Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Erdoğan, Trump and Authoritarian Populism

Erdoğan rally in Cologne
The Holy Roman Empire came to an end at the hands of a 21-year old.  His name was Mehmet and he was the 7th Sultan of the empire in the East begun with the Turkish tribal leader Osman in the late 1200s.  Mehmet, known as “The Conquerer,” took the city of Constantinople, then the capital of the Roman Empire, after a six-week siege in the spring of 1453, effectively ending Christian hegemony in that part of the world.  The Greek Orthodox Church remained intact, but the Church of Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia), Istanbul’s most famous landmark to this day, became a mosque.  Mehmet named himself Kayser-i-Rum (the Caesar of Rome) and founded the political system that lasted until 1922 when the Ottoman Empire gave way to the Republic of Turkey.  Historians use the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to mark the end of the Middle Ages, so it may be said that the Ottoman Empire began on the day the Middle Ages ended.

Osman was originally Uthman, in the original Arabic, but the th-sound, which exists in some languages (English, Spanish, Greek as well as Arabic) is not found in either Turkish or Persian.  In both those languages, an s was substituted for the th, and you got Osman.  The th became a t in Italian, which then also added a vowel in keeping with the Italian aversion to consonant clusters, and pronounced the name Ottoman.  That was taken up by French, and passed on to English speakers as well.  So in case you wondered, Osman = Ottoman.  No relation to Otto the Short.  Or Otto the Red aka Rufus.  Or any other Otto, for that matter.

[Sorry about that.  I was a linguist in an earlier reincarnation and sometimes things like that pop out like Peter Sellers' Hitler salute in Dr. Strangelove.]

Back to the 21-year old that changed the course of history.  Well no, actually.  He’s done his thing and now it’s up to the Turks to take it from there.  Fast forward through Suleiman the Magnificent into the 20th Century and the competition with the Habsburgs and the eventual alliance with the Germans in World War I.  Gallipoli and Lawrence of Arabia and all that. That alliance would be its undoing.  Everybody knows the triumphalism of the West led to Hitler eventually.  Bad idea, that, to beggar one’s enemies.  Versailles, I mean.  No telling where that will lead.  But besides Versailles, there was also Sèvres, a treaty signed in 1920 forcing the Turks to renounce all non-Turkish territory.  France you take Lebanon and Syria.  Britain, you take Palestine.  The victors tore at the flesh of the Ottoman Empire like hyenas on a gazelle.  (OK, the Ottomans were no gazelle, but give me some space here.)

Enter Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.  What we need here, folks, is a modern state.  Off with your fezes, gentlemen, ladies no more headshawls.  We’re going to makes ourselves over to look like France and their policy of laïcité, or secularism.  No more Arabic alphabet.  We’re using the Roman alphabet from now on. Mr. Sultan-Caliph person, we’ll not be needing your services any longer.  We’re going to have ourselves a president and a prime minister now.  Islam, you can stay, but we’re going to follow the example of Protestantism in the Christian countries, and tighten you up where you’ve gotten loose.

Atatürk knew, in other words, that a full-scale attack on Islam would never work.  It was too much a part of the Turkish culture. The solution was what the west had come up with, a way of both protecting religion and protecting ourselves from its power.  We call it separation of church and state.  Enjoy the hell out of your faith, but don’t use it to prevent those who prefer a different faith or none at all.  And to make sure that happens, we’ll keep it out of the public sphere, thank you very much. Oh, and by the way, that means women now get full say in what happens to them.  When they were given the right to vote in 1930, Turkey actually moved ahead of several other Western countries where women’s suffrage was not yet a reality.

Two opposing ideologies emerged, that of the ulema, the “guardians of legal and religious traditions in Islam” and that of the modernisers, known as kemalists, from Kemal Atatürk.  The challenge faced by the kemalists has always been to persuade the opposition, who believe you’re either “fer us or agin’ us,” that there is such a thing as neutrality when it comes to religion.

Zoom ahead once more to the current era where in the United States we routinely leave it up to religious innocents (and not so innocents) and others who believe truth to be what they wish it to be, rather than what the cold hard concrete world of facts tells you it is.  We have somehow managed to squeeze the Middle Class almost out of existence and generate a two-class system.  An elite class that has ignored the rest of us to our own peril, and an "I know what I know" class that aims to fix it. The elite upper class has managed to piss off the other class, which includes the official Catholic Church and the Evangelicals who helped usher Pied Piper Trump into office. We’re now engaged in a culture war where the two sides don't know how to talk to each other.

Which is not to blame both sides equally. How do you talk with a Trump type, who lies for strategic purposes?  How do you talk with a radical evangelical or a jihadist convinced God is on their side?

We might have learned from the Persians...Iranians, who allowed their dictator-shah (with our support - but that's another story) to use his popularity among the elite as an opportunity to screw the religiously unenlightened at the bottom. Look what happened there when the folks at the bottom finally couldn’t take it anymore.  But we don't take lessons from lesser democracies.

Most people in America today pay little attention to the battle going on inside the Roman Catholic church between modernizers who have, among other things, removed the use of Latin in the liturgy, thus making the content of the mass more accessible to worshipers.  Conservatives, including the last pope, Benedict, are fighting to bring back the Latin mass, want the Big-Daddy priest/magician back again.  When the Islamic reforms got started under Atatürk, a similar thing happened, only in spades. The Qu’ran was for centuries available to Turks only in Arabic.  The kemalists had a Turkish translation made and distributed, but it took until 1935 to get it accepted.  And the process was reversed in 1950 when Arabic was restored as the liturgical language of Turkish mosques.  Sometimes it’s one step forward, two steps back. Language we can understand invites our participation, and ultimately our personal responsibility.  Language reduced to symbolism of tradition and authority suggests we'd be better off leaving that authority in the hands of our betters.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called for a national referendum to be held this coming April 16th.  Turkish citizens will vote on eighteen proposed amendments to the constitution.  These include getting rid of the role of the prime minister and turning the job over to the president, who could then appoint one or more vice presidents. The executive presidency would replace the parliamentary system.  Executive decrees would take precedent over legislation.  Erdoğan’s party, the Justice and Development (AKP) Party, and its supporters argue Turkey is under threat and the chaos of too much democracy has made the country unstable and unsafe.  All they are asking, they say, is that Turkey give up the parliamentary system common in Europe and move to the American system of a strong executive.  Turkey, they claim, is beset by enemies on all sides, ISIS, Syria, the Kurds, the Turkish military, and the native Islamist organization, the Fethullah Gülen, which they label a terrorist organisation.  Erdoğan maintains that all his enemies were behind the coup against his government last year.  There are now six political parties on the yes side.

The no side claims the referendum signals the end of democracy in Turkey and the implementation of what amounts to dictatorial powers for Erdoğan.  More like the American system, perhaps, they say, but without the checks and balances.  The wishes of the solitary executive will take precedance over both the legislative branch and the judiciary. 

The battles between the two sides are frequent and often violent.  And they are spilling over into Europe, where large populations of Turkish expats with dual citizenship are involved.  Turkish-German relations are at a new low since Germany turned down an application for an Erdoğan rally and Erdoğan responded by describing the event as involving “Nazi-style tactics.”  Didn’t sit well with the Germans.  Holland, too, is on the outs with Erdoğan. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Social Policy Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya were both denied premission to hold rallies among Turkish migrants.  Dutch Prime Minister Rutte was then subjected to the same “Nazi” swipe from Erdoğan as Angela Merkel’s government was.  And now Switzerland and Austria have followed suit.    Erdoğan has control over the media and uses the images of Dutch and German police beating Turks to strengthen his assertion that Turkey is beset by enemies on all fronts.  And as if smearing the Dutch with the Nazi label wasn't enough, Erdoğan decided to put a little icing on the cake. “We know how rotten their character is from their massacre of 8,000 Bosnians there,” he said, referring to the Dutch at Srebrenica.   Since these events, support for the yes side has grown.

I’m obviously working as a rank amateur here.  I’m not a historian and my attempts to see modern developments in Turkey in a historical context are necessarily superficial.  But I sit here marveling at the chutzpah of such outrageous slander on the part of Erdoğan and how much the man resembles Donald Trump.

Donald Trump put Exxon Mobil in charge of the environment, Goldman Sachs in charge of the financial sector, Rick Perry in charge of Energy, a department he vowed to dismantle, and the sister of Erik Prince, the mercenary par excellence who made a fortune in Iraq through his company, Blackwater, headed up by Cheney, in charge of education, when her sole stated purpose in education has been the dismantling of public education.  All his lies and narcissism aside, it gives me a fix on the man.  And so too do these charges against the Dutch tell me much about the character of the man Erdoğan. I'd like to take his arguments seriously that governing Turkey demands a stronger hand these days, but how would you feel if you had lived through the German occupation of Holland and lost family members and friends to the Nazis and you now had to endure the attempts of this moron to paint you as a Nazi?  And it’s true, the 110 Dutch U.N. peacekeepers failed to stop the Serbians from marching in and massacring 8000 Muslim men and boys they were in Bosnia to protect.  But the Dutch government took responsibility for that failure, and admitted the troops were not sufficiently trained and backed up.  It was hardly an act of brutality.  Only one Bosnian Serb was sentenced to prison, by the way.  Erdoğan, like Trump, obviously uses facts filtered through his own self-serving lens to suit his purposes.  “Their massacre?”  The Dutch did the massacring?  I'm to trust this demagogue?

What’s capturing the most attention abroad is Erdoğan’s crackdown.  Since the coup last July, 46,875 people have been arrested; 4070 judges and prosecutors fired, and 7316 academics have lost their jobs.  (The Guardian puts that figure at 5000, but even that figure is astonishing.) 162 journalists have been arrested, including 11 from Cumhuriyet, the country’s oldest newspaper.  2500 journalists have been laid off and 170 media organizations have been shut down. 

Then there are the spin-off effects that Trump and Erdoğan can't be blamed for directly, but are clear indicators that there is something rotten about their approach to politics.  Trump's rallies brought out the KKK and the thugs - the "deplorables" Hillary was referring to when her words got twisted back at her and used to make her sound like an elitist.  Erdoğan's remarks about Germans and Dutch being Nazis have likewise unleashed a flood of deplorables.

One issue that has been brought front and center is the issue of dual citizenship.  If the Turks who have made their home in Germany had been required to renounce their Turkish citizenship, there would be far less animosity between the two countries, since there would be no point in campaigning abroad.  Another unforeseen consequence of “too many freedoms.”  Instead, Germans are outraged by the jailing of one of their citizens, Deniz Yücel, a reporter for Die Welt, Germany’s conservative daily newspaper.  He was jailed in Turkey for reporting on a story involving Erdoğan’s son-in-law which Erdoğan evidently did not consider favorable to his reputation. (It involved the hacking and leak of the son-in-law’s e-mails.)  From a Turkish perspective, this is a domestic matter, since Yücel is obviously Turkish.

I probably should not be making too much of the parallels between Erdoğan and Trump.  There are some; the comparisons are obvious.  The biggest one, as I see it, is Erdoğan’s willingness to use the discontent of the religious folks in the bottom half of society, the ones we are inclined to dismiss as types jerked around by their religion or handicapped by their lack of education in many cases.  A serious social or political analysis might well find plenty of differences to counter these parallels with, I’m sure.  And maybe, for all I know, the vote to move Turkey from a more parliamentary government to a more autocratic one might not be a total disaster.  I’d hate to take the chance, if I were a Turk, but I don’t vote in their elections.

But as I follow the international news these days – as much as I have the stomach for – I have trouble keeping a sense of despair at bay I feel at watching what’s going on with Putin in Russia, Trump in the U.S., Viktor Orban and his yes-man president Janos Ader in Hungary.  Like Putin, Orban is simultaneously painting foreigners as a threat and cracking down on local Hungarian human rights groups.  

Then there's Poland. Some 50,000 people demonstrated in Warsaw in December against their government’s reinstatement of known lawbreakers, an action which the head of the EU labelled a coup.  (That’s socialist candidate for Chancellor Martin Schulz, by the way, who is running against Angela Merkel.) Andrzej Zoll, former president of Poland’s Constitutional Court, warned that “twenty-five years of democratic Poland is coming to an end."

We're waiting at the moment for the result of the election in Holland to see what role Geerd Wilders' nationalists will be playing there.  Then there is Marine LePen and the nationalists in France.  In Germany, too, the AfD party has had alarming victories in recent elections.  National populists are in these days.  And nationalism is a passion one whips together with authoritarianism.  You need a special guy to save the nation.  And you need to give him special powers. 

So far, we have been spared the horror Turkish democrats are experiencing watching thousands of journalists being thrown in jail or prevented from doing their job.  We still have a powerful resistance.  Saturday Night Live, all the evening talk shows, Rachel Maddow, even the mainstream press, are having a field day satirizing the shenanigans and bringing the deceptions of the oligarchy that is the Trump administration to our attention.  I know naysayers claim nobody on the right listens to these folk anymore.  But they are still there and they are still loud and as long as they are free to talk there's possibility.  As long as Trump doesn't succeed in totally discrediting all of them, we're still good.

America likes to think of itself as a unique Zion upon a hill, the exception among nations. Exceptionalism is still part of the ruling orthodoxy and in the American psyche. But there’s no reason why, if we’re willing to spend an hour here and there following what other democracies are up to, we can’t shed that foolish notion once and for all.

If we learn nothing else from the Trump phenomenon, we can at least recognize that we’re not above making the same mistakes as the rest of the world.  That we are equally capable of following a Pied Piper to our own destruction.  That we’re all grown up now and don’t have a daddy anymore to fix all our problems for us.

I know that’s hard.  I miss my daddy sometimes too.

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