As if the Ottoman Period Never Ended

Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times

A scene from “Once Upon a Time Ottoman Empire Mutiny.”

Published: October 29, 2012

ISTANBUL — Since the lavish, feel-good Turkish epic “Conquest 1453” had its premiere this year, its tale of the taking of Constantinople by the 21-year-old Sultan Mehmet II has become the highest-grossing film in Turkey’s history, released in 12 countries across the Middle East and in Germany and the United States. But its biggest impact may be the cultural triumphalism it has magnified at home.

Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times

Visitors at the Panorama Museum in Istanbul. Large crowds are flocking to the institution, which features a 360-degree painting of the siege of Constantinople.

“Conquest 1453” (known as “Fetih 1453” in Turkish) has spawned a television show with the same title and has encouraged clubs of proud Turks to re-enact battles from the empire’s glory days and even dress up as sultans and Ottoman nobles. The producers of “Once Upon a Time Ottoman Empire Mutiny,” a television series about the 18th-century insurrection against Sultan Ahmet Khan III, said they planned to build a theme park where visitors will be able to wander through a reproduction of Ottoman-era Istanbul and watch sword fights by stuntmen. At least four new films portray the battle of Gallipoli, the bloody World War I face-off between the Ottomans and Allied forces over the straits of Dardanelles and one of the greatest victories of modern Turkey. The coming “In Gallipoli” even includes Mel Gibson starring as a British commander.

The Ottoman period, particularly during the 16th and 17th centuries, was marked by geopolitical dominance and cultural prowess, during which the sultans claimed the spiritual leadership of the Muslim world, before the empire’s slow decline culminated in World War I. For years the period was underplayed in the history taught to schoolchildren, as the new Turkish Republic created by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1923 sought to break with a decadent past.

Now, as Turkey is emerging as a leader in the Middle East, buoyed by strong economic growth, a new fascination with history is being reflected in everything from foreign policy to facial hair. In the arts, framed examples of Ottoman-era designs, known as Ebru and associated with the geometric Islamic motifs adorning mosques, have gained in popularity among the country’s growing Islamic bourgeoisie, adorning walls of homes and offices, jewelry and even business cards.

The three-year-old Panorama Museum, which showcases an imposing 360-degree, 45-foot-tall painting of the siege of Constantinople, complete with deafening cannon fire blasts and museum security guards dressed as Janissary soldiers, is drawing huge crowds.

And in the past few years there has been a proliferation of Ottoman-themed soap operas, none more popular than “The Magnificent Century,” a sort of “Sex in the City” set during the 46-year reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The Turkish show pulpishly chronicles the intrigues of the imperial household and harem, including the rise of Suleiman’s slave girl-turned-queen, Hurrem. Last year it was broadcast in 32 countries, including Morocco and Kosovo.

The empire’s rehabilitation has inspired mixed feelings among cultural critics. “The Ottoman revival is good for the national ego and has captured the psyche of the country at this moment, when Turkey wants to be a great power,” said Melis Behlil, a film studies professor at Kadir Has University here. But, she warned: “It terrifies me because too much national ego is not a good thing. Films like ‘Conquest 1453’ are engaging in cultural revisionism and glorifying the past without looking at history in a critical way.”

Faruk Aksoy, the 48-year-old director of “Conquest 1453,” said that he had dreamed of making a film about the conquering of Istanbul ever since he arrived there at the age of 10 from Urfa, in Turkey’s rugged southeast, and had been mesmerized by Istanbul’s imperial grandeur. But he had to wait 10 years to make a big-budget film because the financing and technology were not available.

The film’s budget of $18.2 million was a record in Turkey, but it has more than recouped that, grossing $40 million in Turkey and Europe, Mr. Aksoy said. So stirred was a crowd at a recent screening that it roared “God is Great!” as the sword-wielding Ottomans scaled Istanbul’s forbidden walls. Mr. Aksoy recalled that one cinema manager debated calling the police, fearing a real fight.

“We Turks are hot-blooded people,” he said. “The Turks are proud about the conquest because it not only changed our history but it also changed the world.”

But others warn of a dangerous cultural jingoism at work. Burak Bekdil, a columnist for Hurriyet Daily News, mused in a recent column that the time was ripe for a film called “Conquest 1974,” to celebrate the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, or “Extinction 1915,” to commemorate the genocide of 1.5 million Armenians during World War I. Death threats followed.

Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times

A tourist in Ottoman attire inside a Topkapi Palace photo booth.

Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times

The actress Aslihan Guner on the set of “Once Upon a Time Ottoman Empire Mutiny.”

Ayman Oghanna for The New York Times

A traditionally dressed military band on the streets of Istanbul.

Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A poster for “Fetih 1453.”

Critics have also faulted the film for inaccuracies and hyperbole, though Mr. Aksoy stressed that he had employed Ottoman scholars. Members of the court of the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI — portrayed as hedonistic boozers surrounded by nubile dancing girls — talk in Turkish rather than Greek or Latin. Even Mehmet II, the conquering Sultan famed for his prodigious nose, has been retooled as a heroic pretty boy.

Alper Turgut, a leading film critic, deplored this one-dimensional universe even as he lauded the film’s epic ambitions. “If they had exaggerated just a bit more, it would be an absurdist comedy,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Aksoy expressed annoyance that a film meant to entertain was being politicized. “Would you ask Ridley Scott if he was politically influenced?” he asked.

Cultural critics noted that the film’s religious underpinning — there’s even a cameo by the Prophet Muhammad predicting that Constantinople will be conquered by believers — had made it popular with the growing Islamic bourgeoisie in a country that has increasingly turned its back on the crisis-ridden Europe and instead looks increasingly eastward. (The movie has also been embraced by some members of the governing Islamic party as an alternative to Hollywood’s “crusader mentality.”)

Religious conservatives had been marginalized during the secular cultural revolution undertaken by Ataturk. “For the first time we are seeing this new Islamic bourgeoisie, its tastes and its mores, reflected on the small and big screens,” Mr. Turgut said.

Ms. Behlil noted that the advent of big-budget television shows and films depicting the Ottoman era owed something to the country’s popularity in the Arab world, which was bringing in new revenues for production companies. Last year Turkey was Europe’s largest exporter of soap operas, pocketing $70 million in revenues.

But it is at home that the series and films are having a profound impact, educating a new generation of Turks.

Burak Temir, 24, a German-Turkish actor who played a prince on “Once Upon a Time Ottoman Empire Mutiny,” said he had initially been intimidated about portraying an era he knew so little about.

To prepare for his part, the show gave him a four-month crash course in Ottoman manners that included learning how to ride horses, sword fight, use a bow and arrow and puff out his chest. Even when not filming the show, he sports a Sultan-like beard and skinny Ottoman-style pants. “It makes me proud to be Turkish,” he said.




The London 2012 Equestrian – Olympic Team Jumping competition at Greenwich Park displayed blatant marketing for Darwinism, with mural displays of Darwin, the Monkey Scientist, and icons associated with evolution from The Gospel according to Charles, more commonly know as On the Origin of Species. 

It was equally surprising that Saudi Arabia clinched bronze but felt comfortable with the Darwinist images. Perhaps Wahhabi thought went so far off the religious and political spectrum that it merged with evolutionism. All in the name of catching up with the rest of the developed world of course.

Since evolution is a so-called theory that is not provable enough, as opposed to Creationism and the new anti-Darwinist Intelligent Designism (enough of isms), we shall waste no more time and share the golden moment.

From the official London 2012 website:

To complain about anything else

For all other Games-time complaints, you can get in touch with us in a number of ways as detailed below. Please provide as much information as possible to help us deal with your complaint more quickly.

You can contact us:

By phone
Call us on 0808 197 2012. Hours of operation are Monday to Sunday 9am–6pm.

By email
Email us at or by using the web form below.

In writing
Write to us at: Complaints, Communication and Public Affairs, The London 2012 Organising Committee, 23rd floor, 1 Churchill Place, London, E14 5LN.

