Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Turkish Exceptionalism and the Democratizing Periphery

The recent spat between CHP and Joost Lagendijk is embarassing indeed, but what lies behind it is even more troubling. As I have written before, what I find most interesting about Turkey are its many ironies, but chief among these is perhaps the most bitterly painful: in Turkey, it is the once westward-looking, "white Turks" who are most opposed to democratization, the very people who often seem, well, most like "us." In many ways, this paradox might be seen as having tremendous creative potential for how we view democratization, for the modernization theories of Huntington and Rostow are most surely proven false in the Turkish case. Although Turkey's bourgeois Kemalist elite has grown strong and even expanded, the true impetus for democratization is not the further strengthening and expansion of this group, but rather its being challenged. Ihsan Dagı's recent column in Today's Zaman tells the narrative most poignantly (excerpt):
In the EU integration process it is impossible to preserve the old order. The West and the continuing Westernization that comes with the EU accession process, therefore, pose an existential threat to the Jacobin bureaucratic-civilian elite, which adheres to a notion of a homogenized nation and the practices of authoritarian state.
But it was the Kemalists who used to be fans of the West and Westernization. At least we know it as such. Yet what the Kemalists understood by Westernization was merely a cultural adoption of the Western life style for a certain purpose. That is, this new lifestyle differentiated them from the masses, who were traditional and Eastern/Islamic looking. They were the vanguard, chosen to enlighten a nation that was in darkness. Theirs was a kind of "white man's burden." Cultural Westernization was an act of exclusion of the traditional by which a boundary was erected between the state elite and the masses, who were poor, culturally backward and religious. Out of this symbolic oppression, the elite's right to rule was constructed, justified and reproduced over the years.

The West and the process of Westernization, however, gained new dimensions in time, especially after 1999, when Turkey declared itself a candidate country for the EU. They were no longer a means to dictate the rule of the Kemalist-secularists and control the masses.

The result thus was a struggle between the democratic periphery who wanted to end its bondage and the authoritarian center, which was determined to defend its privileges. As the former "utilized" the EU proces s, the latter resisted it on the grounds that the EU process was a plot to divide Turkey in the name of minority rights and undo secularism in the name of democracy.

This meant, for the Kemalist-secularist elite, abandoning Westernization, a process they had initiated. It was wise for them to do so, given the fact that the process of Westernization after 1999 continued on a different path. It involved more political and economic transformation than cultural change. That is to say that Westernization in the EU context meant transfer of power from the state elite to the people. Thus, the public at large and the peripheral forces in the Turkish economy and politics moved in to take the process of Westernization to its logical end: the formation of a liberal democracy. The objectives of Westernization, for the first time in history, have begun to be pursued by social and economic forces from below.
The idea of top-down democratization has simply proved false in Turkey, a country which has long since taken off economically, but whose Kemalist elite seem no closer than they did in the 1950s to adopting fully democratic norms. Indeed, contra the traditional model of democratization, which still seems to be in vogue among neoconservatives intent to remake the world without opening too many books, Turkey has proven that elites can stifle democracy and that democratic values do not necessarily correlate with capitalist expansion of wealth. In Turkey's case, the major stumbling block is an entrenched Westernized elite that has proven itself in the past two years to be anything but democratic. The force for democratization instead is coming from a diverse coalition of factions intent to gain rights from the state and participate in a public sphere that is still very much incipient.

However, it is also an overstatement to say that this force is coming from below. While this is true insomuch as the coalition is outside of the traditional Kemalist elite who have clung to centralized power, but the leading forces in the coalition are themselves an elite that has much benefitted from economic liberalization. Many represent the new wealth that emerged from Turgut Özal's policies in the 1980s while others are committed liberal reformers and members of various groups that have traditionally been excluded from the Kemalist power center. Dagı's reference to forces at "the periphery" is perhaps most accurate in this regard, and it is this group of actors who are the most avid to pursue EU membership and procure the democratic reforms that come hand-in-hand with so doing. The old modernization theory espoused by Huntington and Rostow is necessarily complicated by this periphery and I suspect Turkey is not particularly astonishing in its offering of an alternative narrative.

For more information on the Euro-phile coalition, see my Jan. 19 post.

No comments: