EVERYBODY KNOWS, BUT NOBODY KNOWS, PART II

CONTINUED FROM PART I

Although many note the explosion of corruption during the Özal years, the mentality that led to this state of affairs can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. Bribery was not, of course, a uniquely Ottoman tradition, and in fact the early Ottoman sultans were known for their intolerance of corruption. But the later ones were not. This is chronicled by Ottoman historian Halil İnalcık in An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire:

“In his Relazione dated 1596, Venetian Bailo Malipiero concurs with the Ottoman memorialists that high offices were obtained only through huge sums of bribe money—for the grand vizierate 80,000, for the finance ministry 40-50,000 gold pieces. Once in office they redeemed these bribes by taking bribes for other major appointments so that all officials were involved in bribery. This practice became so routine that Evliya candidly gives two amounts for the income of a judge, one with the bribe and the second without. At the bottom of the system those officials in direct contact with the taxpayers used all kinds of devices to extort extra money in the name of a service fee or gilt … As was the case with monarchies in the West, bribery and the sale of offices became part of public administration and a source of public revenue. In the Ottoman Empire, the sale of offices became a widespread practice in the seventeenth century and were given to those who bid the highest amount … Those who had authority, including a ruler or his delegate, regarded the office as a source of material gain and therefore negotiable for compensation.”

As the author of this passage observes, this was also the case in the monarchies of the West. But as Mustafa X remarked, “There was no Enlightenment in the Ottoman Empire. Modern thinking never entered into the equation.”

The Ottoman legacy is not a complete explanation for present-day corruption in Turkey. Corruption is endemic in the developing world—the Ottomans are hardly to blame for that—and corruption is not precisely unknown in the developed world, as any citizen of Illinois may attest. But the Ottoman legacy goes some way toward explaining the intractability of the problem in Turkey. It will not be easy to solve, particularly given the weakness of the institutions that might hold it in check.

It would be too optimistic to expect things to chug along in the corrupt but functional way they have for the past six years. The Turkish economy collapses—that’s what it does. It did so repeatedly before the AKP came to power. And since it has not been reformed root and branch, there is no reason to expect the pattern to change. The AKP’s fundamentalism may be difficult to discern, but an economic debacle might well give rise to a less ambiguous Islamist movement in Turkey. Radicalism, of all stripes, is often bred out of chaos.

From the 1980s to 1999, Turkey set low real interest rates and high exchange rates. Imports were expensive and exports were cheap. Since 1999, the opposite policy has been in place: the AKP has set low foreign exchange rates and high interest rates. Cheap foreign exchange has been the source of growth in an otherwise contractionary economy. High interest rates keep inflation down but discourage investment.

Foreign investors come in for the quick returns, but they are not so stupid as to invest for the long term in a corrupt, indebted economy with shaky contract law and a long history of instability. As a senior executive of a leading multinational firm put it to me, “I’m frustrated after three years [of working in Turkey] about the lack of progress on the necessary reforms—reforms that other countries are putting in place. This is not the kind of thing that inspires foreign managers here to run home to their head offices to argue for more investment. You’re more likely to caution your company to not get overextended in an environment where reforms are slow and the lack of transparency and efficiency in government poses threats to your existing businesses and investments.”

In recent years, foreign investment has been flowing in, but it can go right back out again, and quickly. It is already. The situation closely resembles earlier cycles of growth fueled by speculation, which have always been followed by a crash. Turkey’s budget is in the red. Its balance of payments is in the red. The position of its treasury is in the red. Its central bank is in the red. Its private sector is in the red. And this is just what we can discern from the official statistics. Debt is not inherently a bad thing, if your economy is creative and productive. But Turkey’s economy is not.

In countries with legitimately competitive economies, there is much to be said for denationalizing and selling off state assets: the private sector is almost always more efficient and productive than the state. But in a country where there is little genuine competition—where the honest, talented businessman has slender hope of providing a better product or service and thereby getting rich—privatization tends chiefly to reward the people who collect the bribes.

Turkey temporarily benefited from the IMF bailout package, from a massive infusion of aid from Europe, and from a strong global economy. But the AKP did not create an economy where hard work, innovation, efficiency, and productiveness are rewarded. That would be a real economic miracle. The AKP has thus far failed to achieve it.

***

The problems in Turkey go well beyond high-level corruption. Popular attitudes toward commerce and the law, generally, are another huge drag on the economy.

