Mustafa Akyol

Turks and ’Meds Yeghern’

30 Nisan 2009
Quite a few people in Turkey are upset with President Barack Obama these days for using the term "Meds Yeghern" to describe the tragedy that befell on Ottoman Armenians in 1915. The term means "Great Catastrophe" in the Armenian language and it refers to the "genocide" of 1915. Some Turkish commentators unhappily argue that although Obama did not directly use the "G" word, he said what amounts to that.I, on the other hand, saw a reasonable nuance in Obama’s rhetoric. If he had used the "G" word, that would have amounted to a legal definition. Yet his choice of words shows that he didn’t want to take that step. It rather indicates that he sees the tragedy of 1915 in a way totally different than the common Turkish view, but does not wish to enforce that by bringing up a legal definition that would make Turkey politically uncomfortable.

And I think that this stance by Obama should be welcomed. His rhetoric is true to itself (because we know that Obama sees 1915 as genocide), but is also considerate to the Turkish position. What more should we expect from the American President? To deny or overlook something which he sees as a bitter historical fact? This question brings me to the other side of the issue. Most Turks, too, see a different historical fact when they look at 1915. Or, perhaps, 1917.

The latter was the year when Armenian militants committed mass atrocities in Eastern Turkey on the Muslim population to take "revenge" for what happened two years earlier. Every Turk is told about those horrific episodes, in which men, women and children were brutally tortured and slaughtered. When you mention a "great catastrophe" that took place during World War I, Turks remember this Muslim tragedy, not the Armenian one.

The reason is obvious: Every society remembers the evils done to them, rather than the evils they do. Turkish society is especially prone to thinking this way, because it hardly has a taste for self-criticism.Therefore it would be wrong to blame Turkish society for "denying" the Armenians’ Meds Yeghern. You deny something when you know it is true, but you don’t want to openly accept it for other, mostly selfish, reasons. Most Turks don’t do that, because they genuinely believe there was no Armenian genocide, and whatever happened was some form of collective vendetta during the years of war and conflict.

What needs to be done in this whole debate is to help Turks understand the pain of the Armenians, and help the rest of the world understand the pain of Turks. There are two opposite narratives on both sides, and both sides need to take steps in order to discover the narrative that it does not know.

The Turkish narrative starts not in 1915, but 1878, when the Ottoman Empire lost a great deal of its Balkan territories to newly created nation-states such as Serbia and Bulgaria. These Russian-supported Slavic nations continued to push forward, and the empire continued to shrink gradually. The big loss came during the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, when the empire lots all of its Balkan territories except Eastern Thrace, which continues to be the western edge of modern Turkey.

In all these lost lands the Muslim population was subject to horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing. Many were killed. Others fled to Turkey proper telling the horrible stories of the "Christian onslaught against the Muslims."

When Armenian nationalists started their agitations in order to terrorize the Empire and to force the intervention of Western powers, many Muslims perceived this as yet another repetition of a nightmare that they had seen before: The terror would continue until an independent Armenia could be formed and all Muslim populations ethnically cleansed. Fear was the main motivating factor in the "pre-emptive" expulsion and the massacres.

War and death
In his book on "The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922," historian Justin McCarthy says the following:

"In 1895 in Anatolia and in 1905 in the Caucasus, inter-communal warfare broke out. Prior to that time, Muslims and Armenians had supported either the Russian or the Ottoman Empires. Now the Muslims and Armenians had set about killing each other in their villages and cities. This war was not a thing of armies, but of peoples.

It had been building for almost a century, brought about by Russian invasion, Armenian nationalism, and Ottoman weakness. By 1910, the polarization that was soon to result in mutual disaster was probably inevitable. Blood had been shed and revenge was expected and desired.

Whatever their individual intentions, Muslims knew they were at risk from the Armenians, and Armenians knew they were at risk from the Muslims. Once World War I began, each side naturally assumed the worst of the other, and acted accordingly."

Let me note: This does not justify the Meds Yeghern. It just tells us that there is a Turkish side of the story, too. And the best way to make Turks more empathetic to the Armenian side of the story is to take theirs seriously as well.
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Why do we have a children’s day, really?

25 Nisan 2009
Like every other April 23, last Thursday was Turkey’s National Sovereignty and Children's Day. There were celebrations throughout the whole country to honor this national holiday. The one in Istanbul’s Taksim Square was a bit ironic, though. There were thousands of children from various Istanbul schools who were in uniforms tailored for this special occasion. The uniforms were bright and eye-catching, but also as thin as T-shirts. And, unluckily, it was a very cold day. No wonder the teachers and the bureaucrats who overlooked them were wearing thick coats. "We are almost freezing," said a little girl to the cameras. "I wanna go home."

Fun or indoctrination?
This reminded me of my own April 23rds, way back in the 80s. Like every other elementary school student, I, too, was made to join the compulsory celebrations. Actually it was a national holiday, so our classes were off. But we were still instructed to come to school early in the morning to join the ceremonies. "Those who don’t show up will go to the discipline council," our teachers would threaten us. And that scary council was a place where they would give you all sorts of "punishments."

That’s why all kids would come to school on this "holiday" and line up in the schoolyard to listen to the never-ending talks by the director, the vice director, various teachers and a few students who were made to memorize poems that praised Atatürk, our heavenly father.

In fact, the praising of Atatürk was the main theme of the whole extravaganza. After the speeches, students would make choreographed dances around his posters. In stadiums, where bigger celebrations were held, they would line up in the steps with colorful boards to form slogans such as, "O Atatürk, we are on your path." And at the very end of the day, we would all thank the Supreme Leader for "giving us this children’s festival, the only one in the world."

The bizarre thing was, and still is, this: April 23 is defined as the "Children’s Festival," but it really is not designed to entertain children. If that were the main goal, the best thing to do would be to bring up clowns to hand out candy, and then head to a theme park. But, no, the festival is not about kids having fun. It is about them being indoctrinated. In fact, all "national festivals" of Turkey are designed to indoctrinate society with the official ideology and its underlying cult of personality. After April 23 comes May 19, the day of the "Remembrance of Atatürk, Sports and Youth." It is another must-see. This time high school students line up in schoolyards and stadiums to sing the praises of Atatürk. Muscled young men make acrobatic shows in order to show how "fit" the Turkish nation is. And young girls in almost-mini skirts march in parades in order to assert the "modern" identity the national father has blessed us with.

The two other national festivals are August 30, the day when Atatürk won the greatest battle during the War of Liberation, and October 29, the day when Atatürk announced the Republic. A fifth "national day" of sorts is November 10, the day that Atatürk regrettably died. At 9:05 a.m., the very moment that he passed away, sirens go off and citizens stand up in silence and tears to mourn for the loss of "the greatest Turk ever."

As you can see, all these "national days" are designed to venerate Atatürk. Special care is given to children and the youth because they are "the future of the regime," and it is clever to engineer their minds when they are still fresh. "A tree can bend only when it is young," reads a Turkish proverb, and the Turkish Republic seems to know that well.

It is impossible to miss the similarity here with the usual methods that totalitarian regimes use in order to brainwash their societies. Indeed, both visually and verbally, Turkey’s "national days" very much resemble the ones in Mao’s China or Kim Il Sung’s North Korea.

Leader or demigod?
In fact, there would be no harm in respecting and honoring Atatürk, who, indeed, was a great leader who served the nation. Democratic societies have their heroes, too. George Washington or Abraham Lincoln would be good examples in the United States. But none of those heroes are elevated to demigods. And none of them are depicted as the only source of wisdom that the nation needs. In Turkey that is exactly what is done. The respect Atatürk rightfully deserves is raised to the level of worship. This gives Kemalism, the ideology created in his name, an aura of sacredness. And it gives the Kemalists an inherent right to rule. That is what our "Children’s Day" is really all about.
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Discrimination alla Turca militare

23 Nisan 2009
Are you familiar with the strange notion in Turkey called "accreditation?" I am not sure what the term means in other countries, but here it refers to the military’s customary method to discriminate against certain segments of the media. The generals divide the newspapers and TV channels into two categories: the "accredited" and the "non-accredited." The latter are simply not allowed, let alone invited, to press conferences and other occasions of the military. Moreover, such media sources are literally banned from entering military zones. You simply cannot read or watch them in a military school or a barrack.

As you might guess, these "non-accredited" media sources are the ones which the generals see as ideologically misguided. Besides marginal ones such as the pro-PKK Gündem and the hard-core Islamist Vakit, even mainstream Islamic or conservative papers such as Yeni Şafak or Zaman are strictly banned. Zaman’s case is especially curious for that this newspaper, and its English-language off-shoot, Today’s Zaman, would be defined as moderate and sensible by most observers. The problem lies somewhere else, though, for the military: this paper is known to be associated with the Fethullah Gülen movement, Turkey’s largest Islamic community. The same movement would be defined as moderate and sensible by most observers, too. But according to Turkey’s draconian doctrine of secularism, being a religious movement of any sorts is enough in itself to be considered heretical.

In the US, this story would be paralleled only if the American military decided to "non-accredit" the Washington Times because of its connections with the Moon Church, or the Christian Science Monitor because of its roots in the Christian Science movement. Yet that is simply unthinkable.

In Turkey, many unthinkable things are the norm, though. In fact, the military not just "non-accredits" media sources such as Zaman, but also openly defines the faith communities behind them as "threats" to the country. For the taxpayers in these communities, the whole political system is one big irony: with the taxes they pay, they are financing the very institutions which lead a cold war against them.

Last month, a new and interesting episode was added to this long-seated policy of official discrimination. It happened on the top of a cold, snowy mountain, where a helicopter carrying the leader of the Grand Union Party (BBP) had crashed. The whole country held its breath for the rescue efforts, which, regrettably, would end without success. Besides rescue team, which included military helicopters, dozens of journalists hit the road to reach the insurmountable mountaintop. One of them was cameraman and reporter Lütfi Akyurt, who works for Cihan News Agency, which is connected to daily Zaman.

In his column in Today’s Zaman, Abdülhamid Bilici, Cihan’s director, explains the rest of the story as follows:

"By the time [Akyurt] finished his job at 3:30 p.m., not many people were left on the mountain. Standing at an altitude of 2,500 meters in freezing weather, a gendarmerie search and rescue team told Akyurt it was getting too cold and that they did not want to leave him there, so they offered to bring him down with their helicopter. As Akyurt prepared to get on the helicopter, a general asked him which news agency he worked for, and when Akyurt said Cihan they said they could not carry a civilian and did not allow him to board the helicopter. Akyurt kindly pointed out that the other reporter on the helicopter, a DHA (Doğan news agency) reporter, was also a civilian. But the gendarmerie refused to allow him to board the helicopter and left him on the top of the mountain. This was their response to a reporter who had covered their search and rescue efforts all day long."

End the discrimination
The weather conditions were getting so bad that Akyurt could have not survived. Luckily he did. And for a few weeks he kept silent about this story, which came out only last Wednesday. Bilici wrote about this in his column addressed to the Chief of Gen. Staff, General Başbuğ, and headlined with a question: "Pasha, Would You Rescue Me If I Was Stranded on a Mountain?" No reply has come from the military yet.

This is a deeply disturbing incident. It suggests that the discrimination against "backward-minded" (i.e., too religious) members of the media has reached the level of contempt. Interestingly, about ten days ago, Gen. Başbuğ had made a speech in which he criticized "the wrong view that the military is against religion," and then bashed those people who "propagate" this view. Well, perhaps it is also the military’s job to correct the "wrong view" by taking active steps to show that it does not have any bias against the more religious segments of society. Abandoning the discriminatory policy of "non-accreditation" would be a good first step.
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From ’Turkish people’ to ’people of Turkey’

18 Nisan 2009
It is always news in Turkey when generals speak. For when they speak, they always say important things. Not necessarily intelligent, but important. The speech given last week by Chief of General Staff Gen. İlker Başbuğ was remarkable because it was intelligent, too. Although I strongly disagreed with some of the points he raised, which I will address in a minute, if you kindly keep reading, I was positively surprised by a groundbreaking remark he made. He, in a quite unconventional way, proposed the concept of "the people of Turkey," instead of "the Turkish people."

The difference between the two is greater than it may sound. The former term, (Türkiye halkı) refers to a country. Accordingly, everybody who lives in Turkey, regardless of their ethnic identity, is a member of the "people of Turkey."

'Türkiye halkı'
The latter term (Türk halkı), though, refers to an ethnic identity: our much-celebrated "Turkishness." Moreover, when nationalist speak about the "Turkish people," or its sister term, "Turkish nation" (Türk milleti), they refer to Turks or even Turkic peoples living outside of Turkey as well. This definition, as you might expect, doesn’t inspire other ethnic groups in Turkey such as the Kurds. In fact, I never heard a Kurd defining himself as a member of the "Turkish people." But quite a few them are happy to be part of the "people of Turkey."

One person who understood the importance of this nuance well was Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, modern Turkey’s founder, to whom Gen. Başbuğ referred in his speech. During the years of the War of Liberation (1919-22), when he needed the full support of all groups in the country, Mustafa Kemal generously embraced them by speaking about "the people of Turkey," which included "Turks, Kurds, Circassians, the LazÉ and all other components of Islam." But once the war was won, and the republic was established, this pluralist rhetoric rapidly waned, and the whole populace started to be defined as "the Turkish people." The goal was to assimilate all other "components" into the largest one, the Turks.

Although Gen. Başbuğ denied that assimilation has ever been the policy of the state, he seems to have inferred the necessary lesson: the right way is integration, not assimilation. He defined the former as the way to "accept the individual’s cultural identity, while uniting them under a common super-identity of citizenship." This would allow someone to say, "I am proud to be a Kurd, but also happy to be a Turkish citizen."

When Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan made a similar comment in 2005, he was bashed by the nationalists for "undermining the Turkish character of the nation." That’s why it is good to hear a similarly pluralist message from the chief of general staff. That will raise the standards of the discussion to a new level. It will be harder to depict pluralists as "separatist traitors." Who can be more patriotic, after all, than the very top general?

Yet as I said in the beginning, the top general also said things that I disagreed with. And this came when he spoke about the other headache the military has after the Kurdish issue: the role of religion in public life.

Here, Başbuğ did not sound embracive at all. He defined religious communities as social forces which "try to become economic powers, then try to shape the socio-political life, and assert their identities as a way of life based on religion." This all amounted to, according to the general, "exploitation of religion."

Well, and this whole idea amounts to illiberalism. In a liberal order, the religious communities should of course have the right to become a socio-political power with their distinct way of life. Secular circles would have the same right too. The society which is open to all these different political actors and their nonviolent ambitions is called the open society. And it is a very good thing.

'Not against religion'
The problem here is the utterly wrong conception of secularism in Turkey. It is understood not only as the secularity of the state, but also the society. Religion is allowed only in the private sphere. Hence comes the Turkish clichŽ, "we are not against religion," which Gen. Başbuğ reiterated in his speech. But religion is not only a private matter, and people have the right to organize socially according to the values and dictates of their faith. That is why you have numerous churches, religious schools, charities, communities and networks in free countries. And this is a contribution, not a threat, to democracy, as Alexis de Tocqueville observed almost two centuries ago in his magnum opus, "Democracy in America."

That is the example Turkey should follow vis-?-vis it much debated, and scapegoated, religious communities. And if the Turkish military is really willing to embrace the whole "people of Turkey," it should change its mind on not just Kurds but also the religious communities.
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Turkish libido versus Halki Seminary

16 Nisan 2009
If you want to understand why the Halki Seminary, the main school of theology of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Istanbul, remains closed for decades despite international pressure, you might take a look at the writings of the 5th century theologian St. Augustine. Writing at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire, St. Augustine was not just a church father but also a political thinker. In his magnum opus, the "City of God," he underlined a temptation that the "City of Man," i.e., the temporal order of the earthly rulers, often exhibits: "libido dominandi". The Latin term meant "lust for power."

The rulers who suffer from this, according to St. Augustine, would be in a never-ending desire to dominate, control and manipulate everything that they could. So, they would try to govern not only what was the Caesar’s, but also God’s. Of course lust for power can be exercised in the name of God, too. That’s is the hard lesson that St. Augustine did not dwell upon, but we moderns have learnt from centuries of painful experiences with theocratic rule. Yet when we became fully modern, our aversion to theocracy started to blind us to the danger coming from the secular version of libido dominandi. These days, those who are obsessed with the exaggerated fear that Turkey is being "Islamized," and then see the country’s freedom deficit as a result of this perceived tendency, are in that exact error. They don’t understand that the main obstacle to freedom and democracy in this country is the libido dominandi of its much-praised secular republic.

The story of the Halki Seminary, which is on the off-shore Istanbul island of Heybeliada (Halki), is the perfect case study to get this matter right. Do you know who, in the first place, allowed the founding of this important center of Greek Orthodox learning? Secular authorities? No. It was the proudly Islamic Ottoman Empire, under whose auspices the seminary was opened in 1844. Yet more than a century later the might of the secular Turkish Republic would step in. The fateful year was 1971. It was also the year of a "soft" military coup, during which the military forced the democratically elected center-right government to resign and then formed a "technocratic government" that would obediently bow to the will of the generals. The military also started a witch-hunt against political dissidents, and forced the parliament to curb some of the civil liberties that were introduced in the 1961 constitution.

One such measure aimed at disciplining the society was to nationalize and monopolize all forms of education. All colleges of "foreign origin," which were opened during the Ottoman times, were converted into Turkish institutions. The university section of Robert College, which was founded in 1863 as the oldest American high school outside the borders of the United States, was turned into Boğaziçi University.

The basic idea was that the state had to control all education in order to raise "properly guided" (i.e., single-handedly indoctrinated) generations. The Halki Seminary fell victim to this general wave of nationalization. Interestingly it was the all-secular CHP (People’s Republican Party), which put the first nail on the coffin. As it is today, the CHP was in an ideological alliance with the Constitutional Court, one of main guardians of the official Kemalist creed. So, the CHP took the case of the seminary to the Constitutional Court, and the latter decided upon its closure. Halki's Board of Trustees refused to accept the suggested alternative, which was to become part of the University of Istanbul. In short, the seminary’s closure had nothing to do with religious conservatism. It had everything to with secular nationalism.

Nationalist secularism
To date, the scene has not changed. Those who oppose the seminary’s reopening are nationalists, not Islamists. They have two main arguments: the first and more nationalist one is their principle of "reciprocity" between Turkey and Greece. The Muslim Turkish minority in Greece is not fully free either, they say, so we should not give our Greek citizens more than what our kinsmen get on the other side of the border. Well, shame on Greece for its own illiberalism. It does not justify ours. And the Turkish citizens of the Greek Orthodox persuasion are our citizens, for God’s sake, not the fifth column of someone else. The second argument against the seminary’s reopening is a direct product of Turkey’s bizarre conception of secularism. Its proponents simply don’t want to allow any form of religious education. The CHP’s second man, Onur Öymen, put this frankly a few years ago.

