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Urgent letter to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

“You are in the best position to save your country, as was your great enemy in Syria.  Is the lesson of his misrule playing no part in your current thinking?”  

Wayne Thaxsted
14 September 2015
Mohamed Kaouche/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Mohamed Kaouche/Demotix. All rights reserved.Dear Mr. President,

In these difficult and dangerous days for Turkey, the role of head of state is the most difficult and loneliest of all.  Surrounded by people with all manner of advice to offer, in the end you have to make or endorse the key decisions, and you can probably do without another voice – let along a foreign one - muddying the waters. 

Nevertheless I would like you to hear mine.  As a British citizen with a Turkish wife I have followed your career with interest but also, in the last few years, with increasing concern.  As mayor of Istanbul you made much-needed changes to a shamefully neglected great city, and its modern transportation system and clean air are now a fitting testament to your efforts as mayor; Turkey’s continuing economic dynamism under your prime ministership is something of which you can be justly proud.  

In some areas, as is only natural, you have been less successful.  Cultural and education policy is one, where your religious commitments seem to have prevailed over the more pragmatic considerations you might have brought to bear on them, and where large sums of public money have been spent on mosque building and the promotion of Imam Hatip Schools while secular schools and excellent state theatres are run into the ground.  The result has been cultural division rather than diversity or plurality, brought to the surface by the Gezi Park protests in June 2013.  Still, those who feel they are getting a raw deal from your cultural policy are resourceful and they will continue to find a way around the barriers you would put in their place. 

However, it is in foreign policy that you have failed most clearly, and this is now having an impact on your approach to domestic security.  The result is that Turkey, the country that you love and which I have grown to love, stands on the brink of disaster.  If that disaster occurs it will not be all your fault by any means – the external pressures alone have been immense - but as the most powerful man in the country you are in the best position to save it, as was your great enemy Bashar al Assad in Syria.  Is the lesson of his misrule playing no part in your current thinking? 

In order to avert disaster you will need to display all of your renowned energy but above all to discover in yourself the qualities of statesmanship that the current situation demands. Rumour has it that your illness is slowing you down and it does appear that way, but there is nothing I can do about that.  As to the question of statesmanship, I can only try.  

 ***

The problems of modern political leadership are as old as politics itself and so I could just tell you to read Plato, Cicero, Machiavelli, Burke and Weber, but there is hardly the time.  The latter’s pessimism would not be to your taste anyway; after all, you are a solutions man, and he once said that the difference between scientific and political problems was that political problems have no solution. 

He did though make an important distinction you would do well to heed between two attitudes the political leader can take: he spoke of an ethic of conviction and an ethic of responsibility.  If you follow the former you will decide what to do on the basis of what you believe and go ahead regardless; if you follow the latter you will still believe things with passion but, realising that others have their own passions that are different from yours but just as genuine, you will think about the possible consequences of your actions before you act.  You need an ethic of responsibility now more than ever, and to stop acting on the basis of an ethic of conviction.   

***

For however much you believe in the ideals of the Muslim Brotherhood, or in the Sunni version of Islam, however much you dislike alcohol, not every Turkish citizen is Sunni or even religious, and not every Turkish citizen dislikes alcohol. And not all Turkish citizens are ethnically Turkish.  You know this of course and in the past you have made better efforts than the Kemalists ever did to improve Turkish-Kurdish relations.  But now you are in danger of forgetting what Edmund Burke said about political representation: that once a politician is elected to parliament, his duty is to serve all his constituents equally, those who voted for him and those who did not.  He believed that in this way the politician, and especially the political leader, would be free from the often negative influence of particular groups of people, especially that of his own supporters, and so best be able to make independent and wise judgments about the good of the country as a whole.  

You will doubtless reply that that is what you are doing at present, that you would like to unite the country against a small but powerful group of terrorists.   Sadly, that is not the way it comes across to me or to many others. Instead, your public statements seem designed to divide rather than to unite, and you seem to be speaking not to the nation as a whole, but to your most enthusiastic supporters.  The language of ‘brotherhood’ is particularly unfortunate in this respect, because it implies a degree of intimacy where there is none and where it would be better that none were required: do I have to be your ‘brother’ to be your fellow citizen and obey the same laws?  

What is worse, in response to the result of an election that you hoped that one particular party would win – itself a curious attitude for a head of state with limited executive powers - you have made every effort to obstruct the formation of a coalition government.  Indeed, you have openly expressed the view that an overwhelming parliamentary majority for one party, and for the ideas of the people who vote for it and only for those ideas, would be best for the country.  And you have done this in the face of a possible alternative scenario, one that might have been a model for a new politics in Turkey, one of compromise and give and take rather than macho posturing.  The party that appeared best to present something of that alternative was of course the HDP, nominally a pro-Kurdish party, but attracting support from a rather varied electorate.

***

And now, in the face of a renewed campaign of violence by the PKK, instead of focusing all your efforts on ways of defeating and isolating the PKK, you seek to make a connection between this terrorist organization and a political party that gained 13% of the vote in a free election.  The result, the direct consequence, of your statements, has been plain to see: all over the country on the night of September 7, the offices of the HDP, a legitimate political party committed to peace and social justice, which precisely because it explicitly rejected the PKK gained 6.5 million votes, were attacked by groups of nationalist hooligans, while the police, whose duty in any civilized society is to protect all citizens and all their property, stood by and allowed it to happen.  

Kurdish people who have never hurt anyone in their lives but want the same things as any other Turkish citizen, indeed whose sons and brothers are serving in the Turkish army, have been harassed, beaten up and in some cases killed.  The result is a dangerous polarization, an increase of tensions, and the real possibility that people in Kurdish areas, but not just there, will seek to protect themselves with weapons because the police will not do so.  Why you spend so much time talking about banning alcohol when the average Turk consumes 1.5 litres of it per year is a mystery to me.  Why not talk about guns and their ready availability in shops all over the country?  Are guns less dangerous than alcohol? 

You could have said something about these attacks, encouraged your fellow citizens at this difficult time to come together and not hate one another, but you didn’t.  At the time of the Suruc massacre, too, you could have cut short your visit to Cyprus and expressed sympathy for the victims, people who may have been politically naïve and may indeed have hated you, but who were your fellow citizens and who had gathered together to help people less fortunate than themselves.  You could have declared a day of national mourning for them, for young lives cut short.  You would have impressed everyone in Turkey and abroad with your magnanimity and decency.  But you didn’t, even though you had declared three days of national mourning earlier in the year for the King of Saudi Arabia, whose hardline Islamic regime includes beheading as part of its criminal justice system. 

***

And now we have the spectacle of a city under curfew, cut off from the rest of the world, with the government having relinquished civilian control over the security forces and left them to act in whatever way they see fit, foreign journalists deported merely for seeking to report as objectively as they can, and a seventeen year old boy sentenced to 11 months in prison for ‘insulting the President’.  You may not be aware of this – your previous statements about the way other countries conduct themselves suggest that you are not – but what you call insults, as well as gross caricature, are part and parcel of flourishing democracies around the world, and political leaders like David Cameron or Barack Obama see them as a relatively minor occupational hazard, but in no way a threat to their authority.  Why they do so and why you cannot one can only speculate. 

It might be because they have thicker skins, but it might be because they have learned something that Machiavelli taught when he praised those politicians of old who were able to place the preservation of the republic above the salvation of their souls.  That, precisely, is your task now.  If you fail, you will have the blood of more than a few terrorists on your hands.  Think hard, and act wisely, before it is too late.

Charles Turner

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