Fatih neighborhood of Istanbul, 2009. photo by Banu Gökarıksel
The veil is a piece of fabric that is politicized like no other. It is the persistent topic of fiery political debates and possibly the most stigmatized, praised, banned, and enforced article of clothing. And it continues to be one of the most misunderstood, stereotyped, and contested aspects of Muslim identities and politics across the world.
The veil is implicated in a wide range of cultural and (geo) political debates on women’s roles, Islam and Muslim cultures, secularism, democracy, terrorism, and war. In many of these debates, political leaders, pundits, and activists treat the veil as a symbol and speak for and about veiled Muslim women.
But the treatment of the veil as a symbol deprives veiled women of the public recognition of their humanity, with the effect of rendering them less than human in the eyes of some as the veil ‘stands in’ for the women and what they represent to the viewer — whether it is political Islam, the religion of Islam, secular or Islamically-oriented state projects, the Muslim umma, or a newly defined Muslim identity.
The veil often appears a convenient symbol of the Muslim Other to be feared, or alternatively, of the Muslim ideal to be upheld. Although many Muslim women do speak out, their experiences are seldom heard or listened to publicly.
This February the Duke/UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies took on the politically charged topic of veiling at its annual conference with several goals in mind: to examine the persistence of stereotypical representations of the veil; to understand the veil and its multiple meanings, styles, and practices; and to recognize Muslim women as subjects rather than dehumanized objects or icons.
To this end, the ReOrienting the Veil conference brought together an artist/activist and interdisciplinary group of scholars (from Religion, Anthropology, Francophone Studies, Geography, and History) and more than 100 students, university faculty, local K-12 teachers, and community members.
For artist/activist Todd Drake’s collaborative Esse Quam Videri: Muslim-American Self-Portraits project (a collection of images and accompanying essays that appeared at the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill this winter) veiled women were photographed how they wanted to be viewed, empowered — whether laughing, playing basketball, or standing confidently with tools in hand in a car repair shop. (Conference participants were treated to a personalized tour of these images).
Istanbul in contrast. photo by Banu Gökarıksel.
While veils come in all colors, sizes, shapes, and designs and are worn on the catwalk, on soccer fields, in classrooms, and on the street, photos of veiled women in mainstream western media or on popular book covers often portray the veil as a prison, (as in this one by French cartoonist Plantu), and veiled women often appear as solemn, sad, and victimized, if not ominous and threatening, explained Typhaine Lservot, Associate Professor in the Romance Languages and Literature Department and College of Letters at Wesleyan University.
Lservot devoted most of her presentation to an analysis of how the veil and veiled women were depicted in political cartoons at the height of the ‘burqa affair’ in France.
France is an important context for the analysis of the veil because of its history as a colonial power and exporter of negative images of Islam and the veil. France has taken aggressive steps to regulate the veil in its different forms, first banning the headscarf in schools in 2004 and then, after much public debate beginning in 2008, banning the niqab (face covering) from all public spaces in 2011. (The latter was referred to as the ‘burqa affair’).
She showed this 2005 cartoon by Steph Bergol, that plays on fears of losing French identity — envisioning France, in the future, as an Islamic republic where all women are veiled and the French flag no longer flies and is relegated to history.
Lservot’s nuanced analysis also showed that some of the political cartoons that appear stereotypical at first glance are much more complicated when one looks closely at them. Many actually include subtle critiques of sexism and racism in French society.
For example, one cartoon by Catherine Beaunez juxtaposes a woman in a miniskirt with one in full veil. Both think that the other is victimized by social norms. Thereby, the cartoon effectively questions the presumption that minimal clothing liberates while covering oppresses. She also showed a similar cartoon, by New Zealand cartoonist Malcom Evans called “Cruel Culture” that depicts a woman in bikini and a woman in a burqa looking at each other and thinking that the other is a victim of “a cruel male dominated culture.”
Some hijabis (a term for veiled Muslim women that is used by some) have responded, creating their own brand of humor. See an archive of cartoons here at Ninjabi.com. Or, another example, this Tweet by Hend (Libya Liberty) “I am having such a good hair day – no one even knows.”
De-linking Veiling from Islamic Extremism
Since the 1970s, many observers and scholars have pointed to the emergence of the veil as a newly significant practice; some described it as ‘re-veiling,’ some as ‘new’ veiling. As miriam cooke, Braxton Craven Distinguished Professor of Arab Cultures in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke University, explained in remarks at the conference, the veil’s (re)emergence has been connected to Muslim ethics, as well as neoliberal economic and political restructuring.
However, it was the 1979 Revolution in Iran, she said, that loaded the veil with explicit political meaning, filling the media with images of fully veiled women participating in street protests. Some of these images harkened back to the role Algerian women played in the violent resistance against French colonialism between 1954 and 1962. Such images of veiled women imprinted in the minds of many the association of veiling with Islamic extremism.
The very same images continue to color the perception of veiling today. Especially since 9/11, the mainstream media in the U.S. and Western Europe, but also in Turkey and Egypt, repeatedly has circulated stigmatizing images of Muslims highlighting the veil as a symbol of Islamist militancy.
These images project a singular, monolithic image of Muslim women — what cooke, in a 2007 essay for Contemporary Islam, called The Muslimwoman: “a newly entwined religious and gendered identification that overlays national, ethnic, cultural, historical, and even philosophical diversity. A recent phenomenon tied to growing Islamophobia, this identification is created for Muslim women by outside forces, whether non-Muslims or Islamist men. Muslimwoman locates a boundary between us and them.”
Sahar Aziz: “The debate no longer centers on whether the pejorative ‘veil’ serves to oppress women by controlling their sexuality and, by extension, their personal freedoms and life choices; or if it symbolizes choice, freedom, and empowerment. Rather, it now marks them as representatives of the suspicious, inherently violent, and forever foreign ‘terrorist other’ in our midst.”
“The prime minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional, and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life. In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Netanyahu apologised to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation.”
Erdogan appears to have grudgingly accepted the apology (Israel will pay roughly $6 million to the victims’ families), and the two leaders agreed that normal diplomatic relations would be restored, though Erdogan later said it would be a gradual process.
The Obama administration is touting the apology and the step toward return of correct Israeli-Turkish relations as a win. Turkey is a member of NATO and has been excluding Israel from some NATO meetings (Israel is not a NATO member but is often included in its counsels; Turkey as a member can block it).
What is astonishing in all this is that no one is talking about the reason for which the Mavi Marmara was heading to Gaza and for which the Israeli commandos boarded it and shot it up.
It is that Israel has imposed an illegal blockade on the civilian population of Gaza. The blockade forbids the export of most of what the Palestinians there produce, depriving them of export markets. There are only 1.7 million Palestinians in Gaza, many of them thrown into desperate poverty by Israeli policy, so they aren’t much of an internal market. The Israelis have a cover story that they are strangling Gaza out of security concerns, but how could exporting goods from Gaza pose a threat to Israeli security? One Israeli official admitted the truth years ago; the Israelis have put the Palestinians ‘on a diet,’ and most creepily actually tried to figure what was the least amount of food they could let in without producing widespread starvation. This policy can only be called fascist and it recalls the worst kind of medical experiments on human beings and social engineering of the mass political movements of the 1930s.
Palestinian children forage for food in trash
Since Turkey (rightly and courageously) rejects the Israeli blockade on Gaza civilians, its actual diplomatic relations with Israel are likely to continue to be roiled. The Israelis maintain that blockades are a recognized tool of war in international law, but in fact Gaza is not an independent country with which Israel is at war! Gaza is Occupied by Israel, and the 1949 Geneva convention on the treatment of civilians in occupied territories strictly forbids such punitive measures. Gaza has no functioning seaport or airport because the Israelis disallow the former and bombed the latter into smithereens.
