Tag Archives: democracy in Turkey

Can Turkey Serve as a Model for the Middle East and North Africa?


February 24, 2011

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First it was Tunisia and Egypt. Now it’s Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and everything in between.

As popular revolutions spread across the Middle East and North Africa, politicians and media people in Turkey seem to have reached a consensus that Turkey should lead the region. While Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire is well-known, the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu expressed the region’s need for a “Mustafa Kemal.”

But both Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries need more than optimism and nostalgia.

Political leaders and Ottoman enthusiasts in Turkey should bear in mind that the Ottoman system had worked well until the moment it didn’t. From the Skull Tower in Serbia to the forced immigrations of Balkan Muslims into Anatolia and the forced deportation of Armenians in 1915, the collapse of Pax Ottomana (Ottoman peace) left many people in the region with tragic memories. Overall, those tragedies came about because the Ottoman Empire had failed to build representative political institutions and a free market economy to counter ethnic separatism.

The Ottoman Empire’s collapse at the end of World War I left a deep political vacuum in the Balkans and the Middle East-North Africa. And neither European colonialism nor the imposition of national boundaries after 1918 managed to create democratic, peaceful, and prosperous countries in those regions. On the contrary, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the wars in former Yugoslavia, and dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa dominated the scene until now.

Fortunately, the European Union has managed to move the Balkans forward (with the exception of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which is another story). So it’s a question of whether Turkey can help to move the Middle East and North Africa forward.

The answer is both yes and no. For one thing, Turkey has many things to improve –especially its democracy and economy. A country where a media group suffers exorbitant tax fines after criticizing the prime minister, where the prime minister and not couples decide how many children they’re going to have, where the prime minister and not the free market knows who’s going to build a new petrochemical complex, and where deep socioeconomic injustices still prevail, will have serious trouble appealing to other Middle Eastern countries for the simple reason that those countries already have all that. Tunisians, Egyptians, Algerians, Libyans, Yemenis, Jordanians, Iranians, and Bahrainis do not need a political-economic system where their leaders tell them how to lead their lives and keep them poor. They already have that.

But that’s not to say that Turkey doesn’t have anything to offer. Quite the contrary: Despite its shortcomings, Turkey’s ability to maintain a reasonably democratic and secular system in a Muslim-majority country shows that Islam does not preclude democratic or good governance. In the post-September 11 world, that fact can inspire burgeoning political movements in other Muslim countries and weaken non-Muslims’ prejudices against the Muslim world. Moreover, although reviving the Ottoman Empire is a potentially hurtful idea, Ankara’s grand strategy to create a free trade and cooperation zone covering the Balkans, the Middle East, North Africa, the Caucasus, and even Central Asia can ease – if not completely end – a lot of tensions in this part of the world.

But if Turkey wants to lead that project, it has to lead by example. On the political front, Turkey has to adopt a new constitution that protects citizens from the state (not vice versa) and establishes a genuinely democratic order. In other words, no more restrictions on free speech so long as it doesn’t advocate violence; no more persecuting those who have their own ideas about the Armenian deportations of 1915; no more denying education to women in headscarves; no more arbitrary arrest of military officers and journalists on flimsy grounds; and no more mayors going to prison for reciting a poem in public.

On the economic front, the Turkish state should lower the exorbitantly high taxes on gasoline, food, and services, which punish the lower and middle classes, and shift the tax burden to the upper class. It should take the necessary legal steps to combat corruption and improve standards for doing business in order to attract potential investors. Most important, the Turkish state should make health services and public education free for the needy – not just in theory but also in practice (as opposed to the current situation where even poor people have to pay for “public” health and “public” education) so as to maintain a well-trained and healthy workforce. In other words, a state overseeing the workings of the free market rather than commanding them; a business environment where success is determined not by access to politicians but by managerial competence; and a much better position on the United Nation’s Human Development Index rankings (Turkey’s current standing is 83rd out of 169 – behind many of the countries it’s trying to serve as a “model”).

