Monday, April 27, 2009

Turkey’s Reckoning Day Should Arrive, and Faster…

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on April 28th, 2009- 

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

President Obama released the much-anticipated Presidential statement on Armenian Remembrance Day on Friday, April 24th. Apparently the recent fast tracked diplomatic relations that started between Armenia and Turkey obligated Obama not to utter the word of “genocide” as he promised sturdily and without leaving any doubt that he would do in his presidential campaign. For my part, I have been also very curious to see how, for this time, Obama will be able to please the both sides, as the consensus became the twin word of his administration. Though Obama couldn’t please both sides this time, neither did he attract much anger from either side. In short, Obama walked the fine line once more.

Obama reiterated in the statement what he had said in Ankara, that his “own view of what occurred in 1915, and [his] view of that history has not changed.” It is a dubious approach. If one’s view is not changed over an issue, why then the words. The answer, I believe, Obama did not want to be remembered as a spoiler of this historic moment of reconciliation for domestic gains. In the Presidential statement, Obama asked both parties to come to a “reckoning with the past” because that “holds out the powerful promise of reconciliation.” I cannot agree more with this part of the statement.

During the run up to this statement day in recent months, Turkish leadership sensed that a very dangerous phase waits for Turkish-US relations and unless they change their course in Turkish-Armenian relations, it was going to be very damaging as well as embarrassing for them. The Turkish leaders distinguished this time that an American President was not bluffing. This time, the tragic events were going to be called, what the Armenians think they should be called. And it is very possible that this truth had been told to the Turkish Government officials behind closed doors.

After all, if the leader of the free world calls you a name, well… it would really look bad. Thus it seemed that the Turkish leaders decided to play the role of statesmanship this time. The Turkish foreign diplomats seemed sincere and serious to do something fundamental: Turkey was determined to overcome the populism and the rising chauvinism. Slowly, but nevertheless surely, Turkey leaves the door ajar. The road map for the relationship is prepared, and the parties are courageously setting aside the thorny issues for the time being.

In a way, it was a victory for Turkey as it proved that it could change. Turkey leaped forward in the style of statesmanship. But one wonders if this really could be called statesmanship? Is Turkey only capable of taking stern steps when, somebody, very important like Obama shows a big stick? If Turkey was able to start a dialog with Armenia, and was audacious enough to set aside the bristly matters, why has it not been done before?

The state of Armenia has done their part of disgrace in their history. Nobody can deny that. That part is theirs to figure out. They will come around and apologize as well, as some of the Armenian intellectuals did after the Turkish initiative for an apology to the Armenian people. The fading Ottoman Empire was like a wounded animal and in that time of madness, partly to defend itself did some things terribly wrong: it was an erroneous chapter that was filled with unjustly behavior. We can still debate what it was and how it was. And we should debate while working on the history with historians. Though, the intention should not be to bail Turkey out of the discussion.

By no means should this process of reckoning discourage and disappoint Turkish society. Turkey should not feel ghastly about its history. On the contrary, the Turkish history has great heroes. Our past presents many more bright pages than dark ones. We had good soldiers, great victories, grandeur days and hundred years. Mustafa Kemal, the founder of the new Turkish Republic, for one, would cover a lot of that space. Let’s cherish him and many more heroes without making them a taboo.

While talking about reckoning, I would even suggest to go further. Why can’t we also discuss some of the bad Sultans we had in the Ottoman times. Do our children or we have to live in a dream world to imagine we have a flawless past but terrible present? Isn’t it true that many of the late Ottoman emperors weren’t adequate enough to steer the empire. And the new Republic of Turkey was founded with a heroic uprising and did magnificent exertion to recover from its loss of men, women and infrastructures during World War I to catch up with other advanced peers. But the same young Republic acted with many narrow-minded policies for too long to offend some of its segments. Why is it that we cannot admit some of this narrow-mindedness?

An ambitious Turkey, which increasingly desires to live in peace with its neighbors, must take on some of the saddles that come with it. For example, shedding light on and discussing our own history, asking questions and admitting errors, with its dark and white pages, are remembrances of being a part of a great history and self-confidence.

It is true that the major Western countries, minorities of the late Ottoman time and religious fanatics did their part to paralyze Ottoman society in the past. But these historic realities should not confuse today’s young Turkish society to see the whole western world as part of a grand conspiracy that wants to divide Turkey’s mainland. Yes, the minorities, including Armenians, during the late Ottoman time left a bad taste in the mouth, especially when the Turkish land was being invaded. But that doesn’t perplex the Turkish laws to neglect them and treat them as second-class citizens, even today. And religious fanatics and madrasa system held us back too, maybe for centuries. This also shouldn’t stop us thinking religion is a part of the modern society and modern people. And the devout Muslims, too, may wish Turkey to succeed. The people of Turkey must remember, “Life is a full of trade-offs.” It is true, if you are not ready for compromises, you might end up losing whatever you got!!




Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Turkey's Obama Euphoria

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on April 22nd, 2009- 
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 22 Nisan 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Two weeks after the historic Obama visit, the Obama euphoria is still in the air in Turkey. During the trip, President Obama touched all the right tones, pleased about all portions of Turkish people, even conveyed some sober messages that were hardly acceptable for the Turkish establishment without even attracting much wrath. His ability to bond, down to earth demeanor and the modesty have won the hearts of Turkish people and the visit became a PR masterpiece. 

One of the greatest detections of the visit came from Dr. Soli Ozel, of Istanbul Bilgi University, at the Brookings Institution’s discussion in Washington, DC, which was moderated by Amb. Mark Parris. Dr. Ozel said it was the messenger, not the message that made all the difference this time around. He went on to remind the audience that the last President George Bush’s speech in Istanbul in 2004 also integrated with great messages like embracing Turkey’s secular and democratic system, confirming Turkey as an example of that Islam and democracy can co-exist, and fully supporting Turkey to join the EU with the Bosphorus and the Ortakoy Mosque in the background. In addition to that, unlike Obama, Bush didn’t even raise much of thorny issues, and still couldn’t receive a fraction of the Obama love.

The Turkish people particularly fell in love with Obama when he embraced his Muslim heritage in the Turkish Parliament. Doubtlessly “I am one of [you]” note was a great start with the Muslim world. Not many people seemed to notice, but without officially declaring it, Obama happened to give his promised major speech to the Muslim world too, in Ankara, within his first 100 days in office. By no means do I desire to spoil the joy of the moment with reminding that the same Obama, persistently distanced himself from his Muslim  or anything remotely close to Islam during the 2 years of election campaigning on the road to the White House.

Obama’s stopover still seems like it was just too good to be true. And cynics like me, who has been following Obama closely over a year, and listened countless of his speeches, including live during the inauguration ceremony, can’t help but question this flawless visit. Obama’s dialogues and interchanges in Turkey harked back to those campaign rallies promises and someone who has no responsibility but is free to please everyone.

 There are many observers who would argue that the Obama’s speeches are more of style than substance, at least for so far. Though there is nothing wrong with hoping that Obama will be more receptive and sensitive to allies’ deportments when the time comes to make the real choices. The mistaken approach is to take this hope, package it and serve up as a proven upshot. Nobody can dispute the symbolic importance of this visit; still many commentaries we have witnessed lacked substance, and instead filled with rather solitary optimism and emotions. This outlook is far from helping to prepare a realistic terrain for the future Turkish-American relations and short of assisting the foreign policy makers’ tasks of the two countries.

Maybe taking some lessons from the American critics, who had their share of Obama euphoria in the past, would be more sobering. President Obama is about to complete his first 100 days in office and stands at whopping 63% of job approval rate, though still the White House decisions are receiving mixed reactions. Majority of the Obama watchers have yet to make their minds about Obama. On the other hand, as Mr. Cuneyt Ulsever argued recently, many veteran Turkish foreign commentators already have given absolute verdicts on Obama with a mere 2 day of pleasantries.

Not everyone was happy in America with Obama’s foreign visit, as he was stating regrets over the last 8 years. Many analysts in Washington, DC, called Obama’s Europe tour as “the Apology Tour” and displayed their irritation over these apologies. Obama also seemed to have disappointed the Armenian diaspora since he didn’t mention ‘genocide’ while he was asked during the press conference in Ankara. Hundreds of Armenian bloggers and threads went berserk after the press meeting. Though, Obama said his views are not changed over the issue and for people who can read between the lines, this stance enclosed an obvious implication. That did not bother anyone; and now everyone plucks the petals off a daisy one by one whether Obama will actually utter the word this week.

 I joined a discussion which was titled ‘the Islamic Resistance’ at the New America Foundation, bipartisan think tank in Washington DC, last week. Mr. Alastair Crooke, founder of the Conflicts Forum – an international movement that engages with Islamist movements broadly made a long presentation on the topic and talked on today’s Middle East.

Mr. Crooke, who has been living in Beirut for years, said that today’s Islamic World is alienated into 2 divisions: the resistant and US-ally countries. And interestingly enough, Mr. Crooke put Turkey into the resistant countries division along with Syria, Iran and a couple of other North African states. I asked him to elaborate this labeling; Mr. Alastair responded: “Yes, I would put Turkey in the orbit of Syria. It is basically a shared view [between these countries] on the region. I think that Turkey became a pivotal country in terms of shifting its perspective, and certainly Gaza played a big part of it.” And yes, the trip was made to win Turkey back, he affirmed. Right about the time that the hot debate of ‘losing Turkey’ seemed to be put in rest in recent months, hearing a similar analysis from a very reputable Middle East expert, at an unrelated discussion was worth noting.

Obama’s visit, at any rate, was a good chance to reiterate Turkey’s fresh ambitions, since Turkey is becoming “a significant actor in Middle East peace making and the diplomatic space it created for itself during the US absence.” However, the Turkish foreign policy pundits also should try to level with this striving to examine Turkey in a more sophisticated context. Turkey has wasted enough time to glorify itself and lived in its unparalleled world of euphoria in the past; there is no need to affix even more of that atmosphere at this time around. 

Monday, April 13, 2009

Turkey's Failed European Test

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on April 14th, 2009- 
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 14 Nisan 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Last week, Turkey has been the center of many discussions and debates in Europe and America, first with its opposition to NATO’s new Secretary-General, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and then with President Obama’s visit.

Mr. Rasmussen became the hero of freedom of speech by most in Europe with his resistance to calls from the Muslim world to censor Prophet Mohammed caricatures in 2005 that were published in an independent Danish paper. His assertion of not having an authority over the press and subsequently refusing to apologize over these cartoons made him a loathed figure in the Muslim world. This episode resulted in angry protests and even deaths in several Muslim cities. In a broader sense, this incident also sparkled a discussion of how much freedom of speech is compatible with the Muslim world.

This outworn debate resurfaced again in recent weeks with Rasmussen setting his eyes upon NATO, as it was critical for him to gain Turkish support since unanimous support is required for a candidate. Turkey resisted Rasmussen’s candidacy until the last minute on the grounds that he would be a bad choice at a time when NATO was trying to win support from Muslims in these critical times. While many observers thought Turkey’s this argument might have some merits, Mr. Rasmussen did not apologize, instead offered some regret and said he “was distressed that the cartoons were seen by many Muslims as an attempt by Denmark to insult Islam [and] nothing could be further from [his] mind.”

This was an appalling test that Turkey seemed to flunk about its readiness for EU membership. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, one of the few supporters in the French government of Turkey's accession into the EU, withdrew his support after the latest row and many other foreign observers have been disappointed over Turkey’s stiff stance and started questioning Turkey’s compatibility with European notions.

First, Turkish politicians seem to misinterpret freedom of speech, believing that anything that is offensive to any people or contradictory to common acceptance should be censored. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan along with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero should be applauded for working on the initiative of the alliance of civilizations and tolerance between religions, yet the same Erdogan does not show indulgence to the journalists and caricaturists in his country that criticize him a little cruelly. Moreover, his administration helps its political supporters to acquire the outspoken media outlets one by one in the recent times, and levy hefty tax fines on others to silence them.

The Turkish leaders also seemed to forget that it is Islam that forbids sketches, sculptures or mocking of prophets; therefore, non-Muslim Westerners should not be enforced to abide with these Islamic statutes, although it would have been considerate if they did. One argument could have been valid if the Western media was only treating Islam in this manner, and other religions differently. It is very well known that Christian holy figures are treated harsher, and cartoons like South Park or novels like The Vinci Code and countless of others, even receive awards often by the same Westerners. It just does not make sense that on the one hand the Turkish and other Muslim nations pack the movie theaters to watch these types of movies, and then get angry when they see similar treatment is being applied to Islamic figures. There are also countless examples of religious discrimination in the Muslim world, and in order to be trustworthy while working on an alliance between the civilizations, the Muslim world ought to be more sensitive the basic needs of other faiths.

Turkey, with its recent foreign policies and reaching out to neighbors, appears to be a rising power and claims to recast the regional balances. Then Turkey needs to step up to the plate, and accept the burdens that come with its raising profile to be a respected member of the Western alliance, which it has been intensely trying to do. It seems Turkey hugs the idea of ‘being a model country’ excitingly when Mr. Obama talked about it in the Turkish Parliament, but is hesitating to overcome conformist approaches and falls short of giving the deserved minority rights to own citizens of other faiths that have been so long neglected. There are few nations in the region that are more adamant than Turkey that it must be shown great respect; yet fewer still are more perceptive to any interference on their freedom problems.

The Turkish Administration failed in this recent test, as Mr. Cengiz Aktar argued: “instead of lobbying with the assumption that Rasmussen's track record would harm the fight against al-Qaeda, [they] emphasized the insult against Islam deriving from the cartoons crisis, giving a religious character to its opposition [and] became the spokesperson of the Islamic world in the western organizations.”

