Dear Western friends, yes to solidarity, no to orientalist pity

Dear Western friends, yes to solidarity, no to orientalist pity

A couple of weeks prior to the attempted coup I was complaining to a colleague about Turkey-bashing in the Western press.

I have been a critic of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) policies, both domestic and foreign. I did not criticize these policies automatically because I was not fond of Erdoğan’s authoritarian style or did not feel close to the AKP ideology. I did so because I believed their domestic policies were not in accordance with fundamental universal democratic values, while their foreign policies did not benefit Turkey’s national interests. Indeed, these policies did not bode well for Turkey either internally or externally.

Foreign colleagues, experts and observers have naturally been critical of Erdoğan’s policies. But some of the criticism has taken an exaggerated form of late. Turkey-bashing has reached such proportions that on one of the recent TV programs I joined for a foreign news channel, Turkey was identified as almost the sole responsible party for the mess in Syria. 

“What else do you expect when a [Muammar] Gaddafi-like figure is at the helm of the presidency?” I was asked by a Turkish colleague, who lost his job precisely because of Erdoğan.

Indeed, Erdoğan’s popularity has certainly taken a nosedive since the days he made the cover of Time magazine. It is only his rhetoric and policy moves that are responsible for that outcome.

However, looking at Turkey through the lens of hatred for Erdoğan carries the risk of an unhealthy analysis of events unfolding in Turkey.

Since July 15, the Western media seems to have underestimated the fact that the Turkish nation passed a democracy test by stopping an attempted military coup. The fact that crowds chanted “Allahu Akbar” understandably gives shivers to the European public, which has unfortunately become familiar with this call through Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) executions. Indeed, it also gives shivers to Turkey’s secularists. But that should not let journalists and commentators ignore the fact that those crowds averted a military coup, the consequences of which would have been terrible. 

Some who do not know Turkey very well might be deluded by the image that the Turkish army enjoyed until recently as the guardian of “secular democracy.” Leaving aside the fact that past coups in Turkey have always been to the detriment of democracy, it becomes more and more apparent that the coup was led by a group whose references were not secular principles at all, but religious ones. At any rate, whether staged by religious or secular groups, if successful the military coup would not have bode well for Turkish democracy.
But will the aftermath of the failed coup bode well for Turkish democracy? That’s the question and the challenge ahead.

I will not deny that from the first day after the failed coup I have been among those arguing that we face the risk of Erdoğan using this opportunity to consolidate his authoritarian rule. There is enough in Erdoğan’s track record to make us suspect that while chasing the coup plotters he might use this occasion to intimidate all types of legitimate dissent. 

For certain European journalists and commentators, there is no such suspicion; it is already a reality.
“Good luck to you in that dictatorship,” one foreign colleague wrote to me. 

The direction Turkey will take moving forward might not be clear, but all shots are not yet called and Turkey is not yet a dictatorship. 

I have been approached by Western journalists who told me they would not reveal my identity in their reporting, implying that I might be scared to talk on the record. Thank you for the sensitivity, but I hope this sensitivity is not based on the belief that journalists all over Turkey are now frightened of talking about and criticizing the president and the government, which is not the case.

If the whole world knows about free speech problems in Turkey it is because instead of keeping silent, journalists have been speaking about them. Some of us never hid the fact that journalists were under pressure from the government. On the contrary, we were vocal about it.

So I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I hear an oxymoronic question from a Western journalist observing: “They say the military coup has been averted but democracy in Turkey is dead.” 

With each passing day we come to realize how deeply and widely a religious brotherhood has penetrated state institutions. It is imperative that it is “cleansed” from the state’s bodies. Yet this cleansing needs to be done by remaining loyal to the rule of law. Links to the brotherhood need to be proven by evidence. That should be valid for everyone, including academics and journalists suspected of having links to the coup plotters. Action needs to be taken against Gülenists, but distinction should be made between a criminal act and legitimate dissent.

The risk that the president and the government will use this purge to target legitimate opposition is real. If it does happen it will weaken Turkish democracy and push the country into the category of Middle Eastern dictatorships. To claim that Turkey is already one does not reflect the truth.