It’s Not a Conspiracy – We just don’t like Turkey

‘Turkish shepherd shot dead by Armenian border guards.’ It was a small headline on a 100-word item in our local English language Turkish newspaper. Apparently the shepherd, 35 year-old Mustafa Ülker, had gone looking for a ewe that had wandered across the border in search of a quiet place to give birth. Armenian authorities notified their Turkish counterparts and handed over Mustafa’s body. It took a few days for the news to get out. It’s a long way from the restaurants and bars of Taksim and Cihangir to Turkey’s eastern frontier. Still, the guy was in the wrong, no doubt about that. You can’t just stroll into a foreign country, lost sheep or no lost sheep.
Turkish shepherd shot while invading Armenia
I was interested to see if anyone else had picked up the story, so I googled it. I checked three or four pages and couldn’t find a mention in any international news media – except for the Armenpress’. In that English language site I found a lengthy piece by an Armenian ex-pat living in California, Harut Hassounian.
According to that gentleman’s account, twoTurks had crossed from the Turkish side into Armenia and mocked the Russian border guards who ordered them back. The Turks ignored two warning shots fired into the air and one of them allegedly opened fire on the soldiers, whereupon the Russians shot one of the intruders. Hassounian then launched into a tirade about how the ‘fascist’ Turkish government was seeking to exaggerate this incident in order to draw attention away from its serious and well-publicised internal and external difficulties, which he itemised in some detail.
Well, who am I to enter into a debate on the issue? Clearly there are two sides to the story, and we will probably never know the truth. However, I will make an observation or two. First, as far as I know, the Turkish government has not made a big issue of the killing, and Turkish news media have pretty much ignored it. Second, I’m interested to learn that Russian soldiers are patrolling the border between Armenia and Turkey, but I don’t think it absolves Armenia from responsibility for such incidents, merely because they have delegated the duty to a foreign power. Third, it’s hard to imagine a Turkish country bumpkin, or even a couple of them, defying armed border guards who would, we must assume, have been wearing military uniforms. Does this version ring true to you?
I couldn’t help wondering whether ‘the world’ might have taken more notice if the headline had read ‘Armenian shepherd shot dead by Turkish border guards,’ but I’m not going to speculate further on that. The sad thing is, however, that Western media all too often accept and disseminate an anti-Turkish view of events without considering that there might be an alternative position. Let’s be charitable, for the moment, and call it laziness. One of Mr Hassounian’s criticisms was The Turkish Prime Minister’s threatened lawsuit against The (London) Times for publishing a full-page paid letter, signed by dozens of prominent Western intellectuals and artists, which would more widely expose his intimidating tactics.’
Well, at least he acknowledged that the ‘intellectuals and artists’ had paid for the page, or  someone had. I can’t speak about the legal position, but it does suggest questionable editorial judgment for a reputable major newspaper to allow private citizens to buy a page for the purposes of slagging off the leader of another country, especially an important and long-standing loyal ally. Most of the famous signatories seemed to be film stars or directors, which may or may not qualify them to be recognised as ‘intellectuals and artists’ – but even if it does, it’s another jump to give serious credence to their opinions on international affairs.
Much was made, internally and abroad, of the presence of actors and other ‘artists’ among the protesters in Turkey’s recent anti-government street demonstrations. Apart from attracting media attention, I’m not convinced that their participation added anything of substance to the rallies. About as much, probably, as the fans of Istanbul’s three major football clubs who laid aside their differences during the summer break to unite in comradely çapulcu[1]action.
It is interesting, however, that just last week, after a lengthy investigation, police drug squads raided residential premises in several Turkish cities, and took in a number of well-known actors and directors for questioning. Not surprisingly, there have been accusations that the government was seeking revenge against activists, invading the privacy of citizens, and damaging the reputation of those apprehended. The implication seemed to be that the bust was a set-up by police acting on government instructions. I suspect the courts will take some convincing, given that 115 cannabis plants were discovered, as well as high amounts of ecstasy, marijuana, amphetamines, cocaine, measurement devices and cash’ in the Cihangir apartment owned by one of the actors.
Whatever the outcome, it gives some indication of the freedoms and rights some ‘intellectuals and artists’ include in their understanding of democracy, and highlights the contrast between their lives and that of the shepherd out east who would have been happy just to take his lost sheep back home without being shot to death.
What worries me is that this tiny minority of privileged people tweet and twitter their narrow picture of what is going on in Turkey, and foreign media swallow it and repeat it as though it is a fair representation of on-the-ground reality. Just this week, a Turkish court finally reached a verdict on the long-running Ergenekon case, handing down lengthy prison sentences to top military brass hats and an odd collection of academics, writers, journalists, lawyers, known gangsters and extreme left wing activists. Justice has taken its course and we can no longer speak of an alleged conspiracy. Mountains of evidence have been presented and sifted; teams of lawyers have tried every trick in their book to discredit the prosecution and the government, and stretch out proceedings with delaying tactics and unsuccessful appeals to the European Commission on Human Rights; mainstream media and the opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party) have done their best to undermine the legal proceedings and sell the line that this too was a government-sponsored attempt to get rid of rivals and exact revenge for previous grudges. Despite all that, the court deemed at last that the majority of the accused were in fact involved in ‘a clandestine and terrorist gang guilty of attempting to overthrow the government,’ and sentences reflected the gravity of the crime.
Once again I went a-googling. I was keen to see how the international press viewed an event which one might think had fairly major significance for the future of democracy in a troubled part of the world. In fact, there was surprisingly little to be found. Even the New York Times, normally a rich source of comment on affairs in Turkey, seemed unsure what to make of the trial and its aftermath. I turned up only one article on its website, relegated to minor importance behind the ‘election’ of a new president in Iran and the discovery of a 15-tonne ‘fatberg’ in the sewers of London.
Apparently it took three writers to pen this particular piece, only one of whom was actually in Turkey, and she in the city of Izmir, a hotbed of anti-government fervour a good 7-hour drive from Istanbul. Most of the article focused on the deep divisions within Turkish society between Islamists and secularists’ and quoted a defence lawyer accusing the government of ‘silencing opposition and intimidating patriotic people with secular principles’. Readers were told that ‘Nearly half of the country did not vote for Prime Minister Erdoğan’ but not what percentage of US voters did not vote for President Obama. The article concludes with a reference to ‘Turkey’s poor record on media freedom’, quoting the French organisation Reporters Without Borders, which ‘ranked Turkey 154th of 179 countries, behind Iraq and Russia, in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index’.
My own country, New Zealand, did marginally better. The TVNZ website I use to keep up with events back home also turned up only one article on the trial, but at least managed to summarise the case and report the outcome with more objectivity and without the outrageous innuendo of the NY Timespiece.
Elsewhere, I read that the European Union Commissioner Stefan Füle had expressed concerns about ‘how the trial was conducted’. In particular, he was worried about the rights of defendants, lengthy pre-trial detention, and the nature of the indictments. He seemed unsure about ‘compliance with EU standards’ and pointed out, perhaps unnecessarily, that ‘a fair independent and accountable judicial system is a key pillar of any mature and functioning democracy.’
Well, I won’t say I was shocked, because nothing much can surprise me about how Western media portray Turkey. Disappointment might be a better word to describe my feelings. One of the major sticking points, as far as I am aware, to Turkey’s acceptance into the European Union, for example, has been the country’s record of human rights abuses. Undoubtedly there is some truth in such accusations, but surely it must be obvious that most of the torture and disappearances occurred in the lead up to, or aftermath of military coups that took place on a regular basis from 1960 into the 1990s. That the AK Party government of Tayyip Erdoğan has finally managed to pull the teeth of armed forces commanders who considered themselves constitutionally above the elected politicians should surely be a cause for congratulations by true lovers of democracy everywhere.
The congratulations have been muted, to say the least. The Turkish Prime Minister and other spokesmen have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the military action that deposed Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in July. Their lonely and principled stance has been criticised on two counts. First, we would expect them to oppose what happened in Egypt because they are scared of the same thing happening at home. What? They should hypocritically support an action in Egypt that has been the subject of criminal prosecution in their own country? And at the same time lend moral credibility to those anti-government forces in Turkey who wish to overthrow the elected government? Second, there is the realpolitik argument thrown at them by all the governments (from Saudi Arabia to the USA) that have chosen to ignore what happened in Cairo and recognise the new regime: what’s done is done. Swallow the reality and get on with business as usual.
One might have more sympathy for the realpolitikargument if the United States, for example, didn’t have a history of interfering in the affairs of sovereign states and deposing leaders considered unsympathetic to US interests. Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq but the US wanted him out. Egypt’s Mubarak was a military dictator with a 29-year record of oppressing his people, but he supported the US and Israel. Morsi, on the other hand, was an unknown factor who may have been more responsive to the will of the Egyptian electorate. Maybe we didn’t help to get rid of him, but we’re not sad to see him gone. Turkey should shut up and fall into line with the rest of us. Am I overstating the case?
As for the European Union, the contrast between words and action is perhaps more obvious in that that august body is more prone to occupying the moral high ground than their more pragmatic trans-Atlantic partner. As a Turkish correspondent observed, ‘The problem . . . emanates from the fact that the EU tries hard to position itself as a “normative power” that puts special emphasis on democracy, human rights, and freedom more than any other actor in the world. This discrepancy between principles and actions [in the case of Egypt] is a tragedy deserving of a global audience.’
Another criticism I am reading of the Ergenekoncourt case in Turkey is the harshness of the sentences handed down. Certainly it has come as a shock to most in this country to see the former supreme head of the Turkish Armed Forces sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Well, maybe there was a plot, say some, but in the end, those guys didn’t actually do anything, did they? To which there is a very clear response. They didn’t achieve their aim because they were found out before they could put it into action. If they had been successful, they would have been the new leaders of Turkey, and God help the elected politicians they had deposed. The crime is the plot, and it is only a crime if you are unsuccessful – otherwise you legitimise your own actions retrospectively, as in Egypt.
As a comparison, I am waiting to see what happens to Private Bradley Manning who was 22 years old when he is alleged to have supplied the Wikileaks website with material seriously embarrassing to the government and military command of the USA[2]. Last I heard, the charges against Manning could have him put away for 90 years – for telling the truth and making available information that many would argue the American public had a right to know. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange (who is not even a US citizen) have been forced to seek asylum in foreign states to escape the long arm of American democracy.
The NY Times article quoted above refers to Turkey’s ranking of 154 out of 179 countries for press freedom according to that Paris-based organisation Reporters Without Borders, I gather, because of the number of ‘journalists’ in custody in this country. I have to tell you I find that ranking beyond laughable, and I’ll tell you why. I read at least one Turkish newspaper every day, and I find no shortage of criticism of the government within their pages. It’s fairly clear that you have to do more than merely express disapproval or contrary opinions to get yourself locked up. At least six of those ‘journalists’ have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment for their involvement in the Ergenekon conspiracy. If the US legal system can put away a young naïve gay computer nerd like Private Manning for 90 years, I can’t imagine what they would do to a gang of 5-star generals, university professors, mafia bosses, lawyers and communists who were caught planning to depose the president by force of arms.
And take a close look at that list of countries prepared by those borderless reporters. Turkey’s ranking of 154 places them behind such paragons of democracy as Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Maldive Islands, whose courts can order women flogged for having sex outside of marriage, comes in at 103rd, while Armenia, whose Russian border guards shoot wandering Turkish shepherds on sight, ranks an impressive 74th.
I’m not saying that Turkey has surmounted its final hurdle on the path to true democracy – but if RWB had placed them a little closer to the US ranking of 32nd, it might have been a fairer reflection of comparative press freedom. It’s not easy to define occupations like ‘writer’, ‘journalist’, ‘artist’ and ‘intellectual’. Does writing a blog and possessing a good-sized home library entitle me to claim a place in any of those categories? What about Julian Assange? I would give him a tick for at least three out of four – and I can well understand why he is not keen to be extradited to the USA for questioning. As for the US media, it’s interesting to note how outlets that were originally delighted to publish material from Wikileaks seem now to have forgotten what those leaks were about, and chosen to focus instead on Assange’s alleged sexual peccadilloes. In the United Kingdom, whose media were all too ready to criticise Turkey’s police for using excessive force on demonstrators, sectarian troubles have once again broken out in Northern Ireland, we hear, and police have had recourse to water cannon and plastic bullets.
What’s my point, you may be asking? Merely this. A government’s job is to govern – and a major part of that role is to maintain order and the rule of law. Most of us would probably agree that the job is easier when the general populace is allowed a say in who will govern them. If pressed, we might also express a feeling that freedom from outside interference will also produce better results in the long term. The Republic of Turkey is a youngish democracy that has made, and continues to make, tremendous strides on the road to economic and political freedom for its people. In the interests of natural justice, foreign critics could focus more on the progress that has been made – or failing that, work on removing the beam from their own eyes.

