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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).

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Here’s my review of the book.

Media

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On July 14, leftist daily BirGün included a piece discussing liberal daily Taraf’s recent turn away from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. Prompted by Ahmet Altan’s July 13 editorial bemoaning the AKP’s departure from its earlier EU-minded liberal-reformist impulses – the latest in a series of articles critical of the government – BirGün described the shift with some incredulity. Taraf, the piece said, used to label government critics anti-democratic nationalists in thrall to regressive military tutelage, strongly supported a “yes” vote in the September 2010 constitutional referendum, hailed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a saviour of the Kurds, and openly recognised the “Armenian Genocide” on its front page. Recently, however, the paper’s criticism of the AKP’s authoritarian turn has increased significantly. Taraf’s move against the government could be seen as representative of disillusioned liberal Turkish opinion these days, but the apparent non-effect this has on opinion polls indicates just how tiny that liberal constituency actually is.

Taraf started printing in 2007 and primarily made a name for itself for its tough anti-military stance. For Turkish liberals at the time, this seemed like the most important battle to be won, and foreign observers routinely used adjectives like “courageous,” “plucky,” and “brave” to describe the paper’s anti-militarist crusade. Domestic critics denigrated it as the AKP’s convenient attack dog, something akin to the “useful idiot” liberal apologists who denied the existence of Lenin’s Soviet police-state terror in the 1910s and 20s. Taraf has been particularly instrumental in the Ergenekon and Balyoz coup plot investigations, claiming numerous scoops against the military in that case, (no matter that most of its anti-military material is widely understood to have been fed to it directly by the AKP government). As Jim Meyer described in a 2009 piece:

“Particularly with regard to the Ergenekon trial, Taraf has managed to frequently scoop the competition with reports (often leaked by the largely AK Party controlled national police force) which have embarrassed military officials […] ‘I don’t see journalistic achievement,’ said one experienced Turkish journalist. ‘They just gobbled up what the police intelligence was leaking them regarding Ergenekon.’”

Meyer’s analysis was written three and a half years ago, and since then the contradictions and evident absurdities in the coup plot cases – as well as the growing anti-democratic practices of the AKP government – have become more and more apparent. While Taraf still maintains its strong anti-military position, it has begun to abandon its previously timid approach to the ruling party and is now voicing tough criticism of various government tendencies. This became particularly clear in January, when lawyers for Prime Minister Erdoğan sued the paper’s editor Ahmet Altan for allegedly “[making] extremely deep insults with the intention of assaulting Erdoğan’s personal rights,” and pressed for 50,000 Turkish Liras in compensation. Evidently, the AKP government wants to keep Taraf on a short leash, but the paper’s continued criticism since then would suggest it has not yet been successful.

Meanwhile, on the same day as BirGün was observing Taraf’s apparent shift against the government, all media outlets were reporting on an upcoming AKP proposal to the Turkish parliament’s Constitution Conciliation Commission (which is currently attempting to put together a new national constitution). The Hürriyet Daily News reports that the proposed changes would “allow the government to limit press freedom in a variety of scenarios that include cases of ‘national security’ and ‘public morals.’”

Referring to the moves, Taraf’s July 14 front page headline story harshly criticised the AKP government for its “prohibitionist mentality.” It cited a 1976 European Court of Human Rights ruling, which stated that: “Freedom of expression […] is applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” Underneath the main headline, the article pointedly said: “we hope this ruling inspires the AKP.”

[Published on openDemocracy (20th June 2012): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/turkey-as-test-case-in-multipolar-post-cold-war-order]

Much is made of Turkey’s ‘difference’ in the Middle East. Why is it being identified an inspiration to the region? Why is there talk of Turkey as a model for Egypt, and not the other way around? In a recent interview with Turkish Policy Quarterly, historian Bernard Lewis makes much of Turkey’s republican history of independence and self-criticism since the Ottoman era, which he says accounts for the country’s regional pre-eminence today. Whilst these differences are indeed significant, a reasonable case can be made that they were not nearly so pronounced as Lewis claims. In fact, after the Second World War, Turkey was no more immune to the hard choices that had to be made in a bipolar world order than other Eastern European and Middle Eastern states. As such, like many others, it was only ever nominally independent.The difference between Turkey and the other countries in the region, however, is that it was able to emerge much more quickly in the post-Cold War era, when states previously under Soviet influence became independent, and the ‘protection’ of those under U.S. sway was rendered unnecessary. This emergence can be ascribed to Turkey’s higher economic, educational, industrial and institutional development, as well as its important narrative of national sovereignty and proud republican history. Its regional pre-eminence today is therefore closely linked to its status as a pioneer of the new, multi-polar post-Cold War era. The sense that the country is now defining itself, as opposed to being defined by outsiders, is a crucial psychological hurdle.

