Archive | Turkey RSS feed for this section

A Tale of Two Cities: Istanbul and Rome

7 Jul

[This is a corrected and slightly revised version of yesterday's post; I apologize for the various mistakes in the earlier text, maybe an effect of jet lag or something worse!]

Why Istanbul?

 

In earlier posts [Nov. 2 & 7, 2012], I urged that symbolically and culturally Istanbul deserved to be privately christened as the global capital of the 21st century. It is the only world city that qualifies by virtue of its geographic and civilizational hybridity, Western by history and experience, Eastern by culture and location, Northern by stage of development, modernism, and urban dynamism, Southern by some affinities, outreach, and partial identification. The feast for the eyes provided throughout much of the city includes the Bosphorus Straight (connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara) and Islamic architecture featuring the great mosques along its shores, at least one designed by the master architect Mimar Sinan (1490-1588), Ottoman memories preserved in picturesque and grand palaces, the nocturnal vitality of city life in a variety of exotic neighborhoods, excellent cuisine everywhere, and through it all, an intoxicating overall blending of modernity, hyper-modernity, and tradition. Trip Advisor, the influential online guide, confirms this enthusiasm by reporting recently that Istanbul is now the #1 favorite tourist destination among the cities of the world. Perhaps, this is enough of an objective certification. enough.

 

The fact that Ankara is the national capital of Turkey should not weaken the objective argument for designating Istanbul as the first global capital. In fact, it may be an advantage when we consider that a global capital has a different role than a national capital. What makes Istanbul so appealing is its cosmopolitan cultural, spiritual, and political heritage and everyday vivacity, its geographic locus at the crossroads of continents and civilizations for ideas, beliefs, trade, transport, and more recently its suitability as a multi-regional venue for conflict resolution and global dialogue. As global governance is currently institutionally dispersed, there is no need for the global capital to function as a governmental center of authority. In this sense, if Washington were ever proposed as world capital the idea should be immediately rejected. The yardsticks that could best support such an American claim are based on the combination of hegemonic status and global military capabilities. Such attributes of global leadership may be appropriate as indicators of hard power governance but are quite at odds with an imaginary that wishes that the emergent global polity will be based on peace, justice, and cultural depth. It is precisely because Istanbul’s status is linked to Turkish soft power ascendancy, even if the Turkish geopolitical signature has been compromised by several recent regional developments. Nevertheless, Istanbul more than other global cities seems best situated to serve the peoples of the world as the place where the geo-story of our times is unfolding.

 

Turkey’s emergence in the front rank of states in the last 12 years is mainly based on a combination of economic performance and political moderation, as well as the increasing outreach of its diplomacy reflected in being elected by an overwhelming vote to term membership in the UN Security Council in 2009-2010. Turkey is currently campaigning hard to reelected for another term of Security Council membership in 2015-2016. Instead of remaining the foot soldier of NATO guarding the southern flank of Europe during the Cold War and forgetting about the rest of the world, Turkey under AKP leadership dramatically widened its horizons, and in the process inevitably stepped on important geopolitical toes. Turkey looked beyond its borders to Central Asia, the Arab world and the Balkans, being alert to economic and diplomatic opportunities, but also revisiting lands once governed from the Ottoman imperial center in Istanbul. At the same time, Turkey was not merely nostalgically engaged in the recovery of past grandeur. It was reaching out in creative ways to Africa, launching a major assistance program to one of Africa’s most troubled countries, Somalia. It also established for the first time significant Turkish economic and diplomatic connections with Latin America. Despite straying some distance from the American led strategic ‘big tent,’ Turkey reaffirmed its fundamental engagement with the Euro-American alliance.

 

Contrary to some neocon allegations, the Turkish government never exhibited any intention to turn its back on the West. On the contrary, never waivered in its allegiance to NATO. Beyond this security commitment, the AKP proclaimed European Union membership as its primary foreign policy goal during the first years of its leadership, and only began to lose interest in this project some time later when it became apparent that Islamophobia had slammed the European door shut. By then it became clear that no matter how much the Turkish leadership met EU demands, the country was never going to be admitted as a full member of the EU. This courtship with the EU did serve the AKP well domestically as the reforms made to satisfy EU adhesion criteria created a useful pretext in Ankara for taking steps to civilianize the government and uphold human rights, thereby making constitutional democracy much more of a behavioral reality for ordinary Turks.

 It is also true that during this period, especially in the last several years, Turkey has hit several bumps in the road. Turkish domestic polarization, always intense, worsened after the AKP scored its third consecutive electoral victory in 2011. After receiving such a mandate, the charismatic populist leader, Recip Teyyip Erdoğan seemed to lose patience managing prudently the deep fissures in the Turkish body politic, and began acting in a more autocratic manner that infuriated the opposition that had deeply resented his leadership from the outset. The internal debate in Turkey shifted from allegations that the AKP, and Erdoğan in particular, were pushing the country toward Islamism, to concerns about his supposedly anti-democratic style of governance.

These fissures erupted in a severe storm of oppositional politics during the Gezi Park protests of 2013 that were initially provoked by grassroots concerns that the future of Istanbul was now in the hands of greedy commercial developers enjoying ğvirtually unregulated support from the Erdoğan leadership. Turkey’s international image during these years was also weakened by its intemperate and failed material support given to the anti-Assad uprisings in Syria and its unresolved tensions with Israel. These tensions, although the result of Israel’s unlawful and provocative behavior toward the Palestinians and Turkey, nevertheless fueled a surge in anti-Turkish sentiments in the West, especially among Washington think tanks.

 

Few would doubt that Turkey has been traveling a controversial path both domestically and internationally, but in regional and global setting beset by turmoil and uncertainty to an extent that the reputation of the country has not damaged the popularity or reputation of the city. Istanbul embodies the charm and tradition of its illustrious Ottoman past and retains the extraordinary picturesque resource of the Bosphorus wending its way gracefully through the city, a source of continuous spectacle. At the same time, in a process that preceded the AKP but has been accelerated during its period of leadership, Istanbul became overly receptive to the glitz and glamor of capitalist modernity, upscale shopping malls springing up all over the city and huge ungainly buildings and residential projects being constructed without sensitivity to coherent urban design or sustaining the gracious urban past. In this respect, the irregular modern skyline formed by a poorly sited series of skyscrapers is an insensitive failure to seek the harmony of old and new, raising doubts about the future. Yet it is precisely this unresolved struggle over the nature of urban space that makes Istanbul a strategic and ideological battleground in the unfolding narrative of a globalizing planet.

 

Given the way world order is constituted even a world city, such as Istanbul, is subject to the authority of the territorial state where it is located and exists beneath the shadows cast by Turkey. Istanbul can only be seriously considered qualified to serve as the global capital if Turkey offers an acceptable national setting. This means that Istanbul must be situated within a legitimate state that maintains the rule of law, human rights, public order, and an atmosphere of tranquility, as well as being hospitable toward and protective of foreigners. All leading states have severe shortcomings in relation to these criteria, and this includes Turkey, but such limitations should not be treated as disqualifying unless the state fails to meet minimum requirements. There are many among the political opposition within Turkey, and outside, who contend that the Turkish state does fall below this minimum threshold. I disagree. I believe that Turkey as a political actor enjoys a sufficiently favorable balance of positive attributes to enable Turkey to offer a proper national setting for Istanbul in relation to being designated as global capital. The situation could change for the worse in the future, and if so, it would become appropriate to reconsider Istanbul’s status as global capital. In this respect tourist popularity should not be confused with a designation of Istanbul as the city that best transcends its national boundaries by offering cosmopolitan satisfactions to all persons, regardless of civilizational, racial, and religious identity.

 

 A Global Capital: Of Governments, Of People

 

Arguably, the idea of a global capital was given institutional resonance after World War I with the establishment of the League of Nations in Geneva, embodying a conception of world order as Euro-Centric. This was followed, in line with shifts in geopolitical stature, by locating the United Nations in New York after World War II, an acknowledgement of both American global leadership and the persisiting West-centric character of world order as of 1945. It should be noted that New York was not a national capital, and its appeal rested on its fabulous urban facilities, cosmopolitan ethnic and religious makeup, and its unsurpassed cultural depth. In the second decade of the 21st century it would no longer seem appropriate to choose any urban site in the West as ‘the center’ of the world, but neither would it be appropriate to ignore the continuing prominence of the West. Turkey offers a perfect compromise, and within Turkey Istanbul has most of the endowments needed at this historical time for the sort of world capital that now provides an existential entrance to the multi-faceted global reality of the early 21st century, but also showcases the epochal tensions of the age: modernity versus tradition; societal permissiveness versus conservative social values; secular versus religious worldviews.

 

Appreciating Rome: “The Eternal City”

According to Trip Advisor the second favorite tourist city is Rome, which continues to live up to its reputation at ‘the eternal city.’ It has a long lineage that traces back to its legendary founding in 753 BC. Rome more than even Athens is the birthplace of modernity, yet also the home of the most enduring of religious institutions, the Catholic Church, with its universally acclaimed papal leadership that resides in that unique polity, the Vatican, located within the confines of Rome. The restless political leaders of Rome in past centuries sought to extend the Roman political imaginary to the outermost parts of the known world. Our contemporary near universal sense of law and citizenship, political structure, transportation, urban vitality and even decadence all flow from the Rome’s rise and fall. The Roman Stoic philosophers also gave us the first glimmerings of belonging to a species as well as to an ethnos or religion or civilization. Although Rome was present at the creation of Western civilization, in modern times its destiny has been to let others carry the torch of the West to the far corners of the world, disastrously punctuated in the late 1930s by the rise of a populist version of fascism.

 To visit these two cities is to understand why Istanbul deserves to be the world capital and Rome deserves to remain the eternal city. While Istanbul draws strength from its Islamic/Ottoman past and present, its claims are reinforced by investing great energy and capital in establishing an identity that is fit for an era of continuing globalization. Its host country, Turkey, has recently learned to be an indispensable geopolitical player while at the same time becoming a focal point for efforts to forge ‘an alliance of civilizations.’ In contrast, Rome is content to keep what it has, admittedly at the cost of losing some benefits of modernity, not exerting influence in the telling of the contemporary geo-story. Perhaps, the biggest cost for Italy is public despair, especially among youth, many of whom feel they must leave country to find a sustainable future for themselves.

In Istanbul there is also a mood of some discouragement associated not with the absence of opportunity, but with the difficulties of achieving a satisfying life with too much demanded by way of work and daily tribulations in a crowded city of 15 million—too much traffic and pollution, insufficient income, clashing visions of a desirable future. All of this complexity is leading some Turkish youth to feel a new yearning for a simple life in the country. In architecture, as well, these complementary differences are evident. Rome discreetly hides its embrace of modernity rather convincingly, for some, too convincingly, and the old skyline and harmonious clusters of buildings dominate the city. While Istanbul has a jagged skyline of irregularly placed tall buildings, perpetual traffic gridlock of large and fast belligerently maneuvering cars, Rome is a city where the streets are filled with motorcycles, scooters, and smart cars, as well as varieties of automobiles. Rome mostly rests on past laurels, while Istanbul aspires, alive with a mixture of memory and ambition that exhausts, and even infuriates, many of its inhabitants, while enchanting visitors. In Istanbul the modern competes with and complements, often overwhelming the traditional, while in Rome the old classical city of fountains, squares, and parks holds uncontested sway.

 

Urban Pinnacles of our Time: Istanbul and Rome

 This global reality is strikingly different than what existed in 1918 or 1945. Although world order remains state-centric, its structure is more complex. It is less territorially governed and organized. Non-state actors play much more central organizing roles in the world economy and political system, both as providers of order and as its principal disrupters. The increased economic and technological integration of the life of the planet, as well as the global scale of the threats challenging its future, give a historical plausibility for the first time to the conception of a global capital that represents the authority and aspirations of the peoples of the planet rather than the functional projects of governmental elites. This conception of a global capital is essentially a cultural expression, and should not be confused with the creation of global problem-solving mechanisms or the harnessing of popular loyalties. It may be a refuge for those seeking a human identity that is neither the anachronistic idea of patriotic citizen nor the sentimental insistence of being a world citizen. Perhaps, the global capital will become an incubating haven and homeland for citizen pilgrims, those dissatisfied with the world as it is, those who have joined in a nonviolent pilgrimage in search of a future political community that embodies values of peace, justice, ecological wisdom, and spiritual fulfillment. It is against this background that I would nominate Istanbul to be the first capital of the world, not primarily because of its popularity among tourists. Rather because of its qualities that arouse and excite mind, heart, and soul.

 

In the end, we need them both—a global capital for the many faces of a globalizing reality, an eternal city that keeps alive its past while enjoying the present. It is no wonder that Istanbul and Rome are rated the first and second favorite cities in the world. Both share multiple imperial memories and plural religious traditions, and both contain architectural splendors, cultural legacies, while partaking of an exhilarating, often breathless, and richly satisfying lifeworld.

 

 

 

 

 

‘Genocide’ in 1915: Law, Language, and Politics

27 Apr

 [This post is supplemental to what was contained in yesterday's post, seeking to take advantage of the attention given to the events of 1915, to encourage a rethinking of the nature of the conflict. I am arguing that the historical argument should be put to rest, and that the issues that yet need to be resolved relate to the legal questions surrounding the applicability of genocide, as well as the related semiotic and political questions associated what be called 'the politics of genocide.']

            The Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the American President, Barack Obama, have both been accused of ‘denialism’ by representatives of the Armenian community in response to their official statements issued to commemorate formally the 99th anniversary of atrocities committed in 1915 against the Armenian minority living in Turkey.

 

            The accusations directed at the two leaders are somewhat different as is the tone and substance of their two statements. Obama is essentially being attacked because the Armenian diaspora community in the United States was led to believe during his presidential campaign of 2008 that he would if elected formally affirm that what happened in 1915 to the Armenian minority living in Turkey constituted genocide. Obama’s statement adopts strong language of condemnation: “We recall the horror of what happened ninety-nine years ago, when 1.5 million people were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire.” He added, “I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” apparently seeking to console those who expected more, while refraining from crossing the red line associated with the G-word, which is what Armenians were waiting for. Obama calls for a “full, frank, and just acknowledgement” of the facts as being in the interests of all sides, and part of the struggle to “build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future,” and with a nod toward national humility Obama observes that Armenian/Turkish reconciliation should go forward “as we [in America] strive to reconcile some of the darkest moments in our own history.” But this is not enough to satisfy those who articulate the views of the Armenian campaign that will settle for nothing less than the unambiguous avowal that the Armenian ordeal was ‘genocide.’ Any other description of these events is dismissed as unacceptable, being regarded as evasive or denialist in relation to this insistence on the word.

 

            Oddly, the complaints about Erdogan’s response to the 1915 anniversary are rather similar, although his rhetoric is more problematic in relation to how the events in question should be historically understood. For Erdogan many ethnicities suffered unjustly during the final stage of the Ottoman Empire, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Armenians and millions of others during this “difficult period.” He calls for an approach that appreciates “all the sufferings endured..without discriminating as to religion or ethnicity.” And further, that no justice is rendered by “constructing hierarchies of pain nor comparing and contrasting suffering.” Erdogan pushes back against Armenian pressures by saying “using the events of 1915 as an excuse for hostility against Turkey and turning the issue into a matter of political conflict is inadmissible.” In effect, Erdogan repudiates the major premise of the Armenian campaign.

