Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Long Path to Avrupa

From Der Spiegel:
Cem Özdemir is a good person to ask when it comes to explaining Turkey to the West. The Green Party politician, born in 1965 in Bad Urach in southwestern Germany, is both a bridge-builder and a self-starter. He was the first member of the German parliament, the Bundestag, of Turkish descent. On talk shows, he liked to refer to himself as the "Anatolian from Swabia," a region in the southwestern German state of Baden-Württemburg. He had the misfortune of accepting a donation from a dubious PR consultant, a scandal that made Özdemir front-page news. To clear his name, he resigned and ran for a seat in the European Parliament, but he may soon experience a roaring comeback -- as the national head of Germany's Green Party.

Özdemir is participating in a public discussion forum in Bonn. Turkey is the focus of this year's Bonn Biennale, a theater and cultural festival. The panel is discussing the modern and European characteristics of a country whose 74 million citizens are almost all Muslim. Is democracy taking hold? Is there a risk that Turkey could slide into Islamism?

There are no easy answers to these questions, as Özdemir explains with the nuanced picture he presents. But there are trends and developments, and there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. The politician, who calls Turkey his "second home," points to the reforms of the last 10 years: laws banning forced marriages, honor killings and marital rape, the relaxation of taboos relating to controversial issues like the Kurdish question, Cyprus and the Armenians.

"Whenever I appeared on Turkish television in the past," Özdemir says, "I would ask the interviewer, before an interview began, which topics we could not discuss. Sometimes it was so absurd that it boiled down to a choice of words. For instance, a journalist would say: We don't refer to the 'Kurds.' 'Okay, what are you calling them now?' I would ask. The journalist would respond by referring to something like the 'Southeastern Anatolia question.' That was Turkey. And this wasn't even that long ago."

There was a period in the 1990s when Özdemir was Public Enemy No. 2 for some Turkish media outlets. The tabloid Hürriyet had a penchant for printing his photo next to that of Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdish separatist group PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), the implication being: Look, two traitors! But Özdemir's supposed infractions amounted to nothing more than condemning the Turkish military's war against the Kurds and upholding democracy. He became the subject of vile threats, and bodyguards soon became a part of his daily life.

But things change, and Özdemir is convinced that they will continue to. "The fundamental issue is that we accept others, and that includes their religion or atheism, their Kurdish or Cherkessian language, their Alevi 'cem evi,' or meeting house, Jewish synagogue or Greek Orthodox church. That's all," he says.

Is this a vision? Of course it is. Özdemir believes that visions don't necessarily have to be harmful in politics. He's also a realist, though. "Unfortunately, Turkish society is deeply divided and, sadly, a large segment of the political elite is failing." His hopes rest on those who are not part of any camp: not the diehard Kemalists, who see every woman wearing the headscarf as the advance guard of a theocracy, and not the religious fundamentalists, who dream of infiltrating the state.

Özdemir gesticulates energetically on the podium in Bonn, and then he leans back to discuss the subject from a broader perspective. "From the Arab standpoint, Turkey was a colonial power first, then the West's listening post in the Cold War. Nowadays, Arab intellectuals look to Turkey because it presents the historically unique opportunity to achieve a democracy, with all its trappings, in a majority Muslim society." For the Arab world, says Özdemir, this is an alternative to the model of Islamism and to the authoritarian models of government in Tunisia and Egypt.

Özdemir's next sentence is a political one, meant to bring everything together: "Turkey must take this third approach." It sounds a bit mysterious, but perhaps this is the best prediction a politician can make when it comes to a country like Turkey.
For full article, click here.

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