Since the Arab awakening, Turkey’s working democracy and the significantly decreased role of the army in the public sphere have made it a model for many of its neighbors. Western business and policy circles were happy to see a market-friendly leader who could potentially inspire the disgruntled Muslim populations in the world. But the heavy-handed attempts by the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan to blast peaceful protesters off the streets using tear gas and water cannon in recent weeks exposes Turkey to accusations of hypocrisy such as those that are often leveled at the US.
So how can a country lead others on human rights while it violates the rights of its own citizens?
Protestors in Istanbul.Shutterstock/Emine Dursan. All rights reserved.
Turkey was once the heart of the Ottoman Empire that controlled the Middle East, the Balkans and the Caucasus for more than 600 years. Its recent foreign policy, as outlined by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in his book Strategic Depth, is based on the need to rediscover the country’s geographic and historic identity in this Ottoman space. Davutoğlu talks of the “great restoration” of an “ancient unity” that connects Turks, Kurds, Bosnians, Albanians and Arabs and of the need to create a new human rights discourse. This foreign policy approach has been dubbed “neo-Ottoman” by the media and many scholars although officials do not like the term because of its imperialist connotations. The term, however, perfectly defines the Turkish government’s understanding of human rights as well.
Under a neo-Ottoman understanding of human rights, there is no inherent inconsistency between being authoritarian at home and preaching Muslim’s rights abroad. There is a very low tolerance for dissent within the country and the Prime Minister, very much like the sultans of the Empire, has tried to control every aspect of daily life ranging from alcohol consumption to C-Sections. In terms of arrests and imprisonments of journalists, Turkey surpassed Iran and China long ago. This authoritarian streak within the country, however, has come with some unexpected developments, complicating the human rights picture even further. The new political elite have made a point of paying more attention to the rights of religious and ethnic minorities, including Armenian, Greek and Jewish communities in Turkey to represent the country as a cradle of civilizations and to increase its attractiveness in the world market. Turkish policymakers also started to talk with the Kurdish paramilitaries, breaking a taboo in the republic’s history. This approach also has tangible economic benefits, giving Turkey a stronger position in a resource-rich region, where Turkish governments cannot dismiss the autochthonous Kurdish presence any more. In short, domestic initiatives by the AK Party government have all been highly driven by pragmatic market concerns.
There is no question about the existence of a desire to lead in matters related to Islam. Turkey has started to take a lead in shaping contemporary Islamic thought. Its theologians have recently put together a seven-volume encyclopedia of important hadiths with their historical context and what they mean today. Mehmet Özafşar, director of the project and vice-president of the Turkish Religious Affairs Directorate stated that, “There are different perspectives in the Islamic world and some are closed-minded. Turks have a different idea of Islamic culture”. The encyclopedia, which is being translated for use in other Muslim countries, includes sections on human rights, such as the right to education for girls.
The Turkish Government has championed the rights of the Muslim minorities worldwide, while remaining cautious, as a NATO member, amid post-9/11 concerns over terrorism. Turkish policymakers, for example, have refrained from making any openly supportive statements on the Chechens in order not to confront Russia. However, they have been vocal about the Muslim Uyghur population in China with Erdoğan stating that Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs was tantamount to genocide. Also, in Myanmar, apart from the United Nations, Turkish aid was the first to be distributed to Muslim Rohingya refugees by another nation. In bold international initiatives, other emerging powers have been Turkey’s natural allies. One glaring example was the joint initiative with Brazil to strike a nuclear deal with Iran in 2010; Brazil and Turkey defied the UN Security Council's sanctions against Iran and tried to negotiate for a diplomatic solution. The initiative was not successful, but it showed that there was an emerging diplomatic network that actively looks for alternative solutions.
Currently, Turkey is still hosting thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled the civil war; despite occasional criticisms, Turkish treatment of the refugees has been much better than the other states. Erdoğan’s government has also been one of the most active supporters of the Palestinians and Turkey became the first state with an ambassador to Palestine. Following the debates surrounding the Israeli raid on the Mavi Marmara (the Turkish flotilla that attempted to deliver aid to Gaza in spite of the Israeli blockade), Erdoğan pledged to travel to Gaza again to ensure that Israel would keep its promise to ease the blockade. Although many political leaders, both in Europe and in the Middle East, have made frequent references to human rights issues in Gaza and West Bank, no political actor had been able to play a similar role. This is mostly due to Turkey’s identity, a non-Arab Muslim-majority country that has an assertive foreign policy agenda as a regional power. Muslim leaders in countries as different as Malaysia and Tunisia have responded well to this leadership role and saw Turkey as a model to emulate. However, the government’s handling of peaceful protests recently has made even the most optimistic circles question the sincerity and consistency of this fervent human rights discourse.
The Neo-Ottoman understanding of human rights and the over-riding principle of solidarity with Muslims worldwide have the potential to pit Turkey in direct opposition to western thinking on rights. In 2009, for example, Turkish leadership agreed to host Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president indicted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity. The Turkish Prime Minister defended the decision, saying that “a Muslim can never commit genocide”, which revealed a categorical and religion-based perception and judgment of injustices. Erdoğan’s statements effectively challenged the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, to which Turkey is not a signatory. Turkey did not see such membership as a necessity and it is in the process of redefining its transnational role through participation in alternative structures. Turkey also does not see EU membership as a 'must' any more and policymakers have now turned towards “the east”, entertaining the possibility of joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. This is not a surprise, as Turkish politicians had suggested more than once that the reason why EU has been slow in the membership process is because it is a Christian Club, unwilling to accept a Muslim-majority country. Similarly, Erdoğan once commented that the European Court of Human Rights had no business ruling on whether women should wear headscarves as this was an issue for religious leaders.
The aspiration of the AK Party Government has been to express and deal with the concerns of Muslim populations worldwide, and to reconcile with the segments of the society that do not openly challenge its legitimacy. In this process, and with the help of favorable economic indicators, Turkish policymakers tried to show that they had the power to pose a legitimate alternative to existing human rights understandings. We are in dire need of such alternatives. The initial positive responses to Erdoğan’s human rights advocacy abroad show that there is indeed a gap to fill in traditional human rights regimes, especially within the Muslim world. But future leaders of Turkey, or any country for that matter, will have much greater power to offer alternatives if they can demonstrate respect for the rights of their own citizens.