For the duration of the Cold War, the Middle East was an object region acted upon by outside forces, rather than a subject acting for itself. In practice, this meant states being pulled into the influence of either the U.S. or the Soviet Union. Turkey was no different in this sense, and was considered by Washingtonan essential bulwark against communism on the south-eastern fringe of Europe. In order to anchor Turkey to the west, the U.S. bankrolled the Turkish military through the Truman Doctrine in the post-war era, and it was made a full member of NATO in 1952 (at the same time as Greece, the other subject state of the Truman Doctrine). U.S. support – tacit or otherwise – was crucial in the three military coups of 1960, 1971, and 1980, all of which helped to maintain the status quo order. Like so many others, during the Cold War period Turkey was barely democratic, with its western allies preferring a stable, reliable partner to one that genuinely reflected its people’s unpredictable wishes. The 1980 coup is particularly instructive, being seen by the U.S. at the time as necessary to prevent any danger of the country sliding towards communism, as the Turkish left was extremely mobilised throughout the 1970s. CIA Ankara station chief at the time, Paul Henze, is on record as saying that he cabled Washington – shortly after the coup had been carried out by the Turkish military – to say ‘our boys did it’. Gossip perhaps, but illuminating gossip.

The 1980 coup therefore illustrates the old Turkish model, and its similarities with the systems that have also characterised the Arab world in the recent past: U.S./western support for an essentially non-democratic state, in return for the guarantee of stability. Turgut Özal, who became Prime Minister in 1982, could therefore be seen as a kind of non-military Turkish version of General Pinochet. Coming to power shortly after an American-backed coup, Özal was pro-U.S., anti-communist, and neo-liberal – significantly opening up the Turkish economy to international market forces with U.S. support. It’s an interesting irony that in many ways it was these very reforms that helped prepare Turkey to develop economically in the post-Cold War era.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, it also – perhaps paradoxically – became increasingly clear that the old U.S.-dominant model had also become redundant, with much of the previous justification for U.S. support to stable but undemocratic regimes having been lost. Slowly, it became possible for new, popular movements to emerge in the region, and this goes some way to explaining both the revolts sweeping across the Arab world today as well as Turkey’s (less violent) development of a strongly independent government representing popular will. There are, however, significant differences that may legislate against post-Cold War Arab countries following the same trajectory as Turkey. Not least of these is the multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-confessional nature of most of these countries – none can really be considered ‘nation states’ in anything like the organically-evolving western European sense of the world. Turkey’s own early 20th century nation-building project relied on an enormous amount of violently imposed state-directed social reorganisation, essentially imitating the western model, (in terms of the uniform cultural, ethnic, linguistic, religious cohesiveness that was stressed). On its own terms, the Turkish model of modernisation was successful – taking a multi-linguistic, multi-ethnic population and forging out of it a unitary, monolingual, officially mono-cultural state. In the modern nation states of the Arab world, with their fragmented and multifarious social, ethnic, religious, linguistic, sectarian structures, it is difficult to see how the same results can be achieved in the early 21st century – or even how such results would be desirable. The new Middle East is perhaps more likely to be one where – instead of two great outside powers seeking to impose their influence and maintain an unthreatening stability – a regional struggle will play out between multiple competing local forces. This struggle will be based on old fissures that the old Cold War order had previously kept an uneasy lid on.

[Published on openDemocracy (27th March 2012): http://www.opendemocracy.net/william-armstrong/europe-turkey-and-historical-amnesia]

“In the first years after the war … Europeans took shelter behind a collective amnesia.”    –   Hans-Magnus Enzensberger.

