Scribblings: “Turkish Spring” brings out Middle East pathologies
Jun 26, 2013 | Tzvi Fleischer
Up until the recent outbreak of unrest, Turkey was widely held up as the model of democracy for the Muslim Middle East. And it is undeniable that Turkey has a had a couple of decades of pretty free and fair elections and democratic transitions.
But the recent unrest has exposed that Turkish “democracy” is not yet anything like a mature liberal democracy – as well as offering a timely reminder that democracy has a lot more to it than regular elections. It requires minority rights as well as majority rule, a vibrant civil society beyond government’s reach, and a lively and free media and public square. And it involves the wide sharing of certain beliefs and values essential to democratic continuity – values that have to come before any other political goals and transcend political disagreements.
Elements like the increasingly stringent control over the press under the current AKP government have long made it clear that Turkish democracy was deficient in significant respects with regard to key elements of liberal democracy. The brutality with which the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan has reacted to what have largely been peaceful anti-government protests has exposed how significant these deficiencies really are.
And it is not just the actions of the AKP government which have been revealing – it is also the rhetoric. Frankly, AKP leaders close to Erdogan, as well as Erdogan himself, have often sounded like the crazed and paranoid Arab despots who have blighted the Middle East for most of the past half century, ranting paranoidly of foreign plots and conspiracies. Indeed, much of what Erdogan and his circle have had to say about the unrest would not sound at all out of place in the mouth of Syrian despot Bashar al-Assad, facing the ongoing uprising against his Baathist regime – the archetype of Arab nationalist military dictatorships.
In fact, Erdogan placed himself in a position where Assad sent him a needling message that he should “listen to his people.”
Erdogan has called the demonstrations a “meance to society”, a “treacherous plot” and a “treacherous attack.” The protesters are a “bunch of looters” inspired by “foreign provocateurs.” It was also claimed they had defiled mosques, though no evidence of this has been presented.
Meanwhile, Erdogan and his ministers have been blaming what he calls the “interests lobby” for the unrest, alleging that foreign businessmen and large-scale investors sparked the protests because they wanted to damage Turkey’s economy for short-term profits. He has said, “I’m saying the same thing to all those – one bank, two banks or three banks, whoever is making up that [interest] lobby. As you started this confrontation, you will pay dearly. Those who without shame join efforts to crash the stock market; Tayyip Erdogan does not have money there, if it crashes, you will lose.” He has repeatedly threatened to “strangle” or “choke” the people and institutions behind this supposed plot.
He has not named who these banks or businessmen are or how this supposed plot would work.
Meanwhile Ankara Mayor Ibrahim Melih Gökçek, a member of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and an associate of the Turkish PM, posted a note on Twitter claiming that Turkish intelligence had learned that the “American Jewish Lobby” was behind the protests, and said that a meeting in February at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI, a large centre-right Washington thinktank) had formulated plans for Turkish youth to spill out into the streets to protest. Gökçek also claimed falsely that AEI was a branch of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). A number of neo-cons and pro-Israeli American intellectuals – mostly Jewish – were named as being party to the plot.
An almost identical story appeared on the front page of the pro-government national newspaper Yeni Safak. Needless to say, there was no such meeting at AEI.
Finally, as scholar Michael Rubin has noted, regime stalwarts have labelled the demonstrators “terrorists”. For instance, Egemen Bagıš, Turkey’s Minister for European Union affairs and a close Erdogan aide, said in an interview that the regime will “have to consider everyone who remains [part of the protests in Taksim Square] a supporter or member of a terror organisation.” (In the same interview, Bagıš also repeated the government line about the “interest rate lobby… doing everything to disturb the calm in our country” and alleged they had paid for massive ad-free coverage of the Turkish unrest on the BBC and CNN.)
But of course, while ridiculously labelling largely peaceful protesters as terrorists, the Turkish government has excellent relations, and gives considerable money to the real terrorists of Hamas. Indeed, Erdogan took time out from managing the response to the unrest on June 18 to meet with senior Hamas leaders.
Needless to say, the paranoid claims about all internal opposition being the product of foreign plots and international finance, and the attempt to label mostly peaceful opposition “traitors” and “terrorists” are not discourse consistent with mature democracy. Turkish democracy is not a model for the region until it can exhibit more of the discourse, tolerance, acceptance of pluralism and shared values of a liberal democratic society – as well as regular elections.
Iranian Antisemitism Lives On
New Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is unlikely to indulge in the Holocaust denial and crude antisemitism that characterised outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s simply not his style.
However, no one should imagine that expressions of blatant antisemitism are going to disappear from the highest levels of the Iranian leadership. Supreme Leader Aytollah Ali Khamenei made this clear with the cartoon he displayed on his Facebook page on the day of the election. It contrasted the Iranian “democratic” process with that in the US. Iran, it said, had “a pure democratic process from ordinary people without even any affiliation to a party.”
The US process, by contrast was described as “President is being elected only from two parties while Zionist regime is controlling everything behind the scenes”. This was accompanied by an image of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) logo with an arrow pointing at three fat oligarchs with money bags for heads, apparently controlling a line of voters below them.
Khamenei has helpfully offered everyone a reminder that antisemitism in Iran was not confined to Ahmadinejad, and that the man who really runs the country, the Supreme Leader, has a not dissimilar, hateful, worldview to the outgoing President.