Left at the Crossroads: Turkish paradoxes

Twenty-first century Turkey is an enigma to the West. With a growth rate that trails just behind China and India, it is viewed by some as the only real success story in the Middle East and a harbinger or what a genuine Islamic democracy could look like.

Twenty-first century Turkey is an enigma to the West. With a growth rate that trails just behind China and India, it is viewed by some as the only real success story in the Middle East and a harbinger or what a genuine Islamic democracy could look like. For others, this former pillar or Western cold war alliance is dangerously veering away from the civilized world.

In power since 2002, the moderate Islamists of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) are perceived by skeptics as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They’re accused of promoting an Iran-loving and Israel-hating international agenda while surreptitiously moving to stifle pluralism and freedom in Turkish society.

In September 2010, the AKP won 58% of the votes in a referendum that was ostensibly about bringing the constitution into compliance with

European Union standards. It was also largely seen as a plebiscite in favor of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. Some of the proposed amendments aimed to relax the grip of the military on Turkish institutions and had long been advocated by civil libertarians. Even so, most of the secular elites voted against a project they fear will open the way to a new authoritarian hegemony, this time in the name of Allah.

One of the bewildering paradoxes of the new Turkey is that the AKP has consciously implemented most of the gospel of privatization and market reform that the West has been preaching to the developing world in the last three decades. For Ahmet Insel, professor of economics at Galatasaray University, more than a strictly religious party, the AKP is a pro-business movement that has basically instigated a soft thatcherite revolution.

Erdogan’s party is indeed largely the expression of the emerging Anatolian entrepreneurial middle-class, simultaneously pious, puritanical and business-savvy - a combination that would surprise neither Max Weber nor the Texas Chamber of Commerce. Its aggressive pro-market agenda also vanquished the initial wariness of the Kemalist corporate establishment, who tended to view the AKP crowd as narrow-minded country bumpkins and undesirable competitors.

The AKP is also popular with the working classes, balancing welfare cuts with Islamic charity and a populist appeal to the moral sense of the devout masses against the entrenched secular elites.

Family values, free enterprise, mistrust of the welfare state, a strong, pious and patriotic middle-class, the idea that the social compact somehow warrants a parallel covenant with the Supreme Being… Sounds familiar? If all this is good or at least legitimate for Oklahoma, why should it represent a terrible threat when coming from  Turkey’s heartland?

The European reticence to embrace Turkey was sadly predictable, especially in the case of France, a declining power which expresses its deep insecurities through xenophobic and paranoid behavior. The new American wariness towards Ankara is a slightly different story, though it has some similar features.

There is some nostalgia for the pliant Turkey of Cold War days, and a lot of irritation with the regional policy of Turkish diplomacy’s wunderkind, Ahmet Davutoglu. His motto of “zero problems with our neighbors” implies a relatively friendly relationship with Tehran and Damascus. Washington has already expressed its “disappointment” over Turkey’s coziness with Iran.

The pro-Israel lobby in Congress is furious that Ankara dared publicly condemn the Jewish state over Gaza and condone a “terrorist enterprise.” By which they mean the May 2010 humanitarian expedition that ended in the slaughter of eight Turkish civilians and one American citizen by Israeli commandos in international waters.

Some criticisms are even more preposterous. Claire Berlinski, a journalist based in Istanbul, recently wrote in an American conservative magazine that the vibrant metropolis on the Bosporus was a city “on the verge of political catastrophe” and reminded her of Weimar Berlin: “It is all too easy to draw analogies … but the parallels here go beyond the standard hyperbole. The Nazis evoked nostalgia for a social and moral past that they proposed to restore, and so does Turkey’s AKP government.”

Berlinski then sheepishly admitted that it might be a bit excessive to compare Erdogan himself with Adolf Hitler: “He is increasingly a disturbing figure, but that-no, that’s much too far.” So Turkish parliamentary Islamism may not be a reincarnation of Nazism, after all.

Of course, Western commentators who indulge in this kind of ideological drivel -and the politicians who echo it- contribute to the phenomenon they fear the most: the estrangement of Turkey from a Western world that exhibits such a poor understanding of its travails and aspirations.

Which does not mean that all is well in Turkish democracy. There is indeed ample room for legitimate criticism. The AKP is not immune to hegemonic temptations, and there are indications of media manipulation and attempts to control the judiciary process. But a simple comparison with a regional darling of the West, Hosni Mubarak’s brutal and corrupt regime in Egypt, would suggest a bit more intellectual generosity and political rationality when dealing with the Turkish paradoxes.

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Globalization might already sound like a stale catchword, but the new interconnected reality it describes still has surprising tricks up its sleeves. So what do you do when you’re a leftish French writer born in Africa and living in South America, with a background in Slavic Studies, a worried fascination for emerging Asian powers, and interests ranging from classical political philosophy to Bollywood film music? Read, travel, wonder. And send scattered dispatches from modernity’s frontlines.

Marc Saint-Upéry is a French journalist and political analyst living in Ecuador since 1998. He writes about political philosophy, international relations and development issues for various French and Latin American publications and in the international magazines Le Monde Diplomatique and Nueva Sociedad. He is the author of El Sueño de Bolívar: El Desafío de las izquierdas Sudamericanas (Bolivar’s Dream: the Left’s challenge in South America).

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