Take the issue of contract law. When I moved to Turkey, about four years ago, I shared an apartment with another foreigner. Our rental contract was dollar-denominated, which is common here; it protects both landlord and tenant against the lira’s fluctuations. The language of our contract was perfectly clear, and so is the language of Turkish rental law. Both our contract and the law said that we could neither be evicted without cause nor subjected to an arbitrary rent increase.

Then the dollar began to fall. Our landlord was unhappy. He wanted more money.

“You can’t have it,” we told him politely. “You signed a contract.”

This meant nothing to him. The contract, in his view, was irrelevant, because the deal was unfair: he hadn’t known, after all, that the dollar would go down. We hired an attorney to call him and explain to him that he had no legal case. This did not impress him. He grew increasingly agitated. His harassment, finally, prompted us to go to the police. They were indifferent. Another lawyer, a friend, kindly offered to have our landlord “taken to the sea.” This, in his considered legal judgment, was the best way to solve the problem. He meant it. We appreciated the thought, but decided we’d rather just move.

It is anecdotal evidence, but everyone who lives here will agree that this story is not atypical. It illustrates an important point: in Turkey, contracts do not enjoy the same status that they do in America or Europe. The contract law, on the books, looks perfectly modern; indeed, it was copied from European contract law. But you cannot copy a mentality, and a contract is only valuable if it is viewed by all parties and the justice system as binding and enforceable.

Contract law is a basic prerequisite for a functioning free-market economy. If contracts are not viewed as binding, people will not rely on them. They will instead do business only with people they trust, such as family members and friends. The amount of time spent gaining trust, in such an economy, is time that is not spent on producing something that other people want to buy. The marketplace becomes profoundly inefficient.

Much like the economy, Turkish party politics suffer greatly from the disparity between the great-looking laws on the books and the collective willingness to abide by their spirit. Turkish political parties are structured, in principle, around district and provincial organizations. Party members elect the district delegates, the district president, the board members, the members of the inspection committee, and the members of the discipline committee. The district delegates go to the provincial convention, where they elect the provincial delegates, the provincial president, the provincial board members, members of the inspection committee, and members of the discipline committee. The provincial delegates go to the grand convention, where they pick the party leader, the general board members, members of the party inspection committee, and members of the party discipline committee.

So far, so good. All very democratic.

But there is a loophole in the system: Turkish party leaders have traditionally arrogated to themselves the power to fire everyone underneath them. Last year, the prime minister decided to dismiss half the MPs in his party. No one got to vote on this—not the members of parliament, and certainly not the people they claim to represent—nor did anyone object all that strenuously. If you kick up a fuss, you won’t get a cut of the action, and there’s a lot of action. Not many people, in a country that’s by no means wealthy, can resist the temptation to go along to get along.

Everyone knows the system is rotten, and no one trusts it. As a result, Turkish confidence in democracy is fragile. The only public institution most Turks really trust is the military.

You will read in the Western press, now and then, that this attitude is not such a bad thing: the Turkish military is like the U.S. Supreme Court, some Western pundits argue, part of a necessary system of checks and balances. It is true that military intervention in Turkey has at times been welcome in its immediate effects. (I, for one, am not mourning the fall of the Erbakan government.) But the U.S. Supreme Court has never hanged the American president. Supreme Court justices are appointed through transparent mechanisms by elected politicians. As Clarence Thomas will attest, you cannot become a Supreme Court justice without subjecting every aspect of your record to invasive scrutiny by Congress and the media. The Turkish military—like all militaries—is by nature secretive, authoritarian, and designed to solve problems with violence. That’s fine; that’s their job. But it is immensely risky to repose ultimate political legitimacy in an institution that possesses a monopoly on force and is neither elected nor removable. The establishment of civilian control over the military is one of the supreme achievements of the Western liberal tradition. No country that counts on the military to save it from its elected politicians is on the fast track to the First World.

***

What about the press? Are they investigating these things? Raising public attention? Often, yes. The Turkish press is relatively free and feisty. I used to live in Laos, where there was truly no press freedom, and the situation in Turkey is not at all like that, although every newspaper here does have an editor charged with making sure the content of the paper violates no laws, and YouTube has been banned for months, supposedly because someone, somewhere, posted a video depicting Atatürk in a monkey suit.

The larger problem in Turkey—a problem that has grown worse, not better, under the AKP—is that too many media outlets are owned by friends of the government. This does not necessarily reflect a sinister Islamist plot; out-of-control cronyism is a perfectly serviceable explanation. A further problem is that many journalists here are wildly irresponsible. By “wildly irresponsible,” I don’t just mean that they slant a bit toward one party or the other; I mean that they peddle every stripe of insane, paranoid conspiracy theory and frequently provide incitement to murder.

