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Turkey playing ‘orientalism’ card against West

by Marc Champion

Bloomberg

Ertan Aydin, a top adviser to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, doesn’t think much of foreign criticism of his government.

In a recent Al Jazeera op-ed article, Aydin cited a recent post of mine and a New York Times article by Tim Arango and Ceylan Yeginsu to make the argument that the Western news media are misrepresenting Turkey because of our “orientalism,” a prejudice of West against East that has a long historical pedigree.

I don’t challenge the fact of orientalism, but it is hardly the case here.

For many years, like most Western journalists reporting in Turkey, I defended Erdogan and his government against the “paranoiac” (my word) suspicions of secular Turks who claimed that he had a radical Islamic or authoritarian agenda. Aydin complains that the Western press rarely mentions the improvements to Turkish democracy and civil rights under Erdogan.

Not true: Until a few years ago, the government was praised abroad for precisely those achievements, hence the rise of the term the “Turkish model.”

If you don’t hear much praise now, it’s because the liberal reforms stopped several years ago. In areas such as press freedom, they were put into reverse.

And while we continue to laud, for example, Erdogan’s peace efforts with Kurdish separatists, it would be impossible for us not to report on the disappointment that so many observers, above all inside Turkey, feel as they watch him throw away the chance of greatness.

Instead, he is pushing a partisan, ideological agenda for reasons that have mostly to do with consolidating his base ahead of elections next year.

Aydin tries to counter some of the specific criticisms often made against Erdogan. The crackdown at Gezi Park doesn’t show some nascent brutish elected dictatorship, he says, adding that no protesters have been jailed and the five “unfortunate” deaths that occurred there are under investigation.

This is a half-truth at best. The six deaths — Aydin omits a policeman — were worse than unfortunate, they were needless, inflicted by an overly aggressive state response to what began as a small environmental protest.

And some 40 trials on charges relating to the demonstrations involving about 300 people are under way; just last week, another 255 people were indicted.

Aydin raises the issue of abortion (something my column didn’t mention at all), where Erdogan has been criticized abroad for wanting to tighten relatively permissive laws. He explains that Turks are conservative and concerned by the “common” use of abortion as a contraceptive.

But abortion wasn’t an issue for debate in Turkey — rates actually were falling — until last year, when Erdogan pulled the issue out of the air in defending himself from criticism over the deaths of 34 Kurdish civilians mistaken for terrorists in the eastern Turkish village of Uludere. He described abortion as “murder,” insisting that “every abortion is an Uludere.” The abortion issue was politically convenient.

Aydin doesn’t mention the issue that has Westerner reporters most concerned: the government’s growing suppression of the domestic press, making Turkey a world leader in the incarceration of journalists.

A recent report by the opposition Republican Party claimed that 77 Turkish journalists lost their jobs for reporting on the Gezi Park protests.

Erdogan had, and perhaps still has, the potential to be remembered as a great, transformative leader. But Aydin’s charge of orientalism is just the latest in a long line of claims of foreign conspiracies intended to deflect legitimate criticism — remember when a top Erdogan adviser claimed the Gezi protests were plotted by the German airline Lufthansa?

The most dangerous threat to Erdogan’s rule doesn’t come from Western news organizations: It comes from the young educated Turks in Gezi Park Erdogan dismissed as terrorists; from his political opponents and increasing number of disenchanted former supporters; and from the fellow founding members of his own party, President Abdullah Gul and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc. Are they all orientalists, too?

Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter.