Monday, December 29, 2008

The Limits of Turkish Soft Power

While bombs rain down on Gaza, there is growing and visible anger in Turkey in response to the Israeli operation. Interestingly, one thing frequently being heard in the Turkish press and from Turkish politicians is that Israel has somehow "disrespected" Turkey by launching its attack. Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has angrily called Israel's actions "a crime against humanity," while also saying they are "disrespectful to Turkey." 

How so? Apparently Erdogan felt misled by Israeli leader Ehud Olmert, who visited Ankara earlier last week and led the Turks to believe that no Gaza operation was imminent (although the story might be more complicated than that, as Yusuf Kanli reports in a column in the Hurriyet Daily News). But what might also be angering Erdogan is that Israel's Gaza attack sets back Turkey's recent efforts to act as a kind of regional mediator and (soft) power broker.

After all, one of the things Olmert's visit dealt with was the question of the stalled indirect talks that Turkey was brokering between Israel and Syria. Syria has now announced that any resumption of talks is off because of the Gaza operation (although, realistically speaking, Damascus was waiting to see what happens in Israel's upcoming Feb. elections before restarting anything). Turkish foreign minister Ali Babacan has also announced that, for now, Turkey is backing away from mediating the talks.

But the events in Gaza point to the limits of Turkey's soft power ambitions. Certainly, Ankara's efforts to mediate in the region should be commended, but it also appears that Erdogan and his advisors have been seduced by their own talk about Turkey's ability to bridge the Middle East's deep divides. Turkey's neighbors are certainly happy to call upon Ankara's good offices when it suits them, but that's only until the region's harsh realities intrude and every country starts to follow its own political formula -- one that probably doesn't take into account whether Turkey feels like it is being "disrespected" or not. 

In the past, some have questioned whether Turkey had the diplomatic maturity and chops to play the kind of meditator role that it would like to. Erdogan's statements and Ankara's quick exit from the Syria-Israel track might revive some of those questions. (UPDATE -- Take a look at this caustic editorial in the Jerusalem Post to get a sense of where the discussion in Israel over Turkey's role in the Middle East might be heading.)

On another note, what's happening in Gaza is also a reminder that -- despite the heated rhetoric coming out of Ankara -- Israel and Turkey have more in common than some might like to admit. "Let’s not forget this: violence will bring about new violence," Erdogan said in response to Israel's Gaza attack. While he was saying this, Turkish jets were returning home from yet another bombing attack against PKK targets in Northern Iraq.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Turkey's Kurdish TV Gamble

In what could be a very significant move, Turkey's state broadcaster (TRT) is set to launch a Kurdish-language channel in the beginning of 2009. Full details about the channel, called TRT 6, are still sketchy, but it promises to provide much more than the pitiful current level of public broadcasting in Kurdish, limited to a few hours a week and hardly watched.

Dedicating a channel to Kurdish programming is an important recognition of a language that's the mother tongue of millions of Turks. But TRT 6's real aim, it appears, is to undercut the appeal of Roj TV, a Kurdish satellite network broadcasting out of Europe, that is extremely popular among Turkey's Kurds. Ankara has accused Roj of being a mouthpiece for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and of spreading anti-Turkish propaganda. But the channel, which shows a mix of news, music videos and other programs, has been able to become as popular as it is because there has been no other alternative out there.

Taking on Roj might be a tough job, though. The network's appeal, besides that it broadcasts in Kurdish, is based on its independence and the fact that it shows things no Turkish channel would dare do, such as footage from the PKK's camps in Northern Iraq or performances by Kurdish musicians who are banned in Turkey because of their political views. The channel also acts as a kind of Kurdish grapevine. I was in the predominantly-Kurdish southeast of Turkey a few years ago working on a piece about Roj TV and met with a family whose son was a PKK guerilla who had recently been killed in a clash with Turkish forces. When I asked them how they found out about their son's death, both parents told me that it was through Roj. I heard similar stories from other people.

If TRT 6 puts on some innovative programming, or at least programs that aren't produced with a very heavy state hand, then it and Roj TV might be in for an interesting ratings battle. We'll be watching.

(A Kurdish woman and her daughter watching Roj TV in their living room in Diyarbakir, Turkey. Photo by Yigal Schleifer)

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Before "The Shoe," there was "The Suit"

I just spent some time today in the factory of the Turkish shoemaker who claims that it was his company's shoe that was thrown at George W. Bush and that his sales are now booming. Hard to verify his claims: the offending shoes have apparantly been destroyed, although I did see a group of men in the company's workshop feverishly making pairs of the shoe -- now renamed the "Bye Bye Bush" model -- for delivery to Iraq.

There certainly is a precedent for this intersection of politics and fashion (if that's a word we can use in connection with a very chunky, though suprisingly light, pair of shoes). In late 2005, Istanbul suitmaker Recep Cesur made headlines and then reaped a harvest of increased sales after Saddam Hussein appeared in a Baghdad court wearing a pinstriped Cesur suit. Cesur's sales skyrocketed in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, his suits now carrying with them the scent of power while making the statement that "I'm sticking it to the Americans" (or, more likely, to George Bush). During a visit to Cesur's Istanbul showroom, I even met an Iranian wholesaler who was snapping up Cesurs. The Iranians, who suffered terribly during the long war with Iraq in the 1980's, are no fans of Saddam, he told me. But a Cesur suit now had cache, he said. "If Michael Jackson drinks Coke, people will go to the supermarket and ask for Coke, not something else," he said.

You can read the article about Cesur and his suits here.

Monday, December 22, 2008

A Turkish Mea Culpa?

A group of Turkish academics and intellectuals have launched an online campaign that allows Turks to sign on to an apology for the "great catastrophe" that the Armenians suffered during World War I. The apology, now signed by more than 15,000, studiously avoids the "G" word, but it is being seen as another important step in making the Armenian issue less of a taboo in Turkey.

The tight social, political and legal limits that control the discussion of the Armenian issue in Turkey have slowly been expanding over the last few years, although frequently it has felt like a one step forward, two steps back kind of dynamic. This was painfully evident in the case of murdered Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, whose insistent efforts to normalize the issue earned him three bullets in the back of his head.

The Armenian issue also seems to have a way of exposing an intolerant streak in Turkish society. A group of retired ambassadors, who are issuing their own counter-petition, have called the signers of the apology campaign "traitors." Canan Aritman, a member of parliament with the secularist Republican People's Party (CHP), has upped the ante: after Turkish president Abdullah Gul refused to criticize the online apology, saying the signers had a right to post it, Aritman accused the president of being -- heaven forbid -- an "Armenian." "Investigate the ethnic origin of the president's mother and you will see," she said.

Gul quickly responded, saying all Turkish citizens are equal, no matter what their background. Just to be safe, though, he also added that both his mother and father come from families that have been Muslim and Turkish for "centuries." Good to know. (UPDATE -- Gul is now suing Aritman, for the symbolic sum of 1 lira, claiming a "heavy assault" on his "personal and family values, honor and reputation.") 

There have been calls for the CHP to censure Aritman. So far, the party has not done that. The MP, meanwhile, remains unapologetic. "If I had seen [Gul], I would have thrown a shoe at him," she was quoted as saying after her initial remarks were criticized. 

As an antidote to Aritman's mind-numbing blather, read Sahin Alpay's thoughtful piece in Today's Zaman about why he decided to sign the online apology.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Turkish Reforms in a Dangerous Stall?

Observers of Turkish politics have been noting for the last few years that Turkey's reform process -- mostly spurred by the country's European Union membership process -- has basically come to a halt. Now there are concerns that beyond a stall, Turkey may actually be backsliding on the reform front. Two recent reports, both well worth reading, make this very clear.

The first, by the International Crisis Group, says the next year will find Turkey's EU membership at the "make or break" stage. The comprehensive report lays blame on both Turkey and the EU for the current state of affairs, but also warns that Ankara's reform program has gone "off course."

The second report, by Human Rights Watch, gives a sense of what can happen when reforms stall. The well-documented report takes a look at the troubling recent rise in police violence in Turkey, much of it attributed to a law passed in 2007 which gave the police broader powers to use lethal force.

The Turkish government had promised 2008 would be the "Year of the EU," but then had to back off that promise when they were forced to deal with numerous domestic fires. Now we are being told that 2009 will be the new "Year of the EU," although only after local elections in March. We'll see. As these two reports make clear, though, waiting much longer to get the reform process back on track could be quite costly.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Favorite Creationist

An article (pdf) by Salman Hameed in December's Science Magazine warns about the rise of Islamic creationism, which draws its inspiration from the American creationist movement. For those of us living in Turkey, the growing influence of Islamic creationism comes as no surprise. The country is home to Adnan Oktar (pictured above), whose deceptively named Foundation for Scientific Research is probably the main force behind the rise of creationism in the Muslim world, publishing popular books on the subject in dozens of languages  and sponsoring "scientific" traveling exhibits that purport to disprove evolution. 

You can read more about Oktar and his organization in an article I wrote for the Christian Science Monitor last year.

Cracks in the Ilisu Dam Project?

The Ilisu dam project in southeast Turkey has been one of the country's most controversial energy and infrastructure plans for years. The proposed dam, which would be Turkey's 2nd largest, would lead to the displacement of tens of thousands -- mostly Kurdish villagers -- and the flooding of Hasankeyf, a unique, historic town on the Tigris River. The Turkish government claims the dam is an important part of a larger plan to bring economic development to the struggling region, but locals believe the damage caused by the project will outweigh any of its benefits. 
The project might now be in danger. According to an article in today's English-language Hurriyet, some of the Ilisu dam's main financial backers -- Austria, Germany and Switzerland -- are considering pulling out of the project because Turkey has failed to meet certain criteria regarding the dam's impact on the environment and human rights. Turkey could still move ahead with building the dam without the three countries' loans, but their backing out would still be a major blow and an important victory for the dam's opponents.
I visited the area around Hasankeyf last summer and filed this report for Eurasianet, looking at the Ilisu project and the larger economic development plan for the region.

UPDATE -- The German government has now officially withdrawn its support for the Ilisu dam.

(Two children in Hasankeyf fishing in the Tigris River. The town, which contains ruins dating back to Assyrian and Roman times, would end up mostly underwater if the Ilisu dam project is realized. By Yigal Schleifer)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Working to Death in Turkey's Shipyards

The shipyards in Istanbul's Tuzla region have been booming over the last few years, turning Turkey into one of the world's leading shipbuilders. This has come at a cost, though, with injuries and deaths in the shipyards also on the rise. One of the main reasons for this is the increasing use of subcontractors to do most of the work in Tuzla, often times in violation of Turkish law. The use of subcontractors -- many of them poorly trained and paid -- gives Turkey its competitive edge, but advocates for the workers say its a system bound to produce more fatalities and injuries. You can read more about Tuzla's shipyards in this Eurasianet article.

UPDATE -- Jody Sabral, a colleague in Istanbul, has produced a short documentary about the working conditions in Tuzla for an Al Jazeera (English) program called "People & Power." You can watch the show here.

(Subcontracters in Tuzla's shipyards protesting during a one-day strike this past June. Many of the shipyards have been resisting the workers' efforts to unionize. Photo by Yigal Schleifer.)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Banned in Turkey, Pt. II

For those interested in reading more about Turkey's misguided internet censorship laws, a new report by Cyber-Rights.Org is essential reading. A PDF version can be downloaded here.

Also, a very interesting article in the New York Times Magazine gives some more details about Google's struggle with the Turkish courts over their YouTube ban and about the company's growing role in determining the limits of free speech.