Twenty years in the Turkic world N & P

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Up here at the Borderlands Lodge we're celebrating 20 years of life in the Turkic World. It was twenty years ago this weekend that I flew out to Turkey to begin what I thought would be just a year or two before I found something better to do. Twenty years later, Turkey and the Turkic World are still a huge part of my life. Go figure.

How did it all begin? Well, if you've read by bio you probably know most of the details. I had been traveling around southeastern Europe in the Spring of 1992, fresh out of college and trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. The plan, to the extent that I had one, was to find a job teaching English somewhere. Turkey was far from my mind, though. Instead, I was hoping to find work in some of the newly opened-up parts of Eastern Europe, someplace like Prague or Budapest. Istanbul was supposed to just be a quick stop between Greece and Bulgaria.

It didn't quite work out that way. Traveling in to Istanbul I met a Turkish kid who would end up helping out a group of foreigners from the train I'd taken, myself included. One thing led to another, and I ended up getting a job at Marmara University. I tell the story here, if you're interested.

The carefree days of 1992

At the time, going to graduate school was the absolute last thing on my mind. It wasn't until later, after I'd been in Turkey for several years and had some Turkish and Russian under my belt that I began thinking about doing something professionally in the field.

Meanwhile, up here at the Borderlands Lodge life has been smoky. There were fires to the south of town as well as to the east, which brought us a lot of smoke, but much of the haze that's collecting in the Gallatin valley is from some blazes in Idaho, apparently.

Regardless of where the smoke is from, it's been rough. Usually I love riding my bike all over town this time of year. Instead, I've been keeping the bicycle cruising to a minimum. Something about huffing and puffing on steep hill while breathing in tree ash seems unappealing.

It's enough to make you wish for winter.

Something else interesting: there are bears everywhere in Bozeman. Well, maybe not everywhere, but still a lot. I read the police beat in the local newspaper, and it seems like pretty much every night there are reports of bears picking around the garbage in the neighborhoods to the east of campus. 
Sometimes, when I'm riding home at night I cruise through those neighborhoods, looking for bear.
Mostly, I've been spending my time writing. It's been pretty intense since the beginning of July, especially. I am very very eager to get on to a new project so I'm looking forward to getting beyond this one. It's been almost ten years by now. I think it's time.
I've also been doing some teaching, of course. This semester I've got one class on the Modern Middle East, another on Russia to 1917. There was a story in the MSU student newspaper about some Bahraini women professionals who visited MSU and my class as part of a US State Department project called the International Visitor Leadership Program. The headline of the story notwithstanding, most of the women were not 'activists,' but rather professional women from a variety of backgrounds (although a couple had been active in the protests last year).
MSU students meet our guests from Bahrain

Rather than have the five speakers address the students for seventy-five minutes, I instead first had them talk a bit about themselves, then broke the  the class into five groups of 8-10 students. I gave each group one of the speakers.
Originally, I'd planned to rotate speakers after twenty minutes or so in order to get the students to meet more than one of the guests up close. The groups were all really deep in conversation, though, so I decided against breaking up group conversations that had gotten well past individual biographies.
At the end, we had another 10-15 minutes or so to break things out into a more general conversation including all of the women and the whole class.
In baseball news, I'm excited about the Tigers' chances. While I don't really root for any teams other than Detroit teams, I can still appreciate the nice story of the Washington Nationals. I'm glad they're playing well.
I do, however, have a bone to pick with this team. 
The Nationals are the old Montreal Expos, a team that was taken away from Montreal after voters refused to cave in to extortion, rejecting a proposal to publicly finance a new stadium for the Expos.
There are too many efforts in DC to attach the Nationals to Washington's early MLB franchises. Namely, the two Washington Senator teams.
Both of these teams moved away from Washington. One of them is now the Minnesota Twins, and the other is the Texas Rangers. Those teams own the records from the old Senator teams. They, and not the Nationals, are the successors to those teams.
Yet the Nationals claim these teams as their heritage. Inside Nationals Stadium, alongside the Hall of Famers from the Expos the team also honors stars from the two Senators franchises, as well as from other old DC teams (like the Negro League team, if I remember correctly).
It's weird. People in DC seem to think the Nats are some kind of expansion franchise. In fact, the Expos had a great run in Montreal. But once it was over, the folks in DC apparently chose to pretend it had never happened. They even got rid of the ever-popular "Youppi," replacing him with a bird named Screech.
The ever-pantless Youppi




Despite the fact that the Expos played in the awful Olympic Stadium, going to an Expo game was fun. It only cost $1 to sit in the bleachers when I was living in Montreal as a university student. On more than one occasion, I wound up at Olympic Stadium almost unexpectedly, having gravitated toward the stadium without thinking much about it. It was that kind of place.
The Nationals emphasize an eternal connection with their geographical territory (DC), while ignoring their own origins. As an historian of empires, my recommendation is that they embrace the complexity of their past.
In the case of the "Nationals," moreover, the denial of the past is particularly poignant, as their past is not simply national, but international. The Expos, the despised origin of DC's Nationals, were bilingual and cross-cultural in a way that hardly any American sports franchise can come even close to resembling.
Nationals, indeed.
As for me? Je me souviens.
Just what the world has been waiting for: an inside account of Rick Perry's presidential bid.
There's a good piece in the Detroit Free Press about the legacy of PBB poisoning in Michigan. It is estimated that in the mid-1970s 90% of Michiganians were contaminated with PBB after consuming tainted meat and dairy products.
PBB, a fire retardant, had been accidentally mixed with cattle feed, then spread for years in the food supply even as cattle died off by the thousand.
The disaster helped to create the largest EPA Superfund site in the Great Lakes region.
There's a very hard-hitting guest editorial in the Washington Post over Turkey's "Sledgehammer" trial, which has sentenced more than 300 military officers to decades of prison time apiece. Calling the process a "patently sham trial," Kennedy School professor Dani Rodrik writes:
The prosecution asserted that the coup was planned in 2003, citing unsigned documents on compact discs it claims were produced by the defendants at the time. However, even though the last-saved dates on these documents appear as 2002-2003, they were found to contain references to fonts and other attributes that were first introduced with Microsoft Office 2007. Hence the documents could not have been created before mid-2006, when the software was released. The handwriting on the CDs was similarly found to be forged. In addition, many defendants have proved that they were outside Turkey or hundreds of miles away from work at the time they are alleged to have prepared these documents or attended coup-planning meetings. The documents also contain countless anachronisms, such as names of organizations and places that didn’t yet exist in 2003 or were changed after that time.
I haven't written much on Sledgehammer, but I have written a fair bit on Ergenekon, a trial that has also been frequently described as a miscarriage of justice.

A number of journalists and scholars in the US went easy on the AKP for a long time, emphasizing how good it is to get the military out of politics in Turkey. The problem is, the Erdogan and the AKP at times seem pretty authoritarian, too.

Erdogan's defenders argue that he is fighting fire with fire. Erdogan, after all, has already served time in prison (for the crime of reading aloud a poem by Ziya Gokalp, a national hero). He's not inclined to go back. There's no way Erdogan is going to take his foot off the throats of the military/bureaucratic  types until he's sure their power has been crushed.

So here's my question: When is that ever going to happen?

What would it take for Erdogan, having succeeded so far in breaking the power of the military in Turkey, to finally call of the dogs? It's not like it's only the military that has been on the receiving end of this kind of behavior. It's also academics, journalists, and even cartoonists.

Here's another question: How much of an improvement is it to replace a system in which the military is influential with one dominated by an authoritarian political party?

It's an honest question, not a rhetorical one. Erdogan's apologists say that, no matter what, things are still better than they were. After all, it's not like all of this business about jailing political opponents, journalists, and academics is something that Erdogan brought to Turkey. It's been going on for a long time.

On the other hand, prior to the AKP the Turkish military had struck out against a variety of parties. In 1960 it was a conservative-free market party, the Democrats, who were overthrown (and their Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, hanged along with two government ministers). In 1971 and 1980, meanwhile, the center-right parties of Suleyman Demirel were forced out, although in both cases it was leftist student and activist types who ended up feeling the most pain. In 1997 it was the Refah Party, the Islamically-tinged predecessor of Erdogan's AKP.

Over the decades, the Turkish military has gone after leftists, rightists, and folks they considered Islamists, all without creating a party of their own. They wanted all the parties to be pro-military.

But one might ask if such a system actually maintains more of a democratic balance than one dominated by an elected but authoritarian party.

As I've written before, I think we'll have a clearer idea of what kind of country Turkey will be in the near future once we finally see the new Constitution that the AKP has been working on.

Like a lot of people, I was appalled but not too surprised by Newsweek's cover last week, "Muslim Rage."

Others have made similar comments, but I'll chime in with my two cents. The problem with this cover is not only the picture, which seems designed to conform to stereotypes about crazy Muslims. 

The title "Muslim Rage" is also a problem, fitting into a trope that's been frequently trotted out in this country for...about as long as the United States has been heavily invested in the Middle East.

You see, it's all "internal." It's all about them. Crazy rumors. Unhinged and irrational sensitivity. Rage.

Marketing Muslim Rage
Nothing to do with the US, of course.

But where does the anger come from? Is it really so irrational? Or is there a context in which small issues can quickly blow up into big ones?

Is it really so irrational for people in the Middle East to feel anger toward the United States?

Maybe the anger itself isn't, or shouldn't be, the issue.

And, come to think of it, I don't remember anyone talking about "American Rage" when, in response to 9/11, the US government attacked the wrong country and caused, one way or another, the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

Or was that okay because folks weren't out in the streets making noise?

It's time Americans got a bit more perspective on these things, and the Newsweek cover doesn't help. The story doesn't begin the day you see people burning an American flag on CNN.

Twenty years in the Turkic World! Hard to believe.

It's also strange to think that, had any one of four or five seemingly random moments gone different for me twenty years ago, I probably wouldn't be doing what I do, living where I live, or working where I work.

It's been a circuitous path, but one that I feel good about taking.

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