Opening Speech: Can Dundar
Distinguished Journalists, Editors, Writers and Guests,
It’s a privilege for me to talk about such an important subject at such a prestigious meeting.
Until last year, when I moved to Berlin, I’d been living in Istanbul. I’d like to tell you a little about my city and neighbourhood.
As you know, Istanbul is a giant that straddles two continents, Europe and Asia, connected by bridges.
My home – I’ve not seen it for a year now – was on the Asian side. That’s where I lived, when I wasn’t in prison, that is. My Cumhuriyet office was on the European side, which meant that every morning, I crossed the Bosphorus Bridge, left one continent and reached another. And every morning, as I exited the bridge, I saw the same sign:
WELCOME TO EUROPE!
A sign that will no longer be valid, judging by the tone of a recent TV debate between Frau Merkel and Herr Schulz.
If you were to ask me who won the debate, I’d say ‘Erdoğan’.
This is precisely what he’s been wanting all along.
Allow me to focus on this particular point before the sign is uprooted altogether.
When Turkey first applied to join the then European Economic Community it was 1959. I wasn’t born yet. The first partnership agreement was signed when I was at nursery school. I’d finished my degree by the time Turkey applied for full membership. Was married, and getting ready to become a father when the Customs Union agreement came into force. My son was in nursery school when the European Union accepted Turkey as a candidate member, and negotiations started when he was in primary school. Today, at a time when my son has finished university, we’re back to square one. Years of half-hearted negotiations will now be suspended. I have lived an entire life, and we’ve yet to progress an inch. Neither was the EU willing to welcome Turkey into the family, nor did Turkey genuinely endeavour to join. They might both have needed each other, but neither fancied the other much. And this reluctant courtship that dragged on for nearly six decades has finally come to the end of the road.
Except, it’s only a political impasse. As a NATO member, Turkey will still guard Europe as it has been doing for 67 years. And needless to say, the Customs Union Treaty that opens the Turkish market to foreign capital will remain unchanged. The refugee deal will naturally continue, and Turkey will carry on holding Syrians in camps so they don’t flood into Europe. The bridge that remains open to goods and tanks will close only to people. A society that has been aspiring to the west for a century will be forced towards the east instead.
Consider that bridge for a moment. Europe-bound traffic was led by the westernised, modern segment of society. The peloton was formed of the conservative majority whose interests lay in the west. Last, but by no means the least, was the rear group who abhorred the west, and who only stayed on that carriageway because they had no choice. When the flow of traffic reversed, the rear suddenly became the front, and the modernists who were about to set foot in Europe were left far behind. Now we face a new sign.
WELCOME TO ASIA!
We live in the same neighbourhood as Erdoğan. (I’m sorry; allow me to correct myself. We lived in the same neighbourhood before he went to the palace and I went into exile.) He is an Istanbullu, born and bred and lived in Üsküdar. He became mayor of Istanbul in 1994, and since then he has never lost in Istanbul. His own district has voted for him for 23 years. This is an extraordinary achievement in Turkey’s political history…
I would like to touch on that achievement, how Turkey’s shaky democracy fell into the clutches of despotism, and the connection with global developments. As a violent civil conflict raged between the right and the left in the late 1970s, the Islamists waited it out in silence from the sidelines. Erdoğan was amongst the Islamist youth group leaders even at that early stage. The imprisonment of the nationalists and the leftists in the wake of the 1980 coup left the field to the Islamists; furthermore, the military used religion to crush the rising left. The Americans were doing the same thing in Afghanistan at the same time, that is, in the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s: supporting the mujahedeen to fight against communism. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1988, Islamists in Afghanistan had grown strong thanks to US support. The year the Soviet Union fell was the year Al Qaeda was born in Afghanistan …
Erdoğan is no less a product of military interventions and the concessions given to the Islamists during those interventions.
Mainstream parties never quite re-established their hold after the military withdrew from the political stage. Former politicians were banned. Allegations of corruptions eroded the nation’s trust in the new intake. Short-lived coalition governments only led to more instability. An economic crisis tilted the scales in favour of the Islamist movement that had not been tried before.
‘At the very least they’ll be honest,’ thought some. Another point in the Islamists’ favour was the ‘victim’ narrative, the ‘oppression’ they claimed to have suffered, which anointed them with a thoroughly undeserved halo of resistance to militarism. It was around then that eastern people traumatised by the USA-led Second Gulf War that sought solace in Islam. Islam is now more than a religion. It has become a political movement. Enter Erdoğan, stage right. ‘Democracy is a means for us, not an end… Islam is my reference,’ he said, ‘Democracy is a tram. We’ll ride until our stop, and alight when the get there.’ He even cited Helmut Kohl as a western example. Just as Kohl, a priest, had become a Chancellor, he too would come to power and ‘liberate the mosque as much as the church.’ Every Islamist party closed down and banned by the military strengthened the Islamist movement a little bit more – just as the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq by the USA and her Allies strengthened the hand of the mujahedeen there. AKP was founded in the same year as the 11th of September attacks: 2001. AKP came to power in the same year as Guantanamo Bay opened: 2002. The invasion of Iraq took place in the same year Erdoğan became Prime Minister: 2003. Reaction manifested itself with an attack on the Twin Towers in the UA, and an election in Turkey…
Erdoğan threw open the doors to a grand hall of power not despite the West, but thanks to the West… Powerless before radical Islam, the West made its greatest error since the Green Belt policy. Mistakenly assuming a moderate Islamist potential where there was none, the West trusted in that non-existent moderation to rein in the radicals.
Wrong. Just like some liberals in Turkey… They, too, trusted Erdoğan to rein in the military. What they failed to realise that he would only replace it with his own custodianship, that he would establish an Islamist police state instead.
Erdoğan needed western support to emasculate the army. So he went on a charm offensive – a pro-western politician set on democratic initiatives to all intents and purposes. And the moment he despatched the army back to the barracks, he discarded both the west and the liberals. The conservative majority empowered him more and more at each general election, asking him to ‘Make Turkey great again.’
He has alighted, as he’d said he would, when he reached his destination, and we are now passengers on that runaway train hurtling towards the wall.
But we’re not alone. The train where our fellow passengers used to be Egyptian, Phillipino and Chinese now carries Hungarians, Poles, French and even Americans. In other words, we all in the same boat now. The unease of masses feeling threatened by globalism and the eagerness of more extreme Islamist movements to embrace violence has made the world a much less secure planet. Fear now rules the earth. Powerful rulers attract the insecure into the shelter of their shadow. International capital prefers stable despotism to democratic chaos in developing countries. Balking at the threat of refugees, Europe has turned a blind eye to the oppression in Turkey, and thus abandoned the pro-western, modern segment of society in Turkey.
Europe was different for us. We weren’t after visa-free travel to a tourist destination. It was the continent of rules that were trampled in Turkey. Europe meant the independence of the judiciary… It meant freedom of the Press. Citizen participation… NGOs… Equality of the sexes… Separation of powers… Democracy… Secularism… What mattered wasn’t becoming a full member, but rather, the reforms that would be made during the acquisition process. But as we in Turkey longed to see western principles, the west turned inwards, away from the values that made it what it was. As western countries succumb to populism one by one, we now find ourselves defending western principles.
What we have to recognise is this:
An unjust invasion in one part of the world leads to a haemorrhage elsewhere. You think a tight dressing will help you staunch the bleeding, but the problem is much more complicated than anything that can be solved with tight security measures, intelligence cooperation or armaments… All that the pressure on the wound achieves is to drive the infection inward, spreading it further. A widely held view today – and it includes people in Turkey – is that the west is the main culprit behind the world’s current troubles. The world was once divided ideologically into East and West, and economically North and South; today, we march towards divisions along religion … and even race. If only the new polarisation were between democracy and despotism, things would have been much simpler then. Sadly the choice before us is not exemplary democracies vs dreadful dictatorships. Racist movements emerge and grow in democracies. Totalitarian regimes are exported, nurtured or condoned by democracies. Masses fight for democracy in totalitarian regimes. In other words, confrontation today is not polarised but intertwined… Nothing is simple any longer.
Houses rot when they’re shuttered tight. Battening down the hatches would stifle Europe – it can only flourish by opening out, by returning to its fundamental principles. If one aspect of those principles is to welcome the unwanted from other parts of the world, another is to look after not the despots, but their opposition who fight for democracy. The European Union is no longer central; what matters is the union of democracy. We must press globalism to work once again, but this time to stand for freedom. That will help allay the fears of those who feel alone, and enable us to defend universal values together.
I would like to conclude this speech on a more positive note. Erdoğan lost in our constituency in the recent referendum. Lost in his own backyard. Worse: he lost in Istanbul, the safe constituency he’d held for quarter of a century. Lost in every big city. Despite a sustained campaign of oppression, one-track propaganda, threats and cheating at the ballot box, he realised that half the nation opposes his sultanate. And I am not that convinced of the loyalty of his own voter base, either. I believe the pendulum of history that swings from one extreme to the other has reached the maximum extent of authoritarianism. Erdoğan is on the wane, as is political Islam on the global stage. He needs new enemies to stop the rot, having all but obliterated internal opposition. That is why he’s been looking for enemies abroad… And Germany has eagerly obliged by picking up the gauntlet. Suspending European Union accession negotiations will snip off that final thread and gift him an opportunity. Rejection by Europe will be used to fan the flames of anti-western feeling in Turkey, but worse: it will marginalise pro-westerners and throw the undecided masses into Erdoğan’s camp.
Despite occasional criticism of Erdoğan, the west has largely been complicit in, and supported, the construction of an authoritarian regime by continuing to sell arms, by conceding to every single instance of blackmail – lest he release the refugees – and by waiting until western citizens were arrested before making any representation at all. Which is why no one takes western reaction seriously today.
It is now time for Europe – and Germany in particular – to separate Turkey and Erdoğan, and learn to treat the two differently.
‘The other Turkey…’ A nation that is suffering, oppressed, and yet continues to resist, to defend democracy, freedom and secularism to their last breath. A nation that is the future of Turkey. This is the internal dynamic that will transform Turkey. These are the people you’re sidelining from Europe just to punish Erdoğan. In the east, this isolationist policy will rebound as deepening hatred of the west, and in the west, growing Islamophobia. What we need now is a new, long-term strategy based on principles, a strategy that will help us invest in the future.
Presenting the problem as a conflict between nations, religions or nations will only stoke religious mania, chauvinism, or racism, and plays into the hands of despotism. The struggle is not between Turkey and Germany, or between Turks and Germans; the struggle is against Germans and Turks who don’t believe in democracy. It is a fight democratic Germans and Turks fight together. What divides us is not our countries, but our principles. Our countries may fail to bring us together, but our principles can.
That is why we must go beyond the existing military, diplomatic and political frameworks, and instead, foster cooperation based on principles. We must cooperate on local, social, scientific and cultural levels. The only way to smash the hegemony of authoritarianism is by standing shoulder to shoulder, not by drawing apart. That is the only way to create a democratic and free world. If we succeed, we can decorate the exit of every bridge in the world with the same sign: WELCOME TO EUROPE!