Turkey cannot be a global power until it is a stable democracy | Bulent Gokay

On the rise of Turkey, its messy foreign policy, and the AKP’s internal ‘enemies’–Richard Falk’s discussion with the Turkish PM provokes more questions than answers.

This article is a response to a conversation between Richard Falk and Turkey’s Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which took place on 28th September–see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief’s reasons for doing so here, along with the many other responses to Davutoğlu published in this series, listed to the right under ‘Related Articles’.

The names of miners who died are laid out at a protest in Istanbul following the Soma mine disaster, the worst such disaster in Turkey’s history, and one that raises questions about the so-called taşeron (subcontractor) system. Demotix/Şebnem Köken. All rights reserved. 

Richard Falk’s detailed conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu offers a window into the thinking and self-perceptions of the ruling elite at a critical moment in this increasingly important regional powerhouse’s troubled history. Clearly intending to deal with many of his critics and various speculations regarding the origins of his party’s policies and general direction of his country’s immediate future, Davutoğlu provides scrupulous mini essay-like responses to Falk’s questions. However, these responses provoke more questions than they answer.

Although there are many points that I could draw on as examples of the kind of provocation which unfolds as a result, I want to briefly discuss four below.

1) The AKP’s ‘record of economic success’

Davutoglu claims: “During our years, the world economy has been mainly declining, but despite a serious economic recession our per capita income has actually increased rather dramatically.”

The AKP’s success and popularity during the past 12 years is indeed closely linked to the fact that the Turkish economy has achieved significant growth during the past 10 to 15 years. With an impressive growth spurt, Turkey has been placed among the top 10 emerging economies in the world alongside the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). Turkey’s per capita income tripled within the decade that the AKP has been in power.

The AKP’s leaders seem to have taken the credit for Turkey’s economic rise personally. However, it should be obvious to anyone who understands how the global economy works that this economic progress is to be attributed to a longer term–maybe decades long–period of development. If we take account of the projections made by major global institutions like the UN and the IMF, or analyses put forward by key academic experts, such as Paul Kennedy, Turkey was clearly already, by the early 1990s, being heralded as one of the top 10 emerging stars.

Such projections were based on the population dynamics, growth potential and geographical capacities of these states and an identified major shift in the world economy for the benefit of a number of emerging economies–BRICS and others–including Turkey. Even in 1987, there was a reference in a major work to this economic trend. So, to some extent, the AKP government could be said to have found itself in the right time and the right place, rather than creating the conditions that led to the country’s economic growth.

Even though the relationship between the economic/social development of a country and the democratization of its political system is considerably more complex than a simple one-to-one relationship, there is a fragile but essential link between being a strong economic power and establishing a stable democratic system in the long run. One does not survive long without the other.

Today, Turkey is a rising economic power, with its internationally competitive companies turning the youthful nation into an entrepreneurial hub, tapping cash-rich export markets in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East, while attracting billions of investment dollars in return. But all this progress will require a stable and functioning democracy to survive. It is not possible for Turkey to be a respectable and responsible world power without achieving fully functioning democratic status, including freedom of expression and democratic rights. There is no exception to this. All existing evidence from the transition countries point to this same conclusion. Turkey will become a real global power only when its economic progress is matched by a strong, stable and functioning democratic system.

2) Turkey’s ‘active foreign policy’

The prime minister claims that the AKP’s foreign policy “became a success story not only for the state, but also for individual Turkish citizens”.

It is certainly the case that Turkey’s foreign policy reflects a more active and confident approach on the part of the government in the past 10 years, in parallel to the country becoming more prosperous and increasingly stronger in the global arena. A policy, which popularly came to be known as “zero problems with neighbours”, has been the centrepiece of Davutoğlu’s ‘new’ foreign policy agenda. Before the escalation of the Syrian crisis, the new proactive foreign policy of the AKP government achieved some success: Ankara first developed close relations with the Syrian regime to the level of a strategic partnership, and closer economic and political ties were initiated with Iran and Russia.

