Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why the Prime Minister Cares About Paul Auster

PHOTO from Hurriyet

Paul Auster and Prime Minister Erdogan stirred a controversy after Auster gave an interview to Hurriyet in late January in which the Jewish-American author said he would not visit Turkey due to the number of imprisoned writers. Prime Minister Erdogan fired back at his party's parliamentary group meeting a few days later, calling Auster "ignorant" and hypocritical for visiting Israel, which the author visited in 2010. The spar between the two men only ratcheted up when Auster issued a response in the New York Times in which the prominent author reiterated his concerns about press freedom in Turkey. CHP opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu soon jumped into the fray, inviting Auster to come to Turkey at his invitation, after which another back-and-forth ensued in which Erdogan said Kilicdaroglu and Auster should "go for a picnic together" atop a hill in Israel overlooking Gaza.

Just why these remarks triggered such a firestorm is something of a mystery to outsiders of Turkey (I have had four people ask me this in the past two days), but it has a lot to do with the sensitivity of the prime minister and the political opportunism involved on all sides. After all, this is politics. If Erdogan had simply let the author's comments go by the wayside when first they were issued, this would be a non-story. Yet Erdogan decided to attack Auster, not only contradicting his claim writers were being imprisoned in Turkey for expressing their views (according to Erdogan's public statements, these writes are "terrorists," people who plotted to overthrow the government or who supported the PKK), but linked Auster to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a move sure to win him popular support among the party's base.

As far as I can tell, Auster has been largely ambivalent on the issue of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, but at the same time, Erdogan's ad hominem attack on Auster is more deflection than reasoned response, and in turn, Kilicdaroglu's backing of Auster an attempt to put raise the profile of the continued attacks on press freedom in Turkey, and of course, win political points in so doing. To me, what is significant here is that Auster's comments, whose Jewish ancestry and shakiness on the issue of occupation make for an easy target, were so singled out by prime minister. Erdogan's remarks, while not necessarily anti-Semitic, show the familiar lack of control for which the prime minister has often been criticized by friends and enemies alike.

Most interesting here is how Erdogan and others in the AKP, as well as AKP-friendly public opinion leaders, were quick to label Auster as either a victim or perpetrator of a massive smear campaign designed to discredit the party. Sabah columnist Nazli Ilacak portrays Auster as seriously misinformed, but places the blame on an organized psychological campaign being carried out against the AKP-led government. Is the misinformation that made its way to Auster the product of Ergenekon? Is this the kind of black-ops for which former General Chief of Staff Ilker Basbug is currently imprisoned?

According to AKP Vice President Bulent Gedikli, the answer is yes. In a statement made yesterday, Gedikli said, "Paul Auster is part of the plot." "What plot?" I might ask, but many in the AKP, including a number of their supporters, would dismiss me as a fool -- and do so quite sincerely.

The narrative of many in and supportive of the AKP is defined by victimage, of shadowy forces conspiring to keep them at the bottom ranks of society and far removed from political power even when every indication of the Turkey that exists after nearly ten years of AKP rule is that the reality could be further from the truth.

Unfortunately, this narrative is largely a by-product of real policies in over 80 years of Turkish history that were designed to do just this -- most significant among them, at least in terms of the historical memory of those currently in power, the Feb. 28 process that brought down the elected Refah party government in 1997 and the policies to follow that were designed to, though not so successfully, to keep political Islam in its place and guard against the rise of a pious majority. The narrative is one of oppression, and democracy, for many, therefore understood solely in terms of allowing for the majority, long downtrodden, to finally take the reigns of power. For those who imagine plots at every corner and shadowy networks bent on destruction, democracy is about liberation, but it is not necessarily liberal.

What the recent Auster imbroglio reveals is that these myths are not gone from historical memory, and despite ten years of dominant party politics, will likely not be gone anytime soon. Also revealed is that playing on these anxieties, especially if the opponent is as easy a target as Auster, can garner a good bit of political capital. At the end of the day, Erdogan likely emerged stronger and the victim mentality ever more entrenched while few will remember who Paul Auster is in a few months time.

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