Some things never change

Some things never change

This morning I sat down in a busy cafe in the ever-busy British capital, which I am visiting these days for a series of talks about my newly released book. I began to skim my copy of The Guardian to check the news, and was soon drawn to a particular headline in the opinion pages. “A law that shames South Africa,” read the piece by South African journalist Justice Malala, who was very critical of the African National Congress (ANC) for imitating its racist predecessors. “The ANC’s state secrecy law belongs to the apartheid era,” he argued. “The party of freedom has turned into a party of fear.”

What Mr. Malala was speaking about was a new law that the ANC, the very party of the honorable Nelson Mandela, was trying to pass. It was a law that would give the state “the power to classify information and criminalize whistleblowers, journalists and anyone who comes into possession of such classified information.” Journalists who expose things that the government would not like, in other words, could be threatened.

According to Mr. Malala, the ANC was betraying its original ideals with such illiberal steps. This was because “power and incumbency have not been easy” for the party, and it was reverting to some authoritarian ways of the apartheid regime. “The new South Africa is not comparable to the evils of old,” Mr. Malala reminded. But it was not yet a paradise of liberal democracy either.

When I read all this, I could not help but recall the discussions we are having back at home about “old Turkey” and “new Turkey.” The old one was somewhat of an apartheid-lite regime which elevated the Kemalists over other citizens. In the past decade, the incumbent Justice and Development Party (AKP) has abolished this regime gradually, and heralded a new era freedom and democracy. But, as its power and incumbency extended, more and more people began accusing the AKP of creating its own authoritarianism and finding its own ways to silence critics.

So, you might wonder, do I agree with these critics of the AKP?

Well, partly. The reason that makes me a bit lenient to the governing party is the bizarre nature of the “opposition” they have faced since coming to power: For years, their enemies were spearheaded by the military. Lately, they are being spearheaded by the PKK, the outlawed and terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party. In other words, the AKP has constantly been facing “armed opposition,” which is, of course, unacceptable in any democracy. There have even been reasonable grounds to suspect that these armed opponents had civilian extensions, even perhaps some “journalists,” to help their coup or terrorism schemes.

However, even these oddities of Turkey are not enough to explain away all the troubles that some anti-AKP voices have been facing in the recent years. As Mr. Malala says for his country, nothing in new Turkey is comparable to the evils of the old regime, such as the systemic torture or extra-judicial killings. In the past decade, the Turkish Leviathan has been considerably tamed. But it is still kicking, and this time it is unmistakably kicking the Kemalists and other anti-AKP elements.

This is the case, for the AKP has abolished many of the evils of its predecessors, but it is still using the same state machinery and is still acting within the same political culture. Turkey’s anti-terror laws, for example, still show a very limited respect for freedom of speech. Much of the new political elite, on the other hand, is still prone to explaining the world with conspiracy theories and seeing politics as a zero-sum-game.

Therefore, a requiem for the old Turkey would be as foolish as a requiem for apartheid South Africa. But in both countries, the struggle for freedom is not over. In both countries, committed liberals need to keep pushing.

For all of Mustafa Akyol’s works, including his recent book, ‘Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty,’ visit his blog, On Twitter, follow him at @AkyolinEnglish.