Friday, June 18, 2010
Writing from Istanbul
Turkey is vital to United States’ national security interests. No country in the region deserves America’s cooperation—at all levels–more than Turkey’s current government. And no country is more ignorant of Turkish politics, culture and geographic importance than America. As former ambassador James Holmes, Executive Director of the American Turkish Council stated, “There is a hole in America’s knowledge of Turkey.”
But American-Turkish interests groups, like the American Turkish Council, seem content to stay silent even as many of their non-profit charters state that they exist, in part, to “educate the public.”
“We are strictly about business and don’t defend the Obama administration or the current Turkish government. We are neutral and serve only our members interests,” said Holmes.
But it is American and Turkish consumers that keep the Dollars and Lira flowing in their respective countries. Digging that hole of ignorance in America’s knowledge of Turkey deeper does not make sense. Nor does it seem productive to have the Turkish people read about how they have become part of a new axis of evil, a sort of nefarious Muslim black hole, because they take issue with Israel’s policies in the region. This is nonsense that must end.
Further, it is extraordinarily counterproductive to alienate a nation that is so focused on its youth. Nearly 50 percent of Turkey’s population is under the age of 25 and they have the good fortune to be maturing at a time when Turkey is solidifying its democratic reforms. The USA’s system of government is still the model for them. US leaders need not ruin that goodwill.
Kimse Yok Mu (Is Anybody There?) is a Turkish aid group/NGO that works in 38 countries distributing food and constructing homes and schools for those subjected to war/natural disasters. It is a sort of Save the Children NGO. Recently they worked in Haiti helping earthquake victims there. They also manage to deliver aid by ground transport to Palestinians in Gaza. Metin Cetiner of Kimse Yok Mu said that the “Turkish people generally like Americans. “
According to Dr. Akif Kirecci of Bilknet University, “Iran is the showcase issue for the Turkish people. How the United States acts with respect to Iran will determine whether the US will continue to be the beacon for the Turks or will destroy all US credibility in the region. Should the USA cause another war, this will incite hardliners all over the region. It would be devastating for us and everyone else.”
A more optimistic sentiment was offered by Dr. Salih Memecan, Turkey’s famed cartoonist, who spent years in the USA due to the repressive military backed government that existed in Turkey the 1990’s. “Americans usually find the right message but it takes time.”
Quality Media = Quality Democracy
Deniz Ergurel, 25 years old, is the General Secretary for the newly formed New Media Association. It advocates “freedom of expression, ethical values, diversity and honesty in the media,” according to its promotional brochure.
“We are focused on consolidating press freedoms but also we need to address ethical and educational issues in the field of journalism. We are working with the International Center for Journalists in this effort.”
Ergurel believes that the “New Media”, namely the Internet and the social networking /instant news it provides, will rapidly come to define Turkish media. Even television there will be affected. “The future of TV is to broadcast yourself and your content to niche markets…a sort of narrow casting. We are pushing that.”
Ergurel is closely watching the US media market as once mighty publications like the Washington Post and New York Times struggle to adapt to the Internet age and maintain readership. “There are lessons to be learned from their experience though we do not have the cumbersome infrastructure like many US media groups have.”
But freedom of the press and other democratic reforms are not a “done deal” according to some Turkish academics, journalists and intellectuals. It was just recently that groups like NMA could apply for non-profit status without government approval. The AKP and its supporters are always looking over their shoulders for the Turkish military. The Turkish military and its nationalist supporters lurk in a murky place called The Deep State (TDS). TDS designed Operation Sledgehammer–a plan to overthrow the current government through violent means.
TDS, according to one Turkish commentator, “has older, Kemalist journalists who are not, or don’t want to, keep pace with the new generation of Turks or the AKP party. These people are our version of the neo-conservatives.
Still, noted Turkish commentator Mustafa Akyolm said about media and democratic reforms in Turkey, “There is no turning back.”
Stability and Peace
Taha Ozhan, Director General of SETA, one of the most prestigious think tanks in Turkey, remarked recently that “Turkey should be viewed as part of an axis of stability and peace.”
Looking at the record, Ozhan is largely correct. The AKP government, led by Prime Minister Erdogan, President Gul and Foreign Minister Davutoğlu, has managed to pull off some remarkable diplomatic successes, not the least of which was to convince (with Brazil’s help) Iran’s leadership to commit to an agreement to resolve much of the dispute over its nuclear program.
Contrary to the widely held view in the Western media and intellectual circles, Turkey does not want a nuclear armed Iran on its border. According to Kerim Balci of Zaman, “Turkey remembers its history and there was conflict between the Ottoman Turks and Persians. There is still some tension there.”
The AKP government has also managed to form a Middle East Union (MEU) for free trade consisting of Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Free trade blocs are commonplace around the globe. For example, the MEU is similar to the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). UNASUR has not been accused of turning against its neighbors to the north even though trade with UNASUR has increased dramatically with China and India.
US and Turkish business leaders—and the political/military leaders they confer with—can’t be blind to the complex balancing act that AKP Prime Minister Erdogan and President Gul have in operation in their volatile region. They should be commended and supported, not raked over the coals.
Turkey continues to be hammered ferociously by the Israeli government and its legion of American supporters in the US press, US Congress and White House over the Freedom Flotilla incident. It’s shameful that there is not a counterbalance in the USA to this vicious assault being waged in the mainstream press by the Israeli government’s lobbyists in AIPAC and JINSA.
