Umut Özkırımlı
May 08 2018

The industry of “Turkey experts” and the saz-playing peddler

In the early 2000s, Turkey was praised as a successful convergence of Islam, (liberal) democracy, and market-based economics. When this “model” for the post-Arab spring Middle East took a dizzying authoritarian turn, the West’s interest in Turkish politics increased. As Western media outlets hastened to inform their readers of every important development in Turkey, there has been a flurry of reports by think tanks that attempted to explain the changes in Turkey.

These analyses, disseminated to broad audiences and decision-makers through conventioanl and social media, possessed some common attributes.

First of all, regardless of the ideological leanings of the author or the think tank, the terminology of the reports was more-or-less the same. Turkey was “sliding towards authoritarianism”; “Islam” was playing a key role in this; “Atatürk’s secular republic was being eroded”.

Secondly, the new industry of “Turkey experts” was creating its own stars. The “experts” in question knew of, referenced, took stands against, and engaged in polemics with each other.

Thirdly, much like their counterparts in Turkey, these “experts” did not hesitate to opine on every subject, and would do so in a patronising, even blatantly arrogant tone.

For those who are not familiar with my background, let me take a moment to clarify that I am not a “Turkey expert” as such. I am a political scientist by training, studying nationalism, ethnicity, identity, and social movements. I am neither a journalist, nor a columnist. My career and current status require that I follow Turkey, alongside other topics, and I strive to provide commentary on issues that I know well while staying true to academic principles - for example, by articulating opposing viewpoints - and being open about my own political stance.

To return to the three attributes I listed above, there is nothing inherently wrong with the increase in the number of people commenting on Turkey, or for these commentators to resort to the same terminology and frameworks. After all, if you have the resources, you are welcome to write down your views and critique the language and ideas that others put forth.

However, the third attribute is not so innocuous. When faced with an arrogant, patronising tone, in particular when this tone lacks sufficient background knowledge, it is difficult to formulate an objective critique. There is the danger of falling into the trap of ad hominem attacks, or to pen a response that focuses more on the person making the argument than on the argument itself. Calibrating the degree of the polemic can present a challenge.

Perhaps a concrete example will better illustrate the issue. Let us suppose you have a colleague whose expertise lies in strategic and security studies, who intermittently writes for War on the Rocks - a centre-right national security website that prides itself on defending U.S. values and patriotism. What if this colleague were to post a derisive tweet like this one, and subsequently attempt to defend the tweet with the same tone as the original?

How would you respond?

“What do I think about the #GreatOppositionCoalition? As I have argued for years, the AKP can only be counterbalanced in a two-party system. The solution is a coalition; the problem is the delay in forming one. The ball is in the #HDP’s court: which will it be, forming a coalition, or choosing ethnic nationalism and leftist heroics?”

“Be honest with yourselves, the ball is in #SelahattinDemirtaş’s court. The #GreatOppositionCoalition’s only chance is for the #HDP to join them. Will Demirtaş choose to play saz and court ethnic nationalism and peddle leftist fraternal heroics and, or will he choose Turkey? If he chooses the former, he will be responsible for AKP’s victory.”

The easy route, and the one in keeping with the editorial line I have tried to maintain at Ahval, is to ignore this. No one is forcing me to read anyone’s writing; I can brush it off, unfollow the person, and move on. But when the colleague in question has the ear of the “Turkey experts industry” as well as some Republicans that have clout in the U.S. foreign policy-making process, it is difficult to remain silent.

Thus let us assume you wanted to critically engage with these tweets. How do you address this tone? What do you do if your interlocutor defends this condescending, derisive tone by resorting to some misguided understanding of “realism” or arguing he is ethically and politically apathetic?

You may respond by noting that this language itself is political. Far from being apathetic, the accusation of “leftist-fraternal heroics-peddling” is the result of an ethical and political judgment. What purpose could this string of words have had, if not abasement and derision? Do they not reflect a neoliberal, even neocon worldview?

As for the content… A mash of terms, a heavy dose of distortion of facts, ignoring the context, these tweets have it all. The parties that form the “Great Coalition” will ignore the HDP, the first Kurdish party to enter Turkey’s parliament; they will overlook the continued imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtaş, who is the HDP’s presidential candidate and has been imprisoned for a year-and-a-half without being convicted; one of the coalition partners will approve regulations that would allow for members of the HDP to be thrown in jail; there will not be a single concrete proposition to solve the Kurdish issue; but the responsibility will still rest on the shoulders of the HDP for not “begging” to be part of a coalition which has declared to the whole world that the they are not welcome? What a nice, “realist” world!

Will the HDP choose ethnic nationalism and leftist heroics, or coalition? For some reason, our esteemed colleague is very sparing when it comes to qualifiers to describe the coalition. Perhaps it would be more accurate to present the dichotomy as follows: “Will the HDP choose ethnic nationalism and leftist heroics, or ethnic Turkish nationalism and a conservative-militaristic right-wing coalition?”

For argument’s sake, let us assume that the HDP is indeed an ethnic nationalist party. If it has to choose between two nationalisms, why would it choose Turkish nationalism over the Kurds it represents, a minority that has been oppressed by the majority Turks as well as by the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a group the United States classifies as terrorist that has fought for Kurdish rights since the 1980s? 

Why would HDP voters support a coalition that openly excludes their party? Why would the Kurdish people collaborate with parties that support security policies that have led to the destruction of Kurdish cities, forced them to migrate, condoned snipers who hunt Kurds in the streets or special forces who burn Kurds alive in basements? Why would they vote for candidates that passionately defend a state apparatus that invades another country’s territory, driven by anti-Kurdish sentiments?

Our realist colleague will bring up the PKK (as he has). The PKK is at least as responsible as the Turkish government for the recent breakdown of ceasefire between the government and the Kurds. But 1) The PKK is not a political party running in the elections; 2) The PKK’s relations with the local people has been fraught for some time; 3) The PKK is an effect, not a cause. It is the natural outcome of 90 years of government oppression, especially the persecution that Kurds faced in the aftermath of the 1980 coup; 4) Why would Kurdish people support the very nationalism that has brought the PKK to life in the first place? 

Regardless of how difficult the conditions may be, the HDP should choose Turkey, our colleague insists. But has the HDP not received criticism from the Kurdish movement for trying too hard to be pro-Turkey, say, for electing a Turkish co-president?

After the 2015 parliamentary elections, did the HDP not meet with the main opposition party to build a coalition, only to return empty-handed due to the reticence of the latter? Did Demirtaş not stand and applaud at Erdoğan’s presidential inauguration? What more can he do to show he is pro-Turkey?

Admittedly, Demirtaş or other HDP representatives have not made a statement to the effect that “the PKK is a bunch of terrorists with blood on its hands”. But to this date, no Kurdish politician has criticised the PKK as openly and directly as Demirtaş. It is widely known that the PKK does not like Demirtaş. If the children of his constituency have fled to the mountains to join the armed Kurdish resistance, what is Demirtaş to do?

Maybe he would have tried to take some action to bring them back from the mountains. Have the Turkish people given him this chance? Putting all else aside, what right does Turkish society, a society that is drowning in ethnic nationalism, militarism, and even racism, have to accuse Kurds of being ethnic nationalists?

I have no words for the equivalence this colleague has established between defending leftist thought and fraternity, and blustering peddling. My only suggestion would be for my colleague to lift his head from the security literature in which he is buried, and to consider reading some leftist theory. 

As for playing saz, in an election where all candidates are racing to secure nationalist, conservative, militarist votes, with an increasing dose of jingoism, I would rather have one who has some degree of humour!