Thursday, June 24, 2010

Response to Thomas Friedman and his 'letters' from Istanbul

Does one need to go by the name Thomas Friedman to be such a superficial “analyst,” to be a writer of columns that glisten with shallowness? This is the question that arises, inevitably, when one reads his two recent articles titled “Letter From İstanbul,” published by The New York Times on June 15 and 18.

Hastily -- if not sloppily -- written (after a visit to Turkey of about 48 hours), both articles apparently aim -– with the help of feeding clichés and myth-building -- to influence and manipulate the decision-makers in Washington, D.C., rather than to understand and explain the underlying motives of the complex political and social undercurrents of Turkey, and to elaborate on what lies beneath the changes in Ankara's foreign policy.

Taking the growing unease between Turkey and the US as the point of departure, Friedman's sourcing is as equally problematic as is his generous use of stereotypes.

Calling the current Turkish government “Islamist,” Friedman claims it strives for “leadership in the Arab world,” wants us to believe that Ankara abandoned its EU vocation altogether in order to “join the Arab League” instead, that the “secular elite” live in constant fear of voicing its critical viewpoints, that Erdoğan must be compared to Chavez or Putin, that “the [Turkish] media is rampantly self-censored” and so on and so forth.

The grain of intellectual honesty detectable in those articles is that Friedman feels obliged to admit that “he exaggerates, but not that much.” Well, this should be called “being too fair to oneself” because being a star columnist at a serious paper imposes a certain level of responsibility, however little time he may have for having a wider and just perspective. One would expect, at least, a “Turkey admirer” like Friedman to read some analysis (from varying, even opposing, points of view) on the airplane, flying to İstanbul.

He apparently did not bother. What is reflected in the article is some selective quotes (certainly not in favor of the government, but not in an explanatory manner, either) and some silly questions such as “Is it true, as Prime Minister Erdoğan believes, that Israel is behind the attacks by the Kurdish terrorist group P.K.K. on Turkey?” which he refers to his constantly anonymous sources. (In fact, the paper he works for has a strict policy on the use of anonymous sources, but perhaps they don't apply to star columnists like him.)

Let us go through some of Friedman's remarkable clichés and findings. He uses the label “Islamist” when describing the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its government. Is this a correct description, or simply meant to feed the growing American dismay about its policies and rhetoric?

It is clear that the AKP is, to a large extent, composed of devout Muslims, but to paste an “Islamist” label on it one needs to have an idea of whether or not it drives and implements an “Islamist” agenda. Had Friedman chosen to be sincere, he would have read successive progress reports by the EU and found no reason to “exaggerate a little.” The AKP is a post-Islamist, conservative party that has not abandoned a liberal agenda on reform (even if its failures overshadow its achievements) and has successfully driven a globalist economic policy -- a fact even Friedman admits.

Friedman is a well-known staunch “friend of Israel.” There is nothing wrong with that: I am a friend of Israel, too. But the problem starts when one lets the pro-Israeli bias become the guiding light to claim that the AKP has its eyes on the leadership of the Arab world.

This is, to say the least, myth-building.

Even a regional connoisseur like Friedman knows that none of the influential Arab powers would even come close to the idea. Moreover, it is obvious that Friedman never gave a thought to the fact that the Tehran agreement with the Ahmadinejad regime and the “no” vote has caused irritation among and threatens to alienate some of the Arab states in the Gulf and elsewhere.

One cannot be a leader of the Arab world by warming up the dialogue to new levels with Tehran. What Turkey is after, simply, is to expand economically and culturally in the region and conduct an assertive conflict resolution and security policy in accordance with its financial might.

As Hugh Pope, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, wrote for Haaretz some days ago: “[Erdoğan's policy on] Stability and prosperity through free travel, economic integration, and policy coordination looks more like the EU's recipe for conflict resolution. Also, other beneficiaries of this policy have been Russia, Serbia and Greece. Turkey's ties to Europe and the U.S. may have become less dominant, but that doesn't mean Turkey has changed its fundamental direction. More than half of Turkey's exports go to Europe, EU states account for 90 percent of foreign investment in Turkey, and more than four million Turks already live in Europe; in contrast, Middle East states take less than a quarter of Turkey's exports, account for just 10 percent of its tourists and employ only 110,000 Turkish immigrant workers.”

Friedman's analysis of the domestic scene shines also with its oversimplification. He writes, “The secular opposition parties have been in disarray most of the decade, the army has been cowed by wiretaps and the press has been increasingly intimidated into self-censorship because of government pressures.”

This is a Mickey Mouse description of a hugely complicated country and even more complicated transition process it has had to experience in the past decade. Friedman certainly knows that the current government has operated under the constant threat of the disruption of democracy, by successive, unsuccessful (due to disagreements of the high command) attempts at an overthrow, with at least 10 (unpublished) assassination attempts against the prime minister. The army has been subjected to several legal investigations -- on atrocities, violations of human rights and coup plots -- and the “opposition in disarray” has not only been apathetic to the openly undemocratic threats to the legislative body but has also been eagerly instrumental in doing everything to stop the reform process, with the Republican People's Party (CHP) taking more than 50 reforms successfully to the Constitutional Court.

Friedman's claim that the Turkish media is “rampantly self-censored” is another example of exaggeration. Daily Sözcü, for example, has been increasing its circulation dramatically due to its fierce, fearless anti-government line. Major outlets affiliated with Doğan media or daily Habertürk constantly criticize AKP policies, as well as independent dailies such as Taraf and NTV channel.

If Friedman had bothered to look carefully and objectively at dailies like Todays Zaman or its rival, the Hürriyet Daily News, he would easily understand why he should not only be a sounding board for some columnists he met in İstanbul -- affiliated with Doğan media or Habertürk -- and rely on his judgment.

It is true that (as I wrote in a recent column) there is now a growing number of cases against journalists (and the Internet bans are shameful), but the majority of verdicts apply to coverage of the Kurdish issue and the judiciary. If Friedman had varied his journalistic sources and dug further about the real causes of self-censorship, he would perhaps get this correct answer: “Yes, there is rather widespread self-censorship in Turkey; it is strictly observed by media owners in areas of coverage related to their economic interests.”

Instead, he claims that the State vs. Doğan Media Group tax evasion case is a simple, clear-cut case of freedom of the press, in which he describes -- as he was apparently told -- Doğan news outlets as “the most influential -- and most critical.”

Friedman is certainly right: The leading newspapers and TV channels affiliated with Doğan have been very influential in helping lay stones on the path that led to the assassination of our Armenian-Turkish colleague Hrant Dink as well as the systematic conduct of character assassinations and witch hunts against the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk and a large number of Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals and dissidents. Yes, Doğan is the most “critical” media group – “critical” if and as long as the ownership's economic interests have not been “met” by those of the government. It is apparent Friedman's intent is to create a myth of Erdoğan and the AKP as the enemies of freedom, a viewpoint rejected by, for example, the EU Commission and a large part of the European Parliament.

Friedman stretches his arguments even further by drawing comparisons between Erdoğan and Putin and Chavez. This may sound attractive but lacks depth. The latter two have shown to be ruthless against the media, and the world watches with concern when Venezuelan media is silenced by concrete measures and when in Russia journalists are murdered or handcuffed and taken to prison. It is true that Turkey's prime minister has a problem with anger management, but a simple look at the tumultuous past eight years of politics show Turkey,with its puzzling fight for power between the conservative elite and democracy striving society, is neither Venezuela nor Russia.

Friedman stretches it even further: “Who defines Turkey will determine a lot about whether we end up in a war of civilizations.” Wow. One certainly hopes that it will not be he who does that. The common denominator with Friedman and some other old-type thinkers is that they tend to disregard the sociology, the layers of undercurrents that exist in a transitional country like Turkey.

The issue is not simply whether Turkey will comply with the policies of its allies; it is at the point of seeking and ascertaining the balances with which it will contribute its experiences to the new global policies shaped by them. It is a world where social engineering from above does not work, where the dosage of religion in political life is defining and the war of civilizations can only be avoided by dialogue.

At one point I agree with my colleague: It is the EU that should understand how important it is to revive the negotiation process with Turkey, if we all want the democrats here to continue to speed up democratization. It is our fight, as well as theirs.

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