MSNBC paints a distorted picture of Turkey by Richard Peres

MSNBC paints a distorted picture of Turkey by Richard Peres

April 25, 2011, Monday/ 18:17:00

Even though casual observers often misinterpret happenings in Turkey, MSNBC’s recent article (msnbc.com, April 20) is disappointing, and surprising given its lineage. After all, its immediate parent company is NBC Universal, a $16.9 billion media powerhouse with a significant news organization.

In interviewing both sides of polarized issues -- like secularism, democracy and Turkey’s foreign policy - - and arriving at shaky conclusions based on misleading inferences, MSNBC writer F. Brinley Bruton makes it abundantly clear that she fails to understand Turkey’s democratization efforts. Her intent may be to enlighten, but the result has a familiar Islamophobic ring

Overseeing NBC is GE, the 13th largest corporation in the world with over $150 billion in annual revenues and $750 billion in assets. With all those resources, couldn’t MSNBC do a better informed piece about Turkey? In interviewing both sides of polarized issues -- like secularism, democracy and Turkey’s foreign policy – and arriving at shaky conclusions based on misleading inferences, writer F. Brinley Bruton makes it abundantly clear that she fails to understand Turkey’s democratization efforts. Her intent may be to enlighten, but the result has a familiar Islamophobic ring.

A complete misreading of the upcoming election

The article is entitled, “US ally Turkey flirts with Mideast’s ‘bad boys’ -- Some fear the role model for the democracy movements sweeping the region is abandoning its secular roots.” The clear implication is that Turkey is straying from the Western fold, becoming more Islamic friendly, and less secular. The “bad boys” are Iran and Syria. This is the familiar stick that Turkey is beaten with.

Ms. Bruton’s article makes the big mistake of not only misreading the upcoming election but of equating Turkish secularism with Europe and democracy: “With voters due to head to the ballot box in June, Turkey stands at a crucial juncture: will its new ruling class stick to the country’s secular roots and continue toward European stance and many of its democratic achievements?” The big issue in the election is not “continuing with secularism.” Just ask the EU or the new US ambassador in Turkey and look at the facts. The issue is one of continuing democratization first, then democratizing Turkish secularism, which goes far beyond separating “church and state” and violates religious freedom in public education, the rights to elect and be elected to the political sphere and social life. Ms. Bruton should know this because of her accompanying article on the headscarf issues.

The big issues relate also to democratizing the military with civilian controls, which the AK Party [Justice and Development Party] has continually pushed for and continues with plans for a new constitution, which one of the country’s most prominent NGOs, TESEV [Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation], has just supported with its publication of suggestions for a new constitution. Her focus instead is on the arrest of journalists and doubts about Ergenekon: “While it is possible that such a plot existed – the military has staged four coups since 1960 – Human Rights Watch has described the arrests as a ‘disturbing development’.” Freedom of journalists remains an issue in Turkey. But nothing blocks democracy in Turkey more than its military tutelage, usurping civilian authority, often in the name of “protecting secularism.” Four military coups cannot be subjugated to a parenthetical phrase. She takes the “secularism-in-danger” argument from the CHP [Republican People’s Party] at face value as the prominent issue on the minds of Turkey’s majority, sounding very much like the generals of the 1997 coup. Given the military’s record in Turkey, Mr. Erdoğan has been nothing less than courageous in his term in office.

Distorting Mr. Erdoğan, moves for democratization and Turks

Certainly Ms. Bruton’s description of Prime Minister Erdoğan as “the AK Party’s charismatic leader [that] is known for his provocative statements” rings true. However, picking out particular statements from him and other comments, without sources, are pure editorializing. She falls into the trap of giving credibility to citing Mr. Erdoğan’s prosecution by the military-led coup government for reciting a poem, which allegedly “incited hatred,” whereas it is common knowledge that Mr. Erdoğan was simply a popular political threat to the coup regime. He had, at the time, a sterling reputation of honesty and efficiency as mayor of Istanbul, one of the world’s largest cities. All this suggests that the writer might want to do a little research into the Feb. 28 coup process that lasted from 1997 to 2002 before siding with the generals.

The writer also states that Mr. Erdoğan described himself as a “Shariah-ist,” (no source), and to substantiate it she quotes 2007 WikiLeaks’ allegations from the US Embassy of five years ago. Then she states that he is “admired and reviled for his religious devotion” and cites his comments about the EU being a “Christian club.” The coup de grace in her shaky analysis is quoting a CHP member who states: “Without secularism, democracy is under threat. Today democracy in Turkey is in real danger.” Of course, this is the same CHP that nominated four Ergenekon suspects, i.e., the alleged coup plotters against the current government, to Parliament last week, and that has sided with the military on countless occasions in opposition to freely elected governments. Noticeably left out is the mention of last summer’s referendum regarding democratizing changes to the constitution, led by Mr. Erdoğan and the AK Party, opposed by the CHP and approved by 58 percent of the population.

Foreign policy comments

The argument about moving to the East at the expense of the West, tying it to being Islamic, is an old cliché. Given the end of the Cold War, Turkey has a more independent foreign policy that fits with the realities of living with neighboring countries on its borders. Ms. Bruton states, “Turkey’s rejection of United Nations sanctions against Iran was another sign that it no longer walks in lockstep with Europe and the US.” She fails to mention that Brazil also voted against the latest UN sanctions last year, that Turkey negotiated a deal with Iran to send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for access to fuel for a medical reactor and that both Brazil and Turkey viewed the sanctions as derailing a fresh chance for diplomacy. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, is well respected around the world and has a close relationship with the Obama administration.

The writer accuses Turkey of increasing “its ties with the likes of Iran and Syria” and “abolishing visa requirements with Syria” but is forgetting a big fact: Iran and Syria border Turkey and are Turkey’s trading partners. After all, Turkey is, for the most part, in the Middle East, whose other “bad boys” have close ties with the United States, including Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Yes, Turkey does not walk lockstep with Europe and the US. What, exactly, is wrong with an independent foreign policy reflective of where Turkey is located and its leadership role in the region?

On the “secularism is more important than democracy” subject, Ms. Bruton cites various people. The first is Sinem Yoruk, an Istanbul gallery owner who witnessed the mob attack of last fall. “Many took it as the latest sign of growing intolerance toward Western values in the Muslim-majority country.” Yes, there have been and remain conflicts in this very polarized country. But to say that Turkey has a “growing intolerance toward Western values” is a low blow to Turks and an unfair characterization of Islamic people who maintain their faith in this very modern and increasingly progressive country. Ms. Yoruk is right to be upset and nervous about the government’s statements favoring large families and criticizing alcohol, but overgeneralizations abound. Let’s not transform her statements into dogma.

Finally, Ms. Bruton also cites Nihal Kizil of the Support for Modern Life Association (ÇYDD) in this article and another one, “Headscarves slam brakes on women’s careers.” Ms. Kizil is rightly upset at the treatment of Dr. Turkan Saylan. However, in the headscarf article Ms. Kizil is quoted: “The headscarf is a religious symbol but today it is a political symbol. …  Can you imagine a headscarf-wearing judge presiding over a woman without a headscarf?” The reverse has been true in Turkey since 1923. Yes, I can imagine Dr. Saylan’s scenario in the new Turkey that is coming without reservation.

*Richard Peres is a writer living in İstanbul. He is the author of a book about Merve Kavakçı’s run for Parliament, to appear later in the year. He has previously published articles in Turkish Review and Today’s Zaman. http://richperes.blogspot.com [email protected]

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