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.

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