Global media romances the rebellion in Turkey

Abdallah Schleifer
Abdallah Schleifer
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Two and a half years ago, the great global media delusion was that the vast demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square (and other urban centers throughout Egypt) had brought down Mubarak and constituted a non-violent Revolution – journalists flooded into town enthralled with this sort of sweet romantic revolutionary chic which the demonstrators had bought in on their own.

In fact, while Tahrir was a courageous Uprising, and young men had died for its sake, it was an Egyptian Army soft coup d’etat - which by definition implies violence if resisted - that had pushed Hosni Mubarak and his family out of power. The Uprising brought the Army to a critical crossroad and for a variety of reasons they chose the fork in the road that led them to tell Mubarak it was time to step down. And it was the Army that would go on to cautiously exercise power in the months that followed, not the Tahrir demonstrators.

Now a similar, equally romantic and misleading illusion has been generated by much of the global media coverage of the troubles in Turkey. For while the initial or first day of protest was a small non-violent environmentalist affair to quite reasonably save Istanbul’s Gezi Park- and a protest to which, sadly, the Turkish police grossly over-reacted to (points that would all be acknowledged by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan) - the protests were quickly transformed into a much bigger, highly politicized open attempt by a curious blend of very diverse political youth movements, to bring down by demonstration what could not be accomplished in elections. And that is because Turkish voters, in increasing numbers in a series of elections, have brought Erdogan and his AKP to power; first (in 2002) with a plurality of the votes and in the last election with a majority, however slim that majority.

So effectively a large block of the same demonstrators committed to short-circuiting the democratic process were to a great extent perceived and described by an ill-informed global media as liberal democrats protesting authoritarianism, although it was Erdogan who had firmly anchored the principle of civilian rule determined by free parliamentary elections (as well as bringing extraordinary economic growth to Turkey in contrast to the pathetic state of most EU countries).

What most reports seem to have missed, especially in the first week of demonstrations, when coverage fixed the image of the protest, was that a large component of the demonstrators were authoritarian political forces, invoking in banners and slogans, and the illusion of a liberal democratic secularist 20th century tradition typified by the large banners on which the portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was superimposed upon the flag of the Republic of Turkey.

These were the Kemalist ultra-nationalists who celebrate the militantly secularist dictatorship installed by Mustapha Kemal Attaturk in the early 1920’s overthrow of the remnants of Ottoman authority. His system endured after Ataturk’s death in the mid-30s, until 1950. And even then the attempt at parliamentary democracy was subject to three coup d’etats whenever the results of a free electoral process offended the Turkish Army’s Kemalist high command.

It was Erdogan, - not the ultra-nationalist Kemalists– who initiated the first steps to acknowledge the very existence of the Kurds as Kurds

Abdallah Schleifer

There is a grim irony at work looking back at 20th century history. That the massacre of Armenians, for which “the Ottomans,” are blamed occurred after Army officers – known as the Young Turks had seized power , preserving the Sultan as a figurehead of Ottoman legitimacy. The Young Turks set about undermining the pluralist nature of Ottoman society while acquiring the military arts of late 19th century Europe, the European understanding of the nation –state based on explicitly one language (Turkish imposed upon the non-Turkish speaking subjects) and implicitly one ethnicity and one religion. The irony is tragic - the massacre of the Armenians was not the product of traditional Ottoman rule, but of the Young Turk officers who were turning the Ottoman multi-national imperial idea into a Turkish nation-state.

Kemalism quickly came to note, and still does, a militant secularism, In his first years in power Ataturk banned the use of Arabic in the call to prayer from Turkish mosques, banned all the Sufi orders, and forbid the wearing of the “fez” or “tarbush.” Instead Ataturk imposed the soft peaked cap similar to what British golfers and taxi cab drivers once wore. The peak of the cap like the brim of a fedora is an obstacle to Muslim prayer since the forehead can no longer touch the prayer carpet in the state of prostration.

My own first sense of Kemalism occurred in the very early1970s, when I travelled from our bureau in Beirut as a novice TV correspondent for NBC News . My reporting took me first to Ankara and then to Istanbul . There I stopped off at The Associated Press bureau to talk with then bureau chief Nick Ludington, a great journalist who would go on to run the entire AP Middle East news operation. Somehow I mentioned the Kurds and Nick quickly corrected me. “Here in Turkey” he said “you can’t call the Kurds ‘Kurds.’” They were, in the official language, “Mountain Turks” and to refer to them as “Kurds” was forbidden. This complete denial of a Kurdish people with their own language (forbidden as a language of instruction) was one of the residual dogmas of “Kemalism” which in its stark, almost weird sort of nationalist way basically disowned the 500 years of Turkey’s most glorious past history as founding father and driving force of the Ottoman Empire, which among its other virtues had no problem, as often has been the case with benign empires, of recognizing the reality of the different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups within the empire.

Erdogan acknowledging a pluralist society

It was Erdogan, - not the ultra-nationalist Kemalists, or the more liberal sentimental Kemalists also demonstrating against him – who initiated the first steps to acknowledge the very existence of the Kurds as Kurds. And it is Erdogan who initiated promising negotiations and most recently a ceasefire with the imprisoned leader of the Kurdish guerrilla forces, with the promise after years of armed struggle, of peace for all of Turkey and some form of autonomy for Kurds in the predominantly Kurdish part of Turkey.

The old Kemalist Establishment banned young women studying in Turkish universities from wearing the hijab but I have never heard of any “liberal secularists,” as they are now portrayed by global media, demonstrating on behalf of the civil rights of women wishing to wear the hijab.

Few reports have distinguished between an intolerant Turkish militant secularism (derived ultimately from the deeply anti- Christian French Revolution) and the stirring of a fundamentalist reaction within Muslim Arab society in the late 1920s, with the American model of secularism which in historic and constitutional terms affirmed freedom of religion. The latter form is not the revolutionary French “goddess of reason” who briefly replaced God in the terminology of the state. It is the spirit of the American version to which Erdogan alluded when he visited Tunisia and Egypt after the Arab Spring and recommended a secular state.

There is another core group among the protesters that adheres to various strands of Marxism. But whatever the analytical strengths of Marxism, it has rarely been a breeding ground for liberal democracy.


Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East corrrespondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspndent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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