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Günbatımı Bulvarı: How the International Perspective of Rule of Law has Changed in Turkey

February 21, 2011

“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”

It’s one of the most quotable bits of one of Hollywood’s most famous movies. Sunset Boulevard is about the fading glory of a silent picture star. And while the plot would seemingly have more to do with Mubarak (or Ben Ali, or Ghaddafi, or al Khalifeen…) the quote reminds me of Turkey’s in some respects awkward place on the world stage. No longer being congratulated for its steps towards European-style liberalism, it is now criticized for its steps away from it. Ne oldu?

Also: Geeyah Stage Makeup!

As Yigal Schleifer put it in his most recent bit on Istanbul Calling, Turkey is now being seen as a model for the Middle East.I agree that this is bizarre considering that there’s no discussion of the 80 years of history of the Republic that got us here, only the end goal. And I agree that the carrot of EU ascension has been key. But I would like to demonstrate how the overall arc of his pessimism is largely due to a perspective shift.


The “Turkey as Model but with worrying side-effects” meme was written about most clearly in Eurasianet‘s bit by Nicholas Birch.

Other analysts think Western talk of a Turkish model is an implicit acknowledgement both of the West’s ambiguous attitude towards democratization in the Muslim world, and its fading ambitions for Turkey. “In the past, Turkey was on an oscillating scale with Europe on one end and the Middle East on the other,” says Fadi Hakura, a specialist on Turkey at Chatham House, a foreign policy think-tank in London.

The weird trope of referring to Tariq Ramadan first and foremost as the grandson of al-Banna besides, it deserves to be read in full. Turkey’s latest Balyoz-related transgression was the arrest of 4 journalists. Awkward enough to be picked up by the New York Times, those bastions of being 2 days late. Balyoz has been mentioned here and elsewhere and is, well, kind of ugly in its mishandling of evidence and shuffling of judges.

These are not good things. The vaguely autocratic and certainly unorthodox actions by AKP look bad, sure. But compared to whom? Compared to our idealized image of some perfect country? Turkey has deep-seated issues with corruption, para-governmental bodies, and political distrust. Balyoz/Ergenekon is a progression of those issues as much as it is a new power play by a government more influenced by Islam. They deserve to be examined, analyzed, and criticized, but not looked at in abject shock.

I remember talking to an old Istanbul hand who moved to Turkey just before the 1980 coup. Coming from Syria, he was talking how the Syrians loaded him up with bread and toothpaste, that he would need to gird himself to enter the great unknown. Needless to say, times have changed.

Why things have changed is a topic for a later post (that will be entitled: OZAL!),  but it stands to be noticed, things have changed.

The current jailing of journalists, along with the numerous cases against novelists, cartoonists, and various other members of something we might call “the press” all are possible under the 1980 Constitution that harshly limited freedom of the press. The theoretical new constitution will likely uphold these laws. But the old constitution? Man, in the 1970’s one could write pretty much whatever one wanted in Turkey. I’ve written about this before, but it stands to be mentioned, the frontier justice and frontier journalism of that time are responsible for the current mediocre state of Turkish journalism and were blamed by the Evrenciler for the wild violence of that era. There’s lots written about this, but Pamuk’s Black Book describes it well. In one of those hilarious turns of events, the military establishment may have inadvertently spelled out their own demise. This is very, very, important when trying to understand present-day issues with press freedom in Turkey. The legal environment is designed to contain press freedom in direct consequence of the violence of the 1970’s. The legal environment should (and likely will – though for better or worse of course remains to be seen) change. But all that AKP is doing now is using the constitution written by their political enemies for their own political gain. It’s not pretty, but it’s domestic politics. It happens everywhere.

The criticism about the AKP’s curtailment of freedoms of press is legitimate and needs to be made. But we’re a long way off from systematic human rights abuses, separatist violence, and Jandarma torture. Even corruption has been curtailed (although the issues with the Third Istanbul Bridge and Tarlabasi are pretty disquieting). I get a lot of mockery for “supporting” AKP but the truth is, it used to really suck in Turkey. Now it doesn’t. And there is much more causation than correlation in that.

Where does this fall in with the current issues and the title? Turkey can be both a model for emerging democracies and have issues with press freedoms. I don’t think anybody can realistically expect any emerging country with an as-yet-unfigured-out government to immediately become Switzerland.

Now is Turkey the ideal standard? I would think that Spain in the post-Franco years would be far more attractive, myself. And both Spain and Turkey have had a similar experience with being induced by European trade and reforms. Both, indeed, have been swayed more heavily by Europe then by the United States. And both have found a sort of balance-of-powers that works in their instant case (although the AKP seemingly wants to shake theirs up…again, a story for another post). Turkey is hardly the only option, but it is certainly a more attractive option then, say, Yemen post-reunification.

Mr. Schleifer also brings up Turkey’s difficult road from The Great War to today, which is certainly valid. But it is also symptomatic of the 20th century: rise of fascism, NATO alliances, fear of Communism, separatist claims…these are all far less relevant to our contemporary emerging countries. And if, instead, you want to talk about AKP’s use of Islam in a democratic setting? Well, “Islam” is a red herring, there. Islam is just the set of nouns used for Erdogan’s demagogy. Turkey may share a set of “cultural values” defined in some abstract way with Egypt, with Tunisia, with Bahrain. But the legal setting is European and martial with only some property law smacking of Sharia (the last sentence is way more complex than that and I’m working on it, ok?).

Turkey has issues. These are not “Middle Eastern” issues or “European” issues. They are Turkey issues. Some parallels can be made with other cases, but it’s really just a matter of picking and choosing your data sets. Save that for the historians. Real historians, not dudes like myself with B.A.s in history.

People are no longer impressed with Turkey’s turn towards the E.U. This is because the bid has stalled, because the E.U. has become less attractive economically, and because Turkey’s already come 90% of the way there. For many, Turkey can now only disappoint. Now that they have taken it upon themselves to be leaders on the world stage and to disagree with their paler cousins, they can only be tut-tutted, not applauded.

The truth is, Turkey’s come a long way, baby. It’s a road that should be celebrated, a unique road that Turkey has carved for itself (with only a teensy-weensy bit of help from U.S.-backed coups and a chunk of help from the E.U. Customs Union). Its flaws can be magnified because the media coverage exists to magnify them. And those flaws should be magnified, because that’s what media coverage is for. But Turkey should not be forced to choose between the “us” and “them” category. It’s a really, really, normal place for both people coming from South Bend and people coming from Sana’a. This is its beauty, not its danger.

Just because you, personally, have been disappointed with how Turkey has changed in the past few years doesn’t mean it is no longer a viable model. It is a far more successful case study – depending on your metrics – then at least 75% of the countries out there, I would imagine. Work with the changes, be loud about what you dislike and loud about what you do like. Just don’t be shrill because that doesn’t bring anybody into your corner.

Turkey is big. It’s just the perspective that got small. Keep up the pressure on what Turkey needs to do better, but don’t forget how impossible this all looked during the Deniz Gezmis years.

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