 

            Erdogan articulates, as well, an approach that Turkey has more broadly embraced in its sponsorship (with Spain) of the Alliance of Civilizations: “The spirit of the age necessitates dialogue despite differences, understanding by heeding others, evaluating means for compromise, denouncing hatred, and praising respect and tolerance.” More concretely, he repeats the call for “a joint historical commission,” which would have the benefit of an expanded access to the extensive Turkish archives now available to all researchers. Along these lines Erdogan also proposes that the diverse peoples of Anatolia, who lived together peacefully for centuries, “talk to each other about the past with maturity and to remember together their losses in a decent manner.” And somewhat piously at the end, “it is with this hope and belief that we wish the Armenians who lost their lives in the context of the early twentieth century rest in peace, and we convey our condolences to their grandchildren.”

 

            As might be expected, the Armenian reaction to such sentiments is one of anger, and feelings of disappointment that can be summarized by the reaction, ‘nothing new.’ Erdogan’s message is the familiar Turkish refrain that refuses to accept the central Armenian grievance—that Armenians were the main target of the lethal Ottoman policies of 1915 to such a deliberate and systematic extent as to justify the label of ‘genocide.’ The Armenian campaign for rectification is centered upon the unconditional demand that governments throughout the world, especially Turkey, and secondarily, the United States, confirm that what took place was genocide. For this reason, although the differences between what Obama and Erdogan had to say are significant, even profound, the Armenian reactions are almost equally dismissive.

 

            To some extent more nuanced Armenian responses to Obama and Erdogan might help lead toward a more constructive approach to persisting tensions. After all, Obama basically subscribes to the Armenian understanding of what took place in 1915, while Erdogan rejects the far more basic idea that Armenian suffering is of such a grave character as to warrant special consideration. It would seem desirable and reasonable for Turkey to move beyond this view of plural suffering to a willingness to accept the historical narrative long convincingly put forward by respected scholars and representatives of the Armenian and international community, and concentrate attention on how this terrible past episode may be properly acknowledged during 2015, a hundred years later. The responsible debate at this time is about the legal status of the 1915 events, taking the historical facts as sufficiently established as to not require further investigation. Indeed if the Turkish government were willing to make this concession it might ease the way toward creating a process with some real prospect of mutual accommodation. From this perspective, it should be possible to start by agreeing with the descriptive accuracy of Obama’s formulation and move beyond what Erdogan proposes while incorporating his remarks encouraging dialogue and tolerance.

 

            What seems most helpful at this time is shifting away from a focus on the historical interpretation of the events of 1915 toward a consideration of how to achieve an agreed rendering of the legal and semiotic issues that are the true residual core of the controversy. Such a shift will at least allow us to understand the overriding importance attributed by both the Armenian community and the Turkish government to whether the word genocide should be treated as applicable or non-applicable in the good faith search by the parties for justice and reconciliation. In the spirit of moderation it needs also to be realized that time has passed, that the hurt of such remembrances can never be fully assuaged, and that the best that can be achieved is some compromise between remembering and forgetting. Such a compromise is essential if the shared objective of the Armenian community and Turkey is to escape finally from the twinned entrapments of embitterment and rationalization.    

Armenian Grievances, Turkey, United States and 1915

26 Apr

 

 

            On April 10 by a vote of 12-5, with one abstention, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee gave its approval to Resolution 410 calling upon Turkey to acknowledge that the massacres of Armenians in 1915, and subsequently, constituted ‘genocide.’ It also asks President Obama to adjust American foreign policy by advocating an “equitable, constructive, stable and durable Armenian-Turkish relationship including full acknowledgement of ‘the Armenian genocide.’” So far, Obama since becoming president has refrained from uttering the g-word, although he has acknowledged the historical wrongs done to the Armenian people in the strongest possible language of condemnation.

 

            Such resolutions, although widely understood to be symbolic and recommendatory, reflect the efforts of the Armenian diaspora to raise awareness of the true nature of what the Armenians endured in 1915, and especially to induce the Turkish government to acknowledge these events as ‘genocide,’ or else suffer the reputational consequences of embracing what is being called ‘denialism.’ The resolution is the latest move to build a strong international consensus in support of the Armenian sense of grievance, and in so doing generate pressures on the accused Turkish government to admit the full enormity of the crimes against the Armenian people by admitting that it was genocide. Further there may also be present an intention to reinforce an appropriate apology, should it be forthcoming, with such tangible steps as restoring stolen property and possibly even establishing a reparations fund.

 

            The Armenian campaign also makes the wider claim that this process of redress for a horrendous historic grievance will also act as a deterrent to the commission in the future of similar crimes. The Senate resolution, however, make a minimal contribution to these goals. It is little more than a gesture of good will explicitly associated with commemorating the 99th anniversary of the 2015 events. As the April 24th day of commemoration has passed without the resolution being put on the action agenda of the full Senate prior to its Easter recess the resolution becomes consigned to the permanent twilight of a recommendation that is never even consummated by the relevant legislative body. Such an interplay of action and inaction manifests an underlying governmental ambivalence as to how this issue should be formally addressed by the United States at official levels of government. Why? Because the expression criticism of the Turkish government for the manner it is addressing the Armenian demands for redress inevitably engages American foreign policy.

 

            The Turkish Foreign Minister has already indicated his displeasure with such initiatives, insisting that respected historians should investigate the claim of genocide, that it is not appropriate for third countries to meddle in such matters, and that such an initiative, if it were formally endorsed at higher levels in Washington, will have a negative influence on the search for some kind of mutually acceptable resolution of these persisting tensions. The Turkish narrative on 1915, which has been softening its oppositional stance during the past decade, still argues that there were atrocities and suffering for Turks as well as Armenians, including a considerable number of Turkish casualties. Further, that the massacres of Armenians were less expressions of ethnic hatred than expressive of a reliance on excessive and undisciplined force to suppress an Armenian revolt against Ottoman rule at a time when Armenians were siding with invading Russian armies in the midst of World War I.

 

What is at Stake

 

            There are two important, intertwined concerns present. First, the whole issue of inter-temporal justice, how to address events that took place one hundred years ago in a manner that is as fair as possible to the victims yet takes account of the passage of time in assessing responsibility for such long past events. Secondly, the degree to which such an issue should be resolved by the parties themselves within the frame of the country where the events took place, or within the framework of the United Nations, rather than be addressed in the domestic politics of third countries whose governments are likely swayed by the presence or absence of aggrieved minorities.

 

            My impression is that the current leadership in Turkey is less seriously committed to upholding the Turkish narrative than in the past, but neither is it willing to subscribe to the Armenian narrative in some of its key elements, especially the insistence that what took place in 1915 must be described as genocide if it is to be properly acknowledged. It is not only the inflammatory nature of the word itself, but also a reasonable apprehension in Ankara of ‘the Pandora’s Box’ aspects of such a process, which once opened would likely move from the word genocide to such delicate embedded questions as reparations and the restoration of stolen property. Especially in recent months, the Turkish political scene has been rather chaotic, and undoubtedly there is a present reluctance by Turkish leaders to stir the hot embers of its nationalist political culture by acceding to the Armenian agenda relating to resolving the conflict. Yet with the 100th anniversary of 1915 around the corner, Turkey has its own strong incentives for being pro-active in developing a forthcoming posture in relation to Armenia and the Armenians.

 

            Against such a background, it seems important to ask what it is that the Armenian demand for the redress of historic grievances is seeking. Is it the belated satisfaction of having Turkey formally declare and admit that what took place in 1915 was ‘genocide,’ or is it more than this? Is there embedded this further demand that Turkey honor the memory of these events by some sort of annual observance, perhaps coupled with the establishment of an Armenian Genocide Museum? Or as signaled already that Turkey is expected to establish a fund and reparations procedures that will allow descendants of the victims to put forward economic claims for the harms endured? In effect, is the full range of Armenian expectations apparent at this stage or merely somewhat clouded? As the experience with the Holocaust suggests, there is no single event that can permanently shut the doors of history or dry the tears of extreme remorse. At most, acknowledgement, apology, and even tangible steps initiate a process that will never completely end, nor bring a satisfying closure to those who identify with the victims of such an unforgivable stream of past occurrences.

            As well, parallel to the genocidal and 1915 Armenian agenda, is a long festering inter-governmental dispute between Turkey and the sovereign state of Armenia over control of Nagorno-Karabakh region in the middle of Azerbaijan that has closed the border between the two countries since 1993. The Acting Armenian Foreign Minister, Edward Nabandian, added fuel to this diplomatic fire by welcoming the Senate resolution as “an important step” toward establishing “historical truth and prevention of crimes against humanity.” By so doing, the international dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh is joined at the hip to the historical controversy about the events of 1915. In an unusual way, the Armenian campaign is mainly conducted under the direction of the Armenian diaspora, and has only been given a secondary emphasis by Armenia itself, which has generally seemed more concerned about economic relations, and especially the territorial dispute in Azerbaijan, when dealing with its Turkish neighbor.

 

            What is one to do about a course of events that occurred under distinct national and international conditions expressive of different structures and legal norms that prevailed a century earlier? I was similarly challenged recently after giving a lecture on moral responsibility in international political life. The question was posed by a native American in the audience who angrily asked me why I had failed to advocate the restoration of the land seized in earlier centuries from the indigenous peoples who then inhabited North America, implying that my silence about such matters was an implicit endorsement of genocide. Such a reaction is understandable on the part of those who identify with a victimized community, but cannot be prescriptive in relation to 21st century realities. Certainly it was genocidal in willing that distinct ethnic groups become extinct or endure forcible dispossession, but there was at the time no legal prohibition on such behavior, and whatever moral interdiction existed was inconclusive, despite the manifest cruelty of the colonizing behavior. At this point, the clock cannot be rolled back to apply contemporary standards of justice to past wrongdoings, although ethical sensitivity and empathy is fully warranted. And what is totally unacceptable are any present efforts to rationalize or even glorify past barbarisms. For instance, the disgusting revisionist view of American slavery recently articulated by the right-wing libertarian rancher, Cliven Bundy, who absurdly asserts that slaves were probably happier than freed African Americans because they enjoyed the satisfactions of family life. As Charles Blow observes in an opinion piece, “Slaves dishonored in life must not have their memories disfigured by revisionist history.” {Blow, “A Rancher’s Romantic Revisionism,” NY Times, April 26, 2014]

 

            We must begin from where we are (but not end there), seeking as humane and transparent a response to these historic injustices as seems possible given both the intervening developments and the relevant balance of forces now and then. True, the anti-colonial movements of the last half of the 20th century did undo earlier injustices because of their capacity to mobilize effective movements of popular resistance. Indigenous people do not have this capacity, and are confined to what legal remedies are voluntarily conferred, and to what degree documenting the past creates sufficient public sympathy to support initiatives seeking some fractional measure of moral and material rectification.

 

            To some extent, accurate documentation is itself a form of historic redress, as was the case with the post-dictatorial ‘truth and reconciliation’ processes that tried in Latin American and South Africa to reconcile peace and justice during a transition to constitutional democracy, yet never brought anything approaching satisfaction or even closure to the victim communities that had earlier experienced unforgiveable criminality. We should also learne from Nelson Mandela’s willingness to overlook the structural injustices associated with economic and social apartheid in achieving the ‘political miracle’ of a peaceful dissolution of political apartheid. Also relevant are some of the late reflections of Edward Said on how to address the Palestine/Israel struggle given the realities that existed fifty years after the establishment of Israel. In effect, Said was of the opinion that despite the legally and morally unacceptable dispossession of the Palestinian people from their homes and homeland in 1948, it was now both futile and wrong to challenge any longer the existence of Israel. To resolve the conflict, in his view, required an acknowledgement of past injustices, especially the nakba, and mutually agreed arrangements that allowed the two peoples to live and co-exist in peace under conditions of equality, security, and dignity.

 

Was it Genocide?

 

            Is there a single historical truth that must be affirmed by all those of good will, and is it what the Armenian movement and U.S. Senate resolution contends? Can Turkey only express its good faith by subscribing literally to the main features of the Armenian narrative? Until it makes such a willingness clear it is unlikely to deflect the accusatory agenda of those demanding redress. In effect, is the litmus test of Turkish sincerity and remorse dependent upon a formal acknowledgement that what took place in 1915 was unequivocally ‘genocide’? I believe the historical truth is quite unequivocal from a factual and moral perspective, namely, that there was a systematic and deliberate effort to eliminate the Armenian minority from Turkey stemming from government orders and plans, and although occurring in the midst of war, political instability, and national upheaval, the ethnic violence was so one-sided and comprehensive as to undermine the credibility of the central contention of the Turkish narrative that World War I brought about an inter-ethnic experience of shared suffering replete with atrocities, but the blame cannot be exclusively attributed to Turkey, nor can the suffering be exclusively assigned to the Armenian community. This historical truth of predominant Turkish responsibility, however, is far more equivocal in relation to the further Armenian insistence that these genocidal events constitute the crime of genocide as embodied in the 1948 Genocide Convention, which came into force in 1951.

 

            Criminal law is not retroactive. Even the Nuremberg Judgment, which endorsed such innovations as ‘crimes against the peace’ and ‘crimes against humanity’ avoided any attempt to hold the Nazi leaders being prosecuted responsible for genocide despite the magnitude of the Holocaust and the abundance documented evidence of the deliberate and planned elimination of the Jewish people. What exactly, then, is the crime of ‘genocide’? Can it be said to pre-exist the entry into force of the Genocide Convention, considering the wording of its first article, but if so, why was genocide ignored in the prosecution of these Nazis? The wording of Article 1 of the Genocide Convention lends an aura of ambiguity to such queries: “The contracting parties confirm that genocide whether committed in time of peace or in time of war, is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish.” (emphasis added). The word ‘confirm’ in Article 1 seems supportive of the view that the crime depicted in the treaty somehow preexisted the adoption of the Convention, and that only the usage of the word is retroactive. Yet the concept of genocide was not conceived to be a legal category until the crime was proposed in 1944 by Raphael Lemkin. I would suppose that had Lemkin persuaded the political community to adopt the Genocide Convention a decade earlier the Nuremberg indictments would have included the crime, and possibly the decision would have given guidance as to whether the crime came into being with treaty or antedated its ratification.

 

            Controversy is present as soon as the idea is to compel Turkey to admit that the massacres of 1915 are massive commissions of the crime of genocide, and as such, have an array of legal implications. More flexible, by far, would be a process of inquiry by an international commission of independent experts, which included well respected international lawyers, that would likely conclude that the events in question were clearly ‘genocidal’ in character, and if they had occurred after the Genocide Convention was adopted in 1950, they would constitute ‘genocide.’

            The World Court in responding to the Bosnia complaint alleging Serbian genocide concluded that a high evidentiary bar exists to establish the crime of genocide even with the benefit of the Convention, but it did find that the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica was ‘genocide.’ The majority decision of the highest judicial body in the UN System indirectly highlights the crucial differences between the crime of genocide and the psycho/political/sociological realities of genocidal behavior.

 

Is U.S. Government Involvement Constructive?

 

            The question of whether the United States should be involved in shaping international public opinion is less significant than the substantive dispute about the events, but far from trivial. The questionable political opportunism that connects the responsiveness of Congress to a well-organized Armenian lobby in the United States does seem to make reasonable the official Turkish response that it is never helpful for a foreign government to take the anti-government side in an unresolved controversy of this sort. It is bound to harm bilateral relations between the two countries. In effect, the mutual respect for sovereignty requires governments to refrain from such meddling under almost all circumstances. One can easily imagine the furor in the United States if the Turkish Parliament passed a resolution insisting that Washington finally acknowledge that native American tribal communities were victims of genocide or that descendants of slaves are entitled to reparations. However sincere and morally plausible, in a world where legality and legitimacy are almost always matters for territorial sovereigns to resolve, the foreign source of such sentiments are deeply resented, and are more likely to produce an angry backlash than to induce an accommodating retreat.

 

Finding a Solution

            From the Armenian perspective seeking redress, is this show of American governmental support helpful or not? I suspect that a more discreet effort would produce less defensiveness on the Turkish side, and more willingness to seek a mutually satisfactory outcome. Mobilizing the American Congress and French legislative bodies is somewhat similar to looking beneath the lamppost for a watch dropped in the darkness of the night. Admittedly, if the purpose is to raise awareness and mobilize support from the Armenians such a public relations campaign may be effective even if it stiffens Turkish resistance in the short run.

             A second important concern is how to address the genocide issue given the passage of time, and the interplay of preoccupations on both sides. My preference would be for both Turkish and Armenian representative to agree that it is permissible to use the word genocide with reference to the Armenian ordeal of 1915, but with a shared understanding that the use of the word in relation to the massacres of Armenians is without legal effect. The concept of genocide is inherently ambiguous as it simultaneously puts forward an empirical description of a set of events that offers a political, psychological, sociological, and ethical evaluation of those events, while also advancing the possible legal evaluation of such events as constituting the crime of genocide, which would also mean sustaining a heavy burden of proof as required to establish specific intent, which is a vital element of the crime.

 

            What does not help internationally, it would seem, is posturing by the U.S. Congress. It will probably necessitate some quiet fence-mending by the Obama presidency to maintain good Turkish-American relations, a key strategic priority. At the same time, the Turkish government should not sit still. It should do more than angrily push aside this American initiative and the related Armenian campaign, and show a more forthcoming attitude toward finding common ground to heal gaping Armenian wounds that remain open after a century. Mounting pressure due to the worldwide Armenia is definitely raising the level of awareness, but only wisdom, empathy, and good will on both sides can overcome such an embittered past. In some respects, there is something tragic about this standoff between those who have reason to want the past to be a matter of historical reflection and those who insist that the past is forever present.

 

            The Turkish government has reiterated its offer to establish a joint commission composed of Armenian, Turkish and international historians to establish an authoritative narrative. Besides the likelihood that existing disagreements would be reproduced in the working of this type of commission, the idea that core concern is ‘historical’ misses a main point that such a traumatic series of events need to be interpreted from multiple perspectives, including that in this instance of international criminal law. Establishing the factual reality, which strongly favors Armenian empirical claims, does not resolve the question of what would qualify as an appropriate acknowledgement by the Turkish government, nor does it address the lurking concern as to whether acknowledgement is sufficient, and if not, what further steps must be taken by Turkey if it is to satisfy the Armenian campaign.

 

 

After Turkey’s March 30th Local Elections

13 Apr

1486091d-a6c0-3e22-b5fc-da4c4ec6505e b70b5fc4-2171-30b7-a6c8-ccd268771f5b 9ff8efb7-7b83-3c49-9347-2f5b18c51136

 

 

 

            Never in the history of the Turkish republic have municipal elections of the mayors of cities and towns meant so much to the political life of the country as those held on March 30. It is not a sudden turn to localism around the country or in the big cities, although the commercializing of the urban landscape in large Turkish cities, especially Istanbul, is a matter of serious concern to an influential and discontented segment of the citizenry. The primary explanation for this great interest in these local elections, exhibited by a record voter turnout, had to do with an embittered and multi-faceted opposition to the national leadership provided by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), and above all, by its controversially charismatic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both the government and the opposition treated these elections as a referendum on the leadership being bestowed upon the country by Erdogan, its stormy prime minister during the past 12 years.

 

            What was surprising about the outcome to most observers was the persisting strength of public support for AKP leadership, reflecting a widely shared approval on the part of ordinary Turks combined with the sense that the main opposition forces, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the National Action Party (MHP), had little to offer the country, and if given the chance to govern would likely plunge the country into recession and chaos, and possibly even collapse. In such an inflamed atmosphere, the AKP received approximately 45% of the vote, up from 39% in the last local elections held in 2009, while the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 28% and the rightest National Action Party (MHP) about 14%. The support of the CHP was mainly concentrated in the large Turkish cities in the West. In the cities of the Turkish East where minorities often dominate, especially Kurds, the CHP turns its back, has no organizational presence, and received less than 1% voter support in such leading cities as Diyarbakir, Van, Sanliurfa. It is a strange anomaly of Turkey that in a country of 77 million the AKP is the only political party that competes for votes throughout the entire country, and seems responsive to the expectations and grievances of all sections and ethnicities.

 

            Looked at differently, the election returns also disclose that 55% of the Turkish public opposes Erdogan and the AKP, and this would suggest that Erdogan’s presumed presidential ambitions might never be realized. In the presidential elections scheduled for this August the winner must poll over 50%, although not necessarily on the first round. Erdogan’s candidacy might still be a possibility, if done with the support, or at least acquiescence, of the current president, Abdullah Gul, and if the Kurds could be persuaded to vote, Erdogan, which is a distinct possibility. As of now, Erdogan has not disclosed his intentions about the presidency or, more generally, his political future. Whatever happens, so long as Erdogan remains active, his presence is likely to be the lightning rod that dominates the Turkish political landscape, and keeps the atmosphere tense.

 

            From an outsider’s perspective this level of reaffirmation of citizen confidence in the AKP and Erdogan seems implausible at first glance. The mainstream international media has been increasingly hostile toward Turkey since 2010 or so, especially contending that his leadership in recent years was slouching toward authoritarian rule. This line of criticism portrayed Erdogan as a Turkish version of Vladimir Putin. This international turn toward a critical view of Erdogan undoubtedly reflected several developments: the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations following the Gaza War of 2008-09 culminating in the Mavi Marmara incident the following year in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turks on a Turkish passenger ship carrying humanitarian supplies to beleaguered Gaza in defiance of an Israeli blockade; the Turkish pursuit of a foreign policy line more independent of American priorities, especially in relation to Iran, highlighted by a 2010 Turkish/Brazilian initiative to resolve tensions surrounding Iran’s nuclear program and followed by a related refusal of Turkey to go along with the Western push in the UN Security Council for intensifying sanctions on Iran; and more recently, with Turkey standing almost alone in the Middle East and the West in its refusal to welcome the 2013 military coup against the Muslim Brotherhood led Egyptian government or to be silent when the new military leadership under General Sisi committed vicious state crimes against those that resisted the efforts of the new regime in Cairo to impose total control over the society after overthrowing the elected Morsi government.

 

            Such Turkish deviations from the Western consensus on regional policy were not really as dramatic or systemic as made to appear. The Turkish Government has long made it clear that restoration of normal diplomatic relations with Israel would be welcomed if Tel Aviv acted reasonably, and accepted responsibility for the Mavi Marmara deaths and lifted its unlawful blockade of Gaza maintained since mid-2007. In relation to Iran, the NATO group has always claimed, as does Turkey, to seek a diplomatic solution, and seemed at one stage even to encourage and welcome the Turkish/Brazilian initiative to find a solution for the storage of Iran’s enriched uranium. Besides, Ankara’s relations with Iran have cooled considerably in light of their opposed positions in Syria. Further, given the bloody record of the post-Morsi leadership in Egypt, the United States and others in the region should by now feel ashamed of their failure to stand up for democratically elected leaders and insist that the Sisi leadership show at least minimal respect for the rule of law and human rights before lavish economic assistance is forthcoming.

 

            Additionally, on a host of other issues Turkey remains solidly in the Western camp, including the controversial deployment of defensive NATO missile systems on its territory, strong opposition to the Assad regime in Syria, provision for over one million Syrian refugees in a form that meets international standards, tendering of crucial and unwavering support for the Syrian rebel insurgency, and participation in the NATO intervention of 2013 in Libya, and even in the controversial NATO operation in Afghanistan. On balance, Turkey in recent years was doing nothing more disruptive of its long-term Western orientation in foreign policy than to behave like an independent sovereign state of rising regional influence and global status. Turkish behavior should have been viewed in Washington and Europe as a positive and natural development in this post-Cold War era, especially if compared with the violent instability, entrenched authoritarianism, and economic stagnancy that continues to prevail throughout most of the Middle East.

 

            Undoubtedly, the domestic realities of Turkey, even ignoring the recent flare ups, seemed likely to weaken Erdogan’s hold on popular support. To begin with, any democratically elected leadership that has been in power for more than a decade has a tendency to make an increasing proportion of its citizenry restless. Furthermore, most political parties to long in control of the government become increasingly susceptible to corrupting temptations. Such extended governance even without scandals generates feelings in the public that it is time for a change. Although in Turkey such a prospect of change is worrisome, as the alternatives to AKP leadership seem so lacking in capacity and vision. It is a definite weakness of Turkey’s political life that there is absent a responsible opposition that could at least elevate the level of policy debate and offer constructive ideas about addressing national policy options. Without such a responsible opposition the body politic of a democratic society is subject to the unhappy choice of relying indefinitely on a single governing party or taking its chances with the irresponsible opposition that may not even be able to manage the economy, much less steer the ship of state through the perilous political waters of the region.

 

            In the background, was a deep seated and uncompromising opposition to the AKP and Erdogan on the part of the old secular establishment that had ruled the country ever since its initial electoral success in 2002. Such sentiments of discontent in Turkey were given a fierce endorsement by the Gezi Park demonstrations of mid-2013, and even more so by the lethal force used in response by the government to maintain public order. Whether these developments did more than strengthen the will and intensify the shrillness of anti-Erdogan forces is hard to say, but the recent electoral results suggest that no serious erosion of pro-AKP support occurred. Erdogan’s abrasive refusal to address the Gezi protests in a respectful and statesmanlike language that sought reconciliation produced widespread critical comment at home and abroad. His initial praise for police tactics also alarmed commentators, and reinforced the impression that Erdogan was insensitive to the abuse inflicted on aroused citizens who were doing nothing more than exercising democratic rights of peaceful protest. It is also relevant to note that the international media was much more critical of Erdogan’s response to Gezi Park than to the far bloodier responses of General Sisi’s regime to peaceful demonstrations of the Muslim Brotherhood in the public squares of Cairo. Also, it should be taken into account, that what started in Gezi Park as a youth movement of environmental protest against the destruction of a heritage site in Istanbul quickly escalated into an anti-Erdogan hate fest, calling for his resignation, if not his head, and savagely attacking the entire economic and political program being pursued by the AKP. Also overlooked by the international media and internal opposition were the several moves toward reconciliation made by Erdogan, including meeting with opposition leaders, accepting a judicial decision as to the future of Gezi Park, and generally, trying, if belatedly to calm the situation and move on.

 

            What followed after Gezi in recent months came as a startling surprise to most outsiders, and seemed far more threatening to the AKP hold on political power: the split between the Hizmet Movement headed by Fetullah Gulen from his unusual command center in rural Pennsylvania and Erdogan. This split dramatically ruptured the unity of the two leading Islamic tendencies in Turkish political and cultural life. Without considering the complexity of what produced this bitter conflict between these two powerful Islamically oriented personalities, it seemed that such an organizational cleavage would gravely weaken the AKP appeal, especially against the background of seemingly rising dissatisfaction that seemed on the increase throughout Turkey in recent years. This dissatisfaction seemed further magnified by the spectacular corruption charges put forward on December 17, 2013, purporting to implicating the highest levels of the Erdogan administration, and inducing four ministers to resign in disgrace. There were additional accusations of major corruption also directed at Erdogan and his son, but the evidence made public so far relies on untrustworthy and possibly fraudulent, and certainly unlawful, surveillance tapes that did not enjoy high credibility.

 

            Assessing the overall leadership of Erdogan is not an easy task. Ever since the AKP came to power Erdogan has been hated by the Turkish secular opposition and adored by his populist followers. In the early years of the AKP administration, Erdogan was cautious, pragmatic, and exceedingly effective in steering the country onto a course of action that involved economic growth, the control of inflation, a pronounced effort to accommodate the European Union’s criteria for membership, control of the armed forces, relative mildness in his personal pronouncements, and a range of regional and extra-regional foreign policy initiatives that won widespread admiration around the world. Despite the electoral mandate and difficulties associated with a resistant bureaucracy that reflected largely CHP and MHP views as to Turkish national policy, it seemed clear to most objective observers that Turkey was under capable leadership impressively pursuing constructive national goals, especially as compared to unfolding events elsewhere in the Middle East.

 

            Yet, the opposition was unwilling to act responsibly, seeming to be only interested in finding reasons to attack the Erdogan administration, and even to generate a crisis of legitimacy that would be conducive to a coup of the kind that had displaced several elected Turkish governments in the past. Talking to secular critics in the early years of AKP governance, there were several lines of response all aggressively hostile: the main one was the suspicion that the real intentions of the AKP was secretly to prepare the ground for making Turkey into ‘a second Iran,’ that is, a governing process reflecting Islamic values and contrary to the secular principles associated with the founding vision of Kemal Ataturk and enshrined in the Turkish constitution; a somewhat less belligerent theme of the AKP critics was to belittle its record of success, which was difficult to deny altogether, as a byproduct of the Turkish effort to satisfy EU requirements for membership or benefitting from the good luck of an economic package that had been bestowed on the country by the IMF and took hold just in time for the AKP to claim credit for a record of sustained economic growth that it didn’t deserve.

 

            As time passed, two things became obvious: first, the Turkish armed forces were not willing, as in the pre-AKP past, to take control of and responsibility for the state, suggesting that the democratically elected AKP was no longer on a collision course with the military as had been a widespread conjecture in the years immediately following their electoral victory in 2002; and secondly, the Turkish citizenry confirmed their support for the AKP in election after election up through the just concluded local elections of 2014, and especially exhibited an expanding base of support for AKP in the 2011 national elections. This trend and the 2011 outcome added to the polarization that reflected the atmosphere of distrust and hostility on both sides of the Turkish political divide. It is true that after 2011 Erdogan often behaved as if intoxicated by political success and the tangible achievements during his time as head of state. The opposition became hysterically alienated, both convinced that they possessed no democratic path by which to displace the AKP from the commanding heights in Turkey and fearful and angry about Erdogan’s more strident and opinionated portended a descent into oppressive rule. Putting the issue in more conceptual terms, Erdogan was becoming more of a populist leader buoyed by the enthusiasm of his political base, interpreting the 2011 electoral mandate from the perspective of majoritarian democracy, that is, without taking into account the views of the opposition, ruling on behalf of the majority rather than exhibiting sensitivity to the interests of the whole of Turkish society.

