Tag Archives: turkey

Turkey on Turkey-Day

Trigger warning: ethnic cleansing, genocide, linguistic imperialism

Earlier this week, almost everyone who watches the news had at least a little bit of a mild panic. A Russian military plane was shot down by Turkish forces after it veered slightly into their territory from the Syrian side of the border. While most outlets have offered soothing explanations of the situation – noting that Turkey’s NATO membership and Russia’s formidable military checked each other and prevent a misunderstanding from escalating into full fledged conflict – I think this speaks to the rather worrisome politics that have taken grip of Turkey.

Al Jazeera’s article on the recent incident gives a descriptive overview of what just happened and also provides a map that underscores just how deep into Syrian territory this Turkish province actually extends:

hatay plane incident

A piece by Gary Brecher from October paints a vivid picture of how such a comparatively Turkish population came to be lodged in the middle of the more diverse Syria. In a nutshell – ethnic cleansing on a mass scale. To any student of Turkish history that’s not surprising. Before the World War II seizure of this southern province, there was the Armenian Genocide during the first World War, and before that the long history of expelling Greeks, and before that the very genesis of the Turkish state with the help of Janissaries.

The Turks began their history in modern Turkey as a tiny ethnic group lost in the chaotic medieval east Mediterranean and emerged as the powerful heads of an Ottoman Empire not by accident, but from a consistent policy of conversion, Turkification, and ethnic cleansing. What is today Turkey’s Hatay Province began as the Sanjuk of Alexandretta – a part of the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon, with a significant Turkish minority that remained from the administrators of the recently fallen Ottoman Empire. That type of historical trajectory is common to most Turkish territory.

What reads to most of the rest of the world as a terrifying overreaction takes on another layer of meaning with the knowledge of that province’s history. The first priority of almost every settler state is the defense of its newly acquired territory, and Hatay is no different. While Arabic as a spoken language and Arab as an ethnic identity have both declined in popularity there at a staggering rate, a large portion of that province’s population continues to recall their family origins and to remember a kind of otherness within Turkey. That’s a vulnerability for the Turkish state, particularly with the on-going internecine conflicts raging on the other side of Hatay’s extensive border.

I have said before that the movements in Turkey seeking to strengthen their democracy aren’t incompatible with the push within the country to redefine their ethnic and religious identities in a confusing and globalizing world. That’s difficult, but it’s possible.

Bathed in a defense of the historical violence that served to create Turkey, however, a different fusion of older ideas of Turkish identity with modern senses of self might emerge from the Turkish state. That was what was hinted at by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan earlier this year, when he created a photo-op with the traditional military uniforms of the sixteen former incarnations of the Turkish empire (of varying actual ethnic composition).

erdogan sixteen turkish empires

There are other identities to be pulled out of Turkish national memory, including martial ones. Ceremonially and militarily, Erdoğan appears to have cast in his lot with that understanding of where he’s come from and what his country has to do to survive. For foreign powers intervening in Syria and various local contingents skirting the Turkish-Syrian border, that’s another risk to consider in the already difficult fight.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Puzzles of the Orient: a random note on the Republican Debate

Last night’s debate didn’t strike me as something worth liveblogging on twitter or even commenting about as I posted in the middle of it. That anything much is going to be said that’s new or original is hopefully something no one came into the debate expecting. In passing, still, one strange entanglement of talking points caught my attention and seems to speak to something rather horrifying about the politics of not only the Republican Party, but the United States and even the broader world.

In the midst of the debate, Senator Marco Rubio argued that the supportive relationship between the US and Israel in contrast to the combative and hostile relationship the US has with almost every other country in the region made sense, saying:

“For goodness sake, there is only one pro-American free enterprise democracy in the Middle East. It is the state of Israel. And we have a president that treats the prime minister of Israel with less respect than what he gives the Ayatollah in Iran. And so our allies in the region don’t trust us. […] all those radical terrorist groups that, by the way, are not just in Syria and in Iraq, ISIS is now in Libya. They are a significant presence in Libya, and in Afghanistan, and a growing presence in Pakistan.

