Sunday, June 30, 2013

Is Turkey As Democratic As Washington Thinks?

By Namo Abdulla - for Rudaw


 It all started with an environmental protest against a government’s decision to replace a rare park with a shopping mall in the center of Istanbul.

The police response was harsh. 

Tear gas and water canons were used abundantly. Dozens of people were injured. Hundreds were jailed. 

Soon it became clear that the protest was no longer just about the destruction of trees. For nearly three weeks, Turks poured onto the streets of Istanbul, Ankara and other cities to call for an end of what they viewed as the creeping authoritarianism of Prime Minister Recceyp Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan is the leader of the Justice and Development Party, also known AKP, a political party with roots in the “so-called” ideology of moderate Islamism. He came to power more than a decade ago.

Initially, he was praised in the west for leading attempts to further democratize Turkey. In 2010, for instance, he changed the constitution bringing the country under more civilian control. 

He lifted a near century-old ban on women headscarves in public institutions. 

But since the constitutional amendment, Turks have increasingly been worried about Mr. Erdogan’s hidden intentions as he has sought to build more mosques and limit the sale of alcohol. 

Under Mr. Erdogan’s tenure, Turkey has become the biggest prison for journalists, according to Paris-based Reporters Without Borders.

Last week, the police widened their violent crackdown clearing Gezi Park from the protesters, who had posed the biggest challenge to Erdogan’s authority in more than a decade. For now, the demonstrations seem to have largely been tapered off. But the disillusioned, discontented and worried Turks are still there.  

Turkey was established as a secular nation state in 1923, shortly after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. 

Turkey has always been an exceptional country in the region and is a non-Arab nation that is Muslim and the center of the Ottoman Empire, which was a world power for centuries. 

It is also one of the few that never experienced western colonialism, thanks to Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who defeated forces sent by the allies in World War I.

While most Arab countries depend on oil for their state-run economy and use the natural resources as tools to insulate themselves from the people, Turkey boasts a free market in which a vibrant economy is thriving without having abundant oil reserves to rely on. 

It derives some 23 percent of its gross domestic product from tax, and the rest from trade, industry, service sectors and agriculture – a comparatively large percentage.

With some 79 million people, Turkey is a country with a mosaic of ethnic and religious groups located in a distinctive location between Europe and Asia. 
Its geostrategic position is home to one of the major US military bases. 

Since 2003, it has become the main route for Iraq’s oil and has the potential to aid the flow of gas to Europe.

But Turkey has big problems with its own Kurdish population. 

That is partly a result of Mr. Ataturk’s authoritarian vision to create an exclusive state based on “Turkishness”.  This constitutional definition of Turkey failed to contain millions of non-Turkish minorities.

For their ethnic rights, Kurds have fought bloody conflicts with the Turkish state. The most prominent one has been led by Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which was established in 1984. The PKK-Turkey conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives.

So is Mr. Erdogan a rising autocrat? Does his nostalgia for an Ottoman past mean he’s turning the modern country into a theocracy like Iran?  What future is awaiting Turkey in an increasingly tumultuous region?

Joining this episode of Inside America

Edmund Ghareeb, an American University Professor of Middle East Politics. Dr. Ghareeb has extensive knowledge and experience in Turkey. He has particularly written on the Kurds, a large ethnic minority living in parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. He is the American University's Center for Global Peace's first Mustafa Barzani Scholar of Global Kurdish Studies.  

Michael Lane is the Founder and President of the American Institute for Foreign Policy, a private entity dispensing strategic analysis, advice and forecasts on international events.  Lane founded the organization in 2004 building on a foundation gained working more than three decades in military policy and planning, as well as national and international political activity. Mr. Lane has appeared on major international television networks including BBC, CNN, ABC and Al-Jazeera. 

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