Friday, August 19, 2011

Democracy Includes Feminists

by Richard Peres, published in Sunday's Zaman, July 31, 2011

The sad state of affairs for women in Turkey is well documented. The Global Gender Gap Report for 2010, a compilation based on five years of data by the World Economic Forum, is but one of many such indicators and reports.

In the report, Turkey is ranked 126th of 134 countries, behind even Egypt, Syria and Iran. The report focuses on four fundamental areas to measure how well women are doing compared to men in their country: economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment. For example, labor force participation by women in Turkey is just 26 percent, the lowest in Europe, which includes rural women who work without pay. Also, women in Turkey earn about a fourth of what men earn and do not generally receive equal pay for equal work compared to men. Other reports by international and Turkish NGO’s further document the situation for women in Turkey, including continuing violence against women, lack of protection by the judiciary and law enforcement, and widespread employment discrimination. In addition, there is the additional burden borne by headscarf-wearing women, who only recently gained entrance into universities and continue to be unable to enter teaching jobs, state employment, and professional occupations.

Enter Fatma Şahin

Fatma Şahin was recently appointed minister of family and social policies, which is the new name for what was previously called the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs. Women’s groups lobbied unsuccessfully for this change not to occur, because it reduces the state’s focus on women. Fatma Şahin has an excellent reputation for championing the interests of women as a member of Parliament and head of the Justice and Development Party’s (AK Party) Women’s Branch. However, she opposes affirmative action for women, has voiced belief in a “strong family” over “free women,” and recently stated that “feminism has not benefited anyone until now and will not in the future.” When I read this last statement of hers I was stunned. I asked myself, how is it possible for a women’s advocate to speak so strongly against other women who are also fighting for women’s causes?

As a possible explanation, Nicole Pope of Today’s Zaman wrote in a recent column that conservatives in Turkey associate feminism “with immorality, or they view the women’s movement as a Western construct.” In explaining the ministry’s name change, the prime minister said, “We are a conservative democratic party. The family is important to us.” For me these explanations fall short. I do not doubt or question the values put forth by conservatives from all parties regarding moral principles and customs. The issue in question is the imposition of those values to the exclusion of others, in this case, condemning advocates of women’s rights, equal treatment and safety simply because they call themselves “feminists.” This suggests not just a moral issue or a lack of sympathy with Western cultural constructs. It indicates an incomplete understanding of democracy. In a true democracy, rights and freedoms are not dealt with from only from the viewpoint of the majority, but from an all-inclusive perspective including women and minorities. Does not the AK Party government, as the ruling party, represent all of Turkey’s people, including all of Turkey’s women? How is it that the only woman minister in a cabinet of men doesn’t have a kind word for women’s organizations?

Feminists in Turkey

The most disturbing thing about Fatma Şahin’s comments is their lack of validity. In the early twentieth century women’s organizations advocated civil and political liberties for women, ideals which were adopted by the new Turkish Republic and were a major tenet of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s revolution. Beginning in the 1980s women’s organizations in Turkey fought against violence inflicted on women. However, a decade later identity politics began to fragment the feminist movement. For example, while Islamic feminist activists took up the issue of the headscarf ban, protesting in the streets and at university gates, secular feminist organizations went their own way.

In the last 40 years or so, feminist organizations in Turkey have progressed far beyond demonstrations and marches. They have become significant NGOs that bolster Turkey’s civil society and take an active role in social development programs in support of women, including efforts to improve literacy, provide health information and job training, to build women’s shelters and provide legal assistance. In some respects the government is just catching up to the work of these “feminist” women’s groups. Meanwhile, these organizations are in leadership roles, providing consulting to the World Bank and being funded by the United Nations. It seems obvious that these groups have benefited Turkey and will continue to do so in the future.

Divisiveness weakens the cause

The movement in the US to gain women the right to vote, which began in 1848, suffered changes in leadership and internal conflicts for generations, but eventually saw victory more than 70 years later, in 1920, thanks to the collective and increasing support of most women in the country. In the 1960’s women like Simone de Beauvoir in France, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug and many others in America fought for equal pay and anti-discrimination laws. By the 1980s those laws were not only passed but implemented with substantial funding and institutional support at local, state and federal levels. Early US feminists were often subject to ridicule and opposition by men but managed by their sheer numbers and organization to affect substantial change in employment practices, the implementation of equitable civil laws, and increased protection against violence.

Unfortunately, the feminist movement in Turkey remains highly fragmented. Many conservative women do not support feminists and seem even revolted by the mere mention of the word, even though they have benefited from their increasing public presence, and from their pressuring government, the courts and other institutions to provide more freedom and better treatment for women. In addition, secular and Islamic women’s groups are not empathetic toward each other and do not cooperate nor collaborate – a sad state of affairs. Much like MÜSIAD and TÜSIAD they go their separate ways in lobbying the government. KADER, which supports the political rights of women, for example, shows no interest in supporting headscarf-wearing women. Lacking unity, the struggle to face the gender bias of men at work, in the courts, and in social life, seems insurmountable. Cultural values and the secular-Islamic split take precedence over solidarity and empathy. When women raised within this milieu of incomplete democracy and failure to understand what feminism stands for hold public office, the damage to the cause of women is that much more significant. Fatma Şahin’s comments about feminists within this context are not surprising.

Women have the numbers and accumulated wisdom to matter in Turkey, influence government and society, positively impact their status, and move Turkey out of its embarrassing ranking in the world regarding gender equality. The question is, will women respect the differing cultural values of their “sisters” and see the commonality of their cause? Will they come together on issues of freedom and equality over their own cultural preferences and personal values? I hope that the next generation of women in Turkey can figure out how to make this happen. All signs indicate that the current generation of Turkish women cannot seem to get their act “together” to support their own cause.


*Richard Peres is an author and journalist living in İstanbul.

CNN Falls Short in a Video on Press Freedom in Turkey

by Richard Peres
Ekrem Dumanli’s article, “Time to Counter Global Lies,” (TZ, May 9, 2011) told of misinformation campaigns aimed against the AK Party and the Gulen movement outside of Turkey. However, it seems to me that the bigger issue relates to the mainstream Western media. To the casual television and Internet viewer of short news videos, the segments appear to be objective, balanced and fair minded. Both sides of an issue are presented. However the result can sometimes be distorted. I wrote about this phenomenon in a recent piece, “MSNBC Paints a Distorted Picture of Turkey” (TZ, April 25, 2011), exposing the flaws of an online article.

Ivan Watson’s two-minute video on the repression of journalists

Ivan Watson is a young yet veteran international journalist for CNN with an impressive track record at CNN and NPR, which is why I do not understand a recent short video he produced on CNN, called “Turkey’s Battle over Press Freedom.” It not only links Prime Minister Erdogan and the AK Party to the prosecution of thousands of journalists in Turkey, it does so without any attribution of supporting sources.

This is not to say that the arrests of journalists are not troubling and that the government has no accountability. Turkey’s record in this area is bad and indefensible, as revealed by visiting the sites of Freedom House and Reporters Without Borders, reading their reports on Turkey and seeing where Turkey is ranked. Certainly the Counterterrorism Law and articles 215 and 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, that facilitate the prosecution of journalists, are partly to blame, as well as a problematic judicial system subject to the same polarization prevalent elsewhere in Turkey. Moreover, there are those who cite the government for not doing enough to overhaul the judicial system to clear these obvious obstacles to press freedom. However, the video begins and ends with opponents of the government, with a five-second interval of comments by another view. It also intertwines the issue of Ergenekon arrests and repression of criticism of Fetullah Gulen, as if they were one and the same. It never stops to consider why the government would even want to have journalists who cover alleged coup plots against the government to be arrested. The result is a decidedly one-side report, unfortunately

I can understand how the Western press has picked up on the issue of journalists’ freedom in Turkey. As a Western journalist myself I can tell you that it irks me as well. But it’s up to CNN to delve a little deeper into the complexities of Turkish politics even in its short videos.

