Monday, June 20, 2011

Turkey’s way forward

It has become a global mantra, and perhaps the most telling gauge of national elections on the planet: It’s the economy, stupid. Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and his AKP have presided over the most successful economic boom in the history of the Turkish Republic, and the electorate has rewarded them accordingly. The total growth of the Turkish economy reached 8.9% for 2010, and the ruling AKP and Erdogan received the credit for raising the living standards of many of Turkey’s rural poor as well as improving the profile of Turkey in the eyes of the global investment community.

Significant challenges remain for the Turkish people, and for its status as a truly democratic state. A recently released report from Reporters without Borders states that “It is worrying to note that all journalists are under threat, no longer just those who cover the army or Kurdish issues as was the case 15 years ago.” According to a New York Times article from March of this year, 61 journalists are currently imprisoned in Turkish. Hopefully, the improvements in the economy have resulted in improved prison conditions, lest these journalists suffer in scenes from Midnight Express. The recent case of Ahmet Sik reveals the attitude of Turkish government to critical journalists, and may even implicate the AKP in state repression on behalf of its own interests. Sik was arrested and imprisoned as part of an investigation of a group called Ergoneken, which the Turkish government and the AKP in particular accuse of attempting an overthrow of the ruling party and the government. Sik, as well as others journalists and writers arrested in this supposed action against Ergoneken, denies any affiliation with any such group, suggesting rather that the AKP led government’s attempts to silence him stem from implications Sik has made regarding the AKP’s connection to various fringe Islamist groups. Sik has produced a book called “Army of the Imam,” in which he allegedly suggests that Fethullah Gulen, a leading Conservative Islamic Cleric, exerts significant - if not total - control over the Turkish Police. Presumably this is being done with the consent of the central government. In any event, copies of the book were seized and subsequently burned by the government. Conjecture still rules the day in regards to the reliable facts in this case. However, burning books – whether they contain legitimate criticisms or unfounded conspiracy theories – is not the hallmark of a democratic state. Neither is jailing journalists.

Allowing press freedom is a necessary condition if Turkey aspires to the kind of democratic institutions that would allow it to continue its ascent on the world stage. And in some sense, it’s a simple fix: Stop arresting journalists, stupid. Secure and transparent institutions can withstand criticism and respond best to the will of the people. However, it is difficult to be secure when more complex problems loom at the door.

No problems with neighbors, except the problematic ones.

Syrian security forces, under the direction of President’s Assad’s cousin, arrested 15 children – aged 10 to 13 - in city of Deraa. When the fathers attempted to confront the security forces over the fate of the detained children, they were met with an inhuman response:

Forget them, go back to your women and make some more.
If you can’t, we will do it for you.

Erdogan and his Foreign Minister have stated clearly that Assad must make changes and accommodate the revolutionary spirit that has taken over much of Syria. Indeed, if Turkey wishes to perpetuate its momentum towards increased regional soft-power, it must stand squarely with its Arab neighbors now seeking justice and participatory governance, and facing brutal repression in the streets. Again, this may be a relatively simple thing; the AKP up to this point has welcomed the change in the region and actively presents itself as a viable Moderate Islamist party working within the framework of democratic institutions. The greater challenge - Turkey’s jihad al asghar – is with its internal neighbors.

To Kurd, or not to Kurd . . .

For Turkey, the Kurdish question often feels like an existential question. The modern nation state that Kemal Ataturk crafted from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire depended on “Turkishness” as its foundation. This notion required that anyone residing within Turkey, regardless of their actual ethnic origin declared themselves a Turk. This was not meant to suggest that someone gave up there identity, but rather identified first with the state. In some sense, the idea is similar to Americans who believe that the first allegiance of the citizen is to the United States, and only after to any nation of ethnic origin.

However, this notion of Turkishness has proved problematic for the Kurds, who have for various reasons maintained a distinct cultural identity and a yearning for a continuity of that cultural experience within either their own home land, or through a more integral experience within Turkey itself. With this in mind, it is vital that Erdogan and the Turkish establishment in general make a clear distinction between the PKK and the extreme wing of Kurdish nationalism, and the mainstream Kurdish aspirations and reflect this in national policy. The PKK must be combated, but not at the expense of Kurdish civil rights. The current debate concerning the teaching of Kurdish to Kurdish school children in the southeast provides an excellent place for Turkey to move towards practical pluralism that would integrate Kurds into the national framework. The Kurdish language instruction should accompany, and not replace, Turkish instruction, as it is vital that Kurdish school children be able to participate in the economic and civic life of the country. However, if the government allows and sponsors Kurdish language instruction, it signals to the Kurds a willingness to accept into the polity Turkish Citizens of Kurdish origin.

If becoming part of the EU remains a priority, this move towards progressive pluralism must emerge. Furthermore, the increased regional soft power now exhibited by Turkey will require that it is viewed as a state that embodies the democratic spirit that its Arab neighbors are now fighting to gain themselves.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The Arab Cold War

As complex events unfold within a complex region, it may prove instructive to view the Middle East of the moment through a wide angle lens. Libya remains a critical site, as the NATO response to Gaddafi increasingly runs the risk of rapid scope creep. Indeed, Tunisia and Egypt loom a great distance from "resolution," and the question of "what next" burns hot on all onlookers lips. In this state of liminal transiton, accompanied by myriad speculations and occasional paranoias, focusing our sights on Saudi Arabia and Iran may reveal some future trends that will aid in the making-sense process.

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran represent opposite poles in a regional struggle. One major question enlivened by the Arab spring asks how much influence either nation exerts in the moment to moment development of events in the countries involved, and indeed the future of the Middle East at large. Though the analogy is far from perfect, what we are witnessing is an effective "cold war" between two states that extend influence through confessional affiliation, arms, money, and regional proxies.

King Abdullah is rather well regarded among the Saudi People. Generally, the King is viewed as a reformer, and though many aspects of his agenda fail to satisfy many constituents - particularly his reluctance to extend civil rights to women - there remains in Saudi Arabia a sense that Abdullah is bringing the country along in the right direction. This includes the ever crucial question of the economy; Saudis generally enjoy a rather high standard of living and efforts on the part of Abdullah to diversify the economy have been met with welcome arms. However, the decision to assist the regime in Bahrain with cracking down on popular protests put him square in the sights of an emerging generation that rightly demands the end of the old order from Gibraltar to the Hindu Kush. Abdullah expressed great disappointment with the US decision to let Mubarak (as if they had a choice) fall. Increasingly obvious is Abdullah's two pronged agenda; on the one hand, insulate the Kingdom from internal strife by working - however tentatively - towards reform, while also pursuing a pro-active engagement in places like Bahrain and Yemen on the basis of ensuring security. On the other hand, intervention in Bahrain and the continued stability in the Kingdom are vital to keep in check the influence of Shi'a proxies, and ultimately the only true regional rival, Iran.

Hezbollah's leader, Hassan Nasrullah, is known as being a savvy and widely loved leader in the Arab world. That is why his recent support for Assad looms as a rather large miscalculation. Despite the brutal repression conducted by Assad's regime - including the horrific torture and murder of a 13 year old boy - Nasrullah urged the Syrians to give Assad a chance to make meaningful reforms. The call fell flat, and exposed the Hezbollah chief's nervousness and lack of foresight. It also reveals that Nasrullah and Hezbollah clearly envision a "resistance front" that runs from Tehran, through Damascus and Beirut. The stability of the Syrian regime constitutes a vital strategic component for the continued emergence of Iran as regional hegemon and beacon of the Shi'a revival. In the end, however, whatever emerges in post-Assad Syria will likely be so weak that Hezbollah's influence may even increase.

The proxies are clearly lining up, however, and at this point the future of the Iranian regime remains uncertain. Conflict between Ahmadinejad and Khamanei may not in itself signal a revolutionary moment, but the situation begs the question of how long the young people of Iran will suffer under the mullahs. What is most likely is that Khamenei will emerge triumphant from his skirmish with his suddenly rebellious president and will steer the country to the right in order to protect the Islamic Revolution while continuing to provide regional leadership to the regions Shi'a multitudes. However, as in Saudi Arabia, their exists among the youth - the exceeding majority demographic in both countries - a burning desire to bring their respective nations fully into the light of Democratic modernity. Iran's regime rushes headlong to a crucial moment, one in which its rise to greater prominence in the wake of the Iraq invasion approaches a confluence of forces that threaten its momentum. As long as both Iran and Saudi Arabia are left to deal with their external interests, the bi-polar structure of the regional power distribution allows for a relatively well organized trajectory of events.

When these two nations face their own "spring" revolutionary moments, all bets are off.