"If we allow the Halki Seminary," he said, "then we will have to allow Muslim schools, too." That is perhaps why conservative and Islamic circles often tend to be more sympathetic to the reopening of the banned institution. They, after all, know well that there is a problem with the state’s fervent libido dominandi.
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Not at war with US, either

11 Nisan 2009
The boldest headline that President Obama’s visit to Turkey gave the world media was a simple reaffirmation. "The U.S is not and will never be," he said, "at war with Islam." For many Muslims, it was good to hear this because they had really started to suspect that there was a "war on Islam" launched by the American government. In fact, no significant U.S. official had ever said anything close to that. Some of the policies of the Bush administration, from the Iraq War to Guantanamo to "rendition" created doubts and fears. Moreover, some Republican pundits and ideologues, which people perceived as the real mind of the Bush team, engaged in fear mongering about Islam. All these, at the very least, left a bad taste in the mouths of the world’s 1.2 billion Muslims.

Interestingly, this was precisely what al-Qaeda was hoping for when it planned its deadly 9/11 attack on America. According to Jordanian journalist Fouad Hussein, who spent time with al-Qaeda members in a prison cell, the terrorist group’s master plan was based on provoking the United States against the Muslim world. Hussein writes, then "the Islamic nation," which was "in a state of hibernation," would "awake" and unite under the banner of Osama bin Laden and his fellow jihadists. 

That’s why Obama’s election, and the reconciliatory tone he has used since his inauguration, has been the best remedy to al-Qaeda’s agitation. He apparently understands that the best way to "fight terror" is to marginalize the terrorists by winning the masses that they want to take to their side. That’s why he was wise to proclaim "no war with Islam" and to call on the radical actors of the Middle East to "unclench their fists." To make a small contribution to his effort, let me say something else: It is good that America is at not war with Islam because the overwhelming majority of the world’s Muslims are not at war with America, either.

In fact, the values that the U.S is built upon are appreciated by most Muslims who have a chance to learn about them. Take religious freedom. Most Muslims living in America appreciate that they have the full liberty to live according to demands of their faith. They have the right to not just to religious practice but also to creating institutions such as mosques, community centers and religious schools. Meanwhile, such liberties are hardly found in "the Islamic world," in which you are almost always restricted by an official doctrine that is imposed on society. In Europe, basic civil liberties exist, of course, but almost none of the European nations are as welcoming as the Americans to cultural diversity. That’s one reason Muslims in America are much better integrated than the ones in Europe. In other words, what the U.S is hardly comes across as a problem to most Muslims. Problems rather arise from what the U.S does. Or, in other words, from its foreign policy. Yet there is no black-and-white in this matter, either. If you go to the Balkans, especially to Bosnia and Kosovo, you will actually find a quite sympathetic attitude toward America. The reason is obvious: America helped halting the Serbian onslaught that the Bosnians and Kosovars faced during the ’90s. For them, American power implies peace and security.

The core of the problem:
Yet things radically shift when you look at the Middle East. The main reason, as anybody from that region would tell you, is America’s unilateral support to Israel. But please get this right. The problem is not America’s support to Israel’s right to exist. (I am a supporter of that, too.) The problem is America’s (at least perceived) support for Israel’s defiance of Palestine’s right to exist. Since the war of 1967, Israelis are continuously creating "facts on the ground," i.e., illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian territories, and Washington hardly does anything substantive to stop this ongoing and expanding occupation. This only compels the Palestinians to resist by all means necessary, including, regrettably, terrorism. And when Israel hits back on the "terrorists," who often include tragic numbers of women and children, America, too, gets the blame for the bloodshed. This is really the most acute problem that makes Muslims distrustful, and sometimes spiteful, of America. Add to this the support that successive American administrations have given to dictators in the Middle East, and you will see why the perception of the U.S. in the region is so negative. The good news is that since foreign policy is the root of the problem, it can also be the way to solution. Foreign policy can be changed. And that’s why the "change" that Obama has promised, and seems committed to bring, matters a lot.
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To get Turkey right, hear what Obama said

9 Nisan 2009
The trip to Turkey by President Barack Ğ Hussein Ğ Obama, as people loved to emphasize here, was a big success. Except for a few hundred "anti-imperialist," lefty protestors who hit the streets chanting, "Yankee go home," most Turks welcomed him calmly and some even fondly. Some nationalists, including Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, leader Devlet Bahçeli, didn’t like what he said about Turkish-Armenian relations Ğ or rather the lack thereof. But that’s quite normal. The Armenian lobby in the United States, which is no fan of Turkey, didn’t like the way he handled that issue either. The disapproval of extremists on both sides of a question is often the indicator of a fair position.

Personally speaking, I very much liked Obama’s messages. The steps he suggested that Turkey take were completely reasonable. Of course, we need to introduce further reforms to honor the rights of our Kurdish citizens and religious minorities. To be sure, the Halki Seminary, unwisely closed by the Turkish authorities in 1971, needs to be reopened. This is all Democracy 101.

Enter ’secular democracy’

Democracy 102, if you will, was hidden in Mr. Obama’s semantics. In the speech he delivered at the Turkish Parliament, for example, he used a term that we Turks should well note: "secular democracy." This came as he was speaking about the heritage of Atatürk, the country’s founder. "His greatest legacy is Turkey's strong and secular democracy," Obama said. "And that is the work that this assembly carries on today."

While it may not seem like rocket science, that formulation is actually quite brilliant. Because the term, "secular democracy" is not common in Turkey’s political language. We generally, rather, use two different terms: "Secular republic" (laik cumhuriyet) and "democracy" (demokrasi). And these two are sometimes seen as alternatives to each other. Military coups are made, and justified, in the name of the secular republic. And democracy is often loathed by the latter’s zealous defenders as a counter-revolution to theirs. But what is good in a secular republic if is not democratic? The Soviet Union, for example, was a secular republic, but it really was not the place you would want to live in if you have an aspiration for things like civil liberties. The same can be said for North Korea, Red China or Saddam’s Iraq. They all had official ideologies (Kim Il Sungism, Maoism, and Baathism, respectively) that were as secular as they could be. And they all defined themselves as republics. Are you impressed?

What is much better, of course, is to have a democratic ideal, not an official ideology, as the basis of a state. And secularity is only meaningful if it serves this democratic ideal. What secularity does in that context is to save the state, and thus the society, from the dominance of a religious doctrine. But if secularity becomes a doctrine in itself, which aims at suppressing or manipulating religion, then it becomes a threat to the democratic ideal. That is exactly what has happened in Turkey, and that’s why we Turks need to re-understand secularity ("laiklik" as we call it) in a democratic, not autocratic, way.

Obama’s speech not only included a semantic eye-opener in this respect. It also implied that Turkey’s secular state does not have to clash with, and should not blind us from, the Muslim identity of a large portion of its people. Nine times in his speech he referred to Islam and Muslims. And he gave messages that went to not only the Turks but the whole Muslim world: "The U.S. is not, and will never be," he said, "at war with Islam." There is a reason why he said that not in London or Prague, but in Ankara.

The American president also disagreed with those fear-mongering pundits who constantly pump out the idea that Turkey is "turning its face to the East" under its current government. "I know there are those who like to debate Turkey's future," Obama noted, "they wonder whether you will be pulled in one direction or another." And he explained why they were wrong: "Here is what they don't understand: Turkey's greatness lies in your ability to be at the center of things. This is not where East and West divide Ğ it is where they come together. In the beauty of your culture. In the richness of your history. In the strength of your democracy."

Absolutely. The mistake of those "debaters" is to force Turkey to fit into a single identity that they pick and choose. They tend to define it only as a Western ally, a NATO member and a secular republic. This is all true, and very good, but there is more. Turkey is also the heir of the Ottoman Empire, a leading member of the family of predominantly Muslim nations, and the testing ground for the synthesis of Islam and democracy. That is what makes her special. That is what gives her a meaning that goes way beyond its borders. Obviously the American president gets that right. Perhaps it is time for Turks to get it, too.
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An open letter to President Obama

4 Nisan 2009
Dear Mr. President, The last time I saw you, you were in Manassas, Virginia, talking to a crowd of almost 100,000 people, including my humble self. It was the very last night of your election campaign, which promised a change that the whole world could believe in. Luckily, you won the elections, and thus strengthened the hopes of not only millions of Americans but also billions of others from the four corners of the world. The latter includes many Turks, too. As indicated by a recent survey (by the Infakto Research Workshop), you are now the most popular foreign leader in the eyes of the Turkish people. In this highly skeptical nation, that is really a very hard reputation to get.

Turkey and Hamas

That is one of the reasons why I will be happy to see you in my country this Monday. I hope your visit will transform the image of the U.S for the better. Because, as you might have guessed, that image has been severely damaged in the past eight years. The military adventure that you wisely opposed from the beginning, the Iraq War, made most Turks quite disturbed with, and even provoked against, America.

The ongoing plight and tragedy of the Palestinian people, as you would know, also matters much. And while it is mostly related with Israel, it affects not just the image of the Jewish State, but also the whole Western world, and particularly the United States. A recent poll has shown that the attitude toward the West worsened dramatically during the recent Gaza War, in which 1,300 Palestinians were killed. If you can’t help bring some "change" on the Arab-Israeli conflict, this part of the word will not really change that much. But how? I have just read that a group of American foreign policy experts, wise people like former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, have concluded a "Bipartisan Statement on U.S.-Middle East Peacemaking." They call for intense American mediation for a two-state solution, and "a more pragmatic approach toward Hamas." Their latter idea includes bold suggestions such as the following:

"Shift the U.S. objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behavior, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might test its behavior." This is interesting, because Turkey’s foreign policy makers, especially the prime minister’s chief foreign policy adviser, Dr. Ahmet Davutoğlu, have been saying these things all along. Indeed, Turkey itself has been acting as a "third party" that engages with Hamas in order to pull it to a more moderate line.

The previous administration in Washington didn’t like this effort very much, because it was rather focused on "isolating" the groups or countries that it disapproved. Since you are much more willing to engage in dialogue, I believe you can use the help of "third parties" such as Turkey to reach out to actors like Hamas, Syria, and Iran. Even in Afghanistan, Turks have a much better image than other NATO members. What makes Turkey so unique is obvious: It is a predominantly Muslim country having strong ties with other Muslim nations. It is, of course, a Western ally and a secular democracy, too. The combination of these two paradigms is very powerful.

Your advisers might have told you that there is a risk in articulating this fact: Some Turks actually don’t like to hear anything from Americans, or from anybody actually, about the Muslim identity of their country. They believe in a bizarre version of secularism, in which the secularity of the state is expected to define the nation as well. You can either dismiss their paranoia, or, perhaps, help them understand that the secular state does not need to create the society, and the individuals, in its image.

Ah, before I forget, here is a final note on the way we deal with the Armenian tragedy of 1915. I know that you see those events from a different perspective than most Turks, and I respect your willingness to stand by the truth. But please also note that an imposed truth is hardly appreciated, and when political figures make strong comments about what happened a century ago, it is perceived here as an imposition. It also blocks the rapprochement that we need to have with our Armenian neighbors Ğ something our President recently, and wisely, initiated. Finally, let me extend my best wishes for your time in my country. Enjoy the people, the place and the food. And, if you can, spare more time to Istanbul than Ankara. The two are really incomparable.

Sincerely yours,

Mustafa Akyol
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