Semih İdiz

Will the CHP’s cynical ploy work?

28 Kasım 2008
Elections universally elicit strange behavior from politicians. Their whole "raison d’etre," after all, is to win and get on in their careers. In many cases winning is much more important that serving the nation or the people. Thus, in order to win, politicians will often bend over double to pander to sections of society that they normally would not have anything to do with. This may sound cynical, but then politics is a cynical game to start with. Ironically the more democratic a country is, the more cynical the game appears to become.

But in no democratic country can this cynicism attain the levels of absurdity that they can do in Turkey. Take the main opposition Republican Peoples Party, or CHP, for example.

Although it is billed as a "social democratic party," and for this it is a member of the Socialist International today, it has been pandering to the nationalist right-wing these past few years in an effort to shore up dwindling support.

But seeing that this has not brought it the expected results, as the disappointment in the July 2007 elections proved, it is now pandering to a completely different section of society. The whole debate, which continues to rage, started when CHP Leader Deniz Baykal ceremoniously welcomed new members to his party.

But these were no ordinary members. The women involved were bedecked in black chadors, from head to toe. These were not the headscarves that are so much at the center of the social debate in Turkey today.

Women wearing headscarves nevertheless want to go to university and get on in their careers. They are also often careful to appear stylish, despite their ultra-Islamic attire. As for the "chador," or "purdah," two Persian words which have entered the Turkish language as "cadir," meaning tent, and "perde," meaning curtain, it is quite a different thing altogether.

This sheet of black cloth represents a total negation of the woman as a person, leaving her as her husband’s property on which no others may cast an eye. It is therefore the most fundamentalist of Islamic attire as there is nothing worse than it when looked at from a humanist’s perspective.

For the CHP, "a staunch supporter of Kemalist reforms," including, of course, secularism, women’s rights, and liberal modern attire for all, to now start admitting such people into its ranks, under the guise of, "being democratic, and reaching out to everyone," is not something that many, including many genuine CHP supporters, can stomach.

As for Baykal’s justification, this is the funniest of all. According to him there is nothing wrong with the chador as it is not a "political symbol" like the headscarf. How he hopes to fool his own deputies, and the female ones among them, understandably up in arms already, is anyone’s guess.

As for the chador, whether it is a "political symbol" or not, what is certain is that it is the most backward of "religious symbols," representing the darkest and most reactionary of impositions by religious fundamentalism.

Baykal’s move must be seen as ploy as he could have arrived at the realization by which he is now justifying his move much earlier if he was sincere. It is clearly aimed at the nationwide local elections, to be held on March 29, when the CHP needs to desperately win back some of the support it has lost.

But Baykal obviously sees another victory in the making by the ruling Justice and Development party, or AKP, and is trying to change the tide by supposedly reaching out to the AKP’s Islamist grassroots.

Baykal also realizes, of course, that another devastating defeat, which might even include the traditional CHP strongholds of Izmir and the Cankaya district in Ankara, will undermine his party’s credibility, even among the staunchest of supporters who have stuck by it through thick and thin.

Whether his pandering to fundamentalists in this way, in order to allay such a prospect, will work remains to be seen. The chances are that come March this will rebound seriously and lose him and the CHP as much support, if not more, as it brings in.

Of course Prime Minster Erdogan and the political rivals of the CHP were quick to latch on to this move of Baykal’s and to mock him facetiously and ferociously, by taunting him and saying that, "he has finally come around to seeing the truth," and daring him to, "stay true to this new path of his."

It remains to be seen who gets the last laugh in March. But the person getting most of the laughs at the moment is highly apparent.
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What is ’civilized politics?’

21 Kasım 2008
Klaus Emmerich, a "veteran commentator" for Austrian state broadcaster, ORF, in reference to Barack Obama’s victory, said a few days ago, he "would not want the western world to be directed by a black man." When invited to retract the comment, the man described by Spiegel Online as "the Wolf Blitzer of Austria," stood defiantly by what he said, stating "blacks are not as politically civilized." Adding insult to injury he went on to conclude that Obama’s election was as misplaced as a Turk becoming the next chancellor of Austria. It is easy to dismiss these despicable remarks as belonging to someone who has a screw loose in the brain. Given the state of political developments in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, however, they have to be taken seriously and commented on.

Besides, Emmerich could not have gained the status of veteran commentator if he was not somehow representative of the society he lives in. Given the far-right has made significant gains in that country, and employing the methodology of a famous; and in this case, "truly civilized" Austrians, namely Sigmund Freud, it is clear Emmerich’s remarks express an atavistic fear embedded in the national subconscious.

The historian Mark Mazower in an article in the Financial Times on Monday, carrying the title, "Prejudice in Europe is more than skin deep," wrote a comment such as Emmerich's "would be political suicide in the United States," whereas in Austria, "it earned little more than a slap on the wrist."

Mazower; a master of deconstructing European history and reconstructing it the way it should have been written in the first place, went on to ask, "How is it that while both places have their fair share of racism, one finds such contrasting public and political responses?"

