Home

I’ve written a piece for the New York Times to mark President Erdoğan’s visit to Washington on the blockbuster series “Diriliş: Ertuğrul,” broadcast on Turkish state TV channel TRT.

A few years ago at the height of so-called neo-Ottomanism there were loads of articles published about Turkish TV serials being exported all over the world. It became quite a tired cliche but the popularity of various shows is in fact a good bell-weather for the political mood. And audiences take the messages that these serials pump out seriously. On a visit to Polatlı, a small town outside Ankara a couple of years ago, I vividly remember how a local coffee house arranged its seats in rows at night once a week to screen the latest episode of the ultra-macho action serial “Valley of the Wolves.” In a provincial town with little else to do, it was clearly a major weekly event.

Get a flavour of Diriliş: Ertuğrul by watching the intro:

If you’ve got too much time on your hands you can stream every episode on the TRT website 🍿🍿🍿

If you missed it, here’s an article I wrote about another dubious cultural product: The Erdoğan biopic “Reis” (The Chief), which flopped at box offices in March.

New Turkey Book Talk episode with Michael Wuthrich, chatting about “National Elections in Turkey: People, Politics and the Party System” (Syracuse University Press).

This really is an excellent book that overhauls much conventional wisdom about Turkish politics shared by right and left.

Unlike the deceptively boring title of the book, this episode’s title is stupidly ambitious. But we do cover a lot of ground. I’m really pleased with it – hope you enjoy/learn from it.

Download the episode or listen below.

Subscribe to Turkey Book Talk :  iTunes / PodBean / Stitcher / Facebook / RSS

Here’s my review of the book in HDN.

national-elections-copy-2

If you like this podcast and want to support independent podcasting, you can make a small or large monetary donation to Turkey Book Talk via Patreon.

Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.

Ece Temelkuran joins Turkey Book Talk to discuss “Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy” (Zed Books), her vivid and personal account of the current state of the country.

Download the episode or listen below.

Subscribe to Turkey Book Talk :  iTunes / PodBean / Stitcher / Facebook / RSS

Insane and melancholy

My review of this one is pending – waiting for it to be published in the TLS before posting in abridged form in Hürriyet.

If you like Turkey Book Talk and want to support independent podcasting, you can make a small or large monetary donation to the show via Patreon.

Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.

Turkey Book Talk is back after a one month hiatus.

We return with a good one: Bilge Yeşil speaks about her book “Media in New Turkey: The Origins of an Authoritarian Neoliberal State” (University of Illinois Press).

Download the episode or listen below:

Subscribe to Turkey Book Talk: iTunes / PodBean / Stitcher / Facebook / RSS

Here’s my review of the book.

Media

If you like Turkey Book Talk and want to support independent podcasting, you can make a small or large monetary donation to the show via Patreon. Many thanks to current supporters Özlem Beyarslan, Steve Bryant, Andrew Cruickshank and Aaron Ataman.

I’ve written a piece for Foreign Policy on the deterioration of the Turkish government’s image in the international media, and Turkey’s aggressive response:

 

The foreign media image of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Turkish government has shattered over the past 18 months, and in response Turkey has ramped up an international information blitzkrieg.

The tone is becoming increasingly bitter, motivated by a conviction that the foreign media is a propaganda weapon deployed by the West to attack the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Patriotic Turks are called on to rally behind their government in the name of national sovereignty.

This sense of embattled defiance is important to understand, and reveals much about the resentful mindset gripping the state. Suspicion about the foreign press is hardly new in Turkey, but it’s unfortunate to see the worst of such sentiments returning – openly sponsored by Erdoğan and the AKP’s top brass. The president himself is even managing to turn international criticism to his own advantage, as evidence that the West is implacably hostile to Turkey and its fearless, truth-telling leader — a useful populist line ahead of next June’s crucial parliamentary elections.

 

Read the full article here.

I’m breaking my blogging hiatus to present a guest post by my friend Paul Osterlund, who is currently reporting for Today’s Zaman. The piece is a response to a recent apologia for the Turkish government’s press freedom record written by Sabancı University historian Adam McConnel on the Serbestiyet website. Rebuttals are welcome via the comments section.

 

Late last month, an article titled “Understanding the Turkish Press” appeared on the Turkish website Serbestiyet (The Independent), written by Adam McConnell, an American historian who has lived in Turkey for 15 years and holds a doctoral degree from Istanbul’s Sabancı University.

Despite the website’s moniker, Serbestiyet is comprised primarily of self-fashioned “liberal” journalists and scholars who support President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The website features a cadre of columnists who previously wrote for the Taraf daily, who subsequently jumped ship when that paper adopted a harshly critical stance toward the AKP. These columnists range from those who are unwavering in their support for the AKP to those at who are at least willing to acknowledge many of its authoritarian blunders, nevertheless insisting that the party is Turkey’s only democratizing force.

In his essay, McConnell writes that the Turkish press is a “daily anarchic knock-down, drag-out free-for-all,” where the is no semblance of objectivity, but rather a ragtag collection of pro and anti-government dailies eschewing proper journalistic standards for cheap potshots. While this may be true, it forms the basis for his assertion that “the Turkish press is not under threat from the government, and is not censored,” a position that could only be occupied by one wearing blinders. His idea of a free press resembles Erdoğan’s views on democracy, which Turkey’s president believes in firmly rooted in the ballot box. So long as there are multiple parties competing in relatively free and fair elections, no one has the right to complain. As long as there are a variety of papers taking aim at the government, the opposition, the Gülen movement, and each other, the press should be considered free and healthy.

Such logic painfully overlooks a variety of important factors. One troubling trend that McConnell neglects to mention is Erdoğan’s penchant for publicly chastising journalists. The president has done this time and time again knowing that the journalist in question will receive a deluge of threats. In 2011, Erdoğan accused respected columnist Nuray Mert (without specifically mentioning her name) of supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Afterwards, Mert lost her job as a TV show host and was eventually booted from her columnist position at the daily Milliyet. Most recently, Erdoğan singled out professor and columnist İhsan Yılmaz, (though again not by name) calling him a traitor for various remarks Yılmaz had made at a conference in Washington earlier this year. Both Mert and Yılmaz reported fearing for their safety. These are only two among a host of similar incidents. (Erdoğan seems particularly eager to target young female journalists, including Amberin Zaman, Ceylan Yeğinsu, Selin Girit and Rengin Arslan).

The government has levied media owners with hefty tax fines, most famously in 2009 when the Doğan Media Group, which runs the daily Hürriyet and CNN Türk among other outlets—was fined a whopping 4 billion lira. The penalty was later reduced to just under one million, but the penalty was widely believed to have been a punishment for the media group’s critical coverage. As of 2013, more journalists were behind bars in Turkey than in any other country. Erdoğan frequently files criminal complaints against journalists he doesn’t like, and even deported an Azerbaijani journalist early this year for certain tweets he wrote, an incident that may be the first of its kind in history. McConnell mentions none of this, apart from this underwhelming tidbit: “True enough, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently put pressure on some newspapers or journalists, and gotten some people fired, which was obviously not the right thing to do.”

The author proceeds by listing the most prominent Turkish dailies and their respective ideological stances, pointing out that the majority are critical of the government. He takes opposition papers to task for suddenly beginning to cover labor issues, a move which he says amounts to “nauseauting hypocrisy.” Never mind that labor conditions have deteriorated amid a major construction boom and privatization frenzy that has coincided with the AKP’s tenure as Turkey’s ruling party.

Even if it is hypocritical for the opposition papers to revert their focus toward these issues, they have become impossible to ignore, particularly when they are surrounded by hysteria and provocation caused by the AKP itself. An Erdoğan advisor, Yusuf Yerkel, was photographed kicking a protestor following a deadly mine disaster that killed 301 workers at the Soma mine in May. Erdoğan himself caused a furor when he said the tragedy was the “nature of the business,” referencing similar disasters in 19th-century England. In the midst of such absurdity, only papers loyal to the government failed to report on these incidents, the kind of scandalous and popcorn-muching fodder that is dream coverage for newspapers.

McConnell, while exhibiting his distaste for what he sees as opposition hypocrisy, conveniently leaves out that pro-government papers routinely print bald-faced lies and anti-Semitic nonsense. Last year Yeni Şafak ran an interview with Noam Chomsky where certain answers were altered (the meticulous Chomsky discovered this himself), whereas Takvim printed an interview with CNN’s Christine Amanpour that was completely fabricated. Meanwhile, in the midst of Israel’s latest flurry of bomb attacks on Gaza, Yeni Akit featured a word game centered around a picture of Adolf Hitler, with the resulting clue reading “we are longing for you.”

Takvim's legendary interview with a tree, which appeared during last year's Gezi protests.

Pro-government tabloid Takvim‘s legendary interview with a tree during last year’s Gezi protests.

