-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on April 14th, 2009- -Hurriyet Daily News'te, 14 Nisan 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-
Last week, Turkey has been the center of many discussions and debates in Europe and America, first with its opposition to NATO’s new Secretary-General, former Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and then with President Obama’s visit.
Mr. Rasmussen became the hero of freedom of speech by most in Europe with his resistance to calls from the Muslim world to censor Prophet Mohammed caricatures in 2005 that were published in an independent Danish paper. His assertion of not having an authority over the press and subsequently refusing to apologize over these cartoons made him a loathed figure in the Muslim world. This episode resulted in angry protests and even deaths in several Muslim cities. In a broader sense, this incident also sparkled a discussion of how much freedom of speech is compatible with the Muslim world.
This outworn debate resurfaced again in recent weeks with Rasmussen setting his eyes upon NATO, as it was critical for him to gain Turkish support since unanimous support is required for a candidate. Turkey resisted Rasmussen’s candidacy until the last minute on the grounds that he would be a bad choice at a time when NATO was trying to win support from Muslims in these critical times. While many observers thought Turkey’s this argument might have some merits, Mr. Rasmussen did not apologize, instead offered some regret and said he “was distressed that the cartoons were seen by many Muslims as an attempt by Denmark to insult Islam [and] nothing could be further from [his] mind.”
This was an appalling test that Turkey seemed to flunk about its readiness for EU membership. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, one of the few supporters in the French government of Turkey's accession into the EU, withdrew his support after the latest row and many other foreign observers have been disappointed over Turkey’s stiff stance and started questioning Turkey’s compatibility with European notions.
First, Turkish politicians seem to misinterpret freedom of speech, believing that anything that is offensive to any people or contradictory to common acceptance should be censored. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan along with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero should be applauded for working on the initiative of the alliance of civilizations and tolerance between religions, yet the same Erdogan does not show indulgence to the journalists and caricaturists in his country that criticize him a little cruelly. Moreover, his administration helps its political supporters to acquire the outspoken media outlets one by one in the recent times, and levy hefty tax fines on others to silence them.
The Turkish leaders also seemed to forget that it is Islam that forbids sketches, sculptures or mocking of prophets; therefore, non-Muslim Westerners should not be enforced to abide with these Islamic statutes, although it would have been considerate if they did. One argument could have been valid if the Western media was only treating Islam in this manner, and other religions differently. It is very well known that Christian holy figures are treated harsher, and cartoons like South Park or novels like The Vinci Code and countless of others, even receive awards often by the same Westerners. It just does not make sense that on the one hand the Turkish and other Muslim nations pack the movie theaters to watch these types of movies, and then get angry when they see similar treatment is being applied to Islamic figures. There are also countless examples of religious discrimination in the Muslim world, and in order to be trustworthy while working on an alliance between the civilizations, the Muslim world ought to be more sensitive the basic needs of other faiths.
Turkey, with its recent foreign policies and reaching out to neighbors, appears to be a rising power and claims to recast the regional balances. Then Turkey needs to step up to the plate, and accept the burdens that come with its raising profile to be a respected member of the Western alliance, which it has been intensely trying to do. It seems Turkey hugs the idea of ‘being a model country’ excitingly when Mr. Obama talked about it in the Turkish Parliament, but is hesitating to overcome conformist approaches and falls short of giving the deserved minority rights to own citizens of other faiths that have been so long neglected. There are few nations in the region that are more adamant than Turkey that it must be shown great respect; yet fewer still are more perceptive to any interference on their freedom problems.
The Turkish Administration failed in this recent test, as Mr. Cengiz Aktar argued: “instead of lobbying with the assumption that Rasmussen's track record would harm the fight against al-Qaeda, [they] emphasized the insult against Islam deriving from the cartoons crisis, giving a religious character to its opposition [and] became the spokesperson of the Islamic world in the western organizations.”
And he majority of Turkish liberal intelligentsia also didn’t pass the same test with not lending any support to Mr. Rasmussen, given the fact that he was just trying to defend very precious gift of freedom of speech, which is after all, supposed to be the most sacred element of a liberal democracy. Many Turkish writers and thinkers still echo Obama’s ‘change’ mantra for Turkey and appeared to fall in love with President Obama when he talked about the problems with freedom of speech and press in Turkey. Even so, when it comes to the tough fights and to being on the opposite side of public opinion, they also fall short and end up venting the religious and nationalistic sentiments even further.
Obama’s visit to Turkey was a stirring experience, and made it apparent that the Turkish people also have a thirst for “Audacity for Change.” Though change can come to Turkey, not with the leadership and the intellectuals who keep polishing the status quo, but with people who can really understand the dynamics of this new Turkey, that comes with these very changes.