If your complaint is about an event you attended we will need the following information:

•   Details of event including date, time and venue
•   Details of what happened
•   Whether you raised your complaint at the time of attending and details of outcome
•   Your contact number



Caucasus Activist Feels Heat in Turkey

Published: July 11, 2012,

ISTANBUL — Midnight was long gone and the back streets of Istanbul lay dark and deserted, when Kuban Kural was walking home from an evening’s campaigning for the Circassian cause one night this spring.

Kuban Kural fears he is being stalked by Russian agents.

Suddenly, the interior lights of a parked car flared on, and Mr. Kural found himself staring straight into the pale eyes of his pursuers.

Then, the motor started up, and the car began to move slowly toward him.

“That was perhaps the worst moment of all,” Mr. Kural, 29, said in an interview in Istanbul this week, recounting a month of such encounters that the police and prosecutors in Istanbul are still studying.

Neither the authorities nor, indeed, Mr. Kural would have taken these incidents so seriously, were it not that six other Caucasian activists have been gunned down in the streets of Istanbul over the past four years.

In the most recent attack, three Chechen militants were shot and killed last September with silencer-equipped guns as they were getting into a car outside their home in Istanbul. Three other Chechen activists were killed in similar fashion in separate attacks in September and December 2008 and in February 2009.

None of the victims were Circassian; all were living in Turkey as refugees from the Chechen war, in which they had fought for independence from Russia. For that reason, analysts suspect that the perpetrators, who have not been apprehended, are linked to Moscow.

“It is quite open, quite clear who did it,” Guner Ozkan, an expert on security issues in the Caucasus with the International Strategic Research Organization in Ankara, said this week. “Russia does that,” he added, pointing to similar killings of Chechen militants in Vienna, Dubai and other places.

Oliver Bullough, the author of “Let Our Fame Be Great,” a recent book about the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the 19th century, agreed. “The balance of probability is overwhelming that at least some of these were committed by Russian agents or people sent by Russia,” Mr. Bullough said by telephone from England this week.

The Russian Embassy in Ankara did not reply to requests for comment by telephone and e-mail. The Russian authorities have offered no comments on the killings, except for a statement by Russian investigators last year, quoted by Interfax, saying that two of the three men killed in the most recent Istanbul shooting were suspects in the bombing of Domodedovo Airport, which serves Moscow, in January 2011. Previously, the office of the Chechen president, Ramzan A. Kadyrov, a Moscow ally, has denied his involvement in the killings of any of the Chechens.

The case of Mr. Kural, the Circassian activist, is different from the others: Not only is he not Chechen, but also he is a Turkish citizen.

Mr. Kural’s first name comes from the Caucasian region, Kuban, from which his forebears hailed. He is one of several million Turkish descendants of the Adyghe and Ubykh peoples, commonly known as Circassians, who were forcibly evicted from their homeland in the Caucasus by Russian troops in 1864.

About a million Circassians, 90 percent of their total number, were expelled from their lands on the eastern shores of the Black Sea at the time, according to Mr. Bullough’s research, and 300,000 to 400,000 perished.

Today, most Circassians live in Turkey as a relatively well-integrated ethnic minority of three million to five million. Other Circassians are in Israel, Jordan and Syria as well as the United States, where there are sizable communities in New Jersey and California.

The Circassian community in Turkey has recently begun to join Kurds, Laz and other minorities in calling for recognition of its ethnic identity and protection of its language and culture. The Ubykh language became extinct with the death of its last native speaker a decade ago.

“It is partly a result of the democratization process of the past 10 or so years,” Mr. Kural said of the fledgling Circassian movement. A recent rally to commemorate the events of 1864 drew around 5,000 participants in Istanbul in May.

The jolt that galvanized Circassians in Turkey and around the world into action came when Sochi, a Russian resort town built on former Circassian lands, was named a candidate for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in 2006. It won the Games a year later.

“We will never agree to the Olympics’ being held on soil where genocide was committed against our forebears, where their bones still lie,” said Mr. Kural, who has been deeply involved in a Circassian diaspora campaign against the Sochi Games since 2006.

Mr. Kural suspects that his role in this campaign, “No Sochi 2014,” has earned him the unwanted attentions of Russia. He has described his mysterious encounters in detail to the police and the news media.

