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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Economist on Ataturk - way off

"Hard core Islamists despise Ataturk for abolishing the caliphate in 1924 and expunging piety from the public space. They feed rumours that he was a womaniser, a drunk, even a crypto-Jew." - Economist, February 25, 2012
As an avid reader of the Economist, I am usually enlightened by weekly articles phrasing everything from the implications of Chavez's cancer to the ramifications of the Facebook IPO in ways that even people like me can understand. However, one consistent gripe I have always had with their newspaper is its coverage of Turkey, more specifically their seemingly never-ending support of the 'mildly Islamist' (what does that even mean?) governing AK party.

It's not that they're always wrong necessarily; among other things they regularly (and rightly) point out that the economy is stronger now than in the secular government times of the 90s. My beef is that they just don't seem to understand the complicated relationship between religion, secularism, politics and the military. They miss this so often that it's made me start to question the accuracy of reporting on other countries (although admittedly this is unlikely to deter me from continuing to read it and, in doing so, try to make myself more smarter). Do they never talk to anyone other than supporters of the not-so-mildly Islamist government?

There was a glimmer of hope last year, right before an election in which PM Erdogan and his goons took an easy first place, thus paving the way for them to alter the constitution in some pretty powerful ways. For the first time last summer I remember reading an article that didn't overtly support the 'mild Islamists' and advised Erdogan to tread lightly in making such long-lasting changes. The article was in fact such a rarity that I am at a lost to find it again online (if you find it please paste the link in the comments).

The latest in the series of bad reporting is an article entitled "A secularist's lament" in this week's newspaper. In it, our friends at the Economist discuss Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic and an icon of secularism, in ways that would make a British tabloid cringe in awkwardness.

Starting with labeling Kemalists (supporters of Ataturk and, more importantly, the principles for which he stood) as cultists in the subtitle didn't help set the scene. And it certainly didn't give me hope that my blood pressure wouldn't go up after reading on.

"It was Ataturk's embrace of rigid secularism and Western reforms that underlay Turkey's recovery" after the Ottoman Empire. Beautiful. Prosaic. Accurate. Not a bad start. There's hope yet...

"But at what cost?" uh oh... that was short-lived.
The article then goes on to cite the generals' (long the protectors of Kemalism) history of toppling four governments and hanging a prime minister. No mention that the governments that were toppled had relatively little interest in continuing along the path of westernization (Hamas in Palestine circa 2006 ring a bell to anyone?) that has made Istanbul as much a 'European' city as any place to its northwest. No mention that the military readily and willingly gave back power to civilian administrations after the coups, showing little (if any) desire to rule the country.

This non-Turkish fear of the military is understandable given the track record of global military intervention in politics (Chile, Cambodia, etc.); but also not fully appropriate to the Turkish context. I've discussed this ad nauseam in the past so I won't get myself started again. Trust me, it's better that way.

Unfortunately for us the article continues. After insinuating that a series of reforms and the ongoing Ergene-farce is acceptable (Dani Rodrick has an excellent post referencing Gareth Jenkins' work unveiling the absurdity of the trials which have jailed, among others, one of Turkey's most decorated and revered generals, Ilker Basbug), the author has the audacity to write about how hard-core Islamists (noticeably and suspiciously absent from this paragraph is any linkage between the AK party and such 'hard-core Islamists') think that Ataturk was, among other things, a closet Jew. Yup, and Obama is a Kenyan-born Muslim who worships statues of the sun god in his spare time.

Also according to the article, when Erdogan "markets the Turkish model in the Arab world, he stresses secularism." Huh. Interesting. This is news to most Turks I know who almost never hear Recep bey (the PM and I are now on a first name basis) say anything positive about Ataturk or secularism... much less either in a positive light!

The only direct quote in the article comes from Andrew Mango, non-Turkish author of an excellent biography of Mustafa Kemal himself, in which he discusses the vast conspiracy theories that always seem to permeate Turkish society at all levels. He also rightly points out that "the figure of Ataturk will continue to symbolise modern Turkey". Somehow our dearest Economist author thus concludes that Mango thinks "secularists' worries are overblown". Not sure how A + B = ΓΔΘ... guess I'm missing something here too.

Somewhat related rant directed squarely at the person who keeps writing about Turkey in the Economist: Look at Turkey's neighbors to the south: Syria, Iraq, Iran. The Ottoman Empire was closely linked to, and indeed ruled in some cases, those current shining beacons of modernity, stability and prosperity. Without Ataturk and the reforms he championed 90 years ago, where would Turkey be today? What if Erdogan had been there instead of Ataturk in 1923? Would Turkey be more like Europe (as it is today) or more like Saudi Arabia, Iran or Egypt?

I don't know who the Economist's Ankara correspondent is, but I would love to have tea with him/her to discuss the underlying fears of secularists and how inappropriate it is that he/she brush them aside so readily. We are (mostly) rational and intelligent people who have well-thought-out and tangible reasons why to be opposed to the current government. Although I am impressed by the level of organization and political prowess of the AK party (think George W's Republican Party circa 2001-2003), it is precisely for those reasons (and the concurrent utter incompetence of opposition parties) that makes me fear for the future of Turkey with essentially no checks on the power of our dearly beloved leader. Want to talk about a personality cult, Economist? Look no further than Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On second thought, maybe the Economist should get an new reporter altogether. Or at least have someone else on staff that understands the rational fears of secular modernists. Please?