Friday, June 07, 2013

Fareed Zakaria on Turkey – "Realist" but not entirely realistic

Over at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish, it seems that yesterday the "most popular post of the day was Fareed Zakaria’s concise explanation of what’s going on in Turkey." That has its good and its bad aspects.

Zakaria's account was clear, informed, and reassuring. It usefully emphasized the point that the situation in Turkey is very different from the situation in any of the Arab countries, and it usefully damped down the excessively alarmist chatter in some recent commentaries. This protest wave may, indeed, turn out to be a "healthy" corrective moment in what will prove to be a long-term process of genuine democratization for Turkey.  Let's hope so.

On the other hand, Zakaria's account was too simplistic and unbalanced in the other, optimistic, direction. And in this respect the Zakaria version of Turkish reality is typical of too much commentary on Turkey from too many establishmentarian foreign-policy analysts, who are sometimes tempted to confuse wishful thinking and excessive complacency with "realism". Yes, part of what has been going on in Turkey over the past decade has to do with the resentments and sense of disorientation felt by the secular establishment of the Kemalist republic about their loss of cultural and political dominance. But Zakaria made it sound as though these protests express nothing more than that, and that the protesters and other groups in Turkish society have no legitimate grievances or reasons for concern about where Erdogan and the AK Party are taking the country.

This is, to put it mildly, a very misleading and one-sided picture. The analyses from which I quoted yesterday (among others) provide some useful correctives in that respect.  Along with a whole range of concerns and discontents that Zakaria ignores, there is also, as Kerem Oktem puts it, "a further overarching source of discontent: with the prime minister’s authoritarian style of government."

(Wouldn't it be worth mentioning, at least, how many Turkish journalists are in prison on fishy-sounding charges, how thoroughly the Turkish press has been intimidated, etc.? How would Zakaria explain why protests have spread to some parts of eastern Turkey and the Hatay region bordering Syria, or why one of the Turkish trade-union federations has announced support for the protests?)

Also, by the way, one point that Zakaria repeated several times needs a little refinement. He said that the AK Party has won several elections during the past decade "with increasing majorities." Yes and no. Yes, the AK Party has a solid majority in parliament.  But so far it has never actually gotten a majority of the popular vote—though in the last election they came very close, with over 49.9% (more than Margaret Thatcher ever got). A majority of voters continued to vote for other parties, but the disunity and fecklessness of the opposition parties gave the AKP its opening and have allowed it to operate in an increasingly high-handed way.  The main institutional restraints have come from left-over remnants of the (quasi-authoritarian) "deep state" ... but the AKP has been in the process of dismantling those restraints, which will prove to be a severe problem if an effective opposition with a democratic basis doesn't emerge. And it is wrong to imply that the only people in Turkey worried about the (Sunni) theocratic tendencies of the AKP are secular westernized middle-class urbanites—who really just want to be able to keep discriminating against pious Muslims. For example, Turkey has a significant Alevi minority (not to be confused with Syria's Alawites), and they are very worried.  (Erdogan recently announced, with his typical sensitivity, that Alevi places of worship are not actually places of worship, and they should just pray in Sunni mosques like other Muslims.)

Zakaria's "concise explanation" was not entirely wrong, but it was misleadingly one-sided and incomplete.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub