The system's ruling elite have staged a war against democracy," he said in an interview for Monday Talk. "But if you don't trust the public, then the public's votes do not mean anything, and you deal with the issues by using judicial organs or the gendarmerie," he added. Belge, a professor of comparative literature at İstanbul Bilgi University and the chairman of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly, said the powerful elite have been plotting ways to oust the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) instead of seeking democratic ways to combat the policies they don't like.
Belge elaborated on the current political crisis and the history of the political deadlock for Monday Talk.
You left the Radikal daily, to which you had contributed since its founding in 1996, and began writing for another daily, Taraf, which began circulating this year. You said the reason for this move was that you did not share the views of some Radikal columnists. You wrote that if society succeeded in leading a "normal life," a variety of viewpoints emerging from this situation would not create problems for you. Can you elaborate on this idea?
Turkey is at a critical juncture. We are in one of the most critical periods since the republic's establishment. Turkey has to decide whether it wants to be a democratic country or not. Even if it decides to choose an undemocratic course, I don't think it will stay on that path in the long run, though that would cause unnecessary delays in granting basic democratic rights and freedoms to the people in addition to causing much pain. If a newspaper's writers completely defend opposing views at such a time, it causes confusion in the minds of its readers as well.
What types of ideas presented in Radikal or other papers cause confusion and increase polarization in society?
Take, for example, a columnist being critical of the military's warning to the government on one page while another writer completely supports the military's role in politics. This is misleading for readers. Radikal belongs to a media group. Of the group's papers, it is the one I have the least objections to. Hürriyet, the leading newspaper of the same company, has nothing in it that appeals to me. A new newspaper then came on the scene, one whose views I share, so I see nothing wrong in agreeing to write for them. Turkey's present circumstances require me to do so.
Please elaborate on these circumstances and Turkey's situation.
When we look at the history of Turkey, starting in 1923 with the founding of the republic, there were about 15,000 to 20,000 literate and politically active people. The society was mostly agricultural and in a pre-capitalist period. Our elite had taken over the task of modernizing Turkey. We were in a process of becoming a nation-state. Having a state is easier than becoming a nation. If we were to employ an opposing dichotomy metaphor in which the state is masculine and the nation feminine, the current situation is akin to the wife wanting to move out of her predefined role and the husband resisting this and resorting to violence. In some states, this violence is not prevalent, while in Turkey, it is a common occurrence. With such a system in place and without society having become democratized, we began implementing multi-party politics in the 1940s
What happened to the elite in the early stages of the multi-party period?
They had a close circle of friends. Everyone knew each other from the first class sections of İstanbul's ferries and the Ankara Opera House. However, they began seeing people from second and third class sections of ferries in the first class because these people -- rather than the known elite -- had begun to acquire money and could pay for the service. This the elite found disturbing. People that were looked down upon started to take a seat next to the elite. For example, a new passenger on the ferry could be "Hacı Ağa from Adana" [a derogatory term for a newly rich villager who flaunts his wealth in the city] or some rich person who was previously in the mafia. When it comes to our democracy, we had a client-based system and it was based on the idea that "only if you vote for me will I bring water to your village."
Do you think the elite of today are same as those of yesterday?
They are still of the same mentality. The mission of the elite is to bring up and educate the society. The elite have never felt that the society has grown up. It's the situation of having a 35-year-old son whose hand you still want to hold while crossing the street. If this is the case, the 35-year-old man must be retarded. The father needs to give up being such a father and the society needs to grow up. Indeed, our multi-faceted society has grown up: Just look at the Anatolian Tigers, [A new group of entrepreneurs rising in prominence from conservative Anatolian cities which have shown impressive economic growth over the past few years]. The society wants to make up its mind on such matters as whether or not it wants to join the European Union. The society wants to solve the Kurdish issue, too. There are people who have invested in the society and they want to have a say in the future of this country. But the elite are unwilling to grant this right to society and want to protect their turf. In the meantime we have more polarization, but if there is no dialogue, extreme elements can gain ground.
You have written that since no consensus exists, society is unable to solve its problems; nationalism is growing along with the desire to silence the "other." Where do we go?
I don't think we will get anywhere by crushing or silencing one another. No one can go anywhere desirable by punishing the other that is different. If we hang a huge Turkish flag on the Selimiye military barracks, yes, it sends out a certain nationalistic message to some groups. If we wave Islamist symbols at some other groups, yes, it gives a certain message to them. In nation-states we can expect a certain tension between ethnicity and religion. It happened in Bismarck's Germany, too. Today's big Christian Democratic Union (CDU) of Germany has risen from the ashes of the movement that Bismarck tried to crush. Bismarck, indeed, had given up its crushing project after realizing that it would not succeed. In Turkey, we have not yet made peace between Kocatepe [the site of a large mosque in Ankara] and Anıttepe [the site of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's mausoleum]; we have not yet provided an environment in which these two would not see each other as adversaries. This is significant political ineptitude, to say the least. This means our society is one that cannot grow normally and that we should expect pathological developments.
Do you consider the latest decision of the Constitutional Court which overturned constitutional amendments passed by Parliament to relax a ban on wearing a headscarf at universities to be a pathological development?
I would say that the case filed by the Supreme Court of Appeals chief prosecutor [Abdurrahman Yalçınkaya] seeking to close the ruling party is a pathological development. The closure case against the [pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party] DTP is also pathological. I would say that about the decisions of the judiciary in general. There is another example: I read a verdict of a judge who handed down a sentence on some writing in Agos. That judge quoted some writers who claim that the Armenian massacre never happened. There are also writers who claim that the massacre did happen. How can a judge quote only from writers who say it did not happen? We have numerous other such examples. What kind of objectivity can we expect from this kind of a judiciary?
You have written that Turkey remains within the boundaries of the authoritarian regime of the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup. That coup produced its own constitution in 1982. However, the ruling AK Party wants to change this constitution. Do you think this is the reason behind the closure case against it?
We cannot mention only one factor as a reason behind the closure case. There are a number of factors, and this is one of them. To put it simply, the main thing is that the tail has been trying to wag the dog. As you may recall, the prime minister [Recep Tayyip Erdoğan] said the same thing since he is partly of the same mentality [referring to labor unions' demand to celebrate Labor Day in Taksim Square, Erdoğan said, "If the feet try to rule the head, this will bring about doomsday," sparking an uproar]. If you look at the indictment against the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers' Unions (DİSK) during the Sept. 12 period, you can see that the main concern was about workers who were becoming powerful and "trying to rule the head."
Are you saying the reason behind the closure case is not the AK Party's "anti-secular" activities, as indicated in the indictment?
Islam may feature prominently among some AK Party supporters. Take, for example, communism; some communists wanted to bring about communism through a revolution but realized that it was not possible to do so in countries like Italy and France. They then decided to have Euro-communism through elections. Instead of a revolution, they decided to work in a gradual manner. So Islamists have also seen that when they assure the public that they do not aim to bring Shariah to the country, their votes increase. This gives them a message: "You promised not to bring Shariah, so we trust you and give you our votes." This is what democracy is about. But if you don't trust the public, then the public's votes do not mean anything and you deal with issues by using judicial organs or the gendarmerie.
We have been involved in a democratization project with the EU. It hasn't advanced as much as it should have because of military and judicial interference. I liken this to a tug-of-war. Although the number of people who are against the democratization project is lower than those who want Turkey to move forward, the influence of the former is greater, leading to equal power and a never-ending game. The parties have also abandoned respecting the rules of this game. So what happens next in such an environment? I don't know. A society should never find itself in such a situation.
You have written that the Sept. 12 period was the biggest catastrophe a society could have. How would you compare today's Turkey with that period?
Today is a continuation of that period. We are in an even more catastrophic situation today because we have been unable to move out of that catastrophe, created in 1980.
What are the main threats being presented to the society today, compared to the past? Has Islamism replaced the threat of communism?
We went through much pain during the Sept. 12 period, and those in power said all their undemocratic measures were taken to combat the spread of communism. We then saw how shortsighted this view was because the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 -- the Sept. 12 military coup took place in 1980 -- bringing with it the end to the threat of communism. Later came the threat of separatism and the Kurdish issue. We have also had the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. The most significant threat to the current system is liberal democracy, and the system's ruling elite are at war with democracy, using the threat of Islamism only as a cover-up.
What is the remedy?
The remedy is democracy itself. Democracy can produce its own remedies. You need to include the highly feared "enemy" and talk to him; do not exclude him. The powerful elite have been plotting how to oust the AK Party. For example, if the AK Party prohibits drinking, then you should fight against that policy, not shut the party down. You can be critical of its policies and try to change these policies within the democratic system. This is the way democracies work. This is the rule of law. You do not need to roll tanks down the street as in the Feb. 28 process [a "post-modern coup" staged in 1997 by the military to overthrow a coalition government led by pro-Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan], especially if you have a civil society prepared to resist any move leading to religious oppression.
What do you suggest the government should do?
The government could gain more support from democratic forces by developing a broader grasp of democratic needs and by addressing the fears of some people -- even if their fears might be unjustified -- who think the government's intention is to bring Shariah rule to the country. But I usually refrain from criticizing the government at this time so as not to give ammunition to undemocratic forces. We may criticize the government for "bad policy," but that doesn't justify the "legal" threats it now faces. We are at such a point in time that it is crucial to defend basic democratic rights.
Murat Belge is a left-wing Turkish intellectual, translator, literary critic, scholar, civil rights activist and academic. He is the son of political journalist Burhan Asaf Belge and the nephew of Yakup Kadri Karaosmanoğlu. He received his Ph.D. from İstanbul University in 1969. After the military coups of 1971 and 1980, he had to leave academic life and went into publishing left-wing classics through İletişim Press in İstanbul. Belge has translated the works of James Joyce, Charles Dickens, D. H. Lawrence, William Faulkner and John Berger into Turkish. Since 1996 he has been a professor of comparative literature at İstanbul Bilgi University. He also chairs the Helsinki Citizens Assembly.
Belge was a member of the organizing committee of a two-day academic conference held on Sept. 24-25, 2005 at Bilgi University titled "Ottoman Armenians during the Decline of the Empire: Issues of Scientific Responsibility and Democracy." The conference openly disputed the official Turkish account of the Armenian massacres.
The gathering was denounced by neo-nationalists as treacherous and led to him facing a jail sentence.