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Archive for the tag “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan”

How to Mock a Dictator (and Get Away With It)


(originally published at The Wrath-Bearing Tree)

The German government, a coalition of Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats, has decided to allow prosecution of one of its citizens, a comedian named Jan Böhmermann who read a poem which mocked Tayyip Erdogan, the President of Turkey. This is because there is a law in Germany’s penal code that forbids insulting foreign leaders. The decision was made by Merkel despite protests from her coalition partners. Thomas Oppermann, the leader of the Social Democrats, said: “Prosecution of satire due to lèse-majesté does not fit with modern democracy.” Even Merkel admitted that the law should be changed and that Parliament will do so in the next session. It should be obvious that there are some important issues at stake in this case.

I have previously written about Freedom of Speech here (about the Espionage Act and government secrecy) and here (about Charlie Hebdo and terrorism). I am not an absolutist when it comes to Freedom of Speech; I think that it is not permitted when speech comprises credible threat of violence against a person. Insults and mockery, on the other hand, however offensive they may be, are fair game. Giving offense is not a crime, nor is bad taste; they are both protected by freedom of speech.

I like to think of freedom of speech as the first among equals within the “First Amendment suite” of universal human rights that are the backbone of any free society: Freedom of Speech, Religion, the Press, Free Assembly, and Free Petition of Grievances. Without these most basic protections, no society can be considered free. When these rights are impinged upon, a society becomes less free.

My concern in this case is not for Germany. There is no doubt that Germany is a free, but imperfect, society (there has never existed a perfect society). The fact that the left-wing and right-wing opposition in Germany are in agreement with the Social Democrats that prosecution of Mr. Böhmermann is the wrong decision shows that Germany is not turning into an authoritarian state. Merkel herself clearly said she would try to eliminate the ridiculous law that allows for such prosecution. The problem is not with Germany. The problem is with Turkey.

Turkish President Erdogan has ruled his country for the last 14 years–the first 11 as Prime Minister and the last three as President. For the first few years he was widely praised as a reformer and modernizer who could bridge East and West. Turkey was in discussions with the European Union about potential membership from around 2004-2009. This candidacy stalled ostensibly due to a series of major problems with human rights that were far below EU standards: there was reported to be a lack of freedoms of expression, thought, conscience, religion, assembly, and press; there is also a lack of impartial judiciary, children’s and women’s rights, and trade union’s rights. This does not count to lingering problems of the oppressed Kurdish population, the Cyprus question, and the ongoing official denial of the 1915 Armenian genocide. Since the EU integration process was suspended, there has been a clear move in Turkey even further away from these reforms and more towards authoritarianism.

I have previously written about the legacy of Kemal Atatürk here. While I am highly skeptical of any consolidation of power into the hands of a single person–a dictator or autocrat–there have been historical cases in which the situation called for such a person in order to make otherwise impossible reforms. Atatürk is one such case of the rare benevolent dictator. Other historical examples can be counted on just one or two hands, and the assumption should always be that these necessary dictators give up power as soon as possible (for example, when Garibaldi conquered the Kingdom of Naples in 1860 and began implementing constitutional reforms, before voluntarily and peacefully giving the territory to the newly united Kingdom of Italy six months later). One of the lessons of history is clearly that all power corrupts (another theme I have discussed here). If we look critically at the career of Tayyip Erdogan, we can easily follow the path he has led towards authoritarianism, with no apparent sign of his giving up any power during his lifetime. He has moved away from his early reforms towards crushing all opposition and making laws according to his own personal diktat.

The tragedy of Turkey is that it has the potential to be a great country with a free society. It has no need of a dictator. It is similar to Russia in both these regards. But power corrupts. And when certain men (because it’s always men) hold power for too long, they begin to see conspiracies and threats around every corner, and they tighten their control of state institutions and limit any lingering freedoms already existing in the country. These men are always afraid of armed uprisings or military coups d’état, but what is just as dangerous in their minds is mockery. When a dictator consolidates his power, writers, comedians, artists, poets, and intellectuals of all stripes are immediately placed under surveillance, exiled, imprisoned, or shot. This is because dictators cannot stand the idea of anyone openly making fun of them, even if it’s a joke about their facial hair. Only the dictator sees a real potential threat from a joke by a poor comedian about the dear leader’s whiskers. In this case, Erdogan has followed the dictator’s operating manual to the letter.

It has long been troubling that a law exists in Turkey that forbids criticism of any kind against Kemal Atatürk. The existence of such a law is itself an affront to freedom of speech and historical inquiry. I respect the achievements of Atatürk, but no leader, living or dead, is free from criticism from his subjects or posterity. The danger of such a law has been made manifest in new laws clamping down on criticism against Erdogan, and the complete disregard for freedom of speech and the press that now seems to plague Turkey. Erdogan has ruthlessly pursued prosecution of anyone expressing any criticism of him, such as a Turkish doctor who posted an (admittedly uncanny) comparison between his President and Lord of the Rings villain Gollum.

