All the difficulties in observing Turkey

A critical response came from Joost Lagendijk in regards to my article last week titled “Why is The Economist wrong?” His response was called “Why bash your friends?” (Today’s Zaman, Aug. 16, 2011).
In my article, I talked about the deficiencies and mistakes contained in recent information and opinions published by The Economist; I delved into my own personal worries and disappointment with the transmission of this information. Lagendijk labeled my criticisms of this famous and important magazine as being an “aggressive strike” from a friend and made the recommendation that the “magazine should sit down with journalists and explain to them why they are simply wrong on certain points.” I thank Lagendijk for his advice. I do this whenever I have the opportunity, and I am always ready to do this. In fact, I sent The Economist a small letter of explanation. But when the letter was not printed, I decided that writing the aforementioned article was my moral duty and a duty of conscience. My article was not filled with insults for The Economist, as Lagendijk alleged, but rather with general praise for the magazine. All I really said was “These are the reasons you are wrong in your analyses on Turkey.” I wasn’t thus really able to understand why this sort of criticism was termed by Lagendijk as being an “aggressive strike.”

The truth is Lagendijk and I think alike on quite a few topics. This much is clear from his underscoring of his agreement with some of my ideas in his own article. It is a well-known fact that The Economist is an important magazine. In fact, its stances on Turkey have often been more reasonable, democratic and liberal than many other Western publications of its type. To wit, I never said in my own article on the topic that The Economist had constantly published incorrect or un-liberal opinions on Turkey; I just noted that its pieces lately had been doing this. And I then tried to explain the reasons for this. And the truth is, I believe the magazine had already become aware of this itself and had been trying to find a more balanced position regarding Turkey, a fact reflected in the cautious tone concerning Turkey lately. Actually, the article from The Economist that pushed me to write my own criticism was one that I do not see as reflecting The Economist’s own ideas. I would never show the same level of sensitivity towards any fascist, conservative or socialist publication that published ridiculous opinions about Turkey. So in fact, what I did really was not to “strike at a friend,” but rather to “assist a friend.”

Difficulties in understanding Turkey

Lagendijk is in a much better position to understand and figure out Turkey than many other Westerners. That is why his analyses ought to be respected. But understanding and figuring out Turkey is for the average Westerner a difficult situation. Classic perspectives and tools for analyses are not sufficient when it comes to seeing the realities of this country clearly. This ought not to surprise anyone. In the end, this is both a Mediterranean and Middle Eastern country. In this place, 40 foxes can slink around in one room without any of the tails touching the others. There is no rationality in any area of life here of the type that a standard Westerner would be able to identify, but the irrationality that abounds here has its own unique appearance of rationality. People who appear Western can turn out to be Eastern, and those thought to be Eastern can turn out to be Western. Those labeled at the outset as conservative turn out to be innovators, while those counted previously as revolutionary turn out to be the most conservative. Democratic appearances often hide tough authoritarianism underneath, while an outside appearance of strict conservatism can often disguise a moderate stance. For this reason, Turkey is often a puzzle as well as a fantastic laboratory for Western observers. And in order to solve its various codes, observers need to make a special effort and have a multidimensional perspective.

Turkey is a country whose knowledge of democracy and democratic culture are stronger than in any other nation in the Middle East, but which is weak when it comes to actually setting up a stable democracy that is sustainable. Its authoritarian tendencies are evident both openly and in potential form all throughout its political spectrum. That is why Justice and Development Party (AK Party) claims — and the resulting expectations — that its political philosophy and its political style are completely cleansed of authoritarian tendencies are pure fantasy. It is quite easy to find traces of authoritarian tendencies in many of the actions of the ruling party. At the same time, though, it is not fair to look at things piece by piece and from just one angle, but generally. In fact, in an analysis of all the political parties in Turkey, it quickly emerges that the AK Party occupies a much less authoritarian position than other parties. Of course, the AK Party is not completely without guilt on the authoritarian front, but when you consider that the alternative Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) compete with the sort of authoritarianism that winks its eye at fascism, it is not difficult to see why the people of the nation believed that bringing the AK Party to power would be better for Turkey’s democracy. And this is the phenomenon that The Economist and publications like it have had trouble understanding. And so how is it that a conservative political stance can gain a more democratic position in Turkey? The answer to this question lies in not only the AK Party, but in the actions and thoughts that guide its competitors.

Today’s realities

The allegations spread by local and Western Kemalists that the AK Party is setting up an authoritarian system are not able to find a stable and believable enough foundation these days. It is one thing to possess an authoritarian tendency on this or that topic and a completely different situation to be setting up an entirely authoritarian system. It is impossible under today’s conditions that one party alone could decide the main color of the system. And if we are talking about the breaches in the authoritarian guardian regime and the “civilian” alliance front (justice system, universities, media) opened up by the AK Party government, these breaches have definitely not yet reached the point of changing the system. After all, it is clear what the official ideology of the country is — as well as who controls the formal education of all citizens, from nursery school through graduate school. A full 60-70 percent of the media is under the control of the official ideology and the bureaucratic powers, or its parallels. Of course, there is the possibility that the AK Party could take actions that would harm press freedoms in Turkey, but as it is, the freedom of the press in Turkey is already under serious handicaps and barriers placed there by the official ideology and its state mechanisms. Despite the fact that the bureaucratic powers are losing their grasp on their central positions, they have not withdrawn from the struggle. And even though the elected government may have gained ground on the bureaucratic powers, there is still a long way to go. For as long as a democratic constitution is not written, for as long as the military is not exposed to some sort of civilian supervision, for as long as the authoritarian official ideology is not eliminated or de-fanged, for as long as the educational system is not democratized, for as long as the state structure is not liberalized and decentralized, Turkey cannot be called freed or democratized.

Westerners who sincerely wish for Turkey to become a democratic country need to see and learn this Turkey tableau well and need to develop a dialogue and stance accordingly.

Today’s Zaman, 26.08.2011

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