MUSTAFA AKYOL > Dangerous people: Turks in power

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The readers of this column are probably well aware that I have not been a great fan of Kemalism. For this 80-year-old official ideology and its adherents, the Kemalists, have been quite authoritarian toward the rest of society. They defined an “ideal citizen,” and forced everybody to conform to those narrow standards. They banned the Kurdish language, the Islamic headscarf and Christian institutions. They launched military coups, banned political parties, and even had some innocent people executed. They have been a dangerous crowd. 

However, I should admit that as time goes by and a new cadre of Turkish elites assume and enjoy power, I see a need to refine my point of view: The problem is larger than Kemalism. For sure, this ideology has its own specific reasons for being authoritarian — such as its cult of personality and its naïve claims of absolute truth. But it also is a reflection of an authoritarian political culture that pervades Turkish society. 

This is becoming more and more apparent, as Turkey’s new elites prove to subscribe to some of the bad habits of the old elites. Both camps, for example, believe in an ideal “unity” that leaves little room for pluralism. For the Kemalists, this unity had to be achieved on the basis of “Republican values,” which were dictated by Atatürk. The new elites, on the other hand, believe in “national values” that are defined by the Ottoman past. (And although I prefer Ottoman values to those of Atatürk, I would be against their imposition by the state.)

Similarly, both the old and the new elites are prone to explaining the world with conspiracy theories. Kemalists used to see the hands of “the enemies within” behind every trouble in Turkey, whereas the new elite is ready to discover “the deep state” under every stone. And both camps believe in innumerous foreign plots.

When it comes to the way they govern, both the old and the new elites are corrupted by similar problems, such as nepotism. Kemalists had structured the state as basically a machine which would be run by, and create benefits for, their own class. As the new elites take over the system, however, they prove that they have a tendency to turn it upside down, making the Kemalists the new outcasts and themselves the new privileged.

Now, none of this means that “nothing has changed in Turkey,” as some absolute pessimists claim. Quite the contrary, in the past decade, the confrontation between the old and the new elites unleashed a progressive energy, thanks to which important liberal reforms were made. The new elites, under the banner of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), had to tame our Leviathan (i.e. the Turkish state), and hence structural improvements took place. The days that Turkey was a country of torture, extrajudicial killings and depopulated villages are long gone. 

However, Turkey has not become a heaven of liberal democracy either, as the absolute optimists believe. For the authoritarian mindset which had created older problems is still alive and is creating new problems.

As a nation, what we ultimately need to realize is that our troubles will not end when “good Turks” come to power and use it without restraint. When we have that naïve belief, any group of Turks that come to power will inevitably become dangerous simply out of an iron rule discovered by liberal thinker Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” What we really need is to constrain power with liberal principles, and decentralize it with democratic mechanisms.


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Paul Duckett

6/1/2012 12:29:58 PM

Your British Medical Journal reported that it's indeed possible to spread love: When one person is happy, the feeling migrates to two people beyond that person. So, if you smile, Philip, a friend of a friend of yours is more likely to become infected and smile, too. Smiles even have accents: for example, when reading facial expressions, different cultures home in on different parts of the face. In the US, we focus on mouths; the Japanese, by contrast, serarch for feeling in the eyes...

Cem Cakmak

5/27/2012 8:51:42 AM

Turk are so dangerous, they have been killing their own kind for decades. Helping every country around the world except their own. Turks brought light into Europe and choose to stay in darkness.


5/21/2012 2:06:41 PM

Cemre, i agree to disagree! you see religion as the primary cause of all evils.. i DO and CAN NOT accept this... when islam came into-being the babies (girls) were buried alive.. islam banned all of this.. that is the last thing i say.. best wishes :)


5/21/2012 11:18:10 AM

indeed begum, 'collective good as specified by the state over the individual' is an established pathology of the turkish republic and most other muslim and other religious minded countries. so you think ottoman empire in which women were stoned to death for adultery, a men wer allowed to marry more than one wife, women were forced to cover themselves in the streets and walk behind their husbands- maybe not dictated by the state but by the collective oppression of the society at large- was differ


5/21/2012 7:16:57 AM

Cemre, the things you talk about (second - class citizens: women, indoctrination, torture...etc) all originate from our state-building process and pathological state reason, i hope you understand what i mean. the ottoman state was dominated by religion but the subjects there did not face such things (justice was the most important thing in the empire)


5/20/2012 11:51:42 PM

for the same reason you argue the opposite; for the sake of discussion; to prove a point and/or to be proven wrong... for if i am right there is no hope for us and turkey will soon degenerate into 'another' muslim country wherein women are second-class citizens, gay men are hanged, alcohol is banned and children are indoctrinated against all non-muslims- aspiring for the so-called religious generation... I wish you would have proved me wrong but i guess best we can do is 'agree to disagree'...


5/20/2012 4:51:34 PM

Cemre, thnx because i dont exactly know the distinciton btwn empirical & statistical data. okay i do not any concrete proof because as you argue no muslim-dominated state is as democratic as sweden.. but religion in essence does not pave the way for this undemocratic experiences, political abuses or misunderstandings are the main cause. but there is NO fault in Quran. the principles you mention are regarded differently by different people. why do you argue that islam has a problewm with freedom?


5/20/2012 4:19:36 PM

BEGUM: this is not an empirical but a statistical observation... If anything yours is an empirical hypothesis without any proof... You may choose to interpret Quran, bible, etc in anyway you want but since its implementation by the vast majority of religious people is deeply misogynistic and contrary to every humanist principle, I would find fault in those books themselves...


5/20/2012 1:36:31 PM

Cemre, well except Turkey which has still a long way to go for a consolidated democracy, no muslim-dominated country has a good record of democracy, but ı DO NOT think that this empirical basis definitely leads us to the conclusion that religious societies cant have democracy or freedom. because islam in essence is not at odds with these terms. if we read Quran, we see that individual liberty is sacred.


5/20/2012 12:15:35 AM

@BEGUM: I dont say that nonreligosity provides basis for anything, I just say there is evidence religious societies tend to be have higher crime rates thus confirming your null hypothesis and negating your preposition that religion is a good moral compass... and I challenged you to give me an example of a religious community (talking abrahamic religions here) wherein democracy & human rights flourishes the way they do in, say, scandinavian countries with lowest rates of religious adherence
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