Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Interview with Amberin Zaman

Turkey at a Crossroads, as Always
An Interview with Amberin Zaman
by Khatchig Mouradian
ZNet; April 21, 2007

“Turkey is always at a crossroads,” I said. “That’s what we have been reading in the newspapers in Turkey and in the West for years now. It seems it is convenient to stay at a crossroads.”

There is no choice but to take the road to EU integration, he insisted. It is the only way to bring freedom of expression, minority rights and democracy to Turkey. For Turkish-Armenians, too, it is crucial. “There are people in this country who—if given the chance—would slaughter us again,” he told me.

This was in June 2005 in Istanbul.

On Jan. 19, 2007, I woke up from a phone call from Turkey. “It is all over Turkish TV,” I was told. “They killed him.”

Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was slaughtered in front of the editorial offices of his newspaper Agos. He had met one of the people who was “given the chance” and acted upon it.

Three months have passed since Dink’s murder, and—you guessed it—the country is still at a crossroads. I talked about today’s Turkey with Amberin Zaman, Turkey correspondent for The Economist.

“Even I, as a journalist, have to measure my words very very carefully, because I don’t know when some extremist will consider what I said to be ‘insulting Turkishness’ and take me to court on that,” Zaman says in this interview. “ It’s a very nefarious, poisonous atmosphere that we live in today, and all the more so because we really can’t pinpoint where the danger is coming from. And what’s really obscene about it is that these people use Turkish law to attack intellectuals,” she adds.

Khatchig Mouradian—How does an election year differ from typical years in Turkey? What makes this election year special?

Amberin Zaman—In a typical election year, you have all of the issues in the country being debated and politicians claiming that they have the solutions to these problems. There’s a lot of noise, a lot of propaganda. But this is a quite unique year because we have both presidential and parliamentary elections.

For the presidential elections, the government is in a position to elect its own candidate, because the ruling party has a majority in the parliament. We haven’t seen this for a long time in Turkey, not since former Prime Minister Turgut Ozal managed to elevate himself to the presidency back in the early 90s.

The ruling AK [Justice and Development] party has brought political Islam closer to the political center; and despite all the scare mongering that’s going on, it will win the next election. People don’t buy the Islamist bogeyman stories anymore. That is not to say that the forces that oppose democracy won’t keep pulling deadly tricks out of their bag. But I truly believe their days are numbered. The real threat to Turkey in my opinion comes from instability on its southern border. The worst thing that could happen would be for Turkey to intervene militarily in Iraq, and there is no dearth of hotheads calling for this. The other big issue is corruption and sadly the AK party is not as “white” as its name claims. The parallel economy, which accounts for roughly half of the economy by the Economy Minister’s own admission, is sucking up huge resources that could help alleviate poverty in the southeast, for instance.

This time around, the issue has taken a particular significance because the secular camp, led by the military, is arguing that if the AK party manages to elect its own candidate, and particularly if this candidate happens to be Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s secularism, its westward orientation, will be at stake.

On the other hand, there are liberals who argue that if Turkey is a democracy and if a party has a majority, then it is perfectly legitimate for it to have its own candidate—be it the Prime Minister or somebody else—and elevate him to the presidency.

In this case, there is the added twist of the Islamic style headscarf. Critics argue that the scarf, worn by more than half the spouses of members of Erdogan’s cabinet, is a sign of Islamic militancy and not just an expression of personal piety. So there is incredible debate revolving around, I must say, a woman’s head.

K.M. —It has become a cliché to say that Turkey is torn between the East and the West, Islam and secularism, totalitarianism and democracy, etc. What are your thoughts on this duality paradigm?

A.Z. —I disagree with that paradigm because over the past few years, and particularly with the AK party’s rise to power, modern democracy, rule of law and human rights have all found expression in ways that have also captured the imagination of pious people in this country. I think the people who tend to portray overtly pious politicians as Islamic fundamentalists are just afraid of losing power. They are scared of change. They don’t want a Turkey that’s open and transparent.

K.M.—Does the ruling party push the democracy project because it is aware that this is the only way it can survive?

A.Z.—Yes, they fully understand that democracy is the only way forward for the country and indeed for their own survival, because the forces that oppose them can only be countered through democracy and the EU project.

Let us also not forget about market forces. The market economy has also played a big role in helping cement democracy in this country. The average Turk can now project 4-5 years into the future, something they were unable to do just a few years ago. The Turkish lira is now stable and inflation has been brought under control The Turkish consumer is rather happy and does not want to see any of that threatened by political tension. And I think that lesson has been taken on board by the Turkish military, especially after the huge financial crisis in 2001 when everyone woke up to the reality of globalization—that what happens in Turkey has an impact abroad and vice versa.

K.M. —What are the main challenges Turkey faces on its path to democracy?

A.Z. —The Kurdish issue is a very key one. Being able to deal honestly with the past—the Armenian issue—is another key challenge. Accommodating Turkey’s non-Muslims, non-Turks and non-Sunni Muslims is also a big challenge facing Turkey. And we still have quite a long way to go before finding solutions to all of these problems.

K.M.—You use the term democracy quite frequently when you talk about Turkey. How loosely are you using this term? How much of a democracy is Turkey?

A.Z. —If Turkey is to become a full democracy, there are several things that need to be fixed. First of all, it needs to reduce the role of the military. Unless you do that, it’s pretty hard to fix the other problems.

K.M.—During Hrant Dink’s funeral, tens of thousands of mourners chanted, “We are all Hrants, We are all Armenian.” Yet, a nationalist backlash was also evident in the aftermath of the killing. What has changed in Turkey after January 19 [the day Dink was assassinated]?

A.Z. —I don’t know if anything changed. I think it is a question of what emerged. I think what emerged during Hrant’s funeral was that a lot of Turkish people—despite all this nationalism, despite all this fear of the other—were able to empathize with the Armenians who have been portrayed as the enemy even though they happen to be Turkish citizens and have lived on these lands for thousands of year. This is an extremely important development.

Yes, there has been a backlash, but the very fact that over 100,000 Turks took to the streets raising placards saying they were all Hrant, were all Armenians is something quite extraordinary. At Hrant Dink’s funeral, the mourners—mostly middle-class Turks—felt horribly guilty, horribly ashamed. I think the forces that are opposed to change in this country were quite shocked and disturbed by that.

Yes, we have all these weird, creepy ultra-nationalists organizing across the country, but there is a parallel protest by an increasing number of Turks who want a more democratic, less paranoid country for themselves.

Regarding the Armenian issue, people are just trying to block what they suspect might have happened. There is “collective amnesia,” as Elif Shafak calls it, carried down from generation to generation. I don’t think it’s a conscious denial. It’s buried in the people’s collective memory and now, finally, self-questioning has started in this country. You also have to give credit to popular culture in this regard. A widely popular series called the “Valley of the Wolves,” which appealed to all of our worst nationalistic instincts, has been taken off the air. This didn’t happen because the EU told us to do so, but because hundreds of thousands of Turkish citizens believed that this was very harmful. And I think that Hrant’s tragic death helped us realize this. And it was probably one of the very few instances as a journalist in this country that I ever saw this kind of spontaneous civic reaction actually materializing to something concrete.

We have this explosion of TV series that depict love affairs between Greeks and Turks. Indeed, one piece of extraordinary news emerged in the past few days that the very same production company that put out “Valley of the Wolves” also has a project to air a show about a love affair between a Turk and an Armenian. Popular culture is a very effective way to overcome stereotypes and taboos. It is not overtly political so people are much open to accept messages through popular culture than through the voices of various politicians and Western countries that lecture Turkey. I do believe civil society is really taking root in this country.

Still, there is this great resistance on the part of certain great forces to deal honestly with the past, because in fact it will challenge some of the notions on which the republic was founded. There is this almost existential fear about the issue—a siege mentality, a sense that these Western forces are using these “local collaborators” (Armenians, Kurds, non-Muslims) to dismember Turkey. Eighty years on, we still seem to be immersed in that sort of paranoia, which is very recklessly exploited not just by the army but by politicians as well.

It is my firm conviction that until Turkey deals honestly with its past, it will not be able to move forward. And I believe it is now all coming to a head with Hrant’s death. There is a collective malaise in this country born of the knowledge buried somewhere deep in the Turkish psyche that some pretty horrendous things happened before the Republic was formed. That is what propelled so many to take part in Hrant’s funeral. It’s almost as if they were trying to say, “We aren’t all murderers.” But then, so many other horrible things followed, though they were far from being on the same scale, that people didn’t really have a chance to take stock. It’s only now, after 6 years of largely uninterrupted democracy and a cooling down of the violence in the southeast, that we can reflect on the past. There has been a profusion of films and TV series questioning military interventions. Despite the intimidation campaign unleashed by the ultra nationalist thugs and their mentors, I think it’s only a matter of time before the Armenian issue is debated in its proper context as it should be.

K.M.—But most people are still afraid to speak out in Turkey…

A.Z. —Even I, as a journalist, have to measure my words very very carefully, because I don’t know when some extremist will consider what I said to be “insulting Turkishness” and take me to court on that. It’s a very nefarious, poisonous atmosphere that we live in today, and all the more so because we really can’t pinpoint where the danger is coming from. And what’s really obscene about it is that these people use Turkish law to attack intellectuals.

K.M. —What are the prospects of Article 301 being removed?

A.Z. —The Prime Minister keeps saying that he is open to the idea of amending it, certainly not scrapping it altogether. It is an election year and like all politicians, the Prime Minister is very wary of losing nationalist votes. I frankly can’t say with any certainty that we will see change in that law, but even if we amend Article 301, there are other laws out there that extremists can use to continue attacking intellectuals. What really needs to change as much as the law is the mentality in the country.

K.M. —How do you envision this change? Will it come from civil society, or are the powers that be so strong that change will only happen when they are ready to allow it?

A.Z. —I think it’s a two-way process. There is a civil society that seems to be bearing fruit and at the same time there is some readiness to change at the top.

What makes the Turkish military very unique when you compare it to other militaries in developing countries is that it has always drawn much of its popularity from the Turkish people. Let us not forget that it continues to be the most popular institution in this country and I think Turkish officers and generals would never want to lose that support. They understand that as Turkey becomes more open and democratic in this global world, people’s perceptions are changing and that they, too, have to change. Reasonable people in the military fully appreciate and understand that their actions now have a very direct impact on the economy, and that there’s no better way to antagonize your citizens than to make them poor.

K.M.—Let us talk about the Kurdish issue. What does the average Kurd suffer from in Turkey?

A.Z. —First of all, there are the very real problems of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment in the regions of Turkey mainly populated by Kurds. That is a very big challenge. Also, if you are an ordinary Kurd living in the southeast and you want to express yourself on the basis of your very distinct ethnic and cultural identity, you still run into problems. I’ve been down to that region countless times. I can give you the example of a private radio station in the province of Hakkari, where the owner told me that he is constantly in trouble with Turkish authorities because he plays Kurdish music on his channel, even though the lyrics of the songs are in no way offensive or threatening.

There are so many other examples that I can give you. In recent weeks, we have seen an enormous amount of pressure brought to bear on the leaders of the largest pro-Kurdish party. The president and co-president of the party were sentenced to six months in jail because they had handed out flyers in the Kurdish language.

Also, you still need to have 10 percent of the national vote in order to make it into parliament. This needs to be lowered to a reasonable level because it automatically excludes pro-Kurdish parties. A Kurdish politician cannot go to parliament and represent the cultural demands of the Kurds. Until you allow this people to be a part of the political system and empower them in that way, there will always be non-political actors such as the PKK who continue to advance these goals on behalf of the Kurdish people.

K.M.—How is the U.S. intervention in Iraq viewed in Turkey?

A.Z. —I think that everyone—from the leftists to the centrists to the rightists to the Islamists—is pretty much opposed to the U.S. intervention in Iraq. Insofar as how they view Turkey’s interests in light of the situation there, you have different voices, but the strongest one says that the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in northern Iraq is being encouraged by the U.S., and that this poses an existential threat to Turkey. The strongest evidence of this, they argue, is the fact that the U.S. has not taken military action against the PKK. The common perception is that the U.S. favors Iraqi-Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jelal Talabani over the Turks, and that this is partly due to Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. troops to open a second front against Saddam Hussein using Turkish territory in 2003.

There is this tunnel vision on Iraq. They see everything through the PKK lens.

K.M.—What about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? On one hand, there is popular support for the Palestinian cause, and, on the other, there is the strategic alliance with Israel…

A.Z. —There seems to be a contradiction between Turkey’s strategic alliance with Israel and this huge wave of support and sympathy for the Palestinians. But that contradiction in many ways exposes broader contradictions in the way Turkey thinks about itself and the world. Because on the one hand, they believe that the alliance with Israel will make Turkey stronger in the region. Before the Iraq war, it helped Turkey gain favor in Washington and gave it a lot of maneuvering space, certainly vis-à-vis the EU. You had that sort of structure in place, that sort of idea that if you have good relations with Israel then America will always be behind you and you can flex your muscles more effectively vis-à-vis the EU, Iran even, and the entire region. Certainly, that whole paradigm has shifted following the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It’s one that was already beginning to unravel after the first Gulf War. I think that we are now seeing significant realignment of that power equation.

K.M.—Talk about Turkey’s relations with Iran, especially in the context of the nuclear issue.

A.Z.—Turkey is increasingly seeing this as an opportunity to exercise its regional power and influence. It seems to have portrayed itself as an honest broker in this crisis. As a Muslim, pro-Western country and a member of NATO, Turkey has credibility on both sides, and certainly its credibility in the Muslim world has been greatly enhanced by the AK party. There are many examples of Turkish behavior that suggest it wants to embrace the Muslim world in a way that none of its predecessors did. I think the Turks see all of it as more of an opportunity than a problem.

K.M.—If the confrontation deepens, will Turkey be forced to choose sides?

A.Z. —I think Turkey will be on the side of European governments and the U.S. as long as it’s confined to non-military measures. But beyond that, Turkey will remain decidedly neutral. In my opinion, Turkey will not allow the U.S. to use its territory or airspace to launch attacks against Iran.

K.M. —Where do you see Turkey going? Will we witness more EU integration or will extreme nationalist feelings and growing pressure from the EU will take the country in another direction?

A.Z. —I like to remain optimistic and hopeful that Turkey’s general direction will be towards a modern democratic society. There is going to be plenty of towing and throwing along the way. That’s what we are witnessing now, strong nationalist pressure. But you have to look at the historical perspective. Turkey has been trying to modernize since the 19th century and from that time until today we have had reactions and counter reactions.Today, the military enjoys more influence than it should in a democratic society but I think the winds are blowing in the direction of more democracy and not less.

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