How do you see Turkey in 2015?
There has been striking change in the last couple of years. During the 1990s, the government was involved in massive atrocities in the southeast. It was a horrible period. In the early years of this century, there was an improvement. I visited a number of times. Until about 2005, things were significantly improving and there were signs that there might be very positive developments in Turkey, which has real opportunities to be an East-West bridge. … But then it started reversing, becoming more authoritarian within Turkey and more repressive on the Kurdish problem. Right now, the Turkish government is acting in ways which I think are extremely damaging to the people of Turkey, to the hopes of Turkish freedom and democracy and to the Kurds in their rightful struggle for basic rights and beyond. And that is international, not just inside Turkey. Turkey’s role in Syria has been extremely harmful.
The timeframe you referred to as “positive developments” corresponds to an era when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government first came to power in 2002. It received praise both inside and outside the country. What was the main motive behind the shift of Erdoğan and his “reformist” party into a state that is reminiscent of the 1990s? Is it not noteworthy that it coincided with the uprisings in the Arab world?
I think that what happened in Turkey is different from the fate of the Arab spring. That is an interesting story. I suspect that one factor was probably Erdoğan’s own authoritarian tendencies. For the first couple of years, the hopes of the more liberal sectors did have some support. Then it shifted possibly in part because of his own deep commitments and tendencies….neo-liberal economics, authoritarian rule, increasing the role of the kind of Islamism that appeals to a good part of his popular base in rural areas. I suspect that was part of it.
Do you think that it was only Erdoğan’s personal tendencies that created the polarization and conflict the country has been experiencing?
Another part may have been Europe. Europe was offering Turkey the possibility of entering the EU. I never believed it myself because I think Europe is too racist. They don’t want Turks walking around in their streets. But they were making offers to Turks … If you look at what happened, every time some condition was made, even if Turkey met that condition, a new condition came. And by about 2005, it was becoming pretty clear that Europe is just going to continue to set up new barriers. And I guess … this led to a conception of “what is the point in trying?” They are just a racist group and region, more so than the U.S., in many ways. [So the notion in Turkey was that] ‘We will stop trying, we are free to go back to more authoritarian systems’ … that [Erdoğan] personally preferred any way. I presume that was a factor.
Casting aside the recent problems in the country, what do you define as Turkey’s strongest side?
Turkey has real lessons for Europe and the rest of the world in general. Turkey is the only country I know of in which leading elements of the educated classes – journalists, academics, writers – have not only protested against the crimes of the state but have undertaken courageous actions of civil disobedience to protest them, sometimes enduring severe punishment. That doesn’t happen anywhere. Certainly not in Europe and the U.S. There are elements like that but they are on the fringe. But in Turkey it is mainstream. That is astonishing. That is a lesson that the West could learn from Turkey.
Do you mean that the Turkish intelligentsia stepped out of its comfort zone and that it is like no other in the world?
I don’t know of any other case like this. I think it is a very interesting fact. I have had a chance to participate in some events with them. It is impressive. In the West, you just don’t see that. Maybe way out on the margins. What is striking is not only the willingness of this substantial sector of privileged, educated and intellectual activists to participate in protests – which is rare enough – but even to undertake significant civil disobedience. It is much easier to do this in the West. There is much more freedom and protection, but people don’t do it. In Turkey, despite the harshness of the state reaction, these sectors do it. That is dramatic and I don’t know any other country [in which this happens].
You said “privileged activists.” The same segment in society is defined as “White Turks.” Even pro-government figures tended to undermine the Gezi protests as a protest of “White Turks” that did not include the general public.
It is not easy to do it anywhere … But in Turkey it is much more severe than in the West. Nevertheless, there is much more engagement. That is a lesson Turkey can teach to wealthier and more privileged developed sectors of Western society. And the same goes for refugees.
So there is at least something to be hopeful in Turkey’s future despite such a pessimistic outlook?
Well I think the changes from the 1990s to the present, despite the recent repression, are very hopeful signs. I hope that what was happening 10 years ago can be picked up again. I don’t think it is over.
The AKP claims that it was actually the party which created that “hopeful” reform atmosphere 10 years ago. Do you not agree to some point?
I don’t think so. They took some steps which relaxed the repression, which is good. But it is the popular movements that created the climate. I happened to be there as a Hrant Dink lecturer. It was pretty impressive to watch the huge public support for the assassination of an Armenian journalist.
When you think of what was happening a few years ago, it’s astonishing. The same goes for the Gezi park protests … they did not succeed in their goal, but it was impressive.
Last week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel came to Turkey to discuss measure about the refugee flow to Europe. Europe gave some promises to Turkey about opening chapters of the EU negotiation process and visa liberation. But in return it wanted Turkey to play the border guard role in some way. Do you not think this was an extremely insincere bargain?
Turkey has taken almost 2 million refugees. The whole refugee situation is pretty shocking. Some countries have taken huge numbers. The champion is Lebanon, where now maybe one third of the population is made up of refugees. Jordan has taken huge numbers of refugees. Iran is taking many, and of course Turkey.
