Talking Turkey: Orientalism strikes back

A surge of Western media orientalism against Turkey is rooted in past stereotypes and secularist rivalry.

The Turkish government has been unfairly portrayed as a "civil dictatorship" [AFP]

There is a striking irony in recent Western journalistic discourses on Turkish politics and democracy: Media outlets that have opposing perspectives on US politics and world affairs, such as Fox TV and The New York Times, converge on their editorials and articles that contemporary Turkey is an oppressive conservative police state, arbitrarily ruled by the personal wishes of an elected prime minister.

Marc Champion of Bloomberg News announced that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a “secret agenda” to turn Turkey’s democratic liberal laws into Islamist dictatorial ones. Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu of The New York Times, concur with this secret authoritarian agenda analysis, noting with patronising tone that it is thanks to the government’s concern about its “image abroad” that its behaviour is relatively civilised, and does not crack down on opposition groups as much as it is feared.

The assumption here is that, if it wasn’t for Turkey’s image internationally, Turkish officials would not have any concerns about democracy, civil rights or rule of law, as values that they, themselves believe in. It seems little has changed from William Gladstone’s sarcastic entry into his diary upon hearing the news of the proclamation of the Ottoman constitution, writing “Turkish constitution!” If William Gladstone, the symbol of evangelical Christian Islamophobia and British imperialism, was alive today, he may be writing “Muslim democracy!” into his twitter entry. 

Why do we see a resurgence of media orientalism on Turkish democracy? The answer to this question lies beyond the partisan political position of the journalists or their low analytic standards.

Gains under AKP

We should first remember some facts that are rarely mentioned in recent Western news on Turkey. It was under AKP Party’s governments in the last 10 years that the Turkish legal system and political culture became more democratic. If there was a secret agenda, it would be the expansion of civil, religious, cultural, and legal rights for its diverse citizens.

Various social, religious and cultural rights struggles of the 1990s – such as the right to use the Kurdish language, or the right to wear headscarves in public – have been achieved in the last several years. And more importantly, by every measure of liberal democracy, Turkish legal and political system have been improving in the last 10 years.

Mass demonstrations in Gezi Park were partly about the trust in the democratic system that in Turkey, civil and even uncivil, protesters would have legal protections and rights. The five unfortunate deaths during the month-long demonstrations, are under investigation by the country’s legal system, with law enforcement officials having to explain the cause of those deaths.

Media orientalism seemed to believe that ‘democratic Muslims could no longer be Muslims’.

There have not been any prison sentences for any of the demonstrators, despite the millions of dollars of damage that was done to public property. As The New York Times articles mention in passing, Erdogan did talk to the leaders of the Gezi protests, and the government agreed to the basic demands of the protesters. Within the next year, there will be multiple elections in Turkey, with freely contested elections for local governments, presidential office, and probably, early general elections.

Islam and democracy

Why is it, then, that Western media discourses come close to declaring Turkey as an Oriental despotism? The answer to this question lies in the assumption that Muslims, as pious believers, can never reconcile their values with the standards of liberal multi-party democracy. Hence, the incomprehension and denial of the last 10 years of Turkish political experience, where a conservative party achieved more democratising reforms than any other political party in modern Turkish history.

During this period, it was the secular and seemingly modernist political parties, both on the left and the right, which consistently advocated a nationalist anti-Western vision of Turkish policy. These parties portrayed AKP Party’s democratic liberalism either as a betrayal of secular Turkish patriotism in the name of “secret agenda of international Islamism”, or as a civil dictatorship.

It was the contempt of the pro-Western secular Turks that also reject any public discussion of conservative values. For example, AKP’s electorate want to see a public discouragement of abortions, which have been commonly practised in Turkey as a form of birth control. Women’s right to abortion has not been banned in Turkey and Muslim conservative discouragement of it does not even come close to the strict Catholic theological objections to it. Yet, when an AKP Party minister criticised the common practice, opposition parties protested that women’s rights to choose have been infringed upon.

Sore losers?

Turkish intellectuals and journalists from the opposition parties manipulated and aided Western media’s Orientalism for their own purposes. Most Turkish intellectuals could easily detect Western stereotypes about Turkey, and they have little patience for images of flying carpets, belly dancing and oriental baths associated with their society, and know the fallacies of Oriental despotism narratives of horrible prisons as shown in movies such as Midnight Express.

Yet, after losing seven consecutive elections at national and municipal levels, and with little hope of winning any of the upcoming national elections, segments of the Turkish opposition tried to make an alliance with media Orientalism in demonising and delegitimising the Turkish government as a “civil dictatorship” with a hidden Islamist agenda. While mainstream Western media would never quote a Tea Party argument about Obama’s hidden socialism or his authoritarian elitism, similar partisan arguments about Erdogan’s hidden Islamism and authoritarianism were quoted as undisputed facts.

At the heyday of imperial orientalism countered by Muslim modernism, British governor Lord Cromer declared that “Islam Reformed is no longer Islam.” Media orientalism seemed to believe that “democratic Muslims could no longer be Muslims”, and eventually this led to a conviction that Turkey’s conservative Muslims could never be good democrats. It is time to reflect on the politics of persistent assumptions.

Dr Ertan Aydin is a senior adviser to the Turkish prime minister and is responsible for domestic politics and the public opinion polls. He was a research affiliate at Harvard University and a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College 2000-2003.