June 18, 2013 § 6 Comments
When the AKP came to power in 2002, Prime Minister Erdoğan and his party set out on an ambitious mission to remake Turkey’s economy and politics, turn Turkey into a regional power, and step up efforts to join the EU. It was a huge undertaking that was successful in some ways and unsuccessful in others. In recent days, however, the prime minister has embarked on an even greater challenge, since this time he is not content to simply remake Turkey. Instead, Erdoğan has decided to tackle a more global problem, which is redefining words whose definition seems clear in every language but which the prime minister has decided do not adequately reflect realities as he sees them.
Let’s start with the word “terrorist” which is often contested in terms of details but generally means a person who uses violence as a way of causing mass fear and intimidation. It seems relatively simple to distinguish terrorists from people who are not terrorists. For instance, Osama bin Laden is a terrorist for a number of reasons, including bringing down the World Trade Center. The folks who hang out in Franklin Square during my lunch hour are not terrorists since all they are doing is standing around. Erdoğan has apparently decided that the common definition is not good enough because it is too limiting. For him, the word terrorist must encompass all sorts of actions, such as protesting against the government, running away from police who are teargassing you, criticizing the prime minister or the cabinet or the police on Twitter, heading an opposition party, and almost certainly soon to include people who, like the folks in Franklin Square during my lunch hour, just stand around not doing much of anything at all. The new ingenious wave of protests sweeping Turkey encompasses nothing more than standing still, which began with a single man named Erdem Gündüz who spent hours standing silently in Taksim Square and has sparked hundreds of people doing the same (here are some awe-inspiring pictures of the phenomenon, and to see more go to Twitter and search #duranadam). The government claims that it will not intervene in the Duran Adam (Standing Man) protests unless there is a menace to public order, but I have little doubt that in a few days, as this spreads to more cities and grows to even greater heights, that Erdoğan will figure out a way to broaden the definition of “breaking public order” and we will all be enlightened as to how Gündüz is actually a foreign agent acting on the orders of the interest rate lobby, financial lobby, international media, social media, Communists, leftwing terrorists and anarchists, Zionists, foreign provocateurs, and how anyone who emulates him must be a foreign agent as well. And in case you are wondering, yes, he was in fact briefly detained by police for standing, a fate that also met Davide Martello’s piano after he played it for the crowds in Taksim over the weekend. It’s good to know that the piano spent a couple of days in jail, as you can never be too careful when it comes to terrorist musical instruments.
Another term that Erdoğan is having issues with is “democracy.” Just yesterday, we found out from the prime minister that the European Union has no respect for democracy despite it encompassing the largest federation of democratic states in the history of the world. By criticizing Turkey, Erdoğan says that the EU is anti-democratic, which is funny because I was under the impression that democracy had something to do with free and fair contested elections for effective power along with granting and protecting a set of liberties, but apparently democracy is henceforth to be defined as agreeing with the current Turkish government. In fact, while one might argue that the right to criticize, as the EU has done with regard to the Turkish government’s response to the protests, is actually in itself a hallmark of democratic behavior, the prime minister wants to set us straight by letting us know that in fact criticizing the Turkish government is the very definition of anti-democratic behavior. Erdoğan chided the EU for supporting those who attack the freedom of others, since he insists that the Gezi protestors are restricting his own freedom rather than the other way around. Again, I was under the impression that the entity that detains, arrests, beats, teargasses, and chemically burns civilians was the party restricting freedoms, but once again I must be mistaken. Thankfully, Erdoğan has most helpfully educated all of us by instructing the world that it is not the ones who do the detaining, arresting, beating, teargassing, and chemically burning who restrict freedom, but in reality it is the ones who are themselves detained, arrested, beaten, teargassed, and chemically burned who are restricting freedom. As always, good to know. In addition, the prime minister would like us all to be aware that the Turkish police have an “inherent right” to use as much teargas as they please, so I’m happy to see that at least one group’s rights are being zealously protected by the state. And in case you were wondering, Minister for European Affairs Egemen Bağış assures that there is absolutely no state violence in Turkey and that this is all a foreign plot. Phew! I was starting to think that maybe Turkey was having some issues with democracy.
I could go on like this for literally hours, but you get the point. When a government has to resort to the most tortured explanations, absurd rhetorical flights of fancy, and outright dishonesty and dissembling to try and convince the entire world that what it is seeing in the streets is not actually happening, then there is something rotten afoot. I still can’t tell if Erdoğan has completely lost his mind or if this is a deliberate strategy, but no matter what the answer is, the Turkish government is looking more foolish and unhinged by the hour. The government has announced that it is writing new laws to regulate the use of social media in Turkey, and as Yigal Schleifer pointed out earlier today, the irony is thick when a prime minister who was imprisoned for reciting a poem tries to imprison people for exercising their rights to free speech on Twitter and Facebook. As the government moves to arrest people without charges and hold them indefinitely while throwing around vague accusations of terrorism, coup plots, and links to leftwing anarchist groups, it is eerily reminiscent of the prosecutions of the military, which also involved allegations of shadowy conspiracies and detentions without charges. We know how that game ended, and it appears as if the government is once again pulling out the Ergenekon playbook. All the meanwhile, Erdoğan attempts to convince everyone that up is down, black is white, and freedom and democracy mean getting mauled by police for protesting. War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength. All that’s left is for Erdoğan to announce that the protestors will be dealt with by the Ministry of Love. If you can’t convince your citizens that basic terms mean something other than what everyone always thought they meant, then what’s the point of being prime minister anyway?
May 23, 2012 § 3 Comments
For anyone who spends their time thinking and writing about the Middle East, today’s big news item is the Egyptian presidential election. While I spend most of my (non-dissertation) time on Turkey and Israel these days, my original academic interest was in the Arab world and I follow it generally, and Egypt specifically, very closely. Lots has been written over the past year about the “Turkish model” and whether it is applicable to Egypt, and indeed a recent Brookings poll indicates a preference among Egyptians to emulate Turkey. There is no need for me to rehash the specific reasons that Egypt may or may not be a good place to replicate the Turkish model, since plenty of smart people who know Egypt far better than I have already done so. I would only quickly note that based on the Brookings poll, Egyptians don’t actually know how Turkey is governed, as 54% of the respondents listed Turkey as the country that best reflected their aspirations for the role of Islam in politics while 66% of Egyptians support basing their laws on sharia. Even allowing for the 83% that say sharia should be adopted to modern times, a majority of Egyptians appear to believe that Turkish law is based in some loose way on sharia, which is not the case.
Instead of getting into the weeds on Egypt, I’d like to discuss why no country, Egypt included, should be looking to replicate the Turkish model. To be clear, when I talk about the Turkish model I don’t mean the military being the arbiter of secular politics or guardian of the state, but an ostensibly Islamic party governing through secular state institutions without imposing any religious dictates. To begin with, the synthesis of Islam and democracy in Turkey has taken a very long time. The fact is that the Turkish model has only emerged in the past ten years after decades of instability, military coups, varying degrees of authoritarianism, and a complete lack of vertical accountability. 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.
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 first successful 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. That the AKP was finally able to emerge out of the ashes of the Refah Party, win multiple elections, and govern without completely dismantling the state is the culmination of a long process of ideological softening on both sides. The overarching point here is that this process took 75 years to play out, and took 50 years after Turkey’s first democratic election. Democracy does not happen overnight under the best of circumstances, and Egypt is far from being an ideal staging ground. There are many things to contend with: a strong authoritarian legacy, social cleavages, a pending economic crisis, disputes over religion and what the state should look like, just to name a few of the big ones. Aiming for a synthesis of Islamic politics and secular government is a fool’s errand in the short run, and while Egypt may be able to eventually pull it off successfully, it will be years before that happens.
Another primary reason why the Turkish model cannot be replicated is that, as Steven Cook points out in Ruling But Not Governing, Turkey adapted for a specific purpose, which was joining the EU. The EU process made future military interventions more unlikely while also forcing the state to become more democratic, but at the same time it made the non-secular AKP soften any tendencies it might have had to weaken state secularism. When joining the EU is the ultimate goal, there is zero chance of adopting any type of sharia law or religious compulsion, and while I do not fall in the camp of those who think that the AKP actually desires to do this anyway, it would never happen while the EU negotiating process is underway. Egypt, and all other majority Muslim countries, do not have this structural constraint to contend with. If the Muslim Brotherhood is in power in Egypt and decides that it wants to legislate according to religious dictates, there is no comparable outside incentive to slow that down. The Turkish model did not emerge in a vacuum, but out of a highly specific context that does not exist elsewhere.
Finally, the specific electoral rules used in Turkey contribute to a unique situation in which extremist views on the poles of political thought are kept at bay. One need only look at the op-ed on Indonesia in the New York Times yesterday to get a sense of how this works. In Indonesia, the government coalition includes a number of extremely conservative Islamist parties, which in turn leads to restrictions on religious minorities and religiously motivated violence that the state ignores. In Turkey, however, the vote threshold for parliament is 10% of the vote, which means that smaller and more extremist parties get left out. This in turn has made the AKP a big tent that includes religious conservatives, merchants, the middle class, and some of the new urban elite. Such a party cannot afford to alienate religious minorities or condone any Islamist-led violence, and thus the AKP largely keeps its religious piety confined to personal behavior and governs over a secular state. Erdoğan’s lecture to the Muslim Brotherhood on his trip to Egypt about the vital need for secular governance was not an act; say what you will about him, but he practices what he preaches.
If Egypt is able to get to a place down the road where it embodies Alfred Stepan’s twin tolerations of the state being free from the yoke of religion and religion being free from the yoke of the state, it will be an amazing accomplishment. If it is able to replicate the Turkish model, it would be a positive development for its citizens and governing institutions. Nobody should fool themselves, however, on the likelihood of this happening. The Turkish model emerged out of a confluence of events playing out over decades with some unique structural constraints weighing on the entire process, and it is folly to imagine that this might happen elsewhere in what is in historical terms the blink of an eye.