Δευτέρα, 13 Ιανουαρίου 2014

Political Islamism and language troubles

We did not know that Turkey's chief foreign policy officer and top diplomat, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, has also been wearing another hat: chief translating officer. Last night, speaking on a government mouthpiece television station, he took a jab at me and my colleague at the Hürriyet Daily News, without naming us, for using the word “jihadist” to describe the slogan employed by some of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's supporters wearing shrouds at a welcoming rally at the airport. These supporters of Erdoğan were yelling out to Erdoğan, “Mücahid Erdoğan,” in Turkish which can be translated as, “Jihadist Erdoğan,” or, if you like, “Mujaheed Erdoğan,” or “Mujahid Erdoğan.”
We saw the same chant used at pro-government rallies during the Gezi Park protests, as well. Whatever translation one prefers to use, nobody is attributing the same meaning used by extremist, armed and violent Islamist groups in the Middle East and beyond to the “mujahid” label in this instance. But it is evident that as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has come under increasing pressure because of domestic challenges resulting from weak protection of fundamental human rights, such as the right to assembly and the right to freedom of speech, and in the form of the massive corruption scandals that have rattled the government, that they have prompted Erdoğan to swiftly embrace the traditions of past political Islamist values.

Perhaps the resurfacing of some adjectives that were used by the founder of political Islam in Turkey and the leader of the National View, Necmettin Erbakan, is an indication that Erdoğan is seeking refuge in long-forgotten labels such as “mujahid.” Erbakan's trademark label of “mujahid” in politics is reminiscent of the '70s when he was part of a coalition government during which Turkey had to intervene in Cyprus to stop the bloodshed. He was credited with that intervention and his core supporters have often invoked that label since then to mobilize voters during election rallies. Yet the return on that investment has never paid off because there was no major responsive block to his Islamist call in Turkish society, predominantly followers of Sufi tradition, something that is more inner-oriented rather than toward showcasing one's religiosity.

The foreign minister's defense of supporters who chant these slogans while wearing shrouds (Frankly, wearing shrouds has never been seen in Turkey before at all.) and use the reporting of this incident in order to attack journalists is reprehensible. Calling us representatives of “crusaders' mentality” and “neo-orientalism” on live TV to exploit the sensitivities of Muslim people in Turkey and score politically certainly deserves a rebuke. He acts like we are the only ones working in English media in Turkey to report what is going on in Turkey. He behaves as if most embassies based in Ankara do not have their own staff to transmit developments in Turkey to their capitals or there are no international media representatives based in Turkey to report what is actually happening in the country.

This swipe illustrates a broader problem we are having in Turkey: an increasingly assertive Islamist agenda in government policy decisions. According to polling data from August last year compiled by a reliable polling company, MetroPOLL Strategic and Social Research Center, only 2.9 percent of people described themselves as “political Islamists,” as opposed to much larger portion that simply label themselves as “pious and conservative.” Yet that minority is over-represented in the government today and is certainly dominant in the inner circle with whom Erdoğan is running the country. These Islamists believe and advocate a view that every Muslim is also necessarily Islamist, despite the fact that the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, never felt the need to describe himself as Islamist. It was enough for humble servants of God to be known only as Muslims or believers throughout 14 centuries of Muslim history.

Trying to coerce Muslims who defy political Islamism and avoid becoming part of dominating ideological agenda that employs and even abuses Islamic references and which questions their faith for not being involved in what is essentially a political ideology, is simply not acceptable. The overwhelming majority of Muslims in Turkey do not want to see a top-down approach employing the social engineering of political Islamism in society. Instead of a politicized vision of Islam, Turks throughout our long history have always welcomed and supported efforts by conservative civic groups that try to ensure that individuals and society improve themselves with reference to Islamic values without actually laying out an agenda to grab power and shape society from the top.

The fact that the line between Muslim and Islamist has been blurred is one of the main reasons why we have seen so many problems on the Turkish foreign policy front during Davutoğlu's term. This almost paradigm-like shift became more visible in the Egypt policy when Ankara reacted to the July 3 coup in Egypt with more Islamist reflexes rather than a national interest position. Erdoğan's constant bashing of Egyptian rulers was not just a political move to score domestically based on Turks' general dislike for military coups. It was largely motivated by strong traits of the political Islamist vision dominating his government. The same can also be said for Ankara's clear preference of Hamas over El-Fatah in Palestine as well, which has deepened the divisions there.

Today, unfortunately we see a siege mentality in the Turkish government, where the respect for the rule of law has been suspended and everyone is being labeled traitors, including members of the media, opposition parties and civic groups. The easiest way to attack conservative groups is to raise doubts about their faith, portraying commendable interfaith and intercultural dialogue efforts as a secret campaign to convert Muslims into Christians. Political Islamists behave like they hold the patent rights to the religion of Islam. Faced with massive corruption scandals based on formidable evidence indicating wrongdoings in the upper echelon of government, now these Islamists are trying to hijack the agenda with artificial debates in a bid to distract public attention from the corruption investigations.

Now that we know Davutoğlu has expert English language skills, he should explain to us how the government managed to spoil a long-term investment in the Balkans, when the prime minister made a blunder in his public speech in Kosovo, making the “Rabia” hand sign that has become synonymous with the anti-coup protests in Egypt. Davutoğlu claimed that Erdoğan's comments were misinterpreted and promised his Serbian counterpart, Ivan Mrkic, that he would express his regret about the misinterpretation publicly at the first opportunity. Yet what he promised Mrkic on the phone was not fulfilled in his TV interview on that same day, leading Serbs to remain skeptical of Turkey's intentions. Saying one thing to Serbian officials while playing a different song for the Turkish audience did not fly in terms of foreign policy and led to cancellation of a trilateral summit meeting between Bosnia, Turkey and Serbia. Even the entire trilateral process is now in danger of being completely discarded. 

Similar language problems sparked another crisis between Turkey and the US in March of last year, which prompted US Secretary of State John Kerry to openly criticize Erdoğan's remarks describing Zionism as a crime against humanity, made in his address at the UN Alliance of Civilizations conference in Vienna. Speaking at a joint press conference with Davutoğlu, Kerry said that the US does not share the same point of view with regard to Erdoğan's remarks. "We not only disagree with it, we found it objectionable," he said. Was that also a translation error or was it a major blunder on the part of the Turkish prime minister? The official Anadolu news agency removed the reference to Zionism from Erdoğan's remarks in its initial reporting, perhaps to cover it up. It had to issue a correction after video footage of the speech appeared in the media.

There are more examples of similar scandals involving language blunders that could be cited. Certainly there are many stories from the diplomatic circles in the Turkish capital that expose hypocrisy. Perhaps, when the dust settles in Turkey, we will have even more stories to tell about scandalous incidents described as merely lost in translation, misinterpreted, misquoted and taken out of context.

ABDULLAH BOZKURT (Cihan/Today's Zaman)

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