The CNN video begins and ends with the opposition

The video begins with coverage on the arrests of newspaper columnists Nedim Sener and Akmet Sik and states that more and more journalists are being arrested as part of a “coup investigation” (Ergenekon). It shows journalists protesting, then we see Can Dundar telling the camera: “As Turkish journalists we are here to protest the growing repression of the Turkish media by the Turkish government for the last couple of years.” By the Turkish government? It would have been better had Mr. Watson delved into this issue and let us know who in the judiciary are in the service of the government and who is not. The issue needs to be explained to viewers as well as the depth of political opposition to the AK Party on almost every issue. Instead the tone of the piece is quickly set by an opposition leader to the government.

The video then switches to the topic of Fetullah Gulen and the repression of Akmet Sik’s book. The clear implication is that the government is going after those who criticize Mr. Gulen, who is pictured as closely aligned to the government. Ihsan Yilmaz was asked if it’s dangerous to criticize Fetullah Gulen in Turkey today and responded, “That’s the image they are trying to create; this is a smokescreen campaign.” Full stop. Mr. Yilmaz is on screen for all of five seconds the is quickly gone. An allegation that attacks on the journalists come from Turkey’s generals is mentioned, but then Prime Minister Erdogan becomes the subject on screen to the following voice over: “Commentators say that as his grip on power has tightened, Erdogan has become less tolerant of criticism.” Thus the video again links journalist repression to Erdogan thanks to unknown “commentators.” This statement is immediately followed by Andrew Finkel on camera: “I thought that Turkey was becoming a more liberal place; I thought that if you dismantled the military apparatus then the country would be freer.” Full stop. What questions was he answering? What was the context of his statement? We will never know but the impression given is that he is referring to Turkey not being free. Switch to picturesque shots of Istanbul with another voice over that “over 50 journalists are now in prison and thousands of others are defending themselves in criminal cases in court.”

This video ends with how it began, with Can Dundar, who states: “We want to be free to write. We want to be free to talk. And we want to be free to publish our books without any repression or fear.” Switch to protests led by Mr. Dundar with the final voice over from Mr. Watson: “Under fire, journalists are demanding that the government do more to protect a fundamental democratic right.” This is the third strike against the government. It is the guilty party regarding journalists.

A serious problem for Turkey

The lack of press freedom in Turkey strikes a nerve in the West, and for good reason. It is a clear indicator of democratic values. The mainstream press has picked up on this issue and will not drop it easily, an area that generates bad PR for Turkey and provides a hindrance to its joining the EU. The ruling party needs to do a better job of addressing the issues and explaining its actions to the West, particularly when asked in public forums. Nevertheless, CNN should take more care in how it covers this complex topic in Turkey.

Bush, Obama and the Post Bin Laden Era

by Richard Peres

I was at a business meeting in New Jersey on September 11, 2001, arriving early in the morning. A close colleague of mind lamented to me about his inability to book a booth for his company on the top floor of the World Trade Center, at the Windows of the World restaurant. He had tried until the evening of the day before that fateful horrible event. Then, as the news came in, the disappointment on his face suddenly changed to shock. The conference abruptly ended.

Driving home that day the smoke from the WTC could be seen across the Hudson, eventually smothering us with grief and torment. It was as if a dagger was struck into the hearts of us New Yorkers and it affected all Americans.

The impact was extraordinary, devastating and lasting not only on the American economy and world politics, but the American psyche. After 9-11, a galvanizing wave of nationalism swept the country unlike anything I had witnessed in my lifetime, similar to December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. That touchstone event of my father’s generation had sparked the start of World War II, something that the invasion of Poland, bombing of London and sinking of ships in the Atlantic could not do. Similarly, after 9-11, the political differences of Americans were temporarily forgotten as the country came together. US flags appeared everywhere, flying from cars, hanging from bridges and buildings, including my house. The need to fight back in the defense of the nation was overwhelming.

From 9-11 to the Iraq War

But the most compelling characteristic of this fight was that the enemy was not easily identifiable, so much so that Osama ben Laden himself had avoided the full force of US intelligence resources for almost ten years. The US public’s unfortunate support for the invasion of Iraq two years later – despite little evidence that Iraq had any involvement in supporting terrorism or was even a threat to America – was emblematic of how America’s frustrations needed a target to alleviate its pain. American military recruiters now had an easy time to get young men to sign up for a stint in the US Army without the need for conscription because many of them thought they were fighting the good fight in the “war on terror” as they left for Iraq. More than 5000 never returned.

I watched disapprovingly at the relentless campaign by the Bush administration to gain support for the invasion of Iraq from an American public that was easily swayed in this post-911 environment. Any accurate assessment of the so-called Iraqi threat seemed to dissipate in the wind. The CIA’s objections were smothered and those in the Pentagon who objected were either ignored or dismissed. The investigation by ex-ambassador Joe Wilson of a so-called nuclear threat supposedly evidenced by Iraq’s purchase of nuclear materials was attacked and his CIA agent wife, Valerie Plame was “outed” by sources in the Vice President’s office. One of the few voices of opposition to the Iraq invasion by an elected official was a young Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, but little attention was given to him at that time. Journalists lacked the motivation and heart to oppose the invasion and the rest, as is said, is history.

Bush played the security card again in the 2004 elections to get re-elected, pitching the Democrats as weak on terrorism. Ten years later America is still in Afghanistan – a deceptively fast expedition that initially eliminated the Taliban -- and Iraq, despite increasing disinterest on the part of the American public, although most want to exit in a feasible manner.

Now the situation has been reversed. The Democrats can take responsibility for eliminating Ben Laden, a big disappointment for Republicans that will only be expressed in private. If the economy continues to improve, one wonders what compelling issue the Republicans can use to regain the White House.


Waking to the news on May 2 that Osama Bin Laden had been killed, I was initially surprised at the spontaneous celebratory crowds in the early morning hours in Washington and New York. I guess I had forgotten the impact of what had happened ten years ago. I can see now how important spontaneity is: a true, clear, honest and immediate response of feelings and passions. It was spontaneity, after all, that sparked the events in Tunisia, then Egypt, toppling governments in weeks after years of repression. It was spontaneity that overcame what guerrilla movements, political groups and organizations could not do in decades in those countries, including Al Qaeda. One should never underestimate the meaning of a spontaneous demonstration, but fully absorb it. Nor should one give little value to the impact of nationalistic fervor.

This leads to the question of whether Bin Laden’s death will end a siege mentality after ten years of worrying over threats of terrorism. It will once again depend on the managing of the force of nationalism in the post- Bin Laden era. The answer is unclear. But President Obama shows no sign of mismanaging, if not abusing, American nationalism the way the Bush administration did. His absolute reluctance to be the lead participant in the NATO-run Libya operation is one example. The seemingly unending way the US presence in Afghanistan and Iraq turned out to be complex supports this view; Obama’s unique and original opposition to the Iraq war provides another source of optimism for competent leadership in the future.

Right vs. Wrong

The killing of Osama ben Laden was naturally more enthusiastically celebrated in America than elsewhere, as seen by television coverage on Monday morning coming from Qatar, England, France, Italy and Turkey. It was the CNN US commentators who were obviously caught up in the celebrations and covered them as the main story. It was as if a sleeping giant was awakened after a decade of slumber and had something to celebrate – a decade of Bin Laden videos, threats and pronouncements, color-coded terrorism warnings, and killings of innocent people regardless of religion or nationality.

America inherited a particular brand of puritan ethics from the British, a view of right and wrong that does not necessarily relate to religion. Getting back at Bin Laden was righting a horrible wrong. Burying him within 24 hours in adherence to Islamic values was also, it seems, a result of respect for right and wrong, a clear sign echoed by both Bush and Obama that the war on terror is unrelated to religion.

An event that motivates a nation as radically as this is tapping into a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful on earth. Such a force can have hard-to-imagine impacts on the human race, some good and others bad. As humans we should try to remain cognizant of the differences and not let politics interfere with discouraging the bad and supporting the good. Killing innocent people, ignoring past injustices, shooting demonstrators and protesters need to be universally recognized as bad by all countries regardless of politics Too much is at stake to do otherwise.

America's Preference for Turkish Secularism and its Implications

by Richard Peres, published by Star Acik Gorus, end of April, 2011 in Turkish

The words “secular” and “secularism” do not exist in the American constitution. For Americans, “secular” means not having anything to do with religion; “secularism” is a system that does not mix religion and the state. Moreover, Americans are not familiar with the French concept of “laicism” adopted by Turkey almost 90 years ago. America was founded by people of various religions and denominations who fled religious persecution in Europe. For this reason, the first amendment to the US constitution enacted in 1791 was very clear and direct without qualification: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Period. All Americans know this by heart. You have a right to believe in what you want, how you want, when you want and to dress according to your beliefs. The state’s role in religion in the US is zero, nothing – no role whatsoever. Obviously, there is no Directorate of Religious Affairs, no rules about what to wear, and no restrictions concerning the visibility of religion in public, even though the country is mainly Christian and religion plays a part in the rhetoric of politicians. In addition, the US military plays no political role in protecting any ideological concepts or values (like secularism) or even “internal” enemies of any kind. Thus American secularism stands in stark contrast to Turkish secularism which controls religion, restricts religious freedom, and provides insurmountable barriers to education, politics, education and employment.

However, it is interesting to note that by and large Americans do not object to Turkish secularism, are generally comfortable with it, and many support it. Why is this the case? What are the implications of this relaxed attitude for Turkey’s relationship with the US and, specifically, for the AK Party’s relationship with American policy makers? How does it affect the AK Party’s efforts for democratization, including civilian control of the military and more religious freedoms in Turkey?

During a year of living and writing in Turkey about human rights issues and restrictions on religious freedoms I always wondered why my American liberal friends do not share my passion, or even interest. On the other hand, stories in the media about possible restrictions on journalists’ rights of expression clearly resonate with them and the West. The European Parliament asked Prime Minister Erdogan about journalists, and likewise the US Ambassador commented first on this subject just after arriving in Turkey, all of which get covered by the American press. A recent article on Turkish foreign policy by MSNBC, which I recently criticized in Today’s Zaman, completely misreads the issues in the upcoming elections and directly relates Turkish secularism to democracy, thanks to an interview with a CHP member, who viewed democracy as threatened by the AK Party. The article barely mentions the military’s four coups during the last 60 years and leaves out CHP’s nomination of Engenekon suspects as deputies for the upcoming general elections.

Islam as the exception to religious freedoms

The US’s only Muslim member of Congress, Keith Ellison, recently said during a visit to Turkey that it’s more difficult being a Muslim in America than being black. Statistics about discrimination complaints in America support this. American Muslims file many times more complaints than others compared to their presence in the population. We all know about last summer’s demonstrations in the US’s most liberal city, New York, over the building of an Islamic Center and many other instances of Islamaphobia.

And yet, even Mr. Ellison will not criticize Turkey’s “French” secularism, saying very diplomatically that it is “Turkey’s choice.” In fact, he says that “Turkey is the best example of how Islam and democracy can co-exist.” Past US diplomats have taken the same position not to get involved in religious conflicts in Turkey, especially during the February 28th coup process when the secular-religious split emerged more sharply than ever. Mr. Ellison noted that Americans know nothing about Islam. He could have added that they know little about Turkey and Turkey’s democracy problems. .

By raising the ignorance issue, Ellison touches on the second dimension of the American attitude toward Turkish secularism, which is viewing it as a prerequisite to democracy. Few Americans are inclined to argue with this view. Perhaps it’s because Turkey is a buffer state between the West and the “always-suspicious” Muslim world. The public and policy makers are either oblivious to the anti-democratic downside of Turkish secularism, or simply aren’t much bothered by it, even though it is the number one factor restricting and distorting democracy. Similarly it is not bothered by the Turkish military’s self-proclaimed role of protector of Turkish secularism. The recent Wikileaks cables from Turkey from 2007 portray the US as more worried about Tayyip Erdogan’s religious views in spite of his efforts of democratization.


The implications of the US attitude may be serious for the AK Party’s democratization efforts particularly as they risk provoking the secular bloc. NGO committees, like those from TUSIAD and most recently TESEV, are making significant recommendations to change Turkey’s constitution. These changes strike at the heart of Turkish secularism and its protection by the military. A rights-based constitution could lead to battles over major issues regarding religion in the public sphere – ranging from state employment of headscarved women, their participation in the Parliament, to even perhaps challenges to the Religious Directorate. Would the US keep supporting the AK Party as crises develop? The US has never jumped in to get involved in debates over religious freedoms in the past, it seems illogical that they would start now.

This brings us to a second major concern, the notion of a possible fifth military intervention. In view of the advances made over the last few years it seems unfathomable to many. But if one occurred with the support of Turkey’s considerable secular bloc – parts of the media, judiciary, state institutions and opposition parties --what would the United States and Europe do? It was only four years ago that the military threatened the AKP government with an e-memo. What if it carried out its threats? Given Turkey’s important position in the world, wouldn’t the US administration opt to not interfere, favoring stability over democracy as it has so many times in the past?

For Turkey, there are reasons to believe that the US and Europe would respond the way they did initially to the uprisings in the Middle East and favor stability at all costs. Any perception of an “Islamic threat” in Turkey, regardless of its not being based on reality and facts, and regardless of the democratic intentions of its government, could permanently endanger the AK Party government. The American public would not be upset because, after all, it has little empathy for an Islam-friendly government. They will not want to get involved in an “internal matter.” Certainly President Obama understands and sympathizes with the issue, given his exceptional multi-racial and religious background and intelligence. But the American public is another matter.

The AKP needs to communicate better

To prevent this situation, assuming it continues with its democratic reforms, the AKP needs to improve its “PR” and pay particular attention to demonstrating to the West the need for democratic reforms that counter Turkey’s aggressive secularism and do so in understandable and compelling terms. It must help redefine the Turkish state as devoid of ideology and promote secularism along the lines of individual rights while clearly supporting and demonstrating the state’s not being involved in matters pertaining to religion religious sects, beliefs and lifestyles. At the same time, it needs to convey the importance of genuine democratic civilian control of the military as a prerequisite of democracy – extending its leadership role in the region. These efforts will require an increased focus on expressing, explaining and communicating Turkey’s democratic course as it moves beyond the 2011 elections.

MSNBC Paints a Distorted Picture of Turkey

 by Richard Peres, published in Today's Zaman, April 25, 2011

Even though casual observers often misinterpret happenings in Turkey, MSNBC’s recent article (, April 20) is disappointing, and surprising given its lineage. After all, its immediate parent company is NBC Universal, a $16.9 billion media powerhouse with a significant news organization.

In interviewing both sides of polarized issues -- like secularism, democracy and Turkey’s foreign policy - - and arriving at shaky conclusions based on misleading inferences, MSNBC writer F. Brinley Bruton makes it abundantly clear that she fails to understand Turkey’s democratization efforts. Her intent may be to enlighten, but the result has a familiar Islamophobic ring

Overseeing NBC is GE, the 13th largest corporation in the world with over $150 billion in annual revenues and $750 billion in assets. With all those resources, couldn’t MSNBC do a better informed piece about Turkey? In interviewing both sides of polarized issues -- like secularism, democracy and Turkey’s foreign policy – and arriving at shaky conclusions based on misleading inferences, writer F. Brinley Bruton makes it abundantly clear that she fails to understand Turkey’s democratization efforts. Her intent may be to enlighten, but the result has a familiar Islamophobic ring.

A complete misreading of the upcoming election

The article is entitled, “US ally Turkey flirts with Mideast’s ‘bad boys’ -- Some fear the role model for the democracy movements sweeping the region is abandoning its secular roots.” The clear implication is that Turkey is straying from the Western fold, becoming more Islamic friendly, and less secular. The “bad boys” are Iran and Syria. This is the familiar stick that Turkey is beaten with.

Ms. Bruton’s article makes the big mistake of not only misreading the upcoming election but of equating Turkish secularism with Europe and democracy: “With voters due to head to the ballot box in June, Turkey stands at a crucial juncture: will its new ruling class stick to the country’s secular roots and continue toward European stance and many of its democratic achievements?” The big issue in the election is not “continuing with secularism.” Just ask the EU or the new US ambassador in Turkey and look at the facts. The issue is one of continuing democratization first, then democratizing Turkish secularism, which goes far beyond separating “church and state” and violates religious freedom in public education, the rights to elect and be elected to the political sphere and social life. Ms. Bruton should know this because of her accompanying article on the headscarf issues.

The big issues relate also to democratizing the military with civilian controls, which the AK Party [Justice and Development Party] has continually pushed for and continues with plans for a new constitution, which one of the country’s most prominent NGOs, TESEV [Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation], has just supported with its publication of suggestions for a new constitution. Her focus instead is on the arrest of journalists and doubts about Ergenekon: “While it is possible that such a plot existed – the military has staged four coups since 1960 – Human Rights Watch has described the arrests as a ‘disturbing development’.” Freedom of journalists remains an issue in Turkey. But nothing blocks democracy in Turkey more than its military tutelage, usurping civilian authority, often in the name of “protecting secularism.” Four military coups cannot be subjugated to a parenthetical phrase. She takes the “secularism-in-danger” argument from the CHP [Republican People’s Party] at face value as the prominent issue on the minds of Turkey’s majority, sounding very much like the generals of the 1997 coup. Given the military’s record in Turkey, Mr. Erdoğan has been nothing less than courageous in his term in office.

Distorting Mr. Erdoğan, moves for democratization and Turks

Certainly Ms. Bruton’s description of Prime Minister Erdoğan as “the AK Party’s charismatic leader [that] is known for his provocative statements” rings true. However, picking out particular statements from him and other comments, without sources, are pure editorializing. She falls into the trap of giving credibility to citing Mr. Erdoğan’s prosecution by the military-led coup government for reciting a poem, which allegedly “incited hatred,” whereas it is common knowledge that Mr. Erdoğan was simply a popular political threat to the coup regime. He had, at the time, a sterling reputation of honesty and efficiency as mayor of Istanbul, one of the world’s largest cities. All this suggests that the writer might want to do a little research into the Feb. 28 coup process that lasted from 1997 to 2002 before siding with the generals.

The writer also states that Mr. Erdoğan described himself as a “Shariah-ist,” (no source), and to substantiate it she quotes 2007 WikiLeaks’ allegations from the US Embassy of five years ago. Then she states that he is “admired and reviled for his religious devotion” and cites his comments about the EU being a “Christian club.” The coup de grace in her shaky analysis is quoting a CHP member who states: “Without secularism, democracy is under threat. Today democracy in Turkey is in real danger.” Of course, this is the same CHP that nominated four Ergenekon suspects, i.e., the alleged coup plotters against the current government, to Parliament last week, and that has sided with the military on countless occasions in opposition to freely elected governments. Noticeably left out is the mention of last summer’s referendum regarding democratizing changes to the constitution, led by Mr. Erdoğan and the AK Party, opposed by the CHP and approved by 58 percent of the population.

Foreign policy comments

The argument about moving to the East at the expense of the West, tying it to being Islamic, is an old cliché. Given the end of the Cold War, Turkey has a more independent foreign policy that fits with the realities of living with neighboring countries on its borders. Ms. Bruton states, “Turkey’s rejection of United Nations sanctions against Iran was another sign that it no longer walks in lockstep with Europe and the US.” She fails to mention that Brazil also voted against the latest UN sanctions last year, that Turkey negotiated a deal with Iran to send some of its low-enriched uranium abroad in exchange for access to fuel for a medical reactor and that both Brazil and Turkey viewed the sanctions as derailing a fresh chance for diplomacy. Turkey’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, is well respected around the world and has a close relationship with the Obama administration.

The writer accuses Turkey of increasing “its ties with the likes of Iran and Syria” and “abolishing visa requirements with Syria” but is forgetting a big fact: Iran and Syria border Turkey and are Turkey’s trading partners. After all, Turkey is, for the most part, in the Middle East, whose other “bad boys” have close ties with the United States, including Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. Yes, Turkey does not walk lockstep with Europe and the US. What, exactly, is wrong with an independent foreign policy reflective of where Turkey is located and its leadership role in the region?

On the “secularism is more important than democracy” subject, Ms. Bruton cites various people. The first is Sinem Yoruk, an Istanbul gallery owner who witnessed the mob attack of last fall. “Many took it as the latest sign of growing intolerance toward Western values in the Muslim-majority country.” Yes, there have been and remain conflicts in this very polarized country. But to say that Turkey has a “growing intolerance toward Western values” is a low blow to Turks and an unfair characterization of Islamic people who maintain their faith in this very modern and increasingly progressive country. Ms. Yoruk is right to be upset and nervous about the government’s statements favoring large families and criticizing alcohol, but overgeneralizations abound. Let’s not transform her statements into dogma.

Finally, Ms. Bruton also cites Nihal Kizil of the Support for Modern Life Association (ÇYDD) in this article and another one, “Headscarves slam brakes on women’s careers.” Ms. Kizil is rightly upset at the treatment of Dr. Turkan Saylan. However, in the headscarf article Ms. Kizil is quoted: “The headscarf is a religious symbol but today it is a political symbol. … Can you imagine a headscarf-wearing judge presiding over a woman without a headscarf?” The reverse has been true in Turkey since 1923. Yes, I can imagine Dr. Saylan’s scenario in the new Turkey that is coming without reservation.

The AK Party and Headscarved Women

by Richard Peres, published in Star Acik Gorus (in Turkish), April 18, 2011

Although they comprise 18 million Turkish citizens, headscarved women have once again been left out of the political sphere by Turkey’s major political parties for the upcoming parliamentary elections. For the supporters of the ruling AK Party, which has repeatedly defined itself as the advocate of democracy in Turkey, this is particularly a major disappointment. How is it possible that the AK Party did not nominate any headscarved candidates when it reportedly conducted polls on voter preferences and public opinion in the provinces? The recent statement by Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc according to the Associated Press says it all: “I am for the election of a deputy with a headscarf in principle, but I am not sure the time has come for that.” Party leaders have also stated the need for a new constitution to bring real change in this area. Others have said they do not want to repeat the “bitter experience” of 1999 and Merve Kavakci.

Memories of the Past

The AK Party’s position is problematic in several ways. First, polls have shown over the last few years that a majority of people are tolerant of freely-elected headscarved women in the Parliament, and the referendum results of last summer demonstrate support of the people for reforms. The secular bloc is opposed but it appears to be clearly in the minority. Secondly, no one has indicated exactly what in the current Turkish constitution or laws prevents headscarved women from serving in the Parliament. The reason is that nothing in the constitution prevents it. The issue may come down to how “secularism” is defined but it is highly unlikely that this phrase will be removed from any new constitution. This is also supported by what really happened regarding the Merve Kavakci incident, which has often been distorted and needs to be revisited. Her being blocked from the Parliament had nothing to do with the constitution. She was not found to have violated any laws or regulations regarding the wearing of her headscarf in Parliament. Moreover, the Parliament never voted on her removal, as required by the Turkish Constitution. She was selectively prosecuted regarding her dual citizenship, which did not legally affect her parliamentary status -- there is no court ruling that links dual citizenship or her loss of citizenship by the Cabinet to her seat in Parliament. In fact, other members of the Parliament, and a past Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller, were also dual citizens. For all of these reasons Merve Kavakci won her case in the European Court of Human Rights in 2005 and was supported by the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

The reason for the AK Party’s reluctance in nominating headscarved women today appears to be fear, either of a Constitutional Court overstepping its bounds and unfairly closing the party, or the military, or both. That fear is reasonable, given how the current leaders of the AKP originated from closed-down Refah and Fazilet parties. They probably have vivid and horrible memories of those years under the 1997 coup-by-ultimatum process in which the full force of the government, military and mainstream press came down hard on them– a constant stream of party closures, imprisonment, and prosecutorial threats. They have stayed in power by not crossing certain boundaries and seem unwilling to risk everything for the headscarf issue.

The AK Party’s Debt to Headscarved Women

Headscarved women played a major role in the election of Tayyip Erodogan as Mayor of Istanbul In 1994. These women were also a major reason, if not the most important reason, for the election of Refah candidates for Parliament in 1995, including Bulent Arinc, deputy of Manisa, and the eventual rise of the Erbakan government in 1996

I recently interviewed Sibel Eraslan for a book on Merve Kavakci. In the 1990’s she was the head of the Refah Party’s Women’s Commission in Istanbul and later she would help manage Merve Kavakci’s campaign and a key person in mobilizing the women’s vote for the 1994 elections, gaining the powerful municipalities of Istanbul and Ankara. She led a force of 18,000 thousand women workers who met in just one month with 200,000 women voters. Yet after the victories in March, 1994, Sibel was not given any position within the newly elected Welfare party administration and was expected to go back home. Such was the plight of Sibel Eraslan and other headscarved women workers during this time, a key part of the party’s success yet treated in a patriarchal and unequal manner compared to men. By 1999 headscarved women working for Refah’s successor, the Fazilet Party, no longer wanted to be excluded from nominations for the Parliament, especially since the Party was now including secular women in the party administration, such as Nazli Ilicak and Oya Akgonenc, and considering them to be nominees. Thus the party leadership responded and put several headscarf candidates on its list for the 1999 elections, including the 30 year old head of the Fazilet Party’s Women’s International Commission, Merve Kavakci (now Merve Kavakci Islam). Necmettin Erbakan had the courage to support headscarf candidates, which was not supported by party moderates, including the current AKP leadership, because they felt it would endanger the party. They were correct and Fazilet was closed down.

These women also have memories that are just as powerful and just as bad as the AKP leadership. The difference is that the AKP leadership is in power while headscarved women remain outside of the political sphere. In addition, except for last summer’s YOK memo that granted them entrance into Turkey’s universities, they are still blocked from teaching, blocked from many professions, blocked from appearing as lawyers in court, blocked from being public employees, and suffer widespread discrimination in employment which, as recent reports show, come from both religious and secular employers

Moving Forward

Waiting for the AKP to solve this issue does not appear to be a viable option. Turkey may not want to relive 1999, but to truly become democratic it must face the past and overcome it in the present. Abdullah Dilipak told me that Merve Kavakci hangs over the AK Party like the sword of Damocles. Certainly, it appears that for now he is correct

One positive step may be to change the Law of Political Parties and requiring party elections for candidates, letting the members of the parties themselves decide, as is the case in other countries. These “primary” elections are a key first step to democratizing Turkey’s political parties, enabling the will of their voters to be heard, ending accusations of unfairness and misrepresentation, despite some of its disadvantages. It would likely end the exclusion of headscarved women from the democratic process, support all women and, in fact, all voters for all parties. It may also bring fairness to the practice that nominates certain individuals but puts them low on the list of candidates, essentially preventing their election.

Another option is to withhold their vote from parties that did not nominate any headscarved candidates, along the lines of the movement called, “No headscarf-wearing candidate – No votes.” This could be effective in helping them wield influence which, after all, is what politics is all about. At the same time they could focus on supporting the headscarved candidates who may be running for electable seats and those running independently. Long term, however, they need the major parties to affect change and to bring about dozens of headscarved candidates to the Parliament, representative of their presence in the population.

Finally, the 10 percent rule on party representation in Parliament has to end. The reason is simple: under the present system a party with less than a majority of votes can gain a majority of the seats in Parliament. Yes, this brings stability, but at what price? Presently, the AKP can ignore headscarved women and not suffer political consequences. Turkey cannot be called a democracy a large part of its population is excluded from representation in the Parliament

Başörtülü kadınlar ne zaman Meclis’te olacak?

By Richard Peres, translated by Esra Elmas, published in Star's  Acik Gorus on April 18, 2011

Merve Kavakçı’ya ‘haddinin bildirildiği’ o meşum olaydan bu yana Türkiye’deki başörtüsü sorununu yakından takip eden gazeteci yazar Richard Peres, nüfusun büyük çoğunluğunun temsil hakkı engellenirken, Türkiye asla gerçek bir demokrasi olamaz diyor.

Gazeteci - Yazar

Başörtülü kadınlar Türkiye’de nüfusun 18 milyonunu oluşturmalarına rağmen ülkenin önde gelen partilerince yine siyaset alanının dışında bırakıldılar. İktidar partisini destekleyenler için bu durum, AK Parti’nin kendini her fırsatta demokrasinin savunucusu olarak tanımlaması da akılda tutulduğunda, tam bir hayal kırıklığı. Seçmen tercihlerine ilişkin anket sonuçları ve taşrada hâkim olan kamuoyu eğilimi ortadayken nasıl olur da AK Parti başörtülü bir milletvekili adayı göstermez?

Bu soruya cevap niteliği taşıyan açıklamalardan birini kısa süre önce başbakan yardımcısı Bülent Arınç Associated Press’e yaptı. Arınç açıklamasında, ‘Ben prensip olarak parlamentoda başörtülü milletvekili olmasından yanayım, ama bunun zamanının gelip gelmediğinden emin değilim’ diyordu. Partinin önde gelen milletvekillerinden bir kısmı ise meclise başörtülü kadınların girebilmesi için yeni bir anayasanın gerekliliğini vurgularken diğer bir kısmı 1999’da Merve Kavakçı’nın meclise girmesiyle yaşanan “acı tecrübe”nin tekrarından kaçındıklarını söylüyorlar.

Geçmişin izleri nasıl silinecek?

Bugün AK Parti’nin çeşitli açılardan problemli bir pozisyonu var. Birincisi, son birkaç yıldır yapılan anketler Türkiye’de nüfusun çoğunluğunun başörtülü kadınların serbestçe milletvekili olabilmesi yönünde olumlu bir tutuma sahip olduğunu gösteriyor. Yanı sıra geçen yaz yapılan referandum sonuçları da reformların büyük ölçüde desteklendiğini ortaya koyuyor. Laik blok her ne kadar bu taleplere muhalefet etmiş olsa da azınlıkta kaldı. İkincisi, tam olarak hiç kimse mevcut anayasanın hangi maddesinin başörtülü kadınların meclise girmesine engel teşkil ettiği sorusuna yanıt veremiyor. Çünkü esasen anayasada böyle bir engel yok. Mesele laikliğin nasıl tanımlandığı noktasına dayandırılabilir fakat bu ibarenin gelecekte yapılacak herhangi bir yeni anayasadan çıkarılması çok da ihtimal dâhilinde değil. Bu aslında sıkça çarpıtılan “Merve Kavakçı kazası”nı yeniden hatırlamayı gerekli kılan ve işin aslının ne olduğuna da dikkat çeken bir çelişki. Kavakçı’nın meclisten tasfiyesinin aslında anayasa ile bir ilgisi yoktu. Kavakçı’nın başörtüsüyle meclise girmesi yasalara ya da kurallara dayanılarak püskürtülmedi ya da meclis onu anayasaya dayanarak ihraç etmedi. Kavakçı aslında yasal olarak milletvekilliği koltuğunu kaybetmesine sebebiyet vermeyecek olmasına rağmen çifte vatandaşlığı bahane edilerek kovuşturuldu. Nitekim eski başbakanlardan Tansu Çiller’in de çifte vatandaşlığı vardı. Zaten tüm bu sebepler nedeniyle Kavakçı, 2005’te Avrupa İnsan Hakları Mahkemesi’nde Türkiye aleyhine açtığı davayı kazandı ve Parlamentolar Arası Birlik’ten de destek aldı.

Bugün AK Parti’nin başörtülü milletvekili adayı göstermedeki isteksizliği ya Anayasa Mahkemesi’nin parti hakkında yeni bir kapatma davası açması ya da ordu karşısında duyduğu korkudan kaynaklı gibi gözüküyor.

Bu da AK Parti’nin içinden çıktığı Refah Partisi’nin ve Fazilet Partisi’nin akıbeti hatırlandığında anlaşılabilir bir korku. Büyük ihtimalle AK Partililerin hafızaları 28 Şubat sürecinde maruz kaldıkları hükümet, ordu, yargı ve ana akım medya kaynaklı, parti kapatma ve mahkûmiyetlerle sonuçlanan baskılara dair hala dipdiri. Bugüne kadar belli sınırları geçmeyerek iktidarda kaldılar ve öyle görünüyor ki başörtüsü meselesi yüzünden şu an durumlarını riske atmak istemiyorlar.

Başörtülü kadınlar Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’ın İstanbul Büyükşehir Belediye başkanlığına seçildiği 1994 yerel seçimlerinde önemli bir rol oynadılar. Yine 1995’te Manisa milletvekili Bülent Arınç da dahil olmak üzere pek çok Refah Partili adayın meclise girmesinde ve nihayet 1996’da Erbakan hükümetinin yükselişinde de başörtülü kadınların hayati bir rolü var.

Siyasetin kadınlara borcu

Yakın bir zamanda Merve Kavakçı üstüne hazırlığım kitabımla ilgili olarak Sibel Eraslan ile bir röportaj yaptım. Eraslan, 1990’larda Refah Partisi İstanbul Kadın Kolları başkanıydı ve Kavakçı’nın seçim kampanyasına da destek verdi. 1994 yerel seçimlerinde Ankara ve İstanbul belediyelerinin kazanılmasıyla sonuçlanan süreçte, kadın oylarının seferber edilmesi noktasında kilit bir rol oynadı. Eraslan’ın 18 bin kadın çalışanı bir ay içinde 200.000 kadın seçmen ile buluşmuştu. 1994’ün Mart ayında kazanılan zaferden sonra Eraslan, Refah Partisi’nin yeni kurulan yönetiminde yer bulamadı ve ondan evine geri dönmesi beklendi. Sibel Eraslan ve o dönem parti için çalışan pek çok başörtülü kadın, partinin başarısında hatırı sayılır bir katkıya sahip olmalarına rağmen ataerkil bir düşünce yapısının da sonucu olarak, partinin erkeklerine kıyasla eşitsiz bir muamele gördüler.

1999’a gelindiğinde Refah’ın halefi Fazilet Partisi için çalışan başörtülü kadınlar artık milletvekili adaylığından mahrum bırakılmak istemiyorlardı. Hele de Nazlı Ilıcak ve Oya Akgönenç gibi laik yaşam tarzına sahip kadınların parti yönetiminde yer almasının ve adaylıklarının söz konusu olmasının ardından, başörtülü kadınların dışarıda bırakılmama talepleri daha da arttı. Parti yönetimi bu taleplere olumlu karşılık verdi ve 1999 seçimleri için Fazilet Partisi listesine, o dönem partinin kadın kolları başkanlığının uluslararası ilişkilerini yürüten 30 yaşındaki Merve Kavakçı dahil olmak üzere birkaç başörtülü aday kondu. Necmettin Erbakan, başörtülü adayların partiyi tehlikeye sokacağını düşünen ve şu anda AK Parti hükümetinde de yer alan bazı isimlerin aksine Kavakçı’nın adaylığını destekledi. Fakat haklı çıkan kötümseler oldu ve Fazilet partisi kapatıldı.

Öte yandan üstünde durulması gereken nokta şu ki, bugün başörtülü kadınların hafızları da en az AK Parti yöneticilerininki kadar kötü anılarla dolu. Aradaki fark AK Parti’nin iktidarda, başörtülü kadınların ise siyasal alanın dışında olması. Ek olarak, geçen yaz YÖK’ün başörtülü öğrencilerin üniversitelere girebilmeleri yönündeki çabalarını saymaksak, bu kadınlar öğretmen, avukat, kamu görevlisi olmaktan ve herhangi bir meslekte profesyonelleşme hakkından men edilmiş durumdalar. Son araştırmalar çalışan başörtülü kadınların ise hem dindar hem de laik işverenler tarafından ayrımcılığa uğradığını gösteriyor.

Çözümü ertelemek doğru mu?

Bugün AK Parti’nin başörtüsü sorununu çözmesini beklemek gerçekçi bir seçenek gibi görünmüyor. Türkiye 1999’la yüzleşmek istemeyebilir fakat gerçekten demokratik bir ülke olabilmenin yolu geçmişle yüzleşmekten ve onun üstesinden gelmekten geçiyor. Abdurrahman Dilipak, Merve Kavakçı olayının AK Parti’nin üstünde demoklesin kılıcı gibi durduğunu söylüyor ve şu an için bu söylediğinde oldukça haklı.

Atılacak olumlu bir adım Siyasal Partiler Yasası’nın diğer pek çok ülkedeki gibi önseçimlere dayanan, parti üyelerinin karar almalarına ve toplumun bütün kesimlerinin siyasal temsiline olanak sağlayan şekilde değişmesi olabilir. Önseçim bir takım dezavantajlarına rağmen Türkiye’deki siyasi partilerin, kendilerini destekleyen seçmenlerin seslerinin duyulabilmesi, adaletsizliğin ve eksik temsilin ortadan kalkması yani demokratikleşmesi yönünde ilk adım olacak. Daha katılımcı ve demokratik yönde bir değişim, kuşkusuz ki başörtülü kadınların da aslında bütün kadınlar ve parti seçmenleri ile birlikte, demokratik süreçten dışlanmasını sona erdirecektir. Böylece bazı adayları, seçilmelerini önleyecek şekilde liste sonlarına ekleyen aday gösterme pratiği de adil hale getirilmiş olur. Öte yandan başka bir seçenek ‘Başörtülü Aday Yoksa Oy da Yok!’ hareketinin yaptığı gibi, başörtülü milletvekili adayı göstermemiş partilere oy vermemek olabilir. Bu, “Başörtülü Milletvekili İstiyoruz” inisiyatifine etki alanının genişlemesi adına destek vermek demek olur ki siyaset de esasen böyle bir şeydir. Böylece İnisiyatif, seçilme şansı olan bağımsız başörtülü adayları destekleyemeye odaklanabilir. Öte yandan başörtülü kadınların nüfuslarına karşılık gelen bir meclis temsiline ulaşabilmeleri ve uzun vadede etkili bir değişim için majör partilere ihtiyaçları var.

Son olarak, sahici bir demokratikleşme süreci için yüzde 10 seçim barajı kesinlikle kalkmalı. Sebebi basit: Bu sistemle oyların çoğunluğunu alamayan bir parti mecliste çoğunluğu elde edebiliyor. Evet, mevcut sistem istikrar getiriyor ama bedeli ağır. Bugün AK Parti başörtülü kadınları yok sayarak çıkabilecek muhtemel siyasi problemlerden kendini uzak tutabilir. Fakat Türkiye, nüfusun büyük çoğunluğunun temsil hakkı engellenirken, asla gerçek bir demokrasi olamaz

Headscarved Women Take the Lead towards Democracy

By Richard Peres, published in Today's Zaman, March 27, 2011

According to Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, authors of “Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation,” transitioning to democracy will not occur until the government “de facto” has the authority to generate new policies and does not have to share power “de jure” with any other group. In the case of headscarved women candidates for Parliament, there is still nothing in the law that prevents a covered woman from running for office or taking her oath of office. The real issue is who “de facto” has the power in Turkey?

A new poll revealed that “a full 78.1 percent of respondents said they would favor the idea of women being allowed to become deputies with their headscarves.” (March 25, 2011, Today’s Zaman) There are 18 million headscarved women in Turkey today. If they are prevented, de facto or de jure, from running for office, then Turkey cannot claim to be a full democracy by any accepted Western definition of the term, even minimally because elections are not completely free with a large part of the population excluded from representing the people.

Some courageous women are trying to change things, to push Turkey across red lines and barriers that have existed for too long. Will Turkey’s political parties follow the old course or take the lead? Time is running out for them to provide their list of candidates to Turkey’s Supreme Election Board (YSK).

Not waiting for the AK Party

Unfortunately, there are no positive indicators that the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) will nominate headscarved women. In fact, all the signs are the opposite. By not taking a leadership role in this area, the AK Party cannot be seen as the true advocates of a new democracy in Turkey. Only fear appears to stand in their way. Can the AK Party overcome it?

Rosa Parks did when she refused to give up her seat to a white person on Dec. 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama. She was all alone in the racist deep south of America before the civil rights movement, with centuries of laws and customs against her and only the courage of her convictions to guide her. That courageous act set in motion the US civil rights movement and eventually the election of Barack Obama more than 50 tumultuous years later.

About 12 years ago the Turkish equivalent of Parks, Merve Kavakçı, walked into Parliament to take her oath of office. She also was very much alone. The entire secular bloc attacked her, selectively and unfairly prosecuting her. No vote ever occurred in Parliament to remove her as set forth in the Constitution, which is why she won her case in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR). However, her seat remained empty.

Many other “Merves” are coming forth: Ayşe Böhürler, Fatma Bostan Ünsal, Ceyda Karan, Yasemin Göksü, Nihal Bengisu Karaca, Hilal Kaplan, Cihan Aktaş, Hidayet Şefkatli Tuksal and Sibel Eraslan are taking leadership roles to make it happen. The new campaign is called “If not now, no votes from us,” or “Başörtülü aday yoksa oy da yok!” While they are pressing political parties to support them, they are not sitting back and waiting for the phone to ring but organizing and moving forward on their own.

Why now? The reason is obvious: This is a clear issue of electoral enfranchisement, central to democracy, conveying a belief in the people’s will that is sweeping the Middle East now. It seems that the timing is not only right but perfect for headscarved women to take their legitimate place in Turkey’s democracy, establish the real “Turkish model” that so many other countries in the Middle East seem to be genuinely yearning for.

What about the HAS Party?

Perhaps the AK Party does not want to take the risk. Party closure threats and tutelage are certainly possible. If no political party is willing to test the barriers to a headscarved candidate, that alone makes a case for Turkey not being democratic. Democracy requires political will and freedom to make choices without worrying about barriers, whether direct or indirect, whether by law or in practice, both de jure and de facto.

Certainly the environment in 1999, during the height of the “coup process,” was not the right time for a covered candidate to get elected without being blocked by the establishment from taking office. Should this fact set a precedent moving forward, forever blocking Turkey’s transition to full democracy? The issue is not only one of fairness and democracy. Excluding 18 million people from participating in governing is not practical or efficient for it excludes the talents and contribution of a big part of the population. They represent a vast, unused resource for Turkey, socially, politically and economically.

Who will take the first step? It may be that the founding members of the AK Party have too many bad memories of how the Virtue Party (FP) was treated in 1999 to escape from the past. The Republican People’s Party (CHP) has flirted with a new direction and has promised to resolve the headscarf issue for many years. Are they bold enough to change direction and gain a bigger constituency?

What about the Voice of the People Party (HAS Party), formed last year as a splinter from Necmettin Erbakan’s Felicity Party (SP). At its congress last November after his formal election as party leader, Numan Kurtulmuş said: “The HAS Party is at the center of the nation. The designations of others such as leftists or rightists are not binding for us. What binds us are our moral values and conscience. What brings us together is our will for justice and siding with the oppressed.” I cannot think of a group more worthy of their support and more pressing regarding the “moral values and conscience” of Turkey than its headscarved women.

The past does not have to dictate the future. When I see covered and uncovered young women having coffee together in a café, or enjoying themselves at a Tarkan concert or walking arm in arm down the street, I am optimistic about the future. Perhaps the youth of Turkey, the third largest number of Facebook users in the world, will take the next step.

New voices of democracy

What happened in Tunisia and Egypt and now Libya had nothing to do with political parties. The sheer power of the people’s voice made itself heard. No one predicted it, not journalists, political scientists, heads of state, foreign ministers or party leaders, whether covert or visible. Their courage was startling, facing not just criticism and legal threats, but bullets.

If the AK Party follows its process for selecting parliamentary candidates, it should hear that voice and respond accordingly. On March 19 Mustafa Ataş, the head of the AK Party’s election coordinating center said, according to Today’s Zaman, “First, separate surveys will be conducted in 85 voting districts in order to identify the local organizations’ preferences.” Certainly the party wants to pick candidates who have local support. Is there any doubt that covered candidates have that support today? They did 12 years ago, even during the repressive atmosphere of the coup process. Tens of thousands cheered for Kavakçı at rallies in İstanbul’s 1st District, with women chanting, “We are women, we are strong and we exist.”

That voice will only get stronger in 2011 in light of a more open society and increased freedom of expression compared to 1999. Women who do not receive the nomination of a particular party will run as independents. Only when the de facto and de jure barriers are overcome will Turkish democracy finally arrive in Parliament.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Democracy in the Islamic Middle East - a scary prospect for American policy-makers

[Published in Today's Zaman, February 1, 2011]

I understand “realpolitik.” I am familiar with the driving concept of “national interest,” as espoused by Hans Morgenthau of the University of Chicago in the 1950’s that has been at the center of American foreign policy ever since. It is a policy that often leads the U.S. to make “friends” with dictators, kings, and other nefarious people to sustain a strategic partnership, regional defensive effort, or stability that supports U.S. interests abroad.

When no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, the Bush administration changed its discourse and switched to “democracy” as its justification for the invasion in 2003. After all, Saddam Hussein was a “bad guy” anyway, even if his role as a “war on terror” target made little sense. Ironically, the unfairness of the invasion led to more terror in the world and more need for the Western alliance to lend support for undemocratic and unjust regimes to protect its interests.

The Winds of Democracy

Now, in the Middle East, an area of the world with many repressive regimes and long-term leaders who have remained in power by suppressing democratic representation by means of military power, constrictive constitutions, sham parliaments, lack of free speech and individual rights, and systems that have hard-wired support for the government’s party making it impossible for an opposition to take hold, something amazing is happening: from Tunisia to Yemen, to Egypt, to Jordan people have awakened from years of subjugation by being pushed to the brink by political dysfunction and economic destitution. They have started to express themselves by means of the only option left for them, and the only venue they know: taking to the streets.

America’s response is telling, and disappointing. Not long before Ben Ali fled Tunisia, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that her government was “not taking sides” in that conflict. Last Friday, in the heat of the street demonstrations and battles all over Egypt, she pressed for non-violence and “reforms,” once again not taking sides against a close personal friend and long-time U.S. ally, President Mubarak, seen as a key to “stability” in the Middle East. The American news anchor of CNN International could not help asking, “Who is behind the demonstrations in Egypt?” a question which expresses a mindset suspicious of the genuineness of democracy and welfare demands of the masses in the streets. In a similar vein, he said that the U.S. would be very interested in knowing if the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups were involved in these demonstrations, which “would change things substantially.” Really? This is the same old Cold War mentality, which we can now call the War on Terror mentality, which believes that if it is organized by Islamic groups, the demands of the masses in the streets are not genuinely democratic and not on “our” side. The reports of Al Jazeera were refreshingly free of this perspective, reports that are not seen in the U.S. That network knows the difference between Islamic and Islamist, and also that the latter term can mean any type of political movement, not simply the “bad” one in the minds of the West.

Democracy at the Expense of Stability

How sad. Earth to America: the vast majority of people in the Middle East are Islamic. Their political parties and organizations come in many variations but for the most part are simply made up of people who have not had a voice in their various countries and have suffered politically, economically, and socially. Freely expressing that voice comes with democracy.

During the Cold War, for those of us old enough to remember, the world got used to America’s defense of “the free world” against the scourge of communism. Radio Free Europe and other information organizations constantly spread the word, until it seems the Soviet Union, our “evil empire,” succumbed to the words of Ronald Reagan and the Berlin Wall fell. Was the defense of democracy just rhetoric?

Democracy in the Middle East is a volatile concept. It’s unpredictable, has an unforeseen path, and hardly breeds stability and peace. At Davos, Tony Blair called for an “orderly” path of change in the Middle East, reminding us once more that the magic words “orderly” or “stable” are the only safeguards for protecting strategic, economic and political interests of the bloc he represents amid the sea change that is bound to take place in this part of the world. Blair forgets that “stability” is a precious concept only when it nourishes, protects and cherishes democracy, not dictatorships.

“Democracy We Can Believe In”?

That is not the only reason that word – democracy -- is no longer heard from American and Western policy-makers. The main reason is that the West has a very hard time grasping two concepts together: democracy and Islam. When those concepts are mixed together, eyebrows wince and lips are tightened or become silent. It might work, perhaps in Iraq, in a purely secular way, via elections, as long as Islamic-centered parties are not involved and Islamic traditions do not conflict with an American view of democracy.

But democracy is not simply an American concept. The Greeks gave birth to the concept before America existed, when London was barely farm land, before the rise of nation-states. The concept of a people deciding on how they shall govern themselves does not impose hard and fast rules on a particular form of representation or government or how religion is practiced. It simply enables people to decide for themselves, which sometimes may differ from the values and cultures of others and which sometimes produces unhappiness given that democracies have different trajectories in different conditions.

Democracy in the Middle East can be very messy and bring instability. In many ways it is a dangerous concept. This is particularly the case when political institutions in a country have not been allowed to develop, when participation has been repressed for decades, when political power originates from the end of a gun and not the support of a people. It takes some struggle, instability, uncertainty, ups and downs and time to develop civil and political institutions; rules on how polemical discourse is resolved; and how the transition of political power takes place without violence.

On the other hand, democracy is the answer to terrorism and the best solution to terrorist groups who have been rewarded with too much notoriety and press coverage by the West without due consideration given to the average person who struggles each day to find work, make a living, raise children, and hold a family together in peace. In the long run, it would be nice if America and the West could manage to place that concept within the context of countries where Islam is the main religion, allowing them to define on their own how Islam and democracy are manifested.

*Richard Peres is a writer and journalist living in Istanbul

Monday, January 10, 2011

Religious Freedom, published in Today's Zaman, January 9, 2011

Religious freedom in America and its source


09 January 2011, Sunday

While I was in America in December an important anniversary came and went with little notice by anyone. On Dec. 15, 1791, Virginia became the 11th state to approve the ratification of the first 10 amendments -- also called the Bill of Rights -- to the US Constitution.

There were only 14 states at the time, and Virginia’s approval met the three-fourths requirement for states to approve constitutional changes.

What the early American settlers did more than 200 years ago has direct applicability today to the WikiLeaks revelations, the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy and the lives of millions. The First Amendment often comes up in conversations; its meaning is continually discussed and seems to sit in the forefront of American consciousness.

The First Amendment amounts to just 45 words, the first 16 providing religious freedom. It is clear, concise, amazingly to the point and without qualification:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

How is it that such a religious country so clearly kept religion out of the realm of government?

The paradox of American secularism

It is well known that the founding fathers of America -- Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, etc. -- were all Christians who openly espoused their beliefs within the context of establishing government in America, as do today’s presidents who proclaim “God bless America” during official events. Hamilton’s comments after the constitutional convention in 1787 were typical: “For my own part, I sincerely esteem it [the Constitution] as a system which without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interests.” Yet, notwithstanding these orations, and the fact that “In God We Trust” adorns US currency, the clear language of the first amendment is a barrier to government intrusions into the religious realm. Religious freedom was the first right of the first amendment to the US Constitution -- why was it so important?

The answer stems from the fact that America was most often settled by those who fled religious persecution. In fact, it was a group of French Protestants, called Huguenots, who founded the first European colony in America in 1564 (in what is now Florida), escaping the persecution of Catholics. Their freedom was a matter of life and death. Beginning with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Aug. 24, 1572, 25,000 Huguenots were slaughtered by French Catholics just in Paris alone in less than a month. Throughout the 17th century they and other Christians who were victimized for their beliefs arrived in US ports, looking for religious freedom and assimilating with the population. In fact Paul Revere, the famous first hero of the Revolutionary War, was descended from Huguenots, as well as Henry Laurens, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Alexander Hamilton. Similarly, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was established by English Puritans (Congregationalists), Pennsylvania by British Quakers, Maryland by English Catholics and Virginia by English Anglicans. Today there are more than 200 different religious denominations in America and a growing number of non-Christian ones, including those believing in Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.

The key point here is that there is no contradiction between the religious character of American society and the fact that American public life is organized around religious freedom. Religious freedom in America emanates from below, that is, from the interests of its people, not its government. The government, or state, has no involvement other than to stipulate and enforce the free exercise of religion.

Islam in America

Although religion is not asked by US census takers, the general estimate, based on NGO surveys, is that there are between 6 million and 10 million believers of Islam in America today. Initial settlers came from the Ottoman Empire between the 1880s and 1914. Today’s US Muslim population consists of people mostly from South Asia and Arab countries.

The Islamic population in America suffers more discrimination than other groups but knows that such discrimination is unlawful and is willing to exercise its rights. “While Muslims comprise less than 2 percent of the American population, they accounted for approximately one quarter of the religious discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during 2009.”

Ironically, America’s founding fathers were sympathetic to Islamic people. Among the many fascinating bits of information you will find on the Internet, through sites such as Wikipedia, regarding Islam in America:

“In 1776, John Adams published ‘Thoughts on Government,’ in which he praises the Islamic prophet Muhammad as a ‘sober inquirer after truth’ alongside Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates and other pagan and Christian thinkers.”

“In 1785, George Washington stated a willingness to hire ‘Mahometans,’ as well as people of any nation or religion, to work on his private estate at Mount Vernon if they were ‘good workmen’.”

Benjamin Franklin, in his autobiography, and Thomas Jefferson defended the religious freedom of Muslim people in America.

In summary, despite America’s religiosity, it is no wonder that America’s earliest legislators enacted the First Amendment and took a “hands-off” attitude towards religion on the part of government.

The post-9/11 world

Unquestionably, religious freedom is being tested in America in regards to Islamic people after the traumatizing events of Sept. 11. The divide is serious and comes to the surface even in my discussions with friends regardless of their religion or education. I try to combat vindictive generalizations with my own experiences in Turkey, and the people I know personally and interact with daily -- sometimes without success.

The latest attack on the political front in the US comes from one Peter King, the new Republican chairman of the Homeland Security Committee in the US House of Representatives. He is launching an investigation into the “radicalization” of American Muslims, similar to the “investigation” of the New York City mosque he touted last summer. Representative Keith Ellison, America’s first Muslim member of congress, objected and told this to Mr. King face-to-face in the halls of Congress. He said that vilifying one community was the wrong approach.

Even in this environment I remain hopeful. For one thing, religious freedom and respect for others’ beliefs enabled Mr. Ellison to get elected in the first place. The First Amendment’s protections are well-established in America.

And there are the people I met during my recent visit to the States. One is a middle school principal in Maryland who supports the right to wear any kind of religious attire in her school, including a young Sikh who wears a turban and has never had a haircut.

And finally there is a Turkish friend, an Islamic woman, living in New York City. Her 9-year-old girl wants to wear a headscarf. She tried to have her postpone that decision until she is older, but her daughter insisted. Having faced bad treatment because of her own religious beliefs and concerned about how she might be treated unfairly at school, the mother met with her daughter’s school principal. But the principal assured her that this was not a problem and that she would watch out for her daughter and intercede should she be harassed or have difficulties in school.


*Richard Peres is the author of two books on discrimination law and a writer living in İstanbul.