How Syria is so much like Turkey
I have been thinking about how much Syria resembles Turkey lately. This year of unrest across the border gave me a whole new perspective. The similarity is obviously not one of industrial development, production of sophisticated goods or democratic development. It is a similarity of style.
I have come to this conclusion after being regularly exposed to President al-Assad of Syria on Turkish television this past year. He is usually shown addressing Syria’s Parliament in a colossal room with wood-ornamented walls. All the MPs are constantly applauding his every word, and there is at least one standing ovation at every meeting. Sound familiar? I have been accustomed to this since my childhood, from our own weekly party meetings at the Turkish Grand National Assembly. So Turkey’s political style has not changed in 50 years, and this may confirm a sneaking suspicion I have had all along: that we are all Baathists in this country after all.
“Does it matter?” you may ask. I refer those interested to Peter Gay’s book “Style in History.” The Yale history professor emeritus says that, “Style is the centaur, joining what nature, it would seem, has decreed must be kept apart. It is form and content… Apart from a few mechanical tricks of rhetoric, manner is indissolubly linked to matter; style shapes and in turn is shaped by, substance.” Please take note that manner is linked to matter. Looking at the similarity between the Syrian and Turkish parliaments, one can see the same hue of authoritarianism. In the final analysis, that shapes the content of the matter.
Here I cannot distinguish between the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the Republican People’s Party (CHP), and all the others. This reflects the authoritarianism that is within all of us. It seems normal to all of us. But let me tell you, it is not. Leaders, when under the barrage of a standing ovation, usually say things that they cannot say to each other’s faces every Tuesday in the Turkish Parliament. I hate watching it, but no one has tried to stop this decades-long cycle of abuse. This is a bad habit that is hard to quit. If political style shapes policy content, perhaps one could say that this style poisons its content.
Every Tuesday, party leaders injected with rounds of standing ovations comment on the week’s national and international developments. It is a weekly press conference for them. Years ago I remember Ehud Olmert, of Israel, talking to ministers who liked to comment on global developments. “Let the op-ed writers in papers do the commenting,” he said, “It is their job, not yours.” I second that motion for our leaders, who cannot shake the impulse to comment on everything under the sun. Also, I do not like their combative style. Let everyone focus on their own job. You manage the country; I will comment on the day’s news.
With all this in mind, it was not surprising to see Turkey’s MPs getting into a fist fight in Parliament last week. We should be honest with ourselves: When it comes to style, we are all Baathist. Ballot box or dictatorship, it matters not. After all the years of transformation in this country, that seems to be a constant.