Friday, June 19, 2015

An historic election: Kurds save Turkish rule of law and democracy


Mustafa Akyol – “[President] Erdogan is an aggressive-paranoid authoritarian” – over dinner in Istanbul, June 14, 2015

‘Turkish politics is filled with all kinds of amazing and crazy stuff” – Akyol, June 14, 2015


    On June 7th, Turkey held an enormously significant election, a watershed for the rule of law and democracy.  Under major threat, the Turkish people stood up and sustained these deep moral values.

***

       In 2002, the AK Party (the Justice and Development Party) had won the leadership of the Parliament and Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Turkey’s first Islamist Prime Minister.  Erdogan had enabled most Turks to buy houses.  The old Turkish republic of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modeled on France, had barred all public displays of religiosity.  But increasingly, rural people and their children had come into Turkish public life.  Erdogan championed the right to wear a veil at work or at school.  This is a basic individual right, a person’s own choice, and Turkey has now become a mixture of veiled and unveiled women (the woman at Turkish Airlines who checked me in to fly back to the United States wore a veil around her face, the woman working in the next booth did not).  It is as corrupt a misunderstanding of a decent democracy to think that the displays of individual belief by citizens may not appear in the public sphere as to think that one and only one religious doctrine – Christian in the case of the American Right, or Islamic – should be displayed authoritarianly.  This was a big change for the better.

***

     Erdogan was elected three times as Prime Minister and then stepped aside because of term limitation.  In 2014, he was elected President, a post restricted by the Turkish Constitution (a Constitution imposed after the military coup in 1980, and a doubtfully decent one) to impartiality, a figurehead.

***

     But the AK party had become used to ruling as a single party.  In the previous election, it gained over 50% of the vote.  It had been limited by residual fear that the military – a hotbed of Kemalism – might stage a coup; hence it had flirted with the European Union.  Another great accomplishment of the AK party was, for the first time, to establish civilian rule or dominance in civilian-military relations (a great good except during the Bush period in the United States when the “civilians” became authoritarians about, for example, torture which the military by and large opposed…). (h/t Nader Hashemi)

***

        But as one of Turkey’s leading journalists, Mustafa Akyol, points out, Erdogan went particularly crazy against other partiies, branding them “enemies of the state” and “agents of the West,” after he had replaced some military leaders with his own appointees (see his “Paranoia and Polarization in Turkey” here.  Erdogan has attempted to reverse the good of an accomplishment he was responsible for, to further his own, pretty sickening ends.

***

      For the June 7th 2015 parliamentary election, Erdogan proclaimed that if the AK party triumphed, Turkey would become a Presidential system, with major power shifting to the executive.  This issue is familiar in the United States as “commander in chief” power (Bush).  It is the idea that “he is sovereign,” as Carl Schmitt put it in his 1923 Political Theology, “who makes the decision in the state of the exception.”  This longstanding reactionary/authoritarian/Nazi (literally) view in Europe has moved to the apex of American politics with the neoconservatives.  It is a formula for tyranny.

***

      Interestingly, Erodgan is also a pure case of what Greek playwrights, historians and philosophers call hubris.  With a moderate policy of trying to benefit most Turks, Erdogan’s party could have maintained sole power for a much longer period of time (see Akyol below).  But Erdogan inflated himself above the AK party.  He adopted a policy of making all opponents “traitors.”  And this involved not just words, but acts.  For there is no rule of law in Turkey, let alone an understanding of basic individual rights – for example, to habeas corpus or a fair trial, of each citizen (just as Christian conservatives or authoritarians in the United States are happy enough to note when the rights of Christians are being violated, but not only do they not speak up for Native American rights, they seek to crush them).

***

      Initially, Erdogan was supported by a large but tolerant Islamic movement, which followed Imam Fethullah Gülen (now living in exile in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania).  Inspired by Sufism and Rumi, the Gülen movement seeks toleration of different faiths and founds schools and hospitals all over Turkey and among poor people in 140 countries (it raises money from believing Turkish capitalists to do this).  It does not run candidates.  Its dark side is a tendency, in the silly name of being committed to faith (it has a large, charitable following among capitalists), to undermine teachers and smash unions.

***

      It also has TV stations and newspapers – Zaman and Today’s Zaman (English) – while the AK party dominates about 70 per cent of media in Turkey.

