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Transcript: The new Ottomans
Please read the full transcript below.
Last Modified: 09 Oct 2012 08:02

This is the full transcript for The Cafe episode The new Ottomans

Mehdi Hasan:
Turkey is a paradox. It's secular and Islamic, modern and traditional. It wants to be western yet looks eastwards. But whatever Turkey is doing, it seems to be working.

I'm Mehdi Hasan and welcome to Istanbul, the economic and cultural heart of this young thriving country. Modern Turkey was founded in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk. He transformed the old Ottoman Empire into a militantly secular and democratic country, banning the wearing of the fez in the process. 

But today some say his legacy is under assault from a politically Islamic and increasingly authoritarian government. Journalists and artists are being imprisoned in their hundreds, and the prime minister is waging a campaign against abortion, and even birth control.

Yet with one of the fastest growing economies in the world, few people here are complaining. The government is popular at home and abroad. Turkey is now a regional superpower, but is it a model for other countries to try and emulate? And can this seemingly schizophrenic nation bridge two worlds?

We are about to find out, inside The Café.

Joining us in The Café today are Nursuna Memecan, a member of Turkey's ruling party, the AKP, and one of the few female members of the Turkish parliament.

Mehmet Karli is lecturer at Galatasaray University in Istanbul, a human rights activist and a vocal advocate for the country's Kurdish minority.

Andrew Finkel is an American journalist living in Istanbul, who has been covering Turkish politics for the past 20 years, and is the author of Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.

Gokce Piskin is a rising star in the CHP, the main opposition party in Turkey, and believes the AKP is eroding the country's liberal and secular heritage.

Merve Kavakci-Islam is a former member of parliament who was prevented from taking up her seat, and had her citizenship revoked due to her wearing of the headscarf. She is an outspoken critic of Turkish secular policies.

And Abdullhamit Bilici is the head of the Cihan news agency in Istanbul and a columnist for Zaman, the country's biggest selling Turkish language newspaper. He is the author of the book: Why Turkey?

So thank you very much all of you for joining me here in The Café in Istanbul. I just want to kick off straight away with a question for all of you, and that is, how do you see Turkey’s role in the world? Nursuna you’re with the governing AKP party, what do you think?

Nursuna Memecan:
Turkey is a progressive country. We have been moving on with many reforms in the democratic field, and also in the infrastructure of the country, and we are making progress in making our people happier. The income distribution has got much fairer, and the resources of the country is shared by the majority of the people now. So we're becoming a more relevant and more important country, not just for our people but for the region and for Europe, for the rest of the world too.

Mehdi Hasan:
So a more relevant, more important country Mehmet, and happy and progressive. Is that a view you share?

Mehmet Karli:
I really don't agree with these findings. Basically she made, I think there are three main finding. The first was with respect to democratisation of the country and she asserted that Turkey has a democratic image abroad. I couldn't disagree anymore.

When you look at, you know, indexes, you know, prepared by the Freedom House, Turkey ranks 120 something in terms of press freedom. When you check the numbers of the International Press Institute there are something like 102 or 105 journalists who are currently in prison. There are something like 750 students who are currently under detention in Turkey. More than 5,500 members of the main Kurdish party are currently in jail.

Mehdi Hasan:
We're going to return to some of those issues you raised about detentions and arrests. Merve how do you see Turkey today?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Ok, let me try to be the mediator in this. Historically speaking the western democracies had seen Turkey as a role model, because it has combined the Islamic heritage with a secular state for so long, so the west always have this frustration with the Muslim world and wanted the rest of the Muslim world to become like Turkey, but the reality on the ground contradicts with that.

Utopic positioning of Turkey as this country that meets east with the west, Islam with the western values of democracy.

Mehdi Hasan:
Andrew, you've spent I think more than 20 years here in Istanbul as an observer. What do you think? 

Andrew Finkel:
Well I think it's the fact that is imperfect, well that's what it symbolises on the world stage that it's a country in transition, it's not a perfect…

Nursuna Memecan:
Is there a perfect democracy in the world?

Andrew Finkel:
No of course there's no perfect democracy…

Nursuna Memecan:
There's no such thing.

Andrew Finkel:
…but I sometimes think the outside world sees Turkey as a sort of viewing platform in the safari of wild nations, Turkey is the sort of safe haven where the outside world comes, they come to Turkey.

Turkey is familiar, it's got a lot of sort of western accoutrements about it. Turkey is a place where the west can come, feel safe and look around the region and see what's going on, and of course the reverse is true. People from the region see a lot in Turkey to identify with, look at Turkey's struggle to become more democratic, to become more accepted by western nations, to play its full role in the world, and they sympathise and empathise with Turkey.

Mehdi Hasan:
Abdulhamit, Turkey is a place where the west comes to feel safe.

Abdullhamit Bilici:I guess Turkey's position is like Turkish carpet, you know, there are lots of colours on it, so I mean depending on your perspective, where you are looking from, so when you look for instance from an economic perspective you could see that Turkey is the number second in terms of highest growth rate, and there a lot of very good performing economies in Europe and in the region, so this is very positive that we can never, and no one can deny. But when you look at from the marketing perspective, I mean Turkey's a country which had five militant interventions in 60 years, so we had not a perfect democracy and we are not…

Mehdi Hasan:
Ever? Even before the AKP?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
Ever, so we are trying to reach a better democracy, not a perfect democracy. But Turkey's dynamism itself is energising people around the world and especially in the Middle East, so this is a factor that when you told people from Tunisia or from Egypt or from Syria, they look Turkey as a good example to emulate, to learn, to inspire.

Mehdi Hasan:
Gokce, pluses and minuses? When you look at your country's image, reputation, standing in the world, do you see more pluses or more minuses?

Gokce Piskin:
Well there's a balance to that. Turkey's a growing economy with a huge amount of youth population, very dynamic population, but with a very high unemployment rate, so we don't see very much trust in the future. Plus when you look at Turkey's role in the region, we are acting as a teacher to the region, which is I think not very well understood by the people and not very much welcomed by the people of the Middle East.

Mehdi Hasan:
So I'm an outsider, and I look at Turkey, and I see a country that aspires to be a regional superpower. Am I right Andrew?

Andrew Finkel:
I don't think so, no. It certainly aspires to take its place in the conquest of nation, it clearly sees itself as a major economy in the region. I mean the thing about Turkey is that it's a big economy, it's a big industrial economy, it's a big service economy.

Turkey has an interest in the stability and prosperity of its neighbours, and that in a sense puts Turkey on the side of the angels because it is a peace party. It has no benefit from conflict in its region, because if there's peace then it sells more widgets, it's very obvious. So, you know, Turkey wants the neighbourhood to get along, so that's a good thing, but that's a long jump from becoming a superpower.

Mehdi Hasan:
There was this line that the foreign minister, Mr Davutoglu came up with about zero problems with neighbours, it became a kind of defining Turkey foreign policy, and yet you look around the neighbourhood now and you seem to have problems with all your neighbours, you know, Israel, Syria, you participated belatedly in the Libyan intervention. How did you go from zero problems to so many problems?

Nursuna Memecan:
Zero problems is a policy, it is a still legitimate principle. The idea behind zero problems policy was that we suffered from our problems with our neighbours, so we decided to take a different stance and to sort out our problems with our neighbours, and there's substance behind zero problems policy also, that we wanted to talk to our neighbours, visit our neighbours and we invited our neighbours to our country.

So this dialogue is an essential part of zero problems policy, and then we supported this with economic interdependence with our neighbours, so there was this change in the Middle East, so we didn't invent the change, but there was a change. So we're now dealing with the change, still with the zero problems policy with our neighbours.

Mehdi Hasan:
In the eyes of the west, it's as if you've turned your back some would say. I mean Merve, do hear Americans saying to you, for example, that you've turned your back on us, you've betrayed us, you're going eastern?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Well Turkey's role model-ness has been inculcated on Turkey, imposed on Turkey, prolonged by the western democracies. Turkey has never assumed that it was a model country for the rest of the countries in the region per se, but this also…

Mehdi Hasan:
Even now? Even now does it not think?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
No, but now things have changed. Erdogan's government, Erdogan per say as a leader is perceived as a model by the people in the region who have been disenfranchised for so long, which might have a different opinion actually about Erdogan vis-à-vis their government.

Mehdi Hasan:
Mehmet you wanted to come in. Prime Minister Erdogan, is he running what some people call a Neo-Ottoman foreign policy?

Mehmet Karli:
They certainly… of course, for instance, if and you ask a question to them they would certainly tell you, oh no certainly not, because they shun away from the word Neo-Ottoman. But when you look at their attitude, you know, you can easily see that they've got this condescending language, they perceive the hubristic policy, and indeed in one of the parliamentary sessions our minister offForeign Affairs he said, clearly that there's a new Middle East coming out and we want to shape it. I mean this is in imperialist language, even if they don't want to accept it.

Mehdi Hasan:
Talking about imperial language, I saw Abdulhamit raise an eyebrow there. Do you disagree?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
I don't think that Turkey has imperial ambitions, but there is a kind of self-realisation, you know, that Turkey neglected itself, it's potential for so long time. Now, I mean, they were very inertia in terms of Turkish foreign policy for instance, for years, for decades, and now Turkey is looking for a new role for itself, and trying to discolour its own identity, but I mean it's not easy thing. Of course, I mean, these politicians can make sometimes assessments or statements that are all reaching consequences or results.

Mehdi Hasan:
Abdulhamit can I put one of those statements to you? I mean one that's often quoted in the west, in 2009 foreign minister Davutoglu gave a speech were he said "The Balkans, the Caucasus, the Middle East were all better off when under Ottoman control or influence. Now Turkey is back ready to lead." How should we interpret such comments? 

Abdullhamit Bilici:
I guess, as I said, there has been some misstatements, maybe with good intentions. But I mean, Turkey now is indeed making a reality check, after making such huge statements in Syria, we learned that Turkey alone cannot rule the world, cannot make big changes, so Turkey needs allies and friends from Arab nations, from the western nations, so Turkey is making a reality check. But for the Ottoman past, it doesn't mean that we can repeat the experience, but we can learn from some positive aspects of it, that's what… 

Andrew Finkel:
And something…

Nursuna Memecan:
And Turkey doesn't want to rule any of these nations of peoples. We're part of Europe, we part of the Turkic world, we're part of the Islamic world, we're part of the Middle East, we're part of Caucasus, the Black Sea, Mediterranean, so we have many members.

Mehdi Hasan:
Is there a still core member of the western alliance do you think?

Nursuna Memecan:
Of course, I mean…

Mehdi Hasan:
NATO?

Nursuna Memecan:
Of course, we are…

Gokce Piskin:
it's the only Muslim member.

Nursuna Memecan:
… and we are the founding members of many European institutions.

Mehdi Hasan:
Gokce what's wrong with that?