Erdogan is now taking his game one step further by exploiting a little-known German law to pursue a case against a German comedian who mocked him on German television. This comes at a key time in which European governments are relying on Turkey to stop the influx of refugees through Turkey into Europe so as to appease the growing right-wing xenophobic parties gaining steam around the continent (and the world). Erdogan, always a wily operator, will take advantage of this deal to demand that European governments import his version of press controls in return for cooperation on refugees.

America is by no means a perfect society, but at least it has probably the strongest tradition of freedom of speech and of the press in the world (even if the limits are constantly being tested). In how many other countries in the world can you imagine a comedian not only mocking a sitting president to his face for 20 minutes on live television, but even living to tell about it. That is what happened with Stephen Colbert and President Bush in 2006, and happens everyday of the year with other comedians, writers, or just normal citizens on social media. As I have explained, jokes and speech are allowed to be offensive or in bad taste. My freedom of speech allows me to publicly disagree with what someone said, but not to silence them. The only exception is violence or threat of violence. When America talks about exporting freedom, this is what is meant. It takes a combination of strong leadership and a willing populace to gain such freedoms in the first place. It is unfortunate that the former is lacking in Turkey today, though we can hope that the latter still has a vote in the matter.

Kemal Atatürk: Dictator, Liberal Reformer, or Both?

On this date 131 years ago, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the modern Republic of Turkey, was born. He is a man of immense, almost mythical, historical importance in Turkey today, where it is still a criminal offense to express any opinion which diminishes his character. Of course, it is not my intention here to commit such an offense, for I come to praise Atatürk, not to defame him. I will first provide a brief account of his life and accomplishments, followed by my main purpose of examining the political legacy of Atatürk and why I believe he is an especially interesting and rare example of a useful, or benevolent, dictator.

His Life and Military Achievements

Atatürk was born to a middle-class family in 1881 in Salonica (present-day Thessolaniki, Greece) in the Ottoman Empire. His given name was Mustafa, and his second name Kemal was either given to him by a teacher because of his excellence, or to distinguish him from another Mustafa, or chosen by Atatürk himself after a famous poet. Throughout his life, he gained the further honorific titles of BeyPashaGhazi, and, three years before his death, Atatürk (which means “Father of the Turks”). We can attribute both the young Mustafa’s future military career as well as his modernizing reforms to the fact that his father had dedicated the boy to the military and also sent him to a modern secular school rather than an Islamic madrassa. Accordingly, Atatürk attended military academies from 1893-1905, and emerged as one of the Empire’s best young officers at the rank of Major. Secretly, he was also involved in revolutionary groups that intended to reform the Empire.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938)

Atatürk successfully defended an Ottoman fortress in Libya during the 1911-12 Italo-Turkish war, which was one of the few victories for the Turks against the superior Italian forces. In 1912-13, he acquitted himself admirably once more in a losing effort in the Balkan wars, where he was assigned to the Gallipoli peninsula, which would prepare him for his next, more famous task. During World War I (which Atatürk personally opposed in favor of neutrality), he was the leading Turkish commander in the Battle of Gallipoli. This disastrous and incompetent gamble by Winston Churchill caused a total of up to 250,000 deaths on both sides– Ottoman and British/Australian/New Zealand, respectively. Atatürk successfully repulsed waves of Allied soldiers and inflicted a huge defeat on the Allied forces, and won a defining victory for the Turkish people. He spent the rest of the war picking up tactical victories in other parts of the Empire against Russian and British forces, in what was ultimately a doomed Ottoman and Central Powers war effort (which he had predicted after a mid-war trip to see the front lines in Germany).

The conclusion of the War saw the occupation of the Empire by British, French, Italian, and Greek forces. The partitioning of the Ottoman Empire was meekly agreed to by the sultan and was considered a fait accompli. Atatürk, however, did not support this outcome. From 1919-22 he organized a revolutionary army and ran his capital out of Ankara in opposition to the occupied Constantinople. In a series of brilliant maneuvers and diplomacy, he gradually pushed out all the European occupiers, won support for the cause of Turkish nationhood throughout the country, preserved Turkish sovereignty in all of the Anatolia landmass, and demanded to be respected on equal terms at the Lausanne conference at the end of 1922. By this time, all the other powers were too weak or distracted to continue campaigning for pieces of the old Empire, and Atatürk was able to proclaim, in 1923, the new Republic of Turkey. After leading the new government as President and then Prime Minister, he died at the age of 57 of cirrhosis, due to his heavy consumption of raki and his strenuous lifestyle.

