April 17, 2013 § 5 Comments
Earlier this week, Turkish pianist Fazıl Say was handed a 10 month suspended jail sentence by a Turkish court for the crime of insulting religious beliefs. Say’s sentence was based on a series of tweets he wrote a year ago quoting the famed medieval poet Omar Khayyam and voicing the belief that thieves and stupid people are always religious believers. In order to stay out of prison, Say has to avoid a relapse of his alleged crime for the next five years. Say is actually fortunate to be a famous and high profile person, as were he an ordinary Turkish citizen, he would already be serving time in prison and would not have had his sentence suspended, as the case of Abdulkerim U. – who was sentenced to six months in jail for insulting the prophet Muhammad on Facebook – vividly demonstrates. In a move that perfectly encapsulates in one short moment the essence of Prime Minister Erdoğan and what makes him both a successful and infuriating politician, he responded to reporters’ questions about Say by smiling and saying, “Do not occupy our time with such matters.” Unsurprisingly, other government officials followed Erdoğan’s lead in dismissing concerns about the verdict and even justifying it, such as EU Affairs Minister Egeman Bağış who declared the need for people to learn to respect that which is sacred to others, which will no doubt come as great consolation to, say, Turkey’s Alevi community, which is used to having its beliefs and rituals routinely mocked by the prime minister.
On the other hand, observers who are not AKP members were not quite as non-plussed as Erdoğan and his coterie of followers. CHP chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu did not pass up the opportunity to hammer away at the government and questioned whether Turkey actually has a justice system and declared that democracy in Turkey is at stake, and a variety of columnists including Yavuz Baydar and Murat Yetkin have both criticized the substance of the verdict and noted the damage to Turkey’s image abroad. Amnesty International also weighed in, calling the verdict a “flagrant violation of his [Say's] freedom of expression,” and the EU expressed its concern and called on Turkey to take care in respecting freedom of speech. As is apparent, everyone outside of the AKP is taking the Say case very seriously and recognizes it as a stain on Turkish democratic aspirations.
Everyone outside of the AKP, that is, with one notable exception. U.S. Ambassador Francis Ricciardone’s comments on the subject of Say’s sentence were that his brother David Ricciardone, a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge, remarked to him that “a very bad piano player hit the wrong key.” Yes, you read that correctly: our government’s official representative in Turkey not only declined to condemn what is clearly a gross miscarriage of justice and a blatant violation of democratic values and practice, but tacitly endorsed the court’s decision and joked about it with reporters. I suppose that the good people of Massachusetts are fortunate that Judge Ricciardone is a state judge rather than a federal judge, since his understanding of the First Amendment seems to be on par with that of my 10 month old son. Moving onto the bigger culprit here, it is inconceivable that Ambassador Ricciardone’s initial reaction is one of anything other than outrage. Yes, we don’t want to be meddling in another country’s internal affairs and we want to respect laws abroad that are different from our own, and we also want to maintain a good relationship with the Turkish government, but none of that applies here. Plenty of Turks, both individually and institutionally, are criticizing the Say verdict to the high heavens, and so this does not fall into the category of respecting another culture. This is an instance where if we have any respect for our own democratic values, we are compelled to make it crystal clear that what has taken place with regard to Say and to Abdulkerim U. and to the other hundreds of Turkish citizens who get prosecuted on similar charges is completely unacceptable in our view. Ricciardone instead has chosen to act as a lackey for the Turkish government and turn a blind eye to behavior that we routinely call out on other occasions, and it is evident to me that this is becoming a chronic problem in our relationship with Turkey.
Both publicly and privately, U.S. diplomats who are in charge of our Turkey policy talk about the country as being more democratic now than it has ever been, and while acknowledging some problems with freedom of speech, the overarching and worrisome issues are generally swept under the rug in a disturbing fashion. As I noted a year ago, the U.S. needs Turkey on a host of regional issues, and so it studiously ignores Turkish bad behavior and sticks to the party line about the strength of Turkish democracy. It is one thing, however, to pretend that a problem does not exist, and quite another to contribute to that problem worsening. I am going to assume that the U.S. will express its displeasure with Turkey over the Say verdict behind the scenes, but backing up the government in such a public way like Ricciardone did is enormously damaging irrespective of what goes on later behind closed doors. Ricciardone has been criticized in the past, including just a couple of months ago, by the Turkish government for perceived interference in Turkey’s internal affairs, and kudos to him for his previous efforts to highlight abuses of democracy by the Erdoğan government, but it appears as if his response has been to go way too far in the opposite direction in an effort to curry favor with Ankara. If that is the case, his completely out of line and inappropriate response to the Say verdict should be the impetus for him to take a major course correction immediately.