Pressure from the ruling party can even have the power to dramatically influence circulation between the opposition papers. After Hürriyet opted not to print a highly sarcastic piece from Yılmaz Özdil, one of the country’s most popular columnists, Özdil jumped ship to Sözcü, which then immediately took Hürriyet’s spot as the third-most circulated paper in Turkey, moving up from fourth place, although the two papers have traded places since then. Amid increasing pressure from the government, Hürriyet declined to print Özdil’s column as it suggested in a facetious manner slathered with bitter mockery that Erdoğan’s son Bilal should be the country’s prime minister.

In their columns, the Serbestiyet crew has exhibited an extremely paranoid attitude toward the Gezi Park protests, asserting that the movement had been hijacked by Kemalist/neo-nationalist forces. They argued that the protests amounted to a “coup,” and they evaluated the Dec. 17 corruption scandal using the same term. Even the Oct. 6-7 clashes between PKK sympathizers and Islamist groups over Turkey’s indecisiveness over Kobane have been referred to as a coup by some of these columnists. One would think that people who have lived through actual military coups, as tanks rolled through the streets and forcibly seized control, and where dissidents were imprisoned, tortured and killed, would not throw around the term so lightly. They also managed to gloss over the large number of journalists who lost their jobs following the Gezi events. Since they believe any serious threat to the credibility of the AKP must be a coup plotter or secular nationalist, they harbor the same stance toward the opposition press. Any paper or writer who criticizes the government is a bitter, coup-sympathizing elitist who doesn’t understand a monumental social transformation that only the AKP could usher in and see through.

Since McConnell would like his readers to believe that the opposition papers solely exist to take jabs at the AKP, he attempts to minimize their distinct ideological positions and deemphasizes the fact that they are catering to different groups of people. One wouldn’t find an average reader of Sözcü thumbing through the pages of Taraf, as the latter frequently features columnists openly and frankly discussing the Armenian Genocide and the Kurdish settlement process, occupying positions uncomfortable for your average Kemalist.  On the other hand a loyal Taraf reader would likely snub their nose at the idea of reading Cumhuriyet or Yurt. (McConnell makes the claim that Taraf has become co-opted by the Gülen movement, a rather conflated accusation that many of its former columnists have echoed. While Taraf’s Mehmet Baransu and Emre Uslu are movement sympathizers, the paper also features gay and trans columnists alongside a host of other writers that would be unwelcome at the Gülenist papers.) Moreover, a reader of Zaman or Bugün, who sympathizes with the Gülen movement, would be unlikely to give Sözcü or Cumhuriyet more than cursory glance, even if Zaman has begun to reference Cumhuriyet reports.

Different opposition papers have specific reasons to criticize the AKP. Left-wing papers such as BirGün and Evrensel go after the government because of its crony capitalist tendencies and sweeping neoliberal urban redevelopment initiatives. The Gülen dailies have come out swinging because the AKP has publically vowed to wipe out the Gülen movement and have taken major initiatives to destroy its financial integrity. The Kemalist dailies sling mud at the AKP whenever they can because they see it is an affront to their “secular lifestyle” and what they interpret as the “secular legacy” of the modern Turkish state.

The pro-government press, on the other hand, exists for a solitary purpose: to act as the mouthpiece of Erdoğan and the AKP. These outlets come in different flavors, but they are all equally loyal in their unquestioning devotion to the president and the government. On several occasions, pro-government dailies have featured nearly identical headlines, indicating that they are the result of top-down instructions. If the present state of the Turkish press can be considered an all-out slugfest between papers that have very distinct reasons for taking potshots at the government and the pro-government press, it is because these conditions have been fostered and encouraged by the government’s polarizing rhetoric, zero tolerance policy regarding criticism, its eagerness to personally single out “troublesome” journalists and its encouragement of corporate allies to buy media outlets to broaden the range of its mouthpiece. The current condition of the Turkish media cannot be understood separately from the ever-increasing authoritarian maneuvering of Erdoğan and the AKP.

The Turkish press, like the country it tries to represent, is highly dynamic and full of twists and turns. But despite the fact that Turkey can technically be considered a democracy, it is not a healthy one. And while pro and anti-government papers may duke it out freely with obnoxious headlines that often amount to little more than insults, the Turkish press is far from free. For one to begin to “understand” the Turkish press, they must be aware of the constant and diligent interventions staged by Tayyip Erdoğan, conducted to intimidate and delegitimize any and all who rattle his cage.

Is Turkey’s new Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu a pan-Islamist ideologue, with imperialist ambitions to reshape the Middle East into a post-national order based on Turkish and Sunni religious supremacy? That is the blockbuster thesis currently turning heads both inside and outside Turkey, thanks to a series of recent articles by Marmara University Assistant Professor Behlül Özkan.

Özkan, a one-time student of Davutoğlu’s from the latter’s time as an international relations professor, bases his provocative conclusion on close study of 300 articles penned by Davutoğlu in the 1980s and 90s. He first made his case in an essay for the August-September edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ journal“Survival,” before introducing it to a wider English audience with pieces on Al-Monitor and in the New York Times.

In his NYT op-ed “Turkey’s Imperial Fantasy” published last week, Özkan remembered Professor Davutoğlu as a hard-working and “genial figure” who “enjoyed spending hours conversing with his students.” In contrast with his academic peers, however, he believed that Turkey would “soon emerge as the leader of the Islamic world by taking advantage of its proud heritage and geographical potential … encompass[ing] the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia, and include Albania and Bosnia”:

Mr. Davutoglu’s classroom pronouncements often sounded more like fairy tales than political analysis. He cited the historical precedents of Britain, which created a global empire in the aftermath of its 17th-century civil war, and Germany, a fragmented nation which became a global power following its 19th-century unification. Mr. Davutoglu was confident that his vision could transform what was then an inflation-battered nation, nearly torn apart by a war with Kurdish separatists, into a global power.

He crystallized these ideas in the book ‘Strategic Depth,’ in 2001, a year before the Justice and Development Party, or A.K.P., came to power. In the book, he defined Turkey as a nation that does not study history, but writes it — a nation that is not at the periphery of the West, but at the center of Islamic civilization … Mr. Davutoglu saw himself as a grand theorist at the helm of his country as it navigated what he called the ‘river of history.’ He and his country were not mere pawns in world politics, but the players who moved the pieces.

Özkan rejects that Davutoğlu’s ideas amount to “neo-Ottomanism,” as often accused. Instead, he gives Turkey’s new prime minister the even heftier label of “pan-Islamist”:

The movement known as Ottomanism emerged in the 1830s as the empire’s elites decided to replace existing Islamic institutions with modern European-style ones, in fields from education to politics. By contrast, Mr. Davutoglu believes that Turkey should look to the past and embrace Islamic values and institutions.

But, ironically, he bases his pan-Islamist vision on the political theories that were used to legitimize Western imperial expansion prior to 1945. While purporting to offer Turkey a new foreign policy for the 21st century, his magnum opus draws on the outdated concepts of geopolitical thinkers like the American Alfred Thayer Mahan, the Briton Halford Mackinder and the German Karl Haushofer, who popularized the term “Lebensraum,” or living space, a phrase most famously employed by Germany during the 1920s and 1930s to emphasize the need to expand its borders.

According to Mr. Davutoglu, the nation states established after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire are artificial creations and Turkey must now carve out its own Lebensraum — a phrase he uses unapologetically. Doing so would bring about the cultural and economic integration of the Islamic world, which Turkey would eventually lead. Turkey must either establish economic hegemony over the Caucasus, the Balkans and the Middle East, or remain a conflict-riven nation-state that risks falling apart.

After becoming Turkey’s foreign minister from 2009, Davutoğlu had the opportunity to put these ideas into practice – with disastrous results:

As foreign minister, Mr. Davutoglu fervently believed that the Arab Spring had finally provided Turkey with a historic opportunity to put these ideas into practice. He predicted that the overthrown dictatorships would be replaced with Islamic regimes, thus creating a regional ‘Muslim Brotherhood belt’ under Turkey’s leadership.

He sought Western support by packaging his project as a ‘democratic transformation’ of the Middle East. Yet today, instead of the democratic regimes promised three years ago, Turkey shares a border with ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate. Two months ago, its fighters raided the Turkish consulate in the Iraqi city of Mosul, and is still holding 49 Turkish diplomats hostage. Mr. Davutoglu, who has argued that Turkey should create an Islamic Union by abolishing borders, seems to have no idea how to deal with the jihadis in Syria and Iraq, who have made Turkey’s own borders as porous as Swiss cheese.

To repair this dire situation as prime minister, Özkan says Davutoğlu needs to pragmatically reconnect Turkey’s regional policy with reality:

The new prime minister is mistaken in believing that the clock in the Middle East stopped in 1918 — the year the Ottoman Empire was destroyed — or that Turkey can erase the region’s borders and become the leader of an Islamic Union, ignoring an entire century of Arab nationalism and secularism. What Mr. Davutoglu needs to do, above all, is to accept that his pan-Islamist worldview, based on archaic theories of expansionism, is obsolete.

Turkey's new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Turkey’s new prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu (Photo: Anadolu Agency)

Özkan’s thesis certainly seems to have struck a chord, with plenty of prominent figures declaring their admiration. Still, the reception has not been universally positive. In Radikal, political scientist Fuat Keyman expressed skepticism about the use of any catch-all term such as “pan-Islamist” to accurately describe Davutoğlu’s worldview:

As someone who has read many – if not all – of Davutoğlu’s works, it’s difficult to understand how Dr. Özkan has drawn the conclusion that Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist (which is problematic as a term anyway).

It shouldn’t be forgotten that such expressions have only recently started to be used for Erdoğan and Davutoğlu. It could be said that irresponsible, anti-Semitic writings and comments made [by others] in Turkey recently have contributed to the increased use of terms like ‘pan-Islamism’ abroad.

Still, I don’t think terms such as ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘sectarian,’ or ‘pan-Islamist’ are useful or appropriate when describing Davutoğlu’s worldview, or his approach to foreign and domestic politics … Criticism of Turkish foreign policy should instead focus on the strategic errors that have been made, the exaggeration of Turkey’s power, and recently its distancing from democracy.

In Zaman, meanwhile, Şahin Alpay similarly questioned the validity of any term that sought to place a rigid label on the often multi-dimensional policies of Davutoğlu and the AKP:

The foreign policies pursued by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu do not fit into the mold of ‘neo-Ottoman,’ ‘pan-Islamist,’ or ‘Sunni sectarian.’ It’s difficult to apply a single ideological label for a foreign policy that started negotiations to join the EU, gave NATO permission for its Kürecik bases, received prizes from the Israeli lobby, struck up a personal friendship with Bashar al-Assad, recommended secularism to Egypt, and felt Tehran to be its own home. Rather than being based on certain principles, the policies pursued by the AKP, domestically and abroad, can be said to be either pragmatic, populist, opportunistic, or aimed at securing or protecting power. But if an ideological tag is necessary, Islamic Kemalism or religious nationalism could be used.

A deeper and more academic critique of Özkan’s work that has attracted particular attention was posted on the personal website of Ali Balcı, an associate professor at Sakarya University. Balcı doesn’t take issue with Özkan’s use of such a blanket term as “pan-Islamist,” but voices more substantial reservations about the underlying fundamentals of his work:

Özkan argues that the ‘pan-Islamic’ conclusions and analyses made by Davutoğlu as an academic in the second half of the 1980s and the 1990s can be used to understand Davutoğlu’s later foreign policy. This strongly indicates a ‘once an Islamist always an Islamist’ assumption, suggesting that Davutoğlu’s essential core is unchanging in the face of different times and conditions … The work’s fundamental problem is that despite all of the changes in conditions [since Davutoğlu wrote], it still puts forward that a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist – a reductionist and essentialist reading.

Balcı says it isn’t clear why Özkan searches for proof of Davutoğlu’s “pan-Islamism” in his old academic articles, while he supports the “neo-Ottoman” label for former Turkish President Turgut Özal using evidence from the latter’s period in office:

Examples of Özal’s neo-Ottomanism given by the writer can also be given for the AK Parti’s time in power and in Davutoğlu’s period as foreign minister. As stated by the writer, Özal applied for EU membership in 1987, worked to broaden influence in the Caucasus and the Balkans, tried to solve the Kurdish problem through reforms, and worked to establish control in its relations with Iraq. If all of these practical realities have also emerged during the AK Parti and Davutoğlu eras, how can Özal be considered a neo-Ottoman while Davutoğlu is a pan-Islamist? In answer to this question the writer only presents certain criticisms of Özal made by Davutoğlu. But while proving Özal’s neo-Ottomanism with practical examples, [Özkan] doesn’t answer why he looks for examples of Davutoğlu’s pan-Islamism in articles written while he was an academic.

Some of these criticisms are valid, but some are wide of the mark. It may not be true that “once a pan-Islamist is always a pan-Islamist,” but there is plenty of evidence that today’s Davutoğlu still sympathizes with the views expressed in his old academic work. While he certainly has demonstrated a keen sense of pragmatism and adaptability in the past, there’s can be little doubt that he has steadily moved away from this realism and back to a far more dogmatic and ideological approach in recent years. It may be less articulate than Balcı’s blog post, but the government’s hagiographical short film that accompanied Davutoğlu’s recent nomination as prime minister was equally germane to the issue: “He is the awaited spirit of Abdülhamid,” the lyrics say at one point, referencing the 19th century sultan who deployed Islamism to combat the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. “For the nation, for the ummah, for Allah.”

Now that Davutoğlu is in the prime minister’s chair, the question is whether he will continue to be seduced by his ideological convictions and lose touch with his former pragmatism. If he does, then Özkan’s thesis will look even more prescient.

 

[Originally posted at Hürriyet Daily News]

%d bloggers like this: