Wednesday, 20 November 2013

What the Columnists Say

Published in Roundup of Columnists

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s statement that it is inappropriate that female and male university students share housing and that the government intends to take action to prevent this, and his subsequent statement that there is “legitimate” and “illegitimate” lives ignited a lively discussion. According to one interpretation, Erdoğan’s purpose is to keep his conservative base mobilized. However, several commentators also made the point that Erdogan was in fact addressing a genuine concern among the ascendant, conservative middle class whose children have become acquainted with a liberal life style that is shocking for the generation of their parents. Yet some of the sympathetic commentators who made this point nonetheless urged the AKP to adapt to the change that Turkey is undergoing.  Meanwhile, a columnist in the conservative, pro-AKP daily Yeni Şafak on the contrary argued that Islam must be the point of reference for democracy in a Muslim nation like Turkey, and that individuals must relinquish some freedoms that the majority in a Muslim nation finds unacceptable. The speech that Erdoğan gave in Diyarbakır in which he for the first time used the word Kurdistan was met with enthusiasm in the mainstream media.

Ergun Babahan on the t24 news site writes that whatever its purposes, the speech that Erdoğan gave in Diyarbakır is of historical importance. Yet how can it be that a leader who sings the tunes of friendship and brotherhood in Diyarbakır becomes a despot in Taksim Square in Istanbul? The contradictions of a politician who is oppressive in the west of the country and who poses as a democrat in Diyarbakır in the east raises legitimate questions. As I see it, the answer to this contradiction is to be found in the PKK and its leader Abdullah Öcalan. Unlike the Gezi protesters and the concerned seculars, the Kurds are an organized people.  It is not Erdoğan who gives the Kurds their rights; it is the Kurds who take them by fighting for them. Erdoğan is in a position similar to that of South Africa’s former president F. W. De Klerk who sat down to peace negotiations with Mandela, not because he was a democrat who respected human rights, but because he faced up to the reality that the racist policies of South Africa had become untenable. It is similarly the rapidly changing realities of the Middle East, the Kurdish reality that is increasingly imposing itself, the desire to exert power in the region, and the fear of being treated as a pariah internationally that is compelling Erdoğan to be a democrat in Diyarbakır. He has nothing similar to fear from the concerned seculars in the west; their medias have surrendered, their businessmen have been bought. The anger of the youth that occassionaly flares up can immediately be suppressed by the devilish police. That is why Erdoğan can be a democrat in the east, and a despot in the west. Because there is no organized force in the west (of Turkey) that forces him to be a democrat. That is simply the painful truth.


Ali Sirmen in Cumhuriyet writes that divide and  rule is Mr. Tayyip’s preferred political method. Every fascism needs an enemy to sustain its hold. In “Tayyibizm”, the others in society – be it seculars, Alevis or Gezi protesters – are the enemy, the root of all evil. Democracy is not important. What is important is to conform to the conservative Islamic values that he stands for. In this perspective, there are no inviolable democratic concepts in the life of society, only sacred religious concepts. That is how the matter of freedom to wear headscarf was handled; it was made clear that the headscarf was a religious requirement. Both the matter of students homes and the headscarf in the parliament were used to convey the message that “we will implement the prescriptions of religion and conservative morality, and the others who are root of every evil will always be against this.” Even though the support of the fundamentalists may not be enough to secure a majority in support of a presidential system, it will be enough to keep the others oppressed. When the very aim is to create the impression that the conservative moral values of Islam are with Mr. Tayyip, and that the others are despicables who are against these, then one has to conclude that Mr.Tayyip has acted rationally from the point of view of his own calculations in his recent game.


Etyen Mahçupyan in Zaman writes that the political norms of the conservatives have changed almost entirely and have become compatible with the needs of the democratic system. Thus, the integrity of private life is something that this government protects rigorously. And precisely for this reason, the prime minister does not interfere with anyone’s private life. All his provocative speeches notwithstanding, none of us have seen our private lives being changed. However, the prime minister does not refrain from expressing the need to intervene against the “norms” of private life. Because he is a conservative and he fears that the said norms are going to be lost and that moral degeneration is going to follow. And what is more, because he heads the executive, he feels the responsibility of this on his own shoulders. Yet the political and social opening of which the AKP is the agent will invariably lead to change also in the moral dimension. That dynamic is presently making itself felt among the new generations, and the moral concerns that the old generation of conservatives have with regard to the youth are precisely a sign of this change that is taking place. To politically exaggerate what is happening and interpret it as the intervention of the government in private life is quite superficial. What it reflects is in fact the pains of real change.


Hayrettin Karaman in Yeni Şafak writes that governments cannot protect any behavior, practice or relation that the majority does not want, which it views as dangerous, ugly and illegitimate. An individual who lives in a society will have to sacrifice certain freedoms for the sake of the relation that he or she is forced to entertain with the society on which he or she is dependent.  According to the ethics, traditions and values of our Muslim nation, the issue that is being discussed now – female and male students living together in the same house – is not legitimate.  As I see it, the remedy to this, in a society of which almost one hundred percent is Muslim, is a democratic system that takes Islam as its main reference. If we are to keep on insisting on having a liberal democracy, then the governments should not attempt to introduce state actions that are in violation of this regime; but at the same time, individuals ought to voluntarily relinquish some freedoms for the sake of the majority on which they depend. If they do insist on exercising these freedoms, then the majority whose values are being trampled upon will have the right to at least employ “neighborhood pressure” against them.


Taner Akçam in Taraf writes that the AKP has authored a rapid economic change. It has made it possible for a new middle class to emerge. Especially the children of this newly rich class have become acquainted with a life style that they had not encountered before. Things like consumption of alcohol, relations outside the marriage, sexual relations, have terrified conservative parents. I wonder whether this new middle class, among whom are the leaders of the AKP, have in fact embarked on this mobilization against their own children? Are perhaps the measures that are being taken part of an operation to save their own children? It seems that Erdoğan is hearing a lot of complaints from conservative parents like himself and wants to prevent their children from falling prey to temptations. I believe that Turkey is experiencing a significant change of mores. If the AKP fails to redefine its conservatism accordingly, then this moral mobilization, that also serves an electoral purpose, is ultimately going to backfire and explode in its hands.

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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