His pursuers would routinely make eye contact with him. Whenever he found them waiting outside his home, at the university where he works as an administrator or at Circassian campaign events, they would turn on the dome light of their car.

On another occasion they were waiting outside a restaurant in a part of Istanbul that he was visiting for the first time. They also once chucked a balled-up piece of paper at him. “You will die” was written on it in Russian.

Though cautious, analysts do not rule out the possibility that Mr. Kural is indeed being stalked by Russian agents.

“Russia takes the No Sochi movement very seriously, perhaps too seriously,” Hasan Kanbolat, chairman of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies in Ankara, said by telephone this week. “But harassing an activist is not behavior that can be condoned.”

Mr. Bullough, the author, said Russia had been “stunned” and “blindsided” by the Circassian protests against the Sochi Games.

“They thought Chechnya was going to be the problem, and suddenly this happens,” he said.

Mr. Bullough said Mr. Kural’s account reminded him of his own experiences being followed by Russian agents in the Caucasus. “They do make sure you know, they are very demonstrative about it,” he said. “So this does ring a bell.”

Mr. Ozkan, the Caucasus expert, said that although Russia was more focused on the Chechens, by stalking Mr. Kural “they might be sending a message” to the Circassians “to stay away” from the Olympic issue.

The Turkish government has said little about the subject. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said this week that the police were looking into the threats against Mr. Kural, while the security authorities were still investigating the killings of the Chechens. On July 12 Mr. Kural was placed under police protection and provided with a bodyguard.

Mr. Ozkan said he suspected Ankara was trying to protect its blossoming relationship with Russia.

“Turkey is not willing to go into identifying who killed those Chechens; even if they know, they will not come out and say it,” he said. “Relations between Turkey and Russia are flourishing, especially in economic terms. Both sides are keeping this low-level.”

Mr. Kural fears that Turkey’s silence on the Chechen killings may have encouraged Russia to come after him. “They know now that they can act easily and with impunity in Turkey,” he said.

But all experts interviewed agreed that the assassination of a Turkish citizen is of another order and highly unlikely.

“The fact that he is a Turkish citizen changes the color of things” compared to the Chechens’ killings, Mr. Kanbolat of the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies said. “We hope they wouldn’t risk that.”

The police in Istanbul, who have been investigating the threats for several weeks, summoned Mr. Kural to another meeting on Monday. They said that his request for police protection was still being weighed by the provincial governor’s office.

Mr. Ozkan said he did not expect the matter to end there. “Will we see more such attacks? Probably yes,” he said. “Because the violence in the Caucasus is ongoing.”




The Ketchaoua Mosque

Dey Baba Hassan Fort

Statue of Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha in Algiers

The Casbah Quarter




By Jonathan Head

BBC News, Istanbul

Turkish guards on border with Syria near the town of Yayladagi - 11 June
Turkey fears conflict with Syria because of their 900km common border

Two years ago, Israeli commentators noted what they saw as an alarming development. Turkey and Syria announced that they had just held their first joint military exercise.

It seemed to presage an extraordinary strategic shift by Turkey, whose million-strong army has been part of the Nato alliance since 1951, and which bought much of its equipment from Israel.

Coming in the same year that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched an emotional verbal assault on Israel over its operations in Gaza, and when a scheduled joint exercise with the Israeli air force in Turkey had been abruptly cancelled, Israelis feared they were witnessing the creation of a new hostile alliance to the north.

In the end, although the Syrians made much of the “exercise”, Turkish officials explained that it had amounted to little more than a small number of troops on either side of the border, trying to communicate with each other through radios, with mixed success.

What Mr Erdogan’s government did do was apply the same formula for improving its relations with Syria that it has with most other neighbouring countries. This involved high-level, reciprocal visits by the leaders of both countries, accompanied by large delegations of ministers and entrepreneurs, the abolition of visa requirements and a flurry of trade agreements.

It fitted the governing AK Party’s foreign policy vision, one that emphasised normalising once-frosty relations with its neighbours, and relying first on business and investment deals to drive the process.