[1] A Turkish word used by the Prime Minister to disparage the protesters, and picked up on social media to satirise the government’s position.


Tyranny by the Majority – towards a definition of freedom and democracy

I’ve learnt a new word recently. Well, I learn new Turkish words all the time – that’s no surprise. My latest Turkish word is meyil, which means the degree of slope or fall on a waste pipe necessary for the water to flow out of your bath or shower. As you may guess, we had a plumbing problem in our summer place which seems to have been solved by increasing the meyil. Thank God!
On the other hand, I am generally happy, and occasionally surprised when I learn a new word in my own mother tongue. In this instance, surprise was the dominant feeling. The word was majoritarianand its ideological spin-off, majoritarianism. At this point I have to tell you that the squiggly red line appearing under both words as I typed them told me that my MS Word dictionary didn’t know them either, so at least I was not alone in my ignorance.
Know-it-all Wikipedia, on the other hand, did recognise the words and began its lengthy explanation with a definition: Majoritarianism is a traditional political philosophy or agenda which asserts that a majority (sometimes categorized by religion, language, social class or some other identifying factor) of the population is entitled to a certain degree of primacy in society, and has the right to make decisions that affect the society.’
Merriam-Webster online informed me helpfully that the word majoritarian was first used in 1942 to describe a person who believes in or advocates majoritarianism’ – which it further defined as the philosophy or practice according to which decisions of an organized group should be made by a numerical majority of its members.’ I checked my Apple desktop dictionary, and Oxford Dictionaries online, and found them all pretty much in agreement.
Humpty Dumpty explains democracy
to Lewis Carroll’s Alice
As is often the case, I learn a new word, and suddenly I come across it everywhere. In this case, majoritarianturns up in almost every newspaper article I read about the Turkish government’s response to protests that began in the now infamous Gezi Park in Istanbul at the end of May. In fact, certain writers apply it to the government’s attitude and policies in general. The word, needless to say, is used pejoratively, and serves to question the ruling AK Party’s right to act on just about everything.
So why, I asked myself, had I not previously encountered a word that has been used in the English language for more than seventy years, and seems to label a fairly important philosophical or political concept. After some thought I decided that it was because that’s what I’d always thought of as the meaning of democracy. An issue is laid on the table, all sides have the opportunity to put forward their point of view, votes are counted, and action is taken on the basis of the result – ie the majority vote carries the day.
The concept of democracy has evolved over time, beginning in ancient Greece and being refined in the countries of Western Europe and more recently the United States of America. It was considered preferable to systems previously operating, or continuing in less enlightened states, where a hereditary monarch or a powerful despot wielded absolute power over his (usually his) subjects with the assistance and support of a small elite or aristocracy.
Refinements have been periodically necessary for a number of reasons. First, evolving concepts of who should be eligible to vote have led to the abolition of wealth requirements; the inclusion of women and African Americans; and a reduction in the age of majority from 30 to 21 and even 18 in some countries. Second, in some matters, such as changes to a country’s constitution, it may be considered that a simple fifty percent majority is insufficient – and a greater measure of support may be required to justify reform. Third, there is widespread debate over which electoral systems best reflect the desires of the voting public, and the extent to which that public should be allowed to vote on specific issues.
To illustrate the last point, the first-past-the-post electoral system in place in the United Kingdom returns one parliamentary representative from each of the electoral regions into which the country is divided. It also ensures that any votes not cast for the highest polling candidate effectively end up in the trash. Proportional systems, operating in Turkey and other enlightened European countries, attempt to avoid this waste of votes by allocating seats in the legislative assembly to political parties in proportion to their share of the overall total vote.
Further, it is clearly not practicable to seek the opinion of the public on every single issue debated and decided on by a country’s parliament. One of my all-time-favourite films is The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970) where a slick conman (Peter Cook) tricks his way into the boss’s office of a public opinion poll business and thence to the Prime Ministership of Britain, finally getting himself elected as President-for-Life. His technique once in office is to ask the British voter for his or her opinion on every decision that has to be made for the running of the country no matter how minor. What at first seems like a dream exercise in participatory democracy at length turns into an intolerable burden for electors who gratefully vote ‘Yes’ to the final question – ‘Would you like me to get on with running the country and never bother you with another poll ever again?’
Somewhere in between the two extremes, then, must lie an ideal situation where I delegate most decisions for the maintenance of order and good government to a political party winning the majority of votes in national elections held every three, four or whatever years – but still wish to have my opinion heeded on issues dear to my heart, such as the building of nuclear power stations, or a woman’s right to abortion on demand.
I confess to feeling some sympathy for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and his AK Party government who, when criticised for some action or other, say, ‘Yes, but we won the last general election (not to mention the previous two). A majority of the citizens of Turkey chose us to be the government and that’s what we’re trying to do.’ Out comes the majoritarian club and they are belaboured for thinking that winning elections gives them the right to do whatever they want. Well, that’s a fair point too, but the question arises, what issues should they seek public opinion on, and when should they just get on with the business of running the country?
To be fair to the anti-majoritarians, Mr Erdoğan does seem to have a tendency to see himself as the Minister or Spokesman on Just-About-Everything, from Foreign Affairs through Urban Redevelopment to Family Planning. He also seems to have lost interest in the worthy goal of reducing the threshold for parliamentary representation from ten to five percent. On the other hand, to be fair to the Prime Minister, the Turkish news media do seem to seek his opinion on just about everything, ignoring the fact that there exists a whole cabinet full of ministers with a host of portfolios. I have noticed this phenomenon in educational institutions in Turkey. Whereas in my own country, a school principal will appoint and delegate middle managers with their own budgets to make decisions for the operation of specific departments, the general rule in Turkish schools is that every decision, no matter how trivial, must be decided by the principal, and all underlings are obliged to seek and wait for that decision. I can’t speak for other sectors of the economy, but the process does not seem to make for optimum results in the field of education.
