earned him the singular privilege of a reply from the prime minister in the august pages of Le Monde – they face a pressure to conform from people of Catholic culture, who tell them “I have the right to blaspheme against my former religion, so you have to the duty to blaspheme against yours.”

The feeling of cultural superiority takes a distinctive form in France and has infected the left in a way it has not, in my experience, infected the British left.

To go back the two decades to my arrival in France I was struck by how in our globalised world – less globalised then, but still – national attributes continued to exist.

In my new home appreciating good food and drink was not considered elitist snobbery, it was not generally considered necessary to make room for other people when walking in the street, the arts were considered important enough to merit a slot on TV news bulletins, the customer was very definitely not always right, intellectuals felt under no obligation to pretend they were not intellectuals … and every French person was a bit of a patriot.

No matter how left-wing and in principle internationalist they were, they treasured in their hearts a certain conviction that French culture was superior to all others.

Of course, we all assume to some degree or other that what we’re used to is the natural order of things and I know that my new friends often found me quaintly British.

But I think France is the only country where former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chévènement could found his own little party to propagate a bizarre leftish form of nationalism, where the hard-left candidate in the last presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, could this year wax indignant about the Corsican regional council taking an oath “in a language I don’t understand” and where Prime Minister Manuel Valls … well I was talking about the left, so let’s leave Manuel Valls out of it.

It’s partly the fault of the French Communist Party, which at the time when it was France’s biggest party in terms of membership took the popular front accommodation with nationalism very seriously, played a heroic role in the resistance to German occupation, which inevitably led to a certain nationalist, even xenophobic, contagion, and after the war just couldn’t get out of the opportunist habit.

And, of course, there’s the revolution, without which the modern world would not exist.

The legacy of the revolution legitimises popular revolt. The slogans of the revolution represent a promise that is sufficiently vague to serve as justification for the established order and rallying cry for those who wish to overthrow it. The revolution has served as example, case study and inspiration for every generation of revolutionaries since.

And its centralist, nation-building aspects sometimes morph into the secular ultimatums, sneering and prejudice that find expression in the pages of Charlie Hebdo, which, despite its affection for the slogan “No god, no masters”, seems to have found it easier to come to an accommodation with the latter than with the former.

Because, despite the naughty words, the routine impertinence, the tits, bums and dicks, Charlie Hebdo is a bit of a court jester these days.

Viewed from the banlieue, as academic and journalist Andrew Hussey points out, Charlie is part of the establishment.

“What is seen in the centre of Paris as tweaking the nose of authority — religious or political — is seen out in the banlieues as the arrogance of those in power who can mock what they like, including deeply held religious beliefs, perhaps the only part of personal identity that has not been crushed or assimilated into mainstream French society,” he wrote in the New York Times after the attacks.

Indeed, one of the main reasons that Islam is resurgent is that the left has lost the leadership of the anti-imperialist and antiracist struggles. Secular nationalist and left-wing anti-colonial movements degenerated into corrupt dictatorships or neo-liberal democratic plutocracies. Mass socialist parties voided themselves of their class content.

The spectre haunting the world today is the spectre of fundamentalist jihad, violent, divisive, frightening, supported by a tiny minority of Muslims but filling a demand created by the arrogance of the West and the inadequacy of the left.

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