Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Insights into the Repressive Character of the Government in Egypt

The response of the Egyptian government to the investigative report "All According to Plan" [حسب الخطة  Arabic link] by Human Rights Watch is extremely revealing and provides insights into the mentality of the al-Sisi regime.  In short, as reported by the flagship al-AhramHRW is biased, serves U.S. interests, is in cahoots with the Muslim Brotherhood and had no authority to conduct research in Egypt.  There is a deep-seated suspicion of foreign NGOs in Egypt. I have witnessed it numerous times over the past 35 years.

The latest episode, of course, serves a double purpose, viz., it stifles open discussion of the report and its serious accusations that Field Marshal al-Sisi sits at the helm of a repressive security apparatus that very likely committed crimes against humanity by conducting deliberate mass killings of demonstrators in 2013 following the toppling of Muhammad Mursi as President; and, it serves to warn indigenous rights oriented groups that--unlike HRW officials--they cannot escape reprisal arrests, torture and jail.  You can be sure that while many educated Egyptians with social media access are well aware of the HRW report, but would also confirm that the message to tread very carefully is indelibly received.

The government reaction is addressed by Egyptian Chronicles.

Even in comparison with the worst years of the Mubarak era, this is a very dark chapter in Egypt's modern history.
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Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Similarities and more similarities: Turkey, Israel, and the Kurds, and the Palestinians

By Murat Cem Mengüç

Nowadays, the similarities between Israel and Turkey are ever more striking. Both countries are populated by a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual demographic. And, both are ruled by governments/states which insist on a uniform national identity. The ruling elite in both countries consider themselves as chosen people who would realize a heavenly fiction. They both oppress a particular ethnic community more than the other ethnicities, to the extent that they murder them in thousands. And, both countries suffer from the consequences having toyed, or toying with apartheid.

Historically speaking, Turkey and Israel have been good allies. But, when the last diplomatic riffraff happened, namely the Davos and the following Mavi Marmara crisis, many of us thought the good days of this relationship was over. Mavi Marmara incident particularly suggested that Turkey was serious about its support of the Palestinian cause.

Then came the real earthquakes, a series of revolutions in North Africa, Tahrir in particular and the ensuing civil war in Syria. It was in that context that I tried to explain, to myself more than anyone else, how the next stage of the emerging political shift will be the emergence of Kurdistan, and perhaps a Palestine. I believed Tahrir announced not only the dismantling of the regional neo-liberal dictatorships, but also the end of democratized religious fundamentalisms in the Middle East. I believed Muslim Brotherhood and Justice and Development Party, along with the Zionist Israeli coalitions would come to an end, due to the new trend. I also thought that Israeli involvement in the emergence of a Kurdish state in the Middle East would be inevitable, as long as Turkish involvement in the Palestinian crisis ensued.

In the end, only my expectations of something similar to Tahrir happening in Israel and Turkey were correct. Soon, Israel had its social justice protest, and Turkey had its Gezi protests. But, neither were enough to challenge the current state of government in these countries. 

Meanhwile, the most shocking revelation was Netanyahu and Erdoğan’s complete lack of vision. They and their elite did not understand the severity of the economic and political legitimacy crisis which rocked the world. They both failed domestically and internationally to seize to moment and steer their countries for a better future.

Erdoğan, who once was a populist, couldn’t articulate a meaningful political agenda that spoke to the majority after Gezi. He now faces a presidential election, results of which may not favor him. Netanyahu failed to understand that Israel was not immune to the crisis, to the extent that he is now faced with an international boycott of the country, an intifada from within the green line, and more military commitment to Gaza.

The Syrian civil war also showed that Israel and Turkey were not influential players in the region. Turkey is nearly excluded from having a say on the emergence of a Kurdish state in Iraq. Israel have been a spectator of the Syrian crisis, and the emergence of a new era of US-Iranian relations.

Both Turkey and Israel have moved away from each others affair perhaps in this context. The so called defender of the Palestinian statehood is still silent about the current crisis in Israel. And Israel is quite about the Kurdish development.

What each may have committed behind the scenes will become known in the future. But let us end with one more similarity, and a food for thought. Recently, I watched Five Broken Cameras, and the landscape of the urban frontier in Israel reminded me of Ecumenopolis, a documentary I reviewed about a year ago. In each landscape an artificial construction industry advances to exterminate the unwanted people. In each landscape, the victim is in an existential fight, while the predator destroys not for survival but for ideology. Both Israel and Turkey consider themselves power houses of construction business in the Middle East. Yet, in both countries the driving force behind the sector is foreign investment, and the industry only amounts to 5-6 % of the economy. This is not a small number, adding up to billions of dollars. But, isn’t it interesting that in each country the true function of it is to expand the cement frontiers of the capitalist globalization, rather than supplying an existing demand?
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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Visions of Gulf Security

Courting Fitnah: Saudi responses to the Arab Uprisings

MARCH 20, 2014
By Augustus Richard Norton, Boston University
* This memo was prepared for the “Visions of Gulf Security” workshop, March 9, 2014.
[Download this essay and a dozen others from the March 2014 conference.]
The logic and impact of Saudi interventions in Bahrain, Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria suggest a state pursuing confounding aims with improvised, if not impulsive policies. It is often asserted that the instability-averse Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a status quo power, but recent Saudi actions suggest that it seeks to undermine the status quo. Rather than revealing an aversion to instability, the kingdom has fed instability by radicalizing minority Arab Shiite populations in the Gulf, supporting proxy forces involved in armed struggle and, at least until recently, turning a blind eye to the recruitment of Saudis to join al Qaeda-affiliated groups outside Saudi borders. Referring to the interior minister, Madawi al-Rasheed wryly notes: “To put it bluntly, the prince did not succeed in eliminating terror; he simply pushed it away to countries like Yemen, Iraq, and now Syria and Lebanon.”
There are obvious security challenges in the Saudi neighborhood, including the continuing struggles underway in Yemen, persistent demonstrations in Bahrain, and the failure of the Iraqi government in Baghdad to broadly legitimate its power, but Saudi Arabia has not been an innocent bystander in any of these cases.
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Sunday, June 2, 2013

What do the Turks want?

