Arab Spring and the Turkish model

The idea of democracy in Turkey suffers from an ethno-centric definition of citizenship and rejects the more inclusive understanding of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity.
Razmig Shirinian
14 August 2011

It is an irony of history to consider Turkey as an emerging model for democracy in the Middle East. Even more ironic is Turkey’s international appearance as a trustworthy broker in regional conflicts. Diversity is virtually non-existent within Turkish culture, resulting in the deterioration and desecration of a democracy the country claims to have nurtured. In a population almost entirely Muslim, hundreds of Armenian and Greek churches, as well as Jewish synagogues are permanently locked up if not destroyed, only to indicate the sullen fact that minorities are under perpetual siege.

For Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, democracy is just a means of political gain, not an institutionalized political system. It is like a “streetcar” and “when you come to your stop, you get off,” he once stated. The idea of democracy in Turkey suffers from an ethno-centric definition of citizenship and rejects the more inclusive understanding of ethnic, linguistic, religious, and cultural diversity. It certainly doesn’t stimulate discussions for alternative political formations offering a more tolerant and inclusive form of human society in which different groups and particularly deprived minorities would be equally motivated to participate. It has been nearly a century since Armenians were massacred and driven out by the Young Turks who ruled before the establishment of the current republic. Yet Turkish nationalism today has little to offer the few remaining Greeks and Armenians in Turkey in terms of their safety and protection.

Decades of bloody clashes with the Kurds continue to lurk in the current political milieu, much to Turkey’s frustration. Kurdish rights, both collective and individual, are constitutionally denied to the nearly fifteen million Kurds inhabiting Turke, together with the  education and public services in the Kurdish language that are crucial for the survival of their cultural practices, and collective Kurdish identity.

The current clash between the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Erdogan and the generals has seemingly given a political victory to Mr. Erdogan. His autocratic style is a key apparatus for the concentration of power in his hands. While the military intervention in politics has been a hallmark of modern, secular Turkish history, the AKP party on the other hand has its roots in political Islam. The mass arrests of military officers for alleged coup plots, along with the jailing of scores of journalists – over 80 currently in custody, and notably, some $3 billion tax fine imposed on the Dogan media group to intimidate the media, are ominous indicators of Turkey moving towards a civilian form of authoritarianism.

Law suits surrounding publications of books, magazines, and websites, curbing freedom of thought and expression are not uncommon in Turkey. Many publishers are being sued, writers and translators are being fined and jailed, while journalists are being harassed and even assassinated. It is most ironic, for example, to see a lawsuit filed against publisher Irfan Sanci when his company published The Exploits of a young Don Juan by the early twentieth century French literary figure Guillaume Appollinaire, while he was also awarded the freedom to publish a Special Prize Award from the International Publishing Association based in Geneva. 

Turkey’s “zero problems” policy with neighbours turned out to be a farcical notion in the wake of the new wave of popular uprisings that has swept across the Middle East. It was in fact, a foreign policy designed to give Turkey a new post-Soviet geostrategic role in the larger geopolitical landscapes of the Middle East and South Caucasus. The intellectual framework for this foreign policy was largely provided by Ahmet Davutoglu, the Foreign Minister. In his words, “[i]t is impossible for a country experiencing constant crises with neighbouring states to produce a regional and global foreign policy … A comprehensive peace plan and a package to develop economic and cultural relations have to be put into place simultaneously to overcome security crises with the closest neighbours.” Davutoglu’s proactive policies have been praised globally for their “strategic-depth” and realpolitik developments on the ground.

But the current upheaval in the Arab countries is based on a desire for political awakening and national dignity. There is a need for flexibility, for openness, for willingness to engage in a changing Middle East rather than egocentric or defensive reactions.

The true intent of Turkey’s foreign policy was a new hegemonic scheme, or new “Ottomanism”, trying to invoke historical affinities in the Middle East. Not surprisingly, this “cooperative” expansion was gridlocked by recurrent violations of liberal democratic principles, and notably, by the refusal of the government to accommodate the legitimate demands of the minorities within Turkey. If secularism, democracy, and Islam are not reconciled at home, it sounds rather arrogant when Davutoglu calls the Arab Spring “a late normalization process” and mentions Turkey as “a source of inspiration” for the region. 

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