Tag Archives: Istanbul

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Whither Turkey After Gezi Park?

30 Jun

The following post is a much revised version of an opinion piece published a few days  ago in Al Jazeera English. It reflect a continuing effort to capture the diverse mood that now prevails in Turkey.

*****************************************

Whither Turkey: First Thoughts after Gezi Park

Preliminary Disclaimers

As the dramatic Turkish protests subside, or declare an intermission, this is a time to take stock, but cautiously.

Precisely when political reality explodes in unexpected ways, pundits come along suggesting comparisons, offering hastily constructed explanations, and cite influences and antecedents. Surprise is suppressed by most ‘experts’ who do all that they can to hide these awkward exposures of how little they knew about the explosive forces in society, which erupted without any advance notice. After the explosion these wannabe gurus step forth with undiminished confidence to tell us with learned demeanor why and how it happened, why it was almost inevitable to turn out as it did, and the most arrogant and often most influential even dare tell us what to expect next, and why it is good or bad.

While appreciating this fact of public life, let us take note that even the most wily intelligence agencies, with billions at their disposal, total command over mountains of secret data, running roughshod over the privacy and legal rights of even their own citizens and others to get it right on behalf of their government employers, still invariably miss ‘the jumps’ of change that are the real stuff of history. Why are the historians of change so bad at anticipating these jumps of history? Partly, for the same reasons that even the most sophisticated vulcanists cannot predict with any accuracy an earthquake or volcano—as in politics, the tipping points in nature and society are rarely anticipated by interpreting scientific trends or through the analysis of incremental changes, but generally disclose themselves with an unforeseeable abruptness.

In reaction, an appropriate level of humility and tentativeness goes a long way, acknowledging these limits of understanding, suggesting hesitantly and explaining as best we can such charismatic events when they occur, taking due account of their distinctiveness and admitting our inability to access deeper meaning that lie beneath the surface of cascades of events.

Another type of difficulty associated with these interpretative ventures is the bias associated with the observer’s gaze. We are habitually trained and experienced to look at politics from above, whether our perspective is that of elites or counter-elites, but revolutionary impulses come, if and when they come, almost invariably from pressures generated from below, that is, from the ‘multitude,’ pressures that materialize by suddenly bursting forth as happenings that startle and reverberate (e.g. Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the velvet revolution, the Jasmine Revolution, Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street).

 

 

The Gezi Park Protests

Was Gezi Park in Istanbul such a happening, as many here in Turkey hope? Did it reflect the wishful thinking of those among the protesters who were seeking a genuinely inclusive democracy in Turkey respectful not only of the environment and cultural identity, but dedicated to the rights of all, especially such habitually abused minorities as Kurds and Alevis? Professor Asli Bali, a highly regarded young law scholar teaching at UCLA, persuasively encapsulated the core of the struggle as an epic encounter between two models of democracy– the majoritarian entitlement claims of Erdogan (but not necessarily all elements in the AKP) versus the participatory and populist ethos of the younger generation, which is almost as opposed to the republican (anti-democratic) ethos of the secular elders who were mainly aligned with the recently inept and anachronistic CHP as it is to Erdogan’s leadership of the AKP.  Bali pins her own best hopes for the political future of Turkey not on an anti-AKP challenge being mounted by an opposition party, but rather on a split within the AKP that will transfer control from Erdogan to the more inclusive moderate wing, which I presume would be led by the current president of Turkey, Abdullah Gul.

This is a most unusual way to conceptualize the best political alternative for Turkey, and it underscores a situation in which a change in the leadership of the country would be beneficial, but cannot be seen as issuing from either the present  arrangements of governmental authority or as a result of a successful challenge mounted by the organized opposition. The idea of a split within the AKP that produces a more moderate and inclusive leadership is an attractive option for three reasons. First, it validates the positive contributions of AKP governance over the past eleven years, while rejecting the style and some of the majoritarian implications of Erdogan’s leadership. Secondly, it implicitly rejects the prospect of an electoral transfer of governmental authority to the traditional opposition represented by the old Kemalist party, the CHP, as a result of elections, which despite its strong presence in Gezi Square and in the protests throughout the country, was viewed by the core protesters as politically antagonistic to a reshaping the political future of Turkey through redefining an understanding of democracy. In this regard, the republican/CHP conception of democracy so long as the party held the reins of government in its hands was intolerant toward the religiously observant, as well as repressive toward the Kurdish regions of the country.  Thirdly, strong doubts are present as to whether the Gedi protests, with neither party, program, agenda, nor leaders, strong anarchist elements could grow into an inclusive movement along the lines of what Derrida calls ‘democracy to come,’ an aspirational vision of the future that embraces a liberating conception of freedom that far transcends any historical embodiment of ‘democracy,’ anywhere up to this point. If the past teaches us anything, it suggests that such revolutionary impulses, no matter how intense, will quickly dissipate or implode, either because they become institutionalized in stultifying bureaucracies, engage in torrent of revolutionary terror, losing their revolutionary identity authenticity, or they don’t institutionalize and purge enemies from within and without, and simply fade away.  Of course, for reasons suggested at the outset, history is cunning, and may not mimic the past.

What Future for Turkish ‘New Politics’?

The dust in Turkey has not yet settled, although it appears to be settling. At this point it is far too early to discern whether a new political subjectivity has been born that will fill the Turkish political vacuum. This unfortunate vacuum was formed by the absence of a credible and responsible opposition during this elapsed decade of secular displacement and AKP consolidation. It is uncertain whether this recent venting of frustration and resentment can be converted into a sustainable political movement that offers the Turkish polity a post-Kemalist alternative to Erdogan’s AKP, and does so without losing the very substantial achievements that included ending the practice of prison torture, civilianizing the military, paying off the IMF, tripling the Turkish GDP, coming forward with a promising approach to the Kurdish problem, and gaining great influence and respect for Turkey as a success story in the region and world. Symbolizing these eleven years of national ascent was the emergence of Istanbul as a cosmopolitan crossroads for the world, and a favored site for diplomatic meetings and high profile events.

