Reflections on my interview with the Turkish prime minister

Why was there such a fuss? Should we never listen to what political leaders have to say in explanation of their policies?

Richard Falk
28 January 2015

Ahmet Davutoglu in December, 2014. Demotix/Konstantinos Tsakalidis. All rights reserved.

This is a follow-up to an interview Richard Falk conducted with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu on September 28 2014. Here is openDemocracy editor Rosemary Bechler's response to the interview and ensuing discussion, also published today.

Last summer while in Turkey I welcomed the opportunity to interview Ahmed Davutoğlu shortly after he was selected as the new head of the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) and as the country’s prime minister. I regarded it as an occasion to raise questions of deepest concern about the kind of approach Davutoğlu, who had previously gained prominence in the world as Turkey’s dynamic foreign minister, would put forward. It did not even occur to me that it was appropriate or would be illuminating to press him on issues on which AKP positions were already widely known, such as the government’s mishandling of the Gezi Square demonstrations in 2013 or the allegations of human rights abuses associated with imprisoning journalists and political dissidents, especially those who supported the Kurdish struggle. Such ‘gotcha’ journalism rarely produces responses of interest, instead eliciting defensive and familiar commentary, and usually serves to reassure readers that the interviewing journalist holds ‘politically correct’ views.  

I have long followed Turkish politics and during years prior to the AKP ascent to power wrote about such issues as torture, human rights, Kurdish entitlement to some form of self-government or internal self-determination, and the refusal of Ankara to confront the realities of the Armenian massacres that took place in 1915. In raising such issues I was severely attacked by some of the then reigning secular journalists for daring to raise such issues that brought unfavourable global attention, especially by human rights NGOs, to Turkey. I remember well a press conference in 1993 at which I was acting as a spokesperson for an international delegation from Europe that had visited the country to understand better the Kurdish struggle to achieve minority rights. I was belligerently told by Turkish ‘journalists’ that it was inappropriate to comment critically on such matters in the public domain. These journalists claimed to have sat in on meetings of the National Security Council, and indicated their personal approval of a planned spring offensive against Kurdish villages that would soon commence. My point being: journalists in Turkey have often in the past crossed the line between a posture of objectivity and active participation in the political life of the country. I believe some are now doing so again, but with a drastically different agenda than during the pre-AKP era.

Such behaviour certainly does not justify imprisonment or banishment, but it does require an understanding of the Turkish national context in which journalists play a more overtly political role, frequently behaving as players rather than observers and interpreters. Any reading of the harsh daily criticism of AKP policies and personalities in the media would reassure even the most skeptical reader that there is no suppression of hostile commentary in present day Turkey.

My openDemocracy critics

Among those commentators invited by openDemocracy to respond to the interview with Davutoğlu was the political scientist Umut Özkırımlı who attacks me personally as a “lobbyist or ‘embedded academic.’” He apparently believes that Davutoğlu’s responses were “propagandistic” because they expressed the viewpoint of the AKP and the Turkish government, and should not even be heard. By such reasoning we should never listen to what political leaders have to say in explanation of their policies. Özkırımlı’s Google search of my past, evidently seeking to discover material that might help destroy my credibility, turned up an article that the New York Times solicited after my meeting with Ayatollah Khomeini in Paris back in 1979, days before his return to Iran to lead what he was calling the 'Islamic Revolution' that was nearing victory at the time.

My responses to Özkırımlı’s more detailed criticisms are are addressed throughout this article. I would only add that Özkırımlı apparently felt the further need to distance himself from what he insultingly derides as "this so-called interview" by adding a rather odd ‘disclaimer’ at the end of his piece. In it he criticized openDemocracy for abandoning its "core values" by publishing "this propagandistic piece," presumably to protect its readership from any exposure to the corrupting effects of Davutoğlu’s ideas. To me, this seems to embody an ethos of repressive pluralism, which is not how I have previously interpreted the core values of openDemocracy.

The issue takes on an added dimension in light of the strident defence mounted on behalf of Charlie Hebdo’s freedom of expression that is being given a clear precedence by secular liberals over the often abhorrent Islamophobic content of cartoons disguising their messages of hate beneath the banner of ‘satire.’

