Turkish national elections are next Sunday and the party of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to triumph. A number of Westerners have noticed the tendency of Erdogan to sue critics for slander if they say anything unflattering of him--and in Turkish courts he wins a number of those suits. If you want evidence of why the First Amendment is so crucial to American democracy, Turkey today provides an answer.
We at Discovery have a couple of friends who know Turkey well, though each in a different way. Usually these days Mustafa Akyol, a columnist in Istanbul, and Claire Berlinski, an American writer living there, disagree about Turkish policy, culture and foreign policy. But both have well-considered perspectives worth knowing. Mustafa is author of a forthcoming book on the reform path Islam might take (Mustafa, of course, is Muslim). He is irenic, pro-Western and cautious, but also very hopeful for the future of his country.
Claire, on the other hand, has both the insights and the limitations that come from the perspective of an outsider. A sympathetic, generally secular Jew, Claire has spent five years in Turkey and renders an excellent assist to her fellow Americans to understand a society that operates in a less linear, sequential manner than their own.
Turks are given to conspiracy theories about many things and their policies often don't make sense in Western terms.
Nonetheless, as Claire observes in a fine interview that Michael Totten has conducted with her for Pajamas Media, Americans need to work harder at comprehending Turkey and to work harder explaining our own values to the Turks. Right now, she points out, the Turks are fighting a small civil war with Kurdish rebels and incurring many casualties, but this is hardly mentioned in the Western media. Turkey's government is pursuing a wholly implausible policy of comity with Iran, even though Iran surely will upset Turkey greatly when the Iranians build their atomic bombs. And the Turkish government, having promoted the flotilla that tried to overcome the Israelis and enter the Gaza Strip, may want to hold back a second flotilla--which is forming--but presently seem unable to do so.
If any of this reminds you of the confusion that afflicted the Ottoman Empire in its final years, you wouldn't be far off. The difference is that the Ottomans were in material decline at the time, while Turkey is thriving economically today. The country could be a bulwark of reasonable accommodation between Islam and the West. In any event, Claire warns, do not confuse Turkey with either Iranian or Arab lands.
On that and some other points, Mustafa Akyol would agree. Generally, Mustafa (who, like Claire, is well known to us at Discovery Institute) approves of the current political leadership of Turkey. His patriotic emotion running high, he even supported the first flotilla. But he lately has begun to see flaws in the current regime. It is hard for a liberal like Mustafa, for example, to countenance the arrest of dissident journalists or to credit the exaggerated claims the government has made about its domestic opponents.
One thing both writers would agree on (in addition to mutual personal regard) is that--in addition to all our other concerns--Americans need to learn more about Turkey. Our relations with that country are important in themselves, but they also have serious resonance elsewhere in the region. They need us, we need them. If there ever is to be peace in that part of the world, Turkey will have to be part of it.