Soon they will be in Turkey. They will try Jordan. They will try Saudi Arabia. They are coming to us. They recruit Americans using social media. And they don’t hate us simply because we support Israel. They hate us because of our values. They hate us because our girls go to school. They hate us because women drive in the United States. Either they win or we win, and we had better take this risk seriously, it is not going away on its own.”

While his criticism of Arab or Islamic communities highlighted the sexism he perceived, the point seems deeply interconnected to other ideas about how societies should work. Not only should women be able to drive cars, they should be able to vote. It’s hard to imagine that kind of plea for “modern” women’s rights without accompanying ideas about “modern” political rights and other expectations (in Rubio’s mind that goes hand in hand with free enterprise, notably).

Mere minutes later, Ohio Governor John Kasich in his own words gave the audience “a little trip around the world”. He transitioned from describing a military strategy towards Russia to one in the Middle East, which in turn led him to saying this about the political culture of the region: “Saudi Arabia, cut off the funding for the radical clerics, the ones that preach against us. But they’re fundamentally our friends. Jordan, we want the king to reign for 1,000 years. Egypt, they have been our ally and a moderating force in the Middle East throughout their history.”

The limitations on free speech in Saudi Arabia are, of course, far more extreme than the limiting of funding for radical clerics. The regular and increasing use of the death penalty by the government there is primarily used on clerics critical of the Kingdom, especially those critical because of sectarian disagreements. Overwhelmingly, it’s the Shia minority clerics targeted with that and other state controls designed to limit their communities’ voices and shutdown opposition. They are also famously one of the governments in the region which most systemic restricts women’s rights – to drive, to go out in public, and to control their bodies and appearance. Those, in Kasich’s words, are “our friends” because of how they restrict their people and simultaneously, in Rubio’s view, someone we are locked in an existential struggle with… because of how they restrict their people.

Virtually no one – from Politico to the Seattle Globalist – pretends that the current government in Egypt is democratic. Politico’s coverage touches on a particularly interesting point, that sitting president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is a product of the military exchange programs run by and within the United States. In short, he was more than a little groomed for his current strongman role, with his wife beside him, notably in a hijab not in the more veiling niqab. When it comes to other women, however, his defense of the use of “virignity tests” to assess rape and harassment claims by women participating in the street democracy movements in Egypt speaks for itself. Much like Saudi Arabia, the same despotism that is woven into the fabric of how we decide that part of the world is categorically deserving of criticism, and yet oddly also, its saving grace.

Hopefully I don’t have to explain the irony in a debate where most of the Middle East is criticized as undemocratic where another person calls for the Hashimite dynasty in Jordan to rule for a thousand years. It’s worth noting that’s not just simply a millennium of rule, it’s another millennium.

It’s worth noting that even if Kasich and Rubio understood each other as disagreeing, they both continue to address the realities of political life in the Middle East with a common assumption. If you look at the autocratic and patriarchal aspects of life in that part of the world and judge it as exotic and foreign and Other to a US-backed alternative, at least one of the mistakes you’re making is overlooking the ways in which the US has encouraged these undemocratic and restrictive politics. If you look at the dictatorships and call them our friends, you’re insisting that popular rule in the region would inherently be incompatible with US interests and those are more important. Rubio looks at the region shaped by US and other foreign meddling and wonders how it got that way, while Kasich simply shrugs and notes we have to keep them in line. In either case, there’s a denial of the violence inherent in US policy, stretching back decades.

Whether you view this as a cultural war or a strategic conflict, the Republican debate last night offered only variations on viewing the average person in the Middle East as lesser, with no alternative to that.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Which Turks?

Yesterday, I mentioned the importance of listening to Turkish descriptions of the events unfolding there, ironically shortly after the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told domestic and local press that “There is now a menace which is called twitter. The best examples of lies can be found there. To me, social media is the worst menace to society.” While I wasn’t precisely pointing to Turkish twitter users as the ideal news source on the still developing situation, I built my larger point around what one famous Turkish writer and activist had explained on her wordpress account.

Heading Erdoğan’s request that we ignore certain sorts of Turkish voices wasn’t what I had in mind when I urged “listening to Turks’ voices”. In any case, there is something else that’s striking in his statement besides a leader of a country silencing his own people. He quite literally labeled the discussions, images, and arguments made on twitter concerning recent political events in Turkey to be a social danger rooted in falsities. Is that really a deserved label given the picture of the protesters painted by the picture, spread on twitter, that’s posted below?


(A Turkish protester dressed in traditional Sufi clothing and dancing in a tradition way used by that mystic Islamic sect, but while wearing a gas mask to ward off crowd-dispersing chemical weapons. It was originally posted here.)

There’s a poignant idea of the protests illustrated above – it’s a whole series of opposing political statements to that of Erdoğan’s government. Rather than an aesthetic force for unambiguous modernization, the protester is wearing clothes associated with a largely Turkish tradition and engaging in an iconic performance of that group. Rather than celebrating the leveling of a space of political and social organization at the heart of Istanbul, he is either in or has joined the protests against that and the broader economic situation in Turkey at the moment. Rather than containing his Islamic identity to a highly specific and politically useful context (such as the regulations on women’s behaviors which I noted Suman mentioned previously), he has connected his Islam to his activism.

The fundamental nature of the currently governing AK Party in Turkey is supposed that it has both Islamic or more specifically traditionally Turkish roots married to a modern political ideology. But what that seems to have engendered in Turkey is a sort of snide social conservatism, undemocratic decision making, and economics poisoned with commercialism and corporatism. What at least this one sliver of what’s been said online about the current situation suggests is that a different Turkey – better on all of those issues – is possible. No wonder Erdoğan wants that ignored.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The unraveling of Turkey

TW: violence against protesters

In the past few days, the assorted efforts by the Turkish government to silence and even kill protesters in Istanbul and increasingly in other parts of the country have gained a certain degree of visibility internationally. With minimal coverage coming from within Turkey itself, however, the original protests and even the motivations behind the on-going protests has become somewhat obscured behind the idea of an autocratic and islamist-friendly government repressing its citizens because that’s just what happens in that part of the world. What few reports have spread out of the Turkish media blackout of the protests suggest that something far more complicated has happened. As Turkish writer and activist Defne Suman wrote:

Four days ago a group of people who did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and students.  Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least one in every neighborhood! The tearing down of the trees was supposed to begin early Thursday morning. People went to the park with their blankets, books and children. They put their tents down and spent the night under the trees.  Early in the morning when the bulldozers started to pull the hundred-year-old trees out of the ground, they stood up against them to stop the operation.

They did nothing other than standing in front of the machines.

No newspaper, no television channel was there to report the protest. It was a complete media black out.

But the police arrived with water cannon vehicles and pepper spray.  They chased the crowds out of the park.

In the evening the number of protesters multiplied. So did the number of police forces around the park. Meanwhile local government of Istanbul shut down all the ways leading up to Taksim square where the Gezi Park is located. The metro was shut down, ferries were cancelled, roads were blocked.

Yet more and more people made their way up to the center of the city by walking.

They came from all around Istanbul. They came from all different backgrounds, different ideologies, different religions. They all gathered to prevent the demolition of something bigger than the park:

The right to live as honorable citizens of this country.

They gathered and marched. Police chased them with pepper spray and tear gas and drove their tanks over people who offered the police food in return. Two young people were run over by the tanks and were killed. Another young woman, a friend of mine, was hit in the head by one of the incoming tear gas canisters. The police were shooting them straight into the crowd.  After a three hour operation she is still in Intensive Care Unit and in  very critical condition. As I write this we don’t know if she is going to make it. This blog is dedicated to her.

There’s more details and information over at her post, but there’s a clear image of the evolution of this protest movement into a larger protest against the broader dynamics of the Turkish political system. In a very explicit since, this is the beginning of the transfer of earlier economic protests and concerns (over either broader economic questions or the best public use of Taksim Square) into a political protest over general democratic and social norms.


(Protesters and police in Turkey confronting each other on the streets of Istanbul, from here.)

I honestly don’t know where Turkey on the whole is heading, but that many of the inadequately addressed problems within the larger political system are coming to a header.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Turkey’s May Day

TW: violence against protesters, class inequality, 1980 Turkish coup, 1977 Taksim Square massacre

In light of what I’ve written about previously as being part of the political situation in Turkey, the government’s response to May Day protests in İstanbul suggests just how much of a pitfall it is to have broad political reforms without constitutional backing. As others have reported, May Day has unique significance in Turkey, where it is also the anniversary of the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in 1977. As a result of that date holding such importance for activists in Turkey, the undemocratic government in 1980 banned protests on May 1 in İstanbul’s Taksim Square, a restriction which was only just lifted in 2010.

Without a right to protest or free speech terribly well protected within the current constitution, the right to protest in that place on this day has seemed a fragile privilege, which the government could easily re-revoke. That’s precisely what the explanation that Turkish protesters wouldn’t be permitted to use the square this year, because of a distant construction project, was read as by many activists – an excuse to strip people of their right to participate in arguably the symbol of protest and freedom in Turkey.

There was a bit of immovable object meeting up with an irresistible force, today in Turkey.


(Electrical engineer union members walked into the neighborhood of the Taksim Square in protest of both the government’s protest policies as well as the economic conditions in the country. From here.)

This is actually something an established tendency in protest. While what initially motivates mass protest are often economic concerns (the bread and butter of May Day protests), movements in many countries become fixated on how the political process isolates, trivializes, and undermines their protests. Turkish protesters at the moment seem to be doing quite well at balancing both sides of the issue – why they want to go out in the street in the first place and how disastrous it is for their country that there’s restrictions placed on even that.

That said, there are limits to what they can accomplish with their protests – so it would be useful to consider in the days ahead, not only whether Turkish mass movements can enact change, but whether they’ll prioritize the immediate reforms that so far have only watered down the problem or systemic changes (namely to the constitution) that haven’t yet been enacted in the country.


(Water canons and tear gas were used to clear the protesters of Taksim and the surrounding area, from here.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The means and ends in Turkey

TW: 1980 Turkish coup

Turkish prosecutors pushed yesterday for extensive sentences for a significant number of the former military and security forces members, who are alleged members of the shadowy ultranationalist network known as Ergenekon, the name of which alone explicitly taps into an almost fascistic ideas of a Turkish national rebirth. International press has been quick to characterize public reaction in Turkey as having been largely negative – with protests in Silivri, where the trial is being conducted.

Türklerin ergenekon'dan çıkışları
(It’s hard to view an organization named for a mythic, exclusively Turkish place as anything but ridiculously ultranationalist. From here, this picture depicts “the Turkish emigrants of Ergenekon,” who were ostensibly the ancestors of modern Turks.)

It’s difficult to not see this as fitting into a broader discussion about legal rights and expectations in contrast with the political culture that surrounds and interacts with those rights. As I mentioned a few months back, Turkey’s recent democratization has largely been focused on challenging norms, not questioning laws or revising the constitution. The current trial is more of the same with its focus on rooting out the Ergenekon organizers and their intents without substantively challenging the power and practices of many of the same individuals, but while actively serving in the military or security forces. There is an obvious point to that – discouraging a murky underworld from trying to fill the roles of official representatives of the state. In some sense, this trial could be seen as a defensive measure against even more untethered actors entering the political fray.

But is what Turkey really needs right now more work on its broader political culture? As the Johannesburg Times suggested – this case is understood by many as a strike against the more secular and undemocratic military and surrounding political power. To what extent is this an effort to maintain law and order on the current Turkish government’s part? And to what extent is this an expansive effort to assert a more religious and civilian soft power where military soft power once ruled?

It seems in some ways that this current trial is an attempt to reinvent the political context surrounding the trial against the leaders of the 1980 coup last year. The case against them was much stronger, however, and was situated differently. A demand for justice for the thousands of Turks tortured or even killed to a large extent forced the trial to occur, with the aim of in some sense altering the political reality that both of those Turkish leaders had lived with impunity for decades following their crimes. Out of recalling and joining in the accompanying national discussion of how many lives were impacted by the coup, a bit of skepticism against the military seemed to become quite nakedly popular at the time.

It seems as though Erdoğan’s government is trying to rebuild or further that indirect outcome of the 2012 trial. The means are hoped to be the same (although the different public responses seem to suggest gross miscalculation on the government’s part), but the ends are ultimately different. Instead of seeking justice, it’s hard not to see this as either a defensive effort to contain the political situation if not a claim of political power over the military. Perhaps there’s a need for that, but it’s worth remembering that that’s what Turkey’s former President, Kenan Evren, allegedly hoped to similarly restore or preserve political order.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why no one is intervening in Syria (yet)

TW: killing of civilians; marginalization of Kurds, Palestinians, and Jews of Ethiopian ancestry; coerced sterilization

Yesterday, Amnesty International posed a question on twitter, or at least seemed to while promoting their most recent report on Syria. Their official account tweeted:

Amnesty International's tweet
(An Amnesty International tweet.)

That’s a fair question to ask, especially since, as the report claims, Syrians themselves are often asking it. It claims that one Syrian woman who the anonymous research spoke with wanted to know, “Why is the world doing nothing while we continue to be bombed to pieces every day, even inside our homes?”

As near as I can tell, one of the most pressing problems with intervening in Syria is that doing so appears likely to ignite a conflict as complicated and multifaceted as the first “World War” was for Europe. And this time, that would be after almost a century of technological refinements in weaponry. On the other hand, the problem with inaction, unfortunately, is that it seems only to reduce the risk of that outcome – not actually actively prevent it.

Map of Syria and its neighbors
(Syria and its neighbors, from here.)

Syria has a geopolitical context – it shares borders with Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and Iraq, as well as a narrow maritime border that wouldn’t be terribly in the case of an intervening force having to enter Syria without land or air support from any of those five countries. Syria also has close ties with Iran, which is also the neighbor of both Turkey and Iraq. Having listed all those connections, let me explain – that is an incredibly diverse slice of the world covered in a mere seven countries. Along with that comes an incredibly diverse slice of on-going international conflicts that have in the past threatened all of the states governing those seven countries with destruction. In short, Syria is at the heart of a powderkeg.

Just to run down the events that have happened recently in that corner of the world:

-The Israeli and Iranian governments have begun speaking as if they are on the verge of starting a massive international war, which could potentially draw US, Chinese, and European support and proxies into the fray in a massive conflict between the “West” and the strongest “non-Western” nations in the world. Intervention by Iran would be read as an advance against Israel. Intervention by Israel or the US would be read as an advance against Iran. The balance of power necessary to prevent that outbreak of such a conflict in part requires that no one intervene in Syria, if not the freezing of the situation in Syria where it is.

-Within Israel, extremist factions have successfully lobbied for even more extensive segregation between Jews and Palestinian Arabs, and the Israeli government has admitted to supporting the coercive sterilization of Jews with Ethiopian ancestry. These adds to the previous months of conflict and violence in Israel and Palestine, which has led to threats of another Intifada (active, potentially armed resistance by Palestinians) and highlighted the continuing conflict within Israeli communities over who qualifies as “properly” or “ideally” Israeli or Jewish. As a result, Israel seems particularly politically unstable at the moment and likely to make choices that are unwise in the long term.

-Turkey, which has long been plagued by undemocratic movements, has experienced a bit of panic over whether Islam has a growing political presence. This seems likely to herald both undemocratic restrictions on free religious expression and the growth of militant Islamism. This is pertinent to Syria as some of the opposition to the government is often couched in religious terms and much of the government’s violence is excused (as undemocratic acts in Turkey have been) as a preventative strategy against militant Islamists. Turkey, to some extent, finds itself fighting the same conflict as neighboring Syria, and is likely to have a stake in the outcome. That fact is complicated by the reality that Turkey has the support of NATO and much of the Western world in a way that Syria doesn’t and thus a trump card to play against Syria if the conflict is either willfully introduced into or accidentally threatens to spill over into Turkey. But Turkey also doesn’t want a destabilized Syria to serve as a training grounds and resupply territory for the increasingly intent Kurdish rebels.

In short, there are multiple ways for the conflict in Syria to ignite a broader religious conflict in the Middle East, to alter the ability of marginalized groups in Israel and Palestine to effectively protest their oppression, and to provide a means of militant Turks who want to guarantee the free expression of devout Muslims and Kurds within Turkey to militarily organize. The risks of intervention are not only that it will fail to actually improve the lives of Syrians, but that it will actively reduce the stability of almost every surrounding country.

