Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Reverse Orientalism of the Turkish Left

by Murat Cem Mengüç

During a recent workshop entitled “Violence in Ottoman Anatolia” at New York University, Christine Philliou summed up the emergence of the Turkish Republic and its leading architect Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with an allusion to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. She rightfully suggested that Atatürk resembled Hobbes’ Leviathan, who was in search of bringing order to a chaotic environment. The richness of this allusion is obvious to all of us who are familiar with the history of late Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. Hobbes’ prominence in European Enlightenment literature and his usefulness for the intellectual construction of Western imperialism make it an even more captivating metaphor.

As we all know, Hobbes’ description of the human political realm as a chaotic environment sprang from not just his belief that human beings were evil by nature, but also from the fact that he was writing during the English Civil War (1642-1651). Similar ideas and similar epochs of history furnished many other intellectuals to cut clean slates for their favorite authoritarian rulers. But, in the Turkish case, depicting the early Turkish Republican regime and particularly Atatürk as legitimate leviathans of their people also helps generate, what I will call for the lack of a better term, a reverse orientalism. This reverse orientalism, especially, helps official Turkish historiography to depict Atatürk and his people as the subjects of a chaotic environment, which resulted from the evil nature of other people and argues that they were rightfully fighting to create a zone of order, stability and self-expression. Most primary and secondary schoolbooks in Turkey to date narrate the Turkish Independence War (1919-1923) accordingly.

The most convenient aspect of this reverse Orientalist narrative is the fact that it transforms the Ottoman Turks into subjects of Western imperialism, making them a part of the so-called Third World, which lost its sovereignty and had to fight for its freedom from the yoke of Western Imperialism. In doing so, the Ottoman Turkish genocide of the Armenians, as well as the prosecution of other civilian masses like Kurds, Greeks and Arabs, become either fabrications of Western imperialism, or isolated episodes of an Hobbsian chaos that was about to swallow the Turkish nation.

On another level, the same reverse orientalism also allows the Turkish intellectuals to comfortably navigate diverse ideologies. In fact, some of the expressions encountered in the Turkish media regarding the recent Middle Eastern revolutions suggest that the old camps of the Turkish progressive left and the Turkish republican left can be easily altered in the radius of this reverse orientalism. For example, a leading columnists of the progressive left, Ahmet Altan, from whom we would expect a more careful language and a deeper sympathy towards the developments in the Middle East, openly writes that “Turkey is not like the other countries in the Middle Eastern garbage heap.”[1] This statement indicates that the status of Turkey is somewhat different than its underdeveloped neighbors who continue to live in political slums. Similarly, a leading columnist of the republican left, Banu Avar, argues that the recent NATO supervised war on Gaddafi is nothing less than a European imperialist project designed to subjugate the innocent Muslim masses.[2] Avar is outrageous enough to quote the Lybian state television as a viable source for her claims and show that her heart beats for the Muslim masses of the world, as long as they do not run for the government in her country. It seems that Hobbsian expressions of chaos not only speak about the absence of clear ideas and ideologies, but also may lack clear ideas and ideologies in themselves. Ignoring the legacy of the Ottoman Turkish imperialism in the Middle East, Turkish opinion makers of the progressive and republican left carve special statuses for themselves, whether hiding behind fake statuses of oppressed masses or distancing themselves from these masses by thinking that they have achieved something better already.

Interestingly enough, the Turkish Islamist political camp, the camp that is most deeply dedicated to the legacy of the Ottoman Empire, does not suffer from such an identity crisis. Not only that it openly supports the NATO actions against Gaddafi, but also it keeps winning elections.

Read more on this article...

Sunday, March 27, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

When the biggest earthquake in memory hit Japan at 2:46 PM on the afternoon of March 11, 2011, it took less than ten minutes for the bright, cluttered screens of Tokyo top six stations to be drained of color, commercialism and fun. With a disaster unfolding, TV stations were under intense pressure to change the tone of their broadcasts and offer news and safety advice.

To review broadcasts from that afternoon, is to be transported back to a turning point in which everything suddenly changed. The state of TV, as it existed at that precarious moment, good, bad and banal as it might have been, is now a broadcast relic, the last gasp of normalcy before the earth shook Japan to its core, the sea swept the Northeast with tsunamis and a nuclear crisis broke the easy access to electric power that has been a hallmark of modernity in Japan for decades.

For an illustration about how the 3.11 quake is changing life in Tokyo, with particularly focus on the airwaves and the energy-guzzling lifestyle promoted on TV, please view my latest piece at Read more on this article...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

The world of information made possible by Twitter technology is vast and fascinating, but what really rises above the Twittering noise, random comments and repetitive multiple posts of second, third and fourth hand material is the work of an intrepid individual, sharing, in short installments, an eye-witness view of an evolving situation. It is a take on the news as old as the news itself, first person testimony, offering a degree of coherence and individual fidelity that stands head and shoulders above the random, aggregate posts of a busy Twitter feed.

In a matter of just a few days, one of the most privileged, affluent societies in Asia has been hit and laid prone with multiple disasters, and though the worst may be over, it's far from over yet. Japan, indeed the world as a whole, will feel the influence of the deadly March 11 earthquake, tsunami, related aftershocks, eruptions and subsequent damage to nuclear power plants and more generally the economy for years to come.

The following is the tweet record of an American reporter, now an Asia correspondent for VOA, with 18 years experience in Japan as he covers what could be fairly described as the biggest news story of his career

The reporter is Steve Herman and his twitter tag is W7VOA.

Steve Herman and I worked together in the International Division of NHK in 1990-1, sharing a Tokyo office while working as televison producers on Asia Now and China Now respectively.

Even then, long before he became a radio correspondent for CBS and later President of the FCCJ, I thought him the epitome of a newsman, one who was living and breathing news round the clock. A solid reporter with an excellent understanding not just of international news issues but the minutae of how things work in Japan, Steve is a good guide to a big breaking story.

The veteran reporter happened to be out of Japan when the big quake struck but managed to get back in country, despite disruptions at airports and rail lines, within a day. His posts chronicle a journey across Japan as he seeks access and interviews in the three hardest hit areas, Fukushima, Miyagi and Iwate prefectures.

His intial entries in this informal online diary commence with short notes about news he is reading and re-tweets of posts made by other journalists he is following on Twitter, reacting to news rather than reporting it, and appropriately enough, as it takes him the better part of a day to get on the scene. RT is short for re-tweet and sometimes he posts links to published articles that he likes or makes reference to.

Once he’s on his way to the scene of tsunami damage and dysfunctional nuclear power plants, the second-hand news and reactions to the news are gradually replaced by first-person anecdotes, sensations, interviews and reporting. When the earth starts shaking, he describes it. Then he finds out more about the quake or aftershock, and tweets the best information available to him at the time.

Sometimes it's an earthquake warning with no earthquake, sometimes an earthquake without warning.

The constant tickertape flow of tweets by him and other people on the scene start to be incorporated into news updates which are also tagged, retweeted and made reference to on the Internet, TV and radio.

In short, by looking at a series of thoughtful on the scene tweets, one can get a feel for how information travels, how information is culled and selected and how it is then broadcast and repeated until it becomes the received understanding of an event.

This sort of tweet diary is interesting even when second-hand and third hand information is collated and forwarded, but it really is at its best when it shifts to the first person, and the tweeter on the scene is telling us about things he or she sees, hears, wonders about and analyzes in an original way.

Following his twitter reports in real time is to be transported into the urgency of a breaking story in the company of a cool, seasoned guide who does not flinch in the face of obstacles or bad news. Even with the haiku-like discipline of writing in short bursts, there is narrative arc and a building sense of drama as the reporter moves onto the scene and traverses difficult, sometimes outright dangerous territory.

For all their news value and dramatic impact, tweets are also snippets of personal conversations put to print. In Steve’s case, as he makes a dash from a safe part of Japan to an area at risk, his friends on Twitter urged him not to go, to consider the dangers, to which his response was simple and firm.

“It's my job.”

Here, then, a record of informal tweets from veteran Asia correspondent Steve Herman as he does his job. While investigating a tough, multifaceted breaking story, he took the time to tweet updates about things he saw and heard and gleaned from official sources. His short, abbreviated observations were informative enough that within a few days time he had ten thousand “followers” reading and re-tweeting his posts, including fellow journalists, all the while filing formal, in-depth reports for Voice of America.

