Interview with Nigar Goksal

Posted January 3, 2008

Categories: Eastern Europe, Interviews

Nigar Goksal of European Stability Initiative

On the United States

An opinion poll conducted by the ARI Movement last year revealed that 80 percent of the Turkish population holds a negative opinion of the United States. When we broke down the question further, we found that while most people felt negatively toward the Bush administration, they were relatively positive toward cultural elements of the United States. In general, however, most opinion leaders have stopped going public with any positive political perspective they might have toward America because it would be unpopular. I attribute this partially to the Turkish government’s passive stance and lack of leadership. Compare it to the government in office during the first Gulf War in the early 1990s, when every day the Turkish president would get on TV every day to explain why we were supporting America, why it was strategically important, why Turkey was doing the right thing. This government has instead stood by while public opinion has become more and more negative. Its attitude has been: America is unpopular, this is a democracy, so be it.

Those pursuing an agenda of more religious freedoms in Turkey’s political arena site America as a model. A Mormon congressman hires a majority of Mormons in his office. Churches in America support politicians, and conduct charity work. These examples are used to show how Turkey is too rigid when it comes to religion. America seems to be protecting religious autonomy while Turkey is protecting politics from religion. Some of the new thinkers among the Islamicists here are very connected to conservatives in America. They explore creationism together, for example.

On the Turkish government

I spend a lot of time arguing with my friends among the “secular elite” that their criticism of the current government is at times over the top. I am not anti-government on all accounts; but I think that in terms of international relations, for example, the government’s position has not been clear. It tries to find a way to make everyone happy at once: it flirts with Iran, with America, with everyone – but in an amature fashion. It does not have the expertise to outplay everyone. For instance, it doesn’t understand Russia enough to outplay Russia.

There is a polarization among intellectuals. Among the liberal elite, which typically leads the opinions of the country, there is a strong divide over whether or not to give Islam and whatever the AKP represents the benefit of the doubt. Of course, it’s not articulated in that way. It’s much more ideologically charged: have you sold out to the Islamists or to Kemalist authoritarians? Personally, I give the AKP the benefit of the doubt on many domestic issues. And it is worth noting that sixty percent of Turkish society holds conservative values. Consider the very symbols the AKP uses, such as the head scarf: to crack down harshly on them would be counterproductive. You would alienate the majority of the people you want on your side.

In the political spectrum, the AKP is definitely the party carrying the EU flag most seriously. Indeed, it was ahead of the opposition in terms of making progress with regard to the EU. Instead of arguing that they would pursue the EU path more successfully, the opposition claimed the AKP was just trying to play into the EU’s plan to divide Turkey and make Turkey weak, as was the case when the republic was founded. The opposition has a similar conspiracy theory about the United States, which is that America is using the AKP in its overall vision of Islam and the Middle East. In my opinion, though, for the time being, the AKP is doing both at the same time: pursuing better relations with Iran and Russia, etc., but not at the expense of relations with Europe.

The mosque call to prayer has gotten a little louder. The louder the mosque call to prayer, the more Turkish flags go up.

On the EU

The anti-AKP elite has been going to Europe to explain why the AKP is such a danger, saying that to support the AKP is to contribute to Islamization, and the creation of an Iran in Europe. But when they do that, they’re not serving Turkey’s goal of getting into the EU. They justify their strategy by saying that in the long term this will aid Turkey’s westernization process, even though it may take a little longer for Turkey to gain entrance to the EU,. This puts European countries in a strange position. Ideally they should support the AKP. But when Turks speak up and say, “We’re going backwards, and the military should intervene,” it becomes harder to convince Europeans to bring Turkey into the EU, especially when many already question Turkey’s eligibility. There are several Turkish women authors in Germany today who have written books explaining how they were tortured by their fathers, and how their mothers were beaten. With a few exceptions, this negative face of Turkey reflects the past. Truly, there has been enormous progress in women’s empowerment in the last decade. But when you have a Turkish woman claiming that Islam is the root of the country’s problems, and you, as a European, already harbor a negative perception of Turkey and of Islam, then such complaints can be more convincing than the other side of the story – which is that Turkey is changing, for the better in many senses.

This is not to say that people should be prevented from exploring and relaying the harsh realities of their past, but rather that when this happens there’s often a vacuum on the other side. That’s partly a deficiency of Turkish intellectuals.

Nationalist Turks are obviously concerned that their identity will be diluted in the EU, to the point tht cultural traditions will be lost. But really, there will be a loss in any case. Globalization is doing just that.

When discussing what EU integration will do for Turkey, people are not looking at what has happened to other candidates after accession. It is not a knowledge-based discussion, but rather hypothetical, for the most part. These people say, “The EU has accepted everyone with open arms, except the Turks.” But wait, Poland and Bulgaria were not welcomed with open arms.

Interestingly, the EU doesn’t feel like it needs to sell anything. Their attitude is: We are a club, and if you want to join, here are the conditions. At the public level, EU officials say that Turkey is making progress, despite its problems, and that its status is being evaluated. What they aren’t attempting to do is convince the Turks that EU membership is a positive thing – and this necessary, because in Turkey support for EU membership is,down to 50 percent, and falling. This is par for the course, however; other EU candidates experienced much the same treatment.

The Turkish government, too, has a responsibility: to garner support for the EU and to show leadership; to guide the people to a better understanding of what the EU will mean for Turkey. If some French politician says something negative about Turkey, you have to educate the Turkish public enough so that they realize that this does not necessarily represent the EU position as a whole.

A lot of EU reforms, such as public administration reform, require regional development and decentralization. The counterargument to such reform in Turkey is that regional development structures create more autonomy that eventually leads to federalism. It is assumed that such reforms will embolden people in Southeast Anatolia to begin thinking about being a region, and that this will lead naturally toward independence. I don’t think this is likely. In fact, one could make as theoretically sound a counterargument to say that giving the people of the region more say and more stake will bind them to the country more strongly.

Support for the EU in Turkey is highest in Kurdish areas. There are now MPs from the Kurdish Party in Parliament. This is important. In the past, Kurds weren’t acknowledged to be Kurds. It was once thought – and many still hold this view – that to identify with another element of society or ethnicity would mean weaken one’s Turkish identity. The Turkish nationalists point to the other groups in Turkey, like the Circassians and those who came from the Balkans, and say they never caused any problems. The implication is that other groups are fine about being Turks, the implication is, “Why can’t you be like them.” The Alevis don’t want a Sunni Islamic culture to dominate the landscape. The AKP hasn’t practiced what it preached when it comes to the Alevis. The AKP supports the right to wear a headscarf but doesn’t allow Alevis to have their prayer houses recognized. It is my opinion that if you are supportive of personal choice when it comes to religious beliefs and practices, then you must be so consistently.

On the Armenian issue

On the Armenian issue, the tone of Turkish officials has often been counterproductive. Recently an old Armenian church was renovated and opened in Van, in East Anatolia. Such steps are vital to show good will. It is also important that the government acknowledge that both sides lost many lives, that we feel a great sadness. There are many middle ways that will garner more sympathy in Europe than the defensive reaction you classically hear in Turkey.

This political antagonism – “they” hate “us,” “they” are out to get “us” – takes away any initiative to be more objective about the past. The Armenian diaspora is very aggressive and touches Turkey’s nerve. Their version of history challenges who we think we are, how we are taught in primary school. The accepted belief in Turkey is that that we Turks are tolerant, and that the Armenians in Anatolia betrayed us, with Europe and Russia’s support. The alternative version of the Armenians counters our conviction that tolerance defines our history. It then becomes an issue of pride. And of course the success of the Armenian diaspora in harming Turkey’s image in the world also is a blow to Turkey’s pride and confidence.

When the AKP came to power, it was quite lenient regarding the Armenian issue. Before the elections in 2002, the inner circle of AKP seemed interested in opening the border with Armenia. But I think that once they occupied seats in the government, they realized that this issue requires political capital, and would cause an uproar among the nationalists, as well as have implications for relations with Azerbaijan. AKP used most of the political capital with nationalists on other issues, such as those, like the question of Cyprus, that challenged EU criteria and were unpopular with the nationalist crowd. Some gestures towards the Armenians could really go along a way. For example, there’s an Armenian church now being used as a gymnasium in Kayseri. Let it be renovated and appreciated as a church. We could look at some other things that are meaningful to Armenians, and that to change would require no sacrifice of Turkish honor. We could also do something to recognize the losses of both Armenians and Turks in a particular place, like Van, for instance. Truly, no one can agree over history – and they don’t have to. There are disputes over numbers. There are different versions of stories, various interpretations of responsibility, discrepancies regarding the chain of command. Different provinces have different realities. Let people do their own research. Let there be free debate. Let there be a marketplace of ideas. States should simply make it more conducive (and safe) to do this work. They shouldn’t punish the expression of opinions in any way.

There should be more contact between Armenians and Turks. I often go to Armenia. Few people there have actually met any Turks. They think of Turks as mustachioed men. When they see a young Turkish woman, it changes their perception of who Turks are.

On Women

There is a common perception both among the liberals in Turkey who live in the larger cities, as well as Europeans and Americans, that the AKP poses a threat to to women’s rights because of Islam’s approach to women. But if you compare the status of women five years ago, and that of today, you can see that on every count there has been dramatic progress – as occurred in Spain in the late 1970s and 1980s. There has been civil code change, penal code change, constitutional change. It used to be that the man was legally the head of the family. There were discriminatory elements in the property rights law. All of this has been changed. There have been new initiatives on girls going to school. A Domestic Violence Commission was formed in parliament. There has been change across the board, in everything except economic participation, which for women in Turkey has always been very weak – except in agriculture, where women do unpaid labor, leading one to the conclusion that urbanization naturally reduces women’s economic activity.

We witnessed demonstrations in Ankara, Istanbul, Izmir and other cities, where women were at the forefront saying, “We’re going backwards, we’re under threat.” But this is not based on legal evidence or analysis of concrete political decisions. In fact, the percentage of women in Parliament doubled from four to nine. This increase has nothing to do with the implementation of laws in courts. I’m not saying that the AKP set out to improve the status of women. But as democracy matures, the government has had to be more receptive to pressure from below. The women’s movement has been demanding these changes for years, and finally they have been heard. The EU also applied pressure. In the 1980s and 90s, civil society made as much noise as they wanted, but there was no possibility leveraging the EU’s demands because candidacy status had not been obtained and membership was not a viable prospect. The government can’t afford not to listen to civil society and the EU. The other parties that have been in power for decades never took the steps that were taken in the last four years. So it undermines their argument that women are under threat.

The debate has been over the head scarf of the president’s wife or whether he contributes to housework. Everyone assumed that under a more religious party, women’s rights were regressing. So we, as ESI, carried out a year of research and released a report which revealed trends in the opposite direction. To the results surfaced just when women were demonstrating in the streets and putting up SOS flags.

On the Balkans

A lot of people migrated from the Balkans to Turkey in the early 20th century. There were Balkan wars; there were population exchanges. The Ottoman rulers – the palace crowd – were mostly Balkan, i.e., Albanian and Macedonian. Ataturk, too, was from Albania. The elite of Istanbul, known as Istanbulites, were largely from the Balkans. So the term Balkan has a positive connotation to some degree.

There’s another dimension to the term: that which recalls the oppression of Muslims, the war in Bosnia, the battlefield between Christianity and Islam. During the Bosnian war, there were a lot of Islamic foundation efforts in Turkey to gather support for Bosnians. Eventually America’s coming forth was very good for the American image in Turkey. Ultimately, it was America and not Europe that stood up for the Muslims. This is one of the reasons why Bill Clinton was loved. Clinton came to Turkey in 1999, after the earthquake. It was wonderful PR. There were people saying if there were an election in Turkey and Clinton was willing to change citizenship, they would vote for him. Europeans were seen as cold, hypocritical, and selfish. Clinton seemed warm in contrast.

The idea of Balkanization, of little communities and conflicts based on ethnicity, is not common parlance in Turkey. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, however, used to explain why Turkey is under threat of being broken up. But what is happening now in Balkans – nobody is really following that. We’re sort of resentful that some Balkan countries are moving faster than Turkey on the path to EU membership. For many Europeans, Macedonia and Croatia are looking more European than Turkey. Among other things, this creates ego problems

FPIF, January 4, 2008

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