We also should not dismiss the capacity of the AKP, including Erdogan, to learn from the Gezi Park experience. Despite the bluster and the inflammatory tirades about the evils of social networking, foreign provocateurs and domestic ‘looters’ and ‘terrorists’, the excessive police force (hardly a novelty in the region, and even Europe, but no more excusable for being ‘the old normal’), Erdogan did eventually pull back to a significant degree, apparently taking account of the strong objections mounted against the Gezi Park project in its original form. Erdogan seems now to have put the Gezi Project on hold for the indefinite future, awaiting a judicial finding as to the acceptability of the project and possibly organizing a citywide referendum in Istanbul both to consult the municipal citizenry and find out about their attitude. And we should not idealize the protesters, a minority of whom did vandalize and demean Islamic sensibilities with obscene graffiti and allegedly threw beer bottles thrown on the floor of a nearby mosque, although this charge is sharply contested. Unfortunately, and unacceptably, many governments that claim the mantle of democracy use excessive force when dealing with angry protests and demonstrations, but no autocrat worth his name attempts to meet adversaries half way as such temporizing is regarded either as unnecessary or as a display of what such a leader finds most distasteful, namely, weakness.

The government’s new approach to the Gezi controversy may yet prove to be problematic. The referendum may endorse the project as a reassertion of popular support for Erdogan, and he might be tempted to plunge ahead.  A referendum in such situations can often dangerously infringe upon fundamental social values that should be protected regardless of how ‘the people’ vote. The preservation of Gezi Park would seem to qualify for meta-political protective treatment. Gezi Park as a green enclave, along with its proximity to Taksim Square, possesses a vivid resonance for the whole city of Istanbul, including even the revitalized Ottoman heritage that is so dear to Erdogan and the AKP generally. It seems especially precious to a younger generation of urban Turks that often have cherished memories of the park from their childhood. And for the most ardent followers of Kemal Ataturk the Taksim Square milieu has always been hallowed space where patriotic holidays of the Turkish republic are solemnly celebrated.

Of course, except at the very beginning, and maybe not even then, Gezi Park was about far more than Gezi Park. It was, as suggested, a slowly articulated repudiation of the sort of democracy being offered by the Turkish state, and as yet unarticulated series of demands for another kind of governance based on a different understanding of what politics and freedom are about. It was also about, although vaguely and incoherently, the cultural leveling down associated with neoliberal globalization and the rise of a predatory private sector that seemed responsible for littering the city of Istanbul with shopping malls and high rise twin towers.

There were other more conventional grievances that need to be addressed if the AKP wants to build a more legitimate structure of governance in the country, including the release of journalists and other prisoners of conscience presently held prison, greater reassurances about freedom of expression and dissent, and more public accountability of police and government. At the same time, the depth and intractability of the opposition in some sectors of Turkish society makes reconciliation a mission impossible. Polarization seems the destiny of Turkey for the foreseeable future. Most of the protest spawned by Gedi Square focused on calls for the resignation of Erdogan, in effect demanding a repudiation of democratic elections, which seems rather perverse considering the overall success of Turkey while Erdogan was running the country.

There is, to be sure, some peculiar features present in the litany of opposition complaints. For instance, there are frequent allegations that anti-government criticism of Erdogan and the AKP is absent from the media due to intimidation. It is true that Turkish TV seemed at first to ignore embarrassingly the events in Gezi Park while international TV was covering the unfolding protest in real time. Yet the true situation in Turkey, as I have experienced it, is one of widespread and harsh criticism of Erdogan from many angles, in this regard not the slightest evidence of media intimidation or alleged self-censorship, and a greatly exaggerated contention here and abroad that the voices of censure have been silenced by imprisonment. Posting an otherwise illuminating article online, Michael Ferguson, finishing a PhD in history and classics at McGill, writes this incredible phrase, while commenting on the media’s failure to mention of a controversial assertion: “..not surprisingly, however, given the Turkish media’s unwillingness to criticize Erdogan.”  I have been reading numerous opinion pieces attacking Erdogan in the Turkish press during the past two weeks, and so I cannot imagine what prompts such an assertion. True, there are many journalists imprisoned, to be sure, but apparently less for their critical views than for their supposed involvement in anti-government, unlawful activities. These charges should be investigated without any further delays, and those being held either tried or released, but that is a different matter than contending that Erdogan is being treated as a hothouse flower by the Turkish media, which is manifestly untrue.

The puzzle I have encountered after recently arriving in Turkey is why so many people seem honestly to believe that freedom of expression has been so severely encroached upon when it seems at least as robust as what is found in other democracies. What can be more aptly complained about here in Turkey, but less so than in the United States, is the shrillness of the critical media that offers no space for those with moderate views cleaving to ‘the golden mean.’ In the U.S. where talk radio features inflammatory voices of the extreme right such as Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck. Also present are the Murdoch tabloid mendacities of the Fox Network that are given more intelligent and careful reactionary spins in the editorial and opinion columns of the Wall Street Journal.  Yet there is also present influential middle of the road media, New York Times, Washington Post, PBS, Rachel Maddow, MSNBC, which although far from objective still helps readers understand that there are at least two sides to many contested issues.  Controversially, I find Today’s Zaman the most consistently informed and balanced of the major media sources in Turkey, but interestingly almost unavailable at most newsstands throughout Istanbul that seem to favor the strictly secular media.

A Preliminary Balance Sheet

Up until now the unsettled immediate situation in Turkey has dissuaded me from commenting on what remains a still confused, complicated, and unfinished situation. Despite their marginalization in Gezi Square itself, the mainstream Turkish secular opposition to the AK Party leadership of the country over the past 11 years, welcomed these protests with unreserved enthusiasm misleadingly claiming in the media and throughout the world that these confrontations with the state was a moment of their supreme vindication. It should be remembered that both the Kemalist republicans and the traditional left have feared and hated the AKP from the moment of its suprising initial electoral victory in 2002. They have particularly detested Recip Teyyip Erdogan even before he became prime minister. These political elements of the Old Turkey stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the achievements of his leadership in elevating Turkey’s regional and global stature in dramatic fashion, while managing to do what was thought to be impossible—depoliticizing the Turkish military from political arenas while managing to preside  over an unprecedented period of economic growth and political stability. The embittered opposition angrily explained that these positive results would merely the good luck of the AKP, that they would have occurred under whatever government was in power, and besides, the AKP must be stopped and exposed, as it is deceitfully pursuing a secret agenda was intent on placing the country within an iron cage of Sharia law, the unquestionable goal to make Turkey into ‘a second Iran.’

It seems clear that these essentially partisan and polarizing attitudes do not seem to have animated the original protesters in Gezi Park who were mainly reacting with appropriate anger to a grotesque urban renewal plan that would have destroyed a sentimental park adjoining the richly symbolic center of Istanbul in Taksim Square, replacing it with a vulgar reconstruction of Ottoman Era army barracks, incredibly given an ugly modern face as one more shopping mall.  In some respects, such a future for Gezi Park did strike many of the early protesters as a fitting predatory expression of consumer capitalism gone wild.

The second much enlarged wave of protest was the spontaneous outpouring of youth, appalled more by the brutality of the police response than the environmental agenda, and clearly thirsting for a new form of emancipatory politics, beyond the greed for power of the traditional parties with their hollow promises and interest-driven programs. It was this outlook, difficult to categorize precisely because it was discovering and revealing itself as the events unfolded, exemplifying their distance from traditional politics by relying on humor, satire, inclusiveness, and a political style that seemed to owe more to ‘performance art’ (e.g. ‘standing men’ and other tropes) than to bombastic political speeches enunciating the familiar litany of political demands.  Such a politics of protest, even taking account of the carnivalesque atmosphere and the anarchist turns toward violence, was fully committed in its critical posture to a ‘search and explore’ method of doing politics along with an extreme reflex of disgust whenever political leaders tell their citizens what to do and not do in their lives.  It is this acute sensitivity to government and its leader intruding upon this sacred zone of private autonomy that does make this new protest ethos seemingly join forces with seculars in their denunciation of Erdogan and the AKP. Imprudently, Erdogan has gone down this road. He has backed legislation restricting where and when alcohol can be consumed, aired his opinion as to how many children a mother should produce, and told the public why kissing in public and wearing of lipstick should be discouraged and avoided. There is no doubt that Erdogan does irresponsibly fan the flames of youth and secularist discontent in Turkey by his inability or refusal to keep his conservative personal preferences about social issues to himself, and not undermine his identity as the elected leader of the whole public of a modern nation composed of diverse ethnicities and outlooks. Especially in Turkey’s principal cities many young people, above all, want to live their lives as they please without any guidance from Ankara. As we should all know by 2013, ‘the personal is political.’

These traits of Big Brother also lend some credibility to the deeper fears that Erdogan does harbor dreams, if not ambitions and plans, of becoming an autocratic ruler in the manner of the great Ottoman sultans or that his vision of majoritarian democracy is at odds with substantive democracy, that is, the establishment of a society where the views and identities of minorities and dissenters are respected and protected alongside the preferences of the majority. In effect, Erdogan should not be blamed for the acute polarization of Turkish society of which he is in many ways an unjust and long-term victim. At the same time, his blunt style of communicating with the citizenry and the opposition, is also polarizing. It suggests that Turkey remains an immature political culture, but it is far being alone in this regard.

##

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.

 

 

Istanbul: A Modest Proposal

2 Nov

 

            An earlier version of this short essay was published a few days ago in Al Jazeera English online as an opinion piece. My most trusted Turkish friends felt that it grossly exaggerated Istanbul’s credentials as a possible future world capital, and in deference, I will tone down some of the language, and call attention to some problematic features of the Turkish political landscape that should not be ignored in proposing such a status for Istanbul. At the same time in the Swiftian nature of ‘modest proposals’ to be immodest! I think it was an American comedian who said “if you haven’t gone too far, you haven’t gone far enough.” Or when Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of his life was asked about what he regretted most about his overall public role, he responded, to the effect that he had sometimes been too cautious, not sufficiently extreme. Norman O. Brown, who did much in the 1960s to inspire the study of human consciousness, once said in the course of a lecture that in psychoanalysis “only the exaggerations are valuable.” It is in this spirit that I continue to believe that Istanbul has the most to offer the peoples of the world as a global capital, but I would welcome a debate on whether the idea of a global capital is a sensible idea given the nature of globalization and if it is, whether there are preferable alternatives to Istanbul. Of course, one idea would be to neuter the idea of a global capital by choosing an uninhabited island mid-ocean, but I would imagine that almost no one would feel connected to such a place, any more than they do to such existing sterile national capital startups as Brasilia and Canberra.            

 

            The idea of a global city has a long lineage with deep roots in the pre-modern world. Indeed it seems correct to observe that global cities existed before national cities, preceding the formation of the modern state. A global city is most often associated with being a center of world trade and finance, but usually such a city also possesses strong cultural and touristic resources that attract visitors. Thinking in this manner explains the persisting tendencies is to view the hierarchy of global cities from a West-centric perspective: London, New York, and Paris placed in the first rank, with cities such as Tokyo, Geneva, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Berlin, Rome, Shanghai, Istanbul, and Los Angeles treated as forming a second tier. Of course, such rankings are quite arbitrary, shift over time, reflecting new patterns of economic and political relationships that exhibit the ebb and flow of world history. Such urban centers as Rome, London, Alexandria, Baghdad, Vienna, Venice, and Athens were definitely primary global cities during their respective heydays.

 

            But there is a new phenomenon that is especially associated with economic globalization and the main technological innovations of the past century that has given rise to such designations as ‘the digital age’ or ‘the networked society.’ This radical compression of space and time in the world creates a natural inclination to find, designate, and establish someplace as ‘the center of the world,’ as the ‘world capital.’ Of course, the claim and perception of being ‘the world capital’ is both a social and political construction that is connected with the realities of global leadership, sometimes reinforced by cultural preeminence, and normally narrated in an inherently subjective and self-centered interpretation of the flow of history, however the self is defined. In the end such a designation is bound to be controversial, and likely contested.

 

            Of course, from a mainstream realist international relations perspective we can think geopolitically of the world capital as a reflection of the prevailing distribution of hard power at a give time. Thus in the bipolar world of the Cold War it was Washington and Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became Washington alone. Some are now insisting that a new bipolarity is or will shortly be upon us, and even anticipate a new cold war, designating Beijing to be a world capital more or less equivalent in status to Washington. And for those who believe, and hope, that a more polycentric world is emerging, and would be desirable, then perhaps, in addition to Washington and Beijing, one might add Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and even Jakarta, if the European Union moves forward, maybe Brussels, and possibly Cairo as well but only if Egypt is able to find stability and regain its former regional stature.

 

            Of course, all existing cities in the 21st century are contained within a particular state, and are subject to its authority, and share its destiny. In the past there have been some ‘international cities’ without any national affiliation, and there are today in our world several successful city-states, and many states smaller in population and area than the largest cities. Proposals have been made in recent decades to establish Jerusalem as an international city, not only because such a step would contribute to a sustainable and just peace between Israel and Palestine, but because of its sacred and historical belonging to all three of the Abrahamic religions.

 

Most globally ambitious cities in the modern world, then, have this dual identity, as situated within a territorial state and yet striving for a measure of internal autonomy. As a result, cities often develop a split national personality that combines loyalty and antagonism, the latter often fueled by the deep-seated tensions between cosmopolitan urban space and the more provincial hinterland, as well as by national politicians who shift resources from the city to the countryside in their quest for votes, or sometimes, to reduce gaps in standards of living. These tensions on occasion give rise to frivolous suggestions of secession for cities that seem at odds with the ethos of the country as seems to many to be the case for New York City. It is called by its fiercest critics ‘Sodom-and-Gomorrah-on-Hudson’ and by its most loving devotees as simply ‘The Big Apple.’ Some New Yorkers have daydreams of being a city-state, and many Midwesterners would be happy if the dream came true. It is much more common for secessionist movements to become serious political projects for territorial communities comprising a minority ethnicity or religion that claims a political and legal right of self-determination. Restive urban minorities may riot on occasion and vent their dissatisfaction, but their imaginary rarely includes a scenario of formal disaffiliation. Singapore is a rare exception to this pattern, split off from the British colony of Malaya at the moment of independence. More common is the experience of Hong Kong, being reabsorbed by its powerful Chinese neighbor.

 

            A focus on cities is one way of circumventing the tendency to view sovereign states as the only political actors worth theorizing about in international life. It is true that states have an identity based on governance over a defined space that is recognized in diplomatic circles, as well as enjoying the prerogative of granting or withholding citizenship. The primacy of states as international actors is reinforced by membership rules and procedures for international institutions, especially the United Nations, that confer special and often exclusive status on a political community that qualifies as a sovereign state. In contrast, the terminology of ‘global cities’ is assigned without any agreed criteria or conferred status, lacks diplomatic relevance from the perspective of international law, and the idea that there exists one or more ‘global capital’ is no where referenced on standard world maps and remains a completely constructed category of status, identity, and desire. No government would be foolish enough to proclaim its main city as the capital of the world, although the United States came close to doing so during the springtime grandiosity of George W. Bush’s presidency. Proponents of a certain leadership role for a given state may for a variety of reasons be tempted to put forward the claim of providing the world with a capital city. It would follow from the very real geopolitical ambition to be at the ‘center’ of global policy formation and implementation, to have control over a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and to boast of offering visitors the most exciting cultural and touristic experiences.

 

            Part of the appeal of the global capital is precisely this separation of status from statehood, and more specifically from the calculus of hard power. Cities, unlike states, have police forces but no armies, although some cities have local guard or militia units, none in modern times possess or aspire to possess force capabilities to project hard power beyond city limits. Cities generally lack an arsenal of heavy weapons, do not have foreign policies, and enjoy only secondary diplomatic representation. Embassies are in capital cities however remote and small, while consulates are in cities no matter how large and influential. In Brazil, for instance, foreign ambassadors resent being posted to Brasilia, the planned and somewhat isolated and artificial capital city, and greatly prefer living in such stimulating urban environments as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Cities are simply places where lots of people live, work, enjoy nightlife, have access to extensive financial services, and engage in a range of cultural and economic activities. What, then, motivates a city to be treated, even symbolically, as a political actor, and more grandly, to put forward the claim to be the potential or actual global capital?

 

Some assertions along these lines are deliberately extravagant or are merely intended to call attention to past glories, without any serious political intention to project power. The interior Chinese secondary city of Dengfeng, for instance, claims not only to be the center of the world but the center of heaven, as well, and indeed in past times it has served as the national capital for nine Chinese dynasties. Dengfeng’s self-assertion as a city whose provenance extends beyond China and beyond any given time period, is part of its charm, and lends traditional and spiritual significance to the very metaphorical idea of there being such a reality as the center of the world, much less heaven. Such an idea resembles in certain respects the geographical seats of the great world religions that do indeed possess a centrality for the more devout among the faithful as illustrated by the great pilgrimages to Rome to visit the Vatican or the haj as the obligatory journey taken by devout Muslims to their most holy site of worship.

 

            In my view, such a claim on behalf of cities should be understood as partly a site of struggle between two types of adherents. On one side, those who adhere to the old geopolitics that continues to believe, always somewhat misleadingly, but recently more grotesquely so, that history is principally made by those who prevail in warfare, and little else. Such a belief is usually coupled with the Weberian insistence that it is the sovereign state that establishes its identity by its possession over a monopoly of legitimate force. On the other side, are those who view history through a soft power rainbow optic in which culture, political vitality, religious identity, and ethics shapes and forms what unfolds, and eventually yields a cosmopolitan urban outcome despite being out gunned on the battlefield, or succumbs and endures the tragedy of alien domination. Cities, more than countries, can be analogized to magnets or force fields where people go to strike deals, to be entertained and well fed, to add pleasure, cultural enjoyment, and to enjoy greater privacy in their lives, to discuss their problems and receive guidance, chase dreams, and entertain hopes about the future, to be educated, to be inspired by art and artists, and of course, to be protected by municipal government against violent crime and natural disasters.

 

            There was a period not many years ago where there was a notable interest in cities as independent political actors on the global stage. There were many conferences organized around the theme ‘x city and the world.’ I attended a series of annual gatherings bearing the title ‘Yokohama and the World’ that brought together thinkers and civil society actors from many foreign countries and regions. These meetings were a pet project of the governor of the Japanese prefecture, and the discussions were vibrant and suggestive, blending wishful thinking, advocacy, and an assessment of trends. The underlying perspective was one in which it was presupposed that what was good for Japan was not necessarily good for Yokohama, that cities might have separate interests and different priorities from those of national political leaders, and that especially the national capital was subject to many distorting pressures divorced from service to the human interest or the wellbeing of Yokohama’s citizenry. The global city as distinct actor, complicated by its formal subjugation to the territorial order of sovereign states, suggests that people living in a particular city might not share the postulates of territorial nationalism, and were not nearly as inclined to include hard power in their political imaginary. The idea of a world order that was basically constituted by the principal cities of the world depicts an alternate pathway to peace, sustainability, justice, and world order that is at fundamental variance from the preoccupation of sovereign states with national security. In the Yokohama setting, for instance, there was a much greater willingness to engage positively with China than was then the case for the Japanese government located in Tokyo, reflecting a web of national and international considerations. Should we not favor a network of global cities as creating a non-territorial approach to global policy that might be much more attuned to global needs and desires, especially if cities could gain wealth and prestige while contributing to the further intermingling of civilizations and thereby laying the foundations for a more peaceful and sustainable human future.

