Tuesday, July 28, 2009

America’s race contoversy and lessons for Turkey

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on July 28, 2009-

-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 28 Temmuz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

The race issue resurfaced in America last week. Firstly, I would like to quickly remind of the incident that has shaken the United States over the past two weeks. Black Harvard University scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates was arrested outside his home on July 16 by a white police officer. According to the story, Gates, returned from a trip and was trying to get into his own house, and in realizing that his front door was jammed, requested the help of his well built limo driver to open the jammed door. A neighbor, who saw these two men trying to open the door by force, contacted police concerned that a break-in was in progress. Shortly after, the police arrived and asked this black man to identify himself to ensure no break-in was taking place. From this point on the narratives seem to differ. Debates now surround the questions of whether the police were just doing their job in trying to secure the neighborhood, or whether the black man, who happens to be one of the most prominent black scholars in America, was racially profiled, interrogated and fingered as a criminal just because he was black.

After almost a week of relatively low profile discussions, at a time when the controversy seemed to have started to die down, Obama was asked about the incident during his prime time news conference. Obama first acknowledged that he did not have all the facts on this local incident, but went on to make a strong statement anyway. Obama said that in many cases, it is a fact that minorities in America are still being treated unjustly, and he quickly went on to offer support to his long-term black scholar friend over this issue. However, he especially attracted strong reactions when he stated that the police, who oversaw this arrest, 'acted stupidly'.

Though the news conference was about health care reform, it was this statement that attracted the greatest attention in the days that followed. The majority of U.S. media, the right, left and mainstream, challenged Obama's remarks. This time, it was about Obama mishandling a delicate issue without knowing the facts, while implying the arrest was racially stimulated. Over the three days that followed, slowly recognizing his mistake, Obama started to act more like a president and softened his language. Consequently, without openly apologizing, he and his senior aides conceded that the words Obama used were regrettable and had only exacerbated the situation. To ease the situation, Obama invited both parties for beers at the White House, and probably when this get together takes place this week, America will take lessons from this trip up, and try to, hopefully, use it as a step forward toward conciliatory actions, initiatives and committees to make progress in the race issue.

And now we shift our focus Turkey, and what happens when Turkey's talkative prime minister mishandles an issue or misspeaks, and makes things worse. There are so many examples to choose from, so I will choose a recent one. It relates to the prime minister's coarse remarks made last week over the very sad death of a young girl, Munevver, who was murdered by her boyfriend. According to Erdogan, this young girl's death was essentially her parents' fault because they had allowed her to date the boy! It is hard to imagine the effects that such an unmeasured and cruel statement would have on the parents that had just lost their daughter in a tragic murder.

There are so many faulty messages embodied in this latest dispatch that one wonders where to begin and how to articulate it. However, I can tell you this much, Erdogan, as the leader of a country, should keep his personal beliefs on family orientation and how children should be raised to himself, rather than intruding into this family’s tragedy. His apparent religious outlook must be held in and not stated in public, particularly while he is speaking as the prime minister of this country. 

In this situation, as leader, he sends voters the message that his way of life is somehow preferable to the one that led to the girl's death. Only a very few weak voices were raised against Erdogan from Islamic and pro-AKP media over this grim message. And this spineless attitude of Turkey's conservative conscious means that time and time again, this country loses any chance of reconciliation.

In the American example, nobody denied that the race issue still plays a role in American society and needs to be dealt with decisively. Everyone was also in agreement that Obama, as a post-partisan and post-racism president, used ill-chosen words and offended a segment of American society. Many thought that he should have taken the stance of everyone’s president, and not necessarily as a black man who in the past may have had some bad experiences because of the color of his skin. The democratic and republican media alike, though their tones and approaches differed, came down heavily on this attitude. And this assertive approach of the nation’s media and intellectuals forced Obama to backpedal and take a step in the right direction, and to maybe open a door for a more constructive role at this point. In the end, through this confrontation and the media's tough love for Obama, American society won.

In Turkey, the media fails to get their acts together to confront the prime minister on the numerous occasions like these in which he makes many obvious mistakes. Turkey’s intellectuals showed the same careless attitude, for instance, in another episode illustrating Erdogan's vulgar remarks when he labeled those that do not refer to his party as he wishes, as a 'shameless bunch'. Instead of confronting Erdogan, some open-minded young writers even went so far as to attempt to explain that as the party leader he has the right to name the party as he chooses and that everybody should respect it. Nobody has a problem with this notion. The problem relates to the way in which Erdogan makes his request and the outcome of his insulting countless people.

Leaders, like all humans, unfortunately make mistakes. However, the real lessons to be made, like the American example, is that the leader should be apt to showing regret over inappropriate remarks and then try to apply this as the stepping stone to start something better and more productive. And if a leader cannot display the courage to do so, it is up to the media and intellectuals to use their persuasiveness to make a case for it. For instance, imagine what would have happened had Erdogan visited or telephoned Munevver's parents and said that he was misunderstood or that he shares their pain. This small jest could have opened a whole new way forward for the different segments of society. However, these dark and belittling remarks continue building up in the minds of the people and divide the country even further.

Though, as time goes by, the more I start to wonder if we really want to pursue any kind of reconciliation at all.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

America is not home

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on July 25, 2009-

-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 25 Temmuz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Last Wednesday evening, prime time American TV channels were once again dominated by the president of the United States, Barack Obama. This is his fourth prime time appearance since coming to office, whereas the previous president, George W. Bush, reached this number during his eight years in office. This clearly shows how much Obama loves the prime time TV talk spots and also that the American people still are interested in what he has to say. This interest, undoubtedly, is good news for Obama as it gives him the chance to speak to his people, often directly, instead of the few seconds of news bits along with the brutal commentators' stingy interventions.

I, like many Americans, tuned in to the event. Obama, standing in the East Room of the White House before a dim background lit by two bright candles, seemed like a saint or a savior, or both. Lasting about 55 minutes, the conference was specifically focused on the health care reform that Obama has been pushing for some time as his first big policy change. Although the press conference was about the health care proposal, we still expected to hear a couple of questions with respect to the international arena.

Amid Obama's long answers to the health care reform questions, no one had the opportunity to ask or even try to ask non-domestic questions. In that respect, the press conference was such a contrast from the ones that were made by his predecessor. President Bush's press conferences were mostly about other countries' problems. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Palestine and China were just some of the countries that were on the table for questions. Most of the time, what was happening in America did not attract much attention or any questions during Bush press conferences.

The Bush presidency, with its arrogance or high ambitions, depending on how you look at it, was trying to shape the world and the problematic regions around the globe. The Obama presidency, on the other hand, has been so far, focused solely on domestic problems, or as Obama constantly reiterates, on problems that have been inherited from the previous administration. Bush had few domestic agendas and little time to allocate to those problems. For example, Bush decided to overhaul the social security system in 2005, right after he was re-elected. However, after few weeks of pushing, rallying and bickering to privatize the social security system, patience quickly melted away when it hit opposition from the Democrats on the Hill with the help of the Government Accounting Office's cold water projections over the reform. And the Bush administration continued with its freedom agenda preaching democracy to rest of the world, as it seemed for most of the part, the economy was growing, unemployment was at a record low and there was no crisis looming.

Now, after eight years of outward-looking presidency, America has its own inward-looking presidency to deal with its own vital issues.

America has been getting poorer by the day and its debt scares even the average American. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms for Obama is his seemingly careless attitude towards the growing deficit, which he only started to address in this last press conference more brusquely. This enormous debt, which is over $11 trillion, an important part of it to China and fast accumulating as we speak, not only strikes Obama's standing in terms of domestic politics, but also decamps his saintly profile in the international arena. For instance, Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton could not even speak out over what happened to the Uyghur Turks in China. America, which is supposed to root passionately for people who simply seek their human and democratic rights, has unusually kept mum and its mouth shut.

It can be safely said now that, except for the Afghanistan War, America's domestic agenda is its only priority. In that respect, America might want to broker a peace deal between Israel and Palestine, however, if Israel were to use its leverage in Capitol Hill to slow down some of the important components of legislation with its die hard backers there, Obama might think that this slowing down could be more deadly to his presidency than postponing the peace process a few more months.

In brief, the period of pre-emptive enemy attacks, unilateral approaches, crazy spending and living beyond ones means, are over. Many Americans are having difficulty adjusting to these new times and to developing a habit of saving for darker days. And the American economy, which is based on consumption, is getting another hit and spiraling into a vicious circle with this new enforced strange attitude.

Amid this gloomy outlook of American internal affairs, Obama knows he can only be a hero if he tackles at least some of these America's domestic challenges in the coming months.

The only question now is whether Obama is the right guy to carry out this historic mission. Obama needs to get the economy going again, balance the budget, reform broken systems such as health care, and primary and secondary education, fix the infrastructure of the country, create new jobs, set the painful and unpopular restrictions to use cleaner industries, end the wars, dismantle nuclear weapons across the globe and stop North Korea and Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and attend to other urgent matters at the same time. Was there any U.S. president, or any other president in history, who has this many fiery problems all at once? I doubt it.

The American people hope and pray that Obama is the 'one,' the one that only comes once in a generation to save the nation from all its troubles and resurrect its buoyancy. Obama has been casting himself as that 'one'. The real tests and thrilling episodes for him and for America will start as of September, something we will discuss here extensively in future columns.

In the meantime, a note for foreign indigents who look for America's help: Until America's own spirit is revived and rekindled, America is not home.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is Obama's magic real?