***

      But 4 ministers, along with Erdogan’s son, engaged in major corruption, laundering oil money for boycotted Iran in exchange for bribes.  The Gülen movement spoke out against this; there were investigations of the ministers, who  were forced to resign on December 25, 2013.  But sole political power is a dangerous and “heady” thing.   The journalists, prosecuting attorneys and judges who engaged in these investigations were locked up or fired.  Similarly, in December 14 of last year, Ekrem Zamanli, the CEO of Zaman, was arrested and eventually brought before a judge who set him free.  But the AK party replaced the judge and the CEO was kept in jail.

***

    In Turkey, there has been the opposite of law, a parody of the rule of law.

***

      Erdogan is also building himself a huge “Presidential” palace, a mausoleum to roll around in.

***

      In Gezi Park near Taksim Square (a central square with a big statue of Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic in 1923), students protested Erdogan’s despoiling the environment, calling for the maintenance of the park and not its replacement by a shopping mall. Abdullah Gül, the former President of Turkey and one of the AKP’s founders, urged Erdogan to meet with the demonstrators.  Instead Erdogan called out the army, who shot some 863 people, killing 11.

***

     Our group of 11 students and 2 faculty members from the University of Denver, and two people from the Multicultural Mosaic Foundation (the Colorado chapter of the Gülen or Hizmet movement), momentously arrived in Turkey the day of the election.

***

 The fate of Turkish democracy and moving to establish anything like a rule of law hung in the balance.  June 7th was thus no ordinary election – a little like the election of "W" by “hanging chads” and Supreme Court Justice Scalia in the US, though no one could foresee how awful his rule, featuring torture in secret prisons and aggression, would become. But the implications in Turkey were even more significant and fearful. One could not but feel trepidation about it.

***

    The Kemalist or secularist party - CHP - had exhausted itself.  It had 26% of the vote in the election but was not capable, by itself, of regaining leadership from the AK party.  It is, moreover, an authoritarian, often military-oriented party, as are all the mainstream Turkish parties (the Justice and Development Party was briefly refreshing, only to become the craziest of the lot).

***

     The MHP is an ultra-nationalist/racist party – “Turkey for the Turks,” sort of Marine Le Pen in Turkey - set on stepping on the Kurds.  It, too, was unlikely to become a national leader (it gained several per cent), or provide a reactionary but law-abiding alternative to the AK party

***

      So the rule of law as well as democracy in Turkey hung by a thread.  But the HDP (the Democratic People’s Party), a new part of the left, largely made up of Kurds, but including many others, was an alternative.  Kurds had not been able to achieve representation in Parliament because of an anti-democratic rule in the Constitution that a party must receive at least 10% of the vote to have representatives.  This was the highest bar in Europe and perhaps in any democracy in the world.  It was imposed, unsurprisingly, by the military in its Constitution after the 1980 coup.

***

      The HDP had been polling between 9.9% to just over 10%.  In the event, it got 13.1%, or 91 delegates.  Under the Constitution, if the party had gotten less than 10%, the delegates it would have gotten would have gone to the second highest vote getter in the region – in this case, the AKP.  Whether Erdogan’s party would have a majority in Parliament thus depended entirely on keeping the HDP below 10%.

***

      During the Arab Spring, Erdogan had opened negotiations with Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party), who was in prison. But following the triumph of bloody Egyptian dictatorship, Erdogan had dropped this policy, and sought to win the election from the Right.  During the campaign, he said amazingly that “there is no Kurdish problem in Turkey” – he is, of course, right in the sense that genocide, disenfranchisement and racism are a “problem” of the Turkish government, not of the Kurds.  But the Kurdish vote came in 2/3 for the new HDP, led by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtaş (the name is that of Saladin, the Kurdish hero who liberated Jerusalem from the Crusaders).

***

The rule of law in Turkey and democracy were both saved by the HDP.

***

      In the past, the Turkish government has fiercely oppressed the Kurdish people in the mountains of southeastern Turkey.  It razed some 3,000 villages, a scorched earth policy against revolt, and send out paramilitaries to kill people.  For some 25 years, Turkey murdered thousands of Kurds per year (on the order of what Saddam did to Iraq’s Kurds).  Opposing the US aggression in Iraq in 2003, Kurds in Denver distributed a bemused movie about “Good Kurds, Bad Kurds,”  the good Kurds being those in Iraq (the same Rumsfeld who had supplied Saddam with poison gas under Reagan and blamed the Iranians for Saddam’s murders at Halabja, now became “a defender” of the “good” Kurds).  The “bad” Kurds were those headed by the Marxist Abdullah Ocalan in Turkey (and to some extent, those in Syria).

***

    At this meeting, I also met Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni, who was tortured by Saddam’s forces as a madrasa student at age 13 and much later, became a leading opponent of the 2003 Iraq war.  Kazerooni spoke with great authority (Congressman Mark Udall read his testimony into the Congressional Record; the Denver Post, before becoming completely reactionary, ran his columns once every couple weeks).

***

     In “ordinary times” in Turkey, the “mountain Turks” (a term of derision Turkish chauvinists used to refer to Kurds) were not allowed education in the Kurdish language.  A Kurd could not seek government documents or appear in government offices speaking Kurdish (many did not speak Turkish), and the atmosphere of discrimination was thick.  But genocide has a long tradition in Turkey, starting with the slaughter of the Armenians in 1915 – something the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk was put on trial for discussing.  One denial leads to others (many are hurt by racism…). So there “couldn’t be,” “just couldn’t be” genocide against the Kurds…

***

    We heard from several Turks who neglected to mention any government violence against the Kurds and often passionately – see the remarks of the Dean of Law described here – repeated the same phrase about Ocalan and the PKK murdering “4,000 people including children.”  Ocalan had led a violent and sometimes brutal movement against national oppression; he had been captured by the CIA and turned over to Turkish intelligence.  In prison, however, he has sought for some kind of agreement with then Prime Minister Erdogan.

*** 

      Our group visited the headquarters of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party) in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.  Nazmi Gur, a deputy of the Party, spoke with us and answered our questions. (h/t Ismail Akbulut)

***

     One thing which the Kurds have learned from the Enlightenment and Marxism, interestingly enough, is the equality of women. (h/t Andy Muse) Gur told us that the party has a man and a woman chairperson, and nearly half the parliamentarians are women.

***

      The DHP advocates a much more decentralized structure for Turkey, one which recognizes regional autonomy for all minorities (not just the Kurds…).  Though some Alevis (the Alevis are Turkish Shia who are much more influenced by Rumi than other Shia groups) voted for the HDP, many voted for the Kemalist CHP (the Republican People’s Party) – a sad phenomenon since Ataturk slaughtered many Alevis.  But plainly, the Alevis benefit from both the continuance of democracy and the rule of law, and the HDP’s suggestion of decentralization.

***

     The HDP reaches out to Islamists and many other groups.  It even defends the rights of LGBT individuals, a first in Turkish politics and something which starts a ball rolling…

***

      The AK party has overseen the building over of all the green spaces near Istanbul (it cannot destroy the beauty of the Bosphorus, the marvelous waterway that unites the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara and separates Turkey’s European side and its Asian side, Anatolia).  It is building dams along the Ilisu river (the Tigris), which will harm both the ecology and cultural heritage: the ancient city of Hasankeyf.  See here.

***

      The HDP is also attractively taking this on.

***

     Any coalition with the HDP, Gur said, would have to abolish the 10% threshold (in its first campaign, the AK party said it would, but then kept it to gain an electoral advantage).  But the HDP’s aim is to strive for a kind of acknowledgement and healing in Turkey (truth and reconciliation – see here and here on the new approach to Sand Creek in Colorado).  The HDP offers a way out of the poisonous racism and denial which has characterized modern Turkish life.  It also models possibilities, reminiscent of Mandela and the ANC, for healing other fierce conflicts in the Middle East (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the intensifying sectarianism between Sunnis and Shia in many countries) if justice and then acknowledgment and repair can be achieved.  It is unsurprising that decency and the possibilities of healing come from those persecuted and stigmatized.

***

      Mustafa Akyol, a fine journalist and lively speaker (see below), joined our group for dinner in Istanbul and emphasized the absence of trust in Turkish politics.  He liked the result of the election and spoke, more strongly than in the article below, about the strengthening of democracy through it.  But Akyol himself distrusts, to some important extent, the relationship of the HDP to the PKK.  Nazmi Gur had said to us plainly that Ocalan, still jailed, is the leader of the Kurdish people.  But his position in jail seems to be that of reconciliation (one might again think of how Mandela changed in jail and consider possibilities…).

