Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Democracy and Education (And An Evermore Divided Turkey)

PHOTO from Vatan

The parliament took up the proposed education law (see past post for background) yesterday just hours after 20,000 demonstrators gathered in Ankara's Tandogan Square to protest what opposition groups view as a unilateral attempt by the ruling AKP to overhaul the education system.

The law the AKP is trying to pass is publicly referred to as "4+4+4" because it seeks to make 12-year education mandatory for all children. Yet that is not the full story. Under the current system, public education is mandatory for the first eight years, after which students may opt to attend imam-hatip, or religious high schools that teach a mixture of standard education and theology, and which are subject to different standards -- and, naturally -- a different ideological/pedagogical atmosphere. The proposed law, which has been amended since my last post, also includes provisions that would pave the way for children to opt to attend imam-hatip  as early as 10 years of age, as well as enter special vocational schools. The original law had included a measure that would allow children to opt into "open education," or home schooling, as early as 10 years of age. That provision has since been amended under pressure from women's another groups that introducing open education at such an early age would lead to an increase in child labor and young girls being kept from school to work at home -- a problem in conservative communities that activist groups have long sought to remedy.

The proposed system seeks to effectively divide education into three tiers -- first, middle, and high school. The government also plans to introduce a year before primary education akin to what in the United States is known as "pre-school," and which AKP politicians have haled as a major selling point of the new law. Under the proposal, children would also be able to join private religious education courses, often held during the summer, after their fourth year in school.

For AKP policymakers, the new system is to be celebrated not only as a means to further the quality of public education but also "democracy" -- a word much heralded by AKP politicians, but which for all intents and purposes, seems simply to mean rule by the majority, and a majority as the ruling party interprets it (for more on this, see this past post he AKP's sparring with TUSIAD, the leading business association in Turkey which has puts itself squarely in opposition to the new arrangements).

Much at the heart of the AKP's framing the issue is the fact that the current system is largely the product of the 1997 "postmodern coup" that toppled the country's former Islamist-led coalition, in which the AKP has its roots. Under military tutelage in the years after the coup, the government sought to guard secularism against what the generals saw as the rising tide of political Islam and the current education system was a major concern, in particular the increasing popularity of imam-hatip. The system prior to the coup allowed parents to place their children in imam-hatip at the age of 10, a policy to which the AKP is returning. It also forbade children to take private religious courses (for example, during summer vacation) before completing five years in school.

Though the reform process at the time was far from democratic and involved a major abuse of power by the military, as well as persecution of numerous educators and students haling from conservative Muslim backgrounds, the new policy did yield some positive results, including an increase in the enrollment rate of girls in the first eight years of public education (from 34% to 65%). While the coup-driven education reform of the late 1990s should in no way be celebrated, the AKP should at the least explain how its new policy will not seek to imperil the success of the past decade in this regard. Yet rather than explaining how the new system (or devising one alternative to that proposed) might build on increased enrollment rates while adopting a more sensitive approach to religion, the party has instead simply decried opponents of the law to be against "democracy."

Polarization over the new law reached a new high two weeks ago when the parliamentary commission responsible for education policy ramrodded the proposal through the commission amidst fistfights between the ruling party and the opposition. Knowing that debate could delay the law's passage through the commission, the AKP blockaded opposition party members' attendance in attempt to forestall efforts to frustrate passage to the parliament's general assembly.

Soon after the brawl, the opposition CHP petitioned to annul the commission's vote, arguing that procedural rules had been violated. Yet parliament speaker Cemil Cicek seems to have no intention of returning the law to commission, and the party's plans at this point are to pass the law in the general assembly by the end of the week.

The protests yesterday reveal just how divided Turkey is becoming. Speaking at Tandogan, CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu said the law is not "4+4+4," but "8/2." Kilicdaroglu was referring to the two different standards of education children would be receiving after the first eight years (and, in reality, after the age of 10 given the planned introduction of vocational schools and imam-hatip at so young an age). Yet there is another element to the leader's words worth exploring.

Though some of the AKP's policies have aimed to strip national education of some of the more distressing nationalist/ideological aspects of public education (for example, military-designed national security education courses and celebrations of national youth day, which liberals have long considered quasi-fascist), the fact that the government's most recent effort seems to setup a system parallel to that of national education (that is, imam-hatip and vocational education), there is real concern that the secular/conservative divide could grow deeper.Further, there is the very real possibility that a large number of Turks (future voting citizens) as early as age 10 could receive an education that is sub-par when compared to their counterparts that finish 12 years of public eduction. While these students might be more likely to constitute the "pious generation" Erdogan envisioned a few weeks before the education debate started in full, it is highly unlikely that they would demonstrate the same level of political efficacy and sophistication as their more educated counterparts.

Among the groups protesting the new legislation at Tandogan is Egitem-Sen, the left-leaning teachers' union, as well as the Rightful Women's Platform and the Federation of Turkish Women's Associations. The Confederation of Public Sector Workers (KESK), of which Egitem-Sen is a part, is also present. Egitem-Sen has called for two days of teachers' strikes to demonstrate against the proposed law, and is the chief organizer of the demonstrations alongside the CHP.

Ankara's governor, who is a member of the AKP, has questioned the legality of the assembly, and though he has yet to break up the gathering, he has threatened to do so. The municipality has removed banners and placards put up in the environs -- a move CHP parliamentarian and women's rights defender Binnaz Toprak described as a violation of freedom of expression. And so it seems there is potential for the fighting in parliament to soon bleed onto the streets -- a country divided indeed, and with neither liberal nor consensual democracy anywhere in sight at the moment. For more coverage in English of yesterday's protests, click here.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Syria Humbles and Horrifies

PHOTO from Evrensel
Leftist demonstrators in Taksim protest imperialist intervention in the Middle East and Syria.

Speaking in Tunis today, President Gul unequivocally proclaimed Turkey's opposition to intervention in Syria emanating from outside the region. The statement comes days after the president and Prime Minister Erdogan called for a humanitarian corridor to be opened in order to mollify the suffering of the Syrian people. Gul's statement should serve as a warning for American policymakers that despite what some in Washington have taken to be Turkey's refreshingly aggressive position against the Syrian regime.

Turkey is essentially between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Turkish public is increasingly angered by UN reports putting the death toll of Syrians at 35,000, horror stories broadcast on Turkish television from Hatay where over 10,000 refugees have sought haven on the Turkish border, and particular disgust among many who are more than angered at a Shi'a regime killing mostly Sunnis. Yet, at the same time, Turks are nervous. The border shared with Turkey is over 900 km across, and most are more than nervous (and rightfully so) that conflict in Syria could spill over the border and result in an influx of refugees and, worst of all, Turkish military involvement in what could be a very protracted civil war.

Further, concern that the United States could be goading Turkey into a war is also growing, and the more bellicose the statements coming from American policymakers (for instance, John McCain), the greater the concern. There is also, of course, concern about antagonizing Iran, upon which Turkey heavily relies for natural gas. The installment of a missile defense shield in Malatya, while pleasing to the United States, has jeopardized relations with Iran. It is doubtful that Prime Minister Erdogan's planned March 28 trip to Tehran will result in a re-setting of relations, and recent tensions are likely one reason why Turkey is seeking to host P5+1 talks on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Add into the mix the issue of destabilizing the Kurds in Syria, which Assad kept quiscent and among which Turkish media are already rumoring are now in cahoots with the PKK, as well as fears of al-Qa'ida and the possibility of a more complicated situation in Iraq as sectarians in that tension increase, Turks are understandably nervous.

As the situation intensifies, so does Turkish ambivalence, and so where does this leave Turkish support for a humanitarian corridor? Some Turkish officials have already stated that they are in support of a corridor that would be open to the Mediterranean rather than the Turkish border. This alone implies support for a multilateral effort, and one that would likely include players other than just the Arab League. And while Gul and Erdogan have called for a corridor, they have declined to comment further on how it would be executed.

