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.

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