I was, of course, long aware that Turkish secular intellectuals in the west, especially in Britain and the United States, had strongly opposed the AKP leadership from the inception of its role as running the Turkish government in 2002, particularly demonizing its principal leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Part of my motivation for seeking this interview with Davutoğlu was the belief he would convey a clear sense of the changing Turkish political reality as seen through the lens of the AKP. From long association I knew Davutoğlu to be thoughtful, knowledgeable, and a person of fine character who well understood the complex challenges facing the Turkish government at this time.   

It is my impression, which is admittedly impossible to validate, that some of the hostility evoked by the interview among those among the openDemocracy faithful preoccupied with Turkey, was the degree to which giving Davutoğlu such a platform would dilute their propaganda campaign to paint Erdoğan as Turkey’s Putin, that is, the totalizing leader who dominated the political scene to such an extent as to render other individuals, regardless of their formal title, politically irrelevant.  

I would observe further that up until 2011 or so, anti-Erdoğan forces pursued the opposite tactic of highlighting Davutoğlu’s role as the architect of Turkish foreign policy, thereby shifting attention away from Erdoğan’s leadership role in the AKP government. In this way, credit for any positive AKP achievements could be given to others. In recent years the most ardent AKP detractors altered their opposition strategy, concentrating their anger and exhibiting their alienation almost exclusively in relation to the person of Erdoğan. It suited their purpose, then, to situate the more moderate and less vivid AKP personalities, including Davutoğlu, Ali Babacan the AKP’s economic mastermind, and former president Abdullah Gul in a shadowland of political invisibility. I believe that this obsessive attention to Erdoğan is both misleading and manipulative, although to some extent encouraged by Erdoğan’s swagger and style in the aftermath of his 2011 and presidential electoral triumphs.

With what now seems like naive innocence, I assumed that a western publication like openDemocracy, with its reputation for and claims of pluralist discourse, would view publication of such an interview as a worthwhile and essentially unproblematic event. How wrong I was! Soon, I was informed that the publication of the interview was proving to be ‘controversial’ for the editorial staff and that to prevent any impression of approval, the editor-in-chief, Mary Fitzgerald, would write a kind of blog comment preceding the interview, which would warn readers to be on guard, somewhat like TV advertisements for prescription drugs in America that are required to warn listeners of possible dire side effects. 

Nevertheless, I was quite unprepared for the hostile framing of the interview that then ensued. Mary Fitzgerald’s introductory comment warning readers to beware of the toxic opinions to follow was just the official disclaimer. No less than eight unfriendly responses of essay length had been solicited, apparently to ensure that the anti-AKP readership would feel suitably over-represented! 

Without an apparent editorial doubt in evidence, despite taking the opportunity to trumpet openDemocracy’s signature ‘pluralism,’ not a single author sympathetic to Davutoglu or the contributions of the AKP leadership to Turkey’s wellbeing during its 12 years of governance, reaffirmed in no less than eight democratic elections, was invited to contribute. And the prefatory remarks that I had submitted and that I expected to precede the interview to provide context were not published. 

It might have been of interest to use the interview as the foundation for a debate about Turkey’s political development, and prospects, but this would have required two supervisory roles by openDemocracy—attentiveness to the substance of the interview and some balance between pros and cons. 

Bill Park, alone among the respondents, does try to strike some sort of balance in assessing the accomplishments and shortcomings of the 12-plus years of AKP leadership, although he comes down rather heavily against the AKP in the end and pays no detailed attention to Davutoğlu’s views as expressed in the interview. 

Firdevs Robinson is even more fervently anti-AKP in her commentary than Park. She does make an arresting comment: “The difference between a police state and a democratic one is the accountability of its security apparatus.” She clearly intends this assertion as a further indictment of what Davutoğlu has to say, although she never directly engages with the opinions expressed in the interview. It is certainly true that Turkey’s approach to the accountability of its security forces is problematic, but does that by itself negate democracy or more frighteningly, lead us to classify Turkey as ‘a police state’? If so, there would be no democracies left in the world, and Turkey would be no different than the others. 

Surely, the quality of government cannot be reduced to this issue of accountability, no matter how important it is for the full realization of democratic potential. After the Snowden disclosures of the national and global surveillance features of the security apparatus operative, by this logic the United States would qualify as an extreme police state. Although as with Turkey there are serious problematic and anti-democratic features of the American security apparatus, fortunately it would be a wildly irresponsible exaggeration to regard the United States as a police state. 

Alexander Christie-Miller also joins the anti-AKP chorus, giving particular attention to the authoritarian style of Erdoğan, yet at least however grudgingly acknowledging that in terms of economic and political performance, the AKP did better during its period of leadership than did its inept predecessors. Semanur Karamer moves in a similar direction of criticism emphasizing Erdoğan’s ‘Putinesque paranoia’ and indicting his ‘bluntly majoritarian understanding of democracy.’ I share his view that Turkey’s regional influence and domestic stability depend to some extent on improving its human rights record at home, although other factors are equally important and not mentioned. Oguz Alyanak is more stridently negative accusing Davutoğlu of living in ‘Neverland’ without a feel for the realities of Turkish political life, dismissing the popularity of the AKP that he encountered as an illusion in ‘the eye of the beholder.’ Alyanak goes so far as to suggest that a government with such a bad record as that of the AKP has lost all credibility as “the legitimate representative of the Turkish people.” It is not clear to me as to why Alyanak’s views of AKP credibility outweigh the repeated approval given by the Turkish citizenry.

Behlül Özkan has been publishing over and over again this same contention that Davutoğlu is an adherent of a pan-Islamic ideology “whose ultimate goal is the ascendancy of Islamic groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.” Of course, such an assessment is put forward without any attention at all to address Davutoğlu’s views as expressed in the interview. It also collides with his expressed views in a range of publications and his foreign policy advocacy. It should be recalled that Davutoğlu’s chose Assad’s anti-Sunni government as the earliest and most heralded application of his ‘zero problems’ doctrine. The turn against Assad came only after the Damascus government committed numerous crimes against humanity, and after Ankara made strenuous efforts to induce the Syrian leader to act humanely in response to the opposition and agree to democratic reforms. 

Similarly in Egypt, support for the Muslim Brotherhood came in the aftermath of its electoral victory, and Ankara’s opposition to the military coup and its bloody aftermath was a position consistent with a commitment to democracy and human rights. In my private dealings as well as in his public service, Davutoğlu has consistently urged Turkey to pursue a foreign policy based on a blend of pragmatism and humane values, and it is a provocative deflection from reality to portray his worldview and behavior as pan-Islamist.

Bulent Gokay writes the most knowledgeable and challenging response to the interview, although he like the others does not engage directly with Davutoğlu’s views expressed in the interview. Somewhat strangely he puts forward the view that Turkey’s global status depends on it becoming “a stable and functioning democracy.” He adds, “[t]here is no exception to this.” China? Saudi Arabia? Russia? These may not be societies of choice from the perspective of a western educated individual, but such countries, and many others, are not democracies and yet have a global status that commands respect and exerts influence. Indeed, the history of international relations is one in which non-democratic states have been treated as geopolitical equals with democratically governed states. This was constitutionally acknowledged in the UN Charter by including the Soviet Union and China among the five permanent members of the Security Council enjoying veto power. 

Gotcha journalism 

Mary Fitzgerald summarizes her comment by describing the interview as ‘deeply problematic, sometimes enraging.” This is hardly a welcoming signal for a contributor to an online publication. In the body of her text she criticizes me for missing “a rare opportunity to challenge the assumptions of a deeply problematic state.” Elsewhere she elaborates on my failure to challenge Davutoğlu, concluding with a dismissive flourish: “[t]his is not an ‘interview’ but a conversation between a diplomat and a prime minister who are on very good terms.” Of course, I am not ‘a diplomat,’ although I was friends with Davutoğlu long before he entered politics when we were both in academic life and shared a preoccupation with international relations, especially with finding better ways to connect culture, history, and politics with what was happening in the Middle East and the world. In all these interactions, what I remember best is Davutoğlu’s opposition to efforts by the west to fill all the civilizational space of non-western peoples and his contrasting affirmation to the effect that civilizational pluralism offers the only desirable foundation for world order.

If seen as a conversation, I would be embarrassed to have played such a passive role, merely suggesting topics that struck me during the interview as opportunities for hearing what the new Turkish prime minister had to say, and avoiding the fatal attractions of ‘gotcha journalism.’ I believe the interview discloses valuable in-depth explanations of central issues of AKP policy, including its effective challenge of the previously seemingly impregnable Turkish ‘deep state’ controlled by the military and intelligence services and constraining, if not engaged in deposing, the elected leadership of the country.

I recall a conversation with Mike Wallace, famed '60 Minutes' TV journalist, the week after he returned from Tehran having done what he agreed was a disastrous interview with Ayatollah Khomeini at the height of the hostage crisis following the seizure in 1979 of the American Embassy. Wallace ventured the opinion that the interviewed failed because rather than letting Khomeini give his views on what happened, he tried repeatedly to pin him down, and got a series of useless angry responses. There is a place for aggressive interviewing, especially in relation to breaking news, or issues on which a political leader has not spoken, but aggression for aggression’s sake leads nowhere. As an example of an approach I favour, Edgar Snow obtained fascinating responses from Mao tse-Tung when he interviewed him in 1965, at a time when the world public didn’t know much about his outlook. [Snow interview described in an article published by The New Republic, Feb. 27, 1965] Again he was sharply criticised for giving a propaganda outlet to a leading Communist leader, the ideological enemy of the west at the time. In my view, such exposure to controversial views, without conditioning the audience to reject what is being said before it is even heard, is exactly what the pluralist ethos should involve, but in this instance it is the opposite of what openDemocracy chose to do.

The bigger picture

In all of this discussion of how to view Turkey it has surprised me that no one observed that a sharp shift in media treatment has accompanied two international developments: Turkey’s show of a post-Cold War independent foreign policy in the Middle East, highlighted by the 2010 Turkish initiative (jointly with Brazil) to defuse the looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme, much to the displeasure of Washington and Tel Aviv. Turkey was widely criticised in Washington for what many believed to have been a constructive move to lessen the chances of a military confrontation with Iran that could have caused a devastating regional war. The American response was a slap on Turkey’s wrist, an admonition ‘to stay in its lane’ despite the fact that the Cold War discipline was no longer operative. In effect, even though Iran was Turkey’s neighbour and a war in the region would deeply threaten Turkish national security, Ankara was instructed to be an obedient junior ally, and to leave serious diplomacy in the region in the hands of the US government.   

Secondly, the shift in Turkey’s attitude toward Israel is continuing to have adverse media consequences for how Turkey is perceived in the west. This shift was first publicly displayed by Erdoğan’s angry and hostile outburst directed at the Israeli President, Shimon Peres, during a meeting of the World Economic Forum in 2009. It reached its climax a year later when Israel launched a lethal commando attack in international waters on the Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara, that was part of a ‘freedom flotilla,’ an effort by humanitarian NGOs seeking to break the blockade of Gaza by delivering medical supplies to the entrapped civilian population. 

Prior to these two developments, there was a generally sympathetic view of the AKP leadership, with the US government in particular using its relations with Turkey to demonstrate that even after the 9/11 attacks it could have a good working relationship with a Muslim country in the region. This was especially true of the early years of the Obama presidency when there were many reports in the media of the close working relationship that had developed between the American Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, and Davutoğlu after he became foreign minister, especially in working out a joint approach of support for the anti-Assad uprising in Syria. 

It is true that after winning victory in the 2011 elections, Erdoğan in particular threw the caution and pragmatism of his earlier leadership to the winds, and provocatively gave vent to his conservative opinions on social issues and showed his hostility toward the implacable domestic adversaries that had mounted a relentless, and often unfair, attack against his leadership. It is also the case that the break with the Hizmet movement led by Fetullah Gulen added some fuel to domestic and diaspora Turkish fires of discontent. 

Yet, in my view, the real animus for this turn in perceptions was a result of international, not domestic, changes, and this is reflected in the sorts of Turkish attitudes expressed in the eight responses solicited by openDemocracy to cast a dark shadow over the interview.  With such an outlook it is an implicit consensus among the critics that since Erdoğan is the ruthless authoritarian leader of Turkey it is a waste of time to hear the views of Davutoğlu. Almost by definition Davutoğlu is a political hack or stooge. Thus endowing him with any kind of leadership status is to blur the anti-AKP campaign that is centered on ‘the Putinization of Turkey.’  

In the end, reading over the interview my main reaction is ‘why such a fuss?’ There is nothing whatsoever that is inflammatory in Davutoğlu’s responses, and revealingly, none of the critics question its substance, which makes one wonder both why some were opposed to publication and others merely voiced their more general attacks on the AKP, Erdoğan, and Davutoğlu. Most hopefully, we can all learn from this episode that it is better to listen than to cover one’s ears because there is only a single truth worth heeding. 

We should also be aware that not all fundamentalists are religious.

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