Then there are the countries that generate refugees. The prime examples are the U.S. and Britain. The invasion of Iraq itself probably generated almost 2 million refugees. But it also smashed up the region. The invasion incited a sectarian conflict that wasn’t there before, which is now tearing Iraq apart and wrecking the whole region. It is a major factor in the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] and the generation of refugees throughout the region. The same is true about the attack on Libya. Libya could have settled itself without a major disruption. But the U.S., Britain and France decided to violate the U.N. resolution that they got. This led to a total disruption of the region – a huge flow of weapons to West Africa and the Levant and so on. It also opened the path to the refugee flood to Europe.
So there are countries that generate refugees. There are countries that accept them. And there are countries that generate refugees but do not want to accept them.
It is obvious which countries you mean, but let’s get further.
Namely the U.S., Britain and Europe. There is a reason why Africans are fleeing to Europe, not Europeans to Africa. There’s been a couple of hundred years of vicious, brutal colonialism that cannot be wiped away.
Probably if Europe accepted all potential refugees it would only amount to 1-2 percent of the population. That could be easily accommodated. As for the U.S., just take a ride go up to New Hampshire and Vermont. It’s empty country there, and that’s the most settled part of the country. If you go west there are huge areas unsettled, where the population density is extremely low. But apparently we can’t take any refugees.
There are some in Turkey who think the West created ISIL and supported it across the region. What do you think about that?
I know conspiracy theories are rampant and popular in the region. But this doesn’t make any sense. There is a sense that West created ISIL, but not on purpose. The invasion of Iraq hit a fragile society with a sledgehammer and smashed a lot of things. One of the immediate consequences of the invasion was to incite sectarian conflict that didn’t exist before. That was exacerbated by terror and violence – Fallujah and all the atrocities. In the end, the country just practically broke up. Out of it came al-Qaeda in Iraq, and when it was destroyed there came ISIL. Whether we like it or not, these groups get some support from the Sunni world in Iraq and elsewhere. So yes in that sense the West created ISIL, but not in the sense that it wanted to do so.
The rise of ISIL is astonishing, but in my opinion it has reached the end of the line in Sunni regions. Can it continue to exist?
One of the problems is that if it is destroyed something even worse may come out. You cannot overlook the fact that it really grew out of something that continues today: A horrifying Sunni-Shia conflict that was largely instigated by the invasion of Iraq. That has all got to be dealt with first, or something worse will come out. The al-Nusra Front – supported by Saudi Arabia, Turkey and others – is actually indistinguishable from ISIL.
You harshly criticize U.S. foreign policy and say drones amount to the biggest war crimes of the 21st century. You also have problems with the U.S. stance on democracy, as well as its methods. What is the biggest problem of U.S. foreign policy?
The countries that most matter to the U.S. are the oil dictators. In these places, the Arab Spring never took off the ground. People tried, but the repression was so severe that nothing was possible. In Saudi Arabia, which is the most backward extremist fundamentalist state in the world, when there were efforts to have some very mild demonstrations, they were crushed by force. People were afraid to walk in the streets of Riyadh. In Bahrein there was an uprising but Saudi Arabia sent in troops and crushed it. The U.S. and Britain are the major outside actors there, and they have supported the dictator up to the last. In Egypt, when it was finally impossible to support Hosni Mubarak any longer, they sent him off to Sharm El Sheikh and tried to restore the old system as much as possible.
It was exactly the kind of thing that was done in the case of Samosa in Nicaragua, Marcos in the Philippines, in case after case. It takes genius for the Western press not to recognize this. That is exactly what was done with Mubarak, and eventually a really vicious military dictatorship took over, leading to some of the darkest days in Egypt’s history. The U.S. continues to support the Egyptian regime, along with Britain. Still, in Egypt, despite the awful dictatorship, the labor movement won some gains and has to some extent sustained itself. So I suspect something will come back. A base has been laid there for something in the future.
On the subject of the U.S. “bringing democracy to the Middle East,” would you say Washington’s current critical stance on freedoms in Turkey is sincere or not? Will the U.S.’s military and logistical expectations, such as the use of the Incirlik Air Base, always come before democracy?
The U.S. radically opposes Turkish democracy. Just look at what happened in 2003. It was very striking. In 2003, the U.S. was invading Iraq and it wanted Turkish participation, for obvious reasons. The Turkish population was about 95 percent opposed to the invasion of Iraq, and everyone was surprised when the government went along with the population. What happened? The U.S. bitterly attacked Turkey for following the will of the population. Paul Wolfowitz gave lectures to the Turkish military, denouncing it for allowing the government to follow the will of 95 percent of the population and demanding it apologize for this. You couldn’t invent a more clear and dramatic illustration of hatred for democracy.
That was not the only time. Throughout the 1990s – during a real period of state terror in Turkey, which was pretty horrible – the Clinton administration was providing 80 percent of the arms. But the U.S. media essentially refused to describe what was happening. In fact, in 1997 alone Clinton sent more arms to Turkey than the entire Cold War period combined, to encounter the [PKK] insurgency. That is how much they in the U.S. like democracy in Turkey. It goes case after case.