Essentially, Syria is a wake up call for Turkey. It is simply impossible to have zero problems with neighbors, and especially in such a difficult neighborhood. Further, the idea that Turkey might go-it-alone is also likely to lose weight. As Barcin Yinanc elucidates:
Every time I see Turkey make an effort to mobilize international support to end the bloodshed in Syria, I cannot help but recall the results of the Transatlantic Trends survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund. When asked in the 2009 survey with which Turkey should cooperate most closely, the EU or the US, some 43 percent said Turkey should act alone – nearly twice the percentage of those favoring cooperation with the EU and ten times that favoring cooperation with the US. In 2010 this rate dropped to 34 percent, while in 2011 it has gone down further to 27 percent.

I am assuming that this rate might drop even further in the 2012 poll, if the Turkish public continues to hear complaints such as that voiced by Cemil Çicek, the Parliament speaker, which put the situation with Syria in unequivocal terms. “Don’t wind us up on that issue (Syria). No one should be so cunning, watching [the conflict in Syria] like a football game and leaving it to Turkey to handle,” Çiçek said last week in an interview with a media outlet from Saudi Arabia.

Çiçek described as “cunning” those who are taking the easy way out of the Syrian crisis by saying, “let’s leave the dirty work to Turkey.” Indeed, most probably they recall Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s famous statement from last year, when he addressed Turkey’s ambassadors. Davutoğlu said that Turkish diplomats would not only be like firefighters, rushing to stop crises in any corner of the world, but also like city planners, meaning that they would pursue a policy of preventing crises from happening.

It happens that Turkey’s firefighters have proven unable to extinguish the fire right next door. And naturally not a day goes by without an article appearing in the international press emphasizing the contrast between Turkey’s rhetoric and its real capacity to deliver.
And as this is one fire that is unlikely to easily be put out, Turks are waking up to the call that multilateralism is a must in Syria. Ironically, the current imbroglio across the Middle East--from Turkey's troubled relationship with Israel, Iran, and more recently, Iraq--might renew support for multilateralism and a more humble vision of Turkish foreign policy. This is refreshing for liberals who fear that the AKP's expansionist foreign policy have caused the government to take its eyes off of the European accession process (for those liberals who ever did think, much more still think, this is still a serious ambition of the government).

At the end of the day, and despite all the rhetoric otherwise and the rather proud and ambitious overreaching of Turkey's foreign policy, Turkey has been and will likely remain realist in its foreign policy orientation. Syria is humbling, and in the most horrible of ways since the reality is brought home by the enormous difficulties inherent in rendering aid and defense against mass human rights abuses -- brutality that Turks watch every night on television before going to bed, and know is occurring just to their south.

Yinanc says this is not a good time for Turkey to learn lessons, implying it is not a good time for Turkey to continue its Middle East adventuring. Yet, it seems there are other lessons to be learned.

The Powers That Be

PHOTO from Radikal
Thousands of protestors organized this Saturday to mark the one-year anniversary of the detention of journalists Nedim Sener and Ahmet Şık. Both men have been in prison since March of last year on what appear to be trumped up terrorism charges (see past post), and are by no means alone. They are joined by more than 100 other journalists who are imprisoned on a variety of charges ranging from membership in a terrorist organization to spreading propaganda on behalf one. The overwhelming majority of these cases are against Kurdish nationalist journalists or journalists whom prosecutors have attempted to link to Ergenekon, the shadowy deep-state network thought to be continually plotting to overthrow the government.

Rather than repeat what I have written in past posts on the issue (click here), I would simply like to draw attention to a recent statement released by Reporters Without Borders calling for Turkey to live true to its internationally articulated position that freedom of expression is paramount in a democratic society. These remarks came in response to the recent effort in France to make it illegal to deny the 1915 crimes committed against Armenians as genocide.

In response to both the French National Assembly and Senate's passing of the law, Turkish diplomats joined press freedom advocates and liberals throughout Europe and the world to denounce the law as an unjust and dangerous restriction on the freedom of expression. For the most part taking the moral high ground, French liberals and Turkish diplomats won a major victory last week when the French Constitutional Council ruled that the law violated French constitutional provisions protecting freedom of expression. From RSF:
“We are pleased that freedom of expression has not been sacrificed to a cause, no matter how just the cause may be,” Reporters Without Borders said. “The dangerous breach opened by this law has been closed for the time being but it has already damaged the credibility of the democratic values defended by France and those who defend human rights and the Armenian cause in Turkey.

