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Reflections on responses to the Falk-Davutoglu interview

Turkey’s democratic future is dependent on a government and political opposition that foster national unity and a pluralist political culture and values of power sharing.

John Esposito
19 February 2015
Funeral of Necmettin Erbakan.

Funeral of Necmettin Erbakan. Myrat/Wikcommons. Some rights reserved.I appreciate the invitation by openDemocracy to submit my reflections on the Richard Falk interview and the responses that followed. Let me begin by saying that I am not a specialist on Turkey. That said, I have been going to Turkey since 1971, lectured, participated in conferences by a diverse group of organizations, co-authored and co-edited books and articles, and most recently co-authored the book, Islam and Democracy after the Arab Spring, in which Turkey is substantially covered, in press with OUP.

Given openDemocracy’s reputation and the quality of many of its published pieces, I must say I was initially surprised at what, with a few notable exceptions, looked like an orchestrated pile-on response to Richard Falk’s interview with Prime Minister Davutoglu.

Despite the fact that openDemocracy and its editor made clear the nature of the article, “an interview Richard Falk conducted with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmed Davutoglu on September 28 2014, a good number of the critics ignore the genre and intent of the interview-article. Instead, some seize the platform to criticize the interviewer, focusing more on Falk rather than analyzing and critiquing Davatoglu’s statements.

Moreover, instead of a robust and diverse set of informed analyses, the discourse and criticism too often seem driven by an anti-AKP stance at any cost. A selective amnesia overlooks or downplays the decades of military-secular elite dominance of and intervention in Turkish politics, and limitation and even suppression of alternative political parties and freedoms in the name of a Turkish brand of secularism and the astonishing accomplishments of the AKP.

As I read many of the submissions, I was reminded of dinner parties, public lectures, discussions and conferences during the pre-AKP period.  On those occasions if and when Islam, the headscarf, Islam and democracy or an Islamic political party were introduced, otherwise well-educated, rational and congenial participants became visibly alarmed and dismissive. Those who saw themselves as champions of secularism, enlightenment rationality, and democracy embraced what sounded like a “secular fundamentalism” a monolithic, essentialist, “normative” ideological worldview that was dismissive of religions as necessarily backward, irrational, pre-enlightenment and dangerous and a threat to the society and therefore had no (or at most a very circumscribed place) in the public square.

This outlook was tested and epitomized by the extent to which the election of Necmettin Erbakan and the Welfare Party's brief government proved to be a lightening rod for militant secularists, contributing to the increased polarization of society, a legacy that would impact the AKP. As in Algeria, the secularist establishment was willing to compromise Turkey's commitment to democracy to prevent Islamists from participating in politics and society and to preserve their power, privilege, and lifestyle rather than allow voters to choose through free and open elections.

Turkey's military has had a long history of influence and intervention in domestic politics, seizing power: in 1960-1961, 1971-1973, and 1980-1983. Staunch secularists (some might say militant secularists) have consistently espoused the role of defenders of Kemalism in their political interventions. The military’s allergic reaction to any form of religion in public life, is symbolized in its opposition to the right of female students to wear a headscarf (hijab) and to any form of Islamic political activism and participation.

Erbakan and the Welfare Party had to contend with increased pressure from the military, no confidence votes in parliament, and in May 1997 a petition to the Constitutional Court by Turkey's chief prosecutor to ban the WP for violating the Turkish constitution's articles on secularism and pushing the country towards a probable civil war. Erbakan submitted his resignation on June 18, 1997. On February 28, 1998, Turkey's Constitutional Court issued a court order, which banned Welfare. Erbakan was expelled from Parliament and barred from participation in the political process for five years. Welfare’s assets were seized. He and a number of other leaders were tried for sedition.

Serif Mardin's comparison of this Kemalist attitude to Voltaire's hatred of the Church goes a long way toward understanding the source and living legacy of militant secularism in Turkey. That militant secularism would again be tested.

The AKP’s rapid rise to power, and its stunning success in 2002, demonstrated the ability of former members of an Islamist party (WP) to learn from experience and establish a more diverse and inclusive political party whose economic and social platform and policies rather than Islamic political agenda attracted widespread support. However, a “selective amnesia” informs the lack of recognition of the consistent victories of AKP electoral victories, years of a booming economy, infrastructure development, not only in major urban but more importantly in towns and villages, the civilianizing of the government (curbing the intrusion of the military, and Turkey’s emergence as a major regional and international player.

More balanced and nuanced analyses would have provided the necessary background and brought into sharp relief the issues, criticisms and controversy in recent years regarding some of Prime Minister and now President Recep Erdogan’s policies and actions. Despite the AKP’s many accomplishments, there is a tendency to overreact to public criticism when faced with a significant challenge to their policies or actions – for example, the government’s mishandling of the Gezi Park protest demonstrations in 2013, charges of government corruption, allegations of attempts to limit or contain media, imprison journalists or political dissidents, and the public fallout between Erdogan and Fetullah Gulen and its repercussions on the Hizmet movement.

Whatever its missteps or failures, the AKP’s track record of accomplishments and success domestically and internationally dwarfs that of previous secular-military-elite governments. Turkey’s democratic future is dependent on a government and political opposition that foster national unity and a pluralist political culture and values of power sharing, preserving a meaningful system of checks and balances, strengthening institutional safeguards of checks and balances and freedoms that enable public protest and avenues to express their discontent without fear of suppression of their rights.

Long-established secular political parties and elites, who have proven remarkably incapable of mounting a successful electoral opposition, are challenged to demonstrate that they accept the role of a “loyal opposition” rather than appear to play the role of sore losers, who relentlessly and stridently demonize a government that has for twelve years been democratically elected. They offer the citizenry of Turkey nothing by way of an alternative vision of governance

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