Further, military leaders, particularly CENTCOM commander General David Petraeus, hopefully understands that, in the end, US troops on the ground will be the ones to suffer from the lopsided support and free ride Israel receives from the USA.
Crazy Aunt in the Room: Unstable Israel
Clearly, Israel wants the AKP government out of power and a return to the Kemalist/Nationalist military backed government there, just as it wants Iran attacked by the USA. Many Americans in the White House, US Congress and in groups like the Iran Policy Committee seek the same outcomes. That Americans allow such meddling in US domestic and foreign affairs is unprecedented and dangerous.
One Turkish academic said “The Cold War is still alive in the parliaments of the Middle East and the USA. The US president has to take the initiative to break out of this mode of thinking. Israel, primarily, is still functioning as a Cold War state. That type of thinking can’t be implemented today. Israel is out of touch with reality. It is incorrect that our Prime Minister and Foreign Minister make decisions based on religion. These decisions are made on a practical basis.” Israel’s neighboring states accept the fact that Israel is in the neighborhood to stay. No one in Turkey doubts Israeli conventional military prowess. But there is the worry that Israel is becoming unstable and might turn to its nuclear arsenal in haste.
“Israel is living in the Middle East but is intellectually it is living in Washington, DC,” said Ozhan of SETA. “Israel must decide whether it is still a project or wants to be a state.”
According to one Turkish human rights activist, “The troubles between Israel and the Turkish government places us in a complex situation. Our government does not have a problem with Israel’s existence. We could have but did not oppose Israel’s membership in the OECD. Israel and Turkey are now in a vicious circle after their Gaza Cast Lead Operation and the Freedom Flotilla incident. There is a war of nerves now between the two countries. The Israeli lobby is clearly at work now behind the black propaganda against Turkey in the world’s media. It seems lost that Turkey can be a great broker with Israel and Arab world.”
Prime Minister Erdogan is criticized by his supporters for identifying too closely with the Palestinians and Hamas. But, according to his supporters in the press, academia and universities, the Israeli military operation against Gaza and then against the Freedom Flotilla “shook Erdogan to his core.” Erdogan believed that someone had to respond.
According to Orhan Cengiz, President of the Human Rights Agenda Association, “It is not true that Turkey is moving Radical or East. This is a propaganda campaign by anti-Turkish elements in the region.”
In fact, Turkey’s “no vote” against a new round of Iranian sanctions actually provides the Obama Administration with some room to continue back channel diplomacy with Iran and others in the region. Turkey is giving the USA a grand opening to change the balance of power in the region to its advantage without another conflict. Will the USA be smart enough to recognize this?
Despite seven years of reforms under AKP, Cengiz said, there are many prejudices that will take decades to eliminate. “Homophobia, Islamophobia, the head scarf issue, Armenian genocide, religious persecution and the ‘Kurdish Question’ remain the major issues. We need to accept that there is discrimination and confront it. But it is hard to do. Many in Turkey are fighting for rights for all.“
The task of eliminating many of those prejudices is made more difficult because the former military backed government promoted the practice according to Cengiz. “The State encouraged discrimination in the past. And of course, now it is engrained in society and we are seeing hate crimes.”
Cengiz, whose life was threatened within Turkey for defending Kurds in court, believes that “Indirect discrimination is so deep that people are not aware of it. If we do not confront discrimination aggressively then we will have very serious problems in the future.”
“The open media is a new phenomenon for Turkish society. The clash of ideas and reporting on discrimination is good for Turkey. Exposing The Deep State made the Turkish people feel free, said Cengiz, “But a new government may come in and roll back changes.”
With elections looming on the horizon, many in Turkey are asking if the internal reforms of the AKP and its foreign policy successes will hold and advance. “Turkey is still in transition,” said one human rights leader. Democracy is not a done deal. Institutions do not have a strong foothold in society yet. We need a new constitution [amendments to] but that is not a reality yet. We need to have a solid, functioning federal, state and local system. Economic stability is critical to a democracy’s success. Our reserves are looking good at $100 billion (US) in reserves. But political stability is not a given.”
And the Culture?
It’s an outdoor café setting in Istanbul, a city of 17 million people and a history as old as the world itself. It is a sunny afternoon and suddenly the call to prayers rings out from the many mosques in the city. Not a soul stops his/her daily routine. Women and men walk briskly to work with some pushing baby carriages along the sidewalks or across the streets. Some women have a scarf on their heads, many don’t. Some in the café are drinking Turkish coffee or tea. Others are drinking Effes, the beer of choice in Turkey. Someone has a radio playing and it’s England’s Arctic Monkey’s, a hard rock band. U2 played Istanbul the night before. It is nice to have a seat in the café after visiting the Hagia Sophia with its mix of Muslim and Christian art and architecture displayed side by side. Next to the Sophia is the Sultan Ahmed Mosque also known as the blue mosque. A lifetime is wasted without a visit to these two structures.
And there goes the Dominoes’ Pizza delivery dude on his scooter. Who knew Burger King had scooter delivery too? They weave in and out of the traffic and it is amazing they are not run over. Commuters in cars fight heavy traffic and the people on the buses and rail system have the same look of workers in every major city on the planet. Everyone seems to be smoking American cigarettes and reading a paper (a visit to a nearby bookstore reveals that Sponge Bob Square Pants and Dora are in Turkish too).