But the situation in Syria proved much more complicated and difficult for Ankara to handle. The crisis has exposed weaknesses in Davutoğlu’s claims that Turkey is a significant regional power working for peace and stability. With the Turkish authorities providing the so-called rebels in Syria with an unchecked and poorly overseen support base in Turkey, Turkey has effectively become a warring side in the bloody civil war in Syria. Turkey’s Syria policy has become an unmitigated disaster, and Davutoglu’s nicely crafted analysis has turned into quite a mess: ‘strategic depth’ is now a great strategic failure.

In Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood regime having fallen from power and Turkey’s prime minister openly taking sides against the new (military) regime, Turkey’s prestige as the stable and strong regional negotiator evaporated into thin air. Many in the region, and beyond, now consider Turkey as standing on the side of a Sunni crusade against the Syrian regime. Starting with its “zero problems” policy, Turkey has ended up antagonizing almost all its neighbours and moving rapidly to a situation of “zero friendship” in the Middle East. Davutoğlu’s government now faces a Frankenstein’s monster, as the growth of IS in Syria and Iraq is increasingly threatening Turkey’s internal stability.

3) The ‘parallel state’ and a ‘Gülenist conspiracy’

Davutoğlu refers to ‘the parallel state’ in some detail, meaning the influential movement led by the exiled religious leader Fetullah Gülen, and blames “Gülen loyalists” for infiltrating “into positions of influence in the government bureaucracy”.

Once Freud used the term “narcissism of small difference” to explain that in a relationship, there can be a need to find, and even exaggerate, small differences in order to preserve a feeling of separateness and self. In other words, one’s social (and political) identity often lies in small differences, and this difference is asserted against what is in common in order to achieve a superficial sense of one’s own uniqueness.

The current ongoing conflict between the AKP leadership and the Gülen movement reminds me of this term. Despite the intensity of the clash, in particular during the last six months, I do not see any significant principal differences between two camps, neither on ideological or political grounds. Both groups are pro-Islamic, in favour of faith-based communities worldwide, and both share a common belief in the free market economy, private entrepreneurship, cherishing upward-socio-economic mobility.

Both sides share the same conservative frame of reference on almost all social and cultural issues. More important, the bulk of the supporters of both sides emanate from the same group of people: the lower and middle classes in Anatolia, who had been marginalized by secular regimes since the beginning of the republic, despite the fact that this group has always represented a clear majority of Turkey’s population.

So, in my opinion, the current conflict stems from a power struggle in the commanding heights of the establishment, and is not necessarily fuelled by different political, economic and ideological interests. Therefore, it is rather superficial to present this as a major conflict. What is at stake are positions of power in the state structure in order to safeguard certain key political and economic interests.

4) ‘We are accountable because we won three elections’

Davutoğlu refers heavily to his party’s success in three consecutive elections by increasing its majority, and presents this as a clear indication of his government’s accountability.

Democracy is not only about elections every four or five years. It is essentially a means for the people to choose their leaders and to hold their leaders accountable for their policies and their conduct in office. In a democracy, the people are sovereign. They are the highest form of political authority, not their elected political leaders. Power flows from the people to the leaders of government, who hold power only temporarily. Within a democracy, the people are free to criticise their elected leaders and representatives, and to observe how they conduct the business of government. Elected representatives at the national and local levels ought regularly to listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions.

However, after a period of 12 years under AKP rule, we see in Turkey an increasingly authoritarian, more explicitly religious, and obsessively neoliberal system. This has been quite evident since 2011, with the start of violent repression of public protests, jailing of journalists on suspicion of conspiring with terrorists, and pressure being put upon newspaper owners to sack critical journalists. This increasingly authoritarian stance seems to have been sanctioned because millions of people, 53 per cent in the most recent elections, in Turkey’s representational democracy, had given their power to Davutoğlu’s party.

But with the emergence of the recent protest movements, which began in Taksim Gezi Park one and a half years ago, a line has been crossed. The young protesters in Taksim Square have already achieved a significant goal: to show the urgent need to go back to basics and ensure that the fundamental tenets of individual freedom and democracy function in Turkey. If a significant number of people are not allowed to express their views freely and to demonstrate peacefully and if their attempts to express their opposition are met with such heavy brutality, then this is not a proper democracy.

Posted in Cultural Studies, Current Affairs, Global Shift, History, International Relations, Political Economy, Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Imperialist feminism: a response to Meredith Tax | Deepa Kumar

Home 17 December 2014


A new generation of thinkers and activists are actively seeking a larger framework than what liberals like Tax can provide.

Meredith Tax seems very keen to discredit my arguments about Imperialist Feminism. In her essay on the “Antis”—a term she coins to describe me, Saadia Toor, and our ilk—she charges us with being anti-feminist, sectarian, and reductionist. She further states that we are largely irrelevant, since “few will read us,” but that we are nevertheless dangerous because we focus our “attack exclusively on liberal feminism” and don’t understand how to fight against fundamentalism and for women’s rights.

Before I debunk Tax’s various distortions of my arguments, let me state clearly where I stand on the question of Imperialist Feminism.

As I described in my essay titled “Imperialist feminism and liberalism,” the key focus of Tax’s attack, the framework of Imperialist Feminism is “based on the appropriation of women’s rights in the service of empire.” This framework has a long history that goes back to the 19th century. A range of scholars such as Leila Abu-Lughod, Reina Lewis, Leila Ahmed, Marnia Lazreg, Rana Khabani, Saba Mahmood, Lata Mani, and others have written extensively about what has variously been called colonial feminism, gendered Orientalism and imperial feminism. If Gayatri Spivak coined the phrase “White-men-saving-brown-women-from-brown-men,” to describe this phenomenon, Abu-Lughod in her recent book Do Muslim Women Need Saving analyzes the development of imperial feminism since then. She argues that since the Afghan war a new ubiquitous commonsense has emerged that sees militarism as the means to advance women’s rights.

Historically, brown women have not been “liberated” by imperial action, as we see from Egypt under British occupation to Afghanistan under US-NATO occupation. I have therefore argued that the struggle for women’s liberation should come from below, through global grassroots movements which mobilize against larger social structures that produce sexism and misogyny. In my lecture at the University of California, Berkeley, I state that feminists should reject the intervention of imperial states like the US and learn the lessons of history.

Certainly the elite have learned their lessons. A wikileaks exposé of a CIA red cell propaganda memo shows the spy agency advising European governments on how the suffering of Afghan women might bolster flagging public support for NATO occupation of Afghanistan. They state that “initiatives that create media opportunities for Afghan women to share their stories with French, German, and other European women could help to overcome pervasive skepticism among women in Western Europe.” This is not new. Colonialism has historically relied on native spokespersons and native collaborators to ideologically secure the colonial mission.

This is not to suggest that Afghan women who speak of the atrocities faced by the Taliban are automatically “native informants” or collaborators with empire. Women have a right to speak out about their oppression no matter where they are located. However, there are those who either consciously or inadvertently enable empire. Brown Skin, White Masks offers a trenchant critique of Azar Nafisi, Ayan Hirsi Ali, Irshad Manji and others who peddle women’s rights as a cover for imperial intervention. In short, the ideology of Imperialist Feminism doesn’t only emerge from elites and their institutions in the West but from people in and from the Global South as well. Saadia Toor discusses new forms of Imperialist feminism and outlines various actors, including Meredith Tax, who have reshaped this discourse and given it liberal form.

Now let’s look at how Tax systematically distorts my arguments in order to prove her own (Saadia Toor will take on Tax’s misrepresentations of her arguments in another piece).

Tax begins her essay by stating that a new theory has become “influential” among US academic feminists that blame the feminist movement, particularly white liberal feminists in the West and their native informants in the global South, for the suffering of women in Muslim majority countries. She then uses my recent essay on openDemocracy as an example of this trend.

First off, there is no such fashionable theory that exclusively blames feminists for the problems encountered by women in Muslim majority countries. Tax provides absolutely no citations to back up this claim. Instead, she focuses on my piece which she distorts to advance her own argument. My piece is about how Imperialist Feminism as a framework permeates politics, news and culture in the 21st century. As part of this analysis, I argue that historically liberal feminists in the West, and their collaborators in the South, have supported imperial missions due to their flawed understanding of the state (and empire).

Tax completely ignores this and instead argues that my “evidence” fails to support Tax’s “thesis”! I did not argue that the Feminist movement is responsible for the suffering of Muslim women rather I point to how women’s rights in Muslim majority countries need to be understood in terms of nation, region, class, nationalist politics, the part played by Islam in political movements, etc. I also highlight how Western commentators fail to acknowledge the agency of Muslim women and the struggles for women’s rights, for instance, in “Morocco, Iran and Egypt.” Tax conveniently skips over these statements and charges me with ignoring the “the struggles of women against politicized religion in Muslim-majority countries.”

Tax argues that initially RAWA did not oppose the US war. In fact, RAWA activist Tahmeena Faryal in her speaking tour of the US shortly after 9/11 stated clearly her opposition to the US bombing campaign. Writing about her talk in Chicago, a Chicago Tribune article notes that Faryal’s message was that “the people of Afghanistan, particularly women, have been persecuted for too long, and America’s bombing campaign is only making their lives worse.”

Additionally, I do not attack feminism in general much less homogenize various branches of feminist thought. Instead, I highlight the need for structural analysis. Liberal feminist groups, no matter their location, tend not to fight against the economic and political structures of society. As Arundhati Roy notes, while NGO’s in India have done good work, they have stayed away from challenging neoliberalism. She argues that the NGO-ization of the women’s movement has made Western liberal feminism (the most funded brand of feminism) the key definers of what feminism is. The net result has been a feminist analysis “short of social, political and economic context.”

This is why I emphasize the imperial political context, but Tax purposely distorts that to say that for “the Antis, the only struggle that counts is the one against imperial imagery.” Rather than engage seriously in an honest debate, Tax prefers to create a straw person that she then proceeds to attack.

She argues that I see no need to “focus on secondary issues like Islamism.” If I thought so, I would not have spent two chapters of my book on Islamophobia discussing Islamism and the attitude that leftists should take towards them. Had Tax deigned to read my book, rather than cherry pick arguments, she might have learned that I have a nuanced approach to Islamism. In chapter four, I outline the part played by the US in fomenting political Islam. Viewed as a bulwark against secular nationalism and the left, the US supported, funded, and trained Islamists in a range of countries. In chapter six, I look at the local conditions that allowed Islamists to grow such as the failure of secular nationalists and the left to adequately address political and economic crises.

Tax, however, chooses not only to distort my analysis she also conveniently omits the part played by the US in bolstering Islamism. This omission is arguably intentional since for Tax, and for liberal imperialists, the emphasis has been on equating the parties of political Islam with Nazi fascism. While Islamists like ISIS and the Taliban are indeed horrific in their brutality, such an ahistoric parallel with the Nazis is analytically deficient, doing nothing to arm activists with the analysis they need to counter Islamists. Its ultimate goal is fear mongering that paves the way for Western military intervention.

It is curious why Tax chose to direct her ire at myself and Saadia. Perhaps because I am a Marxist and publish in socialist outlets, Tax believes she can use tired red baiting arguments to discredit me. Or perhaps what irked Tax is that my piece on openDemocracy was listed as “most popular” receiving extensive readership (just as other series critiquing liberalism on openDemocracy from a left perspective have been hugely successful). What I infer from this is that a new generation of thinkers and activists are actively seeking a larger framework than what liberals like Tax can provide—a structural analysis of capital and empire—as the basis from which to understand and fight racism, sexism and various forms of oppression and exploitation. I welcome this development and hope to continue contributing towards a productive discussion and debate. We have a world to win.


About the author

Deepa Kumar is a professor of Media Studies at Rutgers University. Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire is her most recent book. 

Posted in International Relations, Political Economy, Current Affairs, Politics, History, Post-colonial Studies, Global Shift, Orientalism, Eurocentrism | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment