Monday, April 30, 2007

Talking Turkey

My Turkish ancestors moved to India and thoroughly misbehaved. One started his own religion. Another wasted millions on building a tomb for his favourite wife.

I have a soft spot for Turkey which goes beyond the usual ANZAC Day nostalgia. This year, two major events are happening in my ancestral land. First is the 800th anniversary of the birth of Afghan-born Sufi poet Mevlana Jalaleddin Rumi, buried in the Turkish city of Konya. The second is the Presidential elections.

Believe it or not, these two events are linked. Rumi is a symbol of Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam, probably the best antidote to political Islamist violence. However, Turkish Sufi orders historically played a major role in the Ottoman administration.

When Turkey ’s Gallipoli hero Mustafa Kemal Pasha carved out a nation from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire , he immediately banned Sufi orders. Turkish secularism doesn’t keep religion separate from politics per se. Rather, it ensures religious institutions are always subservient to secular politics. Further, religious symbols are to be kept away from public life as much as possible. In 1999, one Turkish MP was removed from Parliament and lost her citizenship after wearing a traditional headscarf.

For years, Turkey ’s more religiously-minded political movements had to remain content with making loads of hard cash. This gave them a natural advantage over their colleagues in other parts of the world. It also made them more pragmatic.

Hence, Turkey ’s version of political Islam is more pro-Western, democratic and secular. The ruling AK Party is Turkey ’s Muslim equivalent to the Christian Democratic Party of European nations such as Germany .

However, when Turkish Foreign Minister and AK Party founder Dr Abdullah Gul announced he would stand for the largely ceremonial position of President, the response from the Turkish Army (regarded as guardians of Turkey’s secular status quo) was a predictable one of threatening to move out of the barracks. Other Turks protested at what they saw was the AK Party’s attempt to impose political Islam on an inherently secular institution.

What a strange world Turks live in. The most democratic and pro-Western forces are the Islamists. The anti-democratic forces are the most secular. To think some months back Peter Costello wanted local Muslims to learn secularism and democracy from Turkey !

© Irfan Yusuf 2007

POLITICS: Helen Clark's Brethren?

Last week Wednesday's Crikey posed the question about how private is a private conversation with the PM. Certainly any discussions the PM or his Ministers has with the Exclusive Brethren are very private, even if they possibly involve concessions on industrial relations matters or teaching computing in Brethren schools.

Over here in Kiwistan, the Brethren are regarded as a serious political liability. Last year, former National Party leader Don Brash was dethroned over the issue.

The town from where I type these words is regarded as a Brethren stronghold. Recent reports show that, during a meeting in 2004 in this very place, PM Helen Clark met with the Brethren. Clark denies the claims, but the Brethren say they have minutes of the meeting.

In fact, not just Helen but at least five other senior MP’s (including Ministers David Parker, Rick Barker, Annette King, Pete Hodgson and David Benson-Pope of the Clark government also allegedly met with the Brethren in the lead-up to the last election.

Clark claims she never had a dedicated meeting with members of the shadowy sect,. Instead, she was at a gathering where a group of businessmen (who happened to be from the Brethren) gathered around her to have a chat.

That might be the case. But what if it is found that her ministerial colleagues’ meetings with the Brethren were less spontaneous? What credibility would Helen Clark’s more recent attacks on the Brethren’s political involvements then have? Certainly the Nats would have reason to cry foul.

The Brethren are the cause for many a furious debate, with some apparent supporters wondering why Clark ’s government refuses to show as much respect to the sect as she does to the trade union movement.

Will Aunty Helen survive this latest controversy to dog her government? Watch this space …

Submitted to Crikey from an internet cafe in Greymouth, New Zealand, on Thursday 26 April 2007.

Words © 2007 Irfan Yusuf