Until now, Turkey’s governing Islamist and conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) saw itself as immune to the political and economic turmoil which shook Europe, Americas and the Middle East. Having regulated its economy, especially its banking sector prior to the global meltdown of 2007-2008, AKP government believed it was on the right track. Having subsided the Kurdish insurgency in a rather peaceful manner, it thought it avoided a possible Kurdish Spring. And having dealt with the Syrian war in tandem with the international community, it was careful enough to avoid being sucked into it.

But, there was one thing AKP forgot. Popular discontent towards toward the selling off the country’s economic assets, be it land, natural resources, or heavy industry, especially those which were previously managed by the state and therefore belonged to the people, continued to grow at an accelerated speed. Along with a number of austerity measures it introduced, AKP government followed the good old neo-liberal economic policies. It became a partner in crime to the US, UK and the EU political and economic elite. And after having paid its debt to the IMF and donating $5 billion to the World Band, it even become a member of the G20, although its current foreign debt is above $200 billion.

Today what is happening in the streets of Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Bursa, Antalya, and numerous other Turkish cities is no different than what had happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Italy or Greece. Neo-liberal economic discourse is dead. The notion of free cash for the well connected and tight budget for the masses, free capitalism for the global elite and curbs for the human, animal and ecological rights is no more. The protests in Turkey are not just about a park, a group of trees, a group of people or an isolated ecology. They are an episode of the end of neo-liberalism on a global scale.

So far, Turkish Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan still believes he is in control. But there is every sign out on the streets that these people won’t go home until he resigns.

Murat Cem Mengüç is an Assistant Professor of Middle East History at Seton Hall University, New Jersey. He is a writer, a blogger who maintains the International Turkish Digests and writes for Mühim Hadiseler Enstitüsü, and an artist. Read more on this article...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

"The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Lessons from the Iraqi Refugee Experience"--a new report from the Institute for Iraqi Studies at Boston University

Download the free report (PDF) from the IIS website.  A Kindle version is due presently, and an iBooks edition is in progress.

[Cross-posted with "From the Field"]
From the Foreword:
Credible estimates reveal that one of every six Syrians has fled their home, or what remains of their home, often with little more than what they might carry in their arms or wear on their back. Millions have sought safety in other towns and villages, and many have been forced to flee several times to escape the crossfire of rival opposition fighters and government forces. About one and half million Syrians now find a measure of safety in neighboring countries: some in the relative order of well-run camps, but many others are not nearly so fortunate.  Even after escaping from predatory militias and vengeful military assaults, victims continue to be prey for criminals, sexual predators, sectarian vigilantes or allies of the Syrian government. 

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Monday, March 11, 2013

Obama’s Moment to Make the Case for Middle East Peace

Boston Study Group on Middle East Peace*
[Cross-linked with From the Field.]

If it were easy to do, an American president would have long ago shepherded Israelis and Palestinians into the negotiated two-state peace agreement that both peoples and their neighbors so clearly need — a peace that would greatly enhance U.S. interests.
There are many reasons why it will be hard for President Obama to achieve, in his second term, the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord that has eluded him and his predecessors for so long. The rise of radical one-state nationalists and ideologically driven settlers in Israeli politics, the debilitating split in the Palestinian camp between Hamas and Fatah, the power struggles and sectarian enmities roiling the region — these are all factors adding to the difficulty of forging the two-state peace agreement that alone can end the agony of occupation for Palestinians and bring Israel a sounder more durable form of security.
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Wednesday, March 6, 2013


(first published in the South China Morning Post as "Cutting the Fat"  February 25, 2013)


When politicians stake out the high moral ground and order a crackdown, it can be a smokescreen for business as usual, or it can mean they really mean business.

China’s incoming top leader Xi Jinping has signaled the media that he wants to cut back on banquets, but it is too soon to say if this means the anti-corruption campaign of the communist party led is for real, or just a smokescreen for managing public opinion while consolidating power.

Excessive consumption and corruption, especially on the part of state officials who are supposed to be public servants, does make a mockery of the “serve the people” ethos at the heart of good governance. China faces a destabilizing inequality gap, so the waste of public resources on empty gestures — like showy motorcades, honor guards, over-the-top banquets, glitzy hotel receptions and lavish gift-giving — not only squanders funds needed elsewhere, but fuels indignation while eroding social harmony and self-respect.

Despite his revolutionary communist pedigree, it is unlikely that Xi Jinping will be saying “Farewell, my tycoon,” any time soon, though. The get-rich-quick ethos launched by the canny “capitalist roader” Deng Xiaoping is still the default ideology in a nation bereft of meaningful ideology. Fawning over the rich and powerful and dispensing bribes to officials, typically in hope of cementing connections has already become a way of life. Laws that are mercilessly enforced when applied to little people rarely apply to the rich and connected in so-called communist China. The corruption and crony capitalism openly promoted by Deng’s successor, Jiang Zemin, still runs deep, even though Jiang, who, a senior powerbroker and patron of Xi Jinping, has been out of the limelight for a decade.

Putting on aristocratic airs has become so widespread that an everyday act as simple as the sight of US Ambassador to Beijing, Gary Locke, carrying his own bag and buying his own coffee was considered newsworthy in China. Where were his porters and servants?

There is corruption and then there is corruption.

Cutting back on banquets is an easy mark, but what about the ill-gotten wealth of hundreds of billionaires and millions of millionaires in a poor, developing country with no social safety net?

Cutting back on banquets and the maotai toasts in the military is one thing, but what about restraining dry drunk generals gunning for conflict, high on China’s newfound wealth, arrogance and advanced weaponry?

There are many kinds of excess and many kinds of sobriety. The problem is not necessarily the perk; the problem is the quality of the work.

Toasts offered at lavish Nixon/Mao banquets in the name of US-China friendship in 1972 marked a turning point in diplomatic history. And even the most lavish food and beverage bill would be a bargain if held in conjunction with peace talks between China and Japan, for example, if negotiations could put to rest, or otherwise resolve, the explosive Senkaku/Diaoyudao islet dispute.  Bring on the sake and maotai! Fly in the best sushi and seafood!

Cementing deals over food and making toasts to friendship is an East Asian legacy that runs deep. Even in the 1980s, when China was much less affluent than it is today, and a good deal more egalitarian, being invited for a meal at someone’s home was a grand gesture. The meal might have been cooked on a single-burner hotplate on a busy staircase outside a family’s one-room apartment, but it was always a multi-dish affair, a way of showing generosity and respect.

What started out as a heart-felt gesture may indeed have been corrupted over time, but will a crackdown correct this?

China has a history of swinging from one extreme to another, so even something as simple as a national drive to cut back on banquets needs vigilant monitoring. Is it just a sop to the poor, a showy show of belt-tightening, while the usual rules of a rigged game rigged for the rich apply? Or is it the first shot in a new Cultural Revolution, which will eventually lead to tables being overturned in fancy restaurants and luxury cars flipped and torched by irate crowds?

The tendency for things to swing in China could very well have deep roots in the rise and fall of dynasties over the centuries, but in more recent times, one need not look much further than the wholesale deracination from traditional culture, community and organic growth by decades of divisive and destructive Leninist-style rule.

Whatever the cause for China’s distinct political rhythms; long periods of insufferable status quo, followed by brief revolutionary outbursts, it is the ordinary people who suffer most. Xi Jinping’s populist appeal indirectly acknowledges that there is a problem with hypocritical leaders, greedy tycoons, a politicized bureaucracy and erratic --sometimes negligent, sometimes over-zealous-- application of the law.

There are crackdowns that are empty gestures for show, mere political posturing. Others achieve the opposite of the intended result. Sometimes crackdowns are factional power plays, pandering to public perceptions, while quietly eliminating rivals and consolidating criminal networks. You have greedy leaders calling for law and order even while they contribute to disorder and remain outside the law. You have police instituting crackdowns and curfews even as the children of the rich and connected run continue to run wild and inebriated, bullying anyone who gets in the way, with “do you know who my father is?” And like everywhere, you have silver-tongued politicians who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

Experience suggests that anytime a powerful politician, especially one with vast, vested interests, takes to the media and stakes out the high moral ground against one apparent vice or another, one should snap to attention and listen. But don’t judge them by their words; judge them by their actions. 

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Thursday, November 22, 2012

Two headlines from ANF and a fresh scenario

Today, under two separate headlines, the Kurdish news agency ANF argued that AKP started to support paramilitary groups to cross from the Turkish border into the Kurdish region of Syria, to attack the Kurdish population who have been trying to establish an autonomous Kurdish region. Along with the paramilitaries, the agency argued, AKP is collaborating with the Salafi Muslim militants who are associated with Al-Qaeda, so to start a Kurdish vs. Arab conflict.

ANF reports that so far hundreds of paramilitaries crossed from Turkey into Syria and clashed with the local Kurds. 29 paramilitaries were killed and the Kurdish military decided to establish a head quarter in Serekaniye, where most of these clashes took place, in order to oust the paramilitaries.

The scenario of AKP and Salafi and/or Al-Qaeda collaboration is far too serious to be taken lightly, especially when AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt are collaborating to change the course of the politics in the region. ANF's accusations still need further proof, but it known that AKP is sympathetic to the Muslim religious groups in the region and  willing to take harsh steps to put an end to the Kurdish fight for autonomy.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Lebanon and the Syria Crisis

Originally posted at E-International Relations.  Cross-posted at From the Field.
With the battle for Aleppo continuing and Syria on a course to civil war, neighboring Lebanon finds itself in a precarious spot. Sectarian divisions, especially between Sunni and Shi’i Muslims, have deepened in Lebanon over the past decade, particularly since the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri in 2005, the 2006 war with Israel, and the Hezbollah-led incursion into West Beirut in 2008.  The Syria crisis has further exacerbated communal fault-lines. As Syrian refugees pour in, the Lebanese have become increasingly divided on just how they feel their government should respond to the crisis. Periodic clashes in Tripoli along the aptly named “Syria Street”, where an Alawi community abuts a Sunni majority illustrate how quickly transplanted Syrian enmities may explode, and how powerless rival political elites may be to dampen the violence.
As some Lebanese fight amongst themselves and with their newfound Syrian refugee neighbors, the question is whether Lebanon can avoid being sucked
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Saturday, August 11, 2012

AKP and Turkish Religious Fascism

Cross posted with NoIdleMouth

By Murat Cem Mengüç

They say, “When fascism comes to America, it will come wrapped in the flag and waving a cross.” While historically incorrect, I like this quote because it underlines a form of fascism often ignored. It is only true that fascism have not yet arrived in America, if one is willing to ignore its racist industrialism, and one interprets fascism strictly according to its German or Italian variants. This being said, today I can almost use the same quote for Turkey, and say, a new fascism have arrived in Turkey, which is wrapped in a flag and waving a Qur’an.

While fascism in Turkey relied less on religion, a variant is now promoted by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, and it seems to have strike a fine balance between patriotism and piety. At this point, it is no longer necessary to offer evidences of AKP’s authoritarianism. During 2011 and 2012, the government reinvented itself as an inward looking, dialogue free ideological machine. It cracked down on all criticisms and its victims include ethnic and religious minorities, journalists, artists, intellectuals, doctors, patients, children and finally unborn fetuses. Once there was an AKP which resembled a forward looking innovative institution, which paid tribute to human intelligence, science and universal ideals such as freedom and equality. Today, AKP has caved back to its roots, to its original dogmatic world view, with a fascist flavor.

The origins of religious nationalism in Turkey goes back to the last century of the Ottoman empire, when both the idea of nationalism was communicated to its intellectuals and an institutionalized state Islamism reigned. Throughout the nineteenth century, Ottoman intellectuals struggled to explain their ideas regarding nationalism and Islamism. They tried to reconcile the two, or at least explain why such reconciliation was wrong. As long as the empire remained ambitious about its national identity, such reconciliation remained impossible too. By the end of the century, we observe that Islamism took a back seat while Turkish nationalism became the leading force. Nevertheless, three generations of intellectuals, for example, roughly represented by literary figures Namık Kemal (d. 1888), Ziya Gökalp (d. 1924) and Halide Edib Adıvar (d. 1964), still struggled to establish a Muslim Turkish nationalist discourse.

I should note that AKP’s interpretation of the Ottoman history, the legacy and heritage of the old days often harks back to this period, mainly the turn of the century frame of reference. There are some obvious reasons for this. First, the turn of the century represents and era of struggles between religiosity and nationalism, which resembles AKP’s struggle for an over arching ideology. Second, the literature of the period remains the most studied and easily accessible one, both in terms of its language, grammar and references, to modern concepts which governed late Ottoman and Turkish identity. This literature is well printed, still collectible at reasonable prices in its original, and probably consumed more than anything else by historians and fans of history today. One can argue that its vocabulary and form, its Ottoman serves as the core from which the Turkish Islamist discourse nourishes its speech.

Finally, and most importantly, the turn of the century produced one of the last Ottoman Islamists who was able to give Islam priority over nationalism, without denigrating Turkish nationalism, namely Said Al-Nursi (d. 1960). Nursi’s importance for the AKP ideology and Turkish Islamism is well documented. Although was not the only Islamist intellectual who struggled to explain the relationship between modernity, nationalism and Islam, he became the most influential one in the case of AKP. Meanwhile, the split between Said Nursi’s Islamist nationalism and Turkish secular nationalism under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal which occurred in 1925, more or less represents the origin of AKP’s unique fascism.

Presently, Turkish fascism is associated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), while many claim they are patriots of one sort or the other. Yet, the oppressive nationalist dictatorship during the Republican era, therefore the most successful fascist institution in Turkish history was Republican People’s Party (CHP), first led by Mustafa Kemal (d. 1938) and later İsmet İnönü (d. 1973). CHP’s reign lasted until mid twentieth century, and embodied all forms of nationalist/fascist sympathies, as long as they supported an anti-Ottoman, secular and a state sponsored military industrialist discourse.

Outside the RPP quarters, there grew an Islamist Turkish nationalism, often in exile, prison, or underground. The dictatorship of CHP was transformed into a dictatorship Turkish Military during 1960, whereon, in a series of military coups, the military established itself as the prestigious defender of so called Turkish democracy. Overthrowing a number of democratically elected governments, the military preserved the secular and nationalist, and at times fascist constitution of the country. Each coup targeted the socialists and Islamists, more than anyone else. The fact that the military had to interfere a number of times with the democracy underlines the fact that old CHP tailored state nationalism/fascism did not resonate with the people after 1960’s. Thus, the days of one ideology fits all came to an end, and coup after coup Turkish political establishment fragmented into smaller ideological camps. By 1980, even CHP was transformed, posing as a socialist nationalist opposition party, although mainly catering to the military's needs for an agent provocateur in the parliament. It would be a mistake to think that at this point CHP abandoned its fascist tendencies; yet ultra nationalist fascism was now mainly gathered under the banner of MHP. Meanwhile, Islamist nationalism struggled to carve a sphere of influence, forming parties like Nationalist Salvation Party (MSP) in the 1980’s, and Welfare Party (RP) in the 1990’s.

When the economic and political atmosphere of the late 1990’s and the early second millennium carried the later version of RP, the AKP into power, their governing concern was establishing a competent image, in the eyes of both domestic and international capitalism. Reforms to this end ran parallel to the reforms for European standards, required the promoting of more civil government and less military influence. AKP happily fought a stand off with the Turkish Military during the last decade, and it has at least for the time being emerged as the winner.