The embassy says that Ambassador Ricciardone’s quote was taken out of context; please read my follow-up post - http://ottomansandzionists.com/2013/04/18/more-on-ambassador-ricciardone-and-fazil-say/
December 11, 2012 § 3 Comments
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, it has been increasingly fashionable to declare that Kemalism – Turkey’s dominant political ideology since the founding of the republic in 1923 – is on life support. Successive governments have paid lip service to Kemalism, particularly since the military has always viewed itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalist principles and crossing Kemalist red lines has been the best way to precipitate a military coup, but the AKP is viewed as hollowing out Kemalism through its electoral dominance. Most people immediately associate Kemalism with secularism and Westernization, and whether it be the AKP’s battle to make wearing a headscarf acceptable in universities or the controversial decision to allow middle schoolers to attend imam hatip religious schools, the government certainly does not appear to feel that Kemalism should constrain its policies.
It is not just the AKP, however, that has embraced this trend. The opposition CHP, which was essentially created to translate the precepts of Kemalism into tangible policies, has also seemed to go through a post-Kemalist phase. In July, CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu defended charges that his party has moved away from Kemalism by declaring that Kemalism is a dynamic ideology and that he rejects a “traditional” interpretation of Kemalism. Kılıçdaroğlu’s elevation to CHP leader was widely viewed as heralding a new direction for the party, which has been out of power for decades, and part of this new direction was a greater focus on social liberalism and less of a focus on traditional Kemalist principles.
Kemalism, however, was always about much more than secularism, and the CHP’s current line of attack against the government demonstrates that Kemalist principles still carry some weight. Kemalism has six arrows, and the two that bear on recent events are republicanism and populism. Republicanism meant popular sovereignty, freedom, and legal equality, and stood in stark opposition to the Ottoman sultanate and caliphate. While Atatürk’s idea of republicanism was based on the French model, the pre-democratic reality of Turkish republicanism was a paternalistic dictatorship containing aspects of liberal rule. Republicanism in the Kemalist sense meant sovereignty of the people as the basis of the state rather than sovereignty of the sultan, and the idea that the state existed to further the advancement of its citizens rather than the glory of a royal dynasty. Connected to this was the idea of populism, which was the notion that the Turkish people should be mobilized in the name of social progress and modernity, but also encapsulated a sense of solidarity among disparate societal or professional groups. Unity was essential in Atatürk’s mind to building a modern state, and he believed that only through popular unity and solidarity had Turkey achieved its independence. Populism was operationalized in a way that would ensure unity among different groups and eliminate class conflict by enacting socioeconomic and educational reforms meant to achieve equality and social mobility. This tied into republicanism, since equality and unity required the rejection of the Ottoman sultanate as it privileged a ruling class above the people. It was also a response to Marxism and the concept of revolutionary class struggle, and was meant to forestall any such possibility in Turkey. Throughout the 1930s, populism was used to push off dealing with potentially disruptive social issues by repeating that there were no class or social fissures in Turkey, and among the six principles of Kemalism this was the one that gained the most widespread acceptance prior to WWII.
During the parliamentary debate yesterday over the next budget, the Kılıçdaroğlu accused Prime Minister Erdoğan of running roughshod over republican principles by trying to circumvent the Grand National Assembly’s role in budget planning. Kılıçdaroğlu claimed that Erdoğan and the AKP are trying to elevate themselves above the republic, which Erdoğan vehemently denied and said that making comparisons between Turkey’s economic performance under the AKP and Turkey’s economic performance in decades prior is intended only to demonstrate how the AKP has improved Turkey. This seems like a strange argument to be having, as there shouldn’t be a question as to whether the current government is part and parcel of the republic or not, yet it can be understood in the context of Kemalism and whether or not the AKP is adhering to its tenets. Republicanism was meant to forestall exactly the charge that Kılıçdaroğlu is hurling at the government, of placing its own glory above the good of the people and the state, and the fact that it appears to have hit a nerve with Erdoğan demonstrates just how ingrained Kemalism really is. The CHP is attempting to tar the AKP with only looking out for its own interests, and Erdoğan’s response has been that the AKP’s success is actually Turkey’s success and the republic’s success, which feeds directly into the Kemalist republican ideal. Similarly, the debate involves populism as well, since the idea of popular solidarity and unity is violated by the AKP’s claiming economic success as uniquely its own.
In a world in which Kemalism was defunct, none of this would really matter; in fact, it would be perfectly natural for a party to crow about its economic success and use it as a tool with which to hammer its opponents. The fact that Erdoğan felt the need yesterday to reiterate his commitment to the republic and that Kılıçdaroğlu was nakedly appealing to two of the six tenets of Kemalism in order to score political points demonstrates that for all of the talk about post-Kemalist Turkey, shaking off decades of Kemalist ideological hegemony is easier said than done. As much as the AKP may want to water down the secularist component of Kemalism, the rest of it is still very much intact.
October 29, 2012 § 5 Comments
Today is Republic Day (Cumhuriyet Bayramı) in Turkey, which marks the anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923. While most Americans would probably assume that Republic Day is like July 4 here and that it is a controversy-free public holiday where people gather with friends and family to celebrate, Republic Day is not quite that simple. Because Turkey’s institutions were created concurrently with Kemalism, a set of challenges arose that continue to this day, and the various controversies playing out on this year’s Republic Day illustrate how unsettled Turkey still is when it comes to the basic issue of what the purpose of the state should be and what role ideology should play.
When Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded Turkey out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire, he did so with clearly thought out ideas about how his new state should be organized and what goals it should seek to attain. Furthermore, unlike in other states where an ideology may be adopted after the institutions of the state are already in place, Atatürk built Turkey’s political and social institutions at the same time that he was installing Kemalism as the state’s official ideology. This enabled him to create structures and rules that were explicitly designed to strengthen and enable Kemalism, meaning that any challenge to the state would unmistakably be a challenge to Kemalism as well. Kemalism was so entrenched and well articulated that its tenets were explicitly written out and incorporated into the ruling CHP’s flag during Atatürk’s tenure so that there was no ambiguity about which theories and actions comported with Kemalism and which did not.
Since ideology was so wrapped up and intertwined with the state itself, it meant that Turkey was unable to convert first order battles over ideology into a lower grade conflict even after the initial transition to democracy after WWII. Any ideological wobble away from Kemalism precipitated a crisis, particularly given the fact that the most important and powerful state institution, the military, saw itself as the ultimate guardian of Kemalism irrespective of which party was in power. Thus, ideological conflict ensured that once ideological fights erupted into the open post-transition, the system was unable to successfully manage them. Lingering ideological issues hampered Turkey’s political development for decades, leading to a cycle of military interventions and shaky returns to civilian government.
Turkey today under Erdoğan and the AKP seems to have broken the pattern of military coups, which is certainly something to be celebrated during this year’s Republic Day. The fights over Kemalism, however, and whether the state should still be pushing a specific ideology that is linked to both secularism and statism (among other things) are very much ongoing. On a positive note, this is the first Republic Day during Abdullah Gül’s time as president that the leaders of the Turkish military are attending the official reception at the presidential palace. The reason that they had not attended in the past was because Gül’s wife Hayrünissa – along with the wives of other top government officials – wears a head scarf, and Kemalism frowned upon head scarves to the point of banning them from government buildings and universities. That top officers are going to the presidential reception this year might partially be a function of the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations intimidating the military into changing their behavior out of fear, which is not a good development, but I think that the stronger impulse at work here is an emerging realization that ideological battles need to be put aside and deemphasized in order to make Turkey the strongest and most successful state that it can be.
On the other side of the ledger on this Republic Day is the unfortunate tendency of the AKP government to view ideological challenges as existential threats that require clamping down on freedom of expression. The government banned any Republic Day gatherings at the old Grand National Assembly building, which is closely associated with Kemalism and the founders of the Republic, under the theory that they would devolve into anti-government rallies. As a result, politicians and journalists, including CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, have been sprayed with water hoses and pepper spray today while hundreds, if not thousands, of Turks have been prevented from entering Ankara. This too is a result of the lingering legacy of Kemalism, but unlike the standoff in previous years between Gül and the military, this episode is not being resolved peacefully or amicably, and instead is a reminder of the AKP’s darkening record on freedom of speech. While Republic Day rallies may very well be aimed at criticizing the current government, true democracies are able not only to absorb such criticism but to enable it. As Turks celebrate this Republic Day, they should at the same time hope that future Republic Days remind everyone what an amazing country Turkey is rather than get hung up on still-unresolved issues surrounding Turkey’s ideological legacy.
August 9, 2012 § 3 Comments
It is no secret that the Kurdish question is one of the thorniest issues to be dealt with in the new Turkish constitution. Unfortunately, the recent PKK attacks and the Turkish assault on the terrorist group are making dealing with Kurdish identity and Kurdish rights even more difficult than it would otherwise be. I have been harping for awhile now on the importance of finding a political solution in order to fully integrate Turkey’s Kurds into the Turkish polity, but since abandoning his short-lived Kurdish opening, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has seemed bent on little more than trying to eradicate the PKK militarily. This policy has been distilled to its very essence with the ongoing army operation in Şemdinli, in which the military has closed the district off entirely and is closing parts of the Şemdinli, Çukurca, Hakkari, and Yüksekova districts until October 6, all the while deploying tanks and jets against the PKK fighters holed up there. Erdoğan has displayed a zero tolerance policy toward the PKK, and relations have soured with Massoud Barzani and the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq over Barzani’s support for PKK-linked groups such as the PYD; indeed, fighting the PKK is not only looking like the sole facet of Erdoğan’s Kurdish policy, but is rapidly taking over any other foreign policy priority that Turkey has voiced over the past decade.
Erdoğan is certainly justified in adopting a zero tolerance policy when it comes to the PKK, but the underlying question that needs to be asked is how the narrow focus on the PKK is going to affect the larger Kurdish problem, and particularly how it will color Erdoğan and the AKP’s view of Kurdish rights under the new constitution. While there have been reports that the AKP is going to actually propose recognition of a separate Kurdish identity, rumors have also persisted that the AKP is making a back room deal with the nationalist MHP to circumvent the need for consensus on the constitution, and any deal with the MHP is going to keep Kurdish rights and identity suppressed. While this has all been conjecture up until this point, Tuesday revealed a preview of what might be coming down the road in the guise of a dispute over whether to convene a special parliamentary session dealing with the PKK and Şemdinli. The opposition CHP has complained about a delegation of its deputies being barred from visiting villages that have been cordoned off and of a general lack of transparency from the government about what is going on, and are now bringing things to a head by calling for an extraordinary parliamentary session to discuss what the government is up to and what its longterm plan might be. Erdoğan blew off the CHP request, but also brought up the MHP unprompted and predicted that the MHP deputies would not cooperate with the CHP on this issue either.
That the MHP would not want to spend any time debating a response other than a military one to the PKK is not at all surprising, but the explicit linking of the AKP and MHP together in the manner that Erdoğan did it is revealing. The CHP and its leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu have been more vocal lately in stridently challenging Erdoğan over a host of issues from military operations against the PKK to the government’s Syria policy, and Erdoğan has been characteristically bombastic in his responses. The increased tension between the AKP and what appears to be a newly emboldened CHP is not going to make a collaborative constitutional process particularly easy, and it’s not surprising that Erdoğan would look to the MHP to give him cover to do what he really wants to do, which is turn Turkey into a strong presidential system. In return, Erdoğan is going to continue taking the fight to the PKK, but it also means acceding to MHP demands not to recognize any type of Kurdish rights in the new constitution. The spat over whether or not to call a special session of parliament is not in itself a big deal, but Erdoğan’s invoking of the MHP and his increasing nationalistic approach to dealing with the PKK, the PYD, and even Barzani seem to foreshadow what is going to transpire once the constitutional process moves out into the open. A closer relationship with Devlet Bahçeli and the MHP means consigning Turkey’s Kurds to remain a permanent non-recognized underclass, and this is exactly what appears to be happening.
