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.

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