Friday, April 11, 2008

Article 301: An Anti-Imperialist Discourse

As AKP strengthens its resolve to push ahead with reform of Article 301, opposition parties have decried the moves in recent days as being influenced by Europe. MHP leader Devlet Bahçeli even described it as a "test of honor" for AKP. What did he mean by this? It would be difficult for me to understand these remarks without having lived here for almost three months and I still do not think I fully understand the context of the remarks, but I now have a much stronger idea of their origin.

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of the Republic, most Turks have adopted a certain sense of pride in the fact that the Republic was founded in spite of imperial designs. The Turkish Republic's creation out of the ruins wrought by the First World War—in lieu of the imperial designs Europe had to carve up the "Sick Man of Europe" among Western allies—is truly a remarkable feat and one of which Turks should be proud. However, there is a dark side to this pride as well: the idea that the Turkish Republic was and will always be resisting external forces determined to undermine its sovereignty and enslave its citizens. It is in the resonance of this much more somber side of the story that the current discourse about Article 301 inherits its meaning.

Turkish school children are taught at an early age that Atatürk's Independence War was fought against European imperialists who were intent to ruin the Turkish people and divide up their land to suit their own interests. Although there is much truth to this, it sets up a sort of defensiveness in the Turkish mind that such forces are at the very core of the state's existence and that it supports another item in the curriculum that is also inculcated in these young minds: Turkey has external and internal enemies and it is imperative that Turkey continue to resist them.

I have had the opportunity to ask four Turks about this subject in the past two days and each has confided to me that this idea is still very dominant in the Turkish mindset, is still taught in schools, and is quite accurate. Each of the four people I interviewed had no problem identifying themselves as "Kemalists" and three of the four also said they are comfortable with identifying themselves as "secularists." Examples of the internal enemies in Turkey might include those expressing hopes for greater recognition of Kurdish identity and increased autonomy for provinces in the Kurdish southeast and political Islamists whose aspiration it is to overturn the pillars of secularism and modernity upon which the Republic was built. As to external enemies, they have at times worked in cahoots with the internal enemies. One of the four people to whom I talked cited Italy's reluctance to surrender PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to Turkish authorities and three cited the United States' support for the PKK (see February post).

The fear of external enemies is linked directly to the concerns of protecting Turkish sovereignty and has played a role in the discourse of Turkey's EU detractors since Turkey first submitted its application to the EU in 1987. Some commentators have referred to this fear as the "Sèvres mentality," best described as the feeling by some Turks that Europe is still trying to re-establish the Treaty of Sèvres that carved up the Ottoman Empire following World War I and left the Turks without a state of their own. Some foreign policy analysts have argued that the "Sèvres mentality" still affects Turkey's relations with Europe. In the years before AKP's rise to power, EU negotiations were often discussed in reference to concerns about national security. To attribute these concerns to a "Sèvres mentality" might be overstating the case, but there is no doubt that Turkey's accession into the EU has been hampered at times by fiercely nationalist discourse.

Two wonderful examples are given in Philip Robins' excellent book on Turkish foreign policy, Suits and Uniforms: Turkish Foreign Policy Since the Cold War. The first are the comments Prime Minister Mesutlmaz made following the Luxembourg Summit of 1997 in which the EU began accession talks with Cyprus and other Eastern European countries, but not Turkey. In the days following the summit, Yılmaz not only suspended dialogue with the EU, but gave it an ultimatum to reconsider its position or have Turkey withdraw its application. More provocative were his comments toward in Germany in reference to the integration of Central Europe. Yılmaz remarked that Germany's policy toward central European integration resembled the Nazi-policy of lebensraum, a term used by Hitler to refer to the Nazi state's need for raw materials to be supplied from countries to the east of Germany. The second example is the pejorative that State Minister Ayvaz Gökdemir hurled at three visiting female European MP's during their visit to Turkey in 1995. The three MP's had been critics of Turkish entry and Gökdemir referred to them as "the three prostitutes" at the same time the country was working to win support in the European Parliament for the Customs Union it signed with the EU that year in spite of Gökdemir's comments.

It is this same nationalist ideology that is driving the current discourse of Article 301's detractors. Although the discourse has fortunately been tempered in recent years, increased fatigue with the accession process and the old idea that Turkey must defend itself from meddling Europeans does indeed re-introduce the "Sèvres mentality" into European politics. When Bahçeli portrays AKP willingness to pass Article 301 reform as a "test of honor" for AKP he is drawing an analogy to Sèvres and intimating that the party should not sell out Turkish sovereignty.

The hostility toward Article 301 reform is further heightened by the idea that it and similar restrictions on freedom of expression are necessary to protecting the state from its internal enemies. In short, Turkey needs Article 301 to prosecute Kurdish separatists, radical leftists, and intellectuals who would otherwise malign Turkey and propagandize against the interests of the Republic. Each of the people to whom I talked concurred that freedom of expression must be restricted in Turkey and all countries because the result without such measures would be chaos. They emphasized that such restrictions were of particular importance to Turkey because it is unique in that the state is faced with a wide-array of internal enemies. One of the people to whom I spoke said that Europe is pressuring Turkey to lift Article 301 restrictions because it desires to see an independent Kurdistan. This is particularly interesting in that it suggests a desire on the part of Europe to meddle in Turkish affairs. According to this source, Europe's intent is to divide Turkey and it is already working with Kurds in the southeast to do just this. The student pointed to groups in Europe that are sympathetic to the PKK and Kurdish television stations that broadcast into the network from Europe. Turkey not only has internal and external enemies from which it is obliged to protect itself, but these enemies can work together.

This argument is part of a larger discourse that is indeed linked to the so-called "Sèvres mentality." In order to understand the history that has shaped such discourse, we should turn back to Europe's relations with the Ottomans and the time of the Capitulations signed between the Ottoman Empire and the European powers. The Capitulations were bilateral agreements signed between the Ottomans and European states that created privileges for Christians living in the Ottoman Empire. They date to the sixteenth-century and basically functioned to establish a protectorate for Christians living in the Empire. If Christians and the French missionaries that worked throughout the Empire encountered discrimination or other problems, they would appeal to a French officer who would then take the complaint to the Ottoman Porte for redress. However, the Capitulations involved more than just the protection of Christian minorities and foreign missionaries, but also entailed subjects of commerce. As European mercantilism and then capitalism flourished, the Capitulations provided special rights to European merchants working in Ottoman territory and placed them effectively under the law of European powers rather than that of the Ottomans.

By the nineteenth century, the Capitulations system had evolved into a means by which often corrupt consuls were able to undermine the control of the Sultanate. The Capitulations granted foreign powers the right to vest Christian merchants special rights (barats) by which they gained advantages over their Muslim counterparts. Eventually, they had the effect of creating a different class of citizenship for Christians living under the suzerainty of the Ottoman Sultanate. Understandably, this created a great deal of antagonism between Christian and Muslim subjects and contributed to increased divisions within the structure of the Empire. When conflicts arose in this political scheme, the Capitulations facilitated the interference of foreign powers in Ottoman domestic affairs. Consequently, placing Christian citizens of the Empire on a different legal and commercial plane than its Muslim subjects not only created divisions among Ottoman citizens, but further decentralized the Ottoman Empire and initiated a great deal of foreign meddling in its affairs. Much reviled, one of the first things the Committee for Union and Progress did at the start of the war was abolish the Capitulations. Although they were restored in the Treaty of Sèvres, and end to such foreign control was one of the hallmarks of Turkey's signing of the much-celebrated Treaty of Lausanne following European recognition of its independence.

Since the Treaty of Lausanne, Turkey has long guarded its national sovereignty and often sounded anti-imperialist rhetoric in the face of foreign encroachments. This rhetoric was present during the Turkish confrontation with Britain over oil-rich Mosul in 1924-1925, in its negotiations with Europe over payment of Ottoman debt, and in its attitude toward Hatay in the 1930s. Although Turkey closely allied itself with the West during the Cold War (applying for NATO membership in 1950) and seemed to reverse the neutralist stance of Kemalist foreign policy seen in the Republic's early years, its policy toward Cyprus still echoes the same nationalist-oriented ideology. Further, the discourse it shapes is very much a part of the dialogue between Turkey and Europe and, in the case of Article 301 reform, between political parties in Turkey.

Thus, it is no surprise that much fuss was made two days ago when it was rumored that AKP reforms are guided by a dossier of urgent reforms it received from Turkey's Secretariat General for European Union Affairs. The fact that the Secretariat-General for EU Affairs is an office in the democratically-elected Turkish government and not the EU bureaucracy seemed to be lost in much of this reportage. Nonetheless, AKP has dismissed claims that it is taking orders from Europe and that its reform agenda is directly influenced by the dossier. As reform to Article 301 is introduced as legislation in the coming days, more talk of honor, patriotism, sovereignty, and the Turkish need for self-defense is assured to be part of the political discourse.

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