A tale of two Turkeys

It was a relief to hear that others were also bothered by the divergence between the realities of Turkey and the ways they are talked about outside the country. Amnesty International, for example, in its Annual Report 2012 has outlined an expansive record of Turkey’s failures.

Oguz Alyanak
20 June 2012

No one could have exited the grand auditorium where the Turkish Foreign Minister had given a lecture at the University of Chicago on 22 May 2012 without believing that Turkey was an ardent advocate of democracy, human rights and human dignity. Unless that is, they had received an inkling of the fact that only a few months back, the air forces of this model of democracy for the Middle East and the Arab world, had set about bombing its own citizens in Roboski/Uludere - Turkey, killing 34 of them—an act that still awaits a verbal apology from the Turkish Prime Minister. To me, this act was enough to make me question, once again, whether I had become permanently alien to the culture in which I was born and raised, such was the immense disparity between the words that I deploy to make this world meaningful, and the words used by politicians to describe the world that they rule over.

My discomfort over such schizophrenic depictions of Turkey seems to have been shared by the author of an article published on16 May 2012 in bianet, titled, “The Fallacy of the Turkish Model”, who wrote: “Turkey is certainly a model for the Middle-East if we consider an authoritarian government, suppression of basic rights and a neoliberal economic agenda to be a good thing.” In his article, which followed the Turkish President Abdullah Gul’s visit to the Netherlands, and his “euphoric” reception by Queen Beatrix and Prime Minister Rutte, the author argued that not only was the praise for Turkey’s economic progress exaggerated, but in terms of democratic reforms (such as Turkey’s ranking on the Gender Index and its persecution of journalists and intellectuals), Turkey was definitely going backwards.

It was a relief to hear that others were also bothered by the divergence between the realities of Turkey and the ways they are talked about outside the country. Amnesty International, for example, in its Annual Report 2012 has accused Turkey of not having made the “promised legal reforms”, and outlined an expansive record of Turkey’s failures. Leading political commentators and journalists such as Ece Temelkuran and Ahmet Şik question whether Turkey is a “democracy or a state of fear”. Why, then, does the portrait of Turkey that the Turkish Foreign Minister depicts through his speech differ so vastly from mine; how can he be so optimistic when I cannot, and why am I worrying about returning one day to this country and living without the fear of being interrogated for the way I think, the things I write, and the people I talk with? In what follows, we must look further than the economic prosperity, liberalism and political stability that continues to blind many from seeing the authoritarian measures taken by political actors in Turkey. 

In his June 2010 article to The Wall Street Journal, Dani Rodrik wrote that “the same government [who between 2002 and 2007 worked hard to bring the country into the European Union, to reform its legal regime, and to relax restrictions on Kurds] has been responsible for a politics of deception, dirty tricks, fear, and intimidation that couldn't present a sharper contrast to its rhetoric on democracy.” In Rodrik’s analysis, there are two Turkeys: the first implements the necessary reforms for further democratization and the second keeps democracy in its rhetoric but forgoes its implementation. For some, this poses the further question of the Prime Minister’s approach to democracy - as a tool, and not an aim – raised for example by Matthew Kaminski’s interview with Cuneyd Zapsu, a prominent businessman and one of Prime Minister Erdogan’s closest advisors, in his 10 June 2011 commentary to The Wall Street Journal. However, the distinction between democracy as a tool and democracy as an aim cannot be easily measured, for it requires an assessment of sincerity. Moreover, democracy is much more than universal suffrage. 

Unfortunately, in modern Turkish history, the implementation of democracy has been limited to the understanding of rule of the powerful (and not necessarily the majority for up until early 2000s, the military acted as a check and balance over politics, disrupting the very balance upon which a democracy is expected to be constructed) which always came at the expense of ethnic and religious minorities. Combined with unprecedented economic growth and the subsequent rise of the new elite funding the government’s campaign, the Justice and Development Party attained a landslide victory in the latest elections, and re-coded its hegemony using its own terms to legitimize its means of governing. But aside from brief periods of “democratization” which were undertaken only to be shelved later on, Turkey had never been fully committed to a democratic agenda. There was not much of a democracy to start with and there is still not much today. 

Turkey’s Foreign Minister speaks of a delicately woven balance between security and liberties; and in doing so, sacrifices the latter for the advancement of the former. Not only does he internalize the liberal illusion in which GDP/capita growth is far more important than the sharp rise in criminalized intellectuals, but he also expects his audience to internalize such an understanding—thus forcing people into signing a social contract in which they relinquish their individual liberties for economic prosperity and protection against terrorism. 

Turkey: the picture of success 

The Foreign Minister insists that Turkey has become more welcoming in approaching differences—which he nuances as Turkey’s characteristic of “inclusiveness”. Turkey has invented new ways of creating communicative channels with different peoples and cultures both in Turkey and in its neighbourhood, he maintains, thus increasing its regional reach and providing it with new opportunities to be more influential in decisions taken towards the future of the region.

Leaving its marginally nationalistic focus (that Turkey, as the cradle of civilizations, serves the global role of a facilitator) aside, Foreign Minister Davutoglu’s policy of “Zero Problems with Neighbours” was indeed not only new, but also promising. By reorienting Turkey’s focus to those areas (Middle East and North Africa) that have previously been neglected by Turkish foreign policy, Davutoglu gave Turkey a chance to offer the region (and the world) an added value in terms of cooperation and stability. Turkey, as a country of the region, could play the role of a facilitator in constructing multilateral dialogue on Iran’s nuclear ambitions or Israel’s hostility with Palestine. For some Turkey, the “envy of the Arab world” using Hugh Pope’s words, as a “Muslim democracy” could even play the role of a model for the region. An early 2011 Economist article called Prime Minister Erdogan “hero of the Arab street” while TIME Magazine, bringing the “ideal Islamist” Prime Minister to its cover on its 28 November 2011 edition, wrote: “In countries where young people have risen against old tyrannies, many cite Erdogan as the kind of leader they would like to have instead.” Erdogan, in other words, was the antithesis to the corrupt dictators of the Middle East. 

So this is what we must call the image of a successful Turkey. But this depiction does not include a single backlash effect that Turkey faces in managing its internal affairs, or its shortcomings in its relations with other countries. It does not, for example, mention abuses in human rights, the censuring of internationally acclaimed books and the trials of prize-winning novelists and journalists. It does not mention Turkey’s lukewarm relations with Israel or problematize why the Prime Minister accepted a human rights award from Libya when its ruler, Muammar al-Gaddafi was using brutal methods for repressing the opposition. It does, however, highlight Turkey’s economic growth rate in the previous quarter, contrast it with the economic crisis the EU countries and the US are facing, nuance the country’s role in international organizations such as the NATO and the UN, and prioritize Turkey’ geopolitical advantages. 

Turkey: the picture of failure 

What this leaves out of the account is the violation of human rights, and the disproportionate use of police forces and violence to suppress dissenting voices within the population. The government’s conservative attitude with respect to public debate around the problems of the minority populations, women and youth, leads to a reluctance to deal with the public representatives of the Kurdish, Alevi, Jewish, Armenian and Greek communities, reduces all discussion to monologue, and diminishes hopes for a more profound democratization.

Surely we must denounce the suppressing of dissident voices (which comes at the expense of people killed due to police brutality, and the excessive use of pepper spray and tear gas), and restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. Students are arrested for “writing on the walls” demanding free education, academics imprisoned for alleged support of Democratic Society Congress (KCK – described as the political wing branch of PKK/Kurdistan Workers Party), protesters are arrested for organizing peaceful public demonstrations, authors are convicted of and fined for insulting Turkishness and journalists are arrested for their investigations, most of whom are found guilty on the grounds that they support a criminal organization called Ergenekon, a behemoth deemed responsible for acts of terrorism and political violence in Turkey. These are a few examples that surely question Turkey’s commitment to democracy. The verdict for the case of Hrant Dink’s murder, which served as a litmus test for the neutrality of the Turkish judiciary, also let thousands down when the teenage murderer of Hrant, Ogun Samast, was jailed for 22 years without any mention of his actions having links to organized criminal groups. 

Although these two pictures of Turkey are in stark contradiction with one another, in lectures by Turkish politicians abroad we are only introduced to the first picture. However, a closer examination of this narrative soon shows the contradictions embedded within it. While the Prime Minister accuses the international media and radical media in Turkey of running a smear campaign, his party’s description of the Uludere victims as “regrettable”, “collateral damage” reveal the limits of the very human dignity that is prioritized in the Foreign Minister’s lecture. In plain terms, lives which are sacred in discourse become replaceable and disposable in practice. Hence, if the Turkish state’s conceptualization of a citizen is that which is stripped of its very rights, all we can hope to achieve as a democracy is yet another state of emergency that grants the state unsurpassable and non-negotiable power to sacrifice its citizens, seen in terms of what Slavoj Zizek calls mere “objects of disciplinary measures”. Unfortunately, the current debate on abortion in Turkey proposing new legislation restricting abortion and “unnecessary C-sections”, exemplifies precisely this sort of government attitude – in which the state has the right to extend its disciplinary arm into the most private places of human life. 


The debate raised here is by no means limited to developments in Turkey. As Zizek argues in his 2009 article to the New Left Review, “in a way, we are all excluded, from nature as well as from our symbolic substance. Today, we are all potentially homo sacer, and the only way to avoid actually becoming so is to act preventively.” However, Turkey stands as a critical case since it experiences first hand the liberal illusion whereby the failures are continuously hidden behind Turkey’s economic achievements and the Justice and Development Party’s success in being elected for three consecutive terms. 

Do we have to wait for a Turkey that is facing an economic crisis, with hoards of unemployed people taking over the streets and asking for a revolution, as in the countries of the Arab Spring, to be able to talk about democracy and freedom? Does security and freedom have to come in mutually exclusive forms where gaining one leads to the loss of the other? In Turkey, the decision to be made is not between an illiberal democracy versus a liberal autocracy, but whether Turkey is on the verge of losing the very faintest signals of its emerging democracy. Perhaps Paul Auster, lately scolded by the Prime Minister for boycotting Turkey, has the answer: “All countries are flawed and beset by myriad problems, Mr. Prime Minister, including my United States, including your Turkey, and it is my firm conviction that in order to improve conditions in our countries, in every country, the freedom to speak and publish without censorship or the threat of imprisonment is a sacred right for all men and women.”

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