His Political and Cultural Reforms

At the founding of the new Republic, Turkey was still a medieval country in many respects. It had been ruled by an absolute monarch for centuries, and the literacy rate was around 10%. Atatürk, the new President, seized the moment to radically modernize virtually every aspect of the moribund society. His unquestioned prestige and power as a successful and nationalistic military leader allowed him to proceed with little resistance. Let’s take a quick look at some of his most important actions:

  • Atatürk avoided the Fascist and Communist movements that were ascendant in countries to the north in favor of his own modernizing and pragmatic ideology which came to be known as Kemalism.
  • Introduced the concept of Secularism, establishing complete separation of religion and political powers.
  • Replaced the Sharia court system with a secular civil code modeled after the Swiss Civil Code, and a penal code modeled after the Italian Penal Code.
  • Abolished the Ottoman Caliphate and replaced it with the Turkish Grand National Assembly. This body was democratic in nature, which was a first for Muslim middle-eastern countries. This parliamentary system now had elections, an assembly, a Prime Minister, and a President.
  • Began to industrialize the country, despite a complete lack of skill, educated classes, or infrastructure. Established state-owned factories throughout the country in textiles, agriculture, machinery, railroads, and automobiles, many of which became successful and privatized in the second half of the 20th century.
  • Focused heavily on educational reforms. Only nine months into the new state, he invited eminent American philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey to visit Turkey and provide advice. A system of compulsory education with a common curriculum was begun, even if only the first four years were mandatory at first.
  • Changed the difficult-to-learn Arabic script with a Latin-based alphabet. Travelled the country throughout his life to personally give lessons in the new alphabet, and often attended school and university classes in public.
  • Encouraged the wear and use of modern European clothes and hats, outlawing the fez and the turban.
  • Supported complete equal rights and opportunities for women, which was achieved in 1934 (before several European countries).
  • Supported an expansion of the arts and humanities into areas previously neglected or outlawed by the Islamic regime. Examples include new museums, historical studies, works of art, music, literature, architecture, libraries, cultural centers called “People’s Houses”, new book and magazine publications, and an overall humanistic outlook.
  • Adopted the foreign policy motto of “peace at home and peace in the world.” After the revolutionary war of independence, Atatürk never used military force again as a matter of foreign policy. Impressively, he established mutually peaceful friendships with his Greek neighbors, the Soviet Union, the Shah of Iran, the King of Afghanistan, King Edward VIII, the Balkans, and 15 European nations. He opened and commercialized the Dardanelles strait, and maintained a policy of general neutrality, which outlived him through WWII and to the present day.

His Legacy as Political Model

Now that we have some of the historical facts in mind, let us consider the central question– namely, Atatürk’s “dictator-ness.” If we define “dictator” as “a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force,” then Atatürk surely fits the definition. The armies he raised in the War of Independence were basically revolutionary armies not just against foreign occupiers, but against the “legitimate” government of the Sultan, whom he overthrew. He maintained total control of the new nation by force from 1922 until his death in 1938. He established the mechanisms of democracy, including elections, but there was only one political party to choose from– his own. Occasionally he allowed opposition parties to appear, but if they opposed him in any substantial way they were immediately crushed. He modernized the country and brought it to the 20th century, but against the will of many people. He denounced the Armenian genocide in 1915, but later allowed the participation of many of its instigators in the War of Independence in order to have a more unified Turkey. What are we to make of these ambiguities?

The list of his reforms and their positive impact is undeniable. His model of Kemalism was an important step towards the project of strengthening the new Republic and keeping it independent (from outside and inside). I think it is important to judge the man by the standards of his time, and his obstacles. He single-handedly set in motion the liberal reforms and progress on many fronts in what had been a backwards, moribund (dare I say, Byzantine) Ottoman Empire. He was a dictator in a time of many dictators, but one who actually improved his country and his people’s lives, and without the need for starting new wars. From this point of view, it was necessary for Atatürk to take the actions he did to impose his will unilaterally. However this may be, he must remain merely the exception rather than the rule, as far as dictators are concerned. For every Atatürk, there are dozens of Mussolinis or Francos who use their absolute power for rather more illiberal ends.

Every modern developed country has got to this point by suffering through either a civil war or a dictator. In the case of Turkey, there has been neither since the death of Atatürk. Turkey has grown into a prosperous country with an economic growth rate equal to that of China. It is the most well-educated and liberal of the Middle Eastern Muslim countries, and this is because of the reforms of Atatürk and their lingering effect. Nevertheless, the idea of Kemalism has probably outlived its usefulness. For decades, the military maintained the independence and secular nature of the government by force, often by means of coups d’etat. The time for this practice must come to an end. The current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has realized this and taken many steps to weaken the absolute power of the military by placing it under more civilian control. This may be frightening to some, but it is a necessary next step for Turkey to become a modern democracy.

In addition, the legacy of Atatürk should be one of respect for his many achievements and his central place in history, not one with the rigidity and dogmatism of a national deity who cannot be criticized. The freedom of speech must be absolute. Finally, Turkey should continue to seek integration into the European Union by following the steps required towards becoming a modern democracy. Atatürk himself, a great pragmatist, would surely have recognized this and encouraged his country to continue the expansion of liberal policies, human rights, and all freedoms of expression.

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