Tag Archives: Turkish language

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.

Turkey’s June 12 Elections and Eurocentrism

9 Jun

The following post is written in collaboration with Hilal Elver, my Turkish wife. It is posted a few days before Turkish elections this Sunday that will have a great impact on Turkey‘s political future. As a sign of changes in the world, the pre-election attention given to these elections in Turkey is a notable example. Turkey has emerged as ‘a success story’ in a global setting where most of the news is interpreting various forms of failure, especially in meeting global challenges such as food security, climate change, and economic instability and recession.

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            The Economist leader headline in its June 4th issue is revealing: “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.” It reveals a mentality that has not shaken itself free from the paternalism and entitlements of the bygone colonialist days. What makes such an assertion so striking is that The Economist would know better than to advise American or Canadian or Israeli citizens how to vote. And it never did venture such an opinion on the eve of the election of such reactionary and militarist figures as George W. Bush, Stephen Harper, or Benjamin Netanyahu. Are the people of Turkey really so politically backward as to require guidance from this bastion of Western elite opinion so as to learn what is in their own best interest?

 

            Surely it is a strange recommendation even putting aside its interventionary aspects. As The Economist itself admits the progress Turkey has made internally and internationally since the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Its economy has flourished, civilian control of the governing process has been greatly strengthened, creative efforts have been undertaken to solve outstanding conflicts involving the Kurdish minority and Cyprus, and Turkey has fashioned a creative and constructive foreign policy that has greatly enhanced its regional and global reputation. With such an unquestioned record of achievement, it seems strange to go so far beyond calling attention to some serious lingering problems in Turkey by instructing the people of Turkey to vote for an opposition party that attacks the AKP relentlessly but offers no alternative vision for how it might improve upon its policies.

 

As Stewart Patrick put it recently in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the influential American journal on global policy: “The dramatic growth of Brazil, China, and India—and the emergence of middle-tier economies such as Indonesia and Turkey—is transforming the geopolitical landscape and testing the institutional foundation of the post-World War II liberal order.” Notable here is the recent acceptance of Turkey as a major regional and global actor, something that was not present in the political imagination before this period of AKP leadership.

 

And if we look beyond Eurocentric perspectives, the rise of Turkey is even more dramatic. In the Middle East, it is Turkey, although outside the Arab orbit, that has most inspiring to those leading the movements that have produced the Arab Spring. Public opinion polls in the region again and again rank Recip Tayyip Erdogan as the world’s most admired leader. It is a mistake to suggest that these movements will opt for ‘the Turkish model,’ as each national situation has its own originality, but all share a passionate insistence that destiny of the country will be shaped by its own people according to their values and aspirations, and without imitation of others. It is possible to learn from the Turkish experience in dealing with such tendentious issues as the future participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics or the desirability of pursuing a foreign policy based on ‘zero problems with neighbors’ while maintaining this fierce insistence on the nationalist character of political transformation.

 

At the same time, in a world lacking effective and legitimate global leadership, it would be a mistake to overlook the enormous contributions made by Turkish diplomacy over the course of the prior decade. AKP foreign policy, as principally shaped by Ahmet Davutoglu, provides a reasoned, peace oriented voice of intelligent moderation that draws upon deep historical and cultural affinities, and suggests a very different political profile than that associated with such other regional voices as those emanating from Iran and Saudi Arabia.

 

Such an affirmation of the AKP achievements is not meant to be an uncritical endorsement of its policies. There are disturbing features of its approach to internal dissent, including the imprisonment of a large number of its domestic critics, especially journalists, and recent examples of police brutality in responding to anti-government demonstrations. There are also widely discussed worries about Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions, contentions that he is a closet autocrat as well as an immensely skillful politician in the populist mode, and it might be reassuring to the electorate as a whole if the elections do not give the AKP a parliamentary two-thirds super-majority that would allow the amendment of the 1982 Constitution without the need for a ratifying referendum. The fear is that with such control, 376 members out of a total of 550, the AKP could push through a presidential system that would allow Mr. Erdogan to become the dominant political leader in the country for another ten years. However, a new constitution is necessary. There is little disagreement among the Turkish voters about the desirability of a new constitution to replace the outdated 1982 Constitution, a byproduct of military rule. Aside from its statist and ultra-nationalist features, the present Turkish constitution keeps alive unpleasant memories of repressive rule when abuse of the citizenry was the order of the day.

 

Secular Turks mainly worry about certain forms of constitutional reform that they fear will keep the AKP in power forever and will somehow challenge their European modernist life style by such measures as Internet censorship instilling Islamic morals with respect to sexual content or impose restrictions on the public availability of alcohol. In the background, as well, is an unresolved struggle for economic and cultural primacy among elites with different geographic and class roots in Turkish society, the AKP bringing to the fore new energies that come from the more traditional atmosphere of Anatolian towns and villages, as opposed to the CHP elites that are concentrated in the main urban centers of western Turkey: Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara.

 

Instead of telling Turks how to vote, The Economist might have more appropriately warned Turkish voters  (if their concern was the future wellbeing of the country) against the perils of the free market economy that the AKP has so enthusiastically endorsed, and especially encouraged while dramatically expanding trade with neighboring states, especially to its East.   Despite the impressive economic growth of recent years, there seems to be too great a readiness in Ankara to go along with the sort of neoliberal globalization that minimizes the regulation of markets, fails to address climate change, indulges speculative finance, and generates ever greater disparities between rich and poor within and among countries.

 

Even here in relation to the world economy the Turkish record is better than its harshest critics are ready to admit. Recently Turkey took over from Belgium, itself symbolic of a power ship on the global stage, as host for the next ten years of the UN efforts to assist the poorest countries in the world, known as the Least Developed Countries or LDCs. It hosted a mega-conference of 192 member states of the UN in Istanbul last month, and made it clear through statements by Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu to the assembled delegations that Turkey’s vision of its role was to make sure that economic justice was being achieved through this UN process, an assessment that took issue with the efforts of the prior 40 years of grand rhetoric and miserable performance. Expressive of this intention, the Turkish Foreign Minister established an Intellectual Forum of independent academic specialists gathered from around the world that ran sessions parallel to the inter-governmental conference, offering a critical perspective on the entire UN approach to extreme poverty and societal vulnerability.

 

Perhaps, the greatest deficiency in the current Turkish political scene is not the quality of AKP leadership, but the absence of a responsible and credible opposition that offers the citizens some alternative policies on key questions. Until the current elections the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), has been a party of ‘No,’ agitating secular anxieties about ‘a second Iran’ and withholding all appreciation for what the governing party has managed to achieve. Turkey, as with any vibrant democracy, needs a robust opposition, preferably with a genuine social democratic orientation, both to heighten the quality of policy debate and to make the electoral process more responsive to the values of and challenges facing Turkish society, but this will not be achieved at this stage by voting the AKP out of power. We have the impression that its new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, seeks to move the party’s program and tactics in this direction, and he has moved away from the polarizing language and approach of the impoverishing Baykal period of CHP decline, but dislodging the old guard of the party has limited the adjustment. In contrast, the Erdogan leadership has exhibited a pragmatic capability to respond intelligently to changes in the political setting.

 

The Economist and others outside of Turkey should certainly be free to comment on AKP policies and the record of its government, but telling voters how to vote goes too far, and recalls the worst sides of the European relationship to the Middle East. We live in an increasingly integrated and interconnected political, economic, and cultural global space within which critical dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation are indispensable if the future holds any promise of becoming peaceful, fair, and sustainable for the peoples of the world. In this regard, it is crucial that the imperatives of such free expression be reconciled with respect for the dynamics of self-determination, above all the autonomy of national electoral procedures.  It is disappointing that Eurocentricism has not yet become an embarrassment for the editors of The Economist.