Be that as it may, a more important question must be, apart from casting my vote in those four-yearly parliamentary elections, how can I have my say on other issues on which I may feel particularly strongly? One way is to join a political party, attend its meetings and try to influence it from within. I may be a member of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) but still I may support the right of Turkish women to work as teachers or state servants while wearing a headscarf, and I may try to persuade my fellows in the party to my point of view.
Another way to influence government policy is to join or establish a special purpose lobby group. Groups exist and exert influence in such matters as education for girls, protection of the environment and violence within families. Of course, if all else fails, there should always be the right of citizens to gather for the purpose of public protest. Even, as Atatürk famously said in his address to the Youth of Turkey, there may be times when the national government is so wrong that citizens have to fight for what is right. Nevertheless, in the last case, you need to be pretty sure you areright, and stoically prepared to accept a certain amount of pepper gas and high-pressure water, because no government is going to roll over without putting up some resistance. If you choose to be a martyr for a cause, that choice has implications for your own health and safety.  
It was touching, the other day, to learn that a group of thirty internationally famous actors and actresses including Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon and Ben Kingsley had paid for a page in the London Times to publish an open letter to PM Erdoğan in support of the Gezi Park protests and against the excess use of force by police. Nice to know that the glitterati have sympathy for the down-trodden masses of nations other than their own – but I was also interested to see, among the thirty names, that of a writer, Claire Berlinski. Ms Berlinski has a record over some years of authoring quite immoderate anti-Turkish and anti-AK Party material for major US newspapers and magazines. Did those Oscar-winning thespians actually visit Turkey to see the situation for themselves, I wonder, or just take that lady’s jaundiced view as gospel truth? 
Which brings me to another important question. Mr Erdoğan has been accused of seeking to polarise the country prior to forthcoming local-body elections. I would argue that Erdoğan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party has been the object of serious opposition from inside and outside the country since the day they became the government – and this opposition has, for the past ten years, been hell-bent on polarizing the country. By the time you read this, a Turkish court will have given its judgment on high-ranking military personnel accused of planning a coup to oust Erdoğan’s government – and I for one am quite ready to believe that there was such a plan, and that certain groups within the country would have been happy to see it come to fruition.
I do not wish to enter the debate of whether mysterious foreign forces are attempting to manipulate Turkey’s internal political situation. It is, however, abundantly clear that there are citizens willing to go far beyond mere expression of dissent, to the extent of working actively to bring down the elected government. A certain retired professor, Zerrin Bayraktar, in an interview with the English daily Today’s Zaman, explained plans to prevent construction of the third Bosporus bridge. The aim, she said, is to ‘weaken the government’ and trigger ‘an economic crisis that could easily stop the government and eventually result in the removal of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party)’.
Adding strength to the argument that the Gezi Park protests were not all about latter day Frisco-esque hippies peacefully hugging trees, certain ultra-nationalist groups have been using social media to invite protesters to the city of Silivri where the above-mentioned trial of military coup planners is reaching its conclusion. Wiser heads have apparently decided that those who opposed the destruction of an inner-city park do not necessarily support anarchic Molotov cocktail-throwers and nationalist extremists, and are withholding support.
Neither do I wish to enter into an analysis here of the current situation in Egypt. There are those on both sides of the issue ready to draw analogies with present-day Turkey. Two things, however, do seem clear. First, senior personnel in the Egyptian armed forces used their position of military power to unseat the elected president, Muhammed Morsi, and are now holding him in custody under threat of ‘trial’ and possible execution. Second, the United States government, through its foreign affairs spokesman John Kerry, has made it clear that it supports the Egyptian military action, and is prepared to interpret it as a ‘restoration of democracy’.
There’s that problematic word again . . . democracy. It does seem to have a certain protean quality allowing it, in the words of Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, to mean whatever I choose it to mean. On the subject of Egypt, a correspondent in Today’s Zaman, Idris Bal, gave a list of preconditions for democracy to take root: there should be ‘no sectarianism, ethnic nationalism or tribalism’. There should be ‘a successful education system and an educated populace with no dramatic income disparities. Freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, plurality and a pluralist society’ are prerequisites, meaning ‘a free press, diverse media outlets, civil society organizations, think tanks, free universities, criticism and a democratic culture’. An admirable list, and I would love to know which country could tick all the boxes; certainly not my own homeland New Zealand, though we do rank at the higher end of lists measuring governmental transparency and freedom from corruption. I wonder too if George Dubya Bush had those criteria fully in mind when he sent in the marines to bring democracy to the oppressed people of Iraq?
And you have to admit, the United States government does have a tendency to get involved in the internal business of sovereign states when it feels its own interests are at stake. Another correspondent in Today’s Zaman, Joost Lagendijk, has been bemoaning recently ‘Turkey’s urge to bash the West’.The essence of his argument seems to be that Europe is not America, and the European Union is now trying to mediate between the new regime in Egypt and deposed President Morsi. He also points out that the US media are not all one hundred percent behind their government on this one, and have been expressing some dissent with John Kerry’s stated position.
Well, of course we know there are three hundred million Americans, and not all of them are big fans of Barack Obama. Unfortunately, however, in the end it is the government that will decide the nation’s direction (majoritarian though that may be), and if European governments align themselves with the USA (as in the Assange and Snowden cases), and if it is their governments that determine their foreign policy, what should Turkey do? How much do Western interests try to understand Turkey and all the shades of political opinion held by its citizens?
Sadly, the world we live in does not always allow us the luxury of acting purely on the basis of morality. Vested interests inevitably come into play. Like Humpty Dumpty, we are all inclined to twist words to suit our own position. In the end, however, democracy is probably the best solution to the necessary evil of government. Independent states should be left alone to find their own path, and citizens, however educated and enlightened, should accept the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number. 

What’s Going on in Turkey These Days?

The following piece appeared in today’s English edition of Zaman newspaper. I’m not commenting – just putting it here with a recommendation that you check it out:

Normalcy, but how?
Markar Esayan

Turkey fell into a crisis right at a moment when no one was expecting it. While it was clear that the run-up to local, general and presidential elections might see some political turbulence, no one thought the country would boil over so thoroughly, moving a hair’s breadth from civil war.
The Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government must also have been unprepared; it was seriously shaken by the crisis. What’s clear now is that Turkey can no longer shoulder the politics of polarization, and that the manipulation of said polarization has become riskier than ever. Many say — and it’s apparent — that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tends to handle the politics of polarization with mastery. This is true.
At the same time, claiming that this polarization is what Erdoğan wants is skewing the truth. Since the end of 2002, when the AK Party came to power, the party has been the focus of constant harassment, its agenda the target of endless attempts to raise tension. The years 2003-04 saw a series of coup plans that were known to both the military’s General Staff headquarters and the government. The generals behind these coup plans used military and civilian tools to keep the national agenda as infused with tension as possible and to try to portray the AK Party as opposed to secularism. Read more

BBC Interviews Turkish Citizens about Protests

In Turkey tens of thousands of people have taken an active part in protests, voicing their anger at what they see as the increasingly authoritarian government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But he won a landslide at the last election and still has high levels of support across the country.
This weekend there are expected to be big rallies backing the prime minister.
Here, some of his supporters give their views on the current crisis. Read more . .

Artists, Protesters and Bare Naked Ladies

Perhaps surprisingly, and contrary to what some people inside and outside Turkey would have you believe, local newspapers and TV channels here are full of reports and comments criticising the government of Tayyip Erdoğan for its handling of the Taksim Square protests and pretty much everything else, from the actions of a 16th century Ottoman sultan, to the civil war in neighbouring Syria. Maybe the writers are being secretly thrown into prison, but you’d think their families might have got the news out somehow. My Turkish colleagues at work are all alternately crying and laughing over Youtube, Facebook and other social media postings, none of which have been closed down by the government. Still, Western media seem convinced that Turkey’s oppressed citizenry are rising against an autocratic dictator, along the lines of Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gaddafi and Syria’s Assad. I’d like to comment on two of these articles.

The first is an interview, entitled ‘Turkish Artists Respond to the Wave of Protests Rocking their Country’ which appeared in an online artmag Blouin Artinfo (thanks Margie). The italicised lines are direct quotes. My comments follow.

Taner Ceylan and his fellow artists are supporting the democratic protests against unwarranted police violence. What makes them especially democratic rather than just ordinary protests, I wonder?

“The result of the last ten years has been a lack of respect for human rights, women’s rights, freedom of expression, and freedom of speech,” Taner explained. I have seen no evidence of this. On the contrary, I would say all these areas have seen considerable improvement in the last ten years. Generals and other military officers who presided over coups, killings and torture in the past have been brought to trial. Another group who were planning a coup to oust Erdoğan’s democratically elected government were caught and put on trial. It is now possible to discuss openly issues surrounding Kurds, Alevis and other minority ethnic and religious groups in a way that was forbidden when I first came to Turkey in the 1990s.
He [Ceylan] mentioned the disproportionate number of journalists currently imprisoned in Turkey. I keep hearing this. Journalists is an emotive word in this context. The Turkish mainstream media seem to publish criticism of the government with impunity as far as I can see – though there are issues where you need to be careful. Turks don’t like people slanging off MK Atatürk, the founder of the republic, or siding too publicly with expatriate Armenian pressure groups, for example. Incidentally, PM Erdoğan himself, while serving as mayor of Istanbul, spent four months in prison in 1999 after the parliamentary Islamic party, of which he was a member, was banned by Turkey’s Constitutional Court, and he spoke out about it.
Upper section of a Taner Ceylan painting.
No prizes for guessing what the lower section shows.
He said he and other artists had received death threats as a result of the content of his work in recent years. Well, you can’t really blame the government for that. I received a death threat once myself, as a teacher back in New Zealand. There are crazy people around in every country, I guess. Still, if you deliberately set out, as an artist, to challenge people’s religious beliefs, you can’t reasonably be shocked if you get the occasional extreme reaction. One of Taner Bey’s paintings features a veiled Ottoman lady juxtaposed with the work of French artist Gustav Courbet known as L’Origine du Monde. The interviewer coyly and somewhat euphemistically describes the female figure in Courbet’s picture as naked from the waist down. She certainly is! And no doubt Ceylan’s painting would upset some people – but I have to assume that was the point of the exercise in the first place.
“Cultural centers are being closed and censored,” he added. “Big projects, such as mosques and bridges, are being realized without asking citizens for input.” Ceylan said the government’s decision to replace a park in Taksim Square with a replica of an Ottoman-era army barracks was a breaking point for many citizens. In fact I see new cultural centres springing up everywhere, along with commercial and residential skyscrapers, shopping malls and, yes, mosques. There is a huge building boom going on all over Turkey, not just in Istanbul. In addition, there are major public transport projects completed, under construction or planned, aimed at relieving Istanbul’s and Turkey’s notorious traffic problems. The vast majority of ‘citizens’, I believe, are happy with these. Central and local governments have been building, and are continuing to build,  parks and recreation areas on a phenomenal scale, providing free open-air fitness centres, cycle and running tracks, picnic areas and sports facilities which are enormously popular. Should every project, public and private, be opened for public debate? It seems to me there is unrestricted opportunity for groups or individuals to express their opinions – the Marmaray underground project, for example, is years behind schedule because of the need to allow archaeologists access to the excavations. See my previous post for a picture of the Ottoman army barracks and a comment on the plans for Taksim Square.
The whole affair represents the way in which the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has slowly strangled all opposition while making sure to remain within democratic lines. Sounds impressive until you try to figure out exactly what the sentence means.  As I often say, Turkey’s biggest problem is the lack of a credible and effective opposition party to provide a legitimate voice for protest and alternative proposals, without which a democracy cannot properly function. Once again, however, it’s a little unfair to blame the democratically elected government for that. Should they start up a puppet alternative party as Atatürk himself did once or twice in his day? You’d think it was really the responsibility of responsible, democratically minded citizens to do that for themselves, given that, as far as I am aware, there is no prohibition on doing so.
The second article I would like to comment on was published the other day in Foreign Policy Online, entitled How Democratic Is Turkey?
Under the AKP and the charismatic Erdogan, unprecedented numbers of Turks have become politically mobilized and prosperous — the Turkish economy tripled in size from 2002 to 2011, and 87 percent of Turks voted in the most recent parliamentary elections, compared with 79 percent in the 2002 election that brought the AKP to power.  Well, yes. So what seems to be the problem?
Yet this mobilization has not come with a concomitant ability to contest politics. OK, I see. But whose fault is that? See above.
Replying to criticism, Spokesmen and apologists for the AKP offer a variety of explanations . . . from “it’s the law” and the “context is missing,” to “it’s purely fabricated.” These excuses falter under scrutiny and reveal the AKP’s simplistic view of democracy.  They also look and sound much like the self-serving justifications that deposed Arab potentates once used to narrow the political field and institutionalize the power of their parties and families. Once again, it sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Why don’t AKP’s opponents get their act together and organise a party capable of providing Turks with a genuine alternative in parliamentary elections? There are plenty of issues of vital interest to citizens that such a party could address. And what, pray, is the relevance of deposed Arab potentates to a popularly elected and successful political party?
Turkey’s new alcohol law, which among other things sets restrictions on alcohol sales after 10 p.m., curtails advertising, and bans new liquor licenses from establishments near mosques and schools, is another example of the AKP’s majoritarian turn. I don’t know about your country, but New Zealand certainly has restrictions on alcohol advertising in newspapers and cinemas, and the sale of alcohol in stores late at night. I seem to recall some restrictions in the UK on selling alcohol on Sundays – no problem buying it from supermarkets etc on Fridays (or Sundays) in Turkey. There are certainly restrictions on the consumption of alcohol at large public gatherings in NZ and Australia. In Turkey there have always been limits on licensed premises near mosques – and why not, one might think? Schools too, for that matter. Majori-what? Is that even a word? If so, what does it mean? Maybe the writer would prefer minoritarianrule, as Turkey mostly had in the past.
Over the last decade the AKP has built an informal, powerful, coalition of party-affiliated businessmen and media outlets whose livelihoods depend on the political order that Erdogan is constructing. Those who resist do so at their own risk. Resist what? At the risk of what? Tell me Republicans don’t have such an informal coalition in the US, the Conservatives in the UK, and the National Party in New Zealand. It seems to me the AKP would be mad if they didn’t try to get business interests on their side. And if they didn’t, it’s very likely those interests would tend to coalesce of their own accord around a government as successful as this one (see the statistics above). Besides, I have seen no evidence of anything in Turkey resembling Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire in Italy, for example.
Turkey has essentially become a one-party state. In this the AKP has received help from Turkey’s insipid opposition, which wallows in Turkey’s lost insularity and mourns the passing of the hard-line Kemalist elite that had no particular commitment to democracy. Well, I think I dealt with this one earlier. However, I would go further, and say that, if Turkey has become a one-party state (whatever essentially means) the blame can be laid almost entirely at the door of the opposition Republican People’s Party and that hard-line Kemalist elite who ruled the country with insipid coalitions and military support before the appearance of AKP on the political scene in 2001.
The AKP and Prime Minister Erdogan might have been elected with an increasing share of the popular vote over the last decade, but the government’s actions increasingly make it seem as if Turkish democracy does not extend farther than the voting booth. What can you say to that? What percentage of eligible voters turn out for elections in the United States? And ask the ‘99%’ who occupied the parks last year what they think about post-ballot box democracy.

By the way, for a shorter and more balanced piece in the same online magazine, click here.

Days of Rage – in Turkey

I get angry sometimes. I try not to, but occasionally I can’t help it. It’s a natural human emotion. Mostly I get angry about things I can’t control – which is stupid, I know, but again, I think, quite normal. I hate it when I see people in power abusing their positions of responsibility. I get angry when I see the powerful oppressing and exploiting the weak. I feel frustrated when I see weak people kowtowing to those in authority in order to advance their own careers.
Years ago in New Zealand I stood as a candidate for parliament. I tried to work through the system to bring about meaningful economic and social change for the benefit of the country. I saw close up the dirty tricks of the wealthy elite determined to hold on to power no matter the cost. I saw smear campaigns, electoral gerrymandering and control of the media. I saw the government of the day deliberately stir up an issuewhich polarised the nation and provoked violent street demonstrations leading to a crackdown by the forces of law and order. The result infuriated me. If I hadn’t had a wife, three young children and a mortgage, I might have been tempted to violence myself.  Gradually the fury gave way to sadness, and eventually to resignation.
Well, donkeys live a long time, as a former colleague used to observe (thanks Alan). On Sunday morning I took my bicycle over to Taksim, the main centre of Istanbul’s entertainment industry, five-star hotels and foreign diplomats. My plan had been to take part in a ride across the Bosporus Bridge, organised by environmentalist groups. I knew it would be cancelled, but I went anyway. Partly I was psyched up for a good bike ride, and partly I was curious. I wanted to see for myself the situation in the square after the previous day’s demonstrations.
Demolished buses by Taksim Square
Taksim Square and the surrounding streets looked a little like the pictures we saw from the recent tornado in Oklahoma: footpaths torn up, bricks and stones lying thick all around; makeshift barricades, shells of buses, overturned cars and minibuses, burnt out police vehicles, everywhere graffiti (much of it obscene), bottles, beer cans, vast quantities of rubbish, and one or two small bands of determined protesters – a few supporters of the Kurdish BDP, a larger group of Marxist Leninists around the flag-draped Statue of the Republic in the centre of the square, homeless sleeping off the excitement or sitting around fires still burning in the disputed park.
I saw a couple of young students picking up rubbish around the statue, and I joined them with plastic bags purchased from a nearby supermarket. In the store, my eyes and throat were burning from traces of the pepper spray or tear gas employed by police the night before. As I filled my bags with the detritus of democracy, I was approached by a young man who identified himself as a reporter from ‘Foreign Policy’. I guess he was happy to find someone he could interview in English. ‘Do you think Turkey has become increasingly polarized?’ he asked.  ‘Do you think this event has united all the disparate opposition groups in Turkey?’ No, and no again – and I’ll tell you why.
Cleaning up after the party
Since I came to Turkey, in fact, pretty much since the beginning of the Republic, Taksim Square has been off-limits for large political gatherings. Apparently there was a brief experiment in the mid-1970s. On 1 May 1977 there was a huge gathering known to history as the Taksim Square Massacre. Forty people were killed and 120 badly injured. Some, including the Leader of the Opposition, Bülent Ecevit, claimed links to the undercover Gladio organisation. Prime Minister at the time was Süleyman Demirel, later removed from office by the military takeover of 1980. He remained, or perhaps became, a staunch Kemalist and republican, returning to office in 1991, before resigning in 1993 in favour of his protégé, Turkey’s first woman PM. In gratitude, Tansu Çiller had him appointed to the Presidency, a role he filled for the next seven years.
In 2009, the Turkey’s AK Party government made 1 May an official holiday. However, there was anger in some circles this year when they refused to allow a commemoration of the 1977 incident to be held in the square. Good call or bad? Who knows? A government may not feel that large political demonstrations under the noses of well-heeled foreign tourists are good for the country’s image.
To be fair, the AKP government has achieved much since taking office in 2003. They curbed Turkey’s banana republic hyperinflation and have presided over a period of unprecedented economic growth, evidenced by a rapid increase in the proportion of citizens in the middle classes. They have provided the longest period of political stability Turkey has seen since free elections began. They kept the country out of the Iraq invasion while staying friends with the USA, and more recently have applied some much-needed pressure to the Israeli government over its intransigent attitude to the Palestinian question. Internally, they have opened up discussions addressing the country’s problems with its large Kurdish and Alevi minorities. They have maintained interest in European Union membership while making it clear that Turkey is not desperate to join. I could go on, but you get the picture.
Getting back to the build up of rage. Turkey’s (Istanbul’s) secular Kemalist elite have had things their own way pretty much since Day One of the modern Republic. Atatürk himself managed fifteen years as President without troubling himself to hold an election. His successor, Ismet İnönü held two – the first in 1946, more for show than anything else – the second, in 1950 leading to the election of a new governing party, the Democrats, and Turkey’s first popularly elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes.
Saying unkind words
about the Prime minister
There was a bit of a roller-coaster ride in the country’s politics for the next fifty years. Menderes himself was ousted by a military coup in 1960 and subsequently hanged along with two of his ministers. Elected governments were again removed by direct military intervention in 1970 and 1980; and once less violently when the generals had a quiet word in PM Necmettin Erbakan’s ear in 1997, following which he quietly left of his own accord.
One of PM Erdoğan’s more controversial achievements in his ten-year stewardship has been the trial in civilian courts of senior military personnel accused of plotting another coup to remove him – and overseeing amendments to the constitution allowing the courts to try officers involved in the brutal 1980 coup. Undoubtedly Tayyip Bey has made a few powerful enemies.
Again, from pretty much the first day of taking office, Erdoğan upset the secular Kemalists by appearing in public with his headscarved wife Emine Hanım. A good number of his ministers committed the same offence, arousing the fury of the Istanbul urban elite. To make matters worse, his government lifted the ban on the wearing of headscarves by female university students. Tayyip Erdoğan is a devout, practising Muslim – a fact which, in a country where ninety-nine percent of the population are of that faith, certainly helped him to become the first Turkish PM in living memory to lead a government with a parliamentary majority.
Ironically, their parliamentary ascendancy is perhaps one of AKP’s major disadvantages. Turkey’s biggest problem in the last ten years has been the lack of a credible parliamentary opposition. Underlining the dearth of ideas in the secular urban elite camp, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) returned from the political wilderness in 1992 (whither it had been sent by the generals after the 1980 coup). With little going for them other than their claim to be the direct descendants of Atatürk’s very own party, they became the second-largest group in parliament after the 2002 elections. Since then they have distinguished themselves by saying ‘NO’ to pretty much everything proposed by the government, and doing their best to stir up popular unrest, while, at the same time, failing to come up with a single positive idea of their own.
This is just the beginning, it says
Predictably, this seems to have led to a growing arrogance by the Prime Minister and his party. As English politician and historian Lord Acton famously said, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ No doubt this arrogance has been encouraged by the fact that Turks actually like (and perhaps need) a strongman. Nevertheless, the number of Turks getting p—d off with the government has undoubtedly been increased by a feeling that self-righteous religiosity has begun to replace reasoned public debate.
Who would ever have thought that Turks could be stopped from smoking a cigarette whenever and wherever they chose? Now smokers are under threat of extinction and, even as a non-smoker, I am starting to feel sympathy for them. While I agree that smokers, alcohol-drinkers and drivers of huge SUVs should contribute to the environmental and health costs associated with their addictions, it does seem unfair that Turks, with an average income at the lower end of the OECD spectrum, should have to pay the highest petrol prices in the world. A little study of US history would show that banning alcohol will inevitably have undesirable social consequences – and driving prices sky-high with exorbitant taxation will stimulate a black-market whose main beneficiaries will be organized crime syndicates and political dissidents.
Personally I have no problem with the building of two or three symbolic mosques in high profile locations on the Asian side of Istanbul – but I’m not happy to be woken every morning before sunrise by five minutes or more of highly amplified Arabic chant summoning to prayer a public, large numbers of whom intend exercising their democratic right not to go.
Artillery barracks demolished
in 1940 – to be reincarnated
as a shopping centre,
museum, arts centre . . .
However, I apologise for straying from the main point of this post, which was, I admit, to address the matter of the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square and in dozens of other cities around Atatürk’s Republic. Ostensibly, the protests were triggered by the plan to rebuild an Ottoman military barracks on a not-very-large park adjacent to the iconic meeting place. Now if you know Istanbul you will be aware that Taksim Square is a singularly stark and barren concrete space whose most interesting feature is a large sculpture representing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself. On one side is the 1960s soviet-style Atatürk Culture Centre, adjacent to another relic of the tasteless 60s, a 20-storey hotel from the glass-box school of architecture, thankfully known as the Marmara. Opposite the culture centre is a windowless brick structure that I think is a reservoir, and on the fourth side a kind of bus terminal behind which, and largely invisible unless you are in it, a small park generally occupied by homeless individuals and itinerant alcoholics. In the middle of the square is a large island where you can access a major line of the city’s underground Metro system – if you can reach it, given that the island is isolated by a circular speedway around which hurtles an unbroken torrent of buses, yellow taxis, minibuses and private cars.
As far as I can understand it, the plan was to divert traffic underground and turn the whole area into a vehicle-free zone which would then be landscaped. The bus terminal and little-used park area would be redeveloped by building a replica of the architecturally striking 19thcentury artillery barracks demolished in 1940. The intention was to utilize the rebuilt structure as hotel accommodation, shopping, a museum, cultural centre, whatever. Not such a bad thing, you might think.
The problem seems to be that the cutting of trees in the park became a focus for the pent-up rage that has clearly been building up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities for several years. To return to the questions posed by Justin, the reporter from ‘Foreign Policy’: ‘Has Turkish society become polarised in recent years? And has this event united the political opposition? In the sense that opposition to the present government has brought together a host of unlikely bed-mates, from residents of Istanbul’s plushest districts to the most radical of communist ideologues, yes. But if you are asking whether this ‘unity’ will translate into anything resembling a credible political party with a serious alternative political agenda, I fear not. As the 16th century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther said, ‘The mad mob does not ask how it could be better, only that it be different. And when it then becomes worse, it must change again. Thus they get bees for flies, and at last hornets for bees.’
Nevertheless, citizens of Turkey have ample grounds for dissatisfaction. Workplace rights, conditions, wages and salaries are substandard, especially in the private sector where collective bargaining is a no-no. The education system is in a sad state with little chance of fulfilling Atatürk’s dream of producing a modern educated populace. There is an appalling gulf between the extremes of rich and poor. I am currently reading ‘The Histories’ of Herodotus, and I came across a delightful solution for this last problem: The Egyptian Pharaoh ‘Amasis,’ he says, ‘established an admirable custom which Solon borrowed and introduced at Athens . . . this was that every man once a year should declare before the provincial governor, the source of his livelihood; failure to do this, or inability to prove that the source was an honest one, was punishable by death.’
On the other hand, conditions for the majority in Turkey have improved out of sight since I first came to the country. What worries me now, in fact scares me would be a better word, is that the country may descend into a chaos from which only another period of martial law will save it. Sadly, I also fear that there are forces outside of Turkey who would welcome that, and have been working behind the scenes to make it happen.