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on July 20, 2009-

-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 20 Temmuz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Americans are having difficulty understanding what they are going through. The United States economy, like the rest of the world's, has gone through crises every once in a while. However, these were overcome pretty quickly and America has come back even stronger than before. For over two years now the American people have been talking constantly about the present economic crisis, unemployment, food stamps and bankruptcies. Waking up from their dreams and going back to work in the morning in their gigantic SUVs seems not to be happening. All the TV pundits are joining forces to do everything in their power to bring the people the worst comments about what is happening. Waking up to such a nightmare every morning has been demoralizing the American people and destroying their confidence. 

Not only America, Adam Smith is also despondent. The famous economist, who defined the invisible forces of the free market that are supposed to find the best outcome for all from perfect competition, became a scapegoat for today's problems. Instead of individual entrepreneurship, the only hope now is government money and government investments. Economists like Joe Stiglitz or Paul Krugman, the most visible post-Keynesian preachers of today, lead the list of those who offering cures for all the economic woes. Stiglitz, the moral economist, is being hailed as a contemporary prophet in this week's Newsweek. 

On the other hand, the American Republican party has the blues. Although they seem to have gotten just about everything wrong for some time, they also seem to be more concerned with balancing the federal budget than getting out of the recession. However, the sins of their party's previous administration – expanding the American government further, deregulating financial markets and announcing bank bailouts, etc. – have been discrediting every argument they strive to make. It has been seven months since Obama moved into the White House, and although hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on bank bailouts and stimulus packages, unemployment has been rising much faster than predicted and the good news is stuck somewhere from where it is unable to come out. Despite all the problems the U.S. administration is having today, the Republicans are still failing make any gains in the polls. Obama, on the other hand, has been hanging tall in the job approval ratings. 

The more I listen to Obama, the more I think that he should have been a preacher or a civil society leader rather than a politician. His speeches, whether given at in a Catholic institution or across the Muslim world; in an African country or in Ohio at a health-care rally, continue to give me goose bumps. He touches on the right tone, without appeasing the crowds he talks to. A recent speech he made took place at the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, addressing the black people of America. His thirty-five minute long speech began with his speaking about black America during the last century and then moved on to the Civil Rights movement of the sixties. He added how much both the black people and the race issue have changed for the better and how there is probably less discrimination in American now than ever before. Though at the end, he swiftly shifted the blame on the black parents of today for not doing enough and for not extending a helping hand to ensure the future success of their children. Obama implied, black parents have been complaining more that society is hampering the advancement of their children, rather than pushing them for hard work and success.

America also is currently trying to overhaul its health care system. Obama and his cabinet, though not necessarily all the Democratic members of the Congress, have been pushing to change the health care system, expand health coverage to include everyone, insure the poor and pay the extra costs by raising taxes, mostly on the rich, and incurring an even bigger deficit. The failure of the Clinton administration to change the health care system in 1993 is still in people's minds. Obama knows very well that should he fail to change the health sector around this time, the Democrats' biggest campaign promise will be seen as a sham and will never happen. Although Obama has enough political skills and his party has majority in the Congress to pass a legislation of this caliber, what matters the most at this point is the timing. The vital issues, such as America's $11 trillion debt, $2 trillion of which is to China, new investments on green energy technologies and the two wars, are choking the young administration even its 7th month. 

Obama is still walking a very thin line. The health care reform is becoming or has become a defining step, not only for his administration, but also for the country. Whether one supports the change to the system or not, Obama has now made the overhaul of this $2.5 trillion sector his number one signature 'change' policy, and that will define America's destiny for the coming years. Therefore, if Obama fails to make this change, the magic of Obama simply might disappear and the guy, who is being considered a modern Moses with his eagerness, could suddenly become another mortal politician who just tries to look like someone he is not. If Obama fails, his remaining three years will be in doubt, and everything he attempts do will be closely questioned. 

Under normal circumstances, questioning, debating and slowing down the process would define the American governing system and what everybody understands by it. Now, on the other hand, Americans cannot afford to wait or move slowly. Bankruptcies, job losses and a whole set of other failures are not something that Americans can live with for a long time. These problems can be tolerated only over short periods. If they linger longer than they are supposed to, then the conviction and coolness of the American spirit will be in doubt. If America feels itself insecure about solving both the world's and its own problems, and opts out of his super power role, this cannot be good for either America or for a world that is not ready for such a 'change'. 

Saturday, July 18, 2009

When will the Gulenists reveal their Turkey vision? (IV)

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on July 17, 2009-

-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 17 Temmuz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

This is the final part of the series that I have been writing on the Gulenist movement in light of the recent presentation that was given at an important think tank in Washington, DC. I have been also receiving quite a few emails regarding this series. The majority of the e-mails have been from curious minds ranging from Turkey to Europe, and to the United States. Some of these e-mails are from non-Turkish readers, and apparently they have also come across Gulen institutions in different countries and cannot make up their minds about what they see.

These emails once again showed me that people who have no affiliations with any organizations or specifics agendas, without knowing exactly what this movement is all about, have genuine concerns about the movement and what it strives to accomplish. Only a few years back, while working mostly within Turkey, the movement did not attract this much attention. However, especially since the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, came to power and Turkey has been changing and apparently becoming more conservative, the average person has also started to ask questions more intensely. And it is true that for an outsider, to know and understand the Gulen movement would be almost an impossible task to accomplish. The movement has many references and multiple levels to comprehend. Thus, the movement has to sincerely start thinking about how to explain themselves in better terms. And I will give some start points here.

On the one hand, the old way of ruling is not working in Turkey. Circumstances that have been in place for a long time now are cracking. Therefore, in these historic times, the Gulen movement needs to be integrated into the system and to do that we need sides to step up. And, luckily, I am here to tell how this integration can be started and try to lay out a constructive path to follow.

As Alp Aslandoğan mentioned in his presentation, the movement cannot just be wished away. And let's be honest: such movements cannot and should not be stopped by force or anti-democratic campaigns. There are hundreds of thousands of people who have believed in and given just about everything they have for this movement for decades. Only for this reason, not to disappoint the supporters after all their hard work, can the movement take on many challenges now.

At the same time, Turkey should not be forced to go through another painful chapter either. The representatives and guardians of Turkish State regime, first of all, need to start loosening up a little bit, sit and talk. This does not mean and should not sound like I suggest for anyone to accept the surrender, if it is implied in any sense. This talking has to have a purpose to reach common understandings for a way forward. One of those common grounds must be, for example, a secular democracy. The movement seems to be at ease with spelling out the terms of the republic and democracy since the 1990s, though we never hear anything about secularism. Or other specific issues that effect many average people. Such as, how will minority rights be protected? While targeting equality in new times, how can we ensure that there will be no vengeance?

In order to ensure that everyone will have rights in the future and make everyone feel safe, the Gulen movement, as the largest Islamic one in Turkey, will have to reveal their vision and principal pillars for all of Turkey. The movement has every means to explain its Turkey manifestation, and now’s the time to do it. It can be done by giving a simple interview by a leader or one of its spoke-persons. Millions of people in Turkey and many curious observers and lovers of this country would like to hear from this impressive faction about the country that they are dreaming of, in real and tangible fashions. And one could find that the majority of these millions would agree to change the distorted secular system that has been applied in the country, because many are aware that secularism depressed an awful a lot of people. Though after getting rid of this distorted secularism, will the new Turkey have a real secularism that will separate the state from the religion? Will there be the kind of secularism that will not impose any one religion on another and protect the people of a minority being imposed upon by the majority?

The movement’s schools impress everyone around the globe, and apparently the members of the movement know what they are doing. So why can’t we also talk about the education system? Or how will we uphold the law and what kind of law, and make sure that the independent judiciary, free speech and media are in place? Yes, military personnel should be free to practice or marry to anyone, with headscarf or not, if they wish, but will this military also hire young kids from Alevi or Kurdish segments of society? What is more, can any minority live free from pressure and rise up in military or State ranks in that planned vision? Many people cannot be sure if this will happen and because of this suspicion, they would rather play for a safe hand, the one that they already know with its weaknesses and shortcomings than the one they have no idea about. And the emails I received show just that.

The members of the movement do not like to hear harsh criticism and respond that they are not hiding anything. And these average citizens of Turkey would like to believe that. Though, this does not happen with only words. For example, as one of those unbiased intellectual brains asked me to ask: once the headscarf issue is resolved and being pious does not prevent anyone from working or living wherever, only one’s success does, then what else is there that the movement will wish to see changed in the country.

Again, let’s be honest, today’s Turkey stinks when it comes to human rights issues and lags desperately behind. We can all agree on that. Though the question is, once we get rid of these stains, how can average people be sure of not coming across new stains? More openly, how will the new conscience be able to help maintain a neutral governing system in which people would not be pressured for not fasting, or going to Friday prayers, etc.?

Even now, many of conservative and religious writers still do think there is no neighborhood pressure in Turkey. How will these writers be more objective and sensitive to the members of other religions or non-religious in the future, leaving aside gays or atheists? This last column is mostly addressed to the members of the movement who ask me why I ask these questions, because the truth is already out there! And if the truth is out there, how about writing those truths on a piece of paper and passing it on to everyone. If there really is nothing to hide, which many wish to believe and support much great work that the movement has done around world, then why not spell it out openly, at least the fundamental truths. So that, if God forbid anything happens in the future, responsible people can be held accountable. And for the last time, I am not siding with anyone, nor part of any grand conspiracy. I am just a citizen of Turkey. I have, along with millions of others, the right to ask and to know exactly what their plan for Turkey is. These questions are coming from me. Who, I think, does know a thing or two about you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Why were the Gulenists inevitable? (III)

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on July 14, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 14 Temmuz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

In my previous two columns I analyzed some of the shortcomings as well the changing attitudes of the Gulen Movement in light of the recent presentation made by a member of the movement in Washington, DC. Only criticizing the movement does not give the whole picture. The conditions that have given birth to this movement also need to be examined.

First of all, it should be known that the Gulen movement is one of the most genially structured organizations on earth. There are few movements in the history of mankind that have had such ambitions and aspirations: Patience, hard work, planning, leadership and purpose. Every single building block for revolutionary work was embedded in the movement. These elements have been perfectly matched throughout time.

At the beginning, the movement had its own historic reasons, firm steps and right nuances. And even today, the movement still has these elements with unprecedented success around the globe to further fuel the excitement of its members. In the past, the movement established and worked only from houses and dormitories; subsequently it established schools and classes preparing students for university entrance exams. During the last decade, these same structures have been carried out outside of Turkey in the form of universities and other institutions.

Now, let's look at the current Turkish Republic's regime and how we reached this point. The Turkish Republic also was founded on strong and legitimate pillars. Young Turkey had an independent vision, contemporary ideals and aimed for the well-being of its people. The Republic was created out of hard-fought wars, from a heroic rebellion with the solidarity of its entire people, despite the fact that the peasants of this new Republic were extremely poor, illiterate and as Yakup Kadri's "Yaban" tells us, were even tired of their independence wars.

The new republican regime, combined with secularism and democracy, prevented this new Muslim country of becoming one of those third world countries that continually struggles and yet fails to reach these very ideals. Despite all the misdeeds and weaknesses, the new Turkish regime had enough components of a modern democracy. The Republic was founded on the very premise of big 'change': shifting to new and modern times with a novel and fresh regime as its aspiration.

Unfortunately, the Republic that has been created on these strong pillars has been mismanaged. The people who were the leading figures in society and politics of this new Republic, along the years, started to think more about themselves than the people. After a time, Mustafa Kemal, who led the soldiers and the nation to triumph, has been taken hostage by this new elitist class that aimed to protect its own status. Serving the Republic and making it better for its people became a secondary priority, replaced with the protection of their own well-being.

For a few decades the Republic’s mistakes were forgiven. After all, it was a matter of survival. When one looks at America, the beacon of democracy in the world at the time, one would find a very cruel and unjust picture of a culture which the current American society is still struggling to outdistance itself from with its new black president. In the 1920s, American society’s approach to equality was, in essence, far worse than that of Turkey. However, that America emerged from its backwardness, and yet Turkey, though it certainly doesn't have that kind of a cruel past, its rulers wanted the country to be frozen in those years, maybe forever.

The product of a great revolution or change, young Turkey took exactly the opposite direction of the tenets of its foundation and its raison d’être. Through the years, the regime focused more on self-preservation. Instead of binding together the different segments of society, trying to achieve democracy and opening it up to everyone, the same class strived to preserve the regime untouched by the influence of changing times and the aspirations of its own people. Amid this vicious circle of seeking its own security only, the Republic has shut itself to the outside world and started to stumble. Of course, many international reasons also played a huge role in this inward closing.

The young Republic had most of the elements infused in the system by its founding father to catch up with the Western peers, but it missed its chances to take advantage of them on many occasions. Not only was the republican elite to blame for these lost chances. The reactionary administrations also seemed lacking in the vision to carry the regime to its final destination of being a modern and secular democracy. Compared to other Muslim and third world countries, Turkey indeed was very lucky to experience a modern way of managing a country. In particular, intellectuals from many other nations continued glimpsing at our modern state regime, wishing that they could have the same experience as we did. Nevertheless, they never had their own visionary leader, nor an uprising to bring or even understand the notion of democracy or secularism.

Yes, although it had many historic reasons and barriers, the Republic did not live up to the expectations. Many of the bureaucratic, judiciary and military elite or elitists wanted to have a republic that only works for them and the people that come after them.

This Republic was not exactly the same republic that was once envisioned. Turkey stopped evolving and wanted to remain as if it were in its first decades. This elitist attitude irritated the average individual and made them turn their backs to the state. The people of this independent country even started not to celebrate or even remember its Independence Day or other republican holidays. This reaction of the people created its own intellectuals and waves, in many different ways and forms, in recent decades. The Gulen movement, as one of those reactionary movements, also emerged at about this time.

It is now virtually inevitable. The movement moved to fill the gap that was left between the regime and its people. The Turkish people, especially the pious ones, felt squeezed out and left behind by their state, and searched for alternatives. What we need to do now is to ask the tough questions to try to inject the right tones to the emerging conscience so that these alternatives feel the need to explain their visions openly and spell out the manifestations they have in their mind for Turkey. I will ask some of the starter questions in my next column to finish this series, for now.

How do the Gulenists change the rules? (II)

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on July 11, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 11 Temmuz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

In my last column I started to analyze the remarks that Alp Aslandogan, a board member of the Gülen Institute in the United States, made to a leading American think tank in Washington, D.C., about, and I believe on behalf of, the Gülen movement. Although especially nowadays, one does not need to have a specific reason to talk and analyze the movement, because it is truly a phenomenon in Turkey and is becoming one in the world as well. The presentation was still an important opening up of the movement, which needs to be pondered upon carefully, diligently and if necessary, harshly. I will do so by trying to follow a path of constructive criticism, rather than a destructive one.

Today, in its glorious days, the movement is becoming increasingly unbounded against any criticism in a sense that it either appears not to care about the outsiders’ observations or, maybe most of the time, it takes any criticism that is being played out as a crusade by some grand coalition and conspiracy. Confusing the real world with the cosmic one, the movement sees itself many times as self-righteous and blessed in every occasion, and surrounded with miracles. Consequently, when hearing any criticism against its wishes and work, it equates suspicious inquirers either with iniquity or having ulterior motives. “Itaat,” or obedience, therefore becomes the first and the most important characteristic of a “good” and “trusted” member. It can be safely said that any member who cannot prove his fealty to the elders, also cannot be trusted with handling sensible issues. Thus, it doesn’t matter whether one is an editor-in-chief of the movement’s newspaper or manages a few students in a humble “lighthouse,” one has to have a deep understanding of obedience. This sense of commitment to the elders and taking their orders in a cultural setting without objection along the years leads to ill-fated personalities and docile followers. Living in such an environment for so long, many of these people simply become afraid to face the outside or are too weak to live in a real world.

Most of the time, the state of self-righteousness in the movement is so apparent that one can witness it in any discussion one engages with its members. Apart from the details, it is almost impossible to convince or make sense to the members on many issues, especially those that relate to the movement. Though this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because as we all know that as long as one believes that one is following the quasi-sacred decrees, the work one does must be also sacred and cannot be understood by outsiders. And amid this detachment, the movement justifies any conduct to achieve its ends at any cost. For instance, if passing school entry test questions to the movement’s pupils is a justifiable way to ride into any kind of school that is important to attend even it can be done for years, even if it means usurping the rights of other pupils. But again, others are just others.

Like many organizations, the Gülenist institutions too are very vulnerable to incompetence of their staff. The incompetence becomes especially evident among the people who run various organizations of the movement. Many of the relatively older generation elders within the movement, unless they are standing up and criticizing the superiors, would keep their jobs for a lifetime. And this kind of cronyism has been choking the efficiency of many of its institutions. The worst part is that we might be already or will be witnessing this incompetence in the ranks of different institutions of the Turkish State. Therefore, one of the worst scenarios is for the movement to weaken not only their own institutions, but amid this disease of cronyism and incompetence, some significant state institutions as well, at some point.

It is true that the schools of the movement are very successful. Whether in Turkey or abroad, these schools are very attractive and giving a better education than its peers, most of the time. Thus the question is: How is it possible to have this incompetence and mediocrity of the movement’s members on the one hand and this apparent success on the other? The answer is: This incompetence displays itself mostly in social sciences, not the hard sciences. In the field of the hard sciences – chemistry, mathematics, etc. – the pupils and alumni of the movement fare much better. However, when it comes to the sciences that require free thinking, debating and opposing, the movement’s institutions fare very poorly. One of the best examples of this naked truth is apparent in the media and TV arms of the movement. These arms have great cutting-edge technologies in form, but in substance they do not have even the courage to ask pertinent questions. They mostly look like a broken megaphone that keeps singing the same song. That does not mean that the song is bad, but singing the same song over again, makes it painful to listen.

Let me return to Aslandogan's remarks: I would argue that one of the most crucial U-turns his presentation showed was when he talked about the movement's relation in respect to Turkish politics. From now on, Aslandogan announced, the movement will side with a political party that is submissive to its demands. This U-turn erodes greatly the credibility of the movement, because the movement claimed its innocence and immunity from the political parties, thus the stormy conditions of the political life for decades, with this very premise of staying away from politics. For years, the movement vehemently opposed, protested or accused anyone who wanted to prove a link between the movement and politics. The movement claimed again during these years of growing that its members are free to vote for any political party they deem fit. But now, suddenly we hear that the rules of the game have changed. Now we are being told that the movement is becoming more involved with politics and it will not shy away to back up one party or another according to their behavior. I will come back to argue why the movement's change of attitude and visible support for any political party is not exactly the same as those religious groups of America. But for now, I would like to say that I am not sure how it is possible for the movement to assure the outsiders which stance of it is never-changing and which one is temporary.

So far it seems that the movement makes up rules as it goes along. The movement wants more tolerance and understanding from the outsiders, but it shies away from telling the whole story. Or maybe the movement, itself also doesn’t know the whole story. Instead, the movement is twisting and changing the rules once it has enough power to make and impose arguments on any issue. This is not good news for anybody. More to follow in the next columns.

What do the Gulenists want to accomplish ? (I)

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on July 7, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 7 Temmuz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

"The Gülen Movement" titled discussion was organized by an important American think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, or CSIS. Bülent Alirıza, director of the CSIS's Turkey Project, ran the meeting.

