Our civilization and theirs

Our civilization and theirs

It is more than the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with its Western allies, now it is a matter of “civilizational difference,” as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated in his speech at the International Civilization Meeting (Ulusararası Medeniyet Şurası) last Saturday. We belong to different civilizations, Western and Islamic with different values and beliefs, ours focuses on justice, benevolence and assessment of good over evil rather than material welfare, he elaborated. It follows that “our” priority is to help oppressed Muslims all over the world for the sake of solidarity and uncalculated charity, like in the case of Turkey’s accommodation of more than three million Syrian refugees and aid for the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar.

It is rather uncertain if the majority of Turkey, including Erdoğan’s party supporters, agree with this view of generosity and benevolence in exchange for nothing, ready to sacrifice their material wellbeing for the sake of a civilizational mission. Although he sounds confident that our civilization is based on higher values than material wellbeing, which is characteristic of the materialistic West, at the same time he must be aware that the majority of the population is interested in material wellbeing. Indeed, he often sounds very proud for having elevated the population’s living conditions and Turkey’s economic circumstances since he came to power in 2002. That is why he highlights the construction of so many residences, roads, bridges and airports in most of his speeches.

Under the circumstances, it seems the emphasis on the immaterial aspect of “our distinctive civilization” stems rather from an effort to divert attention from the dire economic circumstances that Turkey has started to suffer from. Besides, charity talk reflects the effort to hide the fact that Turkey’s foreign policy failures are major factors behind the present economic difficulties. In the past, the president had no problem with governing a materialistically oriented society in the past. On the contrary, part of the governing party’s success is believed to be derived from its politics of economic growth and creating a middle class society in a decade.

Unfortunately, talk of “different civilizations” or “civilizational politics” has a long story in modern politics and has never been confined to the limits of economic understanding. The idea of the peculiarity of cultures, nations and civilizations has a long tradition of “reaction against modernity” and has been adopted as such by non-Western societies, as a reflection of the resentment and as a mean of rejection of the universal claims of values like human rights, individual freedoms and pluralism. It is characteristic of authoritarian politics to promote the peculiarities of a certain culture, history and civilization in order to avoid criticism under the heading universal values.

It was the case in the Western European experience of authoritarian regimes and now, many non-Western countries follow the same path with more legitimacy under the banner of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism. It is also the case in Turkey, where the idea of civilizational difference has always been a pillar of right-wing political discourses as an expression of resentment against universal claims of values like human rights. Now, it is becoming the new official ideology under the rule of the governing party with its “undisputable leader,” President Erdoğan, as one of the party politicians stated few days ago. “Everyone can be debated except for the president of the party,” he stated, as he commented on the mayors who had been asked to resign by their party. It must also be one of our civilizational values to obey and to not question the leader.

Opinion, Nuray Mert,