I mean, don’t those figures make you want to do something for those mothers and children? Wouldn’t they melt anyone’s heart?
Although, under international pressure, the Israeli government eased its blockade slightly in 2010, and foodstuffs are no longer interdicted, it still limits imports into Gaza, and its wide-ranging ban on exports has thrown Palestinians into unemployment at Depression levels, imperiling their ability to afford food even when it is available.
Israel must end this unconscionable blockade of Palestinian civilians (half of whom are children) immediately. If Obama thinks Israeli-Turkish relations can be healthy without that step, he has another think coming.
Güneş Murat Tezcür writes in a guest column for Informed Comment:
The last year saw a significant escalation in the armed conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish insurgency (PKK) fighting for autonomy. 2012 was the most violent year since the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan. At least 541 individuals lost their lives, a significant increase from the previous years. As the meetings between the representatives of the Turkish government and the insurgents came to an end in summer 2011, the Turkish security forces and the PKK militants engaged in frequent skirmishes. The gains of the Syrian Kurds led by the PYD, an affiliate of the PKK, further aggravated the threat perception of the AK Party, which has been in power since 2002. The Turkish government responded by sponsoring Islamist Arab militants that who engaged in heavy clashes with the PYD militia for the control of Ras al-Ayn (Sêrekaniyê) since November 2012.
Given this violent trend, it came as a surprise when two parliamentarians from the Kurdish nationalist party (BDP) visited Öcalan, who was largely kept incommunicado since July 2011, in his prison island. The visit generated high expectations that Prime Minister Erdoğan is finally determined to end political violence. While the murder of three women Kurdish activists, one of them being a founder of the PKK, in Paris on January 9 stalled the process, both sides express their willigness to continue the process.
I argue that it is unrealistic to expect a peaceful reconciliation of the armed conflict in the foreseeble future for three reasons. First, the costs of fighting remain tolerable for both sides. Hence, the conflict has not yet reached a mutually hurting stalemate that would generate strong incentives for both sides to reach a deal. Especially for the Kurdish insurgency, it may be in their better interests to continue fighting and hope that geopolitical developments and electoral victories would strengthen their bargaining position. Second, huge differences separate what the AK Party is willing to concede to make the insurgency to law down its arms and what the insurgency demands to disarm itself. It is very unlikely that the negotiations would enable them to overcome their differences. Finally, the AK Parti’s strategy to seek a solution through Öcalan is unlikely to produce a breakthrough. Öcalan may call the insurgeny to end its operations, but it is very uncertain if the insurgent leadership would actually follow his lead despite their rhetorical commitments to his leadership. Let me elaborate on these three points.
The PKK started its military operations against the Turkish state in 1984 and reached the zenith of its power in the aftermath of the First Gulf War in the early 1990s. By the timeÖcalan was captured in 1999, however, the PKK was already severely weakened as a military force. The fighting has been much more restrained in the second stage starting in 2004. Several observations can be made according to an original dataset I generated. First, total fatalities in a single year including civilians, security forces and militants never exceeded 400 until 2012. This is a huge decline compared to the 1990s when several thousand people were killed every year. Second, the fighting was highly professional meaning that civilian casualties were low. In no year since since 1999, more than 100 civilians killed in a year as a direct or indirect result of the armed conflict. In contrast to conflict in countries in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria, conflict is neither characterized by indiscriminate violence nor pronounced ethnic or sectarian dimension. Third, violence was geographically and temporally limited. More than 40 percent of all insurgency related fatalities took place only in two mountainous border provinces bordering the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
As in a typical guerilla warfare, most fighting took place between May and October when warm weather makes the rugged terrain passable. Consequently, the insurgency remains a manageable problem for the AK Party. In fact, the party continue to win elections, achieve sustainable growth and consolidate its power side by side with the Kurdish insurgency. Similarly, the Kurdish insurgency continues to be sustainable business. It has access to large pool of recruits, safe havens, and financial resources, and enjoys a high degree of legitimacy in the eyes of many Kurds.
The second factor concerns political differences separating the two sides. While the AK Party aims to end the insurgency through a series of political reforms further removing the restrictions on Kurdish identity and language, the Kurdish nationalist movement is primarily interested in some sort of autonomy would give the Kurdis nationalists significant amount of power. If the historical record of the AK Party in the last decade is any guidance, the government would never be willing to share power with the Kurdish nationalists.
Finally, it is not clear how much actual power Öcalan enjoys over the actions of the insurgency. Öcalan’s would risk his credibility if he asks the insurgency lay down their arms and the insurgent leadership acts otherwise. As long as the PKK militants roam the countryside in Kurdish provinces of Turkey, there is always a possibility of a clash that would result in mutual casualties and undermine the process. The Kurdish insurgency would be unwilling to withdraw all of its forces to its bases in the Iraqi Kurdistan without substantial concessions from the government.
Then, what we can expect from the latest “Kurdish initiative” in Turkey? At best, it would diminish the intensity of violence as both sides would position themselves for the local and presidential elections in 2014. The PKK may announce a temporary ceasefire and adopt a wait-and-see attitude until the election period. A decrease in violence by itself is a positive development, but an overambitious initiative generating unfounded expectations may result in more bloodshed in the long run. In fact, the negotiations in 2009 significantly reduced violence in that year but their failure led to intensified violence since then.
Pope Benedict XVI’s suprise announcement on Monday that he plans to resign at the end of this month marks a potential generational change in the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church. His successor has an opportunity to revive the breakthroughs of the Second Vatican Council in promoting inter-religious dialogue, and repairing the Church’s troubled relationship with the Muslim world. Roman Catholics and Muslims live side by side in much of the world, and there are Roman Catholic orders and individuals who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to good relations between the two. One thinks of the White Fathers in Algeria, for instance.
Although he backed down on some of his positions, Pope Benedict roiled those relationships with needlessly provocative and sometimes offensive statements about Islam and Muslims. His Regensburg speech contained inaccuracies and tried to position the European Roman Catholic tradition as the golden mean between the soulless atheism of modern science and the backward fanaticism of Islam. He initially opposed Turkey’s entry into the European Union, imagining Europe as essentially Christian, though he later moderated that view a bit. (Europe was settled by human beings some 45,000 years ago; Christianity is only 2000 or so years old and until fairly recently Christians were a minority there. Lots of religions have been practiced by Europeans, and the majority of them nowadays is probably secular unbelievers.) Islam may have arrived a few centuries later than Christianity, but European Islam has a 1300-year history on the continent, and not a minor or inglorious one (the way European history is written and taught often leaves out the Muslims of Iberia and those of the Balkans, giving a truncated view of the continent’s religious diversity).
The address is more complex and subtle than the press on it represents. But let me just signal that what is most troubling of all is that the Pope gets several things about Islam wrong, just as a matter of fact.
He notes that the text he discusses, a polemic against Islam by a Byzantine emperor, cites Qur’an 2:256: “There is no compulsion in religion.” Benedict maintains that this is an early verse, when Muhammad was without power.
His allegation is incorrect. Surah 2 is a Medinan surah revealed when Muhammad was already established as the leader of the city of Yathrib (later known as Medina or “the city” of the Prophet). The pope imagines that a young Muhammad in Mecca before 622 (lacking power) permitted freedom of conscience, but later in life ordered that his religion be spread by the sword. But since Surah 2 is in fact from the Medina period when Muhammad was in power, that theory does not hold water.
In fact, the Qur’an at no point urges that religious faith be imposed on anyone by force. This is what it says about the religions:
‘ [2:62] Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians– any who believe in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. ‘
The idea of holy war or jihad (which is about defending the community or at most about establishing rule by Muslims, not about imposing the faith on individuals by force) is also not a Quranic doctrine. The doctrine was elaborated much later, on the Umayyad-Byzantine frontier, long after the Prophet’s death. In fact, in early Islam it was hard to join, and Christians who asked to become Muslim were routinely turned away. . . The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.