 

            In the pre-modern world cities were much more prominent than in modern times when sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, bounded territoriality, and statehood organized political life. Socrates felt that death was preferable to being exiled from Athens the city that he loved, and exile was often seen as the worst punishment that could be inflicted. Even Machiavelli centuries later, rarely celebrated for his tenderness, expressed a romantic attachment to his native Florence: “I love my city more than myself.” In the course of the transition to modernity there were many instances of resistance on the part of cities that did not want to get swallowed by these larger political communities established in every instance by conquest. Most of us remain unaware of the deep connections in the past between political violence and the constituting of larger ‘legitimate’ political communities. The relationship between state-building and war that is so fundamental to the securitization of world politics is, in other words, neither new nor without deep roots in the histories of every sovereign state and all major cities.

 

            But with the revival of city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the success of several micro states, we can observe a far weaker linkage between security and hard power, as well as the rebirth of the medieval idea of community viability. These political entities become secure by being useful to others, viable and vibrant for themselves, and generally enjoying ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but not by being able to extend territory and control of resources by conquest. Although this portrayal must be expanded to admit that most modern states did originate with cities that did expand for the sake of food security and wealth or to provide their city with security against marauding neighbors or the vagaries of weather. Nevertheless, this experience of the past is suggestive of how it might be possible to transform the political imaginary of states with respect to their most fundamental reason for existence, inducing more dedication to the security of people (‘human security’) less to the security of governments (‘national security’).

 

 

            I believe that the idea of proposing a global capital is a defensible endeavor, even if seen only as laying the groundwork for the future, if we take into account the degree of integration that has been achieved by markets, by globally constituted battlefields, by changing geopolitical patterns, by struggles to generate global policy that is commensurate with such collective goods problems as climate change and nuclear weaponry, by global travel and globalization of political identity and the dispersion of families throughout the planet by migration and forced displacement.  Of course the choice of this city rather than that one is political, economic, ethical, and even aesthetic and hedonistic.

 

 

            My initial sense of which candidate cities offer the most plausible site of the global capital is rather pluralist. For instance, if our outlook is  geopolitically oriented according to the logic of hard power realists, then the argument for choosing Washington to play that role seems rather obvious despite its recent experiences of relative decline. Yet if the speculation is more normative, connected with human values, then we would probably pick New York, especially because aside from the being the headquarters of the United Nations, it is a most notable global city from the perspective of ethnic diversity, finance, and cosmopolitan culture, although its short lifespan, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and Westcentric orientation limits the quality of its candidacy given 21st century post-colonial realities. New York and Washington also suffer from the role of the United States as the gatekeeper for access, which in the post-9/11 world has made entry problematic for many of those invited to perform culturally or participatein political or academic conferences.

 

            London also could be considered, having the advantage of a long lineage, rich tradition, as well as finance and culture, and the birthplace of the English language. Until very recently a case could be made for Brussels as the hub city for the European Union, as well as NATO, and giving expression to the idea that the world we live in is mainly responsive to economic and military power (an inversion of the 9/11 attacks that targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as the two pillars of the American world role). Brussels could also be championed as a precursor of a post-statist world order that is constituted by regional groupings, but its Western identity and association with the extensive European overseas empires and colonial crimes are fatal handicaps in our post-colonial world that bases notions of legitimacy more and more on de-Westernizing claims of civilizational identity.

 

            I find none of these candidate cities as sufficiently endowed with the combination of features that might justify christening its as the capital of the world. But I do have a promising candidate provided it can overcome some present obstacles: Istanbul. This may seem surprising, because although achieving a much higher profile in the last decade, Turkey as a state is not viewed as belonging to the top tier of countries in the world, including among emerging states, its currency is not much valued beyond its borders, and its language spoken only in its own country, among a few nearby Turcoman minorities, and some central Asian countries that gained independence a couple of decades ago when the Soviet Union fell apart. As well, Turkey has some severely troublesome domestic problems for which no near-term solution seems forthcoming, especially its inability to accommodate the grievances of 12-15 million Kurdish minority, important international unresolved issues such as its relationship to the Armenian diaspora, its various tensions with Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, and Iran, and its dysfunctional, yet abiding and severe, internal polarization between those who governed during the Republican Era, and those who have run the country since 2002.

 

            There are more serious issues as well that make Istanbul’s candidacy problematic in many quarters precisely because it is such an integral part of the Turkish state. The central question is raised: ‘Should the sins of the state be visited upon the city?’ It is not an easy question. And what of the sins of the city? Istanbul has had a spectacular building boom in recent years, with shopping malls and upper income restaurants and hotels, and an overall atmosphere that may not be conducive to a fulfilled life for the majority of inhabitants that must struggle with the ordeals of living and working in a city of rising living costs, unhealthy air, and limited resources for human satisfaction unless one is the recipient of a large salary.

 

            How then can Istanbul be seriously considered in our search for a global capital? I would point to several factors. Increasingly, Istanbul is a city of choice for those international travelers in search of touristic fulfillment, and it rarely disappoints visitors despite its awesome traffic that clogs streets well past midnight and its polluted air. It has also become a secure and acceptable place to hold the most delicate diplomatic discussions, whether involving such regional issues as Syria and Iran, or wider concerns about Afghanistan and Africa. Istanbul has without fanfare also taken steps to emphasize its rising importance: with Spain it jointly administers the UN project on ‘Alliance of Civilizations’; it held recently a very high profile inaugural session of the World Economic Forum; and it also has become a favorite non-European meeting ground for a variety of UN sponsored events.