Gokce Piskin:
Well the thing is there's a dilemma I think, because when you talk about imperialism, you see a country imposing some things on the others, or interfering on others internal issues, political issues in the name of economic gain. So for me that's imperialism, so reducing many aspects of imperialism in AKPs governing style today, very aggressive in international politics. We are always…

Mehdi Hasan:
You said it's aggressive, do you not think the Prime Minister should've encouraged the Arab revolutions as he did, for example, in Egypt where he's now a hero, when he called on Hosni Mubarak to stand down, was that a mistake?

Gokce Piskin:
No, no, no, it's not that. The thing is when we get back to the zero problem policy, we haven't developed a sustainable model, and I think was the problem, always shifting and shifting. Of course if there's a change, we have to follow the change and support democracy. However, in the first place we have a lot of democracy problems, and imposing Turkey as a role model in Turkey and the government accepting this model today, is I think, it's not sincere. Supporting the revolution it's, I think very important, but it's not a sincere action of the government.

Andrew Finkel:
He did appear to be opportunistic, I think that's right.

Gokce Piskin:
It's very opportunistic…

Mehmet Karli:
The case in Libya that's so clear, our Prime Ministers….

Mehdi Hasan:
Which foreign countries weren't opportunistic in the Arab…

Andrew Finkel:
Of course.

Mehmet Karli:
Of course.

Gokce Piskin:
Exactly.

Andrew Finkel:
Turkey is not unique, but the problem that Turkey faced I think, was at the end of the Cold War. I mean Turkey is not an economy that has a single commodity like oil or natural gas. Turkey's commodities, Turkey's curse as it were, was its strategic significance to its NATO allies. NATO allies looked at Turkey, they turned a blind eye to Turkey because they needed a stable Turkey to guard NATO'S southern flank. Now of course so the end of the Cold War Turkey suddenly lost that commodity, so it had to redefine itself. Now there's a great deal of populism in the way that it tries to do this.

Mehdi Hasan:
Is foreign policy popular here?

Andrew Finkel:
I mean if you say that, you know, if you hint that you regaining this imperial strength, that the rest of the region loves you because they admire the values and the culture that you stand for, of course there's a populist element in this. Now, but of course it's all gone wrong. I mean the populist element led to this great opening with Syria, but now Syria and Turkey are at loggerheads, Iraq and Syria are at loggerheads, and because Iraq and Syria are at loggerheads, Turkey and Iran are at loggerheads.
So, you know, I think we have to listen to, I think it was the British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who said it best, you know, when asked what would de-rail his policies he turned around and he said "events dear boy, events," and I think events have de-railed Turkey ‘s foreign policy.

Mehdi Hasan:
Mehmet, just on the specific point Andrew raises, I mean, for decades NATO saw Turkey as a very important member, Turkey was there to protect the flank, to use Andrew's phrase. A lot of people, both inside and outside Turkey I hear, praised the AKP government for actually trying to form an independent foreign policy, not be wholly subservient to the west or the United States. Isn't that something to be proud of?

Mehmet Karli:
Course, I think the problem with the AKP's foreign policy is that there is a huge discrepancy between what they say and what they do. They pretend to have an independent foreign policy, they pretend to play the role, I mean the mediating role between Iran and the and the rest of the world, and then they decide to locate the missile defence system in Turkey. They tried to adapt a more realistic language. They say they're acting in the name of some values. If you use this language, you have to live up to it. If you do not live up to this language, and if your acts contradict this language, you must be open to criticism as well.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
I agree with Mehmet. We're talking about an entrenched legacy of foreign policy that was built over time for the past 80 some years, based on Turkish sort of rule as a protector of state of Israel, militarily. This has been what made Turkey, in a way, untouchable, immune to some of the other problems in democratisation. It takes time to change foreign policy.

Mehdi Hasan:
One thing that has noticeably changed, and you mentioned it, is Israel. I mean, Nursuna you're taking about zero problems. It seems like Prime Minister Erdogan wants lots of problems with Israel. I mean he famously walked out and became a hero to many Palestinians in 2009 when he walked out of the Davos summit with President Peres of Israel. He's recently called for the lifting of the siege, an apology for the killing of the Turkish citizens on the flotilla. What is the relationship between Israel and Turkey like right now? How would you describe the relationship between Turkey and this very former important ally?

Nursuna Memecan:
I believe that Israel can be an asset for the region, but Israel doesn't act like one. Israel has been acting like a bully in the region, so it has a kind of immunity for all its actions also, so we place a significant importance to our relationships with Israel. Turkey is the first Islamic country that has recognised the state of Israel, and we have built a good relationship with Israel. Also…

Mehdi Hasan:
So this an example of your rhetoric and reality mismatch?

Mehmet Karli:
Exactly. I think it has become, you know, just very clear by now that I'm not a big fan of the AKP government…

Mehdi Hasan:
Oh I hadn't noticed.

Mehmet Karli:
Yeah, but let me put it very clearly. The policy that they perceive is of the Israel, ok we may not agree with it's tone we may not agree with the words that they use, but when it comes to the Palestinian cause, there is a national consensus in Turkey. I mean it is one of the very few issues that there is a high degree of national consensus. We side with the Palestinian cause. We want a free, independent Palestinian state and we want an end to the plight of all those refugees as well.

Mehdi Hasan:
Gokce, do you approve of the government's handling of the Israel Palestine issue, if no other issue?

Gokce Piskin:
I mean the government's made use of the Israeli Palestinian conflict as a populist issue to gain votes in Turkey, because in terms of diplomatic relation it might seem like, you know, I'm very against you…

Mehdi Hasan:
Yeah.

Gokce Piskin:
… but at the same time, I mean…

Mehdi Hasan:
Behind the scenes and much closer.

Gokce Piskin:
…behind the scenes we are making a lot of deals and our trade is increasing and our partnership is getting stronger. I think the region deserves sincerity and sincerity is the way to solve problems in the region, especially in the conflict.

Mehdi Hasan:
Abdulhamit you wanted to come in.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
If Turkey has normal relations with Israel that would help to settle the crisis in the Palestinian case, in the Israeli case, but in general, I mean there is no doubt that the Turkish public is pro Palestine, and Turkish people are, I mean, feeling very close to their problems.

Mehdi Hasan:
But the bridge phrase is used much more widely between the west and the east, between the Arab world and Europe. I mean do you see Turkey's role as being that bridge between east and west?

Nursuna Memecan:
I mean when you look at the geography of Turkey it looks like a bridge anyway between east and west. I mean, so we want to improve our relationships with our neighbours and we want to be a strong nation with strong trade connections to our partners in the region and partners in the world.

Mehdi Hasan:
Well one of the reasons that people are looking up to Turkey and Turkey's able to expand is of course its economic strength. I mean over the last few years whether you're pro or anti AKP, the fact is the numbers speak for themselves, astonishing growth rates, I think second fastest growth rate in the world last year…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
After China.

Mehdi Hasan:
…after China. I mean what do you ascribe, apart from your own government's competence, what do you ascribe Turkey's so called economical miracle to be?

Nursuna Memecan:
Yeah actually I have to say that it's my government's competence. We have suffered from many economic and financial crises in our past history, but we learn, I mean our government has learned from the past experiences and we put a strict financial discipline in our financial structure.

Mehdi Hasan:
Gokce, it must be difficult being in opposition against a government that's presiding over 8% / 9% growth?

Nursuna Memecan:
They are enjoying this too, so they should thank us,

Mehdi Hasan:
You're enjoying the fruits of growth.

Gokce Piskin:
Well actually…

Nursuna Memecan:
Yeah everyone is. I mean our per capita income has moved from $3000 to $10,000 plus dollars so it…

Mehdi Hasan:
So more than tripled?

Mehmet Karli:
We have to put what happened in Turkey between 2003 and 2010 into its global context. The world was growing at an unprecedented rate. The developing countries grew at an unprecedented rate. Turkey served on this way. I'm not saying that AKP did not nothing, I'm saying that they served on the way…

Mehdi Hasan:
You seem to be saying it's nothing special.

Mehmet Karli:
It is not a miracle.

Mehdi Hasan:
Here's a question. Is this a moment… I mean something we didn't talk about earlier is the European Union. Turkish membership of the EU has been the holy grail for politicians here for so many years. Is this the moment for Turkey to go back to the EU and say, you guys are in trouble, we're doing well, let us in now?

Nursuna Memecan:
We're doing that.

Mehdi Hasan:
You're doing that?

Nursuna Memecan:
Yeah.

Mehdi Hasan:
That's the strategy?

Nursuna Memecan:
We're doing that already. European Union is in trouble, financially and also as a union I see that they're in trouble. They have to be more realistic about their issues. I don't think they are realistic about their issues and I'm not sure if they're aware of where they're heading to, to disintegration or to more unification of the European countries so…

Mehdi Hasan:
But you still want to be part of it? That hasn't changed?

Nursuna Memecan:
Yeah we still want to be…

Mehdi Hasan:
Despite all the financial problems?

Nursuna Memecan:
No, we want European Union to be strong, and we know that we will contribute to the strength of European Union, and we're working hard to be part of that strong European Union.

Mehdi Hasan:
Well on that note let's take a break. We're gonna be back in part two to talk about democracy, human rights, and the thorny issue of abortion which seems to be dominating discussion here in Istanbul these days. -  End of Part 

PART 2 | The Café - Istanbul

Mehdi Hasan:
Welcome back to The Café here in Istanbul. We're talking about Turkey, politics, economics, human rights. I just want to kick off this half of the programme with a question to all of you again, which is, how democratic is Turkey? On a scale of one to ten what score would you give Turkey? Gokce, you're with the opposition, how democratic is this country? 

(Laughter)

Gokce Piskin:
Well, to give a number... no, I can say a four and there are five steps to the reason why I say a four.

Mehdi Hasan:
A four? A four out of ten, ok.

Gokce Piskin:
Exactly.

Mehdi Hasan:
Not great, but we'll come to you soon Nursuna.

Gokce Piskin:
In 2001 we had an economy crisis, and then for the first time we have followed the IMF bill. After that we have developed economic entire dependencies with our neighbours and with a lot of major countries in the Middle East. We needed foreign investments because Turkey is an energy dependant country, and in terms of high tech economics we are dependent on Europe and the west, which is…

Mehdi Hasan:
But how does that affect the democratic credentials of the country?

Gokce Piskin:
That's what I want to come to. We needed stability to accomplish all those economic financial steps one by one, and in Turkey that stability went onto authoritarianism unfortunately.

Mehdi Hasan:
Ok let's get some more scores. Abdulhamit how democratic is Turkey on a scale of one to ten?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
I would say a 6.5.

Mehdi Hasan:
6.5. Very exact.

Abdullhamit Bilici:

Of course this is just a joke. I think it depends on your perspective. Now I suggest those who are following Turkey to look at developments in a comparative perspective, because if you forget first and focus on three you lose the bigger picture, so in comparative terms Turkey is better.

So I mean, now in terms of militarist-civilian relations, in terms of being people prosecuted for their attempts to make coup against a democratically active government, so in terms of government or the state having Kurdish TV broadcasted. So these are important positive steps, but in terms of others, of course when we compare with Norway, with Germany, we have lots of way to go.

Mehdi Hasan:
It's not a fair comparison is your… bit more positive. Andrew?


Andrew Finkel:
6.4.7 I would've thought. I mean the serious answer to this question, not to take Abdulhamit's words out of his mouth, but the serious answer is that Turkey basically is authoritarian but it's inherited an authoritarian structure, it's inherited a constitution, a 1982 constitution which was penned by the military under a period of martial law. Now this constitution basically allows Turkish citizens to do anything, to say anything, to be anything, except in every example in which the government doesn't want them to be, so it's a yes but constitution, and everyone knows that constitution has to go, that constitution has to change. It's a suit of clothes that, it's too now…

Mehdi Hasan:
But until it does it's a 6.5?

Andrew Finkel:
…now the real problem and what I would say is the crux of the democratic dilemma in Turkey is that here you have this authoritarian constitution which was penned by the military on the assumption that they would eternally be the masters of that constitution…

Merve Kavakci-Islam: 
Yes Andrew is right. Turkey's coming from an authoritarian legacy, Kemalist regime has been authoritarian, the modernisation project, namely the westernisation project has been imposed on people from the top to bottom, starting off with in 1920s it has a background…

Mehdi Hasan:
With Mustafa Kemal himself

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
…of 200 years of sort of modernisation, but it's that staunch modernisation based on sort of a very strict model of secularisation of the society, privatisation of Islam and creating our divide between the…

Andrew Finkel:
But it was authoritarian before 1920 too…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Indeed, that's what I was saying so it has… actually we can back to like 400 years of debate.

Mehdi Hasan:
So if we just, we can go back to Suleiman the magnificent I'm sure.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Not that back.

Mehdi Hasan:
My question is it more democratic today though when you look back at…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Relatively speaking, we can go on what Mr Bilici has said, indeed it is much more democratic. I'll rank it 5.9 going onto 6, with some optimism. There are huge issues of human rights violations.

Mehdi Hasan:
And I'm sure Mehmet's going tell us about them.

Mehmet Karli:
I'll go, yeah I mean if…

Mehdi Hasan:
What's your score?

Mehmet Karli:
Well if you gotta give a score I would say four going down…

Mehdi Hasan:
Four going down, wow.

Mehmet Karli:
…with a negative forecast. Why? From 2002, you know, when AKP came to government to 2011, the prison population in Turkey doubled. From 2002 to 2011, the number of police officers doubled over the same period, only the increase with respect to teachers was 24%. This is a clear policy choice. You recruit more police, you don't increase the number of teachers to the same amount.

More importantly, when it comes to so called terror related crimes, most of the terror related crimes they do relate to political affairs in Turkey and mostly to the Kurdish issue. From 2005 to 2011, the number of those who were under detention in relation with terror related crimes has tripled. You refer to the Kurdish television channel, they are not many Kurds left out there who could watch it. They're all in jail and you can't watch the Kurdish television in jail. Now, I mean of course I'm exaggerating by saying they're all in jail, but when it comes to Kurdish party Mehdi there are something like 5,500 of the members of the party who are currently in jail. That means effectively the party is closed down.

Mehdi Hasan:
This is the Kurdish party, the BDP, the…

Mehmet Karli:
This is the Kurdish party, the BDP…

Mehdi Hasan:
… the Peace and Democracy Party.

Mehmet Karli:
What the AKP does is that they have developed their technology of oppression. They're very good at PR. They do not close down the party, this is what Turkey used to do back in the past, they do it much more in sinuously. They, you know, detained those who are members of the party, and when it comes to the foreigners, they can say, oh look the party's out there.

Mehdi Hasan:
Let's bring in AKP, Nursuna's here, our AKP member of parliament. Score of four going downwards. Now what do you respond to Mehmet's point?

Nursuna Memecan:
Democracy is an on-going process. There's no perfect democracy and there cannot be any perfect democracy, because everything is changing and you have to adapt yourself to new changes with the democratic principles in mind, and we have democratic principles in mind. We are now moving with the people. There's much more participation

Andrew Finkel:
But you have a Prime Minister who knows better than anyone else what's good for the party I mean he says…

Nursuna Memecan :
Excuse me.

Andrew Finkel:
…abolish abortion, no abortion, he says build a third Bosphorus Bridge, there's a third Bosphorus Bridge.

Nursuna Memecan:
No it doesn't happen like that, you know it doesn't, excuse me may I…

Mehdi Hasan:
Ok we'll come to the Prime Minister in a moment. You say democracy is a working pro… agreed, but one of the basic tenants of a democracy surely is a free press? Turkey has more journalists in prison than Iran and China combined.

Nursuna Memecan:
First of all free and fair elections is the first thing for a democracy, and we have…

Mehdi Hasan:
And you've won elections definitely.

Nursuna Memecan:
…free and fair elections, and we are in three consecutive elections, we have the majority, we have the…

Mehdi Hasan:
Agreed.

Nursuna Memecan:
…approval of the majority of the people.

Mehdi Hasan:
What about the media?

Andrew Finkel:
The way the government controls the press is not by imprisoning journalists, it's through media ownership. It puts pressures on media owners that it doesn't like, and it supports media owners that it does like. So, for example, what are the main pro-government parties or pro-government newspapers? The Prime Minister's own son in law is on the board, it was financed through the bank.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Let's put this in a context that the international audience can understand. Freedom of expression is a challenge in democratisation process of Turkey. The very Prime Minister of this country spent jail time when he was the mayor of Istanbul…

Mehdi Hasan:
For reading out a poem?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
…for reading a poem from a public school book, because the general stopped that, that was a threat to the secular state, so we need to put it into a perspective. Turkey is democratising, it is not perfect, it is not where we want to see it, but this is not just the problem of the AKP government.

Mehdi Hasan:
But isn't it ironic that he's now Prime Minister and people are being locked up for… I think there were two students who were locked up recently for unfolding a banner asking for free education.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Absolutely.

Mehdi Hasan:
Turkey's top pianist has just been put on trial for tweeting jokes about Islam.

Mehmet Karli:
Not jokes, a poem, again a poem from Omar Khayyam.

Mehdi Hasan:
So isn't that ironic?

Mehmet Karli:
He re-tweeted the poem from Omar Khayyam.

Mehdi Hasan:
Nursuna they are being prosecuted for what they think and say?

Nursuna Memecan:
There are many areas for improvement and the government is working on expanding the area of freedom of speech. Again as Abdulhamit had said, our constitution was written in 1980s by the military, so there are many restrictions and we have had a referendum. We made amendments to the constitution. Now we're in the rewriting phase of the constitution.

Mehmet Karli:
All this excuse of constitution. The constitution has been amended 17 times since 1982 and substantially, and the…

Mehdi Hasan:
So you're saying they could make change if they wanted to?

Mehmet Karli:
…AKP had the…

Gokce Piskin:
Exactly, any government can change.

Mehmet Karli:
…powers to change, they did not amend all the undemocratic provisions, they had the power to amend them only by themselves. They didn't choose to do that and…

Mehdi Hasan:
And we've talked about freedom of speech, here…

Nursuna Memecan:
It wasn't easy to change, to…

Mehdi Hasan:
I'm here in Istanbul, I'm…

Nursuna Memecan:
…make amendments to the constitution…

Mehmet Karli:
How long are we going to wait? I mean 12 more years?

Nursuna Memecan:
…you know, even though the democratic amendments did not have support from the opposition.

Mehdi Hasan:
Abdulhamit very briefly go.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
Yeah I would say in just 2010 there was a mini package of constitutional…

Mehdi Hasan:
Yes at the referendum.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
…changes, so in that there was an improvement in terms of Turkey's human rights standards, rule of law etcetera but…

Mehdi Hasan:
But then Turkey's standard dropped in 2010 in the reporters without borders index.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
…look at the position of the opposition to that. They said no. It was a change, but they did not support first…

Mehmet Karli:
I have serious objection point…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
This is misleading again.

Mehmet Karli:
This one is misleading.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
For me on the performance of the ruling party, I like the former AK party, who…

Mehdi Hasan:
The former AK party?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
Yes…

Mehdi Hasan:
Ok.

Andrew Finkel:
The first elective.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
…which was more reformist.

Mehdi Hasan:
First term?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
First term, and until 2005 and 2006, Turkish government was much more successful, much more speedy in terms of reform…

Mehdi Hasan:
What happened? Do you think the Prime Minister got carried away?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
No but I mean…

Andrew Finkel:
They gave up on European Union membership.

Mehdi Hasan:
Was it only pressure from the EU that was helping drive reform in Turkey?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
This was one of the factors…

Mehdi Hasan:
Let's raise an issue that seems to have been dominating the headlines since I've arrived in Istanbul, and that is the abortion issue. The Prime Minister has come out and attacked, not just abortion, birth control, C-sections. I'm the product of the C-section, what's wrong with C-sections?

Nursuna Memecan:
There is a big problem with C-section.

Mehmet Karli:
It's an international concern.

Nursuna Memecan:
The Prime Minister has seen the figures with C-section and with the abortions, and there's a huge rise in the number of C-sections. Doctors are voluntarily…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
It's 47 per cent in comparison to 22 per cent of international..

Nursuna Memecan
…in the state hospitals and 90% in private hospitals.

Mehdi Hasan:
But let's deal with the abortion issue. 

Nursuna Memecan:
He wanted to bring this to the attention of the people or the women and everybody else that abortion is not a good thing for any women. I mean I can't say it's not…

Mehdi Hasan:
But it's legal in Turkey right now, just to be clear, up to ten weeks?

Nursuna Memecan:
…yeah I mean there are…

Gokce Piskin:
No one wants abortions, who would want abortion? No one would want abortion.

Mehmet Karli:
But there is much debate in Turkey. He brought it up to change the agenda.

Nursuna Memecan:
I know but… no.

Mehdi Hasan:
Why change the agenda? Andrew.

Nursuna Memecan:
So this is one of the issues.

Andrew Finkel:
The context of this reform…

Mehdi Hasan:
Please.

Andrew Finkel:
…just to explain was that basically Turkey is demanding an apology from Israel for nine deaths on this boat, but Turkish find themselves killed 34 Kurdish villagers.

Mehdi Hasan:
In Uludere.

Andrew Finkel:
…in a place called Uludere. Many of them were kids, the youngest was 12. Basically people are saying well if you wanted an apology for…

Mehdi Hasan:
Yeah, and be prepared.

Andrew Finkel:
…Israel killing, you should apologise for the 34 deaths. The Prime Minister in a very strange sort of comparison, compared the deaths in Uludere to the deaths of aborted children, and even to women who have C-sections and therefore it somehow inadvertently reduced their fertility by having C-sections, it's a…

Mehdi Hasan:
Why do you think he did that? Do you think there was a change of agenda?

Andrew Finkel:
I think it was a sort of reflex action to try and defer the debate but…

Mehdi Hasan:
Gokce is this a liberty issue? Is this another example in your view of the government or not?

Gokce Piskin:
As a young woman it is a liberty issue. I mean it is for us to decide for ourselves, we haven't been asked, we haven't talked about it, plus there is a change in the agenda. We are talking about the monopolisation of the media ownership in Turkey. So when there was a debate going on about Uludere Massacre, when there is talks going on about the airways workers right to strike in Turkey, then we came up with the debate of abortion.

Mehdi Hasan:
Do you think the prime minister has the support of the country on this?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Has what?

Mehdi Hasan:
In a Muslim country like Turkey, most of the majority think, does he have the support of the public on this, on changing the abortion rules?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
I think it's too early to call right now, but abortion issue has various items on it. Health is an issue, religion is another matter in this. Definitely the numbers on C-section override the general numbers that run in the international arena, but I definitely disagree with Gokce. This is not a woman's body issue, this is a human rights issue. It involves the mother, it involves the father but more importantly it involves the unborn baby.

Mehdi Hasan:
So you think it was legitimate for the Prime Minister to bring this up in the way he did?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
The way he did I'm not sure.

Andrew Finkel:
To liken abortion to bombing villages.

Mehmet Karli:
Listen to what he said, he said…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
I'm not sure, I have reservations on that.

Mehmet Karli:
There had never been a proper public debate on abortion in this country. There is no such demand, there is no such proposal, neither in governments, you know, plan / programme, nor in the party programme.

Mehdi Hasan:
Abdulhamit please.

Mehmet Karli:
It is great that we're not talking about Uludere.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
What I would say, abortion was not an issue in Turkey, let's be sure first. Second, abortion is a political issue as it is very unamendable from the American perspective that is one of the controversial issues…

Mehdi Hasan:
For example of the culture wars in the United States at the moment…

Abdullhamit Bilici:
…so it's very difficult for left wing parties and right wing parties to agree on a standard, so this is very political, so it is very legitimate for any politicians to raise, but the way in this trial it was raised, we can debate about it.

Mehdi Hasan:
Earlier Nursuna said that AKP has made huge progress on the front of women's rights and women's issues, do you agree?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Relatively speaking.

Mehdi Hasan:
Relatively speaking, do you agree with that? Do you acknowledge that, that they have made progress on the women's rights? Or do you worry the opposite?

Gokce Piskin:
There's a distinction of women rights, which woman? Which part of woman? That's not just in terms of woman issue but in a lot of the issues. Whose rights are being protected is the issue. Some ours, some aren't, because even in the draft amendments they're talking about like married woman. Unmarried woman who are living for instance with a, you know…

Mehdi Hasan:
Partner.

Gokce Piskin:
…with a partner, are not being covered in terms of protection in the amendment so we can see clear

Mehdi Hasan:
So selective is what you're saying?

Gokce Piskin:
…it's very selective, there's a clear distinction.


Mehdi Hasan:
Andrew.

Andrew Finkel:
I mean there has been a raft of progressive legislation that this government has passed which has been in favour of women. Certainly protecting the issues of marital rape, things like that…

Mehdi Hasan:
Domestic violence.

Andrew Finkel:
…so there has been a great deal of legislative progress. There is an attitude however which is not simply this government but is part of a patriarchal society, which basically refuses to see women outside the context of the family so…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
But in this so called sort of backward Islamically inclined AKP who has changed all of that, the Kemalist regime…

Mehdi Hasan:
Well on that subject to you Merve, let me ask you…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Yeah, sure.

Mehdi Hasan:
You're someone who when you were elected to parliament in 1999 you were banned from taking up your seat in parliament, you had your citizenship revoked, because you wear a headscarf. For you as a woman I'm assuming that's a human rights issue for you?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Indeed it was.

Mehdi Hasan:
What has this government done to help you on that specific issue?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
It is a human rights issue, it is a women's rights issue, it is an election issue. Free elections was tempered by the so called democratic collectives party which is somewhat of the CHP right now, and I took my case to the European Court of Human Rights, and Turkey was convicted for preventing the election.

Mehdi Hasan:
So what does this new government, this Islamic…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
This new government has not done much for me, it hasn't done… actually the leaders of this government…

Mehdi Hasan:
It hasn't done enough you're saying?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
…yeah, they haven't done anything for me.

Mehdi Hasan:
Why hasn't the AKP government changed the rules on the headscarf? I'll come to you in a moment Abdulhamit.

Nursuna Memecan:
When we tried to change the rules about the headscarves or the needs of the conservative people…

Mehdi Hasan:
Hold on Mehmet.

Nursuna Memecan:
…our party was almost closed down in 2007. We had a court case…

Mehdi Hasan:
Abdulhamit, you want to add in?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
I was just adding because in 2008 after AK party got 47% of the support by the people, they attempted with a contribution, with the co-operation of the opposition, one of the opposition parties, and 411 MPs voted to make some reforms on the headscarf issue, especially in the educational appeal…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Yeah.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
…but what was the result? Now the main opposition party brought that the constitutional court, and at that time constitution court annulled, cancelled that change, despite their…

Mehmet Karli:
Is it the same constitution court today?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
…no the constitutional court change.

Mehdi Hasan:
Ok, Merve let's come back to the… Mehmet hold on one second, let's come back to the headscarf issue. So you're saying on the one half that headscarf wearers are disenfranchised, others are saying, well I'm worried about this proposal for women only pink buses in Istanbul, which I believe is a proposal here. Others are worried about restrictions on alcohol sales that are being suggested in some provinces. Which is it? Is there a creeping Islamisation or are people in headscarves being discriminated against? Or is it both?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Both. There's no Islamisation, I don't see that..

Mehdi Hasan:
Do we all agree there's no creeping Islamisation?


Merve Kavakci-Islam:
There is democratisation, but may I…

Gokce Piskin:
There's a growing conservatism in Turkey, and there are several evidence to changing lifestyle and it meant imposing something top down to people.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
I would have to disagree

Gokce Piskin:
Abortion issue is one thing, changing the educational system… you know, in Turkey today, full time state schools which are free schools, free education schools are being changed to Imam Hatip which is a clear evidence that…

Mehdi Hasan:
What is Imam Hatip?

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
It is not a policy.

Mehdi Hasan:
Explain to everyone... hold on, hold on, hold on, what is Imam Hatip?

Gokce Piskin:
Imam Hatip is a typical high school, middle school, that raises Imam's, you know, for serve, and they also teach older, rest of the…

Mehdi Hasan:
So you're saying that is now predominating?

Gokce Piskin:
We have to see that the full time state schools are being changed to Imam Hatips to force people whose parents are working full time, and who have no money to send their children to private schools, are being forced to send their children to Imam Hatip.

Mehdi Hasan:
Ok Gokce, let Merve come back. Merve.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
I have no idea where she's coming from with this. I have no idea. The society…

Mehmet Karli:
Most recent educational reform of the government

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
…is a conservative society.

Mehdi Hasan:
Hold on.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
…it is a 99 per cent Muslim society where religion has been privatised, ostracised by the state authority as well as religion has been utilised for the state affairs.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Abdulhamit, are we sitting in a country where society is more polarised around religious lives?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
I guess Turkish society is not coming from us. The conservative section of the society was existing also, but what changed? They started to be in the power game. Now, for instance, we have first time a President having a wife with a headscarfed lady.

Mehdi Hasan:
What did CHP do about that?

Abdullhamit Bilici:
But you see, but that doesn't mean…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
He's a member of the marchers.

Mehmet Karli:
Then we can respect all human rights violations, I mean

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Finish Abdulhamit. Let Abdulhamit finish his point.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
That doesn't mean that Turkish society was like Switzerland and turned into Iran.

Mehdi Hasan:
Has Turkey become more polarised? If not on religious lines then sectarian?

Andrew Finkel:
Up until now perhaps it's been polarised around the secular / anti secular debate, or religious debate, but I think really what's beginning to… I think Turkey perhaps is becoming mature and if we're hopeful I think this is a reason to be hopeful, is that Turkey is beginning to polarise around the defence of individual liberties, and so when the Prime Minister comes out and says women shouldn't have abortions, Islamic women themselves are saying mind your own business, you know, it's none of your business, let us decide whether we want to have abortions or not. We don't want to have abortions but we don't want to decide for other people.

Mehdi Hasan:
Ok, well let me pose a question which I'm going to pose to all of you to finish this discussion. It's got two parts, and I'll ask for a brief answer from all of you. Has Turkey changed more in the last, say 10 years of AKP ruled, than it did in the previous 80 years, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? Mehmet.

Mehmet Karli:
I wouldn't say that it has changed more than the previous 80 years, but the change during AKP government was against individual rights. The main line of division is between those who defend…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Ok, I'm going to have to cut you, I've got to bring everyone in. Nursuna, has it changed more in the past decade than in the previous 80?

Nursuna Memecan:
Yeah it has changed and now more people, ordinary people, are participating in the society, in the business world and they have more power. People have more power now with the AKP government.

Mehdi Hasan:
Merve

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
It has changed for the better, the divide is between the "de la crème" cream of the society. The ones who want to preserve the status quo in their ivory set, and the rest.

Mehmet Karli:
Yes, the "de la crème", those were the ones who had us in franchise for centuries.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Gokce. Hold on Mehmet. Gokce.

Gokce Piskin:
He actually hasn't done much for this country for the past ten years.

Mehmet Karli:
Being oppressed by AKP…

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Hold on Mehmet, you said you'd let Gokce say her piece.

Gokce Piskin:
To put in a better way, there was a change in elitism, but the hands elitism changed. There is a new elitism of a certain group right now, so what is the change? I mean..

Nursuna Memecan:
We can't say.

Gokce Piskin:
I mean some group replacing another. When it comes to military power and when we're all discussing about the military authority in Turkey, what changed today? There's a civil authoritarianism, so there's still authoritarianism but there's…

Mehdi Hasan:
Ok, Abdulhamit.

Gokce Piskin:
…means change, exactly.

Merve Kavakci-Islam:
Hold on, Abdulhamit.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
I'm saying that Turkey until early years of that decade was a real terrible country, because even the existence of Kurds were not accepted, but now they are broadcasting in their language, so this is a very… I mean they wish…

Nursuna Memecan:
They are not distinctive broadcasting, they are not.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
…please, but this is revolutionary change and something positive, but I mean did we finish all things? No, I mean, so all these debates…

Mehdi Hasan:
It's on-going.

Abdullhamit Bilici:
… should continue and we need lots of things.

Mehdi Hasan:
Andrew, has it changed more in the past decade than the previous 80?

Andrew Finkel:
Well what it is, it's changed a lot, but in 2002 it got on this economic treadmill, it has this very naïve model of economic growth and if you ask me why I'm hopeful about Turkey it's because people like us are shouting at each other and there's a democratic discussion, even through an imperfect medium, but if you ask me where I'm anxious, it's that there is no respect for the future generations.

This is a government with no environmental consciousness whatsoever, which dams every single river it finds, builds bridges and houses in every bit of green space it finds, and this is what children will curse this government for, not because they didn't allow women to wear headscarves.

Mehdi Hasan:
Well I think we're going to have to leave the discussion there. Thank you very much to you all for joining me here in The Café. This discussion will continue online, you can contribute on our website, and you can join me again next week here in The Café.

Follow us: @aljazeeracafe - @mehdihassan 

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