That question we leave to political scientists and social psychologists to answer. But the relatively muted public and political response Emmerich received in his own country is further evidence in support of the contention he is "representative," and this is what makes it even more intriguing.

It is a mystery how Emmerich, and those that think like him in Austria and elsewhere in Europe, could even dare to suggest, given Europe’s dark and bloody history, that "blacks are not as politically civilized," as them.

Unless, that is, they believe one of the most "uncivilized" political monsters the world has ever known was not actually of European stock, but a "crypto-black man," or a "hidden-Turk" from some strange latter-day "Moriscos" or "Marranos" stock.

It is intriguing how they can even think "blacks are not as politically civilized," when the world can clearly see that politicians in Austria today who claim the Nazi’s were not so bad after all, are still able to garner public support. Given this discrepancy, it is clear Emmerich and his ilk have to explain what it is exactly they mean when they say "politically civilized."

As for Obama’s historic election, Emmerich conveniently overlooks, even though we are told he served as ORF representative in Washington for some years, and one wonders who he hung out with while there, that this "black man" was elected to the "White House" by whites.

It is pretty clear that until views such as Emmerich’s are relegated to the rubbish heap of history and attract the correct public and political response, questions will remain about Austria, for all its veneer of "civility" and somewhat inflated self-image. This of course applies to quite a few countries in Europe today. As Mazower says, "History can be cruel. Generations of Europeans grew up with the goal of ethnic homogeneity as one nation after the other across the continent tried to purify themselves."

For this, they had to go through World War II. Today, however, they are faced, no doubt as some kind of divine retribution for colonial sins, with a host of new minorities which, in their perverse minds, are "worse than the Jews."

To quote Mazower, "The result is a kind of cognitive dissonance. Europeans inhabit increasingly globalized multi-ethnic societies; yet their attitudes remain shaped by a 19th century mindset." It appears, in light of this basic truth, there are quite a few Europeans who are due for a rude awakening in the face of reality as it is unfolding in the world today. This environment provides good "political fertilizer," of course, for all sorts of nut-case, neo-fascist supremacists, whose impossible dream is to try and return the world to what it was in the 19th century.

We hope, for the sake of truly civilized Austrians, that their country elects a black man or a Turk as chancellor as soon as possible.

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EU silent despite AKP’s mounting sins

14 Kasım 2008
It should be much more apparent to European diplomats today, that the relative leniency with which the European Union is approaching the Erdogan government’s sins against democracy and human rights, is being used to the advantage of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP. We have been trying for weeks to warn that selective criticisms leveled at Turkey by EU officials are disheartening pro-EU elements in Turkey. For example, the same officials who made negative remarks against the AKP over the closure case, have not been vocal in the face of some highly telling, and to that extent worrying, salvos from government quarters.

Granted the 2008 progress report touches on, almost with kid gloves and indirectly at that, Prime Minister Erdogan’s attacks against the media in connection with corruption cases, and on Chief of the General Staff Gen. Basbug’s threats to the media in connection with the fight against terrorism.

This, however, does not appear to have made much of an impression on the government, which is supposed to take Turkey closer to the EU by initiating reforms and making headway according to the Copenhagen Criteria. Put another way, the Erdogan government does not consider itself reprimanded by the Progress Report. It behaves, rather, as if it could care less about what is in the report.

However its "sins against the Copenhagen Criteria" are increasing, yet no one, other than European deputy Joost Lagendijk that is, appear to have much to say on this front. Just a look at the government’s recent record should send shivers up European spines. Especially among those who invested so much hope in this government.

w Prime Minister Erdogan calls for media boycotts because of the way it reported the Deniz Feneri corruption case in Germany, an extension of which clearly existed in Turkey and involved quarters very close to the AKP.

w Prime Minister Erdogan justified the use of sawed-off shotguns by individuals against pro-Kurdish demonstrators, saying citizens have the right to protect themselves. The fact that he is inciting armed violence does not appear to concern him much.

w Prime Minister Erdogan started to play the ultra-nationalist and told pro-Kurdish politicians to either respect the flag and nation or leave the country. He conveniently forgot there were times his party had been attacked for being "Islamist" by opponents who said, "Either respect secularism or go to Saudi Arabia."

w In the same vein, AKP Yozgat deputy Abdulkadir Akgul while arguing with pro-Kurdish deputy Hasip Kaplan in Parliament, went as far as saying, "I would of course take pleasure in shooting those who are against their own state and nation."

w State Minister Nimet Cubukcu is more concerned with slinging mud at Sarah Ferguson and the ITN network for exposing abuse in centers for disabled children in Turkey, than explaining what she intends to do to bring these centers up to EU standards. Having been caught out two years ago in a similar incident in Malatya, exposed by the Turkish media on that occasion, she clearly has done little in the meantime to improve standards in these centers.

w Defense Minister Vecdi Gonul came out with remarks justifying what amounts to ethnic cleansing by saying that if Greeks and Armenians remained in Anatolia, Turkey would not be a national state today. He totally disregarded the pain and suffering of Greek, Armenian and Turks alike in the past, and left open the question of his opinion on the Kurdish problem in this country, relative to his despicable views.