 

            On the night of the March 30 elections, Erdogan delivered a victory speech from the balcony of his official residence that could be read in either of two ways, and probably should be understood as expressing an unresolved tension in his own mind. Because of some aggressive language directed toward the opposition, especially bitterness toward the tactics and behavior of the Gulen movement, it could be viewed as it was in a NY Times editorial as indicating Erdogan’s thirst for revenge. His words were strong: “We’ll walk into their dens..Now is the time to comb them out, with the law. Why? Because from now on, neither the nation nor we will show tolerance to such networks.” It seemed to suggest that with the elections behind, a purge of Gulen adherents would be carried out with merciless resolve by the Turkish state.

 

            There was a different message also contained in the speech. It was a message of reconciliation and unity, addressed to the whole of the country, and celebrating, rather than bemoaning Turkish diversity. “We have said one nation with Turks, Kurds, Laz, Caucasians, Abkhasians, Bosniaks and Roma people. I love them as a Turk for being a Turk, a Kurd for being a Kurd, or a Laz for being a Laz.” This multiculturalism was reinforced further: “Today..the process of national unity and fraternity won. Not even one person among the 77 million lost, because a cadre that is ready to serve them without any discrimination is in office.” This is a welcome departure from an ethno-nationalist past nurtured by Ataturk in the state-building early phase of modern Turkish history, in which being Turkish overrode non-Turkish ethnic identities, producing discrimination and sometimes severe and dangerous tensions, especially in relation to the large Kurdish minority.

 

            As we look to the Turkish future we can thus see two different dominant scenarios of AKP/Erdogan leadership: the first is to remain in an internal confrontational mode with a combative leadership in Ankara lashing out at all those that disagree with its style and substance; the second is to give meaning to the promise of leadership on behalf of the whole of Turkish society, requiring Erdogan to moderate his rhetoric and to be less publicly opinionated about social life style issues, and to restore a foreign policy approach dedicated to the peaceful settlement of regional conflcts and positive engagement with Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia. Two starting points for this preferred approach would be a concerted revival of the Kurdish initiative, which seemed quite hopeful a few months ago and a reset on Syria that gave priority to ending the violence and addressing the humanitarian emergency in the country and supported an inclusive diplomacy that tried hard to make Iran part of the solution rather than the core of the problem.

 

            At stake, is the quality of Turkish democracy, which must at once value the procedures of election, but also confirm the importance of constraints on the power of the state via genuine support for the rule of law, freedom of expression in the media, accountability of political leaders, a credible anti-corruption campaign, and a respectful attitude toward the political opposition. In effect, what is being proposed is a move away from the excesses of majoritarian democracy, and toward the implementation of republican ideas of separation of powers and checks and balances. Of course, also, the opposition needs to play its part by desisting from demonizing the leadership, acknowledging the accomplishments of government alongside the mounting of criticisms of its shortcomings, and adhering itself to legal and responsible limits associated with respect to surveillance and the use of social media. Turkey retains the potential to carry a bright torch of hope into the future if it can restore political stability, sustain economic growth, engage with the more democratic trends in the region, and resume a foreign policy that rests on ethical principles and ambitions as well as national interests.

 

            The assessment of the deadly sarin gas incident that killed as many as 1500 people living in the Ghouta neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus on August 21, 2013 has now cast a new dark shadow across the Turkish post-election political scene. Seymour Hersh, a highly respected American investigative journalist, has recently published a devastating account of how the Turkish government facilitated the acquisition of sarin gas by the Al Nusra Front in Syria with the intention of producing a false flag operation in Syria that would cross Obama’s red line relating to chemical weapons, and lead to a devastating American air attack on Syria, and swing the war there back in favor of the anti-Assad insurgency. [See Seymour M Hersh, “The Red Line and the Rat Line,” London Review of Books, April 6, 2014; reinforcing Hersh’s account is an interpretative article by Robert Fisk, an equally prominent journalist, appearing on April 10, 2014 in The Independent with the inflammatory title, “Has Recep Tayyip Erdogan gone from model Middle East ‘strongman’ to tin-pot dictator?”]

 

            This scenario that came perilously close to happening, being aborted at the last minute by the unwelcome realization in the Obama White House that the sarin attack could not be convincingly attributed to the Assad regime. According to Hersh’s analysis Obama shifted course at the last minute when it became clear that the evidence indicated that it was rebel forces, and not the Damascus government, that fired the missiles containing the poison gas into a crowded urban area. Obama reportedly changed course when presented with the revised account of the events on August 21 by the top American military commanders. Both the United States and Turkish Governments have issued sharp denials of the Hersh allegations, and continue to insist that there still are no reasons to doubt that the attack on Ghouta was done by Assad’s forces. Whatever the reality, this controversy has been seized upon by Erdogan’s foes in Turkey to renew their attack on the legitimacy of his leadership. These charges are extremely serious, and if reliably established and do not just fade away, could tip the Turkish balance against Erdogan as an acceptable political leader.       

 

Imperiled Polities: Egypt and Turkey—Two Visions of Democracy

25 Jan

 

The Meaning of a 98.1% Vote

 

In mid-January there was a vote in Egypt as to whether to approve a constitution drafted by a 50-person committee appointed by the interim government put in place after the military coup carried out on July 3, 2013. The constitution was approved by 98.1% of those who voted, 38.6% of the eligible 53 million Egyptians. This compares with 63.8% support received by the constitution prepared during the presidency of Mohammed Morsi from the 32.9% of the Egyptian citizenry that participated in the vote. It should be observed that this new constitutional referendum was boycotted by both the Muslim Brotherhood and various of the youth groups that has been at the forefront of the anti-Mubarak upheaval in 2011. Also the validity of the vote was further discredited because of the atmosphere of intimidation in Egypt well conveyed by the pro-coup slogan: “You are either with me or with the terrorists.” Not only had the MB been criminalized, its assets seized, its leaders jailed, its media outlets shut down, but anyone of any persuasion who seemed opposed to the leadership and style of General el-Sisi was subject to arrest and abuse.

 

In the background here are questions about the nature of ‘democracy,’ and how to evaluate the views of people caught in the maelstrom of political conflict. On one level, it might seem that a vote of over 90% for absolutely anything is an expression of extraordinary consensus, and as a result el-Sisi’s constitution is far more popular than Morsi’s constitution, and hence more legitimate. Reflecting on this further makes it seem evident, especially when the oppressive context is to taken into account that the one-sided vote should be interpreted in the opposite manner, making Morsi’s vote more trustworthy because it reached plausible results. Any vote in a modern society that claims 98.1% support should be automatically disregarded because it must have been contrived and coerced. In effect, we cannot trust democratic procedures to reveal true sentiments in a political atmosphere that terrorizes its opponents, and purports to delegitimize its opposition by engaging in state crime. The consent of the governed can only be truly ascertained if the conditions exist for the free and honest expression of views for and against what present power-wielders favor.

 

Maybe, however, the connections made between democracy and legitimacy, seeking this populist signal of approval by the ritual of a vote, is itself a kind of blindfold. It would seem that a majority of Egyptians did, in fact, welcome the el-Sisi coup, believing that a military leadership would at least ensure food and fuel at affordable prices and restore order on the streets. In other words, most citizens in crisis situations posit order and economic stability as their highest political priorities, and are ready to give up ‘democracy’ if its leaders fail to meet these expectations. In my view, what has happened in Egypt is the abandonment of the substance of democracy by the majority of the Egyptian people, as reinforced by the suppression of a minority hostile to the takeover. This dynamic is hidden because the discourse and rituals of democracy are retained. It is this process that I believe we are witnessing as unfolding in Egypt. In effect, polarization of the first two-and-half years following the overthrow of Mubarak has been followed by the restoration of autocratic rule, but due to the intervening embrace of political freedom, however problematic, the new autocrat is even harsher than what was rejected at Tahrir Square three years ago.

 

The Politics of Polarization and Alienation  

 

Amid this political turmoil that has been spoiling the politics of the Middle East is a conceptual confusion that contributes to acute political alienation on the part of those societal elements that feel subject to a governmental leadership and policy agenda that is perceived as hostile to their interests and values. Such circumstances are aggravated by political cultures that have been accustomed to ‘one-man shows’ that accentuate tendencies toward adoration and demonization. Each national situation reflects the particularities of history, culture, values, national memories, personalities, and a host of other considerations, and at the same time there are certain shared tendencies that may reflect some commonalities of experience and inter-societal mimicry, as well as the deformed adoption of Western hegemonic ideas of modernity, development, constitutionalism, and governance, as well as of course the relationship between religion and politics.

 

The recent disturbing political turmoil in Turkey and Egypt, each in its own way, is illustrative. In both countries there are strong, although quite divergent, traditions of charismatic authoritarian leadership, reinforced by quasi-religious sanctification. Very recently, however, this authoritarian past is being challenged by counter-traditions of populist legitimacy putting forward impassioned demands for freedom, integrity, equity, and inclusive democracy, which if not met, justify putting aside governmental procedures, including even the results of national elections. Within this emergent counter-tradition is also a willingness to give up all democratic pretensions so as to restore a preferred ideological orientation toward governance, that is, resorting to whatever instruments are effecting in transferring control of the state back to the old order that had lost control of the governing process by elections, and had poor prospects of democratically winning power in the future.

 

In Egypt, this circumstance led to unconditional opposition to the elected leadership, especially to Mohammed Morsi, the president drawn from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood. The aim of this opposition, whether or not consciously espoused, seemed to have been to create a crisis of governability of sufficient depth to provoke a crisis of legitimacy, which could then produce a populist challenge from below that brought together ideological demands for a different orientation and material demands for a better life. It is true that Morse lent a certain credibility to this rising tide of opposition by a combination of incompetence and some clumsy repressive moves, but this was almost irrelevant as his secular and fulool opponents wanted him to fail and never allowed him even the possibility of success. For such opponents, the idea of living under a government run by the MB was by itself intolerable. In the end, many of those who had pleaded so bravely for freedom in Tahrir Square were two years later pleading with the armed forces to engage in the most brutal expressions of counter-revolutionary vengeance. Whether this will be the end of the Egyptian story for the near future is difficult to discern, the downward spiral suggests insurrection and strife for the foreseeable future.  

 

In Turkey, such a collision has recently produced turmoil and highlighting the dangers and passions that accompany lethal polarization, initially, in the encounters of the summer of 2013 at Gezi Park and some months later in a titanic struggle between Tayyip Recip Erdogan and Fetullah Gulan generating a rising tide of mutual recriminations and accusations that threatens the AKP dominance of the political process, a threat that will be soon tested in the March local elections, especially those in Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey is different than Egypt in at least two major respects. First of all, its economy has flourished in the past decade, producing a rising middle class, and a business community with lots to lose if investor confidence and currency exchange rates decline sharply. This reality is complicated by the fact that part of those that have gained economically have been aligned with the AKP, and by the degree to which the Turkish armed forces are also major stakeholders in the private sector. Secondly, a major achievement of the AKP leadership has been to depoliticize the role of the Turkish military, partly to protect itself against interference and partly to satisfy European Union accession criteria.

 

Alienation and emotional distress is more a symptom than an explanation of why there exist such strong political tensions. Better understood, these conflicts are about class, religion, status, political style, the benefits of governmental control, and availability of capital and credit. An additional source of public antagonism is the unresolved, and mostly unacknowledged, debate about the true nature of democracy as the legitimating ideal for good governance in the 21st century. One perplexing element is language, especially its use by politicians concerned with public opinion. There is this impulse on one side to base governmental legitimacy on pleasing the citizenry, and the impulse on the other side is to insist upon fidelity to law and constitutionalism. Both sides have powerful arguments that can be invoked to support their claims. There is no right and wrong, which is infuriating for polarized discourse that can only raise its voice to shout in higher decibels, but can never reach a conclusion of the sort that might resolve a scientific debate or solve a mathematical puzzle. Each side is motivated by unshakeable convictions, and has no disposition to listen, much less appreciate, what the others are saying. In effect, good governance is impossible in the absence of community, and what has become evident is that society unity is currently unattainable in the presence of the sort of alienation that has gripped the publics in Egypt and Turkey, and elsewhere. 

 

Part of the controversy, but only part, can be reduced to these differences over the very nature of democracy. Another part, as discussed in relation to the vote on the Egyptian constitution, involves the abandonment of democracy in substance while insisting on its retention in form.

 

Varieties of Democracy

 

The word democracy itself needs to be qualified in one of two ways: majoritarian or republican. And here is the central tension: the public myth in all countries that deem themselves ‘modern’ endorse the republican tradition of limited government and internal checks and balances, while the political culture is decidedly ambivalent. It can spontaneously legitimize the majoritarian prerogatives of a popular leader with strong backing on the street and among the armed forces, even at the cost of republican correctness. Because of this reality, there exists a tendency by those social forces being displaced through societal power shifts to view a newly ascendant leader through a glass darkly. They suddenly lament authoritarian tendencies that never troubled them in the past when their elites held the reins of governmental authority. Part of the recent confusion is that sometimes the authoritarian tendency gets so corrupted that it loses support even among those who share its class and ideological outlook, and a reformist enthusiasm emerges. This happened in Egypt, but its tenure was short lived as its adherents, drawn from the ranks of the urban educated elites, quickly realized that their interests and values were more jeopardized by the ‘new’ order than it had been by the excesses of the ‘old’ order. 

 

We find in Egypt this pattern played out through the wildly gyrations in the perception of the armed forces as a political player. In the Mubarak Era the armed forces were the central pillar of the state, and a major beneficiary of governmental corruption, neoliberal inequities, and a principal perpetrator, along with other security forces, of state crime. In the Morsi period of governance the armed forces seemed to stay in the background until either responding to or prompting the populist mandate of the opposition exhibited by mass demonstrations and media mobilization based on a paranoid image of Muslim Brotherhood rule and widespread genuine distress about economic stagnancy and political disarray.

 

After the July 3rd coup led by Morsi’s Minister of Defense, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the armed forces set aside the constitution, installed a transitional government, promised new elections, and set about drafting a constitution that embodied the hegemony of the armed forces. What has taken place, however, is an undisguised exercise of authoritarian closure based on declaring the former choice of the citizenry, the Muslim Brotherhood, to be a ‘terrorist’ organization whose leadership were victims of several atrocities, imprisoned, forced underground, and fled the country. Nevertheless, despite these repressive measures, the armed forces are proceeding on a basis as if their action has been mandated by ‘democracy,’ that is, by majoritarian demands for change enacted on the streets of Egyptian cities and through the subsequent endorsement of the repressive steps to be undertaken by the regime, eventually validated through demonstrations, voting, and electoral ratification. In the background of such a counter-revolutionary turn, of course, were weak institutions of government accustomed to operate for decades within a strict authoritarian political space, and a governmental bureaucracy whose judiciary and police continued to ideologically aligned with the old order. Such an entrenched bureaucracy seems to have regarded the reemergence of authoritarian and militarized politics as natural, linked in their imaginary with Egypt’s ancient heritage of greatness and more comfortable with such domineering figures as Nasser and Mubarak as compared to the density and seeming incapacities of Morsi.

