The investigation into the Feb. 28 process, which led to the resignation of the Erbakan government, is part of a broader attempt by the authorities to conduct a thorough spring cleaning of the system and bring coup leaders and their supporters to justice. In itself, it is a positive step: There are many cobwebs to clear. Yet, as media figures trade insults and the discussion turns to whether or not politicians, columnists and editors should be charged as well, the latest developments raise more questions than they answer. Necessary as the investigations may be, it has become increasingly difficult to see them as part of a genuine democratization process.
That emotions are running high is evident, and it is not surprising that some people harbor feelings of revenge for the wrongs they have suffered. But a well-functioning justice system is expected to rise above such emotions and to examine facts according to set principles, rather than changing political winds and human feelings. There is a temptation today to see the military and a few members of the media who supported the generals as responsible for all of Turkey’s democratic shortcomings, without acknowledging that the ultranationalist ideology promoted for decades by the state has filtered down to the general population and continues to hold sway in political circles.
When does a healthy examination of past abuses cross a line and turn into a toxic debate that feeds polarization in the society? How do you hold those responsible to account without turning the process into a vast witch hunt? But also, how much has really changed? After airing the abuses committed in the past, how do you build a more democratic framework and ensure past errors are not repeated in a different form?
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) first came to power, one of the characteristics that struck me in the early months was the government’s apparent ability to separate reason and emotion in defining policy. This is what allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to go against a long tide of state policy on Cyprus and support the Annan plan in 2004. Sadly, his brave move was not adequately rewarded by the EU, and the prime minister’s bold attempt to break a long deadlock failed.
At the time, the AKP seemed willing to challenge other unsuccessful state policies and seek courageous new approaches, whether in Turkey’s relations with Armenia or in the way it addressed the Kurdish issue. More recently, however, its focus seems to have been limited to undoing anti-religion policies adopted by militantly secularist Kemalists. Prejudices against non-Muslims and Kurds, on the other hand, aren’t properly addressed.
Çevik Bir signed the famous andıç in 1998, a memo outlining plans to smear journalists deemed too critical, particularly on the Kurdish issue. After being targeted by the media, Akın Birdal -- then-head of the Human Rights Association (İHD), now a Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) deputy -- was shot and severely wounded in his office. False accusations were also made against well-known columnists like Mehmet Ali Birand and Cengiz Çandar.
In the past few years, we’ve seen Hrant Dink similarly framed and then killed. The investigation into his murder, conducted during this government’s tenure, failed to deliver proper justice. How confident can we be that the current rulers can make a break with the past and build a more democratic and open Turkey when the interior minister takes part in demonstrations in which Armenians are described as “bastards”? Minister İdris Naim Şahin was just as controversial in Parliament a few days ago when, during a debate on the BDP, he produced photos of a boar allegedly killed in the mountains to claim that the Kurdish movement was encouraging people to eat pork and alienating the population from Islam. Undemocratic as it is, Turkey’s current Constitution does reject discrimination on the basis of religion. People’s beliefs and what they eat are irrelevant in a political debate.
That a Cabinet member can make such blatantly prejudiced statements is not encouraging at a time when Turkey should be working on a more inclusive constitutional framework. Challenging a state ideology that resorted to anti-democratic methods to maintain control is a positive step, but this move can only produce lasting change if it is accompanied by a thorough examination of the many prejudices that continue to divide Turkish society.