            Istanbul is convenient to reach for global gatherings, Turkey is a permissive gatekeeper with respect to visitor access automatically issuing visas for a small charge, and Turkish Airlines was recently selected as the best in Europe. Important, also, is the fact that Turkey is not Europe psychologically, even if a small part of its territory is treated as being in Europe. Turkey’s Asian identity is not just a geographic description, but is far more a cultural and religious imprimatur. It has been given greater recent authority by the European Union’s rejectionist response to the Turkish application for membership. Many comment that Turkey has been fortunate to remain outside the EU during the current Euro-crisis, but more than this, if Turkey had become a member it would no long be perceived as favorably by many non-Western constituencies. Turkey also has gained economic and political credibility at a time when so many important states have either been treading water so as to remain afloat. It has also pioneered in achieving a stable interface between secular principles and religious freedom, moving away from the ‘over-secularization’, to borrow the designation from Ibrahim Kalin. This rigid version of being secular dominated the Turkish political scene during the long period of Kemalist ascendancy that ended in 2002 with the control of the Turkish government shifting to the AKP as a result of electoral victories. It is necessary to account of such factors as Istanbul can not be separated from its embeddedness in the Turkish reality.

 

            But is not such acclaim for Turkey irrelevant to the advancement of Istanbul as global capital? One of the distinguishing features of the Erdogan leadership has been to shift the attention of the country and the world to Istanbul, just as Ataturk had strongly believed that a truly modern Turkey would need to repudiate its Ottoman past and so deliberately moved the capital city to Ankara as part of a fresh break with history for the young republic. For the AKP the re-glorification of Istanbul is a way of reviving pride and the traditions associated with the pre-republican era. This is not a crude form of neo-Ottomanism, but a realization that Istanbul was a treasure trove of cultural and religious eminence unmatched elsewhere, and a subtle reminder, through its extraordinary mosque architecture, of its former stature as the home of the Islamic Caliphate. As well, Turkey geopolitically and geographically provides a unique set of linkages between Europe and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and offers the world a more cosmopolitan understanding of the Mediterranean world. I would also mention the degree to which Turkey’s most celebrated author, the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, has been inspired by the imaginative excesses of Istanbul as a city. Pamuk is sometimes referred to as ‘the biographer of Istanbul’ because his great The Black Book and his memoir of growing up in the city so brilliantly capture the magic and mysteries of Istanbul, which has attracted millions of hearts and minds around the world, endowing the city with an almost mystical identity for many of us. Tell me a city other than Istanbul that has exerted such an influence on our collective imaginations? Some might answer feebly ‘Venice,’ recalling Thomas Mann’s great story ‘Death in Venice’ as well as the haunting novel, The Comfort of Strangers, set in Venice by Ian McEwan, but the charisma of Venice is as a place of menace and degeneracy, although its exotic beauty is unquestionably one of the urban wonders of the world.

 

            What enhances Istanbul’s candidacy, in my judgment, is the degree to which this Turkish worldview has been recently articulated in a clear manner. More than any other current political leaders, those who have spoken for Turkey during the last several years have understood and expressed the need to bring a change about the way in which security and power have been achieved in modern international relations, while at the same time not losing an appreciation of the resilience of the old ways, however anachronistic, during this agonizing period of global transition. This innovative renewal of Turkish influence has been rooted, to an unparalleled extent, in soft power geopolitics stressing the mutual benefits of peace, trade, cultural achievement, ciilizational pride, and dialogue.

 

            True, Turkey’s preferred orientation has recently been significantly readjusted to take account of a series of unexpected developments arising from the aftermath of the Arab upheavals, especially in neighboring Syria.  Despite Turkish foreign policy being confronted by hard power challenges within its borders and region, Ankara’s underlying commitment to a new paradigm of world order has not been abandoned. The Kurdish challenge, the Syrian internal struggle, tensions with Iran have led to a dramatic modification of the earlier flagship promise of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but even this seemingly unrealistic goal, if sensitively and contextually considered, retains its essential wisdom, which combines principle associated with maximizing peaceful relations with states and their peoples and promoting mutually beneficial interests. As Foreign Minister Davutoglu has repeatedly stressed, when a neighboring government commits atrocities against its own people, then Turkey sides with the people, not the government that has discredited itself. When the zero problems approach was first proclaimed, it might have prevented future confusion, if this qualification had been made explicit.

 

AKP detractors, whether Kemalists within or Israelis without, have done their best to discredit the Turkish approach to foreign policy. Undoubtedly the new challenge is complex and difficult: How to strike a new balance amid the turmoil of the region that has so far made fools of us all! Yet I am convinced that Turkey continues to do its best to increase the prospects for soft power geopolitics while undertaking the necessary prudent steps to avoid dangerous vulnerability to those political forces that continue to rely on hard power solutions for conflict, including the perpetration of mass violence against their own people.

 

            Considering Istanbul as a possible future capital of the world can be interpreted as a side-effect of the advocacy of soft power geopolitics. It also responds to the receptivity of Turkey as a state willing to provide the peoples of the world with a safe haven for dialogue, negotiation, empathy, and the satisfactions of a post-Western world civilization. We are also recognizing the geographical and geopolitical location of Istanbul as a crossroads connecting several civilizations and religious traditions. Such a proposal can be dismissed as a wild exaggeration of the Turkish role in the world or as a perverse instance of wishful thinking, but it is put forward partly in response to an interpretation of integrative trends in our globalizing world, and also as an expression of the kind of flourishing future that will most likely be of most benefit the peoples of the world.

 

   

UN Alliance of Civilizations, Istanbul Partners Forum, May 31-June 1, 2012

5 Jun


           

               

 

 

 

 

                   The UN Alliance of Civilization (AOC) was initiated by Kofi Annan in 2005 while he was Secretary General of the UN with the joint sponsorship of Turkey and Spain, with its principal center of operations in Istanbul. It was formed under the dark skies that existed after the 9/11 attacks, and seeks to provide an alternative narrative to that of inter-civilizational war, that starkly negative scenario of Islam versus the West associated with the inflammatory views of Bernard Lewis and Samuel Huntington that continues to provide fuel for Islamophobia that burns ever more brightly in Europe and North America. It was several years since I had heard as many references to Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis as I did during the discussions and presentations at the Istanbul Forum, which was opened by speeches made by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister of Turkey, and Ban Ki Moon, the current UN Secretary General.

 

            The primary rationale for the AOC is to provide a ‘platform’ for inter-civilizational dialogue that explores differences among civilizations, but seeks to promote mutual undertstanding and respect, even affection and celebration. The label platform has become recently popular in international circles to convey the sense of a venue that has minimal restrictions as to participation, agenda, and ideological presuppositions. It is open to all perspectives that accept some presumed core values, and tempers disagreements by insisting upon an atmosphere of civility, and by generally avoiding controversial topics of current events. In this regard both Erdogan and Ban Ki Moon affirmed the broad idealistic goals of the AOC, but also made explicit in strong language their condemnation of the Syrian government for its role in recent atrocities committed against civilian communities, with especial reference to the shocking impact of the Houla Massacre that had occurred several days prior to these meetings.

