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Perception vs. reality: Facts about the real Turkey

Wednesday, April 11, 2012  |   |  Tags: , ,

John Kass’s column in The Chicago Tribune today is an ode to Turkey, the type of opinion piece that will probably make Turkish officials beam with pride and pat themselves on the back for a communications job well done.

Kass’s piece, titled “With faith and hope, Turkey builds a new identity,” is a prime example of what happens when journalists buy government propaganda at face value. To hear Kass tell it, Turkey is a progressive superstar in the Middle East: “great change has come to Turkey, and the Tribune has sent me here as witness.”

Too bad they neglected to help him pack his suitcase with some facts.

Kass correctly points out that “Americans hardly hear of the amazing things that are happening in Turkey.” Its economy is indeed booming (though not immune to negative global economic factors), its middle class has grown and the Arab Spring and the situations in Iran and Syria have allowed Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to raise his profile like never before.

But journalists like Kass, in turn, “hardly hear” of the not-so-amazing things that are happening in Turkey. It is unfortunate that a writer of such stature would fall prey to one of the slickest image whitewashing campaigns undertaken by a country in modern times.

Let’s take some of Kass’s points in turn:

1.  “Certainly, this is not some utopia. An alleged coup attempt by the secularist armed forces has led to prosecutions, even of journalists. But there have been structural changes.”

The passing reference to the jailing of journalists does little to impress upon Kass’s readers the true gravity of the situation in Turkey. Turkey jails more journalists than any other country in the world, and for more than just writing about an alleged coup. Some 100 members of the press are behind bars, some languishing away for years before facing charges. That leads the worldwide tally by a mile (China, for comparison purposes, has approximately 34 jailed journalists). Any criticism of Turkey —  and specifically of Turkey’s government —  makes journalists a target. The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins puts the numbers in context:

The arrests have created an extraordinary climate of fear among journalists in Turkey, or, for that matter, for anyone contemplating criticizing Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. During my recent visit there, many Turkish reporters told me that their editors have told them not to criticize Erdogan. As I detail in my piece in the magazine this week, the arrests of journalists are part of a larger campaign by Erdogan to crush domestic opposition to his rule. Since 2007, more than seven hundred people have been arrested, including members of parliament, army officers, university rectors, the heads of aid organizations, and the owners of television networks. Mind you, Turkey is a democracy, or at least, it’s supposed to be.

2.   “Turkish women are no longer harassed for wearing a head scarf.”
It’s bizarre to reference the fact that women can wear a headscarf in public but neglect to leave out the fact that too too many women in Turkey almost never leave their homes:

According to the poll, 37.5 percent of women have never eaten at a restaurant. More than half of women have never celebrated their birthday or wedding anniversary. Twenty-seven percent of women in Turkey have never gone to a hairdresser, and another 31 percent wear no makeup. Forty-six percent of women in Turkey have never gone on vacation. Ten out of every 100 women in Turkey over the age of 18 are illiterate.

Women may no longer “be harassed” for wearing a head scarf, but Kass’s failure to mention the epidemic of violence against women in Turkey is inexcusable. According to the Human Rights Commission, domestic violence and violence against women has doubled in Turkey over the last four years. Women are maimed, murdered, beaten and raped on a daily basis – literally, according to a statistical study conducted by the non-partisan Bianet.  Meanwhile, it has been conservatively estimated by rights groups that a shocking 42% of women in Turkey have been beaten, raped, or otherwise victimized. Is there any surprise about the surge of violence against women when there’s this type of rhetoric coming from Turkey’s prime minister?:

Erdoğan argued recently that women should have at least three children, and his agenda seems to be less “pro-women” than “pro-family.”  Moreover, there is something particularly chilling, in Erdoğan’s rhetoric.  As Sussman writes, “[Erdoğan] recently said on television that he didn’t know whether a woman arrested in a violent protest was a “kız” (a young virgin) or a “kadın” (an older, sexually experienced woman).” There is something in the tone here that harkens back to Turkey’s dark days of virginity tests while calling into question the fundamental capacity of women to participate in the public sphere.

Moreover, while Kass praises Islamic Turkish theologian Muhammed Fethullah Gulen for preaching “interfaith acceptance and peace,” it’s important to note that, as The Daily Beast recently reported, Gulen’s influence is one predicated in part on anti-women tactics. Indeed, as Margaret Spiegelman noted, women working in Gulen’s institutions are subjected to a degrading work environment and discrimination.

In response to the international concern about the treatment of women within its borders, Turkey passed a law in March that purported to help remedy the problem. Much of the debate in Turkish parliament was over the name and target of the law, which was watered down.

Women in Turkey are in crisis and they need journalists like Kass to bring attention to their plight. Yes, Kass is correct that women can wear headscarfs in public now. The key question he and other journalists fail to answer is how many of them are hiding the bruises and scars of domestic violence underneath?

3. “Turkish television runs Kurdish situation comedies, though 20 years ago the whispered suggestion of programming for the minority Kurds would have landed you in prison, suspected of supporting terrorism.”

Judging progress on such a major human rights issue as the treatment of Turkey’s Kurdish minority by referencing the fact that Turkish television runs Kurdish comedies does a disservice to the intricacies of the issue and to the lack of true progress on the national level. In March, the European Parliament released its progress report on Turkey and clearly concluded that Turkey is not ready to become a member of the European Union, in part because of the treatment of its Kurdish minority. From the draft European Parliament resolution:

[The Parliament] expresses concern at the large number of cases launched against writers and journalists writing on the Kurdish issue and the arrest of several Kurdish politicians, locally elected mayors and members of municipal councils, lawyers, protestors and human rights defenders in connection with the KCK trial and other police operations.

On television, there appears to be progress on the Kurdish issue. In the halls of Turkey’s government, however, true progress towards equitable treatment of the Kurdish minority is lacking.

4. “It is no longer a political kiss of death for a Turkish politician to express faith, something American presidents do with regularity, even if they attend church only during election season.”

Freedom to express faith is something to be lauded, but using faith as the primary driver of public policy can be a dangerous endeavor. To the uninformed reader, Kass’s declaration that “Erdogan isn’t a theocrat” would lead many to presume that Erdogan is a pillar of religious tolerance and secularism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just a few weeks ago, Erdogan delivered a speech on the floor of Parliament in support of a controversial education reform bill and stated point blank that “we will raise a religious generation.”  Erdogan’s party was able to pass the bill only by literally preventing opposition members from physically entering the voting chamber.

The overall picture painted by Kass is that “interfaith acceptance and peace” are staples of Erdogan’s Turkey. But on two of Turkey’s largest human rights issues — (1) the restoration of full religious freedom for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and (2) Turkey’s illegal occupation and colonization of Cyprus — “acceptance” and “peace” are nowhere to be found (as an aside, analysis of either of these human rights issues is nowhere to be found in Kass’s column either).

It disappointing but not surprising that Kass painted such a positive picture of a country at a crossroads. Few members of the press are informed on Turkish issues, and those who claim to be often rely on snapshots of the situation that, as Kass himself admits, fail to give a complete picture.  It’s easy to have a glowing reputation around the world when you jail journalists who criticize you, or when you are so artful at spinning the news that the truth gets sacrificed at the feet of a great marketing campaign.

“Certainly, this is not some utopia,” Kass writes in passing on his journey to heap praise on one of the developed world’s greatest human rights offenders.  That’s quite a muted conclusion from a columnist who isn’t known for understatement. And it’s a conclusion that underscores the need for education among the press and the general public about Turkey, its government and its influence on the global stage.

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