***

     Akyol overemphasizes the violence of the Kurds and perhaps underestimates the viciousness of the government toward them (as a previous supporter of the AK party, he is now sharply critical).  But the HDP, a new and broader party, has staked its claim in Turkish politics on moving toward reconciliation, on working to become a party of egalitarianism and autonomy for minorities and a green party.  It is not likely to be dragged back into fighting given its voice in Parliament unless the government is determined, as Erdogan and the AK party might be, to suppress it – especially if it forms a coalition with one of the more nationalist parties (either the Kemalist CHP or the right-wing xenophobic MHP – the Nationalist Movement Party).

***

      More movement to resolve the Kurdish issue now (or over the next few years) would attenuate the explosiveness of the oppression/history of government violence against the Kurds.

***

      Ironically, in turning away from the Kurds, being frightened of their autonomy, and driving Kurds to vote for the HDP, Erdogan has fallen afoul of a new American interest in fighting IS.  For the Syrian Kurds waged an heroic battle for Kobane, with American air support, and beat the thugs in IS (the fanatical Sunni movement which controls large swaths of Syria and Iraq and routinely murders captives, including other Muslims).  Many Turkish Kurds, often obstructed by Erdogan, went to fight with and save Kobane, and this was a great military victory for the Kurds.

***

      The Kurds also ran IS out of the border towns of Tal Afar and Tal Abyad.  So there is suddenly a Kurdish region blocking “foreign fighters” from reaching IS through Turkey. (The Syrian Kurds are led by the PYD – the Democratic Union Party, which is affiliated with the PKK.  The military wing of this party is the YPG, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.) The Kurdish experiment in democratic autonomy in Rojava – the Kurdish region of northern Syria – has been likened to the Zapatistas and inspired solidarity activists, particularly anarchists, from around the world.

***

      With the AKP’s electoral loss, Obama suddenly criticized them for not closing the borders to “foreign fighters” going to join IS. Erdogan thus was outflanked by the Kurds, and weakened both electorally and in his wavering on/de facto support for IS.

***

     At the same time, however, the Assad regime continues in Syria, an enormously oppressive and murderous regime (one which has slaughtered some 200,000 people).  In Istanbul we met with Yassin al-Haj Saleh, widely regarded as Syria’s leading intellectual figure, author of numerous books (in Arabic), and a radical (see this interview with him here and also the one here.  Yassin was imprisoned by the Assad regime for 16 years (1980-96) for his left-wing activities.  He argued forcefully that the early revolutionary uprising in Syria had a very significant democratic element, but that the failure of the international community to support it facilitated the emergence of the Al-Nusra front – a branch of Al-Qaeda – and other fanatical jihadi forces.

***

      The Turkish left does not yet listen to these Syrians (we are not “visible to them” is the way Yassin put it).  Further, one of Erdogan’s achievements has been to welcome 2 million Syrian refugees into Turkey, and there were quite a number of Syrians who were saddened by Erdogan’s defeat. 

***

     The HDP needs some plan as opposed to Kurds simply uniting with the US – a force with very limited interest in the promotion of any genuinely democratic program among Kurds – to support an anti-Assad, democratic Syrian alternative (Yassin feels that it may be too late…).  Yassin thinks, probably rightly, that it is necessary to defeat Assad first and that dealing with IS can be done within the framework of a more democratic or peaceful Syria (though he would not take American money and the price that comes with it, he thinks the Syrian opposition needs weapons).

***

       The other two opposition parties in Turkey, the MHP (xenophobic ultra-nationalists) and the CHP (the Kemalists) are both viciously anti-Syrian (the head of the CHP wants to force them back to Syria).  While lacking a long-term approach to the Syrian conflict, however, Demirtas, during the campaign, commendably called for citizenship for all Syrians in Turkey. (The Syrian refugees thought, even a year ago, they were just passing through.  Now many have realized they are going to be in Turkey for a long while, though some - mainly young men - still hope to get out to Europe or the United States.)

***

    Yassin and Senay Ozden, a Turkish anthropologist, leftist and supporter both of the initial Syrian uprising and Syrian refugees (she has been very outspoken against other Turkish leftists on television and in print on both of these issues), have set up Hamisch (meaning “margin” or “border”), a Syrian cultural house, to publicize the arts among Syrians – to humanize Syrians to Turks, to show Syrians as creative people and not simply as downtrodden refugees desperately needing work, or “passive victims.”  The Turkish side of Hamish, as Senay powerfully articulates it, is one of solidarity.  She says they are making “a dent” in the national debate. (See their website here)

***

  Turkey has been saved by the creativeness of the Kurds, this despite the widespread and pretty deep racism towards them (I felt sometimes as if I were in the Jim Crow South or in Israel vis-à-vis the Palestinians).  There is a palpable residue of Ottoman superiority, an empire that lasted 6 centuries, that continues to permeate Turkish culture, what Orhan Pamuk conjures brilliantly in his book Istanbul as nostalgia, but this is its barely-concealed dark side.  Without an opening to genuine multiculturalism (more than just a reference to Jews, whom the Turkish Sultans welcomed when they were driven from Spain, repudiated the fabricated “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and later diplomats helped many to escape from Hitler during World War II), without seeing the importance of solidarity, there might still be a reversion and a long period of oppression in Turkey.

***

      All three of the opposition parties have claimed to oppose forming a united government with the AKP (though there have been mixed signals about this).  Erdogan may seek new elections, attempting to regain the majority and pursue his Presidential ambitions.  But there are already divisions within the AKP – voters having repudiated Erdogan’s tyrannical dreams – and that is an unlikely path.

***

       A minority government, formed among the CHP with the support of the MHP and/or the HDP, is also possible (though the nationalists in both the MHP and the CHP are vehemently against the Kurds and gained some votes by criticizing Erdogan’s brief opening to Ocalan).

***

      But the HDP has saved the rule of law and opened serious possibilities for reconciliation in Turkey.  That is a major achievement (even more important than the initial triumph of the AKP).  It remains to be seen whether others will welcome it.

(h/t Danny Postel)

***

MUSTAFA AKYOL
akyol@mustafaakyol.org

Why I may vote for Kurdish nationalists

      There is now less than a month until Turkey’s next general elections, to be held on June 7. In the past, I would often be quite sure in these pre-election weeks about who I was going to vote for. This time, I am not. I am only sure that whoever I vote for, I will not do it lovingly. There is only a higher chance at this point that this unloving vote may go to the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), which is basically the party of Kurdish nationalists. 

First let me explain why I am all too ambiguous. I am traditionally a center-right voter, a Turkish political tradition whose heroes include the late Adnan Menderes (1950-60) and the late Turgut Özal (1983-93). That center-right backdrop had me quite supportive of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2000s as well, because the AKP seemed to be a post-Islamist movement that evolved into the center-right. But that nice AKP is not out there anymore. It took a dramatic twist in the past three years, devolving into an Islamist, “revolutionary” and intimidating party, with an unquestionable leader whose temptation to gather ever more power only polarizes society more and more. 

The two main opposition parties, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), are certainly more modest and arguably more likeable than the AKP at this point. But their ideologies still have elements that are not up my alley. The party whose ideology is closest to me is perhaps the Liberal Democrat Party (LDP) but I have my doubts there too. The LDP votes are miniscule (less than 0.1 percent!) and it is inevitable that my vote for them will practically be a “waste.”

This is because of Turkey’s unusually high and utterly shameful electoral threshold. Accordingly, unless a party gets 10 percent of the national vote, it cannot get even one seat in parliament. If a party wins even 9.9 percent of the national votes, all of that goes in the trash, while the bigger parties share the bounty.

According a recent projection by Konsensus, a polling company, three parties will safely pass the threshold this June: the AKP, the CHP and the MHP. But the HDP is on the knife’s edge, with some 9.7 percent of the votes. If they can make it to 10 percent, they will have some 60 seats in the 550-strong Turkish parliament. But if they fail to pass, all those seats will go to their only rival in the Kurdish populace: the AKP. 

The AKP seats in parliament, in that case, may go above the critical 330-seat barrier, giving the party enough power to make a whole new constitution by itself. And a constitution made only by the AKP (or any other single actor in Turkish politics, for that matter) will be nothing but a disaster. Constitutions should come by broad national consensus and not the ambitions of partisan winners. 

Moreover, if the HDP stays out of parliament, that can have a radicalizing effect on its already agitated base, putting the much-needed “peace process” between Kurdish militants and the government at risk.

These are the two reasons that compel me to consider voting strategically for the HDP, for the first and possibly last time, in these elections. This is not to disregard the ethnic nationalism and militancy in the party base – something that romantic Western observers might neglect by looking merely at “progressive” leftist rhetoric the HDP uses. It is just to accept that an HDP inside parliament will be better for Turkish democracy than an HDP outside of parliament.
May/13/2015

***

MUSTAFA AKYOL
akyol@mustafaakyol.org 

Why did the AKP fail this time?


The night of June 7 was pleasantly surprising for many Turks that I know - and myself. The results of the general election showed that the 13-year-long reign of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was quite clean and liberating in its initial phase but later turned increasingly corrupt and authoritarian, finally faced a setback. Turkish society proved wiser than being merely in the ruling party’s pocket, and we can use football terminology to say that it was able show the AKP a “yellow card.”

In fact, this card was shown in particular to President Tayyip Erdoğan, who must be “non-partisan” according to the constitution but who was undoubtedly the master of the AKP. Many voters who still approve of the party’s pragmatic policies were fed up with the aggressive triumphalism of Erdoğan and his latter-day cronies. Meanwhile, many conservative Kurds who voted for the AKP in the past for its “openings” toward them were disillusioned or even angry at the “Erdoğan language” of the past year. This language included his insensitive tone for the embattled Kurds in Kobane in northern Syria, his declaration that “there is no Kurdish issue any more,” and his bitterness directed toward the pro-Kurdish HDP.

That is why the HDP emerged as the greatest victor from the ballots. They won millions of Kurdish votes that had previously gone to the AKP, as well as the votes of many liberals and some secularists who saw them as the safest bulwark against the AKP.  They proved wise enough to see and seize the opportunity. 

All this should show to Erdoğan and his supporters that aggressive triumphalism does not always do wonders. Their fear- and hate-mongering propaganda machine does not always convince the majority of society. So will they give up this propaganda and try to restore the AKP back to the modest, reasonable, civilized party that it once was?

We don’t know the answer yet. Since election day, some sensible voices have appeared in the AKP universe (i.e., the party and the media, which are integrated). These voices call for soul-searching, typically arguing that the AKP suffered this setback because of its own mistakes: Corruption scandals, Erdoğan’s lavish palace, his cult of personality, his hate-mongering apparatchiks, the exclusion of the moderates.

These people also now call for “normalization,” in the sense that Erdoğan must accept his limited role defined by the constitution and let the AKP move forward under the leadership of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. Some even hope that, at some point, Abdullah Gül, the quintessential moderate, might come back to restore and lead the party.

Meanwhile, on the other hand, the propaganda apparatchiks are still doing their job, accusing Jews, secular Turks, the non-AKP media and the international press of conspiring against their beloved “New Turkey” by fooling voters.

That is why the direction that Erdoğan takes in the weeks and months to come is crucial. But also crucial are the leadership skills of the opposition parties. If they fail to form or at least offer a promising coalition government in the next 40 days, Erdoğan could call for renewed elections. And he will be able to do that with the good old argument of “stability” in his hand: “You see what happens when my party is not the majority in parliament, the country slips into chaos.” This line really could work for him. 

In other words, getting a “yellow card” from the electorate neither means that Erdoğan is out of the game nor that he will lose it. Much depends on other political actors, and whether they are smart enough to turn last Sunday’s boost into a longer-lasting win.

***

 MUSTAFA AKYOL
akyol@mustafaakyol.org


How the AKP sees the world

Şafak, one of the many Turkish newspapers that passionately supports President Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP (Justice and Development Party) government, had an interesting headline yesterday: “They opened war with five newspapers: The target is Muslim leader Erdoğan.” The “they” in this sentence was not clearly identified, but they presumably were the dark anti-Islamic powers of the West. The “news story” then explained:

“Western and especially British media, which sees it a mission to insult Erdoğan, intensified its attacks before June 7 [the day of the elections.]… Meanwhile, this anti-Erdoğan hatred of the West was exposed in The Guardian editorial of a few days ago.”

