Monthly Archives: April 2013

Turkey’s future looks like its past: dominated by one man

There are few calm places in İstanbul. The waterfront bustles; Sultanahmet and Beyoğlu heave with a mass of tourists. Then, as if walking through a secret door, the city’s main post office shimmers and shines on a quiet street near the Spice Bazaar. Perhaps my memory deceives me. Still, I reminisce about the quiet that enveloped the decorative late-Ottoman era building and carried through to the whispers of the cool, imposing interior.

High above the counter is a big portrait of Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. By big, I mean big. It dominates the three-storey rotunda, just as Kemal’s legacy continues to dominate the country.

Staring up at the country’s founder, he staring back whilst I waited in line, my feelings of calm and serenity suddenly vanished. It was five days into my first visit to İstanbul, a place I fell in love with easily. But Atatürk’s lofty position suddenly made me angry.

The reverence afforded to Atatürk is slightly unsettling. It reached the point where I felt constrained in what I could feel. Standing in the stillness of İstanbul’s Sirkeci post office, I realised that the veneration of Turkey’s first President compromises the country’s future.

Turkey is a country in which, at 9:05 on the morning of each November 10th, everyone stops to observe a minute’s silence in remembrance of Atatürk. It is an offence to criticise the ‘Father of the Turks’ or to question his vision for the country he founded from the skeletal remains of the Ottoman Empire.

Veneration of a powerful political figure is not dangerous. But the absence of freedom to question that veneration, and the absence of open debate over the present and future of the country will impact how Turkey changes.

The accepted view is that Kemal’s vision was perfect. Modern and progressive in the 1920s for its secularism and rejection of tradition, it has become rigid in its inherent ethnic nationalism. In 1982, the army enacted a constitution to defend Atatürk’s vision. It defines citizens only as Turks. It bans education in languages other than Turkish. It allows no place for difference. Kurds resent this, waging a war for independence from Turkey for over thirty years.

A new Constitution is being developed. Critically, it will loosen the current constitution’s ethnic basis. Kurds will be permitted to speak and teach in their own language. This has been interpreted as the crucial issue that brought about a recent ceasefire.

Replacing the constitution is dramatic by itself; that it might drive a peaceful agreement between Ankara and the Kurdish PKK, after 35,000 deaths, is cause for celebration. Yet, a worry remains.

Another proposed change is the introduction of a directly elected President. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Prime Minister since 2002, is the man guiding the new constitution. Mr Erdoğan would like to be the next President, and probably will be the next President. Many worried about his roots in Islamism when he first came to power. What, they asked, would this mean for Turkey’s secularism? The result is largely symbolic change, such as the first headscarf wearing First Lady.

It is Mr Erdoğan’s personality and governing style that presents the worry for Turkey’s future. He has authoritarian desires, including seeking greater political control of the judiciary. He has sought to curtail the big and powerful military. Not bad in itself – the Chief of Staff still doesn’t answer to a civilian – but the tactics of mass arrests of generals has raised eyebrows. He is revered amongst working-class Turks. Like Atatürk, it seems as though Erdoğan wants to mould Turkey in his own image. And he does not like dissent; Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world.

Turkey’s emergence as a 21st Century economic and regional power is now accepted as a foregone conclusion. Projections from the OECD suggest that it will be the world’s seventh fastest growing economy to 2060; this is a country in which the average length of schooling in 1970 was just two years.

That Turkey is changing is passé. What it is becoming is the real question. İstanbul is, once again, a world city, bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games. Residents underline changing attitudes towards minorities. But the country’s wealth is concentrated around the city; the rest of Turkey is still largely poor and rural. It is a socially conservative place. The number of foreign born residents in the country is tiny.

I can imagine few better things than working by the Bosphorus and wandering the streets of Galata.  My hope is that the future Turkey does not follow the path of the old Turkey. The new constitution must not simply be a vehicle for Mr Erdogan’s desires. It must allow people to question without fear. One man cannot dominate the country’s path for the next century.

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The terror of Boston and the reality of goodbye

I remember standing in my grandmother’s kitchen and seeing her cry. I was a teenager, probably about 17 or 18, and I was struck dumb. It was the first time I had ever seen her cry. Her eldest son, my uncle Sean, had just left to return to his home in Australia. I asked granny why she was crying, still not able to comprehend the fact that my grandmother was crying. Sighing, then breathing deeply, she looked for a handkerchief and said, “I’m just sad because I’ve seen Sean for the last time.”

Suddenly I felt like an intruder. But still I mumbled something like “You don’t know that, Granny. He’ll be back some day.” She smiled dolefully, her usually twinkling eyes wet with tears, and said, “Sean will be back some day, but I won’t be here. That was my last goodbye to Sean.” Sean did come back, and Granny wasn’t there.

It is a truism to say that none of us know when we say our last goodbye. Every night, before going to bed, I make sure to say good night to my boyfriend. I make sure to tell him that I love him every single time I leave the house. Maybe it is a subconscious reflection of my experience. Maybe it is why I insist we speak at least once a day when we are apart.

We all know what it feels like to lose someone; grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. If we love, we will feel loss. We will, one day, say a final goodbye. The certainty with which we all face that prospect is tempered by the joy of living and loving.

Those people killed in two bombs at the end of Boston’s marathon did not know that they had uttered their last goodbye. What they did know was that they were heading off to run a race, possibly having raised thousands of dollars for charity. Or they were out enjoying the festive atmosphere on a public holiday, possibly supporting friends and family running in the race.