But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.
In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.
The pope says that in Islam, God is so transcendant that he is beyond reason and therefore cannot be expected to act reasonably. He contrasts this conception of God with that of the Gospel of John, where God is the Logos, the Reason inherent in the universe.
But there have been many schools of Islamic theology and philosophy. The Mu’tazilite school maintained exactly what the Pope is saying, that God must act in accordance with reason and the good as humans know them. The Mu’tazilite approach is still popular in Zaidism and in Twelver Shiism of the Iraqi and Iranian sort. The Ash’ari school, in contrast, insisted that God was beyond human reason and therefore could not be judged rationally. (I think the Pope would find that Tertullian and perhaps also John Calvin would be more sympathetic to this view within Christianity than he is).
As for the Quran, it constantly appeals to reason in knowing God, and in refuting idolatry and paganism, and asks, “do you not reason?” “do you not understand?” (a fala ta`qilun?)
Of course, Christianity itself has a long history of imposing coerced faith on people, including on pagans in the late Roman Empire, who were forcibly converted. And then there were the episodes of the Crusades.
Another irony is that reasoned, scholastic Christianity has an important heritage from Islam itself. In the 10th century, there was little scholasticism in Christian theology. The influence of Muslim thinkers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Avicenna (Ibn Sina) reemphasized the use of Aristotle and Plato in Christian theology. . . Finally, that Byzantine emperor that the Pope quoted, Manuel II? The Byzantines had been weakened by Latin predations during the fourth Crusade, so it was in a way Rome that had sought coercion first. And, he ended his days as a vassal of the Ottoman Empire.
The Pope was wrong on the facts. He should apologize to the Muslims and get better advisers on Christian-Muslim relations.”
Pope Benedict later said that Byzantine Emperor Manual II’s views of Muhammad and Islam were cited for illustration and were not his own.
“Pope: Manuel II’s Views of Muhammad are not My Own Muslim Brotherhood Optimistic about end of Crisis
Pope Benedict said on Sunday that the quote he had cited from Byzantine emperor Manuel II, which said that the Prophet Muhammd brought only evil and conversion by the sword, did not reflect his own views.
“I am deeply sorry for the reactions in some countries to a few passages of my address at the University of Regensburg, which were considered offensive to the sensibility of Muslims . . . These in fact were a quotation from a medieval text, which do not in any way express my personal thought. I hope this serves to appease hearts and to clarify the true meaning of my address, which in its totality was and is an invitation to frank and sincere dialogue, with mutual respect.”
Although there were protests in Iran and some scattered acts of violence, mostly in already-violent areas, this statement seemed to mollify some Muslim leaders.
A Muslim Brotherhood official in Egypt initially said that the statement was a clear retraction and sufficient as an apology, but apparently under popular pressure, he backed off that stance slightly, saying that the Pope hadn’t actually clearly apologized, though he had taken a good step toward an apology. But the Brotherhood clearly was looking for a way to defuse the crisis, and that it initially latched on to the Pope’s relatively impenitent remarks so eagerly, shows that it is eager to see things calmed down. The Egyptian MB thought the controversy was now likely to subside, and I hope they are right about that . . . ”
Another issue was Benedict’s views on Turkey in the European Union. I argued that Wikileaks showed a dramatic change in his position on this issue over time, toward neutrality and openness to the possibility. I wrote at the time:
The problem is that, while the article on this matter is clear and largely accurate, the headline: “Pope wanted Muslim Turkey kept out of EU” is grossly incorrect.
In 2004, then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) spoke out against allowing Turkey to join the European Union. This position was not that of the Church as a whole. Indeed, a cable from that year says that “Acting Vatican Foreign Minister equivalent Monsignor Pietro Parolin told Charge August 18 that the Holy See remained open to Turkish EU membership.”
Contrary to what The Guardian implied, then, it seems clear to me that until he became pope, Ratzinger’s views on Turkey were not reflective of Vatican policy, and after he became Pope his stance changed dramatically in Turkey’s favor.
Ratzinger and others were, in 2004, attempting to have the European Union acknowledge the Christian roots of Europe, and they were afraid that Turkey’s accession might make that declaration less likely. (Since so much of European history (including all the Greek philosophers, Jewish thought on social justice, Irish and Norse mythology, the lives of the Roman emperors until the 4th century CE, not to mention the long centuries of Arab Spain and the Muslim-dominated Balkans) happened outside a Christian framework, this position seems to me invidious.
That the Vatican remained “open” to Turkish membership even after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope is clear from a subsequent cable. The remaining reservations expressed by Vatican officials derived, at least as presented by Parolin, not from worries about the ancient Christian character of Europe, but concerns that Turkey’s human rights record needed to be reformed before it was admitted. From the Vatican’s point of view, Turkey’s Christians were badly mistreated, and their condition was just short of open persecution.
On becoming Pope, Benedict appears fairly rapidly to have changed his earlier hard line position, to the point that his nuanced neutrality on the issue of Turkish accession to the EU could be misunderstood by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erodogan as wholehearted support. The “pope expressed his hope for ‘ “joint Christian and Muslim action on behalf of human rights” and emphasized his hope that Turkey would be a “bridge of friendship and of fraternal cooperation between the East and West.” ‘ By 2006, as well, the US was hopeful that Pope Benedict could be a positive force for Turkey integration into Europe.
Those hopes were not realized. Pope Benedict declared the Vatican officially neutral on the Turkey issue, since the Vatican is not an EU member state. The State Department cable speculated that “The Vatican might prefer to see Turkey develop a special relationship short of membership with the EU.” But if the Vatican was declining to push for this point of view and was actively neutral, this private wish is irrelevant in the world of diplomacy. If your official stance is neutrality, then that is your public position and others cannot abrogate it for you.
I see these cables as the evolution of Cardinal Ratzinger from a key Vatican official concerned with ideology to a pope aware of his global responsibilities, who backed off opposition to Turkey joining Europe and declared a studied neutrality on the issue even while admitting pros (Turkey could be an interlocutor for largely Christian Europe with the Muslim world) and cons (for Turkey to join without implementing religious freedom would endanger this key value for all EU states).
That is, my reading of the documents and the evolution of the Ratzinger position leads me to a conclusion precisely the opposite of the one implied by the Guardian’s headline. In fact, you only wish the Christian Right in the US was as capable of mature reflection on such issues and as willing to be pragmatic as this Pope.”
Pope Benedict clearly learned a great deal over time and moderated some of his initial, provocative stances. He thus established a trajectory toward, if not better, then less turbulent Roman Catholic-Muslim relations. His successor could usefully go further, back to the Vatican II spirit:
” The Church regards with esteem also the Moslems. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth,(5) who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.
Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Moslems, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.”
I don’t think Pope Benedict began by agreeing with very much of the above, but over time he seems to have grudgingly accepted the wisdom of some of it. It is a passage that had a profound impact on me in my youth, and I hope the new pope revives this tradition of reformist theology. It is how the one billion Roman Catholics and 1.5 billion Muslims can hope to go forward together in the 21st century.
The Shiite-dominated Iraqi government fears that some of the Syrians seeking to escape to Iraq might be Sunni radicals, and they blame Syria for having given logistical and other help to al-Qaeda types who wanted to go to Iraq (the former Syrian ambassador to Iraq has also made these allegations). They appear to fear that the refugees may become assets for Sunni radicals.
Despite thes security concerns of those two countries and the burden of the refugees (also carried by Jordan), it is illegal in international law for them to keep those 10,000 people trapped that way.
Turkey has already taken in over 100,000 Syrian refugees. But it has closed its border with Syria in the east because it is afraid that Kurdish separatist guerrillas, basing themselves in the Kurdish strip inside Syria, will take advantage of the chaos to engage in terrorism in eastern Anatolia.
The shooting down by Syrian anti-aircraft batteries of a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet flying over international waters a few days ago has the potential to internationalize the Syrian revolution and pull in NATO.
In the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force against the Syrian state, France and other European powers have felt hamstrung.
Russia and China are blocking a UNSC resolution, largely because they want Syria in the sphere of influence of the Shanghai Cooperation Council (Russia, the Central Asian states and China, with Iran as an observer). They don’t want it to become a NATO sphere of influence. Russia’s president Vladimir Putin and the Russian Arabists who advise him view Syria as a long-time Russian client that gives them a foothold in the eastern Mediterranean (Russia leases a naval base at Tartous from Syria).
But in the United Nations Charter, there are two grounds for war. One is self-defense. The other is a UNSC resolution designating a state as a source of disorder in the international system.
By firing on the Turkish plane (more especially in international waters), Syria has presented Turkey with a legitimate casus belli, a legal cause for war. The news that Syria actually tried to shoot down a second Turkish plane underscores this legal point. Turkey may defend itself. (For the moment, Turkey is considering non-military responses such as cutting off electricity to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.) [The plane was shot down over international waters; it may have veered into Syrian airspace at one point, but that would have merited a warning, not a shoot-down.]
Turkish intelligence says that it has evidence that the Syrian military knew that the plane was Turkish, referring to it as “komsu,” the Turkish word for “neighbor.”
One can only speculate at Syrian motives. But Turkey has given refuge to large numbers of Syrian dissidents in its Hatay province near to Syria. Turkey and Syria had established good relations in the last decade, but the revolution and civil war have forced Turkey to take a stand. Ankara has sided with the revolutionaries, and called for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. Qatar and Saudi Arabia are suspected of supplying the Syrian revolutionaries with rocket-propelled grenades and other war materiel that would allow them to take on the powerful Syrian military machine. Some observers believe that the RPGs and other weapons are being smuggled in from Turkey. And, such smuggling operations might need aerial support to make sure there aren’t Syrian troops along the smuggling route.
So the Syrians may have deliberately been sending Turkey a message, to back off.
It was a stupid move. As long a Syria did not engage in hostilities with other states in the region, it was teflon, since Russia and China were protecting it at the UN. But now that it has fired on a NATO plane, it has offered Turkey and its colleagues a legal way to use force.
I don’t think either Turkey or other NATO members will be at all happy to be drawn into military action in Syria. (Nor do I think that would be a good idea). But they might be drawn into creating a humanitarian corridor at Hatay in Turkey, and guarding it from Syrian attack.
By its unwise aggression against Turkey, Syria may have internationalized its civil war, something it and its allies had desperately been trying to avoid.
Moreover, if Turkey really does stop helping with electricity exports to Aleppo, that step could contribute to further discontent in one of the few major cities where protests have been muted and somewhat infrequent.
The NGO Reporters Without Borders has demoted Turkey by 10 places in its World Press Freedom Index rankings for 2011-2012. The report’s statement that “the judicial system launched a wave of arrests of journalists that was without precedent since the military dictatorship [of the early 1980s]” reminded me of the “Back to the Future” movie series.
In the trilogy, the heroes use a time machine to go back and forth between the past and the future, which causes them to inadvertently change events and cause new problems. As Turkey tries to solve its old problems with outdated means, it faces the same contradiction as the heroes of “Back to the Future”: without learning from the mistakes of its past, Turkey seems destined to repeating them.
Most of the blame for that problem lies with Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish). Just as the AKP deserves credit for the economic boom of the past 10 years, it is also responsible for the recent decline in democratic standards in Turkey. Especially under the counter-terrorism law of 2006, an increasing number of journalists and college students have been detained on terrorism-related charges, which include writing books that have not been published or reading others that are readily available in bookstores.
The point is not to berate the AKP. That is too easy and it is done elsewhere. The real question is why the AKP is turning to despotism at a moment when it tries to promote Turkey as a “model” in the Middle East?
The AKP’s authoritarianism rests on two possibilities:
- As Turkey’s prospects for joining the European Union decrease, AKP’s reformist reflexes have weakened.
- Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his cadres have a background in political Islam, which emphasizes a “culture of obedience.” Therefore, they never really had a reformist agenda.
Although both arguments have an element of truth, they fail to explain the full picture. For example, if EU countries’ reluctance to admit Turkey as a member had been the real cause for the AKP’s authoritarianism, most European politicians had opposed Turkish membership before Ankara had initiated accession negotiations with Brussels in 2005. In other words, Turkey’s chances for membership were quite small from the start. Nevertheless, AKP’s reforms, especially on the use of Kurdish in public, allowed the accession negotiations to commence. Despite the Eurozone crisis, AKP still insists that it is adamant about joining the European club. As such, to tie AKP’s increasing authoritarianism to the problems with EU membership is insufficient.
The second point is moot for similar reasons. If the AKP had never been genuine about its commitment to reform, it would not have bothered with the EU membership process so much. Moreover, if the “culture of obedience” is the paramount dynamic for political Islamists in Turkey, there would not have been a party called AKP today because Mr. Erdoğan and his friends could not have revolted against the leading traditionalists of the Virtue Party in 2001. At any rate, if a sense of obedience had been that strong among Turkish Islamists, three political parties with Islamist tendencies would not have existed in Turkey today (AKP, HAS, Saadet). “Obedience” is important for religious conservatives in Turkey but it is insufficient in explaining the current situation.
Which brings us “back to the future”: the state’s continuing predominant role in economic life and an insecure neighborhood makes authoritarian methods enticing for the AKP. The same is true for the party’s supporters in the media. In fact, many newspapers that supported the “soft coup” of 28 February 1997 (known for the date when the Turkish military gave a stern warning to Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan for his Islamist leanings, causing him to resign less than four months later) back the AKP today. Sabah newspaper, which supported the “28 February process” in 1997, today supports the AKP for similar reasons. It is owned by a business conglomerate that is close to the AKP. Sabah’s previous owners had been allied with hardline secularists.
Zaman newspaper is an even better example. Despite being part of the religiously conservative Fethullah Gülen movement, Zaman had also lent support to the military in 1997 (though not as overtly as secularist papers). Today, it is virtually the AKP’s mouthpiece and pretends to condemn the Turkish military’s role in politics.
The journalist Fatih Altaylı is another notable example. Mr. Altaylı had directed the most powerful criticism as a columnist against Mr. Erbakan in 1997 but today he is using his Habertürk newspaper to support Mr. Erdoğan.
The most important reason for the media’s support for the AKP is that large corporations with media interests do not wish to alienate the ruling party by raising their voice. No conglomerate likes to idea of losing a lucrative government contract because of its media outlet’s reporting. It is for that reason that mainstream media outlets do not investigate allegations and arrests under the ongoing “Ergenekon” and “KCK” cases. (“Ergenekon” refers to a network of army officers and their supporters who allegedly tried to carry out a coup in 2005 and 2007 while “KCK” is the alleged political wing of the Kurdish group PKK, which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.)
The AKP’s stated aim is to not to take Turkey “back to the future.” Quite the contrary: it promotes Turkey as a viable “model” that combines democracy and free market capitalism to other countries in the region.
But Turkey could serve as a model only if it could consolidate a genuinely democratic regime. At the moment, most Middle Eastern countries already share the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index with Turkey. Unless the AKP remembers the dynamics that brought it to power in 2002 – authoritarianism, corruption, restrictions on the media (all products of 28 February) – it runs the risk of joining the parties that it defeated ten years ago in oblivion.
Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia He is currently writing his dissertation on U.S. relations with Turkey and Iran during the Cold War and the origins of anti-Americanism in the two countries. This post was originally published in Turkish.