Once I read this, I noticed that I had missed that pivotal The Guardian editorial. To see what it was all about, I kept on reading Yeni Şafak. I was soon informed that the British paper dared to write this unbelievable verdict:

“Not fully-Westernized, poor Muslims cannot be allowed to run their own countries.” (In Turkish: “Tam Batılılaşmamış, yoksul Müslümanların kendi ülkelerini yönetmelerine izin verilemez.”)

This really sounded like some social Darwinian statement from a late 19th century arrogant Western politician. But it also sounded a bit bizarre – especially coming from the left-wing Guardian. So I checked what the paper really wrote, and found this: 

“Mr. Erdoğan has maximized his constituency in the somewhat poorer, somewhat less westernized and more religiously inclined segments of Turkish society, and he has acquired a substantial body of big business supporters who benefit from association with him. But he has no lines out to the younger, more modern classes of Turkey, people with concerns about the environment, sexual tolerance, ethnic and religious pluralism, and grassroots activism, as was shown by his bilious reaction to the protests against plans to replace a park in central Istanbul with a shopping mall in 2013. He has captured one half of his society but lost the other half, if he ever had any hold on it. That is unhealthy.”

So, The Guardian really had referred to “somewhat poorer, somewhat less westernised and more religiously inclined segments of Turkish society.” But it did not assert, “They cannot be allowed to run their own country.” This latter statement was Yeni Şafak’s imagination. It was also a very significant example of how the AKP and its supporters have begun to see the world in the past two years.

I am referring to the past two years, for this conspiracy-obsessed narrative began with the Gezi Park protests of June 2013. Since then, Erdoğan and his cadre have believed “the West” wants to topple them because of two reasons: 1) They are good Muslims; and the West is Islamophobic. 2) They are building an “independent” Turkey; but the West wants a poodle dog.

Both of these presumptions may be substantiated with cherry-picked facts. Or blatantly distorted facts, as in the Yeni Şafak story above. However, they are in fact less about the West itself, but more about the Turkish opposition. For once you establish that there is a giant Western conspiracy against Erdoğan, any Turk who dares to oppose or even criticize him automatically becomes a treacherous pawn of this plot. And the regime deserves to get more heavy-handed to deal with such “enemies within.”

This is the narrative of the AKP on the eve of the elections this Sunday. It is a narrative of not liberal democracy, for sure, but an authoritarian regime. And that is why my vote is not going to the AKP, as it used go happily throughout the first decade of this century.
June/06/2015

MUSTAFA AKYOL
akyol@mustafaakyol.org

When elections are a ‘conquest’
  
Last Saturday, President Tayyip Erdoğan joined a huge rally in Istanbul, which marked the 562nd anniversary of the Turks’ conquest of Istanbul. (We Turks celebrate this “conquest anniversary” every year, for apparently we can’t get enough of having taken the city more than two dozen generations ago.) 

In the speech, as usual, Erdoğan slammed a whole range of conspirators and traitors that have targeted his rule with devious plots. One novelty was the New York Times, which Erdoğan not only insulted as a “rag” but also blamed for being an enemy of Turkey since the time of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909). (Some kept wondering, however, why some members of the president’s own party, such as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, have written opinion pieces for this same paper if it was such a quintessentially evil outsource.)

What I have found most notable in this impressive rally was Erdoğan’s depiction of this Sunday’s general elections as yet another “conquest.” “The conquest,” he bluntly said, “is Inshallah on June 7.”

One obvious problem with this conceptualization is that envisioning other (non-AKP) political parties as the enemy. (I am not even getting to the fact the constitution in fact decrees that Erdoğan must be impartial, a principle that has recently turned into a joke.) For conquests are realized against enemies, which you want to crush and subdue. If this is the way politics are carried out in a country, needless to say, that country will find anything but peace of mind. 

What is even more curious is that the AKP already “conquered” Turkey long ago, if this means being in power. AKP governments have been ruling the country since 2002, and AKP municipalities administer most cities, including Ankara and Istanbul. But since Erdoğan is looking forward to a new “conquest,” this must be something far greater than mere governance in a parliamentary democracy.

Well, we know that this thing that is far greater is embodied in the “presidential system” that Erdoğan is super keen about. But is this merely an end in itself, or a means to a higher end? Probably both, for “the presidential system” has lots to do with Erdoğan’s personal ambitions and concerns. But it also fits into a “historic” mission that is indeed captured well in the very term “conquest”: It is the act of Muslims taking a land from the infidels.

But how can this be meaningful for Turkey, a society whose overwhelming majority (98 percent, by some estimates) profess to be Muslims? Well, according to some of these Muslims, they themselves are the “real Muslims” and other ones are, at best, nominal ones. 

You can see this us-the-real-Muslims-vs-them feeling powerfully in the AKP and pro-AKP propaganda of the past two years. At its core, it is the depiction of other political trends in Turkish society as soulless degenerates or hypocrites who serve the enemies of Islam.

All this militantly religious propaganda is bad for Turkey for sure, for it creates deep scars in our society. But, since I care, it is even worse for religion itself. For the instrumentalization of religion for the sake of such an aggressive political cause only devalues religion. It gets deprived of the deeper moral truths it is supposed to represent, instead becoming a battle cry driven by hate and lust. The result is that religion begins to push people away, rather than win hearts and minds.

That is why the end of this “conquest” of the Turkish society by the AKP might be the exact opposite of what the AKP hopes to see: A very disenchanted society, angry with religion for what is done in its name. In a way it is similar to what happened in Catholic Europe, particularly France, where the religious authoritarianism of the church triggered a secular backlash. The post-AKP era, I think, will also be the era of a secular backlash.
June/03/2015


MUSTAFA AKYOL
akyol@mustafaakyol.org


What went wrong in Turkey?

About a decade ago, Turkey was widely seen as the shining star of the Muslim world - an increasingly liberal democracy and a booming economy led by a cadre of reformist Islamists united under the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Today, the same party is still in power, but there is little left shining about Turkey. What we have instead is an increasingly illiberal (i.e. authoritarian) democracy that is regressing in almost every liberal criteria, and which is disillusioning everyone except the AKP’s hardcore supporters. 

Here is a brief story of what went wrong. The “Islamo-liberal synthesis” that the AKP seemed to embrace in its initial years (2002-2010) was caused by some genuine soul-searching, but also a burning necessity: Turkey was still under the thumb of hardcore secularist generals who could overthrow the AKP. The safest life tube out from this danger was the “Copenhagen Criteria” of the European Union, which the AKP clung onto. 

Some significant names in the party, such as Abdullah Gül, had genuinely internalized liberal democracy. But the most significant name, current President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, apparently saw it just as an instrument. Once Erdoğan subdued the military in 2010 and further consolidated power with a great election victory in 2011, he trashed out what he now saw as little more than “Copenhagen blah blah.” He redefined democracy as amounting to nothing but elections, granting full hegemony to the winner of the elections. 

The next two years saw an ever more assertive AKP, returning to the Islamist narrative that it had supposedly abandoned, and poking the fears of secular Turks. The latter’s reaction triggered the Gezi Park protests of June 2013, which initiated the third era of the AKP: Paranoid authoritarianism. Erdoğan interpreted Gezi not as a spontaneous social phenomenon, which it was, but as a heinous conspiracy concocted by nefarious global powers. Rather than seeking understanding and reconciliation, he opted for flexing his muscles and demonizing the opposition. 

Things got worse with the intra-state political war between the AKP and the movement of U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen, which broke out with the corruption investigations of December 2013. Instead of seeing this as a power struggle with a group that he himself had empowered, Erdoğan interpreted it as yet another heinous conspiracy by nefarious global powers. The result was not only a witch-hunt against the Gülen movement, but also an even more paranoid outlook that sees a plot behind every stone - and every critical comment. 

Meanwhile, all critical voices and independent minds in the AKP have been muted, as the party has been taken over by Erdoğan’s cult of personality. Both Gül - and the “Gül line” - have been carefully purged, and sycophants have been promoted. 

This is a very sad story, especially for people like me who had much higher hopes and expectations. What is most tragic is that it did not have to be this way. Had the AKP just been a little more modest, a little less ambitious, and little less hungry for revenge, it could have accomplished a historic reconciliation with the social groups that it is busy demonizing these days. 


Future generations should take lessons from this story. The big moral problems are arrogance, self-righteousness, machismo, nepotism and corruption. Conspiratorial thinking also plays a big role, pointing to a burning intellectual poverty. At the end of the day, it turns out that our political culture is not yet mature enough to achieve liberal democracy. We will begin to mature only when we look at the mirror and dare to see who we really are.  

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