 

            In Turkey the AOC is taken seriously as a new dimension of continuing thought and reflection as is evident both by the establishment of a dedicated academic program at Bahçeshir University and a separate degree granting graduate institute within a new field of academic specialization identified as ‘alliance of civilizations.’ Its first cohort of students played an active part in the discussion periods during the Forum. The AOC is under the administrative leadership of Jorge Sampaio, former President of Portugal, whose title is UN High Representative for Alliance of Civilizations. It holds periodic meetings on various themes in different parts of the world. I took part in the opening session of the Forum on a panel that included the philosophical founding father of the AOC, Professor Mehmet Aydin, former Minister of State, Rashi Gannushi, the head of the an-Nahda Movement that has emerged victorious in Tunishian elections, and Princess Rym Ali of Jordan, the founder of the Jordan Media Institute. The panel was supposed to address the relevance of global politics, and relied on a Q & A format presided over by the widely admired TV moderator for Al Jazeera, Riz Khan. The session was lively, avoiding the often tedious presentation of a sequence of papers, and led to thoughtful questions posed by members of a disparate audience that included the various constituencies that are brought together by the AOC: governments, international institutions, NGOs, students, and representatives of civil society. Due to the format that I had not known in advance, I had prepared some remarks that were never presented at the session, but I did have the opportunity to make some of these points in responding to questions put to me either by Riz Khan or members of the audience.

 

            It is a fair question to wonder whether sponsoring such events is worth the expense and effort. Skeptics say there is already too much ‘empty talk.’ My tentative response is affirmative. I find that the quality of such global conversations and associated secondary influences to be an essential dimension of a significant 21st century learning experience, not only or even primarily as a result of what speakers from such varied backgrounds have to say, but for the wider audience in attendance and those reached and influenced through media coverage. It is a step in the direction of creating what I described during the discussion period as an emergent ‘cosmopolitan pedagogy’ that is sensitive to divergent cultural styles and understandings. At its best such pedagogy supplements knowledge with wisdom, rationality with ethics and spirituality, and couples concerns about economic development with attentiveness to injustices and environmental hazards. It is through sustaining a creative tension between the particular and the general, the diverse and the universal, as well as between the controversial and the agreed upon that a cosmopolitan pedagogy responsive to the complexities, fragilities, and interactive dynamics of the early 21st century will come gradually into being. I found the discussions at the Istanbul Forum to be valuable contributions to a process of reconstituting cultural cognition for this moment in history.

 

My prepared remarks are published here online for the first time, and were formulated before I had the benefit of the discussions at the Forum, and I hope are of some slight interest:

 

            “I am grateful for this opportunity to participate in this Istanbul Forum of the Alliance of Civilizations.

 

            “As several others have undoubtedly already had occasion to mention the mission of the Alliance as one of promoting understanding among civilizations by way of an open dialogue that stresses differences, I wish to emphasize the commonalities associated with this undertaking. More than ever before in human history there is the need for peoples throughout the world to find leaders who will facilitate cooperation supportive of the shared needs of the planet. The world is faced with a series of problems of global scope that cannot be successfully addressed by governments acting alone or even by coming to agreements about cooperative arrangements based on their mutual national interests. As the failure to act responsibly from a global perspective in relation to nuclear weaponry or climate change illustrates, the peoples of the world remain beholden to the severe limitations of state-centric world order in seeking to shape a global policy that serves the human interest, which is long-term survival and an equitable distributions of burdens.  The risks associated with the possession and deployment of nuclear weaponry and those caused by the inability to fashion a timely response to climate change depend on global policy formed to benefit the whole of humanity, now and in the future, and not just the parts as represented by the governments of sovereign states. Even a global state such as the United States acts selfishly whenever confronted by challenges that threaten its military dominance, diplomatic prestige, and its economic growth

 

            What is particularly appealing about the AOC orientation is the replacement of states by civilizations as the primary units of analysis when thinking about world politics. Such a perspective frees us from the narrowness, egoism, and shortsightedness of nationalist thinking and tribal identities. It also underscores the crucial potential roles of religion and culture in developing an approach to global challenges on the basis of shared and universally endorsed values that draw their inspiration from the East as well as the West. Central to this endeavor is the focus so well expressed by Jacques Derrida on what it might mean for humanity “to live together well” on this planet, a deceptively simple observation that makes a double assertion with profound implications: however we choose as a species to behave, we are destined to live together, which is the inescapable message of globalization, but the more demanding second part of the assertion is the implied encouragement to live together benevolently, that is, in peace, justice, and contentment as attainable ideals. Unfortunately, except as abstractions, we remain mostly in the dark as to how, as a practical matter it could become possible to live, if not well, at least better together: working to achieve real peace, real justice, and real harmony, which presupposes, above all sympathy for and hospitality toward ‘the other’ in all the shapes and forms that human experience presents, and especially, with respect to those others that suffer and are being victimized in various ways by existing societal arrangements. Actually, we have some sense of what such a better world would look like, but we do not have much understanding of how to make the transition from where we are to where we would like to be, and maybe the unstated purpose of the AOC is to bring discussions of such a transition into the domain of public reason, and thus less subject to dismissal as ‘utopian’ wishful thinking. In passing I would note that utopian thought in this period of planetary emergency deserves also to be taken seriously and may provide the world with an emancipatory potential.

 

            The task set for this panel is to emphasize the relevance of global politics to the work of AOC. This is a difficult and speculative task although it is probably better undertaken here in Istanbul than anywhere else in the world. The Turkish political leadership over the course of the last decade has been impressively sensitive to the originality of this young century, and its relevance for the conduct of diplomacy and foreign policy. The essence of this sensitivity has been to give substantive implementation to an awareness that the state is a part of more inclusive configurations of influence and belief—region, civilization, religion—and not on its own.  That without a world government the state remains the most influential representative of the whole—species, world. In effect, the pursuit of national interests, detached from an appreciation of such wider interests as global interests, civilizational identity, and the human interest is not only a betrayal of core values but increasingly dysfunctional for the ends served by the state itself. In the end, this is a fundamental adjustment that calls for vision, ethics, and a practical understanding of how problems can be best solved in a manner that is also mindful of future generations. Fitting together the parts with the whole has always been a challenge to the political and moral imagination of statesmen, but the bearing of problems of global scope and the need for longer time horizons puts a premium on developing responsive modes of thought, policy, and action. It is in this respect that Turkey’s foreign policy based on principled pragmatism has seemed to be a breakthrough in an era where hard power diplomacy has so often failed and the urgencies generated by interdependence tend to be downplayed even as they are acknowledged.

 

            Against this background I think we need as soon as possible to make a conceptual leap of faith. For several centuries world order has been shaped by a preoccupation with borders and walls, along with the related idea of territorial sovereignty. Political community has been established within defended borders, and what is not bounded effectively is open for occupation or shared use. Of course, the colonial period gave a Eurocentric twist to this more general idea, but since the collapse of colonialism this state-centric manner of distributing authority and establishing order has been accepted throughout the world. It is expressed in international law by the ideas of equality among sovereign states, by sovereign authority within the state and freedom beyond its borders as exercised in such global commons as the oceans and space. It is from this perspective that we speak of ‘the freedom of the high seas.’ The United Nations was organized on the basis of the legitimacy of this state-centric imagery, and its Charter reflects this orientation toward world order, although privileging some states in the procedures of the Security Council.

 

            Identity for persons and peoples followed from this basic spatially conceived mapping of the world, giving rise to nationalism and patriotism.  Nationalist ideology and citizenship became in the modern world the exclusive means for individuals and groups to be accorded protection and membership in a state, making statelessness an acute form of vulnerability, an existence without rights. Of course, this conceptual mapping was a crude approximation of reality that overlooked many features of the manner in which this system operated: citizens were frequently helplessly vulnerable to the violence and abuse by their own state; minorities were targets of discrimination; hegemonic and imperial geopolitics encroached upon the territorial sovereignty of weaker states.

 

            Two fundamental developments altered the descriptive accuracy and ethical acceptability of this image of world order. First, the destructiveness of World War II highlighted by the use of atomic bombs against Japanese cities undermined the idea that war could be rationally reconciled with sovereign control over the technologies of warmaking. Secondly, the rise of human rights in the aftermath of the disclosure of the Holocaust challenged the normative idea that states were unrestricted( that is, sovereign) in their internal behavior except as restrained by the rule of law and institutions of constitutional governance. Expressed more vividly we can say that Hiroshima and Auschwitz gave rise to a new concern with limits to complement the earlier focus on borders. This shift has now acquired an ecological dimension through the fears associated with climate change, and the failures to regulate sufficiently the discharge of greenhouse gasses. What has become evident in each of these domains is that problem-solving capabilities of a world of borders cannot address adequately the issues posed by a world of limits, whether these limits refer to political violence, sovereign authority, and the regulation of the global commons, including the world economy.

 

            In other words, the degree to which states, and their perspectives, continue to dominate the formation of global policy has become increasingly anachronistic. It is epitomized by the construction of walls and barriers to keep unwanted people in or out, even sea walls are being proposed and some actually constructed to overcome rising sea levels associated with global warming and the prospect of maritime migrants fleeing from places that are uninhabitable due to heat or flooding. Some states are indulging the illusion that they can escape the downsides of interdependence by establishing for their citizenry the kind of security established by affluent ‘gated communities.’ Similarly, the response of the United States to the 9/11 attacks was to territorialize its quest for restored global primacy by attacking Afghanistan, and then Iraq, in what should have been understood to be an essentially non-territorial conflict of global scope that gave rise to transnational policing and information gathering, but also to self-scrutiny as to whether such extremism, while adopting criminal tactics, might not have been prompted by legitimate grievances.  Such war making after 9/11 was the source of major confusions as a result of the deliberate intertwining of a worldwide counterterrorism campaign with the pursuit of global state-building, the global domination project of the American foreign policy establishment.

 

            In these contexts, and others, we are living in a world of limits but continue to act as if we can address its challenges by acting as if the world of borders remains sufficient. Of course, in many respects our lives and destinies continue to be controlled by these spatial allocations of authority, but the state is stymied when it comes to solving the most basic challenges of the day, whether it be grasping the impacts of drone technology and cyberwar or handling the transnational ramifications of excessive sovereign debt. Issues of scarcity relative to food, water, and energy are also emerging to pose questions about the future viability of our collective lives on the planet, and the need to think now and urgently about how to address limits in a manner that respects the dignity of persons and peoples, and also adopts a precautionary approach to sustainability and survival risks. The preoccupation with borders in what is becoming daily a more borderless world will give rise to waves of despair as problems that could be solved if limits were agreed upon and institutionalized continue to be ignored, or at best, marginalized in the search for the right solutions for global problems.

 

            In conclusion, we can discern the relevance of the AOC theme of civilizational discourse. Only by enlisting the wisdom, core values, and visions of civilizations, including with special appreciation those associated with indigenous peoples, have we any hope of making the necessary transition from borders to limits in our consciousness and governmental logic. It is within the world’s cultures and religions that the sense of limits is inscribed in the deepest recesses of memory and pedagogy, establishing the imperative that human endeavor is doomed unless respectful of limits, either as generated by divine authority or through the enveloping power of nature. Human tragedy, as ancient peoples well understood, is to ignore or live beyond such limits. The Greeks had a word for it: hubris, which conveyed a deep awareness that tragedy befell those who exceeded limits, however powerful and autonomous they might seem.

 

            To learn from others is particularly crucial for the West, which has not heeded these cultural warnings, and especially the United States, that continues to project its military power and neoliberal dogma on a global scale. It means heeding this message of limits whether articulated by native peoples or by the sages of the East. I close with some words uttered long ago by Rabindranath Tagore in his 1913 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech: “It is the East in me which gave to the West. For is not the East the mother of spiritual Humanity and does not the West, do not the children of the West amidst their games and plays when they get hurt, when they get finished and tired, turn their face to the serene mother, the East? Do they not expect their food to come from her, and their rest for the night when they are tired? And are they to be disappointed?” This early utterance of such inspirational sentiments was far too generous to the colonizing East and too hopeful about prospects for inter-civilizational harmony, but at the same time prophetic in reminding the children of the Enlightenment in the West that the spiritual accomplishments of the East should not be overlooked. Of course, spirituality is embedded in all civilizations, and it is more a matter of recovering those suppressed spiritualities of the West that succumbed to a spell of secular absolutism while crafting the modern world by means of its technological prowess that proved so useful in war and economic development.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,991 other followers