Wednesday, 23 October 2013

What the Columnists Say

Published in Roundup of Columnists

The polarization in Turkey and the lack of democratic progress remains a major concern for many commentators. The decision, announced by the minister of education, that the private test-prep classes are going to be shut down, was taken as evidence that the AKP government is now openly targeting the movement of Fethullah Gülen. Ekrem Dumanlı, writing in the daily Zaman, warned that the decision, if implemented, will open deep wounds between the movement and the ruling party that will “take decades to heal.” Taner Akçam, writing in the daily Taraf, drew a historical parallel with the failed Ottoman reform process in the nineteenth century and the lack of democratic progress today, pointing out that the idea of the “dominant nation” still remains a point of reference, which guarantees that no equality will be instituted between Turks and Kurds and between Sunnis and Alevis.


Ergun Babahan on the t24 news site writes that the AK Party government is bent on threatening and silencing anyone who dares to question its authority. Now it is targeting the Gülen “cemaat”. More specifically, the target is the private test-prep classes. These are important for the “cemaat”. They are a sources of income, and crucial insofar as they enable youth who share the moral and religious values of the movement to get the higher education required in order to later accede to critical functions in the bureaucracy. Now, the education ministry has announced its decision to close down these classes.  In fact, there is only one motivation to this decision: it is to teach the “cemaat” a lesson and then to limit and neutralize its power. What is grave here is that the power of the state is used to punish everyone who is critical of the government. The AK Party offers paradise to all who back it, and hell to its opponents. Let us hope this ends well for us all.



Ekrem Dumanlı in Zaman warns about the consequences of the government’s decision to shut down the private institutes that offer test-prep classes. The “dershane” issue is not the problem of a certain group, it is a problem of the whole country. This is why we need to oppose the oppressive attitude against dershanes. Regardless of the perspective you bring to this issue, there is something wrong here. Education officials claim that the children of the poor are falling behind in the race because their parents cannot afford additional classes, and even that some poor families are selling their possessions in order to send their children to dershanes. Let's say this is true. Will closing the dershanes be a real solution? Dershanes are a tool to eliminate inequalities in education. It's important to correctly understand the concerns of the Gülen movement. Many interpret closing down the dershanes as a political step against the movement, but not even the junta governments of the Sept. 12 1980 and Feb. 28 1997 coups did so. The movement has always supported the AK Party government's democratization efforts. This is why members of the movement believe closing the dershanes is out of step with the AK Party. AK Party supporters, deputies and even ministers disapprove of the Education Ministry's discourse and methods on this issue. The ministry's insistence on closing the dershanes brings different concerns to the fore. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan needs to take the people's concerns into consideration. Otherwise, very deep wounds that will not heal for decades will result.


Taner Akçam in Taraf writes that there are two main obstacles to instituting equality between Sunnis and Alevis and between Turks and Kurds. The first of these is the idea of the “Dominant Nation” which goes back to Ottoman times and which is grounded in Islamic thinking. The second obstacle is the secularly motivated nationalist reaction. This is the situation today: Reforms that would bring equality (between Turks and Kurds) are something that a political party that has Islam as its reference wants to enact. To this, the Alevi-Turkish segment, that is coalesced around the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) and the Republican People’s Party (CHP) that represent classical Turkish nationalist, is strongly reacting. I argue that both those who want to make reforms and those who object to reforms have serious problems with the idea of equality. What renders the whole situation so confusing is that one side (the AKP government) is still beholden to the Islamic/Ottoman notion of the Dominant Nation; while the opposition rejects Turkish-Kurdish equality because it is deeply suspicious of Sunni Islam. The AKP thinks that equality can be established with the Kurds on the basis of the Sunni interpretation of Islam; but when it comes to the Alevis, the AKP finds itself in a fix, and it will not be able to extricate itself from it. The reason why there was not a single thing that addressed the demands of the Alevis in the reform package was exactly the fact that the government – notwithstanding its claim that it aims to enshrine equality – has still not abandoned the fundamental point of reference of the dominant Islamic thought in the Ottoman era. It all boils down to this: as long as the AKP and the Islamic circles have not settled accounts with the idea of the “dominant nation”, equality will remain elusive in this country. That was why the reforms in the 19th century failed, and the same is going to happen again in the 21st century.



İhsan Dağı in Zaman observes that social scientist Bekir Ağırdır in a recent interview has stated that Turkey cannot live with the current polarization. As Ağırdır sees it “the present polarization is more threatening than the one that prevailed during the 1970’s.” The reason for this is that the problem has left the confines of politics and infected society as a whole. Even a “period of peace” in politics may no longer be enough to defuse the societal polarization and tension. And as we are headed into an election year, it is clear that politics is going to bring more, not less, tension. As long as politics is seen as a game plan where different sets of values are competing, when it is expected that one set will win and that the losers are going to have to acquiesce to being ruled according to the value preferences of the winner, it is inevitable that polarizations lead to clashes. To quote Ağırdır, “The paradox of the AK Party is that this polarization ensures it a very high voter support. But it is increasingly strained in governing the country. Of course, the AK Party can enact whatever law it wants in parliament, but in fundamental political issues – the Kurdish opening and the constitution – it has become clear that no headway is going to be made. When those who are against you have become utterly suspicious of your constitution or of the laws that you draft, you may in practice enact the law, but it will nonetheless be difficult for you to overcome the psychological resistance in society.” If the existence of different identities and sets of values is not guaranteed no matter who happens to be in power, politics will turn into an existential war between identities and sets of values. We are thus faced with the threat of a confrontation that has led from politics to the heart of society. It is a process that needs to be aborted.



Ohannes Kılıçdağı in Agos writes that insisting on seeing the Republican People’s Party (CHP) as a hope for Turkish democracy is a waste of time. Whenever a CHP deputy or official says something half-hearted in favor of rights and freedoms, others from within the party attack that person and ensure that the party returns to the starting point. Yet what we need is, as is being said all the time, an opposition party that can become an alternative to the government by keeping up the pressure on it by clamoring for more democracy and freedoms. Let alone pressuring the government on the question of freedoms, the CHP could not even bring itself to take a clear position after the presentation of the limited democratization package. Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu gave an indirect support to it, by asserting that its contents was a poor copy of the proposals of the CHP; but on the other hand, it is obvious that there is a broad nationalist group within the party that dislikes even this “middle” position. The party leader is trying to keep the party united by a delicate balancing act between the relatively democratic and libertarian names – they can be counted on your two hands – and the much wider “conservative” group that acts according to the well-known Kemalist ideological dictates. But is there really a need for this? That is, should these people be together at all? On the contrary, what would be most healthy for Turkish democracy would be if those who call themselves libertarian/democrat severe their ties with the CHP, as deputies, members and voters, abandoning the party altogether to the Kemalist nationalists. Even if we were to assume that the handful of democrats within the CHP are eventually going to emerge victorious, assuming control of the party, and that that CHP is then going to set about to democratize Turkey, unfortunately Turkey has not got the time and cannot afford the luxury of waiting for this outcome to materialize.

Read 6676 times Last modified on Friday, 08 November 2013

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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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