Posts Tagged 'arab'

New tool for female empowerment: Turkish soap operas

By Harry van Versendaal

When the Turkish soap opera “Noor” revealed to Samar that marriage can be an equal partnership between two loving people rather than a state of misery and repression, she switched off her TV and got herself a divorce lawyer.

“I liked using the subject of soap operas to speak of the important issue of women’s rights. Doing so cast a different light on the story; it was also a happier way to tell the story,” says Nina Maria Paschalidou. Her latest film, “Kismet,” is screening at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival (TDF) after making a well-reviewed debut at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) in November where it was nominated for the IDFA Best Mid-Length Documentary Award.

Fifty-four-year-old Samar, a Lebanese woman living for years in the United Arab Emirates, is not alone in finding inspiration in Turkish TV dramas. Samira, a victim of sexual harassment in Cairo during the recent Egyptian revolution, tells the camera how she found the courage, despite being pressured by her family to keep quiet, to take the perpetrators – army officers – to court after watching Fatmagul, a gang-rape victim in another Turkish drama series, fight for justice. She not only won her case, but also helped to stop the until-then mandatory “virginity tests” given to all females in police custody.

Paschalidou, a 40-year-old filmmaker, journalist and producer from Veria, a small town in northern Greece with a strong Ottoman imprint, became fascinated by how a medium that provokes much derision in the West has become a successful tool for female empowerment in the East.

“I was staying in Washington when a friend, who is from Turkey, showed me a Washington Post article on Turkish soap operas. I was intrigued and began to look into the subject,” says Paschalidou, founder of independent documentary and multimedia group Forest Troop.

Millions of viewers across the Middle East, North Africa and the Balkans are hooked on TV dramas such as “Gumus,” which is broadcast across the Arab world as “Noor,” “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault?” “The Magnificent Century,” “Life Goes On,” and “Forbidden Love.” During a recent survey carried out in 16 Middle East countries, three out of four said they had seen at least one of about 70 Turkish shows that have been sold abroad since 2001.

“The impact went beyond all expectations. People started to name their children after the main characters, women started to divorce their husbands because of what they saw on TV, tourist operators offered site-specific tours,” Paschalidou says.

Bad signal

The success of these shows naturally did not go down well with conservatives in the Middle East. In Iran, where shows are watched via smuggled satellite dishes hidden on balconies, authorities said soaps were “destabilizing the institution of the family.” Saudi clerics went as far as to issue fatwas against people watching the shows.

Apart from being an unintended cultural export and a unique brand of soft power, Turkish dramas also raked in cash – tons of it. The value of soap opera exports skyrocketed from a million dollars in 2007 to 130 million in 2012 as the country sold 13,000 hours of programming, according to data from the country’s Tourism and Culture Ministry.

Part of their appeal, the director says, was thanks to the good-old American recipe. “It’s the drama, the passionate love affairs, the nasty vendettas – a recipe first sold by the Americans with ‘Dallas’ and ‘Dynasty’ in the 1980s,” says Paschalidou.

But, like most observers, Paschalidou also sees culture-specific factors at play. “It was no coincidence that these shows struck a chord with audiences in the areas of the former Ottoman Empire. There was something exotic, yet at the same time quite familiar, to them. People in this part of the world have many shared memories, a common past, similar food,” she says.

They also have similar ambitions.

“Viewers in the Middle East see the Turkish woman as a model of the modern Muslim female. This is a bit who they would like to be, who they struggle to become,” Paschalidou says. They want greater freedom and more rights. And more wealth. “What all these shows have in common is their penchant to show off designer clothes, nice homes and luxury villas,” she says.

Interestingly, while women in Arab countries appear in the documentary to be inspired by the modern, feminist narrative, their Greek counterparts are looking in the other direction as Turkish series have triggered in many a nostalgia for pre-modern values and ideals such as tradition and family ties. “I like these shows because they have morals and the girls don’t take off their underwear all the time like they do here,” says one elderly Greek fan.

Greece’s stubborn recession, now in its seventh year, has hit most people hard and at the same time influenced Greeks’ collective self-understanding. “The crisis has been widely associated with the West and many things modern. As a result, we have dug out old memories and turned to the Eastern part of our identity,” Paschalidou says.

“Perhaps there is also this longing for true love, for the type of man who stands by his wife and looks after her needs – even if he is a bit of on the macho side,” she says.

To be continued

Closer to home, these programs have inflicted some collateral damage by exposing Turkey’s internal contradictions: The narrative of a modern, prosperous Turkey is being challenged by a conservative, intolerant backlash. Once the darling of liberal reformists, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – who has criticized a historical soap based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, which depicts the sultan as a man in thrall to his favorite wife, as “an attempt to insult our past, to treat our history with disrespect” – has fed concerns among secularists about his increasingly authoritarian style of government.

“Turkey’s efforts to promote a modern, Western face cannot disguise its huge shortcomings in the area of women’s rights,” Paschalidou says.

Despite a series of legal reforms over the past few years, Turkey did poorly in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Index. A recent survey found that a third of marriages in Turkey’s eastern and southeastern provinces involved very young brides, many of them under the age of 15. In “Life Goes On” a young girl from Anatolia is married off to an abusive 70-year-old. The girl escapes her yoke, but in reality such happy endings are less common.

“Reality is not always like in the series. A girl who has been forced into marrying at an early age in Turkey will not have the support of her family if she decides to break up,” the director says.

“These series present an idealized image that Turkish society is mature enough to solve its problems, which is not always the case,” she says.

But the effort is there, and it is a genuine effort Paschalidou believes. The shows are mainly written by female scriptwriters who nudge the narratives into more feminist paths, and even attempt to involve their audience. When the final court scene of “What Is Fatmagul’s Fault? was filmed, the extras cast to carry banners and shout slogans in support of Fatmagul were real-life victims of sexual abuse.

“What really impressed me was that Turkish actresses are fully conscious of what it is that they are doing,” she says. Many of them have taken the effort outside the TV studio by participating in a campaign to stop domestic violence against women.

“It’s not just a marketing strategy. Some of them genuinely believe they can help.”

Egyptian revolution: Download at 50 percent

By Harry van Versendaal

It’s night and small group of friends are sitting inside a living room. The shades are closed but the lights are off. Outside, a group of men wielding knives and clubs are coming down the street shouting slogans. “It’s the f***ing thugs,” a voice says as a small HD camera rolls. It’s the first few days of Egypt’s revolution in January 2011, and nobody really has a clear idea of what is going on.

Filmmakers Karim El Hakim, an Egyptian American, and Omar Shargawi, a Dane, got a chance to film the dream of a lifetime as the Egyptian capital was swept by protests against the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Armed with consumer HD and phone cameras, the two activist friends shift the focus back and forth between the violence in and around Tahrir Square and the heated conversations inside the downtown apartment, covering 11 days of the revolution.

Shot at a high-speed pace, with shaky footage (that may put off some older viewers) and claustrophobic close-up shots and augmented with a dramatic score, the end result is a diary-like, action-packed verite personal documentary that will keep you on the end of your seat. With no choice due to the escalating violence, the filmmakers flee the country together with El Hakim’s wife and child, leaving both the revolution and the project unfinished. “Half Revolution,” which draws on some 120 hours of footage, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in January.

El Hakim, a tall man with unruly curls and sporting a leather jacket, was in Thessaloniki for the promotion of the film, which was screened at the coastal city’s documentary festival this week. Born in Palo Alto, California, he moved between the United States and Egypt for years, until ultimately settling in Cairo a decade ago, largely prompted by the anti-Arab backlash after 9/11. He spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about those “11 life-changing days” and shared his thoughts about the prospects of this “half revolution.”

What were you doing when the whole thing started?

We were working on a feature film directed by Omar, set in Cairo and loosely based on the Book of Job. It’s about an Egyptian-Danish man who comes back to Cairo and the second he sets foot in the country his whole life is turned upside down. The man blames God for his troubles, he turns his back on him and sees what living without God means. You’ll definitely hear about it soon.

Are you religious?

Not particularly. I actually come from a very Sufi background, but strict religion is not something I believe in. I think everybody has their own religion in a sense.

When did you consciously decide to go beyond coverage of events and make yourselves the subjects of the movie?

We started by trying to capture things happening on the street. We were shooting stuff in the street and then shooting stuff at home, mostly conversations, because there was nothing else to do. Then on January 25 we got arrested at around 1.30 in the morning in Tahrir Square as the police really brutally attacked the people; a lot of people were shot and a lot of people died that night. We got beaten up by a hundred guys, thrown in a box, we were separated, sort of reunited in the box, then taken to a prison. We were released at around 4 a.m. because we played dumb — we pretended we were foreign tourists and they let us go. That traumatic experience made us realize that even though there was stuff happening around us, there was also stuff happening to us and we wanted to capture that. And we realized the best way to tell the story was through the frame of reference of characters and that we were, in fact, the characters. So the film became a kind of autobiographical account of what we were going through. We didn’t use any historical clips, or YouTube clips. It’s not the history of the revolution. It’s not a history lesson.

You must have tons of material.

Yes, we have around 120 hours of material. We had three to four cameras going and everybody was filming as much as they could.

What did you shoot with?

Just small consumer HD cameras. I even shot with an iPhone.

Did you have any of your material confiscated?

Actually, the night we were arrested, Omar tried to film inside the police truck and a policeman took the chip out of his phone. So we did lose some important material that night, but we were were able to patch up the storytelling. In the end, we were lucky to get out with all the footage. [At the airport] I had to hide some of the stuff in my son’s diapers. We were very scared about getting caught, because we heard of other journalists getting caught. I even cut my hair, really short and boring, wore really boring clothes, pretending to be an English teacher. Having a baby of course helped.

Where did you fly to?

We went to Paris, where my uncle and cousins live. We stayed there for three months until the dust settled and then went back to Cairo.

Were you or anyone else hurt during the protests?

I got shot in the head with a rubber bullet; luckily it missed my eye by about half an inch. And on the night we were arrested, I was beaten up pretty badly. Otherwise I was pretty lucky. We missed some bullets that flew very close to us.

Where exactly do you live in Cairo?

I live right downtown, two blocks from Talaat Harb Square and four blocks from Tahrir.

What was the situation like in other neighborhoods? At some point your wife says she’s off to [the more affluent residential district of] Zamalek to get some milk for the baby.

Zamalek is like an island in the middle of the Nile. It is more upscale and was actually a safer zone to be in. There were not many protests happening in Zamalek. Life did go on in certain parts of the city. Downtown was really the battlefield.

Did you use Twitter or any other social media?

I actually started using Twitter once they turned the Internet back on, but I did not have a smartphone. Some of my friends used [BlackBerry’s encrypted messenger service] PBM to communicate and to mobilize and to warn each other where not to go to avoid the police. But when they cut the Internet everybody went out on the street to find out what was happening. And then, when they turned it back on, the crowd thinned as a lot of people left to upload their clips. It’s ironic. [The authorities] used it as a weapon to manipulate the crowds, so relying on that kind of stuff was useful but it cannot ever replace actually being there.

We don’t see any journalists from the mainstream media in your film.

They were not really part of our reality. I didn’t see many journalists in the street, most of the journalists were sitting at five-star hotels shooting from their balconies. We did try to get in touch with people to upload these clips but we couldn’t find them, they were too busy or got arrested.

Is it more dangerous for you now that you’ve made the movie?

I guess I’m waiting for that knock on the door. But it hasn’t happened yet. And I think part of the reason why it hasn’t happened is that in Egypt they are really not concerned with what is shown outside of the country. They are more concerned about what is shown inside the country. So as it’s shown in Cairo for the premiere there will probably be reactions to it.

Where do you see things going from here? Do you see a fresh showdown with the army?

There are daily showdowns with the army now. Some are violent, some are not, but I think ultimately it is sort of the beginning of the end of their completely privileged place. I think that they will have to compromise with the people and work with the Brotherhood. To what extent, we will have to see. Many people believe the Brotherhood have made a deal with the army allowing them to take power on the condition that the army is not reformed — which is an empty wish. Because things are not going to go back to the way they were. On the other hand, the Brotherhood has always been an illegal party, so in a sense what the revolution has done is take them out of the shadows, put them into the light and legalize them; and there is a lot of pressure on them to perform. They have a lot of cleaning up to do. All these institutions that are rotten to the core, they have to be rebuilt. Ultimately, if they don’t do anything, they will feel it in the polls. This pressure is not going to go away. Something has woken up in people and it’s like the veil has been lifted from the eyes of the regular Egyptian. He has realized he has been living under a military dictatorship for 60 years and this was something they did not even really understand. Something has to change, hopefully for the better.

Were you surprised at it all?

I think the army really was trying to fend off a real revolution. It’s clear to me now in retrospect that on day three of the uprising, when the army went into town and basically styled themselves as the saviors of the revolution, that they were in fact trying to position themselves in a positive light by basically getting rid of Mubarak. It’s really difficult to invest in the military. In a sense we can only hope for the best and hope that the Brotherhood and the army will start to have some friction. They are certainly not the best of friends. But they have a common enemy, which is revolution, which is democracy. Neither of these groups is democratic, neither of these groups is liberal. They are both very conservative so at the moment we are seeing this counter-revolution being waged against the liberals and the youth parties and the workers’ parties to try to discredit the revolution and take people out of the game. It’s a real tense and fragile moment, but what is clear is that the military is up to a lot of dirty tricks. They are playing mind games, trying to confuse people. You need to influence the minds of the so-called couch party, the silent majority who only get news from state TV and terrestrial television, who don’t watch Al Jazeera, don’t have Internet, and only read government papers. And I think our film does the same on the international stage. I’ve been trying to spread the word through this film that the revolution is not over. A lot of people, especially in America and Europe, think, “Hey, the dictator is gone, the revolution is over, you must be so happy, everything is cool.” But it’s not. We’re only halfway done, maybe even less than halfway done.

Gas deposits fuel old and new rivalries

By Harry van Versendaal

Things have never been too tranquil in this corner of the Mediterranean, and the recent discovery of large deposits of gas beneath the waters off Israel and Cyprus hasn’t made things any easier.

You can almost hear the tectonic plates of regional politics shifting — and Nicosia’s recent decision to drill for hydrocarbons off the divided island’s southern coast has only accelerated the process.

Ankara’s once-hyped “zero-problems” policy with its neighbors these days sounds more like a bad joke as Turkey’s warnings for retaliation against Cyprus and Greece keep coming thick and fast. The dispute has meanwhile deepened Turkey’s rift with Israel, once a close economic and military partner.

Turkey, which does not recognize the Republic of Cyprus in the island’s south, opposes any drilling, insisting the profits from any discoveries must be distributed between the two communities on the island. But Ankara — which alone recognizes the breakaway state established in the north following the Turkish invasion of 1974 in response a Greek-backed military coup — will hardly find any support for its argument away from home.

“If we are talking from a strictly UN legal point of view, the arguments of an occupying country should not count much,” Burak Bekdil, a columnist for the Hurriyet Daily News, told Kathimerini English Edition.

Cyprus has signed an agreement with Egypt and Israel to delineate exclusive economic zones so that the neighboring states can exploit any hydrocarbon deposits within their boundaries. Block 12, the area said to contain the reserves, lies within Cyprus’s exclusive economic zone.

“Even according to Turkey’s logic, there is absolutely no legal basis [for opposing the drilling],” political analyst Stavros Lygeros said.

Noble Energy, a Texas-based company, launched the drilling work this week. Turkey responded with a warning that unless Cyprus halted the project, it would send warships to protect its claims to undersea resources in the area. This was the latest in a series of rough-edged statements that have gone as far as to suggest that Turkey will resort to military action to defend its cause.

Most analysts have downplayed the Turkish warnings as formulaic chest-thumping designed to scare off potential foreign investors (in a not-so-well-disguised attempt at blackmail, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Wednesday threatened to blacklist any international oil and gas firms that chose to work on the new Cypriot project) and prop up its image as top dog in the region.

“Turkey will try more to maintain an assertive posture for domestic consumption rather than really try to block the drilling. Physically, harassment may be possible, but intervention with the aim of prevention is not,” Bekdil said.

“I would rather expect a lot of retaliatory moves from Ankara which, in a way, would be a sign of its inability to block the Cypriot drilling,” he added.

After signing a continental shelf pact with the breakaway state so as to conduct drills of its own earlier this week, Turkey on Thursday announced that Piri Reis, a research ship, would leave for gas exploration off Cyprus on Friday. But a senior US official who wished to remain anonymous told Kathimerini that Erdogan assured US President Barack Obama that Ankara has no intention of escalating the situation further.

Hugh Pope, an Istanbul-based expert with the International Crisis Group think tank, also doubts that the tiff will escalate into an actual clash.

“You will observe that Turkey is making its point with military support for its activities in what are effectively Turkish-Cypriot waters — that is, a place where the Turkish armed forces have worked unimpeded for 37 years,” he said.

Turkey is pretty much on its own as the EU (keen to minimize dependence on Russian gas), the US and Russia have all given Nicosia the go-ahead with the drilling. But it may still take action to defend its status as nascent hegemon in the Muslim world — especially since Israel, its newfound antagonist, is part of the equation.

Israel’s relations with Turkey — once its sixth-largest trading partner — have soured as Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted administration has opted to sacrifice the longstanding alliance with the Jewish state for the sake of brandishing Turkey’s image as the primus inter pares in the Arab world. (Much to Washington’s dismay, the Arab Spring seems to have taken a toll on another strategic partnership — that between Israel and Egypt.)

Earlier this month, Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Tel Aviv refused to apologize for last year’s Gaza flotilla incident that resulted in the death of nine Turkish citizens. Ankara said it would send naval vessels to escort any future aid envoy.

“The ‘zero-problems’ policy has officially collapsed after tension with Syria, Iran, Iraqi Kurdistan, Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Now the Egypt link will flourish for some time, like the Syrian link did once, and it too will collapse,” Bekdil said.

“This volatile region has not spent the last two millennia waiting for [Ahmet] Davutoglu to bring peace. He is a dreamer,” Bekdil said of Turkey’s ambitious foreign minister who likes to see Turkey as the natural heir to the Ottoman Empire that once united the Arab world.

Bekdil nevertheless thinks Ankara will maintain its assertive stance for two reasons: “There is Turkish and Arab demand for that; and Erdogan and Davutoglu see Turkey in a self-aggrandizing mirror,” he said.

Tel Aviv turnabout

Athens has sought to capitalize on the Turkish turnabout and, in a sign of shifting loyalties — and in stark contrast to the late Andreas Papandreou’s pro-Arab legacy — it prevented a fresh group of Gaza activists from sailing from the Greek coast earlier this year.

Greece, says Lygeros, is naturally adapting to geopolitical developments — and to Cyprus’s interests — meaning that support for Palestine is now on the back burner. “After all, no matter how hard it tries, Greece could never be a match for Turkey in the Arab world,” Lygeros said.

Israel has its own reasons to go Greek. From a geopolitical perspective, the Athens-Nicosia route is now the only politically safe and culturally friendly passage to the West. Greece and Cyprus are secular democracies and members of the European Union at a time when reluctance among Europeans to take Turkey on board is soaring.

A closer relationship with the Jewish state comes with an economic reward. For natural gas to be shipped to the West in a cost-effective manner, it has to be condensed to a liquid. Cyprus seems a safe alternative to the Israeli coast, which lies within range of Hamas rockets. An Israeli energy company has reportedly offered Nicosia a deal to build a facility on the island for processing and exporting natural gas.

Greek Cypriots, who recently saw an explosion knock out the island’s main power station, are naturally tempted by the idea of becoming a regional hub for exporting natural gas.

“At the same time, a closer alliance with Israel will allow Cyprus to avoid some of Turkey’s bullying,” Lygeros said.

‘Nail in the coffin’

Recent developments will unavoidably impact on peace negotiations on the island which the UN would — rather optimistically — like to wrap up by mid-2012, when Cyprus takes the helm of the EU’s rotating presidency.

“It is a near nail in the coffin for reunification talks,” Bekdli said of the energy-related squabble, although he admits realpolitik may dictate new parameters next year.

Turning the argument on its head, Pope says the drilling episodes show how the gradual seizing up of the talks is leading to deeper tendencies of divergence between the two communities.

“If the two sides do not choose to work for reunification, the alternative will be a slide towards partition, and while both sides can live with this trend, the long-term costs could be greater than any riches from the seabed,” Pope said.

A fuming Erdogan on Wednesday slammed the drilling as a “sabotage” of the negotiating process.

Bekdil choses to remain cynical. “I never believed Erdogan et al genuinely wanted reunification. They faked, knowing they could deceive a willing chorus of Greeks and EU optimists,” he said.

The lives of others

Linocut illustration by Manos Symeonakis

 

By Harry van Versendaal

Asked recently why Germany does not have a xenophobic populist party, Helmut Schmidt, the 91-year-old former Social Democratic chancellor, responded, “Nazism and Auschwitz.”

Its dark past has so far helped to spare Germany the rebirth of any influential anti-immigrant party, the likes of which have established themselves in nations with strong democratic credentials such as Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, its defenders say, has been working hard to make sure things stay that way – but not without some controversy.

Speaking to a gathering of young members of her Christian Democratic party in Potsdam last month, Merkel said that the country’s attempt to build a multicultural society had “utterly failed.” Merkel, known for her deft diplomatic approach, said that the idea that Germans and foreign workers could “live happily side by side” was an illusion.

The chancellor’s remarks were widely interpreted as a shift to the right, bringing her more in tune with her party’s conservative wing, which has advocated a more hard-line approach on the Integrationsverweigerer, or integration-deniers.

But some analysts beg to differ.

“It seems to me that she is misunderstood in the English media,” Riem Spielhaus, an Islam expert at the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin, told Athens Plus. “Actually in German you can interpret her statement as a shift from an exclusive to an inclusive approach, while she would still spice this up with some demands from immigrants,” she said.

The German model, however, can hardly be called multicultural. Germany invited millions of guest workers in the 1960s and 70s who were recruited almost exclusively in the country’s industrial sector. Most of them returned to their home countries but millions of others stayed. About 4 million Muslims live in Germany, a nation of 82 million. Most of them are of Turkish heritage.

“There was a lot of encouragement to go back until the late 1990s, but very little encouragement to integrate into German society in order to stay. And I think this is what Merkel was referring to with her statement,” Spielhaus said. “This has been the German model to ‘muddle through’ – if one can speak of one at all. That means there never has been a state policy accepting multicultural life,” she said.

At the same time, many immigrants have been reluctant to expose their offspring to the culture and values of the host country. Many refuse to even learn the language.

Merkel has from the beginning of her first term in government tried to change this by supporting the integration of immigrants and their offspring. Speaking ahead of a national integration summit this weekend, she said that more immigrants should work for the state in Germany.

Not everyone seems to share her cause. Last month, Horst Seehofer, state premier of Bavaria and a member of the Christian Social Union that is part of the coalition government, urged putting a halt to immigration from Turkey and the Arab countries. Seehofer underscored the need to defend the “dominant German culture” while warning that unless the country overhauled its immigration policy, it risked becoming “the world’s welfare office.”

His comments were no match for the controversy caused by former central banker Thilo Sarrazin. In his book “Deutschland schafft sich ab” (Germany does away with itself) published late in the summer, Sarrazin, a social democrat, said Muslim immigrants were dumbing down German society because they are less educated but have more children than ethnic Germans. Sarrazin was fired from the Bundesbank but his book is flying off the shelves in Germany.

Data show that more Turks returned to Turkey last year than came to live in Germany, while a recent report by the German chamber of industry and commerce mentioned that the country lacks about 400,000 skilled workers. Nevertheless, a recent survey found that one-third of Germans think the country is “overrun by foreigners.” The same survey found 55 percent of Germans consider Arabs to be “unpleasant people.”

Freedom fighters

Analysts agree that economic insecurity and an influx of foreign migrants, both exasperated by globalization, have fueled popular anger at established political elites across the continent. Xenophobic populist parties have sought to capitalize on the trend – only this time they are not using the argument of race, but rather hijacking Enlightenment talk about freedom.

The party of Geert Wilders in The Netherlands – which recently signed up to a minority center-right coalition in return for a government pledge to introduce a ban on the burqa and stricter immigration controls – claims to be defending Western values of freedom and democracy against Islam.

“There is only one value right-wing parties have not borrowed from the Enlightenment, so to speak, and that is universalism,” Sjoerd de Jong, editor at the NRC Handelsblad newspaper, told Athens Plus. “Sure, they promote Western culture, but many times it’s just a universalized form of particularism: our culture as we know it,” said De Jong, author of “Een wereld van verschil” (A World of Difference) an analysis of Holland’s well-tested multiculturalism.

Wilders is currently on trial for inciting hatred against Muslims after remarks in which he compared Islam to fascism. But the procedure has not exactly caused him harm. “Wilders’s prosecution for hate-speech has only increased his popularity, as an angry outsider attacking a corrupt and ‘politically correct’ establishment,” De Jong said.

Wilders, De Jong argues, is cashing in on a major breach in trust between the Dutch government and a sizable part of the electorate regarding major issues such as immigration and integration. Holland, he says, is experiencing a backlash against the technocratic way the left-liberal coalition ruled from 1994 to 2002 that gradually evolved into a reaction “against the ‘spirit of May 68’ and leftist ideas in general.”

Pim Fortuyn, the slain anti-immigrant party leader, was one of the first to address these issues in a populist way, but he still veered to the left on cultural issues. Wilders, who has always been closer to the conservative movement in the United States, has taken the culture war to the next level: an all-out attack on Leftism. “His approach is altogether more harshly ideological than Fortuyn’s was. And while Fortuyn always kept a sense of humor, Wilders is just angry,” De Jong said.

Government filter

Voter frustration over lackluster centrist parties has boosted right-wing parties in Austria where the xenophobic Freedom Party made a strong showing in recent provincial elections in Vienna, traditionally a center-left stronghold. In Sweden, a xenophobic anti-immigrant party that calls itself the Sweden Democrats has entered parliament for the first time, while in Denmark, the government depends on support from the nationalist Danish People’s Party.

Analysts are divided on whether letting populist parties join the government – provided they have enough votes – is the best way to moderate their message and influence. A decision to include the Freedom Party, then under Jorg Haider, in the government 10 years ago led to Austria’s diplomatic isolation by the European Union, but it was seen as key in sapping it of its power, as some within the party chose to water down their language to succeed in government.

Kasper Moller Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Copenhagen, believes the carrot has worked in Denmark as the country’s populist party has largely moved away from the extreme views of 15 years ago. “They want to be part of the government, so they try to moderate their claims. They still are a party that wants to limit the number of immigrants, but in order to be part of the government they have to be more pragmatic on these issues,” Hansen told Athens Plus.

But De Jong has doubts whether that would do the trick in Holland. “Wilders is much too smart a politician to fall into this trap,” he said. “He has built his organization – remember, it’s not a party, but a movement, without members or party structure – as an opposition movement. He will never want to join a government at this stage of its development, still building and hunting for resources and talent,” he said.

Europe’s existentialist debate is set to heat up as countries try to come to terms not so much with the influx of migrants, but more so with the growth in migrant-origin families as the second and third generations emerge.

“These new generations are well-acquainted with the European political and social system, which enables them to participate, express themselves, criticize, rebel and sustain a more visible presence than their relatively quietist parents,” said Justin Gest, a political scientist at Harvard, author of the recently published “Apart: Alienated and Engaged Muslims in the West.”

The process will sometimes be painful, but it is unavoidable. “The face of Europe is changing,” Gest said. “And anytime there is change, there will be resistance.”

Facing the frenemy

Linocut illustration by Manos Symeonakis

By Harry van Versendaal

Ankara’s recent rapprochement with Tehran is probably the most emblematic sign of Turkey’s newfound assertiveness in the Middle East, but experts agree that the true motivations behind this tectonic foreign policy shift are not easy to fathom.

“Turkey’s love affair with Iran cannot be explained with single-parameter equations. It’s a mixture of several factors at work with different weights that cannot be measured,” Burak Bekdil, an Ankara-based analyst, told Athens Plus. Bekdil singles out a number of factors, including natural gas, ideology, domestic politics, regional foreign policy ambitions and bilateral trade – “some selective deals that must be benefiting companies friendly to Erdogan and the AKP,” he said in a reference to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s mildly Islamic Justice and Development Party.

It’s certainly a tough equation. But Stephen Kinzer, a former Middle East correspondent for the New York Times, prefers to stick with the more obvious constants. “They are the two major non-Arab states in the Muslim Middle East,” he told Athens Plus in an interview. “Both are big and powerful, their history has been intertwined, and each needs much of what the other has,” said Kinzer, who has just authored a book called “Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s Future.”

Turkey, along with Brazil, in May signed a nuclear fuel swap deal with Iran meant to help end Tehran’s standoff with the West over its atomic program. Compounding Washington’s dismay, Ankara went on to vote against UN sanctions on Iran the month after. Turkey, which gets a third of its natural gas from Iran, recently also defied a US ban on gasoline sales to Tehran and is expected to remove Iran from a watch list of nations it considers a specific threat to national security.

Turkey’s engagement with Iran reflects a broader Turkish repositioning on the Mideast chessboard allegedly masterminded by its foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. Ankara has sought to re-brand itself as a soft power broker in formerly Ottoman territories by using its economic, diplomatic and cultural power. But although its policy of “zero problems with neighbors” saw a drastic improvement in ties with Iraq and Syria, Turkey’s relations with Israel, Washington’s other principal ally in the region, have deteriorated rapidly since Israel’s Gaza offensive in early 2009, hitting a low following the raid on a flotilla of humanitarian aid in late May that left nine Turkish citizens dead.

Confusion

The approval this week in a public referendum of a controversial package of constitutional reforms to reshape the judiciary and curb military power – traditionally under the influence of the secular establishment – will no doubt strengthen Erdogan’s hand also in foreign policy. But more confidence has not always come with more clarity. Turkey’s eastward realignment is perplexing friends and foes alike. Some analysts say that the increasing diplomatic activism of his administration is welcome in Washington and Brussels provided it does not run against the core interests of the Western alliance.

“Anything that promotes the Turkish example of capitalist democracy also promotes stability and weakens radicalism,” Kinzer said, warning however that too much dancing to the Western tune does not go down well with the man on the Arab street. “If Turkey is seen as not always following Washington’s policies reflexively, that could even help Turkey project its influence.”

That unique role could weaken if Turkey were to lose America’s trust. Americans want to believe, Kinzer says, that after all the daily bickering is over, the Turks remain fundamentally pro-NATO and sympathetic to US security goals. Should that fade, the relationship will inevitably weaken.

Israel is the obvious litmus test. Ties to the Jewish state have traditionally been seen as a counterweight to Islamic extremism, allowing Turkey to focus on NATO and its EU ambitions. The AKP obviously deems it can get away with some Israel-bashing now and then, much of it for domestic consumption, but some analysts warn Israel and Iran will put this notion to the test.

“Pushing Israel into a corner and isolating and punishing it may redeem understandable emotions, but it does not serve the cause of peace. After making your point, it is often good to extend the hand of reconciliation,” Kinzer said. Recent reports said the US warned Ankara it will shun joint air drills next month if Israel is not invited.

Bekdil too fears Turkey may be overplaying its hand. “The AKP thinks they can play both camps. Pro-eastern on the public front but pro-Western when the AKP messengers meet with US and EU officials,” he said, pointing out that so far the policy has worked without any major damage to the AKP. “No punishment from the West. No cost. So why not follow a popular route that is also economically beneficial?”

Some beg to differ. Hugh Pope, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, thinks that fears of “losing Turkey” are overrated and does not hesitate to hail Turkey’s overtures eastward. Speaking to Athens Plus, Pope welcomes Ankara’s efforts to head off sanctions and other potential disruption in the region, which would be very costly to Turkey, and to solve the problem by diplomatic means, if possible. “Turkey has different tactics and priorities to its Western allies, and firmly believes in engaging Iran, but it shares with the West the goal of ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons,” he said.

Pope, one of the authors of the just-published ICG report “Turkey’s Crises over Israel and Iran,” is keen to note that tension with the West is not necessarily of Turkey’s making alone. “The EU and the US also share the blame for alienating Turkey over the past years, notably because of Germany and France’s public hostility to Turkey’s EU ambitions and the US invasion of Iraq,” he said.

Same ends, different means

But there is another element to the geopolitical game. Some observers hold that the shift of Sunni Turkey, worried about Shiite Iran’s influence over Iraq following the American pullout, is actually driven by an attempt to contain Iran, it’s most serious rival in the race to lead the Islamic world. Skeptical about the effectiveness of UN sanctions, the theory goes, Ankara is trying to appease its “friend” Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president, out of his nuclear ambitions.

It’s a stance the West should encourage, suggests Iranian-born analyst Meir Javedanfar, as a rapprochement between the two states could be the safest way to ensure a nuclear-free Iran. Renewed tension, on the other hand, will only fuel Iran’s temptation to become a nuclear power.

“When it comes to economic power, when it comes to military power, when it comes to diplomatic position, Iran is inferior to Turkey,” Javedanfar recently told Radio Free Europe. “So they are going to look at areas where they are superior and the only other one where they can gain an edge over the Turks, one of the very few areas, is the nuclear program.”

The end of the affair?

By Harry van Versendaal

After the “golden era” of the 1990s, a number of incidents in the past few years have left Turkish-Israeli ties seriously impaired, but these appear to be the symptoms of a deeper geopolitical trend rather than the cause.

Driven by a yen to consolidate its place in the Western camp in a cold war security environment and its poor relations with Arab states like Iran and Syria, Turkey became one of the first states to recognize the state of Israel in the late 1940s. Bilateral relations peaked in the 1990s with the signing of a number of business, intelligence and military agreements. Ankara gave Israeli fighter jets permission to use Turkish air space as training ground and, in turn, gained access to Israeli military technology – including unmanned drones that could be used in the fight against Kurdish militia in the southeast. Meanwhile, Turkish resorts were packed with Israeli tourists.

However, relations have deteriorated rapidly over the past decade. Israel’s 2008 raid on Gaza sparked a fuming reaction from the Islamic-rooted administration of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After dressing down Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the Turkish premier went as far as to brand the Jewish state as “the principal threat to peace” in the region.

Relations reached a new low in late May after Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship leading a Gaza-bound aid flotilla, killing nine Turkish civilians. The two sides, both close American allies, have sought to repair at least some of the damage and Israel earlier this month agreed to cooperate with a UN investigation into the fatal operation. But, though Israel has taken most of the flack for the bloodshed, there are ample signs that the Turkish Justice and Development (AKP) government, which is reportedly close to the NGO that sponsored the flotilla, could have done more to prevent the disaster.

Both incidents however seem to fit into the pattern of Turkey’s “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy realignment. Propelled by growing self-confidence and frustration with EU stonewalling over Turkish membership in the 27-member club, Ankara is increasingly pulling its weight in the lands of the former Ottoman Empire, expanding trade and assuming mediator status in chronic regional disputes. It has impressively fixed most of the damage in its ties with Iraq and Syria, but this diplomatic turnaround has not always sat well with Ankara’s friends in the West. A report in the Financial Times this week said that Washington has warned Ankara that its veto of UN sanctions against Iran, a nuclear wannabe power but also a chief energy provider for Turkey, could cost it its chance to obtain US-made drone aircraft to quell Kurdish guerrillas after the US withdrawal from Iraq at the end of next year.

Erdogan’s Israel-bashing may find a sympathetic ear on the Arab street, but he should know that turning his back on Israel and the West is a non-starter. If Turkey is putting on a regional show to impress the US and the EU, it is certainly using the wrong tricks. Breaking ranks with the West over Iran and escalating tensions with Israel will not make Turkey more European.

Turkey veers into the East, clumsily

By Harry van Versendaal

Ankara is increasingly asserting itself in the Middle East but a series of clumsy moves threaten to damage its relationship with the West, the cornerstone of Turkey’s security policy over the past 90 years, analysts warn.

The dramatic deterioration in ties with Israel, a long-time economic and military ally, is seen as emblematic of this trend. Last month Israeli commandos raided a Turkish ship leading an aid flotilla that sought to break the blockade of Gaza. Nine Turks died in the operation. Ankara has threatened to sever diplomatic ties altogether unless Israel offers a public apology and agrees to a UN-led investigation into the incident.

Although Israel has taken most of the flack for the carnage, many analysts agree that Turkey did not do enough to prevent the disaster. “There are indications that the Turkish government rather than stopping the flotilla, had actually – and privately – encouraged it,” Burak Bekdil, an Istanbul-based commentator, told Athens Plus.

“The Turkish government saw in the flotilla a convenient tool to embarrass the [Benjamin] Netanyahu government and bring international attention to the embargo on Gaza,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for the Turkish Milliyet daily, adding that neither side predicted the magnitude and violence of events.

Can Turkey-Israel ties recover from the latest shock? “Not in the foreseeable future,” said Bekdil, who expects even more tension and confrontation in the near future. “As long as either or both governments stay in power, things can only further deteriorate,” he said.

Muscle flexing

Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 was a major blow to ties with Turkey but, at the same time, it presented Ankara with an opportunity to flex its muscle in the Mideast region. Propelled by its visionary Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey has sought to establish itself as a regional soft-power broker in the lands of the one-time Ottoman empire. It has mended ties with Iraq and Syria ending years of tension over water management in the Tigris-Euphrates river system and over alleged protection of Kurdish militia. Diplomatic fervor has come with impressive economic overtures. Over the past 10 years, Turkish trade with the Middle East has outgrown that with Europe.

Critics however have slammed Ankara’s alleged cynicism, knowing that slapping Israel is the safest way to make friends in the Arab world. It is in this light that Bekdil sees the flotilla incident as a sign of Ankara’s determination “to go forward with neo-Ottoman ambitions,” a common reference to Davutoglu’s strategic vision.

On top of distancing itself from Israel, Turkey has been cozying up with the Jewish state’s nemesis in the region, Iran. Earlier this month Ankara, which depends on Iran for a big chunk of its energy, voted against UN sanctions on Tehran, raising eyebrows among its western allies who are wary of Iran’s nuclear program.

“There is nothing wrong with Turkey being more active in the Arab world, delving into frozen conflicts there or boosting trade and other ties with our Arab neighbors,” Aydintasbas said. “But there is everything wrong with re-entering the Middle East hand in hand with [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and Hamas. On that we need to do some fine tuning and, yes, we are deviating from the West,” she added.

Some say Turkey, a NATO member, is already paying a price for it. Military analysts have warned that Turkey’s shift undermines its fight on PKK rebels. Turkey has depended on US intelligence and Israeli drones to track down Kurdish guerrillas. As nine Turkish soldiers died in an attack on a military outpost last weekend, speculation grew whether the US withheld intelligence.

Lost cause?

Meanwhile, Turkey will find it hard to convince European leaders about its loyalty to the EU cause. Breaking ranks with the western powers in the Security Council and escalating tension with Israel “does not make Turkey more European,” Aydintasbas explained. “It makes us look like we are trying to be the leader of another camp – not the EU.”

But is Turkey’s Mideast activism really compatible with its European ambitions? Aydintasbas believes there is no necessary connection between the two. “It should not technically jeopardize our EU status. But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee a place in the EU either,” she said, rejecting the view that Turkey should try to impress the West, as it were, by becoming a big player in the Middle East.

EU membership, she says, is about fulfilling EU criteria, raising democratic standards and internalizing core European values. “We cannot enter the EU just by being able to mediate between troubled Arab states. That is a fantasy,” she said.

Turkey’s nascent engagement in the Middle East is not troubling the West alone. Turkish flags can be seen waving in the Arab cities (a recent survey found that 43 percent of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank see Turkey as the strongest champion of their cause) and Erdogan, a devout Sunni, is even drawing comparisons to the late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. But despite Erdogan’s popularity on the Arab streets, it is also true that certain Arab elites are watching the emergence of an unofficial Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas-Turkey axis with great concern, said Aydintasbas.

But it is not all grim. A positive side-effect of Turkey’s growing influence is that leaders in Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and some Gulf states is that it challenges their authoritarian style of government. “Arab leaders are not quite happy with the emergence of public movements be they in favor of Erdogan or any other political cause,” Bekdil said. “Any public movement is usually viewed by leaders as a potential uprising and risk to their autocratic rule.”


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