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The Ayatollah's second coming: critical reflections on a 'non-interview'

Richard Falk's laudatory tone towards Turkish Prime Minister Davutoğlu and the ruling AKP raises troubling questions that have been asked before.

This article is a response to a conversation between Richard Falk and Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which took place on 28th September–see part 1part 2part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so here, along with the many other responses to Davutoğlu published in this series, listed to the right under 'Related Articles'.

Falk's interview draws uncomfortable parallels to his former relationship with Ayatollah Khomeini. Flickr/Neil Hester. Some rights reserved. 

My immediate reaction to what the editors of openDemocracy referred to as an exclusive “interview” with Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Prime Minister of Turkey, by Richard Falk, was utter shock, even disbelief. The Richard Falk that I knew could not possibly be assuming the role of a lobbyist or an “embedded academic” with the AKP regime, lending a helping hand to an embattled government to churn out sheer propaganda. After all, this would have contradicted the very principles and democratic values he has been defending for half a century. Surely, there must have been another Richard Falk. 

So I googled…to my dismay, I found out that there is only one Richard Falk, Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law and Practice, Emeritus at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara; the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967; the “left-leaning” academic and activist; a prominent member of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.

So I googled more…and I read. His blogs, his columns, his interviews. It is then, and only in the context of his earlier controversial political engagements, that it all started to make sense. Not only was Falk a long-time admirer of Prime Minister Davutoğlu, whose “thoughtfulness about policymaking combined with his personal integrity and decency…make him a rarity among politicians”, but also an avid believer in what is emphatically called “New Turkey’s” potential “to carry a bright torch of hope into the future if it can restore political stability, sustain economic growth, engage with the more democratic trends in the region”.

One would thus expect Falk to raise these issues in this exclusive interview, and press Davutoğlu on the growing democracy deficit, which has led many to express concerns about the authoritarian tendencies of the government he leads, even as a “supporting actor”. Instead, Falk opts for the role of facilitator, or a self-appointed notary, nodding as the prime minister preaches. 

“One of the real achievements of the AKP period of governance has been to produce civilian control over the armed forces and remove the prospect of a military coup from the political arena,” Falk tells us, only wondering whether this is an irreversible process. It does not occur to him to ask the prime minister how could we talk about the “civilianization of politics”–let alone its irreversibility–in the absence of institutional arrangements which bring the military under civilian control and when all the major instruments of military tutelage such as the Higher Education Council or the notorious National Security Council are left intact.

Falk would probably be surprised to hear that the AKP government held the longest National Security Council meeting in republican history (10 hours 20 minutes) on 30 October 2014, prompting the Turkish Armed Forces to list the Gülen/Hizmet movement led by the Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen as a national security threat? Why is the prime minister spared a question about the curious immunity from prosecution of the former Chief of General Staff Yaşar Büyükanıt who has drafted the 27 April 2007 memorandum (the infamous “e-coup”) against the AKP, or the recent release of army officers who have been accused of plotting against the regime in the Ergenekon and Balyoz trials from prison?

The answer to the above questions becomes clear as we continue reading the interview. 'It's the parallel state, stupid!' seems to be Falk’s take on AKP’s delayed yet inevitable “revolution” (note how Falk adopts–as befits a critical academic(!)–the AKP language to describe the Gülen movement). “Is there another country in which a self-anointed and invisible group within the bureaucracy overrides the elected government in this manner?” Falk asks in a follow-up question, pointing to the similarities between the 'deep state' (i.e. the military) and the 'parallel state' (i.e. the Gülen community) bent on overthrowing a democratically elected government. 

Not suprisingly, Falk never mentions the longstanding complicity between the AKP government and the Gülen community when it comes to “crimes against democracy”. Nor does he refer to the then prime minister Erdoğan’s open endorsement of this complicity in November 2013, when he frustratingly remarked, “We gave them everything they wanted.”

Falk makes much of the virtues of 'New Turkey', at times acting more like an interpreter of Davutoğlu’s ideas than an interviewer. Alluding to one of Davutoğlu’s speeches in parliament, where he used the language of “restoration” to describe 'New Turkey', Falk puts words into the prime minister’s mouth, claiming that “‘restore’ seems to imply in English that you are going back to something ‘old’, which is clearly not your intention, and that what you are proposing seems closer to ‘revive’” (emphasis mine). 

Davutoğlu does not miss the opportunity and embarks on an exegesis of the concepts of “general will” and “national will”, only to confirm AKP’s majoritarian understanding of democracy which reduces it to the ballot box. “If we were not successful in democratization to extend their freedoms, including freedom of press, freedom of speaking different languages, they (the people) would not have supported us over and over again,” Davutoğlu concludes, with the confidence of a tennis player training with a ball machine.

We no longer expect, at this stage, any questions on the Gezi protests; the corruption charges of 17 and 25 December 2013; the massive purges in state bureaucracy, the judiciary and the police force allegedly to cover the charges (in the name of the fight against the 'parallel state'); the recent bans on Twitter and other social media outlets; the rapidly deteriorating freedom of the press; the new security bill that gives sweeping powers to the police, including the use of firearms against demonstrators, the right to detain/arrest people without court order on the basis of “reasonable suspicion”, the restriction of lawyers’ access to their clients’ case files and so on, not to mention the serious foreign policy blunders that even Falk finds hard to deny.

No doubt, had he been asked, the prime minister would have dismissed these questions as falsehoods, distortions or the ploy of the old guard determined to remove AKP from power. Falk does not seem to be bothered by any of the above-mentioned issues either. Elsewhere, he explains the increasingly hostile attitude of international media away by pointing to Turkey’s falling-out with Israel and the United States. What is more, he believes that “the reality in Turkey”, as he has experienced it, “is one of widespread and harsh criticism of Erdoğan from many angles, not the slightest evidence of media intimidation or alleged self-censorship, and a greatly exaggerated contention that the voices of censure have been silenced by imprisonment. There are many journalists imprisoned, to be sure, but apparently less for their views than for their alleged involvement in anti-government activities” (emphasis mine).

What are we then to make of the fact that Turkey ranks 134th among 197 countries according to Freedom House, and 154th among 180 countries according to Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index? How could we explain the Committee to Protect Journalists’ prison census, which shows that Turkey jailed more journalists than any other country in the world two years in a row in 2012 and 2013 (holding more journalists in custody than Iran, China or Eritrea?) How do we make sense of the fact that Turkey occupies the 64th place among 175 countries according to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Index? What about the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index, which puts Turkey in the 88th place among 142 countries in terms of judicial independence, and 59th place among 144 countries in terms of corruption?

Maybe Falk believes that all these figures are part of a master plan to bring down the AKP. Perhaps we are all clowns in an “anti-Erdogan hate fest”, obsessed with overthrowing a functioning government. In any case, almost all the ills with which the current regime has come to be associated are a remnant of the past injustices, if not international lobbies or their “parallel” collaborators. Even gender inequality, or in Falk’s “ingenious” words, “the failure to use woman creatively and productively (is) partly a result of discrimination in the past before the AKP came to power” (emphasis mine). Yet according to the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, Turkey slipped 15 places between 2006 and 2013, i.e. when the AKP was in power, from 105th to 120th place among 136 countries. “The role of women is increasing during our period of leadership,” says Davutoğlu in response to Falk’s non-question.

Yet in a speech he delivered on 4 December 2014 on the occasion of the 80th anniversary of the adoption of universal suffrage by Turkey, Davutoğlu asked rhetorically, “Why is the Gross National Product in most developed countries–I don’t want to name it but in Scandinavian countries and in many other countries–at the highest level, while the suicide rate is also at the highest level? Why?” His answer was the system of “mechanical gender equality” which destroyed “the complementary relationship in life”. “That’s why”, Davutoğlu continued, “since our women are fulfilling that divine mission of keeping humanity alive, then they have the right to rest before and after becoming a mother and spare time for their children”. 

Nothing could encapsulate the “bright torch of hope into the future” that is “New Turkey” better. Falk’s exclusive “non-interview” bears an eerie resemblance to the controversial op-ed on Ayatollah Khomeini he wrote for New York Times in 1979. “The depiction of (Khomeini) as fanatical, reactionary and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false” quipped Falk back in the days, calling the revolution “Islam’s finest hour”. “Having created a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics”, he argued, “Iran may yet provide us with a desperately-needed model of humane governance for a third-world country”.

That history has proven him wrong does not seem to have extinguished Falk’s hopes for “a new progressive political model” which he seems to have found in AKP’s “New Turkey”. Perhaps Davutoğlu represents the Ayatollah’s second coming – this time, only wiser. With hindsight, Falk concedes that he could have been “more suspicious of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic dimensions of the revolution”. But, he adds, “it was not clear at the time, because the leading religious figures in Iran were articulating a vision of a just future for Iran even if the future made it clear that their preference was for some kind of theocracy”.

Falk may not have discerned the preferences of the AKP regime yet. In any case, if he is proven wrong, all it takes is to write yet another blog post explaining why it turned out badly. The many victims of “New Turkey”–from the 11 people killed in Gezi protests and their grieving families to the hundreds of miners buried alive in Soma and Ermenek, from the 34 Kurdish civilians bombed by Turkish F16s in Roboski to the murdered Armenian journalist Hrant Dink–have not had the luxury to wait for the dystopia to fully unfold however…for, unlike Falk, they have sadly lost much more than their reputation.

[Disclaimer: As I have pointed out to the editors, I strongly believe that publishing this propagandistic piece contradicts the core values openDemocracy purports to champion. I have agreed to write this critical rejoinder only to expose the flaws in and disinformation spread through this so-called interview, not to bestow legitimacy on what I believe to be a fundamentally wrong editorial decision.]

About the author

Umut Ozkirimli is Professor of Political Science at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES), Lund University. He is also a Visiting Professor at The Middle East Centre (MEC), London School of Economics and The Centre for Advanced International Theory (CAIT), University of Sussex. His most recent book, the 3rd edition of Theories of Nationalism: A Critical Introduction, is published in March 2017. He is currently working on a monograph entitled Models Unveiled: Sweden and Turkey as Local Instantiations of a Global Crisis (co-authored with H. Berggren, S. A. Sofos and L. Trägårdh).

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