The posts here have been copied from his twitter history, and thus are in reverse chronological order. To better sense the drama of an unfolding story in which each subsequent development is unknown, one might browse his posts by scrolling from the bottom up.

Steve Herman
@W7VOA ÜT: 37.373258,140.371634
Voice of America (VOA) Bureau Chief/Correspondent, based in Seoul, mainly covering NE Asia (Korean peninsula & Japan)

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Saturday, March 12, 2011


by Philip J Cunningham

When reveille sounds, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee.

The US military is now thinking of ways to block and segregate the internet into smaller ‘‘cyber nations’’ which would be easier to monitor and control.

During this era of incessant online babble, blogs, tweets and cacophonous concatenations, the internet has become a virtual Tower of Babel, an ambitious, overloaded unitary structure breaking at the seams. It's only a matter of time before it crumbles.

That, in a nutshell, is the view put forward by a group of US military thinkers in the latest issue of Strategic Studies Quarterly, who see the breaking up and "Balkanisation of the Internet" as natural as it is inevitable, and not without public benefit, assuming that the 'Net reorganises along traditional, nationalistic lines.

Theirs is a clarion call to end the utopian, universal stage of internet development and instead to hunker down and build national bunkers.

The internet has been imbued with a feel-good idealism since its inception, despite it having been a quasi-military invention. It was developed by a generation familiar with John Lennon's utopian lullaby Imagine, dreamily invoking the idea of a world with no countries. And some cyber utopians took a cue from that, driven by the concept that "information wants to be free", a formulation first given voice by Stewart Brand and dramatically acted out more recently by Julian Assange.

But even if information wants to be free, there are the vagaries of human nature that have to be taken into account.

Just as a handful of hijackers can burden millions of jet flyers, in the communication commons the bad behaviour of a few can change the rules of the game; trolls lurk in comment sections, spammers clog up your inbox, data-miners violate your privacy, hackers close your system down.

These problems are being addressed on an ad hoc basis, mostly by the private sector, to make the cooperative, interdependent venture known as the internet safe for commerce and communication.

And then there is the US military, which has bigger fish to fry.

Entrusted with the keys to the world's biggest nuclear arsenal, bound by social contract to guard the nation with vigilance, it should come as no surprise that military thinkers are more worried about information control than information freedom.

The US Cyber Command, which works closely with the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies, is tapping technology organisations such as Google, Intel and Microsoft for help with cyber-defence, integrating traditional concepts of military preparedness and defence of the state with new borderless technologies.

If military thinkers tend to be more orthodox in their regard for the sanctity of national borders, it is in part a reflection of the role they assign themselves to play as defenders of the nation.

Where a tech geek might revel in faster computation speeds and an advertiser might obsess over ways to get more clicks, and academics might demand unfettered freedom of expression, it is natural that military thinkers should want to consider the same technology with an eye to violations of sovereignty and security, especially with regard to command and control systems and energy infrastructure.

Inspired by the folk wisdom that good fences make good neighbours, there is a school of thought in the US military that posits a not-so-distant future in which the worldwide web will be divided up along national lines.


(as published in the Bangkok Post, March 12, 2011) Read more on this article...

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Turkish Islam and the Middle Eastern Revolution

At a recent panel discussion, a Palestinian colleague pointed out that when a dictator falls, with him disappears his imagined enemies. The fact that the Egyptian, the Tunisian and now the Lybian revolutions did not have Islamic fundamentalism as their common denominator suggests that most of this so called global Islamic fundamentalism was in fact imaginary. Historically speaking, global Islamic fundamentalism was similar to the phenomenon of the Eastern Question, meaning that it was mainly cultivated in the Western minds and turned into a practice with Western financial aid in order to fend off socialism and communism. When the Cold War ended, the economic and political data still indicated that the cooperation of capitalism and democracy wouldn’t be tenable forever. Western civilization was forced to re-imagine itself in this conjecture, unfortunately with a renewed emphasis on domestic authoritarianism, so as to hush and tame its native critics. At that stage, global Islamic fundamentalism emerged as a newly discovered evil half brother of global capitalism. It became the leading hero of all fear factors and justified domestic authoritarianisms.

Among the critics of the West, Muslim thinkers always had a special status. They challenged the most central tenet of Western civilization, its so-called secularism. Muslim thinkers argued that democracy was not exclusive of religious expressions of morality, and the idea of secularism was an illusion. They were pretty much right on both accounts, since most Western governments maintained capitalistic alliances with the religious institutions of their citizens and allowed room for religiously motivated parties to take part in democratic elections.

The explicit attack these Muslim thinkers waged on Western civilization made them ideal candidates to become the new nemeses of the West. Many of them were educated in the West, developed their theories with a mixture of Western ideas and grew into strong ideological lobbies through the financial help of British, Israeli and US authorities. They did not represent the majority of the Muslim people among whom they organized themselves but readily accepted to be pitted against the socialist and communist fractions of their native communities.

It is in this context interesting to listen to the ongoing argument in the Western media, that there is something called Turkish Islam, and it is a valid alternative to global Islamic fundamentalism. ‘What is Turkish Islam?’ one wants to know. When did it become an antidote to other Islams? And, at a time when a number of revolutions proved that global Islamic fundamentalism is not the common denominator of popular discontent in Muslim societies, who needs an Islamic antidote?

To begin with, the argument that a Saudi Arabian, Egyptian or Tunisian community should practice Turkish Islam is akin to suggest that these people do not need their customs and reason. In my classes, to explain the process of Islamic jurisprudence and its Ottoman/Turkish variants, I often refer to Abu Hanifa, an 8th century orthodox Muslim jurist from Iraq. It is reported that Abu Hanifa refused to eat things that Qur’an and the Hadith didn’t approve. Given that he was a truly orthodox judge, and text oriented, it is reported that he never relied on local tradition or speculative precedents either. Thus, it seems, he never consumed a watermelon in his life, which must have been a remarkable feat in a place like Iraq. Abu Hanifa’s teaching also argued against the consumption of shellfish, based on very similar grounds. Today, the majority of the Turkish Muslims describe themselves as Hanafi, the Sunni sect founded upon the teachings of Abu Hanifa. However, they regularly enjoy watermelon, and a deep fried clam sandwich made with fresh bread and tartar sauce is one of their most popular late night snacks. This raises no controversy among the Turkish Muslims because the practice of sharia allows room for local customs and speculative reason to be practiced as well. For obvious reasons, it would be ridiculous to ban shellfish in a country surrounded by Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Similarly, watermelon, which arrived to Egypt in second millennium BC and soon afterwards made itself to Anatolia, is traditional delight in Turkey.

Meanwhile, what is called Turkish Islam in the Western media is nothing more than a metropolitan conservative middle and lower class religiosity. It is not a theological school but a pseudo-ideological stand, cultivated in reaction to the Turkish state nationalism. Although most nationalist movements embrace the religious sensitivities of the masses they desire to represent, Turkish nationalism was of a different kind. For example, to my knowledge, Arab nationalism, in all its forms, was more willing to recognize its mainly Muslim profile. Turkish nationalism, on the other hand, emerged in confrontation with the Ottoman Empire’s Muslim religious imperialist image, which the sultan/caliph used fervently. In its various forms, Turkish nationalism always argued that it was a modern and secular nationalism. This was particularly so for its state sponsored variant, which used the separation of religion and state as the central tenet of its ideology.

This so called Turkish Islam is a conservative religiosity, postulated as a viable ethical alternative to conservative nationalism. It is a substitute for nationalism, and it appeals to the Turkish speaking middle classes who are tired of state nationalism. These middle classes are not theologically superior moderate citizens; they are religious conservative consumers who follow the Western economic recipes for capitalist prosperity and happen to be Muslims. Thus, anyone who is familiar with the history of Islam should know that all Muslim societies have their own version of this so-called Turkish Islam. What they do lack is the pro-capitalist democracies in which their moderate religiosity could imagine itself as a voting block.

At a time when we are witnessing a chain of revolutions, arguing that Turks have invented an ideal Islamic model highlights the fact that the West is still looking for an Islam of its own version rather than observing the existing trends. Those who argue that a moderate Islamic conservatism is an antidote against fundamentalist Islam, and want to export it to the Muslim people should take a look at the European outlet stores in the Middle East or observe the duty free liquor stores of their home town international airports. Most Muslims already live their lives according to their customs and speculative reason. Orthodox men like Abu Hanifa remain the kings of their own dinner table. Most importantly, revolutions do take place for moderate reasons Read more on this article...