Erdogan Looks West

 Erdogan Looks West

Semih Idiz

August 9 2013

The little-known Turkish philosopher Celal Yaliniz, “Bearded Celal” to those who knew him, once likened Turkey’s Western-oriented intellectuals to “members of a ship’s crew who are running toward the west as their ship traveled east.”

Yaliniz, the son of an Ottoman naval commander, was a graduate of the highly Westernized Galatasaray Lycée in Istanbul, from which the famous football team also hails. He and his protégés among Turkey’s intellectual elite, including Nazim Hikmet, Haldun Taner, Hıfzı Veldet Velidedeoglu, Melih Cevdet Anday and Orhan Veli, were no enemies of the West.

His metaphor has, however, been used by Turkish Islamists and anti-Western nationalists to denigrate admirers of Western values and lifestyles. While this may be understandable for Islamists, it was always an odd stance for nationalists, especially those who are admirers of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.

Ataturk, after all, was not only highly Westernized himself, but also introduced the West into Turkey, from the manner in which people dressed to the secular principles of the civil code. Democracy, however, was not his priority, which was also the case for many European leaders at the time. This tendency prevailed for decades in the dominant class that came to be known as “Kemalist,” for which preserving secular Western ways has always been more vital than promoting democracy.

We see this in Egypt today, where those who ousted former President Hosni Mubarak in the name of democracy are now working with the same military that toppled the democratically elected Islamist government. Turkey, however, is not Egypt, and the likelihood of this kind of situation

emerging in Turkey today is next to nil, given that its own military occupies a more suitable place in Turkey's democracy.

This is one of the pluses of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan's political success was also, to a large extent, based on his caution with the economy, which was overhauled by the International Monetary Fund after the country’s devastating economic collapse in 2001.

The fact that he kept the economy growing during a world recession clearly contributed to his successive electoral victories, which were not reducible solely to his Islamic orientation. That orientation, however, manifested itself over time when the AKP started to use its strong mandate to force its own ideology on Turkish society.

The result was the Gezi Park crisis, which caught the government totally off guard, forcing it to overreact in undemocratic ways. The brutal police crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters was the last straw for a young and modern generation that had been largely apolitical prior to the event.

The youth also revealed an aspect of Turkey that seemed highly familiar to the West. The young men and women who took to the streets in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir and other cities around Turkey were not like the youth of Tahrir Square. They were the equivalent of the “Occupy Wall Street” generation, and this is what Erdogan and members of his government found difficult to cope with.

Hiding behind the shroud of being democratically elected, Erdogan labeled these young demonstrators as useless louts, which they were certainly not, given their level of education. Today, he continues to challenge both the Gezi Park demonstrators and their supporters over his popular mandate. Pointing to the ballot box, however, as an excuse to impose the social preferences of one segment of society, even if it is a large segment, is clearly not acceptable to other segments of society that are equally large.

Hitherto apolitical young people in Turkey have thus been alerted to a subjective interpretation of democracy which is being used to promote majoritarian rule that harbors anti-democratic elements.

Erdogan’s dilemma today, therefore, having persistently maintained that he is introducing “advanced democracy” to Turkey, is that he has no other choice but to actually introduce this “advanced democracy” if he is to secure social peace and carve a place for himself as a promoter of democracy in the region.

In doing so, he also has no choice but to take lessons from a West that he continually belittles for the sake of populist gains among his grass-roots Islamist supporters. This is the point at which President Abdullah Gul — a co-founder of the AKP and Erdogan’s one-time comrade in arms — comes into the picture.

Although Gul is a devout Muslim, he has been exhorting Turks and the government to remain fully on course in terms of the institutional Westernization of Turkey that has been ongoing since the beginning of the 19th century. The principle current instrument for him in this regard is Turkey’s European Union perspective, which he reiterated this week during his official Eid al-Fitr message to the public, in which he also referred to the Gezi Park protests.

“It should not be forgotten that legitimate democratic reactions reflecting social expectations and objections, and which are expressed in a manner that does not disrupt the peace, are indispensible aspects of our democracy,” Gul said.

“It is vital that everyone sees this and remains focused on our promising tomorrows. We have to concentrate on large targets, such as EU membership and a new constitution, which will carry Turkey above the level of contemporary civilization,” he added, urging national solidarity.

His remarks can be construed as being aimed at Erdogan and the AKP, also. In a piece on Egypt for the Financial Times on Aug. 8, Gul carried on in similar vein. Pointing out that “the Egyptian people have almost been split into two camps, each of which is rallying dangerously against the other,” he added the following:

“Egypt’s future lies in democracy where the free will of the Egyptian people prevails, constitutional legitimacy is upheld and where rights and freedoms are guaranteed. No other solution will be right for Egypt — and nothing short of it will bring stability.”

Although Turkey and Egypt are different in terms of their democratic experiences, it is obvious that there is a message in these words for a Turkey that is also deeply divided today. Gul is turning Bearded Celal’s metaphor on its head and calling on Turks to turn their ship toward Western institutions and principles in order to develop their democracy further.

While Turkey may be Eastern in terms of many aspects of its culture, it is not fully so, representing as it does a subtle mixture of the East and the West, and carrying both secularist and Islamist overtones. Erdogan and members of his government disregarded this diversity when they tried to integrate Turkey with an economically and politically backward Middle East, in line with a unified Islamist vision which in fact does not exist.

The underdeveloped nature of the region ensured not just an institutional but also a cultural mismatch between Turkey and the Middle East. This is proving to be more significant than any mismatch that may exist today between Turkey and the West.

Given Ankara’s misadventures in the Middle East, Erdogan has no choice left but to turn Turkey’s ship westward if he is to fulfill his vision of a grand Turkey based on advanced democracy. The basic parameters for this kind of democracy lie in the West, and not eastward.

As to anti-Western Kemalist nationalists who would ultimately prefer a secular military regime to democracy under an Islamist government, needless to say, they, too, have to get their political orientation right.