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February 06, 2012, Monday

Turkey through the headlines

When I travel abroad and follow events in Turkey through online newspapers, I am always struck by how quickly I sense that I am losing a true feel for developments back home. My understanding of Turkey, I have always felt, rests not just on analysis of current events but it also has a strange sensory dimension. Without actually breathing the air of the country and walking through its streets, seeing the larger picture beyond the headlines and picking up trends and changes of mood becomes a lot harder.

The same undoubtedly applies to most countries in the world: Media reports only provide a two-dimensional picture, based on a handful of developments deemed newsworthy. And we probably underestimate the information gathering simply by walking in the streets and watching people go about their daily business.

But viewing developments in Turkey through the prism of headlines and news articles alone also has its uses. It is after all as outsiders see it. And perhaps imagining how their actions reflect on their country’s perceptions abroad, and not just on how they play to a domestic audience, is something that Turkish political leaders should attempt to do more often.

The polemic that has developed between novelist Paul Auster and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a case in point. I greatly admire Auster as a writer and always enjoy his books. I also share his views that it does not befit a country like Turkey to lay charges against so many writers -- or indeed that so many people are spending lengthy periods in pre-trial detention, before they can defend themselves in front of a court.

But I have always believed that the best contribution foreigners can make to challenging the status quo is to visit the country, interact with its people and express their views on the ground. In the ‘90s, when the human rights situation was particularly bad in Turkey, I had long arguments with friends who refused to set foot in the country, and I tried to convince them that extended contacts and exposure to different ideas was important to broaden the minds of the visitors and the local residents alike.

But Auster is entitled to his own opinions and his stance is a valid one. Had Prime Minister Erdoğan not stepped into the argument, the writer’s statements would have been quickly forgotten. But the prime minister’s flippant statements and the mocking tone he adopts all too frequently when he wants to dismiss critics, be they environmentalists, members of the opposition or well-respected foreign novelists, has only lent credence to the view that Turkey’s charismatic leader brooks no dissent and is exhibiting an increasingly intolerant streak. It is particularly unfortunate because the perception of Turkey that is developing as a result distracts from the country’s real achievements over the past decade.

Unfortunately, this war of words is not the only shadow hanging over Turkey at the moment. More developments may yet follow in the Hrant Dink case, but the impact of the disastrous court verdict will not easily be shaken off. The news that an Armenian house of worship was destroyed by the Malatya Municipality will only serve to strengthen the view that Turkey’s old statist mentality, which viewed minorities as threats, has morphed into a new form but remains alive. And while Prime Minister Erdoğan spoke forcefully about secularism during his visits to Arab countries, his recent remarks about wanting to bring up a religious youth will revive the debate about secularism, whether it really exists in Turkey and how it is defined.

Turkey’s progress in the past decade is reflected in the country’s growing impact on the international scene and its rising economic power. But the country’s politicians have always tended to be over-sensitive to alternative views and unable to grasp that, since no one is ever perfect, paying attention to constructive criticism is an important tool for progress. These days, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s overreaction to events is at times undermining its own achievements.

Previous articles of the columnist