In his robust case for a liberal Euro-scepticism, ‘A Grand Illusion?’ (1996), Tony Judt robustly debunked an oft-repeated myth about the post-war rebuilding project in western Europe. From the very start, rather than being part of a carefully planned attempt to reshape the continent by deliberately sabotaging nation-states from above, (with the eventual goal being to unite the entire continent under one umbrella European super-state), initial moves after the Second World War towards greater European cohesion were, in fact, the logical result of quite distinct national concerns. These concerns only converged in shared European projects by force of convenience. As Judt points out, post-war European cooperation was “a fortuitous outcome of separate and distinctive electoral concerns, economic interests, and national political cultures, it was made necessary by circumstance and rendered possible by prosperity.” In particular, the war of 1939-45 had the lasting consequence of giving the continent something else in common: “a shared recent memory of war, civil war, occupation, and defeat […] The shared experience of defeat points to another common European wartime experience: the memory of things best forgotten […] Hitler’s lasting gift to Europe was thus the degree to which he and his collaborators made it impossible henceforth to dwell with comfort on the past.”

Almost every European participant emerged from the Second World War having lost. The shared perception of a necessity for deliberate historical amnesia in post-war Europe, for forgetting the traumatic recent past, was thus one of the most significant points of convergence between nation states that helped legitimate the new European project. Cooperation was imperative, and part of this cooperation was the tacit agreement between nations as to the importance of ignoring their own roles in the madness of the war that had just ended. At the very most, if not forcibly ignoring, countries tended (or still tend) to absolve themselves of as much responsibility as possible, to trumpet exaggerated national myths of resistance to fascism. The phenomenon is observable in France, (formerly West) Germany, Belgium, Poland, Italy: such methods were considered something like an existential necessity, necessary in order for states to get over the Second World War as cohesive units. It is only since 1989 and the end of the Cold War that a more complex, honestly realistic picture of the European inheritance has emerged, and even now it’s clear that many countries are still far from willing to look their own troubled histories directly in the eye. The official French line, for example, shared by a majority of the French people, continues to exaggerate the significance and size of the French Resistance, and underestimate the completeness of Vichy France’s submission to fascism, and its horrendous consequences. There’s a salutary lesson to be taken from a charmed visit to Paris: its state of flawless architectural continuity was paid for at the price of submission to the Nazis.

In its capacity as a candidate country of the European Union, Turkey’s apparent refusal to come to terms with the Armenian “events” of 1915 is often cited as a clear example of why the country is unsuitable for membership. However, the opposite could well be true. Far from having to recognise these events as “genocide” in order to adhere to established European norms of historical account-settling, Turkey’s continued denial of the Armenian “events” should rather be seen as an advantage, recommending it as an entirely suitable European candidate. Following classic post-war European form, perhaps Turkey’s historical amnesia should be seen as one of the key criteria that it fulfils in its wish to be defined as an authentic European state!

The meeting earlier this week between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Barack Obama at the nuclear summit in Seoul afforded the Turkish press with a golden opportunity to engage once more in the popular national pastime of gleeful America-bashing. From liberal to conservative, secular to religious, left to right, marginal to mainstream, knee-jerk anti-Americanism seems hard-wired into all strands of political opinion in Turkey. In such a fractious political landscape, it could well be one of the only things that all sides can agree on. When America becomes ‘just another power’ though, one wonders where all this energy will be diverted.

Almost all Turkish newspapers covered Obama and Erdoğan’s discussions with a cynical, sneering tone; sometimes subtle, often overt. One of my favourite examples came on the front page of the conservative-nationalist ‘Yeni Çağ’ (New Age), which dragged an entire story out of an innocent picture of Obama sitting behind Erdoğan, casually gesturing with his index finger off camera – apparently this was cast-iron proof of what the paper labelled his arrogant ‘finger diplomacy’. Elsewhere, for the heresy of a ‘broad agreement’ existing between himself and Obama over the issues of Syria and Iran, Erdoğan was routinely labelled ‘Batının postacısı’ (‘the West’s postman’). Like one of those old magic eyes, I suppose, if you blink hard enough at anything you can uncover whatever message you want.

John Gray, in his recent demolition of the high priest of blanket anti-Americanism, Noam Chomsky, makes a number of salient points, which are useful to consider when observing the steaming piles of anti-American bile in the Turkish media. Gray – himself no friend of neo-liberal economics or American-style financial capitalism these days – condemns Chomsky for his simplistic belief that the imperialist United States is somehow ‘quintessentially criminal and evil … virtually the sole obstacle to peace in the world’. According to Chomsky, Gray writes, ‘since there is no major conflict that America has not caused, or at any rate seriously aggravated, there is none that America cannot end’. There is no conflict that cannot be resolved if the U.S. did not simply withdraw its inevitably nefarious influence. For sheer America-centric naivety, it’s a perspective rivalling that of the neo-conservatives, with both sharing an unyielding belief in omnipotent, omnipresent U.S. power. For Chomsky, ‘as much as for the neo-cons, America is the centre of the world. [He] views global politics through the same Manichean lens: you are either for America or against it’.

When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (quite a popular figure in Turkey) slams the corrupt Zionist regime of the United States, he strikes many as a brave anti-Western resistance underdog, (particularly those ready to embrace any folly so long as it gives a bloody nose to the ‘arrogant imperialist powers’). It’s an irony, however, that no matter how much the Iranian regime protests its proud, uncompromising independence, it in fact condemns itself to absolute dependence on America, if only for a pole against which to instinctively define itself. The same can be said for much reflex criticism of U.S. policy.

Of course, global American power should always be robustly critiqued; but genuine, thoughtful criticism dissolves such shallow Manicheanism as displayed by Chomsky, Ahmedinejad, or ‘Yeni Çağ’. Indeed, it would be nice to think that the self-abasing anti-Americanism of so much of the Turkish press will eventually be eclipsed by a more nuanced and balanced criticism. There are, however, emotional imperatives at stake, and I’m not holding my breath.

It would probably be too late anyway. With the world becoming increasingly multi-polar, and U.S. power and influence apparently on the wane (a fashionable intellectual tendency to declare, but also one based on empirical, observable fact), the populist anti-Americanism so often demonstrated in the Turkish media may – perhaps sooner than we think – start to look rather quaint. Who knows, we may even one day look back on ‘finger diplomacy’ with a certain nostalgia!

[This is an extended and elaborated version of a piece I posted on here some time ago. It is published in the latest, Winter 2012 edition of Turkish Policy Quarterly, which is available for  purchase now. You can read the piece below or, along with a slightly anaemic abstract, in its original habitat here: http://www.turkishpolicy.com/article/674/turkish-nationalism-and-turkish-islam-a-new-balance/ ]

Since the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, received wisdom has tended to consider nationalism and Islam as mutually incompatible forces in the Turkish context. Turkish nationalism – so this narrative goes – is defined by the secularizing, modernizing example of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, a positivist, military man with an almost religious faith in the ability of science to reshape society. Islam, with its appeals to multinational, multiracial unity, inevitably stood in the way of the “pure”, homogenous nation-state. Such an understanding was propagated by those early secularizing elites within Turkey itself, and largely accepted by observers outside the country for the better part of the past hundred years. However, the fact is that religion has always been a crucial motivating force behind popular expressions of nationalism in Turkey. What makes the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s position unique is its wedding of a popular religious nationalism to real political power. Recent developments – in particular the ongoing recent spat between Turkey and Israel – demonstrate to outsiders what has been observable within Turkey for a long time: that Islam and Turkish nationalism are far from irreconcilable on the political, as well as social, level.

Popular Religion

A singular irony of the founding of the Turkish republic is the fact that for all the talk of institutional secularism, the new nation was, in fact, fundamentally defined on religious grounds. Significant numbers of those resettled on Turkish land during the Greek-Turkish population exchanges, for example, were Greek-speaking Muslims, who, in many cases, could not even speak the Turkish language. The Kurds (and other non-Turkish Muslim minorities) were also included on religious – rather than linguistic – grounds. Whether you spoke a dialect of Laz, Kurdish, Zazaki, or Turkish, religion was the most important category to fulfill in order to be included in the new Turkish state. Even Atatürk himself recognized the increased importance of religious sentiment, and was not averse – particularly in the early years of his leadership – to appealing to the emotional religious feelings of the people when seeking to unite the nation behind his resistance forces. He led the War of Independence as a Gazi, (meaning “Warrior of the Faith” in it’s original Arabic form), repeatedly invoked the name of God and the spiritual dimension of the liberation struggle in public pronouncements, and established Sunni Islam as the state religion in 1924.

