Saturday, March 28, 2009

Big ideas, bad ideas

This week I went to see Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket with a good friend. The movie reminded me of a post I wrote long ago: "It must be so sad to realize that what you dedicated your life for is actually wrong, or unimportant. Maybe there is a point of no return, you can't accept the unimportance of something after you spend a certain number of years working for it. After that point, you just keep doing what you have done for years, and you try to convince a world that doesn't care that your story has a point to it."

Assuming you know the best for someone other than yourself is a formula that was proven wrong over and over. We are trying to add depth and meaning to our lives, but at what cost? Are ideas more important than people? (Assuming it's really naive idealism that's driving us.) How to make peace with the arbitrariness of loss and misery? Should fortune come with responsibility? Is it possible to change anything?

I don't know. I wish I found a way to sustainably forget about all this.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Political risk

Maybe you know that I work in a political risk research and consulting company. Political risks lead to economically inefficient market outcomes. Legislation passed under the influence of an interest group or selective, untransparent and unfair implementation of rules and regulations create political risk. In an environment with high political risk, the outcome of an endeavour depends not only on your talent and effort, but also on the whims and wishes of the people in the system within which you are operating. To reach the outcome you'd like, you have to factor political risk into your equation (and pay us). This is what we do our research and consult our clients on. Too bad, but real world.

The events of the past week made me realize that political risk is present in all systems, in all organizations, including ours. We all have to work around relationships, the hierarchy, egos and pure human drama to get the outcomes we want. And sometimes, all these things won't allow us to get the outcomes we want.

One more thing that must have been obvious to all but myself.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What you thought you knew (but didn't actually know) about Turkey - 3

  • The dynamics of ethnic seperatism, Islamism and neo-nationalism

This is not the first time I'm writing about the Kurdish issue. But after reading Cornell and Karaveli's article, I became aware of some important factors that contributed to the formation of the problem as we have it today. I would like to note them here.

Kurds are organized around a tribal and feudal structure, and belong to the more Orthodox Shafi'i school of Islam. Right-wing parties have courted tribal leaders to win Kurds' support. Kurdish tribal leaders continue to play an important role in Turkish politics. However, their influential role does not necessarily translate into more education and economic development in the region. These leaders have an interest in keeping Kurds' loyalties exclusively to themselves.

The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) first emerged as a revolt against the feudal structure of the Kurdish society. The movement soon realized that the Turkish state protected the status quo, and turned to Kurdish nationalism as its driving ideology following the collapse of communism. Now its survival depends on its domination of Kurdish politics, and its interest lies in the continuation of the violent conflict. This attitude in turn provokes Turkish nationalism.

The authors call the Kurdish question the main failure of Kemalism, as it cast doubt on the credibility of the whole thought system. Along with secularism, it was built upon nationalism, theoretically replacing religious solidarity with loyalty to the nation state (although in practice, religious minorities were often discriminated against.) The AKP, at first, won Kurds' support by shifting the emphasis back to religious solidarity. However, the party itself is now moving towards a more nationalistic position. Actually, this tendency is not new. It is the legacy of the Turkish-Islamic synthesis idea following the 1980 coup. Gülen schools in African and Central Asian countries seem to promote Turkish culture more than Islamic values.

Meanwhile, mixed signals from the EU, the ideological confusion created by the Western support for Islamic conservatism and the reluctance of the US to uproot the PKK from northern Iraq have irritated secular nationalists and fuelled their suspicions about the motivations of the EU and the US. These now brand themselves as neo-nationalists.

With awe (and admittedly, some annoyance) the authors say:

Just as they have appealed to the right as well as to the left with liberal economic policies coupled with generous welfare subsidies, the Islamic conservatives manage to simultaneously canalize Turkish nationalism and Kurdish aspirations.

The local elections next Sunday will show whether this is still true.

Democratization and the AKP

Since I couldn't get my point across in the office today, I decided to write it here. This was supposed to be the introduction of a report we were writing in the office, most of which was later omitted.

This is largely based on two articles written by Menderes Çınar from Başkent University, which I highly recommend. The first one is Turkey's Transformation Under the AKP Rule, The Muslim World, Volume 96, Number 3, July 2006 , pp. 469-486(18).

The second one is Çınar's chapter from Secular and Islamic Politics in Turkey: The Making of the Justice and Development Party, edited by Ümit Cizre and published in 2007. The chapter is called the Justice and Development Party and the Kemalist Establishment.
"When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power in Turkey in 2002, many saw the party as a political force that could make Turkish society more democratic. The AKP appealed to the right as well as to the left of the political spectrum by advocating liberal economic policies alongside the country’s Europeanization. Taking a more moderate line allowed the AKP to become the trustee of center right politics in Turkey following a decade of poor economic performance and corruption scandals that destroyed the credibility of the mainstream non-Islamist center-right parties.

The performance of the AKP, however, especially in its second term in office following the 2007 general elections, raises the question of whether the AKP leadership has truly internalized liberal democratic values. The AKP has used the EU as the main instrument to introduce democratic reforms in the face of opposition from the state elite. However, the stalling of the negotiation process amid mixed signals from the EU powers exposed the AKP’s limited understanding of democracy and lack of a democratization strategy independent of the EU membership drive.

The AKP’s main goal seems to be strengthening elected political class vis-à-vis the establishment dominated state. As such, the AKP overlooks the power relations between classes, genders, religious and ethnic groups within the Turkish society and these groups’ grievances, reproducing Kemalism’s distaste for politicization of different interests, and constrains its definiton of democracy to rejecting the state’s domination over political class. The party’s recent reduction of the Kurdish cause to an armed conflict and its harsh response to 1 May demonstrations illustrate this point. Naturally, one exception is the rights and liberties of Islamic identity.

The AKP’s real trouble with a state-dominated political class does not result from the undemocratic and unaccountable nature of the relationship. The AKP appears to be more concerned with who is controlling the state. Instead of increasing transparency and accountability in state institutions and bureaucracy, the party is replacing the incumbent state elite with its own supporters. It is following the same strategy of community-creating and personalizing politics as the Kemalist state establishment, displaying distrust to individuals outside its own community."

Saturday, March 14, 2009

What you thought you knew (but didn't actually know) about Turkey - 2
  • How democratic is the AKP?

Western policy makers once thought that the AKP would lead to a more democratic society, and Turkey would then demonstrate the compatibility of Islam and democracy for other Muslim countries in the Middle East. (Of course, one of the purposes of our lives is to play guinea pigs in western experiments.) Turkey's liberal intelligentsia thought the displacement of the old elite in power would bring about a liberal democracy. So far, this elite seems to have been replaced by a new elite, and the AKP supporters seem to have penetrated and dominated state institutions, instead of making them more transparent and accountable. The same power game is being played, simply by a new player.

Let's take a step back first, and question whether the AKP leadership has really internalized liberal democratic values. The authors say, "Islamic conservatism is not yet at peace with an understanding of secularism that calls for the withdrawal of religion from public realm, which in turn is a prerequisite for liberal democracy." They remind us Erdogan's words, "democracy is a street car, from which we jump off after we reach our destination."

More recently, Erdogan said, "we only took the immorality of the West, not its science." The authors respond, "The Turkish intellectual debate has been haunted by the same expectation since westernization started in the 19th century, namely that it would somehow reveal itself to be possible to acquire the science and technology of the west without having to import western freedom of the mind, specifically the freedom to inquire about and question religious beliefs." The latest incident in TUBITAK (where one of the AKP-appointed administrators censored the stories about Darwin in the TUBITAK magazine, Bilim-Teknik) demonstrates this point vividly.

If you put different pieces of the story together, the picture is quite striking. AKP appoints its supporters to state institutions based on their political loyalty, not merit or competence. (Let's say they pick from a sub-set of supporters, rather than all the possible candidates for the job.) They award government contracts to supporters (ranging from local constructors, who build roads, to Çalık Holding, who will build the Samsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline, if the pipeline ever gets built). The same Çalık Holding only paid $150 million of the $1.25 billion for Sabah-ATV media group, which it won as the sole bidder in the privatization tender. The rest of the money came from state banks and a Gulf investment fund. Just so that the government can control one more piece of the media. And for the chunk of media they don't control, they start huge tax investigations.

Now everybody knows about the Deniz Feneri scandal. AKP affiliates, after having founded the charitable foundation of the same name in Turkey in 1998, decided to open one in Germany to tap the resources there - the good-hearted Turkish immigrants. They then proceeded to funnel some of the donations to their own companies, and German affiliates of Islamist media, like Yeni Şafak and Kanal 7, and couriered some of it to Turkey. According to the German indictment, Zahid Akman, the current chairman of the Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK) was an active member of the operation. Akman, who belongs to the same Iskenderpaşa lodge of the Nakşibendi religious brotherhood as Erdogan, remains RTUK chairman.

Ergenekon. The investigation could have been a chance to eliminate criminal elements within the state. It could be the first step of a wholesale effort to bring to justice those responsible for the assassinations of Hrant Dink and Uğur Mumcu, the attack to the Council of State (Danıştay) in 2006, the extra-judicial killings of Kurds in the south east. I am not saying all these crimes were committed by a single organization, but Ergenekon could be the first step in a series of investigations, it could be the first spark. The investigators, however, framed the investigation around the assumption that the whole purpose was to overthrow the government. This gave them the pretext to intimidate and weaken those who oppose the AKP.

A public relations campaign is carried out in pro-government media outlets alongside the investigation. There seems to be an archive of tapped phone conversations and confidential documents, from which the most relevant ones are leaked to pro-government press at opportune times. Law 5397, which was adopted on 3.7.2005, extended the scope of legal phone tapping by allowing police chiefs, gendarmarie commanders and the National Intelligence Organization to issue a phone tapping order, subject to the approval of the judges of Heavy Punishment Courts within 24 hours. These tappings are carried out to “prevent” crimes such as organized drug trafficking and “violent attempts to overthrow the government.” There seems to be no mechanism to supervise these tappings to make sure that they remain confidential.

Given that the AKP's definition of democracy is limited to electoral success, it is no surprise that the government's main priority has been the local elections since the Constitutional Court verdict that saved them from dissolution in July. Erdogan himself picked most of the AKP candidates in the local elections. Within the party, Erdogan is surrounded by a circle of loyal supporters, and he has to have the last word before a piece of legislation is submitted to the parliament. There must be a mountain of law proposals in the "Prime Ministry," which are waiting to get the final seal of approval. Very often a law proposal that made the headlines in newspapers is forgotten after it is lost in the prime minister's office.

For someone who doesn't have a personal interest in Turkey, all this may seem like details. This kind of thing happens in every emerging market, one may say. But I am happy that I am able to care enough to feel angry at this. This is not just any subject matter for me, I actually care about it. And I am deeply disappointed. I thought it would be shame not to speak up about it when I have an opinion about it.

Friday, March 13, 2009


Bugün ofiste, inanma kavramını düşündüm. İnanç nedir? Birine ya da bir şeye, bir şeyin inandığımız gibi olduğuna neden, nasıl inanırız? Sonra dedim ki, inanç, aslında bilmediğin bir şeyi bildiğini düşünmektir. İnsan bir kez bir şeye inanınca, sanki onu biliyormuş sanır kendini. Görmeyi, düşünmeyi bırakır. Gerçeğin bir adım ötesinde, hızlı hızlı yürümeye başlar, kendi davulunu çalarak, gerçek arkasından yetişmeye çalışır, omzunu dürter ama nafile. Sonra birden durur insan yolun ortasında. Acaba der, pili bitmiş ayıcıklar gibi. Emin olamaz, tokmağı tutan eli havada. Arkasına döner, ama gerçeği göremez. Döner, döner ama gerçek hiç bir yerde yoktur. Kimseye soramaz, o kadar zaman görmezlikten geldiği anlaşılacak diye.

Geriye kalan sadece şüphe.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

What you thought you knew (but didn't actually know) about Turkey - 1

I read an article called "Prospects for a 'torn' Turkey: A secular and unitary future?" by Svante E. Cornell and Halil Magnus Karaveli of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Silk Road Studies Program. Their arguments were very refreshing. They made me realize that most accounts of what's going on in Turkey (especially Western perceptions, including some of my 'received opinions') are hopelessly simplistic. So I decided to note some of their points here in a series of posts.
  • Islamic ascendancy was the "irresistable reclaim by a supposedly essential popular culture of a terrain that had been occupied by an alien secularism imposed from above by the state."

In fact, successive secular governments have accommodated Islam since Turkey became a multi-party democracy in 1950. Under the watch of center-right governments Sunni Islam came to dominate the school system and private schools funded by Islamic fraternities and orders found fertile ground.

Ironically, it was the military rule following the 1980 coup that encouraged Islamist politics as an alternative to radical left. With the ingenious "Turkish-Islamic synthesis," the generals attempted to blend right-wing nationalism and Islam. The "Religious Culture and Ethics" class made its way into elementary school curriculum (and the consitution), clerical high schools expanded and a new Islamic intelligentsia was born. The liberalization of the economy created a new middle class with more conservative values, while simultaneously increasing income disparities in the society, fuelling support for Islamic conservatism.

Just as it is simplistic to claim that the state bureaucracy and military are homogenously secularist, it is also simplistic to think that secularism does not have any popular legitimacy. The 2007 Republican demonstrations displayed the popular secularist sentiment (although now the Ergenekon indictment claims that they were an attempt to overthrow the government and put state security at risk.) Although I don't think the organizers of those demonstrations are particularly bright, the democratic right of the participants to express their views is not less important than that of the Islamist conservatives.

Finally, an inherent deficiency of secularism contributed to its decline. As Şerif Mardin put it, "the republic has not given the question of what is good, right and aesthetic any deeper consideration. That is the deficiency of Kemalism." The authors go on to say: "Kemalism was not unsuccessful because it has been applied with vigor and insensitivity to popularly held beliefs, but because republican ideology remained philosophically arid, insufficienty connected to and fecundated by the heritage of the Enlightenment." This goes back to the state policy of accommodating religion while "appearing" secular.

