Politics, religion, and culture where East meets West

Archive for June 2013

Süzme Sözler I

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From a 1935/6 collection of clever sayings about everything from nationhood to Hitler and Greta Garbo, by Turkish writer Raif Necdet Kestelli:

Büyük adamlara en yüksek rütbeyi ve en parlak şerefi devlet değil, millet verir.

Which, as I understand it, is an interesting look at the traditional Turkish regard for what constitutes a devlet as opposed to what constitutes a millet, and which is preferable.

In translation:

The highest distinction and most shining honor for great men is not to bequeath a state, but a nation.

Written by M. James

June 29, 2013 at 9:55 pm

Posted in Culture, Language, Turkey

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Son Kullanma Tarihi

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From Brazil with love.

From Brazil with love.

Amidst the news of the decreasing use of tear gas (which I cannot independently confirm) and the (more certain) news of the use of capsaicin in TOMA trucks’ water cannons (instead?), here’s a familiar image of a tear gas canister with its expiration date conveniently elided.

It reads:

It is dangerous to use
(this thing) after its
last-usage date
Series: BEO-J
Production Date: 10/2011
Last-Usage Date: [?]

*wink wink*

*wink wink*

But even more dangerous than extending the shelf-life of your non-lethal chemical arsenal is using it incorrectly. Or, rather, “incorrectly.”

Type 1

gas canister

Do not fire
at people

How “open” those areas and how “directly” the canisters are fired are, presumably, the prerogative of the end user.

Written by M. James

June 19, 2013 at 11:10 pm

Posted in Language, News, Turkey

Tagged with , ,

#irritated Ankara

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The following, written on 6/8/13, is a follow-up on a prior post for Atatürk’s Republic, which sought to explain how Turkey’s multi-party system not only fragments the opposition of the ruling party, but also perpetuates Turkey’s illiberalalbeit democraticsociety. As part of this chronically fragmented society, the demonstrators of this last week will have a difficult time unifying to effect meaningful political change. Worse, they don’t even know what they are fighting against.

One week ago, at 2:30am, I dropped my duffel on a poorly lit street corner and hailed a cab for Esenboğa International Airport. My shirt was damp and my sinuses were still tingling, but I was oddly at ease. In three hours, I’d be on my way home.

I offered the remaining bills in my pocket80 liraand the driver’s face lit up. He asked what time my flight was, urged me to buckle up, and handed me his sweater-vest as a pillow. I sneezed; he laughed. For the next hour on the road, I pretended to sleep. The city was calm, but there was electricity in the air. The deliberate cacophony of pots and pans emanated from one apartmentwhat would become, over the next few days, a 9:00pm ritualbut the rest of Ankara seemed asleep. I couldn’t help wondering, though, if theylike mewere only hushed, with one eye open.

The evening had been, in some ways, a bust. Intruding on my last, nostalgic night of draft beer and good company was the unwelcome irritation of expired Brazilian tear gas. I consulted Reutersthese were already, allegedly, the biggest protests to rock Turkey in years. And so, through the pungent smell of propellant, the tinny sound of the canisters, and the sight of sprinting protestors through the windows, I wondered aloud at what the next step would be.

The Turk seated across from me shrugged. He wanted garlic bread, but the bar had been too busy cutting lemons for its gas-afflicted patrons to complete the order. We called a few friends and urged them not to join us after all. Once the garlic bread arrived, we could talk. “It’s about time,” seemed to be his outlook on both the bread and the protests. “Won’t get good media coverage, though.” Being that he would start working at a Turkish newspaper in three days, I trusted his judgment. Would anything really change, though? We disagreed on that point.

We did agree, though, that our allergy symptoms were improved by the CS gas. The asthmatic bartender wasn’t as pleased. I blew my nose into a napkin and squeezed lemon into my eyes.

News and social media were already exploding. It was the “summer of discontent” in Turkeyobvious echoes of the Arab Spring. I laughed. It wouldn’t catch onthis was not anything like the Arab Spring. Soon, it would be re-branded as part of #occupy. Closer, but not quite. A few days later, I would begin to see the locally originated #diren, the imperative of “to resist,” oreven better“to put your foot down.” Much closer.

The question, of course, was whether or not those sprinting figures outside the window agreed on what they were resisting. Some came into the bar and, like many of the staff, sported tree-shaped stickers to demonstrate their solidarity with the Istanbul Gezi Park protesters. But everyone knew that this was not about a park, or greenspace, or even environmentalism. When I asked, the first word I heard was “fascism.” Adequately vague, but adequately powerful. The point was that these people had preexisting grievances with their government, and this was a timely outlet.

We walked outside just as the displeased throngsmarching from park to park since the afternoonreturned to John F. Kennedy Ave., carrying banners and chanting slogans. There were only three hundred, at the most, but within ten minutes, they drew a reckless police TOMA truck and plenty more tear gas. I was pulled into the next bar after being “warned” by the TOMA trucka quick water cannon across the chest. I ordered another beer. Someone threw a chair at the truck.

Half an hour later, still bemused and sniffling, I decided to head back to the apartment and grab my luggage. Part of me was happy to be leaving these streets, but another part was irritated enough to want to stay. And the more I sneezedsuch an unbecoming complement to indignationthe more irritated I got. Did what I was doing tonight really warrant that police response?

I suspect that many who witnessed that night on JFK Ave., or earlier that day in Gezi Park, walked home with similar thoughts. Fascists. What has made matters even worse is PM Erdoğan’s typically inflammatory reaction: A recitation of his perverse idea of what “democracy” means, i.e., nothing beyond election day. Many marginally displeased Turks have certainly been drawn into the ranks of the irritated by these authoritarian responses to what would have otherwise been truly marginal protests. And they have clearly been irritated enough to withstand the systematic irritation of their collective sinuses.

I have posted already, on Atatürk’s Republic, about how Turkish politics is only “democratic” in the strictest sense of the term, lacking anything that could be called liberal. The “liberal” use of tear gas in the last week only underlines this absence.

The problem is systemic, and can be blamed squarely on Turkey’s ill-conceived multi-party system, which all-too-naturally begets tyranny. Ironically, the men and women who have taken to the streets in the last week will try to work within their constitutionally illiberal democratic system, believing wrongly that the person of Erdoğan or the AK Parti is exclusively to blame for the “fascism” that they perceive. Even more ironically, the young secularists who make up a large portion of the disaffectedthemselves quite liberal-mindedwould be the last to advocate the two-party system that Turkey needs if it is to become a tolerant, rights-based, secular nation. Not only does the multi-party system prima facie seem more liberal, but the constitution that prescribes it came from Atatürk’s hand.

Until they realize what it really is that they should be resisting, the demonstrators will only be confused and irritated. And even if they do realize, and continue to seek change, they will soon understand that full-scale revolution is the only answera step that very few would be willing to take. Unfortunately, I do not see any other way out. The only solution is to challenge the very nature of Atatürk’s republic.

As we pulled up to the international departures terminal, I thanked the driver for his sweater-vest, dragged my duffel from the trunk, and handed over the 80 lira, and 75 kuruşall my bills and change. He thanked me. I smiled and nodded.

Kolay gelsin seemed the best parting words. Literally, “may it come easily.”

Written by M. James

June 10, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Posted in News, Politics, Turkey

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Accommodating Iran, developing Turkey

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In an effort to escape the myopic mumblings of the Middle East’s self-proclaimed pundits this past week, I picked a copy of George Friedman’s The Next Decade (2012) out from between the Harlequin novels of a small-town bookstore and, retreating to a lawn chair for the afternoon, paged through his familiar prose.

His sober, measured, and readable approach to the next ten years of global politics is written primarily in terms of geopolitical imperatives, and from the viewpoint of the American presidency. Shunning realist-idealist distinctions, he sets out on a nuanced vision of the near trajectory of world politics as divined by history and geography. That I find it difficult to argue with his augury is reassuring, his conclusions being very similar to my own, and generally much more well-informed.

When it comes to the Middle East, specifically, Friedman plainly sketches the necessity for a new, postIraq-war (20032011) balance of power. At present, he suggests, the imperative is an accommodation with an expansionist Iran, allowing Turkey the time to develop into the regional bulwark that will eventually compete with Iran and re-stabilize the region.

First, the accommodation (pp. 112113):

[The United States and Iran] despise each other. Neither can easily destroy the other, and, truth be told, they have some interests in common. In simple terms, the American president, in order to achieve his strategic goals, must seek accommodation with Iran.

This seemingly impossible strategic situation driving the United States to this gesture is, as we’ve discussed, the need to maintain the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz, and to achieve this at a time when the country must reduce the forces devoted to this part of the world.

. . .

Aspects of Iran’s influence would range from financial participation in regional projects to significant influence over OPEC quotas to a degree of influence in the internal policies of the Arabian countries. Merely by showing a modicum of restraint, Iranians could gain unquestioned preeminence, and economic advantage, while seeing their oil find its way to the market. They could also see substantial investment begin to flow into their economy once more.

Interestingly, it was in January of 2012the publication date of Friedman’s first edition Anchor Books paperbackthat this very process began. That January, I wrote (here):

The U.S. does not see a war on the horizon. Nor does it see a fallen Iranian regime. If anything, it sees an assertive, opportunist Iran edging out some of the GCC’s petroleum market share and gumming up the works in the Arabian peninsula. If nothing else, it sees this as a very real possibility. With Iranian influence potentially dominant in the new Iraq and the old Syria, the U.S. is in need of a hedge against a new Iran and a new oil empire.

This “hedge” was the attempt to guarantee that Iran continued to denominate its oil sales in dollars through the brutal sanctions begun by President Obama on December 31st, 2011. The intention was to annihilate the rial, leaving the uniquely stable dollar as the only sensible alternative.

In effect, this is the American precondition to Iranian expansion: (a) Exercise “a modicum of restraint,” and (b) whatever you do, do it in dollars. Whether Iran—once determined to disregard the dollar entirely—has accepted this precondition is still a matter of confusion. But don’t expect Ahmadinejad, or the next Iranian president, to scream it from the rooftops if Friedman is right.

Assuming he is right, though, there is still the second step to re-establishing a Middle Eastern balance of power (pp. 118119):

The Iranians will be assuaged in the short run by their entente with the Americans, but they will be fully aware that this is an alliance of convenience, not a long-term friendship. It is the Turks who are open to a longer-term alignment with the United States, and Turkey can be valuable to the United States in other places, particularly the Balkans and the Caucasus, where it serves as a block to Russian aspirations.

As long as the United States maintains the basic terms of its agreement with Iran, Iran will represent a threat to Turkey. Whatever the inclination of the Turks, they will have to protect themselves, and to do that, they must work to undermine Iranian power in the Arabian Peninsula and the Arab countries to the north of the peninsula—Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

. . .

In the long run, Turkey cannot be contained by Iran. Turkey is by far the more dynamic country economically, and therefore it can support a more sophisticated military. More important, whereas Iran has geographically limited regional options, Turkey reaches into the Caucasus, the Balkans, Central Asia, and ultimately the Mediterranean and North Africa, which provides opportunities and allies denied the Iranians.  . . .  Over the next decade we will see the beginning of Turkey’s rise to dominance in the region. It is interesting to note that while we can’t think of the century without Turkey playing an extremely important role, this decade will be one of preparation. Turkey will have to come to terms with its domestic conflicts and grow its economy. The cautious foreign policy Turkey has followed recently will continue. It is not going to plunge into conflicts and therefore will influence but not define the region. The United States must take a long-term view of Turkey and avoid pressure that could undermine its development.

. . .

In due course, the Turks will begin to react by challenging the Iranians, and thus the central balance of power will be resurrected, stabilizing the region. This will create a new regional balance of power.

Voila! Even the doubters have to appreciate the beautiful simplicity of reading the regional state of affairsSyria, most visiblythrough this lens. (1) Accommodate and contain Iran while (2) Turkey develops into its natural counterbalance. Certainly, Turkey and Iran have already been at odds over their regional interests. One wonders if it can be so simple.

But perhaps the more interesting question is: Does Erdoğan read Friedman? How about Ahmadinejad? Obama?

Written by M. James

June 10, 2013 at 2:52 am

Posted in Politics, Turkey

Tagged with , ,

Sobriety check: Gezi Park

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The last few days’ demonstrations in Turkey can be likened to a heavy binge. Whatever brought everyone to the table in the first place is quickly, and readily, forgotten in the pleasant haze of mutual drunkenness. Like any binge, though, the catharsis only lasts until morning, or whenever the tap runs dry. It will be only thenwondering at their cuts and bruisesthat the participants will remember what drove them to drink in the first place.

Until then, the grandiose, incomprehensible mumblings and gestures of the participants can only be understood in terms of what they’ve had to drink, and how drunk they’ve become. Some are drunk on high ideals, some are drunk on power, and many are drunk on passionate indignation.

The one thing that draws everyone together, though, is that right now they’re all, quite literally, stumbling in the street.

But once the broken glass, blood, tears, and dried lemon wedges are swept up in the morning, someone will start asking the crucial question: Did we just have a bad week, or is this going to become a regular thing?

Certainly, Turkey had a bad week: Two instances of largely unwelcome government morality-policing were widely publicized and protested. First, a reprimand for kissing couples on the Ankara Metro, and second, the parliament’s approval of an anti-alcohol bill (shops, 10pm-6am). But public sentiment really united on two further incidents. First, the sit-in at Gezi Park, and second, the police’s disproportionate response to that sit-in.

With an opportunity for a good, justified binge, everyone came out: The communists are waving their flags. The alcoholics are throwing their empties. The anarchists are wearing their black, made-in-China tees. The football fans are organizing themselves by team affiliations. The journalists are setting their exposures and snapping pictures worth a thousand dishonest, one-sided words. And the police, whether concerned about their public image or simply their own safety, provoke the assembled with undercover officers and disperse the crowds with their only weaponstear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and batons.

But while protesters and news organizations peddle the big words that sellrevolution, unity, discontent, fascism, etc.we, the observers, need to try to maintain our own sobriety in the face of a national binge and the bartenders who profit. The “anarchist” youth who burned the truck in Kızılay, Ankara are certainly less suitable for parliament than “Tayyip.” And however similar the “righteous” opposition seems today, their unity is forged in one night of tears shed togethera relationship that dissipates as quickly as the clouds of OC gas that brought it on.

Whether Erdoğan and the AKP is still, in the eyes of the majority of Turks, fit to operate the country in their alleged power-drunken state will be seen in the next general election. Rest assured, though, that whatever the conclusion, the cuts and bruises from the last few days will not quickly be forgotten.

Written by M. James

June 2, 2013 at 5:46 pm