Although I received an invitation for the discussion, I chose not to participate in the meeting. It was not because I did not care or that I am biased. On the contrary, it was because I did not expect to benefit from the presentation. Last time around, a year ago or so, I went to listen to the Gülen Movement's conference at Georgetown University, here in Washington, D.C. However, that experience was painfully boring. First of all, since I was part of the movement for a long time in the 90s while the movement was still very young, unknown and relatively in the making, I felt that listening to remarks on the movement that I was involved in on many levels, in another language, by the “outsiders” in Georgetown felt pretty wasteful. So in brief, I opted for reading that afternoon instead of listening and making sense of the politically correct, thoroughly vetted words that were going to be articulated about the movement.

But, I listened to Mr. Aslandogan's presentation attentively from the link that is provided by the CSIS website. The talk sounded relatively brave and forthright. Forthright does not necessarily mean open and honest all the way, but still Mr. Aslandogan's meticulous remarks gave some insights about the Gülen movement of today.

Let's not kid ourselves: Aslandogan and any other representative from the movement, in essence, cannot respond to some of the tough questions that come from outsiders. And this first of a kind conversation proved me right when it embodied many controversial premises, rather than answers. For example, the remarks that were given about the Gülen movement's relation with Turkish politics and the political parties exemplify some disturbing and problematic ideas about the notion of democracy that the movement values or appreciates. If this is a first signal that the movement wants to open up and talk more about the activities they do and their history or goals, and if we should take this meeting as a start of this kind, in the future, the movement will have to find not only methodically vetted and politically correct answers, but some tangible and satisfactory ones as well.

The Gülen movement attracted a lot of attention in recent years, both in and out of Turkey, and it is because the movement is just too big to ignore now. In the 80s and 90s, while vigorously working under the radar and in very humbled circumstances, seeing an article on Mr. Gülen, or anything related to the movement, was a notable event in the 'light houses' where the students of the movement stayed or the dormitories of the movement. Now, it seems, everybody feels compelled to talk about the movement and the commentaries are published in every kind of periodical, as predicted decades ago by its leader. Therefore, today, taking a picture of any significant episode or occurrence in Turkey without the possible effect of this movement seems incomplete to the majority of observers.

Actually, the CSIS meeting’s realization is also a result of this “too big to ignore” status. This impressive presence must have pressured the movement to go out and explain themselves and dodge or be pre-emptive about the questions before they came their way. Even amid this simple pre-emptive act, one can see how orderly and strategically the movement thinks, progresses and takes guard if needed, and with that, the movement also displays why it is way ahead of the others. Though, the movement must recognize, if they are ready to go on this path, they have to be more sincere and responsive to the some real concerns and questions. Answering Bülent Aliriza’s “ultimate goal” question for example, Aslandogan said, the movement enjoys a successful journey and there isn’t necessarily a final destination. This journey analogy would be adequate for him, but certainly not for people out there that want to hear more specific answers on this end goal issue.

The presentation still was stimulating in many ways. First off, Aslandogan showed that the movement is more at ease in terms of talking about many structural terms of the movement that while in the making were closed to the outsiders before. Aslandogan explained terms such as “hizmet,” which is what you call the movement while you are within; “sohbet,” which is the circle of people gathering for weekly conversations that are being organized among the neighborhoods or different vocational sectors, which were strictly underground gatherings for a long time; and “himmets,” which are the fundraising gatherings among the students, businessmen and various sectors, such as teachers, doctors or engineers.

All those terms have been, for years, for only insiders to know and use. Only a few years ago, none of these terms could have been explicit parts of a conversation while talking to the outcast. Thus the movement, it shows, has decided to open up and talk about these history-making sacred terms now. There was even reference to “kestanepazari,” which is also very revered to the members of the movement as the starting point for Mr. Gülen to shape the first pupils and today’s most respected “abiler,” or elders. However, there are other terms as well that have been used within the movement since the beginning and I am very curious to see how and when those terms will be explained to outsiders. For example, the term “tedbir,” or being cautious, comes to my mind at first.

There are many gaps that the movement is navigating through carefully and questions they are opting not to answer. However, it is not possible to go on this path and not answer some of the legitimate questions and concerns. I am certain that the movement has already planned the next move now. And it should not come by surprise if we see more of these vetted presentations in the future. I will go on with my questions on problematic premises of the presentation, the movement’s relation with politics and some other aspects of the movement in my next columns.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Why Turkey doesn't have its own Fourth of July

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on July 6, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 6 Temmuz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Why Turkey doesn't have its own Fourth of JulyAmerica celebrated its Independence Day on Saturday, the Fourth of July, in the usual way, with families taking the day off to get together with friends and grill hot dogs and hamburgers at picnics and barbecues.

In the evening, everyone watched big fireworks displays or set off their own, attended concerts, wished each other "Happy Fourth of July" and once again remembered their country's founders and foundations. Independence Day is truly a celebrated event held dear by Americans.

In the mid-1700s, the 13 colonies that made up part of England's empire in the New World were finding it difficult to be ruled by an English king who lived on the other side of the ocean. After a series of actions against King George III, the colony of Virginia took the first step toward independence by voting to set up a committee to represent the colonies. On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress debated, and then signed, what has come to be known as "The Declaration of Independence.

"The Declaration of Independence set the moral foundations of the American Revolution. It said every individual possessed basic rights, including the pursuit of happiness, which became the pillar of these rights. Of course, it is also painfully true that these fundamental rights were not recognized for the black citizens of this new country until only a few decades ago.

Since I came to live in America at the beginning of the current decade, each Fourth of July has made me ask myself questions about the difference between this holiday and the way Turks celebrate our national holidays, especially our Independence Day or the Aug. 30 Victory Day that marks the extraordinary triumph of brave Turkish soldiers over invading forces. For some reason, Turkish people do not seem to care much about the importance of that day. The Turkish Victory Day celebrations consist more of military parades and other "military-only" events, rather than being a celebration that must be cherished by all the people of Turkey. I why our people do not celebrate their "Independence Day" as people in many other countries do. Until I graduated from university, I lived in Turkey, first as a religious child and then as a young man. I did not care about Victory Day at all, even though I knew it commemorated a life-and-death war in which our grandparents pushed all the enemies out of the country to establish the nation in which the people of Turkey live today. Though I knew all this, something always nagged at me. We never said "Happy Victory Day" or "Happy Independence Day" to each other. And what is worse, we made fun of anyone who did. After years of pondering and talking with many Turkish and Turkish-American friends, I came to the conclusion that there are many reasons that prevent us from being conscious of and celebrating such holidays wholeheartedly in our country. These are significant issues that go to the heart of many problems that Turkey is currently going through.

First, it can be argued that our new Republic, in its early years, could not, for a variety of reasons, make life easy for the majority of its people in many ways. The new Turkish state was also not able to prepare the groundwork for its citizens to pursue their happiness as they expected. Though when one compares the young Turkish Republic with its contemporaries, taking the then-existing conditions into consideration, Turkey was faring okay. For example, most of the Western states did not even have a vision of equals, much less appropriately established watchdog institutions or other foundations of a modern liberal democracy. Turkey also achieved universal suffrage earlier than most countries in the West. I know some of the root causes of my dislike, which I partly described above. For instance, it is true that our ruling elite mismanaged the country for a long time and offended a segment of the people of Turkey. Even the closest confidant of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Falih Rifki Atay, wrote in his book "Cankaya" that the worse thing the country could do was to make its founder into a god. Yet we have done just that.Atatürk was the last person who would have wanted to be seen as a god. He was with his people, drinking and living among them. He had good days and bad days. He divorced his wife and had other personal problems too. He was a man. But he was a great man. He had faults and made mistakes, but what he did for Turkey was a remarkable achievement for his time. He brought secularism, admittedly a drastic variety. But it was much better than kings' rules or emperors' dictates.

All I want to say is: Why is it that we do not celebrate our Victory Day like Americans do theirs? Victory Day does not have much to do with personalities. It is about our grandparents who bravely sacrificed their lives for a better future. Why can we not celebrate their courage?

The answer is, no, we cannot, because some of us have problems not only with part of the country's foundations, but with all of them. It seems that angry, smart, young writers, who most of the time are powerful enough to convince me on many issues with their diligent and articulate arguments, which I respect, have an undiminished anger toward this Republic, which they seem to dislike passionately. Especially some writers of the younger generation, whether they write in conservative papers or not, seem to make every possible argument to try and prove that Turkey's past is a terrible one, and that its founders are akin to North Korean leaders and other dictators.

Why do these liberal, supposedly unbiased, intellectual writers seem never to remember any of the good things that this country has been able to achieve? Today's intellectuals go so far to prove how bad the Turkish state is in a reactionary fashion that they seem to get lost in their own arguments. They seem to forget that they are the intellectuals of this country and that they have a mission to tell and teach youngsters not only one-sided truths, but many-sided ones as well. By not doing this, they continually fail to lead and to teach. Many times, only emotions are reflected in their writings, primarily disgust with everything about Turkey. This scares many; it most certainly scares me. With this attitude, they torpedo the foundations of the Republic and make youth dislike everything about their pasts.

If this attitude continues, nobody will come together to sit and talk. Because it seems that neither side is concerned with talking and finding common ground, instead perusing the old books and settling ancient scores. Today, people who complain about gangs and "deep states" actually create their own ones, just like the other side did. Everybody knows the dynamics of Turkey are changing profoundly, but the change certainly is not going to be easy.

I will return to these changing dynamics on many more occasions. But for now, I would like to leave on one note: If we want to preserve this Republic, the people of Turkey must first start to examine their own mistakes and then go from there. Their religions and honest thoughts actually tell them to do just that. We need to obey them, at least this one time.