Turkey can support its activist foreign policy with genuine domestic reform much more successfully. Raising the standards of living for the people of Turkey is even more important than saying nice things to the peoples of the region and their leaders. If the AKP government and the opposition are sincere about Turkey serving as a model for the Middle East and North Africa, they should put their house in order first.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).


The Troublesome Drift of Democracy in Turkey


January 17, 2011

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The recent behavior of Turkey’s two main parties and the course of democracy in Turkey have been extremely alarming.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went to the eastern town of Kars to dedicate the “Humanity Monument,” a statue representing reconciliation between Turks and Armenians after the events of 1915 (never mind that that reconciliation hasn’t occurred yet). Upon seeing the unfinished statue, Mr. Erdoğan reportedly called it a “freak” and ordered it to be torn down. Members of Mr. Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) and the pro-AKP press towed the line without even seeing the monument.

The unfinished statue in Kars.

Simultaneously, the Tobacco and Alcohol Market Regulatory Authority unveiled its new measures to curtail young people’s access to alcohol. Although the plan is not the comprehensive ban claimed by those against the AKP, it served as a powerful image of a government of political Islamists banning alcohol. Add to that Prime Minister’s hostile remark about how people “indulge in alcohol until they sneeze,” people are rightly concerned with Mr. Erdoğan’s and AKP’s increasingly authoritarian posture.

The main opposition party, CHP (Republican People’s Party), is not doing any better. A few weeks ago, a comic book came out, depicting the early life of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Called “Genç Mustafa” (Young Mustafa) and based on real events (Yalın Alpay, a young historian who studied history at Boğaziçi University in İstanbul, leads the project), parts of the comic strip show the young Mustafa Kemal, freshly out of the Ottoman Army Staff Academy in 1905, being beaten by the sultan’s secret police for anti-monarchical activities.

In response, Şahin Mengü, a member of parliament for CHP, decided to press charges against the cartoonist Barış Keşoğlu and Yalın Alpay for “insulting” Atatürk. Mr. Mengü said he was “offended” by the image of Mustafa Kemal bleeding after getting punched in the face (it’s highly unlikely that the young army officer would not have been roughed up at the time). On a political talk show, Mr. Mengü defended himself – on extremely weak grounds – that it was his mission to “protect” the founder of his party and the Republic of Turkey from “systematic attacks.”

This depiction of Atatürk's youth offended Şahin Mengü, a CHP deputy.

Add to that the vicious reactions to the new TV show, “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” (the Magnificent Century) about the life and times of Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566): The Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK), after receiving over 60,000 calls from viewers complaining about “suggestive” content, asked the show’s producers to present “a factual interpretation” of the personal life of a revered historical figure. The RTÜK decision appeared more like a subtle censor.

These cases show that the failure to tolerate opposing views and lifestyles is becoming a serious problem in Turkey. At this point, the country is in an extremely difficult dilemma: it needs a genuinely liberal party – one that not only refrains from intervening in people’s personal lives (whether they are religious or not) but one that also lifts the restraints on the free market and focuses on improving healthcare, public education, and the legal system (the recent release and eventual disappearance of murder suspects linked to the Turkish Hizbullah has destroyed whatever trust people had in courts). The problem is that, people in Turkey – whether they are Turkish, Kurdish, Islamist, secular, conservative, social democratic, or nationalist – have become too intolerant of “the other.” To be sure, in a country where supporting the government’s “we’re going to so and so no matter what” attitude qualifies as being a “liberal intellectual,” it would be very hard for a genuinely liberal party to convince ordinary citizens to embrace diversity.

Current parties make the situation worse; not better. Instead of reducing social tensions, AKP and CHP perpetuate intolerance in Turkey. They agree on little except for their mutual hatred and their defense of taboos (religion in AKP’s case, Atatürk and secularism in CHP’s case). These days, you hear more about what AKP and CHP say about each other than how they’re going to solve the country’s problems.

Turkey can gain global prominence only if the two parties and their supporters understand that they need to change their irrational and intolerant style. Otherwise, democracy in Turkey is heading for trouble.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can also follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).