Actions and words in Turkey

Actions and words in Turkey

Here are two presidential addresses to consider from November 2014: President Barack Obama talked about net neutrality, while President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan talked about gender equality (or lack thereof). Obama’s address was direct and very practical. It was progressive in its underpinnings, but the thrust was in policy. Erdoğan’s address was evasive and philosophical in nature, but its socially conservative foundation is sure to get a popular reception. Obama addressed a 21st century issue – he was trying to get ahead of events and regulate them before they happen. Our president’s speech could have been made at any point in the 19th century. Obama’s address is about an action he was taking. Erdoğan’s address was “kelâm, kelâm, la y’enfah,” as the Arabs would say – talk, talk, but nothing got done. And therein lies the difference of politics in our two countries.

In his speech, Obama rejected any idea leading to paid privileges on the information highway. He would allow for no fast lanes that would give some content providers priority over others. The concept is called “net neutrality,” as Western readers will know. It is important because of the so-called “Internet of things” on the horizon. With your fridge about to be sending direct orders to your butcher and your car constantly talking with traffic control, the Internet highway is going to get crowded, hence the discussion on new allocation schemes is understandable. Obama had already taken policy action by the time he finished his speech. He just wanted to inform people about what he had just done.

Erdoğan was also talking about equality, but of a different kind. He saw fit to point out that men and women were not identical. (One apparently has the ability to give birth and has a more “fragile nature”). The genders were not equal, he said, but they should be equal before the law. He took a long route to come to that commonly held conclusion, while managing to upset progressives along the way. He looked like he was having a good time, but what did his speech mean? Obama’s words resonated with his actions. Erdoğan’s actions and words are disjointed bodies in the ether of Turkey’s public sphere. Sometimes they move together fairly consistently, while other times the words go off on wild tangents fueled by long, festering ideas. It might have something to do with an Eastern attitude.
As far as word-action consistency goes, women’s empowerment is an area of wild inconsistency for our president. I am particularly thinking of a January 2014 article by Erik Meyersson of the Stockholm School of Economics. His pioneering study entitled “Islamic rule and the empowerment of the poor and pious” aims to find out whether democratically elected Islamic politicians effect a deterioration of women’s rights. Quite the contrary, it turns out. The data shows that “Islamic mayors led to higher female participation in both education as well as politics, without a corresponding shift toward more Islamic preferences in the long term.”

Here is a breakdown of the findings for Turkey: First, socially conservative politicians, under specific circumstances, can play socially progressive roles. Second, Turkey at the time had direct and indirect barriers to educational participation, like the headscarf ban, which provided competitive advantages to Islamic parties at the polls. Third, the caveat stems from Turkey’s specific institutional features during the 1990s: “a local democratic setting with strong secular institutions which do not automatically generalize to other Muslim societies.” Anecdotal evidence confirms it – anyone in Turkey’s cities cannot fail to notice that female participation in educational and political life has increased in the past decades.

Women have been empowered, and our supposedly misogynistic president had more than a little to do with it. By the way, the study was published in the prestigious Econometrica. It’s a great read.

It seems that when the country gets into turbulence, rhetoric is the first thing to go haywire. That is why the government is increasingly feeling the need to censor the press, especially on sensitive issues such as the legal process or hostages across the border.

I implore Turkey watchers to look through the mist of words to see this country as it is.