How democratic is Turkey?

Ceylan Ozbudak

“The whole dream of democracy is to raise the proletarian to the level of bourgeois stupidity” Gustave Flaubert complained in his letter to George Sand in 1871. In the 1800s, democracy could be described in such simple terms. But as time progressed, so did the demands and perceptions. Today, talking about democracy demands more than providing every citizen the power to vote.

This week Turkey welcomed the news to be invited to join the Development Assistance Committee (DAC ), known as the “club of rich countries.” Erik Solheim, the newly elected chair of the OECD, stated that the Turkish aid provided to Africa and to Somalia in particular drew their attention and demonstrates the significant progress Turkey has made. According to OECD DAC figures, the total amount of Turkey’s official development aid in 2012 was $2.5 billion, a 99 percent increase in 10 years. In 2002, Turkey’s aid totaled $86 million and $1.3 billion in 2011—the assistance provided by other OECD member countries decreased 4 percent in 2012.

No democratic tradition

Positive story so far. But (and there is a but) I have to say Turkey still doesn’t have its own identity in democracy, nor does it have a democratic tradition. As we progress in general terms, in terms of finesse in democratic culture we are being more aware of our gaps every day. Of course steps are being taken to fully amend the constitution and make a more pluralistic, more peaceful society. Turkey’s constitutional problem possess a major challenge to democratic consolidation, however, in the latest democratization package, there were regulations for many ethnic and religious groups, especially for Kurdish people such as the right to education in different languages at special schools, lifting of the legal barriers for the use of Kurdish town names and permission to advertise in different languages and dialects.

One thing our politicians fail to consider is: perception is the only reality in politics – as our former Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış so eloquently stated. If you look like an Islamist and talk like an Islamist, you will be known as one no matter how many freedoms you provide to your society. Passing an alcohol restriction fully in line with EU countries does not make AK Party an Islamist party but letting bigoted scholars talk about the indecency of pregnant women walking on the streets, does. Letting hijab wearing women go to universities and enter governmental institutions does not make AK Party an Islamist party, but criticizing a host on tv for her revealing clothes, certainly does. In terms of legislation, there is no gender segregation in Turkey, only positive one towards women. But if a society can still comment on women’s clothing and not men’s, how much equality of genders can we talk about in a society? If the dissents can find one leak in civil liberties, doesn’t it justify all other criticism? Still to this day neither the party nor the person who publicly criticized the ladies outfit apologized.

Read more at Al Arabiya

Egypt, Turkey, and the Future of Middle East Democracy

First published July 25, 2013

Aside from the fact that religious fundamentalism and the democratic ideal are polar opposites, Islamist leaders like Morsi and Erdogan, who have professed to be democrats, just can’t help it. When backed into a corner politically, they are forced to reveal their true disdain for popular opinion, which is the very basis of democracy. Fairness and equality are not factors in their calculus.

Religious fundamentalism is absolutist. Democracy is populist. Reconciliation of these does not seem a logical possibility. The idea of fundamentalist Islamic democracies is the world’s latest political version of a “good used car.” It looks nice on the lot. The salesman does a good job describing its virtues. But it just doesn’t run very well, and it is likely to leave you stranded some place you don’t want to be.

But this idea that a democracy has been undone is precisely the starting premise of the Western liberal media and political establishment and the cause of so much principled handwringing: An Egyptian Islamic democracy has been killed in the cradle. How tragic! No, actually, it was stillborn. Because a democracy born of religious fundamentalism is the offspring of an unnatural union.

What we have in the Middle East today, especially in Turkey and Egypt, is a clash of two temporal cultures. One looking anxiously to its past failures and another to the possibility of a more prosperous and liberal future. Turkey is the most successful Muslim country in the world for the same reason that America is the world’s most successful Christian majority state. It is a fact rife with historical irony, and one that illuminates the way forward to the development of true Islamic democracies: That the success of Turkey has in large measure been due to its historic, constitutional separation of religion and the political state.

One need not look far to see what the future of Egypt would have looked like under Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. For Islamists like these, the ruse of democratic elections is a means to an end. In Turkey, the people talk of Erdogan “pulling a Putin,” that is, of changing the constitution to perpetuate his own hold on power by allowing himself to become president.

Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country on Earth, including China and Russia, and twice as many journalists in jail as Syria! College and high school students who protested in the streets have been arrested in government raids, held without legal counsel, and are being indicted on “terrorism” charges. Seriously. Soon, many of Turkey’s former top military officers, who were imprisoned years ago on bogus conspiracy charges fabricated by the AKP, will be put on trial as traitors.

Freedom is being slowly, systematically crushed in Turkey by an Islamist regime that cares nothing for democratic ideals. With each passing day, Turkey becomes more and more like Iran. Where is the Western outrage? What about Turkish democracy?

In Egypt, the Islamists have murdered Christians, blamed women for their own gang rapes, and repeatedly violated the Egyptian constitution and judicial injunctions, even while attempting to replace judges who did not please them, in order to ramrod through a constitution hostile to the most fundamental principles of democracy, like respect for women’s and minority rights. In stark contrast, when the opposition group Tamarod called for more demonstrations a couple of weeks ago, only a few hundred people showed up. The opposition protests that ousted Morsi were comparatively peaceful. It is the Muslim Brotherhood that has repeatedly called for violent, massive public demonstrations. It is the Islamists who have refused abatement.

Western critics of the Egyptian military’s actions betray their ignorance of the fact that there is an enormous difference between having a democratically elected leader–which is itself debatable in Egypt’s case–and having a democratic government. It’s disappointing that so many Americans don’t seem to know the difference. As I told a friend of mine in Egypt today, Thomas Jefferson believed that when any government demonstrates an open hostility to the will of the people that it is the right of the people to institute new government. It is the ideal of an Egyptian democracy that our American critics have romanticized in their high-minded protestations, while the fact that the Egyptian people were faced with the prospect of living under a repressive Islamist dictatorship does not seem to have concerned them. Democracy is not just about form; it is also about content.