 

Challenging Democracy in Turkey

 

The situation in Turkey is much more subtle and less menacing, yet exhibits several analogous features. Despite the outcome of elections that brought the AKP to power initially in 2002, a development subsequently reinforced by stronger electoral mandates in 2007 and 2012, most of the opposition never accepted these results as politically acceptable, and immediately sought to undermine the elected leadership in a variety of legal and extra-legal ways. In the background of this alienation was the implicit and feared belief that the AKP was mounting a challenge to the hallowed legacy of Kemal Ataturk, as well as to the rigid Turkish style of secularism that was periodically reinvigorated by the armed forces that staged coups, which in 1982 had imposed a highly centralized, security oriented constitution on the country. With political acumen, the AKP maneuvered pragmatically in an impressive manner, creating a rapidly growing economy, seeking to play a conflict resolving role throughout the Middle East, and repeatedly proclaiming a fidelity to the secular creed as the foundation of public order, and by stages subjecting the armed forces to civilian control. Despite the magnitude of these achievements the AKP and Erdogan never gained an iota of appreciation or respect from the anti-religious Kemalist opposition that claimed to be the only legitimate guardians of Turkish ‘secularism.’  Strangely, this alienated opposition was never able to present a responsible political platform that could give the Turkish people a positive alternative, and so the prospects of mounting an electoral challenge remained poor, especially given the accomplishments of the AKP.

 

In such a setting this intensely alienated opposition seemed increasingly dependent on manufacturing a crisis of legitimacy that would restore the old state/society balance that had prevailed since the founding of the republic in 1923. The Ataturk legacy included a somewhat reluctance acceptance of procedural democracy in the form of free and fair elections with the apparent implied assumption that the outcome would remain faithful to his modernist orientation, modeled on Europe, that accompanied the founding of the republic. The range of opposition was limited by a law allowing the closure of political parties that seemed to be straying from the prescribed Kemalist path. When the AKP defied these expectations in 2002, the opposition became quickly fed up with the workings of  ‘democracy,’ and seemed early on to count on being rescued, as in the past, by a military intervention that they hoped would be encouraged by the U.S., which was assumed to be unhappy about the Islamist leanings attributed to the AKP political base and leadership.  The disappointment among the old secular elites arising from the failure of these expectations to materialize deepened the alienation and frustrations of opposition forces, especially on the part of urban elites in the main cities of Turkey in the western part of the country, which exaggerated the faults of the government and ignored its achievements.

 

With such considerations in mind it was understandable that there would be exhilaration among the opposition generated by the Gezi Park demonstrations in the summer of 2013, especially in its initial phases that were as much a protest against the AKP’s embrace of an environmentally rapacious neoliberalism as it was against the authoritarian excesses of the Erdogan leadership. This enthusiasm weakened when the Gezi movement was substantially hijacked in its subsequent phases by the most extreme tendencies of the alienated opposition, which seemed to believe that Gezi presented an opportunity to fashion a full-fledged crisis of governability out of this narrowly focused protest that might force the resignation of Erdogan, if not the collapse of the AKP. There was an attempt to take advantage of escalating public outrage that resulted after excessive force was used by the police to maintain order in the Gezi context. Of course, Erdogan’s harsh style of discourse, including off the cuff opinions that reflected his Islamic devoutness, were part of the broader political atmosphere, and were particularly alarming to an already alienated opposition, reinforcing their their underlying beliefs that any alternative would be better for Turkey than what the AKP was bestowing upon the country. The situation was aggravated  after the AKP electoral success in 2011. It seemed to give Erdogan confidence that he need no longer adhere to his earlier cautiously pragmatic approach to leadership, and he adopted the sort of swagger that both frightened and disgusted an opposition that was not inclined to give him any leeway.

 

Similarly, the more recent, unexpected, and still obscure and bitter public falling out between the AKP and the hizmet movement has injected a new virus into the Turkish body politic posing unpredictable threats. It may turn out that this conflict represent nothing more fundamental than a struggle for relative influence and power that calmer minds will resolve before long. Perhaps also Turkey is experiencing some of the almost inevitable mishaps associated with keeping one political party with a strong leader in power for too long. Such prolonged control of government almost always produces scandal and corruption, especially in a political culture where the rule of law and the ethics of civic virtue do not have a very strong grip on behavioral patterns. In the more distant Turkish past are the memories of Ottoman times when the country was a regional power center, governed by highly authoritarian figures, a hallowed past that was secularized in the last century but not challenged in its essential role in Turkish political culture.

 

Majoritarian and Republican Democracy Assessed

 

With this mix of considerations in mind, the distinction between ‘Majoritarian Democracy’ and ‘Republican Democracy,’ although simplifying the actual political texture, seems important.  In Majoritarian Democracy the leadership is essentially responsible to the electorate, and if its policies reflect the will of the majority, the views and values of opposed minorities need not be respected. Critical views treat such forms of government as susceptible to the ‘tyranny of the majority,’ which has subjective and objective realities distinguishing between what is perceived and what is actually taking place. Arguably after Morsi’s election in 2012, and given the embittered opposition that seemed unwilling to accept the outcome of the vote, the Muslim Brotherhood used the prerogatives of office in a failed attempt to impose the majoritarian will, and may itself have been prepared to change the rules of the political game so as to retain control. Part of the majoritarian mentality is to locate a check on its excesses in the will of the citizenry, and thus when the people are mobilized to demand a new leadership for the country without waiting upon the niceties of the next elections, the path is cleared for the sort of military takeover that occurred last July. Of course, majoritarian dynamics are subject to manipulation by anti-democratic forces whose zeal is directed toward gaining control of the state.

 

‘Republican Democracy’ in contrast starts with a generally skeptical view of human nature, and seeks above all to find procedures and support the nurturing of a political culture that prizes moderate government over efficiency and transcendent leadership. The American self-conscious adoption of Republican Democracy at the end of the 18th century, as spelled out for the ages in The Federalist Papers, is a classic instance of molding a constitutional system that was wary of majorities and protective of minorities and of individual rights ( although totally blind to the human claims of slaves and native Americans). Unlike Egypt or Turkey, Americans were seeking to arrange a different future for themselves than was associated with British royalism, and its absolutist pretensions. In the background, were political thinkers such as John Locke with a stress on the link between good governance and rights and Montesquieu who argued along analogous lines about the cardinal relevance of separation of powers to the avoidance of the concentration and excesses of state power. Delinking government from religious claims of certainty was also consistent with republican sensitivity to human flaws and the general ethos of Lord Acton’s famous saying ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

 

Because over time every political system faces crises, the American founders realized that the envisioned arrangements would only survive the tests of time if two conditions were realized: first, reverence for the constitution by both lawmakers and citizens, and secondly, judicial supremacy to override legislative and executive swings toward either implementing the momentary passions of the mob or aggrandizing power and authority, and thereby upsetting the delicate balance of institutions. Despite this self-conscious commitment to the republican approach, in times of war and crisis, the democratic feature of accountable power-wielding tends to yield to claims of national security and public expediency. And once such departures from republicanism become entrenched, as a result of a long period of warfare or in relation to nuclear weaponry, and now transnational terrorism, the authoritarian genie is able to escape from the constitutional bottle. As the American motto of ‘eternal vigilance’ reminds us, there are no safe paths to moderate government, and its most influential advocates realized that their wishes might be so defeated that they recognized that the people enjoyed ‘a right of revolution’ if despite all precautions the governing process had become despotic.

 

It need hardly be argued that neither Egypt nor Turkey are remotely similar to the United States or Europe, but the superficial embrace of democracy by these and other countries might benefit from examining more closely the menace of Majoritarian Democracy in a fragmented polity and the difficulties of establishing Republican Democracy in political cultures that have been so long dominated by militarism and authoritarianism. Egypt is experiencing the essentially anti-democratic restoration of authoritarian militarism, while Turkey is trying to preserve sufficient stability and consensus to enable the self-restrained persistence of procedural democracy and a successful process of constitutional renewal that rids the country of the 1982 militarist vision of governance, and moves toward creating the institutional and procedural frame and safeguards associated with Republican Democracy. Beyond this, however, will be the immense educational challenge of shaping a supportive political culture that entrenches republican values in public consciousness, above all a respect for individual and group rights and an inclusive approach to policy formation that seeks participation by and approval from stakeholding constituencies opposed to the majority. Such a vision of a democratic future for Turkey implies a process, not an event, and will require an ongoing struggle inevitably distracted by both manufactured and authentic crises of legitimacy. The hope is that moderate minds will prevail, serving the long-term interests of a state and its peoples that retain great potential to be a beacon of light for the region and beyond.

 

  

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization

17 Nov

Two Forms of Lethal Polarization: Egypt and Turkey

 

            There is a temptation to suggest that political life in Turkey and Egypt are both being victimized by a similar deepening of polarization between Islamic and secular orientations, and to some extent this is true, but it is also misleading. Turkey continues to be victimized by such a polarization, especially during the eleven years that the Justice & Development Party (AKP) has governed the country, and arguably more so in the last period. In Egypt, so describing the polarization is far less descriptive of the far more lethal form of unfolding that its political cleavage has taken. It has become an overt struggle for the control of the political destiny of the country being waged between the Egyptian armed forces and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two organized political forces capable of projecting their influence throughout the entire country, including rural areas.  This bitter struggle in Egypt engages religious orientations on both sides, and even the military leadership and upper echelons of the armed forces are observant Muslims, and in some cases extremely devout adherents of Salafi belief and practice.  

 

            In effect, at this point, there is not a distinctly secular side that can be associated with post-coup Egyptian leadership under the caretaker aegis of the armed forces, although clearly most of the liberal secular urban elite and many of the left activists sided with the military moves, at least initially. Recent reports suggest more and more defections, although the price for making such a change of heart public can be high. For General el-Sisi the essence of the conflict seems to be between what is irresponsibly alleged to be a ‘terrorist’ opposition on the one side, which has been broadened somewhat to extend beyond the Muslim Brotherhood to whomever dares question the tactics or intentions of the new leadership, and political forces supposedly committed to a democratic future for the country on the other. If the core of the opposition can be effectively portrayed as terrorists in this post-9/11 world, then the criminalization of their activities and organization, and the neglect of their rights will seem prudent to many, and even a necessary ingredient of national security.

 

            The Egyptian state controlled media, along with the mainstream media in the West, has allowed the Egyptian post-coup leadership to so far get away, literally, with murder! This sort of distorted presentation of the conflict has been also indirectly endorsed by governments, and has somewhat surprisingly achieved strong backing throughout the Arab world with a few notable exception. Among the grossest distortions are the unchallenged depiction of the Muslim Brotherhood as purveyors of violence, given that the organization has renounced violence after 1978, and generally maintained such a posture despite decades of suppression and provocation by Mubarak government, and more recently by the forces arrayed against it. It should also be appreciated that Morsi’s clear counsel to his followers from the time of the coup was to insist on the legitimacy of the elected government and to resist the claims of the post-coup leadership, but to do so nonviolently.

 

            It is important to understand that neither the Egyptian or Turkish experiences of polarization are symmetrical processes. In each instance, the side that is fairly beaten by democratic procedures, especially elections, refuses to accept the implications of political defeat. Rather than form a responsible opposition, with an alternative political program, such an embittered opposition has recourse to extra-constitutional means to regain power, and strives to establish a justification for such extremist advocacy and initiatives by demonizing its adversary, especially the person of the leader.

In contrast, the side that enjoys democratic legitimacy relies on its right to govern, and sometimes on its performance, to justify the retention of governing authority. There is no doubt that Morsi was in a radically different position that Erdogan after his narrow electoral victory in 2012—having an economy on a downward slippery slope, a public with high post-Mubarak expectations of a change for the better, and a complete lack of governing experience.

 

            This phenomenon of polarization is becoming more widespread, an expression of growing alienation within societies as a response to disappointments with traditional political parties and their leaders at the national level. As dissatisfaction and frustrations with prevailing forms of governance grows in many countries, the opposition becomes ever more embittered, and tends to blame the elected leader with venomous rhetoric. Often such excessive attacks provoke a response from the government that further discredits the leader in the eyes of the opposition, widening the gap between those governing and those in the opposition. If the angered opposition senses that it is unable to win at the ballot box, it will be tempted to mobilize a populist politics in the street, and sometimes manages to enlist those parts of government bureaucracy (often the judiciary and security forces) that are aligned openly or secretly with efforts to create crises of legitimacy and governance.

 

            From such a combustible mix, explosive possibilities are possible on both sides, ranging from coups to various authoritarian abandonment of democratic procedures. Each side produces a self-serving narrative of national survival that shifts the blame entirely to its political enemy. There is no effort at dialogue, which is essential for the political health of a democratic society beset by serious challenges and policy disagreements. This does not mean that the two sides are equally persuasive, but it does suggest there are few informed and judicious voices that can be heard above the noise of the fray.

 

            Outsiders also complicate the scene, whether they favor the government or the opposition. The originality of each national situation needs to be taken into account. There are many variables, including history, culture, geography, stage of development, economic performance, levels of unemployment and poverty, quality of governance, role of violence, respect for human rights and the rule of law, degrees of corruption. And yet at the same time, there are patterns and transnational similarities that make certain regional generalizations illuminating.

 

            The comparison of Turkey and Egypt is suggestive of this broader regional, and indeed global, pattern of polarization that is undermining political discourse in more and more countries. The Turkish political scene is still very much shaped by the lingering socially constructed and politically maintained legacy of Kemal Ataturk, and his radical modernization project that sought a total eclipse of Turkey’s Ottoman past. This endeavor, although highly influential, never completely succeeded in creating a post-Islamic normative order in the country, although it did manage to produce a highly secularized and Europeanized upper middle class in the main cities in western Turkey that fiercely, with its own unacknowledged religious intensity, clings rather sadly to the outmoded Kemalist legacy as the only usable past.

 

            In Ataturk’s defense as a historical figure, it should be remembered that the challenges facing Turkey after World War I were primarily to create a strong unified state out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire while withstanding European imperial ambitions that were rampant elsewhere in the region. The Turkish defeat of colonial ambitions was spectacular, but it led to a dysfunctional form of hyper-nationalism that had three prominent features: the attempted erasure of minority identities, a discriminatory insistence on the privatization of religious values and beliefs that particularly victimized Turkish women, and a deferential mimicry of Europe, especially France, in its construction of a secular polity.

 

            Each of these undertakings over time generated strong forms resistance that could never be fully overcome: minority identities were not extinguished, especially for the large and diverse Kurdish minority, Islamic political orientations did not disappear and kept seeking limited acceptance in public space, and the European model never won the allegiance of the Turkish masses. What did occur in Turkey until the end of the twentieth century was political domination by secular elites relying on the mantle of Kemalist legitimacy, with power bases in the main cities, and total control of the bureaucratic structures of Turkish governance, including a crucial alliance between the civilian secular leadership and the armed forces, which included the increasing private sector interests and market activity of the military. As a left challenge of a Marxist character emerged after World War II, secular control was sustained by a series of military coups to make sure that capitalist ideology was not frontally challenged. The Cold War pushed Turkey to adopt an anti-Communist foreign policy of a distinctly Western direction. In the NATO context Turkey was made responsible for the vital Southern flank of NATO, and seemed to follow without dissent the geopolitical line taken in Washington.

 

            What happened next after the Cold War ended was a growing populist rejection of the societal structures of Kemalist Turkey without mounting any direct and explicit challenge to the legacy. It was merely circumvented and adapted to a new set of conditions and social priorities. The ascent of the AKP in the 2002 elections, a result that was reinforced by larger victories in 2007 and 2011, achieved a sea change in the tone and substance of state/society relations in Turkey. It came about in stages, and may yet be reversed when new elections are held in 2015. There was Kemalist resistance from the outset, fears that Turkey was supposedly on its way to becoming ‘a second Iran.’ When that fear failed to materialize or to erode pro-AKP support there occurred a variety of coup plots that never came to fruition, largely because the neoliberal economy was flourishing, the AKP was cautious and pragmatic in its early years of leadership, the secularist ‘deep state’ remaining a brake on governance by the elected leaders, and the West, especially the United States was eager at the time to show the Islamic world that it could have a positive relationship with a government that did not hide the devout Muslim convictions of its principal leaders.

 

            The dynamics of polarization are such that when electoral prospects of the opposition are perceived to diminish, the opposition, especially if it had earlier controlled the state for a long period, grows angry and impatient with the workings of constitutional democracy even if it had earlier based its own legitimacy to govern upon the outcome of elections. Now in an altered political climate such a displaced opposition explores other ways to regain control of the state, itself now opting for populist forms of protest and democratic accountability that it had earlier ruthlessly suppressed.

 

            In the Turkish case, the opposition tactics along these lines were surprisingly unsuccessful in the first decade of the 21st century, although the avoidance of a coup may have been based on a number of unstable contingencies.  Such frustration over a ten year period, even as accompanied by impressive economic growth statistics and diplomatic prominence, did not lead the old Kemalist forces to acquiesce in the new political order, but only made the opposition enraged. Instead, these intensified frustrations, bringing anti-AKP resentment to a fever pitch, directed especially at its charismatic, populist, impulsive, and provocative Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a man who evokes the strongest passions of love and hate. Erdogan serves as a cynosure of why democracy is at risk from above and below in Turkey. The government has ample grounds to feel threatened by the tactics, extremism, invective, and hostility of the opposition, which does not even bother to hide its contempt for democratic procedures in its quest for a return to the control of governance. In turn, the leadership, especially the sort of highly unpredictable emotional politics practiced by Erdogan, strays itself from democratic procedures partly as an understandable defensive reflex, has grounds to view the opposition as illegitimate, including its most vituperative media critics, which can easily slide into the embrace of a kind of defensive authoritarianism.

 

            The Egyptian descent into the vortex of hyper-polarization has certain resemblances to the Turkish experience, but also significant differences other than the relationship of contending forces to the poles of religion and secularism. In effect, secularism isn’t really a pole in Egypt, but at most one of the constituencies mobilized in the pre-coup period by anti-Morsi forces, many of whom might not have even realized that by opposing being governed by the Muslim Brotherhood, they were opting for the restoration of a brutal regime of the sort that had governed Egypt for three decades under Mubarak, which had seemed to have alienated virtually the whole of the country during the excitement of the January 25th movement in 2011. At that time, the armed forces were seen as standing aside while the people cast off a cruel and corrupt dictatorship that had reduced the Egyptian masses to a condition of subjugation and collective misery. In retrospect, this was an optical illusion created because the armed forces seemed willing to let Mubarak go to avoid having the next leader being his possibly reformist son, but was not at all ready to transform the governing process of the country despite the overwhelming mandate to do just that. It now seems clear that the Egyptian military would struggle against any political developments that threatened control of their budget, regulation of their business activities, and restriction of their discretion to manage the security policies of the Egyptian state (in collaboration with internal police and intelligence forces).

 

            Against this background, including the structural problems generated by Mubarak’s neoliberal approach to development, the Muslim Brotherhood would have been wise to abide by their initial public pledge to not field a candidate for the presidency and to limit their electoral ambitions in parliament and the constitution-forming process. Possibly, sensing their popularity as a transitory opportunity in a fluid situation, and maybe deceptively encouraged by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the MB leadership thought it was entitled to compete for leadership to the full extent of its popularity. Its years of community organizing and welfare services paid off in parliamentary results far in excess of what had been predicted. There seemed to be a mandate to lead the country, but there also seemed to a series of insurmountable challenges that were unlikely to be met whoever gained controlled of the government.

 

            When it became clear that the MB was stronger than expected, and that it would not limit its goals as earlier announced, much of the liberal anti-Mubarak opposition registered a reaction of panic. Reflections on the prospect of living under a MB government induced many Egyptians to swing back to the Mubarak side, leading Ahmed Shafik, a fulool mainstay, to win almost 50% of the vote in the presidential runoff election in June 2012. It was a defeat, but considering the near zero support for the old established order in the heady days of Tahrir Square, this result suggested a dramatic reversal of political mood at least in the main urban centers of Egypt. That near victory of Shafik should have been interpreted as a signal that counter-revolutionary tremors would soon begin to shake the foundations of political stability in Egypt.  Polarization took multiple forms in the ensuing months, with Morsi faltering as a leader partly for failures of his own making, and the opposition stridently insisting that things were out of control, allegedly worse than in the most unpopular Mubarak times. There was also evidence that to mobilize the populace well orchestrated efforts were made to create fuel shortages and price hikes in food prices, impacting negatively on the image of Morsi as someone who could lead post-Mubarak Egypt into better times. The outcome, perhaps exaggerated in the media, was a huge mobilization of anti-Morsi forces that produced the largest public demonstrations in Egyptian history, and set the stage for the July 3rd takeover, with its blank check given to the armed forces to do whatever it wanted to do, including if necessary the elimination of the MB (at least 30% of the populace) from the political scene. What followed was a series of massacres and abuses of state power on a scale that would have shocked the conscience of humanity if it had been reported to the world in an honest and responsible fashion. Instead, what appear to be a series of thinly disguised Crimes Against Humanity of a severe character were swept under the rug of world public opinion, and the new regime received financial and diplomatic support and many diverse wishes for success.

 

            This then is the final point. When a polarized opposition resorts to unlawful means to regain or seize power, the nature of the regional and global response can be critical to its success or failure. There were strong geopolitical incentives for welcoming the Egyptian coup, and thus not complain too much about its bloody aftermath. There are less clear reasons to favor the defeat of the AKP government in Turkey, especially given its role in NATO and the world economy, as well as the absence of a responsible and credible opposition, and yet there are regional and global actors that would greet the fall of the AKP with a smile of satisfaction.

 

            I am arguing that theses instances of polarization amount to a deadly virus that attacks the body politic in countries with weak constitutional traditions, especially if such societies are beset by economic disappointment and significant regional and global hostility due to ideological and political tensions. So far, Turkey has an immune system strong enough to neutralize the virus, while Egypt having virtually no protection against such a virus has succumbed. If there is hope for a brighter Egyptian future, then it will become evident in the months ahead as the Egyptian body politic seeks belatedly to destroy the virus that is threatening the quality of life in the society. For Turkey the future remains clouded in comparable uncertainty, and it may be, that the polarized alienation combined with the mistakes associated with too long a tenure in office will yet lead to the democratic downfall of Erdogan and the AKP.

 

Further Reflections on Istanbul as Global Capital

7 Nov

 

My proposal that we consider the possibility of treating Istanbul as the world capital attracted a broad range of responses. I tried to make clear in my revised text that Istanbul could not hope to have this kind of recognition until Turkey had addressed some serious issues, especially the Kurdish grievances that have induced a massive hunger strike in Turkish jails (with over 600 prisoners now taking part, and more threatening to do so), as well as serious concerns about the human rights implications of the imprisonment of many students and journalists. Several other kinds of objections were also raised. For instance, Istanbul is inappropriate as a choice because it is situated at the interface of colliding tectonic plates that makes it vulnerable to devastating earthquakes. Others respondents contended that if recreational appeal is part of Istanbul’s charm, then why not Las Vegas. It supposedly has a better claim than Istanbul as ‘it has something for everybody.’ My initial very tentative proposal of Istanbul was based on its extraordinary combination of qualifying features, especially its strategic inter-civilization geography, its capacity to be of the West and at the same apart from the West, and its cultural/religious/historical resources that seem unmatched in cumulative effect elsewhere, and give the city a cosmopolitan identity that recalls its days of multi-ethnic Ottoman imperial glory. Additionally, more than elsewhere, the Turkish political leadership has been alive to providing Istanbul with a world class infrastructure as it wishes to take advantage of its unique character.

 

Other objections to the proposal were more substantial, yet unconvincing to me. For instance, some pointed out that Turkey as a country of 80 million Muslims and Istanbul as a city estimated to have 15 million Muslims is not capable of representing the world, and that somehow a great European city would serve the peoples of world less controversially. There is of course an inherent problem arising because any urban space will partake of a particular religious, national, and ethnic identity, but if such a qualification were to be uniformly applied it would mean that there was no city on the planet that could ever serve as the world capital. The idea of having a capital city is a strictly soft power proposal, creating a symbolic meeting place for diverse cultures, religions, and political systems, and is offered as a building block for a global imaginary that befits the imperatives of moral and spiritual globalization. It is my opinion that the Turkish government over the course of the last decade has done better than any other country in relation to cities within its borders in creating at atmosphere of cosmopolitan hospitality and stature for the city of Istanbul.

 

A quite different objection is associated with Turkish membership in NATO and what that entails in relation to non-defensive military operations such as in Afghanistan ever since 2001, the regime-changing 2011 intervention in Libya, and the interference with the Syrian internal struggle over the course of the last two years. Such Turkish undertakings do seem to cast a shadow over any present undertaking to propose Istanbul as a global capital, and should probably be treated as a serious obstacle. If Turkey seeks to make Istanbul play its potential global role then it would need to rethink its geopolitical ties. Perhaps, there exists a decisive contradiction between such a Western oriented geopolitics and the kind of world identity that a global capital should aspire to achieve. Turkey has been up to now pursuing an equi-distance diplomacy, balancing its Western ties against its post-Cold War independence, as well as promoting a new geopolitics of soft power without relinquishing the residual role of the old geopolitics of hard power. The Arab upheavals since 2011 have seemed to make the transition to a soft power matrix more elusive for Turkey, and thus weaken arguments for Istanbul’s ascension to a status that overlooks its reality of being embedded in Turkish national sovereignty.

 

In summary, Istanbul is marvelously qualified from many perspectives to serve as the capital of the world, but cities cannot avoid being identified with the country in which they are physically located. The Turkish government in the last decade has done many things to enhance the role of Istanbul, but its own persisting problems are part of Istanbul’s reality, and to the extent these difficulties are not overcome it is hard to imagine any proposal of Istanbul as global capital getting very far in world public opinion. In effect, there is a Gordian Knot at the core of world order that ties the fate of the city to that of the nation, and most of the citizenry of particular countries would not have it any other way. To this extent, the modest

proposal of Istanbul as global capital, while tantalizing, does not seem capable of realization without the deterritorialization of the relationship between global cities and sovereign states, and if this ever happens, it will not be anytime soon.

 

This commentary on Istanbul arises from my own romance with the city during the past twenty years, entranced by its beauty, vitality, exotic features, the warmth and tenderness of its people, and the transcendent vision of the Turkishpolitical destiny set forth by its principal leaders. This kind of love affair has persisted despite the horrors of Istanbul’s traffic and the unpleasantness of its unhealthy air.

 

 

Beyond Language: Reflections on the Arakan Tragedy

15 Oct

 

 

            Yesterday I listened to the wife of the Prime Minister, Emine Erdogan, speak about her recent harrowing visit to the Rohingya people in the the federal state of Arakan ( mainly known in the West as Rakhine) who are located in northwestern Myanmar (aka Burma). The Rohingya are a Muslim minority numbering over one million, long victimized locally and nationally in Burma and on several occasions over the years their people have been brutally massacred and their villages burned. She spoke in a deeply moving way about this witnessing of acute human suffering shortly after the most recent bloody episode of communal violence in June of this year. She lamented that such an orgy of violence directed at an ethnic and religious minority by the Buddhist majority is almost totally ignored by most of the world, and is quietly consigned by media outlets to their outermost zones of indifference and irrelevance. She especially appealed to the women present to respond with activist compassion, stressing that women are always the most victimized category in these extreme situations of minority persecution and ethnic cleansing.

 

            The situation of the Rohingya is an archetypal example of acute vulnerability in a state-centric world. In 1982 the territorial government of Burma stripped away the citizen rights of the impoverished Rohingya Muslims who have lived in Arakan for many generations, but are cynically claimed by Rangoon to be unlawful new migrants from bordering Bangladesh who do not belong in Burma and have no right to remain or to burden the state or cause tension by their presence. Bangladesh in turn, itself among the world’s poorest countries, already has 500,000 Rohingya who fled across the Burmese border after earlier attacks on their communities, and has closed its borders to any further crossings by those escaping persecution, displacement, destruction of their homes and villages, and threats to their lives. To deepen this aspect of the tragedy, only 10% of these migrants who fled from Burma have been accepted as ‘refugees’ by the UN High Commission of Refugees, and the great majority of the Rohingya living in Bangladesh for years survive miserably as stateless persons without rights and living generally at or even below subsistence levels.  The Rohingya who continue to exist precariously within Arakan are stateless and unwanted, many are reported to wish openly for their own death. As a group they endure hardships and deprivations in many forms, including denial of health services, educational opportunity, and normal civil rights, while those who have left for the sake of survival, are considered to be comparatively fortunate if they manage to be accepted as ‘refugees’ even if their status as undocumented refugees means the absence of minimal protection, the denial of any realistic opportunity for a life of dignity, and the terrifying uncertainties of being at the continuing mercy of a hostile community and an inhospitable state.

 

            The principal purpose of this educational conference sponsored by Mazlumder, a Turkish NGO with strong Muslim affinities, was to gather experts to report on the situation and urge the audience to take action and thereby mobilize public opinion in support of the Rohingya people. It served to reinforce the high profile diplomatic and aid initiatives undertaken in recent months by the Turkish government to relieve the Rohingya plight. It also called attention to the strange and unacceptable silence of Aung Anh San Suu Kyi, the widely admired democratic political leader in Myanmar, herself long placed under punitive house arrest by the ruling military junta and recipient of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize honoring her heroic resistance to dictatorship in her country. Her voice on behalf of justice for Burmese ethnic and religious minorities, and especially for the Rohingya, would carry great weight among Buddhists in the country and with world public opinion, and might shame the government into taking appropriate action. As it is, the present Burmese leadership and the prevailing tendency in domestic public opinion is to view the conflict as intractable, with preferred solutions being one or another version of ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity– either forced deportation or the distribution of the Rohingya throughout the country so as to destroy their identity as a coherent people with deep historical roots in  northern Arakan. Outside pressures from Saudi Arabia and the United States might help to rally wider international concern, especially if tied to Burma’s economic goals. Aside from Turkey, governments have been reluctant to put pressure on Rangoon in this period because the Rangoon leadership has softened their dictatorial style of governance and seem to be moving toward the establishment of constitutional democracy in the country.

 

            What struck me while listening to the presentations at the conference was how powerful language can become when its role is to think with the heart. I have always found that women are far less afraid to do this in public spaces than men. We fully secular children of the European Enlightenment are brainwashed from infancy, taught in myriad ways that instrumental reason and logical analysis are the only acceptable ways to think and express serious interpretations of societal reality. Mrs. Erdogan, not only thinks with her heart, but she infuses such thought with an obvious religious consciousness that conveys a spiritual commitment to empathy that neither needs nor relies upon some sort of rational justification.

 

            Such a powerful rendering of suffering reminded me of James Douglass’ use of the realm of the ‘unspeakable’ (in turn inspired by the Catholic mystic author and poet, Thomas Merton) to address those crimes that shock our conscience but can only be diminished in their magnitude by speech. Their essential horror cannot be comprehended by expository language even if it is emotively heightened by an inspirational appeal. Only that blend of thinking with the heart combined the existential validation of direct witnessing can begin to communicate what we know, in the organic sense of knowing, to be the reality. I have discovered in my attempt to address the Palestinian ordeal as honestly as possible that direct contact with the actualities of occupation and the experience of listening closely to those who have been most directly victimized is my only way to approximate the existential reality. For this reason, my exclusion by Israel from visiting Occupied Palestine in my UN role does not affect the rational legal analysis of the violation of Palestinian rights under international law, but it does diminish my capacity as a witness to touch the live tissue of these violations, and erodes my capacity to convey to others a fuller sense of what this means for the lives and wellbeing of those so victimized. Of course, UN reports are edited to drain their emotive content in any event.

 

            I recall also my experience with the world media after a 1968 visit to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War. I had been invited by a European lawyers’ organization to view the bomb damage in North Vietnam at a time when American officials, especially the Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, were claiming ‘the most surgical strikes in the history of air warfare.’  I accepted this ‘controversial’ invitation to visit ‘the enemy’ during an ongoing war, although the fighting was somewhat paused at the time, as ‘a realist’ opponent of the war, basically accepting the position of Bernard Fall, George Kennan, and Hans Morgenthau that it was a losing proposition to suppose that the U.S. could achieve what the French colonial occupying power was unable to do and that it was a costly diversion of resources and attention from more important security concerns. My experience in Hanoi transformed my understanding and outlook on the war. It was a result of meeting many of the leaders, including the Prime Minister on several occasions, visiting bombed villages, talking with peasants and ordinary Vietnamese, and most of all, realizing the total vulnerability of the country to the military superiority of the United States with no prospect of retaliation—the concrete and cumulative terror of being on the receiving end of one-sided war that continues for years.  I came away from North Vietnam convinced that ‘the enemy,’ and especially its people, was on the right side of history, and the United States, and the badly corrupted Saigon regime that it propped up, was on the wrong side; above all, I felt the pain of the Vietnamese and was moved by their courage, humanity, and under the dire circumstances, their uncanny faith in humanity and their own collective destiny as a free nation. It produced a sea change in my mindset concerning the Vietnam War, and ever since.

 

            When I left Vietnam, and returned to Paris, I received lots of attention from mainstream media, but total disinterest from these prominent journalists in what was for me the most important outcome of the trip—the realization of what it meant humanly for a peasant society to be on the receiving end of a high tech war machine of a distant superpower whose homeland was completely outside what is now being called ‘the hot battlefield.’ The journalists had no interest in my (re)interpretation of the war, but they were keenly  eager to report on proposals for ending the conflict that had been entrusted to me by Vietnamese leaders to convey to the United States Government upon my return. It turned out that the contour of these proposals was more favorable from Washington’s point of view than what was negotiated four years and many deaths later by Henry Kissinger, who ironically received a Nobel Peace Prize for his questionable efforts. My main reflection relates back to the Arakan meeting. The media is completely deaf to the concerns of the heart, and is only capable of thinking, if at all, with the head. It limits thought to what can be set forth analytically, as if emotion, law, and morality are irrelevant to forming an understanding of public events. What at he time interested the NY Times and CBS correspondents, who were sympathetic and intelligent individuals, was the shaping of a diplomatic bargain that might end the war, whether it was a serious proposal, and whether Washington might be interested. It turned out that Washington was not ready for even such  a favorable compromise, and plodded on for several years, culminating in the unseemly withdrawal in 1975 in the setting of a thinly disguised surrende.  

 

            Poets in the West, caught between a cultural insistence on heeding the voice of reason and their inability to transfer feelings and perceptions into words, vent their frustration with language as the only available vehicle for truth-telling. As T.S. Eliot memorably expressed it in the final section of his great poem East Coker:

 

Trying to use words, and every attempt

Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure

 

Imagine if the master poet of the English language in the prior century gives voice to such feelings of defeat (paradoxically in one of the great modern poems), how must the rest of us feel! We who are mere journeymen of the written word fault ourselves for inadequacies of depictions and usually lack the temerity to blame the imperfect medium of language for the shortcomings of efforts to communicate that which eludes precise expression.

 

            Earlier in the same poem Eliot writes some lines that makes me wonder if I have not crossed a line in the sands of time, and should long ago have taken refuge in silent vigil:

 

…..Do not let me hear

Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly    

Paradoxes of Turkish Pride

10 Sep

 

I have been struck by the strange firmament of Turkish pride. In one respect, the nationalist and patriotic fervor of Turkish holidays confirms the enduring success of Kemal Ataturk’s great nation-building project after World War I. Huge Turkish flags are more prominently displayed than in any country I know, and Turkey has earned  dubious notoriety for its criminal code provision that punishes insults to Turkishness, potentially including even imprisonment. Such a law has been used in a manner that encroaches upon freedom of expression, targeting even such cultural icons as Orhan Pamuk and Elif Shafik, and undoubtedly intimidating thousands of others who hesitate to make any assertion that might be interpreted as offensive by the Turkish custodians of national pride. Even many of those who reject the idea of criminalizing anti-Turkish comments were still angered by Pamuk’s interview in which he acknowledged the 1915 genocide against the Armenian community, first because it was contained in an interview conducted in Switzerland and, secondly, because he added the annoying aside “and only I will say this.” Instead of examining the substance of his indictment, the focus was on Pamuk’s supposed anti-Turkishness. Shafik faced a similar storm of criticism when she published the Bastard of Istanbul, which also in a fictionalized context essentially accepts the Armenian narrative of the tragic events that occurred almost a hundred years ago. Neither Pamuk nor Shaifk were convicted, but prosecution was bad enough. My point here is to take note of the extreme sensitivity that Turkey continues to feel whenever critical commentary is regarded as a taint on national pride and collective memory.

 

At the same time, as with most countries, but perhaps with an added intensity, Turkey celebrates its athletic exploits. Recently it welcomed home its medal winning woman runners with great fanfare after the London Olympics as if they had made epic contributions to the wellbeing of the country, and it seems they had. And on that day sometime in the near future when Turkish football ascends the heights of a World Cup final, national fervor will certainly become hysterical. This is to be welcomed as an expression of national joy over the most loved sporting event in the world.

 

And yet, on different planes of discourse there is a strange national reluctance among Turks to enjoy certain achievements of their citizens, even a widespread tendency to belittle them. Over the years in the course of countless conversations about the Turkish Nobel Prize winning author Orhan Pamuk I have encountered such a tendency among Turkish intellectuals intent on downgrading his stature as a world class literary master: “he knows how to appeal to foreigners,” “he is very good at promoting his work overseas,” “he benefits from his translators,” “he is derivative,” “there are many better Turkish writers,” “his fame rests on a heavily funded PR campaign,” “his use of the Turkish language is undistinguished.” Less intellectually minded Turkish detractors, and there are many, complain that Pamuk is personally unreliable and selfish, that he is a womanizer, that his books are unreadable, or at best, that his imagination only works when he is fictionalizing historical themes or contents himself with being “the biographer of the city of Isranbul.” What he should not do, according to his Turkish critics, is attempt to interpret the contemporary Turkish reality as he did so persuasively in Snow.

 

I would not suggest that all of these criticisms are unfounded, but what I would say is that their tenor exhibits an unaccustomed Turkish lack of generosity and balance. As an admirer of Pamuk, along with many friends with stronger literary credentials than mine outside of Turkey, I can report that Pamuk’s best books, and there are several candidates, have a vivid resonance for readers that rests on deserved literary acclaim, and cannot be explained away as a triumph of self-promotion. Pamuk has a great gift for breathing life and its mysteries into a variety of persons, places, situations, and uses the metaphor of ‘the detective’ or ‘the traveler’ with great skill in constructing his captivating plots. Why don’t Turks take great pride in Pamuk’s recognition by the Nobel Prize Committee? Would many Turks diminish a sporting team victory by examining the allegedly compromised private lives of its star athletes?

 

This brings me to a more controversial set of considerations bearing on Turkish foreign policy, which I view as an extraordinary series of successes, coupled with some disappointments, and several understandable missteps. Such an assessment is far from the perceptions common among Turkish critics of the AKP leadership, and deprives Turkish society as a whole of the satisfaction of being justly proud of what their government has achieved at a time that has been exceedingly difficult for almost every other country in the world. Turkey emerged from the shadowland of its role as junior alliance member of NATO during the Cold War era and non-presence in the Arab world to become the most admired country in the region, especially during 2011 in the aftermath of the early successes of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. On the basis of my visits to the region over the course of the past two years, this admiration rested on three principal sources: deep respect for the diplomatic skill, dedication to conflict resolution, and the great energy and intelligence of the Turkish Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu; the adoption of an equi-distance diplomacy that allowed Turkey to be critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinian struggle without alienating the United States and Europe; and most important of all, establishing a flourishing economy that was supported by the more deprived segments of Turkish society, while creating a political leadership that was sensitive to Islamic values without abandoning the core principles of secular government, that is, the emergence of a so-called ‘Turkish Model’ that is contrasted throughout the region with the negativity associated with the ‘Iran Model.’

 

I would have thought and hoped that however critical a Turkish citizen would be of some domestic policies of the AKP there would be uniform applause for this formidable array of foreign policy achievements. Much critical attention in the Turkish media has been directed at ‘zero problems with neighbors,” especially in light of the debacle in Syria and the upsurge of violence in relation to the Kurdish minority, and it is true that the doctrine from the outset undoubtedly expressed more a hope than a guideline. At the time it was enunciated, there was no Arab Spring, no Mavi Marmara, no uprising against Qaddafi or Assad, but these unanticipated circumstances required, and produced, a major restatement. Davutoglu made clear that the real commitment of zero problems was in relation to the people and not necessarily to the government, and more specifically, the regimes in Tripoli and Damascus lost their legitimacy when they committed Crimes Against Humanity in relation to their own citizens.

 

Similarly, Turkey sought to mediate the conflict between Israel and Syria centered on the Golan Heights, lending great energy to the endeavor, but once Israel attacked Gaza at the end of 2008, it was clearly not possible to proceed further toward a resolution of the conflict. Turkey tried a number of other bold initiatives that ended in disappointment, but seemed as though they should have succeeded ithe values of peace and justice were genuinely shared and not just proclaimed. One was the effort to bring Hamas in from the cold, be accepted as a normal political actor, and shift the Isreal/Palestine conflict from sites of violent struggle to diplomatic arenas. After all, in 2006 Hamas had been encouraged by the West to compete in Gaza elections, but they were not supposed to win, and as a result an unlawful blockade has been imposed since 2007 on the people of Gaza and the Israeli insistence upon treating Hamas as ‘a terrorist organization’ has blocked a political solution. Similarly, in 2010 a brave attempt by Ankara, in collaboration with Brazil, was made to dampen the pre-war flames that surrounded Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program, but the United States and Israel were intent on confronting Iran by way of coercive diplomacy in the form of escalating sanctions and unlawful threats of a military attack. The disappointment here reflected the impact of mainstream geopolitics on relations with Iran, but it only highlighted the constructive nature of the Turkish effort to produce a shift in tactics and vision in the direction of soft power diplomacy.

 

The discourse in Turkey takes no account of the radically changed regional circumstances or the boldness of peacemaking experiments that deserved to succeed. Instead, the failures are dwelled upon to establish that Davutoglu is out of touch, that he does not comprehend the true nature of world politics or the conditions prevailing in the Middle East. Mainly, such conversations shift to a barrage of criticisms directed at the AKP and Erdogan: “they have lost touch,” “they have become too powerful,” “the government imprisons its opposition and silences its critics,” “Erdogan is planning to run an authoritarian state,” “the government is bending to the will of Washington,” “despite its promises it has failed to solve the Kurdish problem.” To varying degrees these criticisms are justified, although exaggerated, given the overall reality of state/society relations in Turkey.

 

My surprise is the unwillingness of many Turkish friends to separate these appropriate concerns from an appreciation of the extraordinary rise in Turkish stature as a political actor, not only regionally, but globally. Turkey is now an important middle power at the United Nations. It provides a diplomatic venue for many international events that used to be held in Europe. Its courageous Somalia initiative has given Turkey a post-colonial identity in Africa that no other non-African government has been able to achieve.  It is my belief that Turkey more than any other country in the 21st century has increased its relevance to the conduct of regional and global politics, and this is something that all Turks can be proud of in a world of 195 or so sovereign states!

 

Waving the national flag is fine, yet finer still, is taking justifiable pride in what has been accomplished by those who act on behalf of one’s country.

Ten Years of AKP Leadership in Turkey

25 Aug

Nothing better epitomizes the great political changes in Turkey over the course of the last decade than a seemingly minor media item reporting that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife Emine Erdogan attended a private iftar dinner (the ritual meal breaking the Ramadan fast each evening) by the invitation of the current Turkish Chief of Staff, General Necdet Özel, at his official residence. It was only a few years earlier that the military leadership came hair trigger close to pulling off a coup to get rid of the AKP leadership. Of course, such a military intrusion on Turkish political life would have been nothing new. Turkey experienced a series of coups during its republican life that started in 1923.

The most recent example of interference by the military with the elected leadership in Turkey took place in 1997 when Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan sheepishly left office under pressure amounting to an ultamatum, outlawed his political party, and accepted a withdrawal from political activity for a period of five years in what amounted to a bloodless coup prompted by his alleged Islamic agenda. Unlike the prior coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980 when the military seized power for a period of time, the 1997 bloodless coup was followed by allowing politicians to form a new civilian government. Really, looking back on the period shortly after the AKP came to power in 2002 the big surprise is that a coup did not occur. We still await informed commentary that explains why. For the present, those that value the civilianization of governance can take comfort in the receding prospect of a future military takeover of Turkish political life, and this iftar social occasion is a strong symbolic expression of a far healthier civil-military relationship than existed in the past.

Improving Turkish Civil Military Relations

Somewhat less dramatic, but not less relevant as a sign of this dramatic turn, is the remembrance that shortly after the AKP initially gained control of the government in 2002, it was much publicized that the wives of the elected leaders were not welcome because they wore headscarves at the major social gathering of top military officers at its annual Victory Day Military Ball held at the end of summer in Ankara with much fanfare. A similar issue arose a few years later when ardent Kemalists insisted that Abdullah Gul should not be allowed to serve as Turkey’s president because his wife’s headscarf supposedly signaled to the world that he did not represent the Turkish secular community in the European manner associated with the founder of the republic, Kemal Atatürk.

Recent court testimony by the former Turkish Chief of Staff, Hilmi Özkök,  confirms what many had long suspected, that there existed plans in 2003-2004 supported by many high ranking military officers to overrule the will of the Turkish electorate by removing the AKP from its position of governmental leadership and impose martial law. Such grim recollections of just a few years ago should help us appreciate the significance of this recent iftar dinner between the Erdogans and Özels as a strong expression of accommodation between military institutions and the political leaders in Turkey. Such an event helps us understand just how much things have changed, and for the better, with respect to civil-military relations.

We can interpret this event in at least two ways. First, indicating a more relaxed attitude on the part of the military toward Turkish women who wear a headscarf in conformity to Islamic tradition.  Although this sign of nomalization is a definite move in the right direction, Turkey has a long way to go before it eliminates the many forms of discrimination against headscarf women that continue to restrict their life and work options in unacceptable ways from the perspective of religious freedom and human rights. Secondly, and crucially, these developments show that the armed forces seems finally to have reconciled itself to the popularity and competence of AKP leadership. This is significant as it conveys the willingness to accept a reduced role for the military in a revamped Turkish constitutional system, as well as exhibiting a trust in the sincerity of AKP pledges of adherence to secular principles that include respect for the autonomy of the military. This latter achievement is quite remarkable, a tribute to the skill with which the Erdogan in particular has handled the civilianization of the Turkish governing process, and for which he is given surprisingly little credit by the international media, and almost none by the Turkish media. Such an outcome was almost inconceivable ten years ago, but today it is taken so for granted as to be hardly worthy of notice.

In 2000 Eric Rouleau, Le Monde’s influential lead writer on the Middle East and France’s former distinguished ambassador to Turkey (1988-1992), writing in Foreign Affairs, emphasized the extent to which “this system [of republican Turkey], which places the military at the very heart of political life” poses by far the biggest obstacle to Turkish entry into the European Union. Indeed, Rouleau and other Turkish experts believed that the Turkish deep state consisting of its security apparatus, including the intelligence organizations, was far too imbued with Kemalist ideology to sit idly by while the secular elites that ran the country since the founding of the republic were displaced by the conservative societal forces that provided the core support to the AKP. And not only were the Kemalist elites displaced, but their capacity to pull the strings of power from behind closed doors was ended by a series of bureaucratic reforms that have made the National Security Council in Ankara a part of the civilian structure of government, and not a hidden

and unaccountable and ultimate source of policymaking.

Continuing Political Polarization Within Turkey

At the same time, despite these accomplishments of the AKP, the displaced ‘secularists’ are no happier with Erdogan leadership than they were a decade ago. (It needs to be understood, although the available language makes it difficult to express an important attribute of Turkish politics: the AKP orientation and policy guidance has itself also been avowedly and consistently secularist in character, although the leaders are privately devout Muslims who steadfastly maintain their religious practices of prayer and fasting, as well as foregoing alcohol, but their political stance on these issues is not very different than that of their opponents. Indeed, quite unexpectedly, Erdogan in visiting Cairo after the 2011 Tahrir uprising urged the Egyptians to opt for secularism rather than Islamism.) Those that identify with the opposition to the AKP, and that includes most of the TV and print media, can never find a positive word to say about the domestic and foreign policy of the AKP, although the line of attack has drastically shifted its ground. A decade ago the fiercest attack focused on fears and allegations that the AKP was a stalking horse for anti-secularism. The AKP was accused of having ‘a secret agenda’ centered on an Islamic takeover of the governing process, with grim imaginings of ‘a second Iran’ administered strictly in accordance with sharia. The current unwavering critical line of attack, in contrast, is obsessed with the unsubstantiated belief that Erdogan dreams of being the new sultan of Turkey, dragging the country back toward the dark ages of authoritarian rule. It is odd that the same opposition that would have welcomed a coup against the elected leadership a decade ago now seems so preoccupied with a fear that the far milder AKP is incubating an anti-democratic project designed to weaken Turkish constitutional democracy and end the civil rights of the citizenry.

There are certainly some valid complaints associated with Erdogan’s tendencies to express his strong, and sometimes insensitive, personal opinions on socially controversial topics ranging from abortion to the advocacy of three children families. He needlessly made an offhand remark recently that seemed an insult directed at Alevi religious practices. As well, there are journalists, students, political activists, non-AKP mayors in fairly large numbers being held in Turkish prisons without being charged with crimes and for activities that should be treated as normal in a healthy democracy. It is difficult to evaluate this disturbing trend, partly because there are strong rumors that the AKP is not in firm control of parts of the bureaucracy including the police, and thus these repressive developments are not entirely of its making, although this line of explanation is possibly expressive of the political situation it does not relieve the AKP from ultimate responsibility.

And there are also many allegations that Erdogan is laying the groundwork to become president in a revised constitutional framework that would give the position much greater powers than it now possesses to the distress of opposition forces, which merges with the allegation that he is a closet authoritarian leader. In my judgment, on the basis of available evidence, Erdogan is opinionated and uninhibited in expressing controversial views on the spur of the moment, but not seeking to enthrone himself as head of a newly authoritarian Turkey.

This persisting polarization in Turkey extends to other domains of policy, perhaps most justifiably in relation to the unresolved Kurdish issues, which have violently resurfaced after some relatively quiet years. It is reasonable to fault the AKP for promising to resolve the conflict when it was reelected, and then failing to offer the full range of inducements likely to make such a positive outcome happen. It is difficult to interpret accurately the renewal of PKK violence, and the degree to which it is viewed by many segments of Turkish elite opinion as removing all hope of a negotiated solution to this conflict that has long been such a drain on Turkey’s energies, resources, and reputation. The ferocity of this latest stage of this 30 year struggle is not easily explained. To some degree it is a spillover of growing regional tensions with the countries surrounding Turkey, and particularly with the Kurdish movements in these countries, especially Iraq and Syria. There is also the strong possibility that elements of the Kurdish resistance see the fluidity of the regional situation as a second window of opportunity to achieve national self-determination. The first window having been slammed shut in the early republican years by the strong nation-building ideology associated with Kemalist governance of the country.

Also serious is some deserved criticism of Turkey’s Syrian policy that charges the government with an imprudent and amateurish shift from one extreme to the other. First, an ill-advised embrace of Assad’s dictatorial regime a few years ago followed by a supposedly premature and questionable alignment with anti-regime Syrian rebel forces without knowing their true character. Ahmet Davutoglu’s positive initiatives in Damascus were early on hailed as the centerpiece of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ an approach that his harshest critics now find totally discredited given the deterioration of relations, not only with Syria, but with Iran and Iraq. Again such criticism seems greatly overstated by an opposition that seizes on any failure of governing policy without considering either its positive sides or offering more sensible alternatives. Whatever the leadership in Ankara during the last two years, the changing and unanticipated regional circumstances would require the foreign policy establishment to push hard on a reset button. Mr. Davutoglu has done his best all along to offer a rationale for the changed tone and substance of Turkish foreign policy, especially in relation to Syria, which I find generally convincing, although the coordination of policy toward Syria with Washington seems questionable.

In the larger picture, there were few advance warnings that the Arab Spring would erupt, and produce the uprisings throughout the region that have taken place in the last 20 months. Prior to this tumult the Arab world seemed ultra-stable, with authoritarian regimes having been in place for several decades, and little indication that domestic challenges would emerge in the near future. In these conditions, it seemed sensible to have positive relations with neighbors and throughout the Arab world based on a mixture of practical and principled considerations. There were attractive economic opportunities to expand Turkish trade, investment, and cultural influence; as well, it was reasonable to suppose that Turkish efforts at conflict mediation could open political space for modest moves toward democracy and the protection of human rights might be an appropriate context within which to practice ‘constructive engagement.’

Foreign Policy Achievements

It should also be pointed out that from the outset of his public service the Turkish Foreign Minister has been tireless in his efforts to resolve conflicts within an expanding zone of activity and influence. There were constructive and well organized attempts to mediate the long festering conflict between Israel and Syria with respect to the Golan Heights, encouragement of a reconciliation process in former Yugoslavia that did achieve a diplomatic breakthrough in relations between Serbia and Bosnia; he made a notable effort to bringing conflicting powers in the Caucasus together; bravest of all, was the sensible effort to bring Hamas into the political arena so as to give some chance to a negotiated end to the Israel/Palestine conflict; and boldest of all, in concert with Brazil, was a temporarily successful effort in 2010 to persuade Iran to enter an agreement to store outside its borders enriched uranium that could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons. These were all laudable objectives, and creative uses of the diplomacy of soft power, and to the extent successful, extremely helpful in reducing regional tensions, and raising hopes for peace. Even when unsuccessful, such attempts bold and responsible efforts to find ways to improve the political atmosphere, and to find better diplomatic options than permanent antagonism, or worse, threats or uses force to resolve conflicts and enhance security.

These various initiatives helped Turkey become a major player in the region and beyond, a government that almost alone in the world was constructing a foreign policy that was neither a continuation of Cold War deference to Washington nor the adoption of an alienated anti-Western posture. Turkey continued its role in NATO, persisted with its attempts to satisfy the many demands of the EU accession process, and even participated militarily, in my view unwisely, in the failed NATO War in Afghanistan.  Fairly considered, the Davutoglu approach yielded extraordinary results, and even where it faltered, was consistent in exploring every plausible path to a more peaceful and just Middle East, Balkans, and Central Asia, as well as reaching into Africa, Latin America, and Asia, making Turkey for the first time in its history a truly global political presence. His statesmanship was widely heralded throughout the world, and quickly made him one of the most admired foreign policy architects in the world. In 2010 he was ranked 7th in the listing of the 100 most influential persons in the world in all fields (including business, culture, politics) that is compiled periodically by Foreign Policy, an leading journal of opinion in the United States. Turkey had raised its diplomatic stature throughout the world without resorting to the usual realist tactics of beefing up its military capabilities or throwing its weight around. It s increasing global reach has included opening many embassies in countries where it had been previously unrepresented. This raised stature was acknowledged in many quarters, especially throughout the Middle East where Erdogan was hailed as the world’s most popular leader, but also at the UN where Turkey played an expanding role, and was overwhelmingly elected to term membership on the Security Council.

It should also be appreciated that Turkey has displayed a principled commitment to international law and morality on key regional issues, especially in relation to the Israel/Palestine conflict. The Syrian mediation efforts were abandoned only after Israel’s all out attack on Gaza at the end of 2008, which also led to Erdogan’s famous rebuke of the Israeli President at the Davos World Economic Forum. This refusal to ignore Israel’s defiance of international law undoubtedly contributed to the later confrontation following Israel’s commando attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla of peace ships in international waters on May 31, 2010 that were carrying humanitarian assistance to the unlawfully blockaded civilian population of Gaza. Israeli commandos killed nine Turkish nationals in the incident, which caused a partial rupture of relations between the two countries that has not yet been overcome, although Turkey has adopted a most moderate position given the unprovoked and unlawful assault on its ship and passengers, seeking only an apology and compensation for the families.

There were other special Turkish international initiatives, none more spectacular than the major effort to engage with Somalia at a time when the rest of the world turned its back on an African country being written off as the worst example of ‘a failed state.’ Not only did Turkey offer material assistance in relation to reconstructing the infrastructure of governance. It also more impressively ventured where angels feared to tread: organizing a high profile courageous visit by the Turkish prime minister with his wife and other notables to Mogadishu at a time when the security situation in the Somalia capital was known to be extremely dangerous for any visitors. Such a show of solidarity to a struggling African nation was unprecedented in Turkish diplomacy, and has been followed up by Ankara with a continuing and successful engagement with a range of projects to improve the economic and humanitarian situation in this troubled country. In a similar spirit of outreach, Turkey hosted a UN summit on behalf of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in May 2011, and formally accepted leadership responsibility within the UN to organize assistance to this group of states, considered the most impoverished in the world.

More recently, Mr. Davutoglu together with Ms. Erdogan visited the Muslim Rohingya minority in the western Myanmar state of Rakhine that had been brutally attacked in June by the local Buddhist majority community claiming that the resident Muslims were unwanted illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and should leave the country. Bangladesh officially denied such allegations, insisting that the Rohingya people had been living in Myanmar for centuries. This high level Turkish mission delivered medical aid, displayed empathy that could only be interpreted as a genuine humanitarian gesture far removed from any calculations of national advantage, and above all, conveyed a sense of how important it was for Turkey to do what it can to protect this vulnerable minority in a distant country. Mr. Davutoglu made clear universalist motivations underlay his official visit by also meeting with local Buddhists in a nearby town to express his hope that the two communities could in the future live in peace and mutual respect. This trip to Myanmar is one more example of how Turkey combines a traditional pursuit of national advantage in world affairs with an exemplary citizenship in the wider world community. It is this kind of blend of enlightened nationalism and ethical globalism that gives some hope that challenges to the world community can be addressed in a peaceful and equitable manner.

Surely, Turkey as is the case with any democracy, would benefit from a responsible opposition that calls attention to failings and offers its own alternative policy initiatives, while being ready to give those in authority credit for constructive undertakings and achievements of the government. Unfortunately, the polarized and demoralized opposition in Turkey is strident in its criticism, bereft of the political imagination required to put forward its own policies, and lacking in the sort of balance that is required if its criticisms are to be respected as constructive contributions to the democratic process. It is especially suspect for the most secularized segments of Turkish society to complain about an authoritarian drift in AKP leadership when it was these very social forces that a few years earlier was virtually pleading with the army to step in, and hand power back to them in the most anti-democratic manner imaginable.  Instead of taking justifiable pride in the great Turkish accomplishments of the last decade, the unrestrained hostility of anti-AKP political forces is generating a sterile debate that makes it almost impossible to solve the problems facing the country or to take full advantage of the opportunities that are available to such a vibrant country. It needs to be appreciated that Turkey viewed from outside by most informed observers, especially in the region, remains a shining success story, both economically and politically. Nothing could bring more hope and pride to the region than for the Turkish ascent to be achieved elsewhere, of course, allowing for national variations of culture, history, and resource endowments, but sharing the commitment to build an inclusive democracy in which the military stays in the barracks and the diplomats take pride in resolving and preventing conflicts.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,508 other followers