Other people's dissent

Sunday, June 3

As everybody knows by now, the Gezi Park protests have slowed down considerably over the past couple of weeks, although there is still pots-n-pans clanging of the sort that lasted for six weeks or so after Susurluk* in the late 1990s. The genie, as I observed a couple of weeks ago, has been largely stuffed back into the bottle. 

Susurluk, of course, was the first major scandal that I recall prompting loads of people in Turkey to say 'now, nothing will ever go back to the way things were before.' The other two times in which I heard this have been after the 1999 earthquake and after Gezi.
The shadow of Susurluk still haunts this country
Since my last post, however,  I've been spending most of my time writing frantically from my undisclosed location in the Turkic-Russian borderlands, working on my book. I hope you all get a chance to read it one day.

I've been assisted in my scholarly pursuits by the generally low availability hereabouts of internet access, which has been great, a throwback to the glory days of the 1990s when I lived in Istanbul without wired and wireless encumbrances, free to embrace the simplicity of paper, pen, and word processor.
Nevertheless, I have a few minutes to spare online right now and wanted to follow up on an embryonic post that I first put up in the Borderlands Lounge last week, when I posted link to a piece that wrote for the Guardian back in the first half of this month.

Pavey writes a number of things that I wholeheartedly agree with, criticizing AKP policies regarding, among other things, education and freedom of expression. She then makes the following argument: 

The same Turkey that today finds itself in this position was considered a beacon after its establishment in 1923, an important laboratory where a modern and secular government was reconciled with a Muslim society, however delicate that synthesis might have been. It was widely believed that Turkey's transformation set a model for the rest of the Islamic world. The hope was that the reforms of the new republic would be carried over to future generations.

I certainly do not support excluding faith from public life. But political Islam in our country does not content itself with the role of moral guide. Rather it aspires to mould everyone to the same imagined pious Sunni national character by wrapping society in restrictive rules, ostensibly for the public's own welfare, and then policing citizens and punishing those who disagree.
What is worse is that our rising apprehension about the direction our government is taking finds no audience among those in the west who would never tolerate such politics and restrictions in their own countries. The discourse of the west and the attitudes of its leaders are important because they influence public debate in Turkey.
However, the west, understandably obsessed by its own security concerns and strategies, looks the other way at the Turkish government's abuses. As a member of the opposition, what I want is not for the west to intervene in our internal affairs, but for it to stop shielding a government with such little regard for the values of freedom.
Who else will be able to reconcile Islam, secularism and democracy once Turkey fails? What are the global consequences of this failure?
It's worth bearing in mind that Pavey describes Kemalist Turkey as 'secular,' rather than 'democratic.' Indeed, the term 'democratic' was, to a large extent, appropriated by the Refah/Fazilet/AKP movements in the 1990s and 2000s as a means for making their case, both domestically and internationally, as an alternative to the authoritarian (and secular) governments that have existed in Turkey since its founding. Reading the way that a number of folks in the US and Europe wrote about the AKP up until a couple of years ago, it seems pretty clear that this argument had a profound effect upon international views towards the AKP government.

Pavey is correct, I think, in mostly emphasizing not the approach of the AKP towards the public display of Islamic piety, but rather the intolerance of that party towards dissent. I'm not trying to run her piece down by talking about it here. Rather, I want to expand on a point she brings up, because I found her reference to 'reconciling' Islam and democracy in Turkey interesting. 

The comment reminded me a lot of conversations I've had with a number of Europeans and Americans since the Gezi Park protests began. Particularly during my recent conference in Copenhagen, political scientists and others that I met who are interested in Turkey (but don't work on Turkey specifically) were quick, like Pavey, to point out Turkey's importance in 'reconciling' Islam and democracy. 

The point I'd like to make here is this: lots of head-cracking, gas-spraying, and much worse has gone on in Turkey for quite some time--against leftists, against people (I'm not talking about the PKK) who are involved in the Kurdish issue, religious types--how long did Erdoğan spend in jail again for reading that poem by Ziya Gokalp?

For the most part nobody else (including a lot of the folks who were in Gezi Park this month) cared about this stuff because they believed the victims were 'terrorists' and 'marginal types.' Sound familiar? Well now it's the Kemalists who are on the receiving end of the head-cracking and gassing, but this type of state behavior in Turkey didn't begin with Erdoğan. Neither did the jailing of journalists, even if Erdoğan has taken media censorship in Turkey to levels unseen since the months and years following the 1980 coup.

Erdoğan might be considered an 'Islamist' by some, but his intolerance of political dissent is not any more 'Islamic' in nature than Mustafa Kemal's intolerance of political dissent was an inherent characteristic of secularism.

None of the above excuses in any way Erdoğan's actions, which have been reprehensible. But what he's doing is, unfortunately, perfectly in line with the way dissent--or at least, other people's dissent--has been received in Turkey for a very long time.

So: a lot of bad things have been happening lately (and earlier: see Ergenekon) under a government that promotes the public display of Islamic piety, but stuff like this also took place under the watch of much more secular authorities (both in the form of elected governments and in the permanent state consisting of the military-bureaucracy-judiciary). Why then should we then see the latest events as a special test for making sure 'Islam' and 'democracy' (a false dichotomy in the first place) can work together?

I, for one, don't think that 'Islam,' any more than any other abstract  concept, needs to be 'reconciled' with democracy. However, Turkish political leaders and the people who vote for them--just like governments and voters in every other country in the world, including my own--do need to be reconciled towards fair rules of democratic play. 

Viewing 'Islam' and democracy as concepts needing to be 'reconciled' pretty much lets Erdoğan off the hook, as far as I'm concerned. After all, 'Islam' is not some explosive quantity that is prone to destroy us all if we aren't extra careful with it. If it is, then we should all excuse Erdoğan for transforming an imperfect democracy into a much more authoritarian one.

Rather, the presence or absence of democratic freedoms in Muslim-majority countries like Turkey is entirely related to specific developments taking place in those countries and the world, not the personal faith of the people who happen to live there. If Obama & crew think they're doing some kind of favor to the 'Islamic world' by keeping mum about the stuff that's taking place in Turkey right now, they're sadly mistaken.

And that's sad for everybody, frankly.

Rather than focusing on Islam as the supposedly complicating factor here, it's much more important, I think, to focus on the troubles relating to democratization--whether it's Turkey or anyplace else.



Hey Borderheads! If you wanna feel cool, step into the Borderlands Lounge and like it on the book of face. You'll be glad you did. 

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