Then came the adaptation of a fascist discourse and world view by AKP which seems to have shocked its observers. Why would an anti Turkish Military camp later turn Turkish fascist? There must be many factors at play but some of the reasons for the emergence of this new ideology are obvious. First, the Islamist Turkish nationalism is no longer an underground phenomenon or considered an unusual hybrid. Turkish state nationalism has represented by a Turkish Islamist party for over a decade. Second, in some of the key regions, the MHP members shifted their alliances to the AKP, in order to find a place in the election ballots, who brought with them ultra nationalist views. However, to suggest that AKP changed its ideology under outside influence will be wrong. AKP adopted its ultra nationalist discourse recently mainly because it could do so. After the last general elections, AKP remained far ahead of any opposition and it no longer faces the wrath of the Turkish Military. Given that the Middle Eastern revolutions made it obvious that what became known as the crony capitalism (where a handful of well connect people controlled a nations wealth) of the previous decades was no longer maintainable, AKP had to re-brand itself. Finally, the Kurdish-Turkish conflict required all Turkish governments to adopt heavily nationalist discourses. When the dissolution of first Iraq and now Syria galvanized the Kurdish insurgency, AKP was somewhat caught unaware and it grabbed the reserved to the last strong hold of a government facing a challenge towards its territorial integrity.

Beyond these factors operate the global phenomenon, which could help us identify why a flag wearing and cross waving American fascism is resurging at the same times with a flag wearing and Qur’an waving equivalent in Turkey. These are the days of civil disobedience and crisis of capitalism. No matter how alternatively it may brand itself, AKP represents an old order in a deep crises. Ecologically and economically, capitalism as it is practiced today is no longer maintainable. All arguments to save it fall on deaf ears; even when well sponsored media and shareholders in giant international corporations try to keep it alive. In Switzerland, Panama and Cayman Islands, the talk is about banking reforms, alternative and more transparent ways to transfer wealth from one place to another. These are the days in which even the unregulated beg to be regulated. In the grand scheme of the things, to see religious fascism resurface and preach a moral order harking back at the golden days of history is no surprise. One wonders if a radical alternative can be formulated against these fundamentalist discourses. Globally, there are signs of it in the eco-conscious and anti capitalist camps. In Turkey’s case, such camps don’t seem to exist.
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Monday, July 30, 2012

Kurdistan the Pink Elephant

Murat Cem Mengüç

Judging from the front pages of popular media outlets, one would think the conflict in Syria is a domestic problem of a sovereign nation, support of which have divided the UN into two camps. However, the most significant outcome of this conflict may be the emergence of a brand new country, Kurdistan. During the recent weeks, the possibility (or for many the dream) of an independent country for the Kurdish people came closer to reality. Presently, northern Syria is witnessing the emergence of an independent Kurdish region, at least one Kurdish town in Turkey has become a battle ground where the Kurdish separatists are trying to free it from the Republic, and there has been speculations of an independent Kurdish government in old Iraq for a long time. For the news rooms in the east and west, this may be a hard to imagine script, but for the Kurdish men and women on the ground, it seems a reality. Looks like it is time to speak about the pink elephant in the room. Read more on this article...

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Newroz Fire and Our Coming Spring

By Murat Cem Mengüç

Speculations about a possible Kurdish Spring started long ago and after the terrible events of the Newroz celebrations in Turkey during the last week, even members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) started to speak about it. Assistant Secretary of the AKP, Hüseyin Çelik mockingly stated that “spring doesn’t arrive for the Kurds alone.” He is right, but only ironically. A spring is on its way, and it is neither constructed by the Kurds alone, nor will be a spring well remembered by them exclusively. Following the daily Fırat News, one observes that the fire of Newroz is lit everywhere, fed by many, and threatens to burn more than the Kurds. For all we know, Kurds may be the only ones who know how to jump over it.

Turkey is on the brink of an ethnic civil war. US and EU watch Turkey like a patron observing his protégé, and still depict AKP as a moderate Muslim democratic party. They also insist Turkey is a universal example of how Islam should be politicized. On the ground, however, at least two Islamist movements govern the Turkish political scene, and they enjoy feeding the divisions among its peoples.

Besides AKP, and probably more important than AKP, there is a phenomenon called cemaat, a Sunni Muslim movement, formed around the US based theologian Fetullah Gülen. I call them cemaat (masses), because that is what they call themselves, otherwise they are known as Güllenists, or Gülen Movement. Historically speaking, cemaat and the AKP can be explained as a uniform entity, and come any election, they partner to defeat oppositions. However, they have slowly separated their paths as well.[1] AKP has governed Turkey nearly a decade, and successfully. It is a pro-capitalist, pro-globalization, right wing conservative entity, and it is a solidified political institution. It receives immense amount of respect both domestically and internationally. It is not a movement with religious tendencies. Its leadership possesses a consciousness formed through their interactions with other Turkish political institutions, such as the Turkish military and the Turkish judicial elite. They are in the position of power, and believe they are in charge of Turkey’s future. In contrast, the mentality of the cemaat, which is a much more organic and elusive entity, is less concentrated. Its ideals are shaped around the teachings and the statements of a spiritual leader. Its agenda is neither conclusive nor institutionalized. Its members want to influence the immediate Turkish politics and the global Sunni/Muslim scene. It seeks change through grassroots organization and media. Finally, cemaat is led by a man who lives in exile, whereas AKP is led by a group of technocrats who live in the Turkish capital. In short, if cemaat is searching for more power, and believes it can be more powerful, AKP thinks that it has now become the power.