They include an 8-year old boy. He was waiting, with his mother and sister, to cheer his dad across the finish line. Both his mother and sister were seriously injured in the bomb. None of them knew they had said their last goodbye to Martin. That the world has said goodbye to someone so young, in such a violent way, should not surprise us. It happens around the world with depressing regularity. It happens in Syria, in Gaza, in Mexico. It happens on the playgrounds of Pakistan’s schools, and it happens daily on the streets of America’s cities.

None of them get to say goodbye; whether to family, friends, or the world in general. The loss of children so young, barely having said hello to the world, seems to have such little impact on us. We become caught up in whether what happened in Boston was or was not terrorism. We get caught up in assigning blame. We are lucky if we remember, but for a fleeting moment, that the people who died have said their last goodbye.

Many people have highlighted that dozens of people were killed, yesterday, in car bombs in Iraq. That news did not dominate the rolling ticker tapes on 24 hour news channels. Perhaps it is because such news no longer shocks. The bombing of a marathon does. Perhaps it is because, as others have suggested, we simply have a greater affinity with people in the West than people in the East.

Perhaps it is also because we become desensitised by news that brings the same stories week after week. We all know someone who has run a marathon. We can relate to the presence of being there, of understanding the motivation of someone setting out to run 26 miles in order to raise money for charity. We bear witness to the effort that runners put into training. We know that the end of a marathon is not supposed to look like how Boylston Street looked like yesterday.

How we define what happened in Boston seems rather moot. Terrorism may or may not have a political end, but terror does not need one. If, as seems likely, the explosions were the result of calculation and not accident, then they were designed to terrorise. Commentators and politicians will parse their words, and they will debate the semantics of acts of terror versus terrorism. Even Lord West, former Security Minister in the UK, appeared on ‘The World Tonight’ and permitted the possibility that what happened in Boston was not necessarily terrorism.

For the families of those killed, the semantics matter little; they will bring no comfort, no solace nor no more understanding. The reality remains that their loved ones have said their last goodbye.

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Thatcher, decency and criticism

Street parties were held across the UK this week. Spontaneous affairs, they were also long in the planning. Those who gathered in various cities felt that the appropriate way to mark the death of Margaret Thatcher was to dance in the streets.

Thatcher was a polarising figure. It is said that no one is indifferent in their view of the woman or of what she represented. People either loved or loathed her. Supporters say she put the “Great” back into Great Britain. Some critics long claimed that they would dance on her grave.

But being an opponent of the politician, or a critic of her political views, does not mean that decency should be forgotten. Some commentators compared Margaret Thatcher with the Nazis. Think about that for a moment.

Much is made of her ignorance of the plight of ordinary people. Unions speak of the devastation wrought on families when pits closed or when jobs were lost through privatisation. Thatcher, they say, was heartless.

Such criticism confuses the abstract with the personal. Owen Jones writes of Thatcherism as a “national catastrophe.” The current economic crisis results from Thatcherism having “wiped out the country’s industrial base in favour of a deregulated financial sector.” She didn’t fix the economy because it didn’t need fixed: “Britain’s most sustained period of growth and increasing living standards were the three decades after the war, with their high taxes on the rich, strong trade unions and state interventionism.”

That all sounds wonderful, but ignores basic truths. The country’s industrial base was on its knees. Three decades of growth after the war were premised on an explosion of consumer growth, changing lifestyles and a growing population. Growth, already stalling, screeched to a halt with the 1973 oil crisis. By 1978, much like today, the economy needed structural change. Thatcher recognised this, and she delivered.

John Rentoul stole my thunder by writing that Thatcher was “a necessary Prime Minister.” The economic reforms of the 1980s would have happened. Many Southern European countries are paying now for having delayed them for 30 years. The vitriol towards her stems from the social impact of these reforms; by carrying them out with such speed and verve, huge swathes of the country were devastated. Individualism is king today. If there was such a thing as society in 1983, it is a lesser thing in 2013.

Ken Livingstone, on the night of her death, blamed Thatcher personally for the nefarious effects of neo-liberal economics across all of the West. She may have dominated her party and country, but she was not the only champion of such policies. Has Livingstone never heard of Ronald Reagan?

The Left likely does not intend the compliment of attributing the West’s embrace of free market economics and individualism to Margaret Thatcher alone. It was Neil Kinnock, Labour leader during much of the 1980s, who pointed out that the humiliation of the Left was ably aided by the stupidity and arrogance of the Left. No fingers pointing at Arthur Scargill.

It is entirely fair to say, as several more moderate voices have said (including, surprisingly to me, Russell Brand), that many of her policies were either distasteful or downright immoral. Perhaps most appalling of all was her objection to sanctions against apartheid South Africa, paralleled by her support for Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. And Tories wonder where the nasty label came from.

Which brings us back to those street parties. Writing in the Guardian on Monday, Glenn Greenwald made the argument that because she was a public figure, criticism of Lady Thatcher should not be silenced: “[A] demand for respectful silence…is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power.”

No one suggested that criticism of such a controversial figure should be silenced. People simply expect it to be respectful. Greenwald writes, much like a 16-year old with no argument would assert on a GCSE History paper, that Americans’ views of Ronald Reagan continue to be shaped by the “week-long tidal wave of unbroken reverence.” Pity those people whose entire world view is shaped by a week of historic reflection.

Pity those people who, railing against the mean-ness that Thatcherism engendered, express glee in her death. Pity those people who cannot channel their anger into advocating for a more beneficial capitalism. Pity those people, like Owen Jones, who miss the point completely in calling for a workers’ revolt.

The world has moved on from 1945, and from 1974 and 1984. The ease with which we communicate and travel means we are all better off today; both possible because of Thatcher’s reforms. Those who abhor Thatcher need to argue for a more social Britain, with more social equity and more community. Dancing on anyone’s grave does not advance that task.

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