Banality of ‘the truth about Turkey’

Nuray Mert

Of the books that are based on the fashionable orthodoxies of social studies, some are more unfortunate than others. The “shelf life” of the social and political studies that only repeat the clichés of their times is bound to be short anyway, but those that are written at the end time of certain paradigms are more pitiable. The life and times of the so-called “new Turkey” under Justice and Development Party (AKP) rule has been so short that all those analyses based on the “democratic potential” of a rising moderate Islamic political power proved to be a disastrous delusion within a very short amount of time.

Anthropologist Jenny White’s recent study on Turkey, “Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks,” has all the weaknesses of its genre: Too many generalizations that are based on unchecked clichés, lack of sociological depth, false assumptions resulting from ignorance of Turkey’s political history, and clumsy use of political and social theory are the most noteworthy weaknesses, among others. On top of everything, the book, which was published at the end of the last year, came out very unfortunately at the time of the crumbling of the New Turkey. In fact, White’s book on Turkey is just another example of the “non-Western modernities and non-Western democracies” vogue. The assumption that experience of modernity in general and democracy in particular need not be similar to the Western experience, and that different societies could have different norms of their own, came into fashion in the 1990s and has turned into social and political theory orthodoxy over the last decade.

According to this new orthodoxy, the authoritarian politics in non-Western – and particularly in Muslim societies – had its roots in their history of radical modernization and the emphasis on secularism. In this view, in the case of Turkey, the weakness of democracy results from the history and politics of the Kemalist modernization project. Many observers of Turkey assumed that since the ex-Islamists and/or conservatives challenged and transformed the Kemalist status quo, democratization would follow. White’s book simply summarizes this cliché with a lot of references to clichés that new Muslims have more flexible attitudes concerning a liberal and democratic society and polity. According to White, “Muslim nationalism” is less threatening for a democratic future, because of its reference is to a multi-cultural Ottoman past, than Kemalism and its reference to the Turkish-centered nation state. This is not a book review, and I do not intend to engage in a detailed criticism here; besides, the recent political developments have proved so strongly against the book’s assumptions and suggestions that there may not any need for further criticism.

In fact, I think the issue is worth discussion in more depth, but first I need to underline the “banality of the truth about Turkey” rather than engaging in a debate in the genre of “moderate Islam and its democratic prospects.” The Islamist/conservative supporters of the AKP government at home, and the observers of Turkey abroad, first need to be reminded of the fact that the failed experience of democracy in the last decade under the AKP is neither peculiar to Turkey nor to Muslim societies. First and foremost, Turkey has been another aspiring growth political economy under a convenient domestic and international conjecture, but has failed to capitalize on its aspirations and potential. Turkey, like many other countries, has not been able to cope with post-Cold War global politics domestically and internationally, and has ended up with a new form of authoritarianism. The happy idea concerning the supposed rise of democracies in post-authoritarian politics since the 1990s has failed drastically, and so have the fashionable theories about them. Now is the time to come to our senses.

On one hand, we need more sophistication to be able to understand the roots of the problem in local and global contexts, on the other hand we need to admit the banality of plain truths about the global “retreat of democracy” (as Joshua Kurlantzick puts it) in general and about Turkey in particular. The most important thing is to avoid the confusing aspect of banality, with aspects of peculiarity and complexity both in the case of Turkey and elsewhere. This is very important to keep away not only from the misleading analyses of democratization written by observers of Turkey, and also to keep away from the fantasies of AKP supporters that Turkey is under a global attack because it was on the brink of defeating Western global power.


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