July 17, 2012 § 4 Comments
There has been a fair amount of maneuvering by Turkey’s political parties in the last couple of weeks, suggesting that the AKP is trying to determine how best to extend its dominance – or perhaps more accurately, Prime Minister Erdoğan’s dominance – while the CHP senses an opportunity to cut into AKP gains for the first time in a decade. First, there was Erdoğan’s invitation to the HAS Party (Voice of the People) to merge with the AKP. HAS was founded by Numan Kurtulmuş, who, unlike Erdoğan, stuck with former PM Necmettin Erbakan following the ban on the Fazilet Party and then eventually broke with Erbakan to form HAS. Erdoğan and Kurtulmuş both grew up within Turkish political Islam, but they had very different styles. Whereas Erdoğan was, and is, more bombastic and a lot savvier politically, seeing the opportunity in breaking with his mentor and forming the AKP as a more moderate and reformist version of an Islamic-inspired party, Kurtulmuş stuck with Erbakan a lot longer and only founded HAS in 2010 after being forced out of Saadet by more conservative elements.
There is speculation that the reason Erdoğan has now invited HAS into the fold has to do more with Kurtulmuş than with HAS itself. As he announced yesterday, Erdoğan is only going to run as AKP leader one more time, which means that he needs a way to remain as the dominant figure within his party. While everyone anticipates that the new constitution spearheaded by the AKP will transform Turkey into a presidential system and that Erdoğan will run to be Turkey’s first newly powerful president, that does not mean that his path forward is completely clear. Should Turkey’s current president, Abdullah Gül, make a bid to be PM, then Erdoğan will have a serious and credible rival standing opposite him within his own party. Gül is a popular politician, a serious thinker, and less divisive than Erdoğan, and it is unclear that a President Erdoğan would be able to dominate a Prime Minister Gül. Kurtulmuş, on the other hand, is another story. He is exactly the type of PM that a President Erdoğan would want, since he is pliable and less likely to seek to carve out an independent power base from which to challenge Erdoğan. In fact, when the HAS Party was formed, some of its members were concerned that Kurtulmuş was not tough enough and that his lack of an “authoritarian mentality” would be a weakness compared to the leaders of other parties. Should HAS merge with the AKP, and all signs so far point to this happening, look for Kurtulmuş to slowly emerge as Erdoğan’s favored candidate to replace him as PM.
The other development is with regard to the CHP, which appears to be asserting itself more and more as it sees some crucial openings with which to challenge the ruling AKP. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has announced that the CHP will intensify its efforts to become a true social democratic party which not coincidentally coincides with a growing chorus of criticism over the AKP’s sometimes authoritarian impulses and actions. More interestingly, Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech to the CHP convention today hammered the government on foreign policy as well, suggesting that the CHP sees Turkey’s approach to the world (and more specifically, its policy on Syria) as becoming a political albatross. Given the way in which Turkey’s international status has grown amidst a nearly universal glowing reputation for Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the manner in which Erdoğan has all but accused the CHP of treason for criticizing government policy on Syria, this is a bold strike on Kılıçdaroğlu’s part. It remains to be seen if it will work, but the CHP is clearly banking its chips on the notion that Turks are beginning to get fed up with the AKP on both the domestic and foreign policy fronts. Should the more direct confrontation with Erdoğan and the clearer contrast between the two leading parties goad Erdoğan into some more intemperate statements, he might make the CHP’s point that it is time for a change all by himself. No matter what happens, we are in for some interesting months ahead on the Turkish political front.
July 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
Issandr El-Amrani has a terrific post over at The Arabist on the various labels that people assign to Arab political parties, and he makes the case that there is too much inappropriate conflation between different types. For instance, he says that all non-Islamists in the recent Libyan election were dubbed as liberals, when in fact that group included many parties and that were neither economically liberal or socially liberal. Similarly, secularists and liberals are often used interchangeably, when in fact secularists might be moderate Islamists or decidedly non-liberal conservative felool. He also argues that the term Islamist is overly broad (an argument that most knowledgeable observers have made and would agree with) but dives down even deeper than the Salafi/non-Salafi divide, asserting that in Egypt one can speak of Ikhwani Islamists, Salafi Islamists, and Wasati Islamists. He has a lot more in there, and you should go read the whole thing for yourselves.
It got me thinking about Turkish politics and the labels that outsiders tend to use with regard to Turkish parties. You almost universally see the AKP referred to as Islamist, but this is wrong in many respects. To begin with, the AKP itself rejects the Islamist branding, and looking at virtually every other Islamist party in the world, it is easy to see why. The AKP does not advocate for disbanding the secular state or legislating according to the principles of sharia, and it has not made any overt moves to do so. The AKP governs not as an Islamist party, but as a secular party whose members are personally devout. The fears that many expressed upon the AKP coming to power in 2002 have not come to pass, and even if the party has led the way toward a more visibly pious or conservative Turkish society, nobody can credibly argue that it has done this through legislative government action. Compared to Arab Islamist parties, the AKP is not even in the same ballpark, and should reasonably be characterized as a socially conservative party rather than a religious one. Prime Minister Erdoğan won himself no Islamist fans in Egypt when he traveled there last fall and lectured a Muslim Brotherhood audience about the vital need for a secular state, which is a strange move for the head of a supposed Islamist party to make.
Similarly, the terms secular and liberal have not traditionally coincided in Turkish politics. The current incarnation of the CHP under Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu has tried to remake itself as a socially liberal party, but historically the CHP’s fealty was to Kemalism above all else. Atatürk and Inönü were not liberals in the sense we use the term today although they were (to turn a phrase) religiously secular and carried out socially liberal reforms that conformed with their secular vision, and the CHP and other secular parties abetted much illiberal behavior on the part of politicians and the army. Turkey’s military coups were carried out by staunch secularists, but the coups were the very apotheosis of illiberal behavior. The 1982 constitution enshrined military-imposed secularism basically at gunpoint (yes, I know that there was technically a referendum, but that was not exactly what we would call a free and fair election free from coercion), which may have enshrined principles that we associate with liberal governance but was certainly not a liberal document. The nationalist party, the MHP, is also a secular nationalist party that is not a liberal one, and thus the secular-liberal fusion that we are used to in the West does not apply to Turkey quite so neatly.
None of these ideas are new, but they bear repeating. It is considered common knowledge in most of the world, and even within some quarters in Turkey, that the AKP is Islamist, which is what drives much of the talk about applying the “Turkish model” to Arab states where Islamist parties are strong. It is also assumed that any secular parties in government will automatically be less authoritarian and more committed to liberal democracy than the AKP appears to be at times. Both of these assumptions are fallacies, and those of us who work on Turkey might want to take El-Amrani’s words to heart and be a lot more careful about the terms we use and what those terms imply when we discuss Turkish politics.
July 2, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Following a report in the Wall Street Journal on Saturday that the Turkish jet shot down by Syria was in Syrian airspace and that it was brought down by an anti-aircraft gun with a limited range of only 1 1/2 miles, Prime Minister Erdoğan went on the warpath yesterday, denying the WSJ report and blasting the opposition and the media at large. According to both Erdoğan and the Turkish military, the Turkish F4 Phantom was 13 miles off the Syrian coast and brought down by a surface to air missile. From a foreign policy perspective it isn’t going to matter whether the plane is dredged up in international waters or Syrian waters, or whether it has small anti-aircraft gun perforations in its side or a gaping missile hole when/if it is found. I don’t tend to believe any claims made by Syria, and that goes double for Syrian claims supported by their friends the Russians, but none of this really makes any difference because Turkey isn’t going to war with Syria. The reason it matters where the plane was shot down is because it has the potential to rattle Turkish domestic politics and harm the AKP if Erdoğan’s claims turn out not be true.
Even by Erdoğan’s standards, Sunday’s performance was a doozy. Like he did in May over the WSJ’s Uludere report, Erdoğan once again claimed that the paper was printing lies in order to influence the U.S. presidential election and went after Turkish media outlets for accepting a foreign paper’s word over that of the Turkish military and Turkish Foreign Ministry. Newspapers that translated or relayed the WSJ report were deemed to be “following the path of the cowardly” and the PM attacked CHP opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as standing “shoulder to shoulder with Israel’s values and the Baath regime” for not being supportive enough of the official government position (never mind that last week Kılıçdaroğlu was being criticized by members of his own party for being too supportive of the government). As usual, Erdoğan brought all the subtlety of a jackhammer to his fight with the opposition and the media.