w The government continues to be reluctant to act in the face of mounting police brutality, torture, and abuse of women, which continues unabated, with impunity, and remains committed to the tradition of protecting those guilty of the crimes. When it does act, on the other hand, it does not do so on its own initiative, but because the issue has caused a major public outcry.

w The Prime Ministry tries to ban "undesirable reporters" from covering Prime Minister Erdogan by canceling their accreditation, even though it can not accuse the banned reporters of writing untruths or of fabrication. The government followed the lead of the General Staff in this respect, showing once again how much of a defender of the traditional status quo it has become. The bottom line here is that Mr. Erdogan wants "AKP friendly news" and loses control, both verbally and otherwise, when he does not get it.

Even this list and the relative silence in the face of it in Europe makes one wonder if Brussels is following these developments as closely as one would expect, with a view to giving appropriate signals at the right time to Ankara, to try and reign in some of the abuses and spur the government toward an EU perspective.

Granted the EU’s hard working envoy in Ankara, Ambassador Marc Pierini, said in a piece he wrote for the Daily News recently, "The Progress Report is not meant to comment on the acts and words of a given set of personalities, nor on specific events." He is absolutely correct about this, as the progress report by its nature is about principles and criteria rather than personalities. But what we are referring to here is other Europeans, be they from individual EU countries, the European Commission or the EU Parliament, who were so vocal on issues such as 301, Orhan Pamuk, the Hrant Dink murder and the AKP closure case in the past, but prefer to remain silent in the face of further serious abuses by the AKP.

Europe should not, however, be blinded by what appears to be support for the AKP, and against those elements it finds undesirable in Turkey. Especially now the Erdogan government has started to behave just like those elements.

The whole idea behind the EU perspective is positive change under the umbrella of lofty ideals, which include human rights and press freedom. If this does not happen, then the EU will start to lose its meaning, even for Turks who have supported this perspective strongly hitherto.
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A black man in the White House portends change

7 Kasım 2008
The election of a black man to the White House has sent a wave of hope around the globe that positive change is in fact possible. In this sense, one may say that this is as much the dawn of a new era for the world as it is for the United States.

President-elect Barack Obama’s complicated family history is also testimony to the culturally and racially interactive world we live in today. In this sense, Senator Obama’s landslide victory, 40 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, is also evidence that if one has a dream and faith in that dream, then it will come true no matter how long it takes.

There are of course other important messages embedded in this historic turn of events. One is that no matter how many conservative and reactionary elements resist change, seeing this as the single most important threat to their existence, objective developments in society and the world will sweep them aside eventually. In this respect, this victory has shown, and we do believe that there is a message in this for Turkey also, that if you try to conduct politics on the basis of racial and religious prejudices, you may make some headway, but in the final analysis you will be left behind.

In the end Obama was elected on his platform of change despite his race, and that he was supposedly “tainted with Muslim blood.” Having said all this, even President-elect Obama knows that we live in a very real world. It is not for nothing, after all, that one American commentator after another is saying that Obama has a massive burden on his shoulders of now fulfilling his election promises. That he will not be able to fully do so is apparent even at this moment and one does not have to be a cynic to say it because it is just the way the world is.

We have to recall that our own Justice and Development Party, or AKP, was elected not once but twice, on the promise of changing the status quo and ushering in a new era for the country. It was this promise that also made liberal secularists in Turkey support the party initially. The AKP however turned into a bastion of the same status quo that it was supposed to change. So the risk of elected leaders forgetting their promises in the face of the facts of life, is always there.

Although it was not the main concern on the minds of the electorate in these elections, Iraq will remain a major issue for the Obama administration. It is clear that the promise to pull back troops according to a set date will have to be honored to an extent. This and other factors related to the Iraq issue will continue to make Turkish-American relations vitally important for the Obama administration. Their campaign document on foreign policy openly points to this fact.

It can be expected, therefore, that the new administration will want to make itself known to Ankara as soon as possible to ensure that the political infrastructure for its Iraq policy is laid out soundly. There is some concern in all this as to how the Obama administration is going to handle the Armenian genocide issue, come April. He has committed himself very strongly as far as the American Armenian community is concerned.

But whether Obama will want to be the cause of a major crisis in relations with Turkey at a time when what is needed is just the opposite, remains to be seen. What is certain is that he will have to perform a very subtle balancing act. Of course, the fact that there is a path between Turkey and Armenia aimed at normalizing relations will lighten his burden. He can after all point to this and say that there is no point causing tension at a time when Turkey and Armenia are engaged in a search for better ties.

If, on top of this, the talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh yield positive results, this will also help the Obama administration against the Armenian lobby, as its interests lie in seeing a stable Caucasus that is also American friendly. Firstly, however, we have to see who it is that President-elect Obama chooses for posts such as Secretary of State and Defense. This will also give an indication of the kind of policies he hopes to pursue.

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