And he majority of Turkish liberal intelligentsia also didn’t pass the same test with not lending any support to Mr. Rasmussen, given the fact that he was just trying to defend very precious gift of freedom of speech, which is after all, supposed to be the most sacred element of a liberal democracy. Many Turkish writers and thinkers still echo Obama’s ‘change’ mantra for Turkey and appeared to fall in love with President Obama when he talked about the problems with freedom of speech and press in Turkey. Even so, when it comes to the tough fights and to being on the opposite side of public opinion, they also fall short and end up venting the religious and nationalistic sentiments even further.

Obama’s visit to Turkey was a stirring experience, and made it apparent that the Turkish people also have a thirst for “Audacity for Change.” Though change can come to Turkey, not with the leadership and the intellectuals who keep polishing the status quo, but with people who can really understand the dynamics of this new Turkey, that comes with these very changes.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Obama's visit may inspire the 'change' Turkey itself needs

Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star
Friday, April 03, 2009
Obama's visit may inspire the 'change' Turkey itself needs 

by Ilhan Tanir

Early next week, President barack Obama makes his first visit to a Muslim-majority country within his first 100 days in office and by doing that he will have fulfilled another campaign promise. According to the news reports, many bilateral issues will be discussed, such as assistance for US troop withdrawal from Iraq through Turkey; stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan; policies against Iran and Syria, as well as the wider Middle East peace process. At the same time, the Obama administration must have noticed by now that Turkey has been accomplishing some positive results by reaching out to its neighbors in recent years. New Turkish foreign policies such as disentangling historic conflicts with surrounding countries have started to bear fruit. Turkish officials now visit any country in the wider region and can shoulder an exhausted US in the region, as some US State Department officials recently elaborated the need for these regional strategic partnerships in broad-spectrum speeches at the US Institute of Peace conference in Washington, DC.

In the meantime, Turkey's full EU membership ambitions have been somewhat disappointing. It is true that, especially after the EU granted official-candidate status to Turkey for full EU membership in 2005, the Turkish administration has slowed the much-praised reform agenda. Turkish officials have given many reasons for this sluggishness though none of them are sufficient to explain this attitude. After all, these reforms are essential for Turkish citizens who strive to live better.

The Turkish government also has been making a lot of progress when it comes to re-establishing its relationship with its Kurdish population. Only 18 years ago, the Kurdish language was prohibited in Turkey and Kurdish identity was mostly denied. Today, an official State television channel broadcasts in Kurdish.

However, much more work needs to be accomplished in regards to other minorities. "The threat is growing nationalism and frustration with the US and Europe," a new US Assistant Secretary of State, Philip H. Gordon wrote as a co-author of a book on Turkey. Also, if the upcoming Armenian Genocide legislation passes in the House, this would further vent the chauvinistic flames in Turkey and could possibly set back much of the newly gained progress as well as newly improving relations with Armenia.

Today, Turkey is trying to turn yet another important corner toward fostering its democracy, with facing its own recent history. The judicial investigation into a shadowy ultranationalist group known as Ergenekon is continuing. In order to prove that democracy and Islam can properly function hand-in-hand, the Turkish democratic escapade must reach its final destination as a fully democratic, secular and modern country. But, still a mix of ineptitude, politicization and disinformation has disheartened many observers who wish to see the trials as a step toward an accountable and democratic Turkey, not a day for vengeance.

All the same, the Turkish democratic struggle is not moving forward linearly. First off, laws that govern Turkish political parties give utmost power to party leadership. This dysfunctional process enables party leaders to become impervious party dictators, who can annul local party organizations, cherry-pick the MP candidates and hold hostage the party members by various means to keep themselves "voted in" forever. For example, Deniz Baykal, a leader of the main opposition party, is still the strongest man in his party despite decades of election defeats, including one Sunday.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the prime minister and the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is another example. Erdogan has been running a one-man show in the government as the other founding fathers of the AKP have been eliminated one way or another in the recent years, though the local elections last Sunday promised some hope for the future of checks and balances amid dwindling support for the AKP. Yet, the AKP is still the winner and whether it learned necessary lessons, or whether the opposition parties can resonate with the people remains to be seen.

And there is the Turkish free press. In recent months there have been many disturbing episodes that have distressed many spectators who follow Turkey closely. First, Erdogan irately targeted the outspoken Dogan Media group urging people not to buy their newspapers. Then, tax inspectors decided to fine the same media outlet a huge amount, which unsurprisingly overlapped with the local elections. Freedom of speech, tolerance and harsh humor are also under fire, as Erdogan persists in suing writers and caricaturists as he deems that he should be above such criticism. This state of emotion gives another sample of untouchable psychology and many Turkish experts now echo Erdogan's authoritarian ambitions during off-the-record talks. Perhaps hearing about some of Turkey's shortcomings from a popular and transformational American president during the upcoming visit will do the trick and assist in preparing the groundwork, this time, for Turkey's "change."


Copyright (c) 2009 The Daily Star