With Syria, this brought impressive results. Trade over the past decade has risen from around $730mn to $2,270mn last year. Turkish exporters have done particularly well – exports to Syria have risen nearly tenfold. Cities close to the border like Gaziantep and Aleppo have enjoyed racing economic growth, thanks to this trade and an influx of Syrian and Turkish visitors taking advantage of visa-free travel.

Exploring alternatives

The new relationship also brought officials closer together, and gave Turkey unusual access to the secretive Syrian ruling elite. Mr Erdogan developed a warm personal rapport with Bashar al-Assad, and there were regular meetings between the intelligence chiefs of the two countries.

Even Mr Erdogan’s critics acknowledge that the government has little influence over events in Syria, and no good policy options

So when anti-government protests started in Syria, Turkey was caught off-guard. Mr Erdogan had been quick to urge President Mubarak in Egypt to listen to the voice of the people, and step down. In Libya, constrained at first by Turkey’s big investments and the presence of 25,000 Turkish nationals, Mr Erdogan kept up a dialogue with the Gaddafi regime for a while, but then joined the international coalition pressing him to leave.

But Syria was different. Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told me at the end of March that Turkey feared the chaos that might well follow the fall of President Assad. This is not like Egypt or Libya, he said. It is has the potential to become an intractable sectarian conflict, more like Iraq. And Turkey shares a 900km border with Syria.

Those fears are shared by Turkey’s Western partners, and there has been little criticism of Mr Erdogan’s insistence that he should keep talking to President Assad, and urging him to embrace reform. No other leader has had so many, often lengthy, phone conversations with the Syrian president, and with no obvious alternatives to Mr Assad, there seemed little to lose by it.

But Turkey is also quietly exploring those alternatives. It allowed a meeting of hundreds of Syrian dissidents in the resort city of Antalya, with the aim of turning the disparate opposition forces into a more coherent movement.

Kurdish problem

Kurdish pro-democracy demonstration in Qamishli, northern Syria, 27 may
Trouble in Syria’s Kurdish regions could spill over into Turkey

Now the Turkish rhetoric towards President Assad has hardened, after more than 4,000 Syrian residents have come over the border into Hatay province, fleeing attacks by the security forces. There is widespread public sympathy here for the victims of the Syrian crackdown, accentuated by graphic images being circulated by activists.

Mr Erdogan is especially sensitive to public sentiments in what is an election week. He has condemned what he called “atrocities” by the Syrian authorities, and described the abuses as “unacceptable”. He has hinted that he might endorse action by the UN Security Council, although Mr Davutoglu still argues that the time is not right to consider international intervention.

Turkey says it will allow anyone fleeing violence in Syria to cross its border, but it refuses to call them refugees, and the Turkish army is stopping journalists from meeting or interviewing the fugitives. The Turkish authorities say they are preparing for a much bigger influx.

Even Mr Erdogan’s critics acknowledge that the government has little influence over events in Syria, and no good policy options.

Of particular concern is the possibility of unrest in the Kurdish areas of Syria spilling over, and igniting trouble among Turkey’s restive Kurdish minority. President Assad has offered Syrian Kurds autonomy, and he invited Kurdish leaders for a meeting in Damascus right after the opposition meeting in Antalya, a pointed reminder to the Turkish government of the trouble Syria could cause if relations between the two countries break down.

Thirteen years ago they came close to war over the Syrian backing then for the Kurdish insurgent movement, the PKK. It was the withdrawal of that backing that allowed the Turkish armed forces to isolate the PKK, and capture its leader Abdullah Ocalan. Tension in the Kurdish region of Turkey is higher than it has been for many years, with the Turkish government sticking to its hard-line rejection of any dialogue with the PKK.

Losing Syrian co-operation over the Kurds is a significant price Turkey may have to pay for the fast-changing political environment in the Middle East, along with the potential loss of its recently-won commercial gains.




Turkey’s June 12 Elections and Eurocentrism


The following post is written in collaboration with Hilal Elver, my Turkish wife. It is posted a few days before Turkish elections this Sunday that will have a great impact on Turkey‘s political future. As a sign of changes in the world, the pre-election attention given to these elections in Turkey is a notable example. Turkey has emerged as ‘a success story’ in a global setting where most of the news is interpreting various forms of failure, especially in meeting global challenges such as food security, climate change, and economic instability and recession.


            The Economist leader headline in its June 4th issue is revealing: “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.” It reveals a mentality that has not shaken itself free from the paternalism and entitlements of the bygone colonialist days. What makes such an assertion so striking is that The Economist would know better than to advise American or Canadian or Israeli citizens how to vote. And it never did venture such an opinion on the eve of the election of such reactionary and militarist figures as George W. Bush, Stephen Harper, or Benjamin Netanyahu. Are the people of Turkey really so politically backward as to require guidance from this bastion of Western elite opinion so as to learn what is in their own best interest?


            Surely it is a strange recommendation even putting aside its interventionary aspects. As The Economist itself admits the progress Turkey has made internally and internationally since the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002. Its economy has flourished, civilian control of the governing process has been greatly strengthened, creative efforts have been undertaken to solve outstanding conflicts involving the Kurdish minority and Cyprus, and Turkey has fashioned a creative and constructive foreign policy that has greatly enhanced its regional and global reputation. With such an unquestioned record of achievement, it seems strange to go so far beyond calling attention to some serious lingering problems in Turkey by instructing the people of Turkey to vote for an opposition party that attacks the AKP relentlessly but offers no alternative vision for how it might improve upon its policies.


As Stewart Patrick put it recently in the pages of Foreign Affairs, the influential American journal on global policy: “The dramatic growth of Brazil, China, and India—and the emergence of middle-tier economies such as Indonesia and Turkey—is transforming the geopolitical landscape and testing the institutional foundation of the post-World War II liberal order.” Notable here is the recent acceptance of Turkey as a major regional and global actor, something that was not present in the political imagination before this period of AKP leadership.


And if we look beyond Eurocentric perspectives, the rise of Turkey is even more dramatic. In the Middle East, it is Turkey, although outside the Arab orbit, that has most inspiring to those leading the movements that have produced the Arab Spring. Public opinion polls in the region again and again rank Recip Tayyip Erdogan as the world’s most admired leader. It is a mistake to suggest that these movements will opt for ‘the Turkish model,’ as each national situation has its own originality, but all share a passionate insistence that destiny of the country will be shaped by its own people according to their values and aspirations, and without imitation of others. It is possible to learn from the Turkish experience in dealing with such tendentious issues as the future participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egyptian politics or the desirability of pursuing a foreign policy based on ‘zero problems with neighbors’ while maintaining this fierce insistence on the nationalist character of political transformation.


At the same time, in a world lacking effective and legitimate global leadership, it would be a mistake to overlook the enormous contributions made by Turkish diplomacy over the course of the prior decade. AKP foreign policy, as principally shaped by Ahmet Davutoglu, provides a reasoned, peace oriented voice of intelligent moderation that draws upon deep historical and cultural affinities, and suggests a very different political profile than that associated with such other regional voices as those emanating from Iran and Saudi Arabia.


Such an affirmation of the AKP achievements is not meant to be an uncritical endorsement of its policies. There are disturbing features of its approach to internal dissent, including the imprisonment of a large number of its domestic critics, especially journalists, and recent examples of police brutality in responding to anti-government demonstrations. There are also widely discussed worries about Mr. Erdogan’s ambitions, contentions that he is a closet autocrat as well as an immensely skillful politician in the populist mode, and it might be reassuring to the electorate as a whole if the elections do not give the AKP a parliamentary two-thirds super-majority that would allow the amendment of the 1982 Constitution without the need for a ratifying referendum. The fear is that with such control, 376 members out of a total of 550, the AKP could push through a presidential system that would allow Mr. Erdogan to become the dominant political leader in the country for another ten years. However, a new constitution is necessary. There is little disagreement among the Turkish voters about the desirability of a new constitution to replace the outdated 1982 Constitution, a byproduct of military rule. Aside from its statist and ultra-nationalist features, the present Turkish constitution keeps alive unpleasant memories of repressive rule when abuse of the citizenry was the order of the day.


Secular Turks mainly worry about certain forms of constitutional reform that they fear will keep the AKP in power forever and will somehow challenge their European modernist life style by such measures as Internet censorship instilling Islamic morals with respect to sexual content or impose restrictions on the public availability of alcohol. In the background, as well, is an unresolved struggle for economic and cultural primacy among elites with different geographic and class roots in Turkish society, the AKP bringing to the fore new energies that come from the more traditional atmosphere of Anatolian towns and villages, as opposed to the CHP elites that are concentrated in the main urban centers of western Turkey: Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara.


Instead of telling Turks how to vote, The Economist might have more appropriately warned Turkish voters  (if their concern was the future wellbeing of the country) against the perils of the free market economy that the AKP has so enthusiastically endorsed, and especially encouraged while dramatically expanding trade with neighboring states, especially to its East.   Despite the impressive economic growth of recent years, there seems to be too great a readiness in Ankara to go along with the sort of neoliberal globalization that minimizes the regulation of markets, fails to address climate change, indulges speculative finance, and generates ever greater disparities between rich and poor within and among countries.


Even here in relation to the world economy the Turkish record is better than its harshest critics are ready to admit. Recently Turkey took over from Belgium, itself symbolic of a power ship on the global stage, as host for the next ten years of the UN efforts to assist the poorest countries in the world, known as the Least Developed Countries or LDCs. It hosted a mega-conference of 192 member states of the UN in Istanbul last month, and made it clear through statements by Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu to the assembled delegations that Turkey’s vision of its role was to make sure that economic justice was being achieved through this UN process, an assessment that took issue with the efforts of the prior 40 years of grand rhetoric and miserable performance. Expressive of this intention, the Turkish Foreign Minister established an Intellectual Forum of independent academic specialists gathered from around the world that ran sessions parallel to the inter-governmental conference, offering a critical perspective on the entire UN approach to extreme poverty and societal vulnerability.


Perhaps, the greatest deficiency in the current Turkish political scene is not the quality of AKP leadership, but the absence of a responsible and credible opposition that offers the citizens some alternative policies on key questions. Until the current elections the main opposition party, Republican People’s Party (CHP), has been a party of ‘No,’ agitating secular anxieties about ‘a second Iran’ and withholding all appreciation for what the governing party has managed to achieve. Turkey, as with any vibrant democracy, needs a robust opposition, preferably with a genuine social democratic orientation, both to heighten the quality of policy debate and to make the electoral process more responsive to the values of and challenges facing Turkish society, but this will not be achieved at this stage by voting the AKP out of power. We have the impression that its new leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, seeks to move the party’s program and tactics in this direction, and he has moved away from the polarizing language and approach of the impoverishing Baykal period of CHP decline, but dislodging the old guard of the party has limited the adjustment. In contrast, the Erdogan leadership has exhibited a pragmatic capability to respond intelligently to changes in the political setting.


The Economist and others outside of Turkey should certainly be free to comment on AKP policies and the record of its government, but telling voters how to vote goes too far, and recalls the worst sides of the European relationship to the Middle East. We live in an increasingly integrated and interconnected political, economic, and cultural global space within which critical dialogue and mutually beneficial cooperation are indispensable if the future holds any promise of becoming peaceful, fair, and sustainable for the peoples of the world. In this regard, it is crucial that the imperatives of such free expression be reconciled with respect for the dynamics of self-determination, above all the autonomy of national electoral procedures.  It is disappointing that Eurocentricism has not yet become an embarrassment for the editors of The Economist.   




WHAT’S happened to higher education in California? Two academics there have attacked The Economist for presuming to advise the Turks how to vote in their forthcoming election. One is Richard Falk, Albert G Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Research Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Another is Hilal Elver, his wife, also at Santa Barbara.

They say:

The Economist leader headline in its June 4 issue is revealing: “The best way for Turks to promote democracy would be to vote against the ruling party.” It reveals a mentality that has not shaken itself free from the paternalism and entitlements of the bygone colonialist days. What makes such an assertion so striking is that The Economistwould know better than to advise US or Canadian or Israeli citizens how to vote. And it never did venture such an opinion on the eve of the election of such reactionary and militarist figures as George W Bush, Stephen Harper, or Binyamin Netanyahu. Are the people of Turkey really so politically backward as to require guidance from this bastion of Western elite opinion so as to learn what is in their own best interest?

What’s so peculiar is that anyone who has a glancing familiarity with this bastion of elite opinion knows that, for good or ill, it has indeed advised American, Canadian and Israeli citizens how to cast their votes. Don’t professors do any homework nowadays? As for all that “paternalism” nonsense, I was dimly under the impression that Turkey had a colonialist past of its own.

Turkey’s bitter election

On the last lap

The ruling party heads for re-election after a polarising campaign

Jun 9th 2011 | ISTANBUL | from the print edition

Waving a flag for the opposition

IT IS now official: women should have babies and stay at home. That was how feminists greeted this week’s announcement by Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that he would scrap the ministry for women, along with seven other cabinet jobs. Coming days before the June 12th election, it has raised fears that a third term for Mr Erdogan’s mildly Islamist Justice and Development (AK) party could embrace a new puritanism.

Mr Erdogan suggests instead a ministry for “family and social policies…as we are a conservative democratic party, we need to strengthen the family structure.” His words set off alarm bells among those who recall the AK government’s previous efforts to criminalise adultery and Mr Erdogan’s calls for women to have at least three children. He is fiercely against day-care centres. Those who entrust their children to others, he said, would end up alone in old-age homes. “Do the maths,” snaps Hulya Gulbahar, a feminist lawyer. “He wants us to have three children and stay at home. In other words, no career for at least 15 years.”

Claims by the secular establishment that the AK party’s ultimate plan is to introducesharia law are plainly overblown. Yet such thinking lay behind the unsuccessful attempt by prosecutors to ban the AK party in 2008. Among its supposed crimes was seeking to ease restrictions on the Islamic-style headscarf in universities, which have kept thousands of pious women from pursuing their education. In fact, since it came to power in 2002, the AK government has pushed through unparalleled reforms, giving women more rights than ever. Rape inside marriage is now a criminal offence. Penalties for “honour killings” of women who mix with men to whom they are not married have been stiffened. But Ms Gulbahar, who helped craft some of these measures, complains that Mr Erdogan “turned” after being re-elected for a second term of single-party rule in 2007.

His increasingly prurient tone may have encouraged a climate that has led to the sacking of Zeynep Aksu, a psychiatrist at a social-services centre in the Black Sea province of Samsun, because she refused to stop wearing short skirts. In January a headmaster in the southern province of Mersin provoked a furore after ordering male students to remain at least 45 centimetres from their female peers. An inquiry was launched only after a parliamentarian from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) petitioned the government. Yet the headmaster kept his job.

Binnaz Toprak, a sociologist running for parliament on the CHP ticket, published a survey last year arguing that such incidents reflect a countrywide lurch towards intolerance. She found that in many Anatolian provinces alcohol is no longer served and pressure to fast during Ramadan is on the rise. “The picture I encountered is truly alarming,” she concluded.

Yet there is another side to the story. As universities proliferate across the country, students from places like Izmir and Istanbul infect locals with their freewheeling ways. In Erzurum, an eastern backwater, girls and boys can be seen strolling hand in hand, for which they might until recently have been flogged. In Istanbul veiled girls can be spotted snogging with boyfriends on park benches. Sometimes, in short, Turkey seems to be growing simultaneously more conservative and more liberal.

A greater worry is Mr Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian bent. Turkey has more imprisoned journalists than almost any other country (there were some 57 at the last count). A pair of students who unfurled a banner saying “we want free education” during a speech by Mr Erdogan have languished in jail for over a year on charges of “membership of a terrorist group.” And Mr Erdogan is increasingly fond of blasting his critics in public.

In the past week, this newspaper has been a target for daring to suggest in our June 4th issue that Turks should vote for the CHP to deny the AK party the two-thirds majority it needs unilaterally to rewrite the constitution. At successive rallies Mr Erdogan has accused The Economist of acting in concert with “a global gang” and taking orders from Israel. This may win him votes at home, but it will hardly add to his credibility in the West.

June 10th, 2011 – The Economist


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