As one reads the Stratfor Papers, it becomes obvious that the paths of AKP and the cemaat parted long ago. These papers suggest that the two groups remain symbiotic but don’t act together. However, Occidentally wired international media, along with the stereotype loving US and EU political elite observe AKP and the cemaat as a uniform phenomenon. Even the well informed agencies like Al Jazeera, who supposed to be an expert on the affairs of the Middle East is confused. When it cares to invite a Turkish scholar to compose a piece about the AKP or Turkey, it still strikes the same note of uniform Turkish Islam, such as in the case of Pınar Kemerli's recent opinion piece.[2] (In all honesty, Al Jazeera does a better job covering the British Premiership than the Kurdish insurgency in Anatolia and the Turkish politics in general.)

Kemerli’s case shows that aside from the outsiders, the insiders also make the same mistake. Even the journalist Ahmed Şık, who was just released from prison after being arrested for writing (though not publishing) a book about the cemaat, still refers to the Turkish Islamists as a uniform entity.[3] Whether because the Turkish secular intellectuals not yet grasped the multifaceted nature of Turkish Islamism, or not yet recovered from the shock of having lost the leadership of their country to a religious conservative movement, persistence of this view shows how alienated the educated secular elite and the common masses of Turkey have grown.

The important thing is the confrontation between AKP and the cemaat conceives everyone else almost irrelevant. Especially the non-Sunni religious minorities of Turkey are used as gambling chips. The Kurds are perfect example of this. They practice a different form of Islam and inhabit a region bordering the Syrian Shia dictatorship which is now exterminating its Sunni population. AKP gained its popularity in the Kurdish region when it introduced a program called “Kurdish Opening.” This opening promised a series of laws to recognize Kurdish civil rights. It also promised to unarm the militant Kurds without budging to the PKK. Presently, the “Kurdish Opening” collapsed, because cemaat leaked a sound recording of the secret dialogs between the PKK and AKP, which were not supposed to happen. They did so, to teach AKP a lesson. AKP was being spear headed under the authoritarian leadership of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdoğan.

Anything that plays the Turks against the Kurds, or the Kurds against the Turks also plays into the hands of AKP and the cemaat. Anything that grabs the daily attention, allows the Islamisation of the Turkish politics continue with less public out-cry. Moreover, AKP and the cemaat benefit well from being conceived as a uniform entity, because it makes them look even more powerful.

At the turn of the millennium, when AKP came to power, it was with the help of the cemaat, but due to economic factors which dictated the real politics in Turkey. By the mid 1990’s, membership talks with the EU clearly indicated that the archaic banking and tax laws in Turkey had to be reformed. After a disastrous economic collapse in 2001, AKP was able to emerge as the only party which could form a majority government, and willing to enact reforms. If it rose to power with the help of the cemaat and its grassroots strength, its later popularity was a result of many other factors. The banking and tax reforms AKP enacted were originally drafted by a Turkish economic genius Kemal Derviş, who is now the Administrator of the United Nations Development Program. These were designed to make Turkey a partner to the ongoing globalization, and they were very simple but strict recommendations. They brought Turkish economy up to par with the international capitalism in terms of its business laws. Surely, Turkish economy performed well afterwards and continues to do so. AKP became a temporary solution for the needs of a country which was long ruled by non-reformist institutions.[4] It became a political device employed by the middle and the upper class capitalists who sought a dependable capitalist order. If the previous political institutions were willing to enact similar reforms, there would have been no AKP in Turkey today, at least not one that could have achieved a majority government.

If one observes the rise of AKP to power from this perspective, one could see that the religious versus secular aspect of the Turkish political confrontations are coincidental, and I will argue, sometimes artificial. Religiosity and secularism cuts across the entire Turkish society, and have many facades. They are not denominators, and if considered denominators, they create more confusion than clarity. The depiction of Turkish Islamisims as a uniform front by the international and the domestic politicains and the intellectuals both feed the Turkish identity crisis, and allow a play field for the likes of AKP and the cemaat to manipulate the Turkish political scene. The fact that there exists a power struggle between AKP and the cemaat proves that there are many levels of Muslimness in operation. I believe this spring, it is this power struggle that will keep the Newroz fire burning.

[1] A good recent editorial on the subject was penned by Emre Uslu.
[2] A good recent piece was penned by Pınar Kemerli, in which she depicts the Turkish Islamists as a uniform political entity.
[4] See, Hakan Yavuz, “Is There a Turkish Islam? The Emergence of Convergence and Consensus” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 2, October 2004.
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Thursday, February 16, 2012

From the field: Devastating, horrible news--Anthony Shadid dies with his boots on in Syria

I have been reading Anthony's House of Stone, his pitch perfect and beautifully wrought chronicle of his struggle to bring his ancestral home in Marjayoun back to life. The last phone conversation I had with him was a couple of years ago in Lebanon. I reached him in south Lebanon, where he was described himself captured by challenge of restoring his great grandfather's house. I will have more to say about the book shortly, but for now I must simply express my profound sadness about Anthony's death. So many who crossed paths with him will be pained by the loss of this gifted, brave and astounding man.
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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Resurgent Arab Islam need not be unsettling

By Emile Nakhleh and Augustus R. Norton

[Cross-posted with "From the Field" and Boston Globe's "The Angle", where it was first published December 11, 2011]

In the wake of the youth-directed “Arab Spring,” which rocked the Middle East to its core and felled autocratic governments in several countries, Islamic political parties are poised for an historic resurgence across the region — and that is neither surprising nor necessarily alarming.

Popular mass demonstrations, “Days of Rage,” have been the hallmarks of the season that dislodged dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and exposed the fragility of fierce but unpopular regimes across the Arab world. Youthful demonstrators in quest of dignity, hungry for jobs, and fed up with corruption formed the vanguards.

But because Arab rulers did not allow serious opposition parties, the best organized opposition groups were often Islamist movements. While they did not launch the Arab Spring, they lent resilience and discipline to the demonstrations. These movements are deeply insinuated in the contours of daily life in Arab societies, and now are emerging as early victors in what Arabs are calling al-sahwa (the awakening).

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Sunday, November 20, 2011

In the Desert of American Politics

Murat cem Menguc
Something universal is also particular, for it applies to all particularities, universally. In contrast, something particular remains particular, for it does not apply universally. This seems to be the most important lesson history can teach us, as in his 1964 lectures titled Freedom and History, philosopher and a founder of the New School in New York, Theodor Adorno argues so. Adorno postulates that until people become a victim of history, that is, until they are taught a universal lesson about themselves, they do not realize they were living in a vacuum. Such big lesson rarely comes in a non-violent form and the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest camp at the Zuccoti Park, which lasted for two months, was one such precious lesson.
The OWS protests started in September 17, when about 1700 people marched to voice their criticism against the Wall Street. These men and women were greeted by a heavy police presence, and a group of people sipping Champaign on a balcony across the street from the New York Stock Exchange, mocking the protest. A handful of the protesters who had earlier decided to camp in the Chase Plaza, from which they were barred, cleverly moved to the Zuccoti Park, were they set a camp. I was blessed with the fact that Zuccoti Park was where I transferred from subway to bus during my daily commute, and started to interact with the camp three days after it was formed. In the beginning there were about two dozen protestors and on twitter, they amassed less than 2000 followers (today approximately 200,000 people them on twitter, and on November 17 they were able mobilize 32,000 people, whose protests were watched on live stream by over 650,000 people).
Initially, I was surprised by the lack of media coverage of the protest and I joined them after being disturbed by an image the New York Times published, which depicted it as a juvenile orgy, or a summer rave. I emailed a few columnists about this and asked why they could not talk about the protest rather than mock it with such images. Clyde Haberman wrote back “Actually, we’ve covered them every day, in the newspaper on Sunday and every day on City Room, our on-line blog. Aren’t we endlessly told that on line is where young people read these days?” So, according to Mr. Haberman, this protest was about young people, to whom his newspaper catered electronically, whereas the print readers, who were presumably older, did not need to know about it. Ginia Belefante was more articulate, stating that she was working on a large piece to be published on September 25, and asked me if I was involved or observing it from afar. I am an occasional visitor, I replied and she quickly assured me that the protest was not as relevant as I believed, and if I had spent enough time around it, I would have realized that they were an aimless bunch. When I pointed to her how the Guardian hired Amy Goodman to write a column about it, she replied that they got their facts wrong. When I asked her which facts and who got them wrong, the Guardian or Amy Goodman, and supplied her with a list of facts that I was familiar with, such as the harassment and the arrest of dozens of activists and the confiscation of recording devices and computers from the camp by the New York Police Department (NYPD) which started from day one, she stopped responding. The day before Belefante’s essay was published, NYPD kettled, beat and arrested numerous protesters and journalists. It also used pepper spray, illegally. Upon the publication of her essay, Belefante was heavily criticized for her lack of consciousness, understanding and solidarity with the movement, for she still insisted that the OWS was a useless rant.
I have never been a fan of the New York Times, and subscribe to it because my wife thinks it keeps me away from my laptop. The OWS episode made it obvious that they too lacked a clear understanding of what was taking place. At that time, the OWS was partially organized by a group of alternative media/internet activists, who were the creators of an very successful magazine titled Adbusters. This anti-commercialist journal of activism generated decent advertising revenues to support itself. For the initiation of the OWS, Adbusters joined forces with the Internet activists (or hactivists as they became known) the Anonymous. This coalition constituted an alternative media and network team far from incompetent or aimless. One of their participants whom I have interviewed for our Occupy Wall Street Oral History Project explained that the main goal of the protest was to start a paradigm shift, to make masses question the virtue of capitalism and unregulated market economy. The fact that they were able to talk about a paradigm shift alone showed how articulate they were, and that they knew a peaceful movement had to establish its strength via discourse. From the very beginning they treated Internet and independent media was their best options for spreading the movement and organizing something both local and international. They also knew that the spirit of revolution was everywhere, from Bahrain to Detroit.
During the following weeks, the OWS became a New York tourist and celebrity attraction. Being criticized for his handling of the Brooklyn Bridge protest, where 700 protesters were kettled and arrested, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was humiliated. In that environment, the camp attracted the presence of Naomi Klein, Slavoj Zizek, Cornel West, Michael Moore and Al Sharpton. Noam Chomsky paid tribute to them, and Paul Krugman wrote several columns praising their economic focus. All along the profile of the average protester remained diverse. On a regular day, the overnighters rose from their sleeping bags, around 10 am, and hit the lines for free cigarettes, coffee and breakfast.  Children came with their parents, to do painting and reading workshops. A crowd of public yoga and meditation enthusiasts rolled their mats near the drum circle. Working group meetings about finance, small business and legal advice attracted punks with mohawks as well as men in suits. Around early afternoon, almost without fail, a celebrity made an entrance. Crosby and Stills played a set. The tent that housed the library was donated by Patti Smith. Russell Simmons dragged Kanye West into it. Most days came to close with a big dinner and the 7 pm General Assembly. Afterwards there was live music, the drum circle and other casual late night gatherings. The media team of the OWS recorded almost everything and made it available, often live through Global revolution TV. New Yorkers joined the occupation at their convenience. The civil disobedience was the new black, as they said. Some spend their lunch hour there, making friends, talking politics or simply hanging around. Others came after work, for the General Assembly or the party. On the weekends, there were larger marches, like the one on October 15 that took over the Times Square.
All along, the NYPD circled the park resembling a pack of wolves, looking for a lonely sheep who wondered far from the herd. I saw a woman being arrested for writing “Good morning NYPD” on a sidewalk across the street from the park. A police officer told three protesters that if a fourth person who also wore the Vendetta mask joined them, they will be all taken in. Yet, nobody was intimidated. Except the chief of NYPD, Raymond Kelly, who loved to brag about his men’s capability of shooting down planes and whose son worked as a local Fox TV anchor that hates the OWS. Except the mayor Bloomberg, the 12th richest men in the US and whose girlfriend sat at the board of trustees at the Brookfield Properties which owns the Zuccoti Park. Except the Wall Street and its close servants like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post.
During his address, Zizek told the protesters “communism is dead, but the commons are alive,” and he was cheered full heartedly. In a televised interview, the Republican hopeful Mitt Romney declared the OWS was “class warfare,” and banners were raised declaring that yes, he is right, this is class warfare. My favorite sign read “Screw with us, we multiply.” A week after the Brooklyn Bridge arrests, and two days after some 50,000 protesters flocked the Foley Square, on October 7, Friday, the irony of watching Bertold Brecht’s Threepenny Opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music wasn’t lost on the New Yorkers either. When Macheath delivered his final speech on the third act, declaring he was only a small criminal in comparison to the bankers and industrialist who took the society they lived in as a hostage, the audience treated him with a strong applause.
We started the OWS Oral History Project in this environment. The first person I interviewed was an anarchist and an MIT drop out, who described himself as an activist photographer. He had an untamable energy. All my life I have been told I was smart, he said. But I found myself a family for the first time in here and I will never walk out on them. Another interviewee was a female priest from New Jersey, who brought vegan food to the protesters for dinner. Many of them are vegetarians, she informed me, and many are vegans. She said after delivering them the food, she collected memorabilia from the camp and send them to her son who had to move to China, because there were no jobs in US. One woman was flown in from California by legal marijuana growers who were disappointed with the federal law that banned their practice. They promised to fly me to every single OWS protest in the country, she said, so that I can communicate their support. On the night of November 15, I met an iron worker from California. He came to New York for a short term contract, because there were no jobs where he lived. I rented an apartment in a noisy neighborhood, he joked so come to OWS to find some peace and quiet. He said he missed his Harley Davidson and going fishing the most, but it was time to protest.
When I left the park, there were hundreds of people. Some were returning from their daily assemblies and workshops, and heading for the food line. The library was packed. Six or seven hours later, in a coordinated federal effort, with the assistance of FBI and CIA, some 18 different OWS camps around the US were attacked by the police (and about which the President Barak Obama was most probably briefed). I watched the NYPD raid the Zuccoti Park, get it washed with Clorox, pressure hose the whole scene and surround it with barricades, on my laptop. Although a judge ruled against this eviction, the mayor Bloomberg up held it until he found another judge to rule in his favor, and guarantee that there will be no tents or tent like structures. By 3 pm, a great crowd had gathered outside the park, waiting for the final verdict. On the Internet, the activists’ camera focused on a group of police officers and private security guards who stroll the empty park, along with a half a dozen of pigeons. This negative image of the previous day, where by the people of the camp were kept outside and the police of the outside were gated in, was an extremely disheartening thing to look at. Where once lived and grow an alternative political life, now stood a clean concrete desert. It was as if liberty wondered off, and we were left to wonder if it will ever return and in what shape.
On November 17, the liberty returned, and according to the NYPD’s estimates, it was 32,000 people strong. Those of us who became involved knew that the OWS was not about tents and sleeping bags. In New York, at the aftermath of 9/11, the experience of political inclusion became fragmented especially for the liberal minded. Since 9/11, New York resembled a disjointed puzzle, which struggled to keep itself together, as popular conservatism and gentrification tore apart its multicultural fabric. The US mainstream media perpetuated an appalling ignorance of the World’s people, economy, politics and history. Like Zuccoti Park, many public spaces were privatized, patronized and patriotized, often with blunt expressions of Americanism that had outright fascist tones. Political solidarity became a personal matter, meaning that it had to be experience behind closed doors, and only in the company of one’s immediate family and friends. The OWS camp at the Zuccoti Park changed that. Here, political solidarity did not go home, and stayed in the public sphere. It refused to be privatized. For those of us who were caught in its orbit, who kept going back to meet with more people, exchanged political ideas, and paid respect to the hundreds of men and women who slept on a concrete floor for two months in the name of something they believed in, this camp was a liberty square. Its existence proved that in the desert of US politics, someone rode something as distinctly American as a Harley Davidson, and he was our brother. Today that experience must be put on paper in the past tense, which confirms that something happened. Many of us believe that it was for better.
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