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Turkey, openDemocracy and ‘so-called pluralist debate’

We were pleased to take a rare opportunity to publish an interview with Turkey's prime minister. We humbly hope we are at the beginning of this journey, not the end.

Rosemary Bechler
28 January 2015

Here is Richard Falk's response to criticisms of his interview with Turkey's prime minister, also published today.

We were pleased when Richard Falk offered us his extended conversation with the Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu for publication on openDemocracy. Hotfoot from the 100th edition of his Strategic Depth, (surely a record number of sales for a book on foreign policy as Behlül Özkan notes), Ahmet Davutoğlu is an impressive publicist for the thinking and self-perceptions of Turkey’s ruling elite. 


Taksim,Gezi.June,2013. Meg Rutherford/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Now, it seemed, he was willing to share with our readers his vision of Turkey’s ruling AK party’s domestic achievements to date and of Turkey’s future prospects as a world power. And indeed, encouraged by Richard Falk, the prime minister gives a relaxed and forthright exposition of many of the major headings of such a worldview at a critical moment in this increasingly important regional powerhouse’s troubled history. 

This had to be interesting for a global readership like ours, especially for anyone with little chance to keep up with Turkey’s rapid evolution since the Arab spring. Moreover, huge claims are made throughout the interview for civilizational advance, on the basis of which, if the prime minister means anything at all by his central boast and contention that “only the Turkish people can judge the mistakes of their politicians”, they ought one day to be able to hold him to account.

Why openDemocracy? As editor of our Turkish Dawn pages as well as Can Europe make it? and Arab Awakening, I can only assume that this choice was guided by some recognition of the burgeoning Turkish contribution to our global platform since our founding editor visited Gezi Park during those historic events in June 2013. At that time, we were excited like so many others by this miraculous emergence of a pluralist, democratic avant garde, a showcase for what Hendrik Wagenaar recently christened ‘Democracy2’ - excited not just for Turkey but for the democratic world at large. Articles poured in from openDemocracy veterans joined by many fine new Turkish contributors.  

Ever since then, the interest and the desire to debate Turkey’s meaning and future has continued on our website. Our Turkish readership has grown steadily, through the months of a brutal, institutionalised backlash, to the historic Turkish presidential elections in August 2014 and on to the present day. But it is a particular kind of interest, clearly reaching for an overview, a ‘seeing ourselves as others see us’, not readily available at home. To understand this, you have only to glance at a few of the articles which have recently peaked Turkish interest, Turkey’s quagmire since the Arab Spring, Turkey’s ISIS crisis and Race and racism in modern Turkey

They couldn’t be expected to know all this in detail, but it seemed as if Ahmet Davutoğlu and his advisers had decided that it was time openDemocracy had something more like the ‘official version’ to chew over, and that with the confidence one must expect from ruling elites, they were willing to take on all comers.

Or were they? Here then, was the rub. It wasn’t so much that Richard Falk’s most interesting questions, on preventing the Turkish rich from getting richer at the expense of the poor, providing welfare for any society within a neoliberal framework, or the "failure to use women creatively and productively," to name but three - met with little or no answer from the prime minister, as that was where other openDemocracy contributions could come in. It was more that Gezi Park and everything that means for democratic rights and "acting on behalf of the people" was completely airbrushed out of the disquisition despite its apparent largesse. Worse than that, tantalisingly, Davutoğlu appeared to approach some of the more challenging issues only to dive into abstraction, or into some putative future stage in what Oguz Alyanak so penetratingly describes as a seemingly ‘parallel universe’. The challenge of Gezi Park, had the gauntlet been taken up, would surely have sent us straight to the heart of the debate about the ‘general will’ and the ‘national will’ that the prime minister initiates, with some verve. But disappointingly of course, the argument backs off. Instead, as Umut Ozkirimli scathingly remarks, we are treated to another iteration of “the AKP’s majoritarian understanding of democracy which reduces it to the ballot box.” 

These collapsings and elisions of argument, however, also have their interest. Turkey is not alone in having a mono-majoritarian ‘National Us’ narrative pitted against the profound pluralist challenges of modernity, with all the help it can get from their establishments and mainstream media to fend off a rival, devolving notion of ‘peace, prosperity and freedom’ in which their survival is also at stake. This is what makes Turkey so fascinating for many Europeans – it holds up such a stark mirror image to our own neoliberal selves. 

And this is the main reason why I disagree with Ozkirimli that our editorial decision to publish this interview was 'fundamentally wrong'. If, armed with a certain amount of critical perspective, we non-experts could find in this conversation a plentiful supply of warning echoes and illuminations, why shouldn’t our readers do the same? 

On the other hand, it seemed to us, that the Turkish prime minister, without much quarrel from his friend and interviewer, had hoped to bypass criticism on openDemocracy, where we are used to robust debate. And that was an entirely different matter. 

We had to take this into account not only in weighing the attractions of opening up a debate, but as a necessary calculation in our obligations to our Turkish contributors and readers. This feature, as it happened, was published in the middle of a fresh rounding up of journalists accused of nefarious practises on behalf of the Gulen movement. We have tried our best to understand the ins and outs of that chequered relationship with the AKP. But at the very least, here was another reminder (the latest came in as I write today) that from time to time in recent months, Turkish contributors have asked us to remove their names and those of human rights campaigners, academics, students, lawyers and journalists they might have mentioned who felt, for whatever reason, that their jobs and reputations were at risk if their opinions were identified on our platform. To be able to debate in the open cannot be taken for granted by them, and we owe it to those who cannot speak truth to power, if at all possible, to raise their concerns and those of the ‘many victims of “New Turkey”’ movingly cited by Umut Ozkirimli in whatever way we can. Were we then to turn down such a rare opportunity? 

So what to do? Well, on openDemocracy the answer is usually: let’s try and have a proper debate. We commissioned responses from critics old and new who we could rely upon to help us open up the issues that we felt (and they agreed) had been closed down. To introduce them to you again briefly, we invited in Behlül Özkan on the dangerous flaws in the AKP's foreign policy; Bulent Gokay on why Turkey will only become a real global power when it has a functional democracy; Bill Park on how governance is becoming more troubled under the AKP; Alexander Christie-Miller on the mass arrests of journalists that weekend; Firdevs Robinson on why Turkey's politicians must not be let off the hook; Oguz Alyanak on how they live in a parallel universe–and the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı on why we should not have published this piece at all.

Each had their own priorities, and I think the result, combined with rich pickings from our Turkish Dawn archive, has been the opening move in a holding to account. 

Some, however, refused. We were indeed assailed by people on both sides who criticised us for not having confined ourselves to pursuing their main lines of argument. They shared the conviction that this was a betrayal of our values, somehow ruining our reputation for openness and democracy. Our defence of what we think constitutes a ‘pluralist debate’ fell on deaf ears. 

But it is my own conviction that if you take it upon yourself, in a world overflowing with communication as it is, to protect people from the pernicious views of your opponents you will never advance the debate – let alone win the argument. You will only consolidate the views of those who already agree. Whereas if you can encourage people to think for themselves, think twice, reconsider, then sooner or later, minds will be changed, sometimes in newly creative ways you could never have expected, however expert you are. Since the desire to change things is why any of us writes – or edits – for openDemocracy, this is an important quarrel to which I’m sure we will return. Umut Ozkirimli, as it happened, proved himself an adept at just this practise in his next piece for us, ‘a Socratic dialogue on the Charlie Hebdo affair’.

So this is the forum for debate we have tried to construct on the meaning of Turkey in the contemporary world, and readers will have to judge for themselves if they would rather that the messengers had been shot, and that no debate had taken place at all.

What happens now?

What next? This ‘first round’ was never meant to be the end – just another beginning. Indeed, in the ideal world, Ahmet Davutoğlu would now come back into the discussion to answer and take issue with his critics. (So far his office has declined our invitation to do so.) Maybe we are not so naïve in our belief in ‘so-called pluralist debate’ as to expect that this will happen. But we do hope that some of the many, many supporters of the AKP for whom the historic rise of that party and of Turkey’s prominence in the world are the hopeful events of their lives – will want to do so on his behalf. And that they will now proceed to do so without expecting to make the kind of killing that closes down a rich, multi-faceted discussion. We want to publish them. 

One last point. Without falling into the trap of generalising about those we have so far commissioned to respond to the interview as a ‘bunch of secularists’ or any of the other reductive descriptions that have been circulating on Twitter and elsewhere, there is one challenge in what I have read and helped to edit so far, that I would like to see elaborated – room for holding the prime minister’s critics to account in at least one regard, alongside the prime minister, in the next round of debate.  

There is too often a tone of voice, or implication on the part of some of the respondents – nothing much more tangible than that – that they have some altogether more civilised, safe place from which to launch their criticisms of the historic efforts of the AKP, a place maybe where the advances sought by the prime minister are more or less already done and dusted, that makes me uneasy. As editor of Can Europe Make It? I have become allergic to that other ‘parallel universe’ in which Europe is as a setter of standards for civilizations, when the facts on the ground seem to point in a different direction altogether. 

It would be at least premature in this debate if our editing gave anyone to understand that when we accuse Turkey of “rapacious capitalist practises, lack of labour rights and persisting gender inequality,” we are implying that those are not to be found in all of our own countries too, sometimes pursued, indeed, like TTIP not to mention GCHQ, with a Machiavellian stealth and ferocious removal from public debate that autocrats in many other parts of the world may envy. 

I only wish that there was any prospect that David Cameron would volunteer to come and share his vision for the future with an outfit like ours, subjecting himself to an open questioning on all sides of his sins of omission and commission. But then, he clearly saves himself for debates he thinks he can win.

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