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June 03, 2012, Sunday

Turkey’s parallel worlds: What makes society civil, civic?

There is an issue seldom commented on in Turkish-language mainstream media and hardly ever mentioned in international publications either: the way citizens, as well as politicians, interpret what constitutes “civil society,” and how both groups should interact with and amongst each other.

This includes the role individuals are allowed to play in determining a town or a city’s civic outlook, whether politicians prefer to pose for handshake-plus-smiles photos only or to actually interact with the people and whether social issues are misinterpreted as charity instead of being seen as what they are: a major responsibility for any municipality or district governor.

Let us quickly recap what the words “civil” and “civic” mean. We will have been to many a civic center. “Civic” is best summed up as things pertaining to life in a city, whereas in smaller locations a civic center would most probably be referred to as a community center. There are civic duties, as well as the term civic pride, which, according to me and interpreted in a positive light, could not be further from its unwanted sister: when over-the-top pride becomes ill-fated nationalism. The Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary defines politicians as civic leaders, not civil leaders. Then there is “civil,” which would encompass civil liberties as well as our everyday affairs in life as a citizen. The German language makes this very clear by using the term “Bürgerrechte,” which in this context translates liberty straightaway into “citizen’s rights.”

Hence I would conclude it is more appropriate to say that we should endeavor to live in a civil society where the principles of civic pride are incorporated, whether living in a village or a metropolis, instead of only promoting a civic society, which falls short on the matter of rights.

A compass of case studies: West, West, North, East

I wish to run you through four real-life examples of activities I have come across (three during this year alone, one in 2011), yet refrain from mentioning names or exact locations, all of which helped me begin to better understand all facets of Turkish civil society.

Case 1: Photo-op yes, dialogue -- perhaps later

First example: Full house for a good cause! Citizens engaged in donating private funds, small or large, to a local charity. Happy faces everywhere. Then the door (literally, in a hotel ballroom) swings open and in pours half a busload of elected politicians and regional government officials. Sitting in the audience, I would have expected at least an hour or so of two-way dialogue with the organizers of the event, the beneficiaries of the funds and perhaps even the assembled media. No such luck. A quick “protocol dance,” one or two family pictures, of course, all smiles, and off they went. Perhaps well-intended, it most definitely backfired; from what I later learned from the organizers, they were utterly disappointed.

I took home many impressions from this event. Initially, a superb local effort by non-elected members of the community to roll up their sleeves and do good. At closer inspection, however, I began to wonder whether the politicians really understood the concept behind the evening. It was not an election rally but a gathering of local citizens who had basically come to their rescue. Funds are scarce everywhere, I know, but if civic leaders, as I have defined them, delegate from above all social responsibility to civil society, something is wrong. Or is it?

Case 2: Civil society disguised as political propaganda

Those of our readers traveling a lot in this enterprising country will often come across teahouses or hotel meeting rooms where a poster invites them to attend an afternoon lecture on a historical issue. Nothing wrong with that per se, until you listen in! Particularly in regions where many retired Turkish citizens live, or spend many months on vacation, civil society activities are often monopolized by a very limited number of groups or associations that confuse active participation in society with “lecturing” attendees about what, according to their association, are the only truly valid values of today’s Republic of Turkey. Democracy necessitates diversity, and I am certainly no Big Brother type of commentator. But then I see invitations to similar afternoon talks by visiting experts of possibly questionable stature (maybe an article published here, a blog there) talking about the dangers of globalization, preaching anti-Americanism or heralding the early years of the Turkish Republic as so much better from what they have apparently come to hate in 21st-century Turkey. I would never go so far as to suggest associations like these be shut down, but I do wonder whether their activities are only an outlet for the desire of retired folk to re-live the past (which to a certain extent we all will one day, will we not?) or active party political propaganda disguised as a “harmless” civil society afternoon tea and talk event.

Case 3: A municipality engages with children and parents

There are various ways to celebrate national holidays. Only recently has the Turkish government (finally) announced that celebrations for public holidays, in particular those involving children, are to be modified. No longer are large-scale public events resembling scenes from countries with a dubious democratic pedigree to be held in the nearest sports arena, but in a public square or green park where children entertain themselves in addition to being entertained. Music, dance, pantomime, slides, fun fairs and even learning how to paint or write calligraphy!

On a sunny weekend in a big northern Turkish city this is exactly what happened and what I took my very own family to participate in. Yes, the event was run by a municipality, but it did not at all resemble the election-type rally atmosphere of the first case study mentioned previously in this article. What the municipality did in this case was not advertise their own greatness -- children could not care less (not as yet) -- but made sure children learned about the relevance of a Turkish public holiday by involving them, instead of misusing them as extras in a stadium or having them watch from the sofa like couch potatoes. Not for me to judge what political stripes this particular municipality has, but thumbs up!

Case 4: Empowering citizens, not lecturing them!

Whereas far too many events result in NGO representatives taking notes of what officials have to tell them, I recently encountered its exact antithesis. Here, elected office holders took notes of what NGO delegates had to tell them, only to be held accountable at their upcoming get-together.

Of course I am not blind -- every politician wants to be re-elected, and let us be honest, each and every word they say in public, each and every project they unveil, has as its ultimate aim a personal, human factor, too: power!

However, as democracy depends on elected officials, there is in principle nothing wrong with what I describe here, especially if one such elected office holder does not shy away from empowering his electorate to become fully involved in local society. Perhaps he indeed sows the seeds for someone superseding him in the future to have learned about politics first-hand. Wouldn’t that be wonderful: Today’s office holders automatically paving the way for democracy to blossom, for the support of NGOs, for unhindered free expression and the right to assemble. By the way, defending the right to “free expression” is bound up indeed in case study number 2.

Do I rank the examples from West, West, North, East? No. I may have one or two personal favorites, but this is not what readers want to hear.

Rather, what I want to convey is that there are apparently parallel worlds in Turkish civil society. What I witnessed on location was, whilst far from fully established, many people actively promoting civil society, engaged in promoting civil liberties and a participatory democracy. Others continue to defend the status quo by means of posing as a civil society association without understanding its core meaning. Then there are politicians acting as quasi-imperator instead of an equal amongst equals.

Previous articles of the columnist