Such an approach was seen as necessary following the religious retrenchment experienced by the Ottoman Empire during the late -19th and early -20th century. The loss of almost all Ottoman territory in the Balkans prior to the First World War resulted in the flight of around 400,000 Muslim migrants from hostile regions, to re-settle in Istanbul and Anatolia. Similarly, around the same number of Circassian Muslims from the north coast of the Black Sea also migrated to Ottoman territories in the 1860s, escaping from the increasingly aggressive practices of the Russian Empire. These migrants, or muhajir, had learnt to wear their religion as the singular mark of identity, and saw in the Ottoman Empire (and subsequently the Turkish Republic) a protective confessional motherland. Anatolia went through enormous demographic changes during the later years of the Ottoman Empire. Erik J. Zürcher estimates that immediately prior to the First World War, Anatolia was 80 percent Muslim, whilst ten years later, this figure had risen to 98 percent.[1] This more narrowly Muslim composition inevitably had a large impact on the policies and attitudes of the late-Ottoman and early republican eras. The decision to empty Anatolia of Christian Greeks, Armenians, and Syriacs – both before and after the establishment of the Republic – clearly illustrates how the new nation’s identity had become inseparable from its Muslim identity.

Elite Secularist Nationalism

This religious definition was emphasized even as Turkey’s new elites were preparing to systematically cleanse Islam from state institutions. The newly independent Turkish republic was not just neutral to religion; it actively subordinated it to the state, establishing a rigid and doctrinaire form of laicite in a country that until recently had been the seat of the Islamic Caliphate. All expression of Islam was to be tightly regulated by the new Diyanet İşleri Başkanlığı (Department of Religious Affairs) to ensure compliance with the new secular order. The Caliphate was abolished; independent religious establishments were closed down; imams were appointed and their Friday sermons were written by the state; women were discouraged from wearing the veil. Myriad other cultural and political reforms were initiated, aiming at faster and more effective Westernization. All of this was imposed from above, and all was done in the name of modernization, secularization and – crucially – nationalism: to oppose the changes or the way they were implemented was to risk vilification as an irtıcacı (reactionary), against the modern, independent Turkish nation. The military became the symbol of the secular order, and the four (if we include the “post-modern” coup of 1997) coup d’états  that the country experienced during the 20th century were all – at least in part – military responses to perceived religious incursions into political and social life.

Thus, it is clear that there was a tension – even predating the declaration of the Republic – between the technocratic, secular nationalism of the reforming elites and the religious character that was essentially the defining feature of the new nation. In his fine assessment of modern Turkish history, Perry Anderson has described Kemalism as an “ideological code in two registers. One was secular and applied to the elite. The other was crypto-religious and accessible to the masses. Common to both was the integrity of the nation, as supreme political value.”[2] Atatürk’s secularizing reforms have too often been accepted as the defining features of Turkish nationalism but it is clear that such dry, technocratic reforms could not possibly constitute the sole emotional appeal influencing such an aggressive and deeply-felt nationalism. It is significant, for example, that the extreme nationalists of the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – which won 13 percent of the votes in the parliamentary election of June 2011 – responded to the reopening of the historic Armenian Surp Haç Church in Ani with reactiveFriday prayers, which they organized two weeks later in the same location.[3] Likewise, it is striking that Turkish soldiers, felled in counter-insurgency conflict with the PKK, are uniformly referred to as şehitler, or “martyrs”, by the Turkish media.

The AKP and Post-nationalism?

The spectacular electoral successes of the AKP, an Islamically-oriented party, starting in 2002, seemed to challenge the assumptions of the secular-nationalist paradigm even further. Here at last, it was thought, was a way out of the monocultural impasse, a tonic to divisive and destructive Turkish nationalism. Many optimistically hoped that the AKP would take the country to a post-nationalist state of peace, respect for human rights, and economic prosperity, and a series of symbolic ‘openings’ helped warm up relations with minority communities within the Turkish borders. In particular, the government was expected to attempt a solution to the “Kurdish Question” by re-emphasizing common religious bonds between Turks and Kurds. More progress was made in the European Union accession process by the AKP than any previous government. It also defanged the Turkish military – that bastion of unreconstructed secular nationalism – which it accuses of plotting a coup to overthrow the elected government in the Balyoz, or “Sledgehammer”, case.

The AKP’s Marriage of Nationalism and Religion

It is becoming clear, however, that the government’s struggle against the generals was in fact only a strike against one, narrowly defined, type of nationalism. Another has become evident, and this form can be said to constitute the new ideological bedrock of the AKP government. Campaigning during the parliamentary election of June 2011, Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan adopted a much harder note on the Kurdish question than ever before, and – the AKP having won almost 50 percent of the popular vote – he has continued this tendency since. In response to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacks on Turkish forces stationed near the Iraqi border in October, the government retreated back into the full scale military solution that has failed to solve the problem thus far. The feeble “apology on behalf of the state” that Erdoğan offered in November for the Dersim Massacres of 1937-39 can be summarily disregarded, representing nothing more than the government’s latest attempt to score cheap political points against the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). The EU process is effectively dead, and the government has wasted no time laying the blame squarely at the door of the EU itself. The United States – and “the West” more generally – comes in for increasingly strident criticism, sanctioned by rising anti-American sentiments in Turkish society (a recent poll found that 64.8 percent of Turks have a “negative” opinion of Americans).[4] Despite evident deficiencies in the “Turkish model”, Erdoğan obviously relishes being idolized across the Arab world and, emboldened by a booming economy, he flexes his muscles on the world stage as no Turkish leader has before. Appealing to the collective libido dominandi, such behavior wins him ever more support back home. Boorish populism is prosecuted in the name of greater and deeper democracy.

The equation of Turkish with Muslim identity was always tacitly understood; now it is explicit. Whilst previous Turkish administrations have, at times, won support by appealing to both nationalist and religious sentiments as well, none have done so as successfully as the AKP. Erdoğan differs from Turgut Özal in degree, organization and success, having become the first leader in Turkish history to win three consecutive elections, with a consistently rising share of the vote. The AKP’s real innovation lies in its ability to achieve what no other government has before: wedding populist religious nationalism to the levers of government and remaining in power whilst doing so.

The New Paradigm and the Turkey-Israel Dispute

As with all nationalist movements, the AKP’s needs outside foes against which to define itself, and perhaps the most significant of these today is Israel. The raid by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) on the Turkish “Mavi Marmara” aid ship bound for Gaza in 2010 caused widespread public and political outrage, and the Turkish-Israeli diplomatic relationship has since deteriorated to such a degree that Turkey has almost entirely suspended political, military and economic ties with Israel. Owing to the widespread popular support for the government on this issue, the AKP has no motivation to desist; indeed one could argue that it may even have an interest in prolonging, even escalating the dispute. The spat brings into sharp focus the elision that has occurred between nationalism and religion: a hitherto unheard-of instance of secular nationalism and emotional religious indignation uniting in a common cause.

Nationalism and religion have been the two primary energizing forces in Turkish society for almost a hundred years, even if one has always dictated to the other. The current Turkish government’s rhetoric manages to appeal to both impulses, and that is why it is such a powerful brew.


[1] Erik J. Zürcher, Turkey: A Modern History, (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004), p.164.

[2] Perry Anderson, “Kemalism: After the Ottomans,” London Review of Books, 11 September 2008, http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n17/perry-anderson/kemalism

[3] “Turkish nationalist party holds Friday prayers at Ani ruins,” Hürriyet Daily News, 1 October 2010, http://web.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=mhp-prayed-at-ani-ruins-2010-10-01

[4] Talip Küçükcan, “Arab Image in Turkey,” Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) Research Report, June 2010, p.25, http://www.setav.org/ups/dosya/35086.pdf

On Jan. 24 the French Senate passed a bill to criminalise denial that the killings of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915-16 amounted to genocide. The law has caused Franco-Turkish relations to plunge to an unprecedented nadir. The car crash was obvious long in advance, which only made it – and the predictable reaction that followed – all the more painful to watch. France had already officially “recognised” the genocide in 2001, but the new law goes one step further, making it illegal for a French citizen to publicly question the events. The signatures of enough French lawmakers have since been collected to challenge the bill in the French constitutional court, which is where it sits now. But if it ends up passing that test and going into the statute books, those found guilty will be landed with a maximum 45,000 euro fine and one year in jail. In the days leading up to the vote, thousands of French-Turks demonstrated in the streets of Paris to protest the law, and on the day of the vote rival groups of Turks and Armenians – separated by police – gathered outside the French Senate, waving flags and blowing whistles.

Some expressed quiet surprise at the apparent “moderation” of the Turkish response, although if that was “moderate” one wonders what the “extreme” reaction would look like. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan railed furiously against the bill and threatened strong concrete measures – including economic sanctions and recalling the Turkish ambassador from Paris – if it wasn’t revoked: “This is politics based on racism, discrimination and xenophobia. This is using Turkophobia and Islamophobia to gain votes, and it raises concerns regarding these issues not only in Francebut all Europe.” According to Erdoğan, the vote disturbingly echoes the “footsteps of fascism.” “The votes in the French Parliament and the proposal that has been adopted are an open demonstration of discrimination and racism and amount to a massacre of free thought,” he said. “This bill has removed the atmosphere of free discussion [inFrance]. The principles of liberty, fraternity and equality, which form the basis of the French Revolution, have been trampled on.” Other Turkish politicians and diplomats have also revelled in casting themselves as defenders of the liberal European ideal. Vice chairman of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Ömer Çelik, took to twitter to claim: “Sarkozy is turningFranceinto Bastille Prison step by step.” Chief Turkish EU negotiator, Egeman Bagis, similarly tweeted: “I celebrate 40,000 Turks marching against the bill to defend the French Revolution’s values.”

The prospect of Turkish politicians posing as modern day Voltaires, protesting in defence of the principles of the French Revolution must be irresistible for the satirist. Such a stance might appear more sincere if Article 301 of Turkey’s own constitution didn’t make it punishable by law to “insult Turkishness.” It might also if there weren’t currently more journalists locked up in Turkish jails than there are in China (95 at the last count); or if Turkey didn’t rank 148th out of 178 countries in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index; or if Turkey wasn’t by far the worst violator of human rights among the 47 signatory states of the European Convention on Human Rights; or if that same court hadn’t received nearly 9,500 complaints against Turkey for breaches of press freedom and freedom of expression in 2011 (compared with 6,500 in 2009). A distinct tendency towards authoritarianism has been unmistakably creeping into the AKP’s rule of late, perhaps giving some perspective to this most recent outburst in defence of European liberalism.

And the French defence? There isn’t much to be said. Before the vote, President Sarkozy claimed: “The genocide of Armenians is a historic reality that was recognised by France. Collective denial is even worse than individual denial […] We are always stronger when we look our history in the face, and denial is not acceptable.” Nevertheless, the law is widely understood to be a cynical piece of electioneering, the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) having bowed to the active and well-organised Armenian lobby in Paris, and seeking to secure the 500,000 French-Armenian votes ahead of this spring’s French Presidential election. The move will also doubtless serve to further paralyse Turkey’s already-moribund EU accession bid, which Sarkozy repeatedly makes clear he opposes. There may also be some truth in the accusation that the UMP is seeking to curry favour with France’s populist right-wing, with a move targeted at a Muslim minority.

The question of whether national governments should legislate on how historical events are remembered is probably an unanswerable one. But that won’t stop both sides attempting an answer to fit their own national political agendas. Do you think those 40,000 angry Turks were protesting on the streets of Paris out of earnest concern for Enlightenment values and in sincere defence of free speech? Such lofty protestations are mere fig leaves. Whether it’s Sarkozy opportunistically chasing votes in return for laws, or the Turks spuriously invoking the French Revolution and defending some destructive, nebulous idea of “national honour,” both sides are cynically invoking the high-minded language of moral righteousness to pursue squalid political ends.

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