Over the past four or five years, a theme has emerged in the Turkish and international opposition press concerning the AKP and President Erdoğan. The gist of it is that for the first six, seven, maybe even eight years after the AKP was elected to government in November 2002, everything went great; Turkey was fully on the road to democracy and the EU, and foreigners saw the AKP as the party to lead Turkey in that direction. But then everything went bad, Erdoğan turned authoritarian, the EU accession process stalled, and everyone began to fear the worst for Turkey’s future.
As I have written previously (1), the above narrative is a fabrication designed for a certain political juncture. In fact, at no time since the AKP’s founding in 2001 did the domestic or international opposition press approach the AKP or Tayyip Erdoğan in an unqualified positive manner. The one point at which a segment of the U.S. media did try to hold up the AKP as a positive example was in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, when, because the original premise for the invasion turned out to be a lie, a new spin had to be developed by the George W. Bush administration and its neo-conservative foreign policy pundits. The result was the “Greater Middle East Initiative,” which received a great deal of promotion for a short period of time and then faded away. Turkey and the AKP was the democratic model conveniently associated with that project.
In the present series of articles I want to illustrate the reality of the matter in more detail. To that end, I am going to examine the articles on Turkey, the AKP, and Tayyip Erdoğan published by the NYT in the years since the AKP’s foundation in 2001. The NYT is appropriate because it is the most prominent newspaper in the world and echoes a vast section of the U.S. political elite. But I shall also be adding articles from think tanks and others at appropriate points.
In 2001, the main NYT features that pop up on a Google search concern the February 2001 financial crisis (2) and the closure of the Fazilet (Virtue) Party by Turkey’s Constitutional Court in July 2001 (3). Both articles are remarkably neutral, and the second even points out that the EU would most likely criticize the Fazilet Party’s closure even though the EU also allows court-imposed party closures. Yet another interesting detail is that the second article quotes Çağrı Erhan, who is an academic and expert on Turkish-American relations (he has published a book, in Turkish, on 19th century relations between the late Ottoman empire and the USA). He has also been a television pundit for many years. However, the NYT has not bothered to go to him for commentary since that one article in 2001.
Only a month later, the tone had changed dramatically even though the author, Douglas Frantz, had also written the previous two articles. Published in the days before the AKP was officially formed, the article speaks of “uneasiness” in Turkish politics about the imminent new party, even though no election was imminent at that point, and the party could not be an active participant in Turkish politics. (4)
The author then moves on to the “others”:
”Some political analysts and Western diplomats said suspicions remained that the still-unnamed party represented a clever new face of political Islam in a country where being identified as a religious party is a liability.”
Now that’s the rhetoric we’re familiar with: the Islamic Threat mixed with bigoted comments about the “clever” Orientals! Even before the AKP was actually established, that was the characterization.
Later in the same article, the author does at least mention that the new party was from the “reformist” wing of the shuttered Fazilet Party. Then a quote from İlter Turan labels the new party “mainstream” before the author moves on to describe how the domestic Turkish press had already begun assaulting Erdoğan.
Frantz published a number of other articles on Turkish issues that same year, and several are useful reminders of just how much things have changed in Turkey in the past fifteen years. One item, dating from November 2001, mentions that the Turkish government had just issued a new 20 million lira note (5). The February 2001 Turkish banking crisis did fuel inflation, but nothing dramatically worse than what had been the norm for at least a decade. At that time, the Turkish economy did actually have extremely serious problems, tacitly and helplessly acknowledged by the deputy central bank governor quoted in the note.
The second article is from earlier in 2001, dated 30 May, and opens with the following two paragraphs (6):
”On some days, after he was beaten and raw sewage was pumped into his darkened cell in a former morgue, Celalettin Can would cower on the putrid floor and pray for the hangman to call his name.
”Death is not the most difficult thing,” said Mr. Can, who said he had been repeatedly tortured while awaiting execution for membership in a left-wing terrorist group. ”Within the psychology of being tortured, death becomes a secondary fear. Sometimes you pray for death. Staying alive is the hardest thing.”
Notably, this sort of police brutality no longer occurs in Turkish prisons. Instead, the complaints now are that Turkish security forces paint offensive or bigoted graffiti on the walls of buildings they’ve expelled the PKK from. The article itself is on the Turkish death penalty, which at the time was an object of debate because of the EU candidacy application. After being narrowed in 2001 and 2002, the Turkish death penalty was completely excised from Turkish law in 2004.
A later paragraph comments further on the issue:
”But rights advocates and international organizations see the opportunity to end the death penalty as an important step in cleaning up broader problems in a country where torture remains prevalent and the justice system is regarded as often arbitrary and politically tainted.”
Reading that is an eye-opener, first, because torture, once a serious problem in Turkish jails, has essentially disappeared from the Turkish police and prison system in the past fifteen years. Second, however, is the characterization of the Turkish justice system as “arbitrary and politically tainted.” Many current foreign observers have the idea that the Turkish justice system was good but has somehow been compromised by the AKP government. In reality, the Turkish justice system is only now undergoing the long, grinding process to increase standards of justice and transparency — standards which had never previously been present. The NYT article nicely states the pre-AKP reality of Turkish justice.
(1) http://serbestiyet.com/yazarlar/adam-mcconnel/reminiscences-of-bushs-middle-east-democracy-project-154625; http://serbestiyet.com/yazarlar/adam-mcconnel/do-you-remember-the-greater-middle-east-project-157279