The problem is that by doing so, Erdoğan has really raised the stakes in a situation that could very well backfire on him in a bad way. When he has savaged the opposition or the media in the past, it has not been over the reporting of facts that might turn out the other way. In this case, Erdoğan is banking on his version of events being the right one, and given the ambiguity that exists and the fact that the plane hasn’t yet been found, he might be dead wrong without even knowing it. I don’t think that Erdoğan is in any way lying since I am sure he believes the facts as he laid them out, but there is enough evidence out there – between the WSJ report, eyewitness accounts of the Turkish plane flying at low altitude, and the fact that it was a surveillance plane and was acknowledged even by Turkey to have been flying in Syrian airspace at some point – to suggest that the plane may have been brought down in Syrian territory. If this turns out to be true and Erdoğan is wrong, then his credibility will be damaged in a big way, and it will be tougher for him to cow the media and the opposition going forward by using his well worn scorched earth rhetorical tactics. The next time he accuses Kılıçdaroğlu or any other opposition leader of being an Israeli or Syrian stooge, it will be a lot easier to shake off.
This also highlights the problem that exists when the government is perceived to be less than always truthful and has a reputation for anti-democratic behavior when it comes to the media. Thundering that the press should just trust the Foreign Ministry’s account and ignore any outside reports or evidence to the contrary does not exactly inspire confidence that you are telling the truth, or even that you are interested in it. The Turkish media has been engaging in a lot of self-censorship, and part of Erdoğan’s strategy is to intimidate them to continue to do so. If his claims turn out to be wrong in this case, it will be harder for the media to keep their mouths shut in the future, which will either lead to more open challenging of the official government story line or even more blatant anti-democratic behavior of the type outlined here. Either way, it’s not good for Erdoğan and the AKP, and so yesterday’s performance actually raised the stakes and increased the pressure on the government for the plane to be found where Ankara says it should be and with damage that could only be done by a missile. If not, Erdoğan has dug himself a hole from which he may find it difficult to climb out.
May 9, 2012 § 3 Comments
PM Erdoğan caused a stir the other day by giving two speeches in which he called for “one state, one flag, one religion,” which is of course a phrase that does not give comfort to Turkey’s different groups of religious minorities. Hüseyn Çelik and Erdoğan himself both chalked it up as a slip of the tongue, and Erdoğan even called the criticism of him following the remark justified and urged people not to read anything into it, but it is curious that he said it on two separate occasions before two separate audiences. The opposition is going to try to leverage Erdoğan’s comments to raise concerns about his intentions, and the optic of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu meeting with the heads of Turkey’s non-Muslim religious communities yesterday is bound to keep the story alive for a little longer.
I think it likely that it was a mistake and that a big deal should not be made of it, but it does raise the question of how the new constitution is going to deal with religious minorities in Turkey. It is one of the thornier issues that faces the commission charged with drafting the document, although it is also ironically in some ways one of the least pressing given Turkey’s enormous Muslim majority. The original Turkish constitution made no mention of religious minorities at all in an effort to create a new Turkish identity that would subsume all else, and while the AKP has fought for Muslim majority rights when it comes to things like headscarves, it has a more mixed record on religious minority property rights. Erdoğan’s blatant attempt to diminish Kılıçdaroğlu during the last election campaign by constantly bringing up his status as an Alevi was also not an encouraging sign.
There are three basic possibilities. The new constitution might skirt the issue of religion entirely, it might specifically guarantee religious minority rights, or it might enshrine Islam as the sole official religion of Turkey. Certainly Erdoğan’s comments increase fears that this last option is being considered, but I think it to be highly unlikely. The second option has its pitfalls as well though since it touches upon the issue of enumerated rights vs. unenumerated rights; in other words, can we assume that if a specific right is left out that it was done so on purpose and therefore is not meant to exist, or do we assume that any list of rights provided for in the constitution is not an exhaustive list? If rights are specifically provided for, does that mean that only those rights exist and no others? U.S. constitutional law has run into this problem since ratification, and it might be even thornier in Turkey given that Turkish official recognition of only three minority religions – Greek Orthodoxy, Armenian Apostolic Christianity, and Judaism – has historically led to real problems for Alevis, Shia, and others. Whatever ends up happening, it bears close watching even though it does not have the potential to lead to a complete breakdown of the constitutional process like the issues of a presidential vs. parliamentary system or Turkish identity.