But the conflict is already spilling into Iraq, with Syrian forces and anti-regime forces fighting in Iraq (and causing Iraqi civilian casualties). The Iraqi state is stuck in an even more reminiscent position of Syria’s government’s – as a Shia government finding itself in perpetual electoral and military conflict with various anti-government Sunnis. Both have at least some ties to Iran (although Syria’s are much stronger), and unlike Turkey, Iraq doesn’t have the means to have international actors demand that the conflict be prevented from spilling over. With all that in mind, the Iraqi government has started treating the Syrian soldiers injured in its territory. The field of conflict is broadening independent on Turkish, Israeli, Palestinian, and even Iranian interests in keeping Syria’s conflicts contained if not resolving them.

It’s worrisome to think that a better question for non-Syrians to ask themselves in the place of why they haven’t intervened in Syria is whether they will ultimately decide to intervene there and elsewhere in the future as the conflicts spreads.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

They make a desert and call it peace…

TW: civilian casualties of war, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Israeli-Lebanese conflict, Israeli-Syrian conflict, Israeli-Turkish conflict

If you’ve been on twitter, or Facebook, or any other social media site at all today, you’ve probably encountered the familiar yet impossible-to-resolve arguments about Israel that crop up every time there’s a military conflict involving it. Yes, we’ve already slid back into another conflict in which Israel is involved for the sixth time in the past few years. In 2006, it was Lebanese civilians and Hezbollah. In 2007, it was North Korean workers and the perceived threat of a nuclear Syria. In 2008 and 2009, it was Gazan civilians and Hamas militants. In 2010, it was Turkish activists. In 2011, it was Gazan civilians and Hamas militants again. And now we have a newfangled youtubified war between, you guessed it, the Israeli military and Hamas-affiliated militants in Gaza.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Learning from history

TW: class warfare, forced relocation

After decades of horrendous environmental policies, Chinese protests based in the city of Ningbo against reckless industrial expansion seem to have reached critical mass and have become capable of shutting down questionable projects. While China didn’t have to go through its own Bhopal Disaster to reach this point, it’s obvious that an environmental price in quality and length of life has been paid by some of the country’s citizens.

57.54% of Ningbo Area waters are severely pollutedMarshes surrounding Ningbo, China
(Although a majority of the surrounding marine environments have been determined to be “severely polluted”, they are not significantly increasing in size, and the area appears relatively healthy. Right image from here, left from here.)

The most recent aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip went on the PR offensive before being seized by Israeli officials. One of the founders of the group that had organized the current effort provided an interview before reaching Gazan waters which specified their goals, their cargo, and responded to multiple likely accusations to justify the seizure of the flotilla. With the famous Turkish flotilla having been subjected to provably false allegations by Israeli officials, this was probably a good way of heading off another such round of “he said, she said” discussion on the aid group.

In Mumbai, there’s the beginning of political organization within the majority of the city’s population which dwells in places labeled as “slums”. Facing forced relocation by the government to make way for urban development, some of the communities in the city are protesting for investment in existing communities, rather than displacement of the poor. Although some areas’ populations have already been forcibly removed and replaced with upper scale housing developments, the political movement is largely anticipatory at this stage. As a result they’re more on their toes than comparable movements in South Africa, which have largely responded to existing mass evictions in working to prevent further displacement or ease transitions.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Constitution and Culture

TW: military occupation and political coercion of Afghanistan, Kurdish-Turkish conflicts and violence

Turkey’s recent party elections (which allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remain the head of the ruling party) and upcoming Presidential Elections (in which Erdoğan seems likely to run) are an interesting and unexamined contrast to the US-led “nation-building” and democratization of Afghanistan. Both nations experienced massive political upheaval throughout the end of the twentieth century. Turkey survived three military coups, and Afghanistan saw its local monarchy succumb to Soviet occupation which in turn degraded into civil war and effective theocratic rule. In the first few years of the twentieth century, however, the US invaded and began occupying Afghanistan while pushing the development of a democratic and constitutional government. In Turkey, Erdoğan, then the mayor of İstanbul, formed the now-governing AK Party and led a comparatively peaceful and mostly electoral democratic transition. In his potential bid for the presidency, a major issue will be the lack of a replacement to the current constitution which was designed under military dictatorship.

While there are clear similarities in the overall political arch of the two countries for the past few decades, there’s a number of clear differences: most obviously, Turkey’s comparative wealth to Afghanistan’s undeniable poverty and Turkey’s endogenous democratization to Afghanistan’s part in Bush’s plan for the Islamic world. Less commonly addressed, I think, is the catch-22 that both nation’s have struggled with in different ways – for Afghanistan to create a constitution with minimal change in the broader culture and for Turkey to repair major problems in the larger political context without substantively challenging the flaws in the existing constitution.

The modern constitution of Afghanistan was adopted by consensus at a large delegate meeting of representatives of various ethnic groups and tribes and political factions, essentially organized by the US government. The political process was primarily shaped by foreign political pressure and domestic elites. Unsurprisingly, it failed to substantively address the underlying causes of terrorism and other violence against the succeeding government. As Sakena Yacoobi, Afghani literacy and women’s rights activist, explained in 2009-

“Many people tell me that Afghanistan should have democracy, but how can a society, a nation, have democracy when the people of that nation don’t know how to read and write? How can you implement a democracy if people don’t know their rights? We have a constitution, but it needs to be implemented. We cannot just talk about democracy. We have to prepare people for democracy.”

The constitution developed in 2003 remained little more than a piece of paper to millions of poor and effectively disenfranchised civilians in Afghanistan. Yacoobi also identifies the major issues that then newly-elected President Obama would need to focus on to actually substantively democratize Afghanistan:

“Peacekeeping is one way to negotiate with [civilians sympathetic to militants], but right now, for maintaining security, I think that troops are needed — but our own troops, not American. If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region. If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.”

With stability in Afghanistan increasingly seeming unglued in spite of significant US support and cooperation with local security forces, it seems as though her warning for the course of action the US would need to take should have been heard years earlier under Bush. By the time Obama began implementing such solutions, the country had already politically disintegrated,  not from lack of a constitution but from the lack of a political context that could give such political items actual power.

Guards outside of the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan 2004.Turkish youth federation protesters who would be accused of terrorism

(Left, armed guards outside of the delegate meeting on Afghanistan’s constitution, 2004 – from here. Right, Turkish student protesters holding up a sign saying, “The Youth Federation wants and will get free education” who were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and given months or years in prison – from here.)

The current political problems in Turkey, however, are a sign that democratization that’s locally-arising and focuses on larger political issues and values isn’t necessarily enough to create lasting and effective change, especially when the constitution and legal system remain more or less unchanged. It’s hard to deny the ways the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdoğan specifically have changed political discussion in Turkey – as an even-handed analysis has to admit he’s shut-out a military which historically served as a check against democratic demands. He’s become a human incarnation of the idea that moderate Islam, representative government, and explosive economic development can be effectively combined, changing political discussions throughout the Islamic world.

But while the right to vote is not so precariously dependent on being tolerated by the military, the government has retained confusing and sometimes arbitrary limitations on freedom of speech, some of which were even used against the reformer party that now controls the government. Likewise, freedom from military violence and coercion seems exclusively a benefit that’s been gained by ethnic Turks, as violence between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military has now reached a fever pitch. Erdoğan has helped significantly change the political culture of Turkey – but only for some and in certain circumstances, and increasingly to personal rather than national benefit. The constitution has been left unchanged since a coup decades ago and consequently gives these failures legal cover. The new system proposed by his government contains a poison pill of sorts, with it giving the presidency that Erdoğan is vying for more executive power. The larger political context of Turkey could only change so much, and the inattention to the problems with its constitution are exacerbating that problem.

The inevitable problem seems to be that constitutional and legal reform is necessary to effective democratization, but that contemporaneous changes to the broader political context and discourse in the country have to be significant. Simultaneously, the development of a substantively democratic culture requires to some degree legal and constitutional protections. We’re dealing with the chicken and the egg here – to focus very hard on only one as in Afghanistan and Turkey destroys the feedback cycle between the two, which might be the only way towards authentically democratic governance.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,