“We urge France’s politicians to renounce any intention of drafting an amended version of this law. Any thought of using legislation to establish an official history of past events should be ruled out for good after this precedent.

“The Turkish authorities must now face their responsibilities. In the name of free speech, they have for weeks been condemning the French parliament’s meddling in history. Now they must prove that their comments were not just tailored to the circumstances by allowing Turkish citizens to mention the Armenian genocide without fear of being prosecuted.

“Consistency requires that, at the very least, they immediately decriminalize two offences, insulting the Turkish nation (article 301 of the criminal code) and insulting the memory of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (Law 5816 of 25 July1951).

“This decision does not exempt Turkey from finally confronting its own history; quite the contrary. Now that Ankara no longer has the excuse of ‘foreign meddling,’ it must remove the straightjacket of official history from the Turkish republic, open a debate about the fate of Turkey’s minorities and end the growing criminalization of journalistic activities.”
Yet the aforementioned restrictions remain, in addition to a host of other offenses that--vaguely interpreted--can be wielded against journalists, including, inter alia, accusing journalists of influencing judicial processes, discouraging citizens from military service, and inciting hated among the citizenry.

While these laws still exist on the books, most concerning, of course, is the use of anti-terrorism laws against journalists, a practice that has picked up under the helm of Ergenekon and KCK prosecutors and within the past three years. Using anti-terrorism laws against journalists is common practice in authoritarian countries ranging from Ethiopia to Venezuela, but it is Turkey who now rivals Iran and China in having the highest number of jailed journalists in any country in the world.

For the past report by the Council of Europe's Human Rights Commission Thomas Hammarberg (April 2011), click here. Since the reporting dates, both the KCK and Ergenekon investigations have continued, raising the number of jailed journalists even higher. In December, at least 29 journalists were detained in a wave of operations against the KCK. Prosecutors accused the journalists of relaying PKK messages to Kurdish nationalist protestors. Numerous other arrests, sometimes on a mass scale, took place throughout 2011.

For a detailed accounting, see Bianet's recently released 2011 Media Monitoring Report, released just last week. I am adding a link to it in the "Key Documents" column on the right-hand sidebar. Bianet reports there are over 104 journalists in prison, up from 30 at the end of 2010.

According to AKP officials, this number is inflated since these people merely happen to work as journalists. They are not in prison for their writing or for being journalists, but because they are members of terrorist organizations who happen to be journalists. Attempts to portray the issue in terms of press freedom are therefore insincere, and according to some, part of an international smear campaign devised by -- guess who? -- terrorist aligned with the ultra-nationalist deep state.

[For those based in Washington, the Center for International Media Assistance, an initiative of the National Endowment for Democracy, will be holding an event on press freedom in Turkey on Tuesday, March 13, at 2 p.m. The event is entitled, "The Big Chill: Press Freedom in Turkey," and you can RSVP here.]

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Calling Places

PHOTO from Milliyet

One of my favorite political/rhetorical theorists, Kenneth Burke, reckons rhetoric -- and, more specifically, the politics it facilitates -- as akin to theater. According to Burke, life and politics are theater, and we all, as political actors, are on a stage. Though accusing someone of making political theater is pejorative, for Burke, we all make theater. Think Arendt and her Greek-influenced notion of politics as action -- as individuals appearing to each other in public fora whereby they put forward their thought and ideas, and wherein those thoughts and ideas, though sometimes agonistically incommensurable, are negotiated in communication with others.

For Burke and Arendt, while we may all be actors on a stage or in a public forum, no one has the right to call places. In a liberal democracy, politicians, civil society activists, and citizens all have a right to express themselves in the public sphere -- to partake in politics on any range of issues without being bounded. Tracing the development of civil society's relation to the state, this sort of boundlessness is key to civil society's ability to challenge the state -- to have and take advantage of the space necessary to enact truly democratic politics capable of holding the state accountable to those it governs.

Yet, for many politicians in the AKP, this idea is strange -- and, for too many, anathema. See, for instance, the recent comments of AKP parliamentarian Nurettin Canikli in response to the Turkish Businessmen and Industrialists' Association (TUSIAD)'s criticisms of the government's plans for 4+4+4 education reform. TUSIAD is one of the most important NGOs for Turkey, and has proven a tremendous force for the country's European Union accession process and the democratic reform/EU harmonization packages that have so changed Turkey (and, which, contrary to so much of the coverage one sees in Western media, commenced in 1999, more than two years before the ruling AKP came to power).

According to Canikli, TUSIAD, as a business association, has the right only to speak on matters of business and economic policy -- not education. For Canikli, it is no matter that the quality of education is indubitably connected to both, as the boundaries he would place on the organization are quite strict. But that said, why might TUSIAD not also be able to speak on other important political issues, including human rights, the Kurdish conflict, freedom of the press, and a host of other issues on which it has in the past, should, and hopefully will continue to voice its opinion? For Canikli, if this happens, the association "should not only throw punches, but be ready to get punched."

Canikli, in stronger terms, is echoing remarks Prime Minister Erdogan delivered last Tuesday at his party's parliamentary group meeting. Though Erdogan laid off the issue during yesterday's party meeting, the prime minister stirred a series of heated exchanges between the AKP and TUSIAD when Erdogan lashed into the organization, accusing it of being a supporter of the Feb. 28 process (Turkey's 1997 postmodern coup) and telling it to "mind its own business." TUSIAD responded with a calmly generic explanation of the important role civil society plays in a democracy, and rhetorical clashes between the organization and the AKP continued throughout the week. (Here, and to his credit, note that on Saturday President Gul defended TUSIAD's role to engage in the education debate.)

Though there is nothing necessarily improper about a civil exchange of views between the government and civil society organizations, there is something quite wrong about the government circumscribing the activities of organizations, a frequent action taken by authoritarian governments around the world to restrict civil society and the freedoms it enjoys under international law. Here, it should be noted that associations law in Turkey has undergone a series of meaningful reforms under AKP rule, including a major overhaul in 2004 to the Associations Law. The AKP should be lauded for these changes, but rhetoric such as that coming from Erdogan and Canikli is threatening.

In stirring defense of liberalism and the role of civil society, Milliyet columnist Mehmet Tezkan digs into the implication of Canikli's comments: that civil society organizations might only speak on issues related to their particular focus. According to Canikli, this would mean labor unions speak on workers' rights, bar associations speak only about matters of the judiciary, and doctors' associations speak only about medical issues. Such narrowly consigned responsibilities not only restricts the space in which civil society may act, but to some extent, also neutralizes them. Canikli seems to be saying that if civil society organizations get involved in politics, there will be consequences. Doing so not only sends a signal that civil society organizations should be apolitical, but that there might indeed be costs for being political.

If politicians in the government wish to criticize TUSIAD and other organizations within the public sphere, they should, of course, be free to do so. Yet, if these "punches" involve restrictive measures such as libel suits, criminal charges, and troubles registering and operating, there is a problem. Given Prime Minister Erdogan and others' understanding of the role of the press, there is little reason to think that the government's approach to civil society is much different -- and, indeed, leaders of numerous civil society organizations, at least in regard to the Kurdish problem, have been rounded up alongside journalists. Taking on an organization with the kind of international clout of TUSIAD is a different matter, though Erdogan and Canikli's statements in regard to the organization are revealing of the AKP's liberal democratic deficit (not that many political parties have proved much better upon coming to power).

This is the first clash this year between the AKP and TUSIAD, and the vitriol of Erdogan's rhetoric has raised serious eyebrows given that TUSIAD is a mainline pro-reform/pro-Europe organization that has in the past loaned support to the AKP's reform initiatives. In 2010, before the country's constitutional referendum in September, Prime Minister Erdogan demanded that TUSIAD take a stand for or against the constitution, arguing that those who stayed neutral would be "eliminated." EU Chief Negotiator Egeman Bagis followed up, declaring that he would challenge "the mental health and patriotism of anyone who intended to vote against" the referendum.

TUSIAD's position at the time was that Turkey needed a brand new constitution -- not simply a series of amendments designed to benefit the AKP. It should be remembered here that the amendments in 2010 were largely aimed to break the old establishment's hand on the judiciary, and in many ways, have since allowed the government to exert increased control of the organization. I know several Turks who opted to boycott or vote no against the referendum given these remarks and others like them. The latest set of exchanges is but a continuation of what has become prime minister's increasingly hostile stance toward the organization. More evidence of a rift between the AKP and TUSIAD emerged this week when news broke that a joint panel the two were planning to hold this month in Mardin had been cancelled.

And so what of the rhetoric of elimination? It is curious that Erdogan used this word when it also is the main accusation launched by Kurdish nationalists against the government -- they claim the government is trying to eliminate them, too. If the AKP respects these views, why the rhetoric? Is it mere populism against organizations like TUSIAD that are perceived by some AKP supporters as "elite"? Is it the prime minister's well-known tendency for rhetorical lavishes, and what many consider to be his quick temper? The government is clearly not intent to eliminate TUSIAD, but will it respect the organization and value its opinions? Most are not holding their breath.

The new film Fetih: 1453, which depicts the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul, has been used in the past two weeks as political capital against what Erdogan's critics receive is his sultan-like attitude toward politics. In the past couple weeks, videos have been circulating on YouTube and elsewhere of the film's caricature of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, the great Ottoman conqueror, juxtaposed with Erdogan (like this one). And while sultanism is in no way unique to Turkey or to the AKP in Turkey (the country's history of political leadership is a great testament to the truth of Lord Acton's famous axiom), the sheer number and intensity of these criticism and others like them represent a shift in how those fifty percent whom Erdogan and the AKP do not represent (see my election analysis) are increasingly alienated and wary at the prospect of the AKP's seeming strict majoritarian conception of democracy.

Some AKP politicians, including Erdogan, often seem baffled by this. Are they not democratizing the country? Have they not led the country's economy to be one of the strongest in Europe and the Middle East? Is Turkey not a great success story to be modeled elsewhere in the world? One might expect these party officials to bow down in gratitude to Erdogan as Orthodox Greeks do to Fatih Sultan Mehmet in 1453.

Such disbelief is not altogether uncommon for politicians who, often well-intentioned, place ends over means, and arrogantly, if not condescendingly, approach politics as if they know what is best for the direction of the country they govern and the citizens therein. But there is no such ijtihad. The prime minister and other AKP officials, not to mention those in opposition parties (which have their own democratic deficits and sultanist legacies!), represent the people -- they are not elected to tell the people what is best for them, or so says many of the criticisms launched against the party.

Yet the AKP and its dominant narrative of conquest and victimage (see past post) continues. Too often not only Prime Minister Erdogan, but all Turkish politicians, seem like great figures on a stage, players in some great drama that ordinary Turks simply sit back and watch. But real democratic politics, while perhaps dramatic as Burke argues, involve the citizens, too -- the citizens are players, too (not mere spectators), there is no director, and most importantly, no one gets to call places. No one can simply be eliminated.

(Note: An incomplete, draft version of this post appeared earlier today when I accidentally hit "Publish" instead of "Save Draft." Hopefully this complete version reads better, and makes a bit more sense.)

UPDATE I (3/8) -- Hurriyet Daily News columnist Gila Benmayor offers a bit more perspective on the recent clash between TUSIAD and the government, as well as criticism of the government's rushed attempt at this bill. As Benmayor argues, this is once again another example of the government pushing through massive reform packages with little consultation of civil society, especially civil society groups with whom it disagrees. The education package has now also lost the support of the Education Reform Initiative (ERG), which again, is not a Kemalist organization diametrically opposed to the AKP, but a moderate/reformist group that adopts a practical and non-ideological approach to the potential harms of the proposed legislation.