Next up:

  • The prospects of an Islamic reconciliation with liberal values - how democratic is the AKP?
  • The dynamics of ethnic seperatism, Islamism and neo-nationalism.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

Religious defamation

Last week at the LSE Literary Weekend there was a lecture about religious defamation. It got me thinking, so I decided to write a few words about it. When the Danish cartoon crisis broke out three years ago, I was quite angry at the Danish. I didn't see the use in publishing those cartoons at all, to me, its only effect was insulting people's culture and identity, provoking even the most moderate Muslims.

There is another side to the story. Religious people think they know the absolute answer to some questions: questions about how our existence came about, how we should conduct our worldly affairs, what will happen after life. They refuse to engage in a debate, and even posing these questions is sometimes enough to offend them. Sometimes they think the other side is not looking for the answer, but simply trying to offend them.

Being around people who get easily offended can be tiresome. It forces one to self-censorship, and this is sort of a defeat. You tacitly accept their version of the truth because you don't want to deal with the fall out. And as one of the speakers in the panel rightly pointed out, this is an impediment to the pursuit of truth. If we keep considering all the ways in which everyone could get offended, we would never speak. (Next time I look offended, remind me this please. And what you just said probably had some truth in it if I look offended. If it was really wrong, I would just be jumping up and down trying to correct you.)

It goes without saying, however, that provoking people is not the only way to get them thinking. There may be better ways.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Class

This week my friend and I wound up seeing the Class, French director Laurent Cantet's film about a French language and literature teacher struggling to inspire his high school class in the Parisian suburbia. The continuous noise of the class, with its immaturely opinionated and easily offended students, the liberal teacher who loses his cool, the teacher's less idealistic colleagues who view the students as nothing but the subject matter... It was all very realistic. Although my high school was much more homogenous in terms of the students' backgrounds, I remember the continuous chatter, the rebels who would always argue with the teachers, and how sad and unusually quiet an empty classroom looks.

There are a couple of things that lingered on in my mind after the movie. How to win respect? Simply being more senior (in terms of age or experience), having the power to fire, hire or suspend someone, or knowing more is not enough to win someone's genuine respect. Genuine respect is something closer to affection and admiration than to fear, and it only comes with time. A person would earn respect by caring about the people around them, by treating them kindly and showing genuine interest in them, by listening to them, rather than assuming they are better and respectable by default. And a genuinely respectable person would not need to impose their respectability on others, but instead allow them to decide for themselves. Many teachers and bosses are too consumed by their supposed power to consider these things.

And I thought about what all that chatter in a classroom or a teachers' room meant. How the most important things (inequality between classes and cultures or the fate of a student) are spoken alongside the most mundane, like the price of coffee and football stars. And every day, the most important and unimportant things are spoken everywhere with miniscule intervals. And sometimes, the most important things are spoken of as if they are not important, without consideration, and the most mundane are spoken of as if they are the most important things in the world, with great passion. All this is a mystery to me.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

(bir kaç gün önce yazdım bunu)


İnsan ne zaman birinden bir şey saklamış olur? Onu ilgilendiren bir şeyi anlatmadığında mı? Halbuki sevdiklerimize, daha da doğrusu bizi sevenlere gerçekten aklımızdan geçenleri bütün doğruluğuyla ve açıklığıyla anlatmak ne kadar zor. Biz anlatabilsek, anlattığımızı sansak bile, onların anlayabilmeleri ne kadar zor. Sanki her tanıdığımızla farklı bir dil konuşuyoruz, gerçeğin onların kaldırabileceğini (ya da duymak istediğini) düşündüğümüz kadarını anlatıyoruz.

Peki bir de anlatan netleştikçe anlattıkça, dinleyen bulanıyorsa, anlatan genişledikçe, dinleyen küçülüyorsa, anlatan kuralları koydukça, dinleyen bunları kabulleniyorsa? Anlatan ilerledikçe, dinleyen geri çekiliyorsa?

Eskiden de kafam yeterince karışıktı, şimdi hepten karıştı. Sanki ateşkes zamanı, yıkılan duvarları yeniden yapmak için. Ama eskiye dönmenin de imkanı yok, çoktan yapısı değişti zerrelerin. Ama zaten kurtuluş değil aradığım, bağımsızlık.

Sanki bağımsızlığın tek yolu var. Hiç geri çekilmeden, dinledikçe düşünmek, düşündükçe yazmak, hiç durmadan, pes etmeden topu alıp ileri sürmek. Değişsek bile küçülmemek, hep var olmak. Bu toplar hiç susmayacak, fenerler hep yanacak.

Belki bir yanım isterdi ki ateşkes yapalım, daha az yorucu olurdu belki zayıflık. Ama asıl istediğim savaşmak.