Turkey, the West and the rest

Turkey, the West and the rest

I have never been an enthusiastic supporter of Turkey’s EU membership due to various reasons, but if I knew that we would one day end up striving to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), I would have changed my mind. In his latest visit to Russia, PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan jokingly repeated his wish to join the SCO. Indeed, unfortunately, the political climate, political norms and values in Turkey make it resemble more an SCO country than an EU member.

In his return from Russia, Erdoğan gave another alarming speech in Trabzon and “broadened” the horizons of Turkey’s vision of the future with an implicit reference to the Crusaders and recalled what Gen. Allenby said in the cemetery of Saladin in Damascus at the end of World War I: “We came back, Saladin!” It is a well-known quote among conservatives, nationalists and Islamists, for it suggests to them that the Western world never ceased to follow in the footsteps and mindset of the Crusaders, even in modern times.

Erdoğan suggested that “we have also come back.” Turkey’s dreams of somehow reviving Ottoman glory in the region are no secret, and we know how things have gone in foreign politics. Yet, it seems that Erdoğan has never given up on his mission to become the voice of the Muslim world. What is more important is the domestic political significance of such a vision.

All authoritarian political discourses justify the suppression of freedoms and opposition by emphasizing the need for unity against internal and external threats and enemies, old and new. That is why Erdoğan also needed to recall the “enemies” of the headscarf in his speech in Trabzon despite the fact that there is no longer any suppression and opposition concerning the issue.

In fact, the rise of authoritarian politics and discourses is not peculiar to Turkey but is now a global problem. At the end of the Cold War, the introduction and enforcement of liberal economic politics was thought to be a key for democratization in many non-Western countries, but almost all ended up with so-called “illiberal democracies” or “neo-authoritarianisms.” Both before and after the latest Commonwealth summit, there was a lot of debate on Sri Lanka’s human rights and democracy deficit; indeed the country is a very good example of the rise and “success” of neo-authoritarian politics in non-Western countries, along with the primary examples of Russia and China.

Sri-Lanka’s godfather president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, is a typical example of an economic success story, combined with popular majoritarianism and anti-imperialist populism, so much so that he was recently able to dismiss all criticisms from Commonwealth countries as “colonialism.” Moreover, Rajapaksa has long presented himself as “a victim” of discrimination as “he comes from the South.”

The endless “threat” and the everlasting “struggle with the staus quo ante” is another pillar of the rise of neo-authoritarian politics. In his latest report from post-Suharto Indonesia, Pankaj Misha rightly points out the similarity between Indonesia and Turkey’s politics of suppression of rights, freedoms and getting away with unpunished crimes. He states that “in the absence of any proper investigation, much speculation centers on the nefariousness of the ‘deep state’: the enforcers of the ancien regime who are trying, as in Turkey, to increase their power by discrediting civilian leaders,” (London Review of Books, Oct. 10, 2013).

I think we urgently need to evaluate the politics in Turkey from a broader perspective than focusing on the whims of Erdoğan and as if the continuing political trend is a peculiarity of Turkey and Turkish political history.