Not long ago, I interviewed Şahin Filiz, a professor of Islamic history and philosophy. As we were talking, he mentioned, almost incidentally, that he was under 24-hour police protection. This was because the Islamist newspaper Memleket had effectively called for his murder, after accusing him of mocking his native city of Konya. (Filiz had merely argued that the Koran does not explicitly instruct women to cover their heads.)

Memleket is related to the Islamist newspaper Vakit, whose articles have been linked to several high-profile murders, including that of of Ali Güzelday, head of the Turkish Bar Association, who was killed on July 21, 1995; Ahmet Taner Kışlalı, the former minister of culture, who was killed on October 21, 1999; and Mustafa Yücel Özbilgin, a court deputy, who was killed on May 17, 2006. In one case, the murderer actually said, “I killed him because of what I read in Vakit.”

But it’s not just the Islamist papers; to focus on Islamism is again to miss the point. The nationalist press is equally reprehensible. An orgy of insane media vitriol preceded the murder of journalist Hrank Dink, an Armenian Turk who had called for Armenian-Turkish reconciliation. Dink had hinted (but never in fact said) that the word “genocide” might well describe the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915. He was killed on January 19, 2007.

“I’m just an academic,” said Filiz. “I wanted a quiet life.”

***

Underlying all of these institutional and cultural problems are profound deficiencies in the Turkish education system. Mehmet Y, an undergraduate in an Istanbul university, asked me not to use his name or say which university he attends. When I asked him why not, he said, “Article 301.” Article 301 is the infamous law that criminalizes “insulting Turkishness.” Dink was prosecuted under this law, and so was the Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. The law was recently amended: now it is only criminal to “insult the Turkish nation.” This change was supposed to impress the European Union.

Too many media outlets are owned by friends of the government.
I asked Mehmet Y whether he had told me anything that could conceivably violate Article 301. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “If they want to prosecute you for something, they will. It’s the same with everything here, even the traffic laws. If a cop wants to pull you over and question you, they’ll find a reason. They can take you in and book you for three days for nothing.” He insisted it was the same way in the United States, and I could not persuade him otherwise. He had not heard of the First Amendment, and when I told him about it, he didn’t believe me.

The Turkish education system, to judge from what Mehmet Y said to me, does not give citizens the tools they need to understand what is going wrong in Turkey, imagine how it might be fixed, or evaluate what their politicians are telling them. This, Mehmet Y believed, was deliberate. The unrest in the 1970s that culminated in the 1980 military coup, he thought, convinced the government that students posed a grave threat to state security. So the universities were emptied of anyone smart enough to cause trouble. “I figure out which professors were in the universities then, and I don’t take their classes, because they won’t know shit,” Mehmet Y said.

In his view, the national curriculum had been deliberately stripped of any content that might give students bad ideas. “You get discouraged from studying anything that might make you think about politics. All the emphasis is on mathematics, engineering. But it’s not even about the kind of mathematics that might lead you to think; it’s about memorizing multiplication tables. You don’t study anything that would lead you to being able to look critically at what’s going on here. You study no history except Turkish history, and that stops at Atatürk’s death. You never study European or American history. You learn nothing about the Second World War or the Cold War. You never study politics. You don’t even study literature, except for Turkish literature.”

This surprised me. “You don’t learn anything about modern history?”

“Nobody here knows shit about anything after 1923,” Mehmet Y said. “You know that in 1938, Atatürk died. There was nothing in between and nothing afterwards. You learn that there was a new constitution and the Fez was abolished. You study ‘national history’ and ‘national geography.’ National history is, ‘We conquered this, we conquered that, we conquered this, and then they backstabbed us; then we conquered something else, and then someone else backstabbed us.’ If we won a war, it was because we were so great; if we lost a war, it was always because someone backstabbed us. National geography is ‘learning about every lake in Turkey.’”

I checked, and this is pretty much the official curriculum. The Ministry of Education’s website reproduces Atatürk’s guidance: “Education must be free from all superstitions and foreign thoughts.” This statement, it should be noted, is severely uncharacteristic of Atatürk, who was otherwise greatly enamored of foreign thoughts.

Column inch upon column inch has been devoted to the AKP’s attempt to lift a 1997 law prohibiting the graduates of religious schools from continuing their education at secular universities. As with the headscarf controversy, this debate is trivial compared with the bigger issue: whether the schools are secular or religious, no one is getting educated in them. The AKP has done nothing to improve this situation. No party has; no party plans to. The prospect of the state permitting students to cover their heads in school has prompted a constitutional crisis; that the state is already covering their eyes passes without remark.

Mehmet Y tries to learn about these things himself. “The more they try to hide what happened, the more I get curious.” I admire his determination, but it is sadly clear that when the state gives the appearance that it is trying to hide something, and when it fails to provide students with the intellectual tools they need rationally to appraise the political scene, the result is the creation of a particular personality type: one prone to believing lunatic conspiracy theories. Mehmet Y, for example, believes that the CHP is secretly collaborating with the AKP. Why? Because, he reasons, the leader of the CHP, Deniz Baykal, could not possibly be as stupid as he appears. “He’s over 70, he loses over and over and over—he has no solid ideas about anything.”

It is immensely sad to listen to Mehmet Y as he explains this, because part of his analysis is correct: it is suspicious that Baykal is still running that party, and he should be asking why this is. I asked Mehmet Y what motivation Baykal could conceivably have to collaborate, secretly, with the AKP. “It must be the Israelis keeping him in power,” he said. “Israel and the Jews. They control the economic structure in Turkey. I mean, think about it: Alarko, Vakko, those are Jewish names.” (He is referring to two well-known Turkish companies.) “The Jews have a very strict, closed society. They control the stock market—they control how much it rises and falls. The Turkish economy is easily influenced. The U.S. loans money to us and then controls us economically.”

Mehmet Y is not a bad kid. Nor is he a stupid one—quite the contrary. It’s nothing a handful of good professors couldn’t fix. But there are none to be found, and he is swimming in this garbage. When governments and economies are rotten, the ambient culture tends to follow suit. In Turkey, as elsewhere, crooks and incompetents seeking to deflect attention from the consequences of their larceny find it very convenient to blame America and the Jews. Very few young Turks can read any language but Turkish. Only a miniscule portion have ever visited America or met a Jew in person. It is psychologically easier to believe these ludicrous stories than to confront the idea that the problem is closer to home.

***

One might conclude that Turkey needs new ideas, new leaders, and new political parties. I went looking for them at a meeting of the People’s Ascent Party, the HYP, founded by Yaşar Nuri Öztürk in 2005. Öztürk, a theologian and member of the Turkish parliament, is the author of a Turkish translation of the Koran that is supposedly the most printed book in the history of the Turkish Republic. He is both devoutly religious and a passionate Kemalist. In a survey conducted by Time in 2001, he was voted one of the top ten scientists and thinkers of the 20th century. His rank in the poll was quite a bit higher than Albert Einstein’s. (I am not kidding about the lengths to which people here will go to cook the statistical books.)

The meeting was chaired by a man who clearly came from a military background; he looked as if had been dispatched by the bomb squad to examine a highly suspicious package. When the Turkish national anthem began to play, the audience bolted to its feet. The Turkish national anthem is one of the world’s great national anthems. Like the Marseillaise, it has the power to inspire nationalist sentiment in anyone, and the first time they played it I felt moved. Afterwards, the chairman reprimanded the audience. They had not been sufficiently respectful. He was going to play it again. This time I was less moved.

A noisy fight broke out. Everyone began yelling. The dispute concerned the rules for selection of party candidates. “We are supposed to be different from the other parties, and here we are shouting at each other just like everyone else!” a woman yelled. Another candidate gave a shrill speech, screaming that she was ready to die for her country. These words received a standing ovation. During another speech, the PA system momentarily frizzed. “The AKP is interfering with it!” said the speaker, and everyone laughed, but the levity soon evaporated. “Turkey today is in exactly the same situation as it was in 1919,” he declaimed in stirring Turkish. “Exactly!” He meant that Turkey was besieged by enemies, external and internal, the former scheming to exploit the latter to carve up Turkey and steal its resources.

As soon as I heard the Turkish word for frog, I stopped straining to understand; I had heard the Frog Monologue so many times that I knew exactly where we were going. Turkey is like the frog in the pot. The AKP is turning up the heat so slowly that we don’t realize we’re being cooked. “Twenty degrees! Thirty degrees!” People rose, applauding. “They keep saying these things are isolated incidents!”

“These things.” By this he meant the stories you hear here all the time about a friend who was beaten up because she didn’t cover her head or keep the Ramadan fast. In another context, you would hear the same words, but they would be referring to stories of sick, veiled woman forced to wait in the hospital emergency rooms while the doctors treated the unsick, unveiled women first. I am sure many of these stories, on both sides, are true, but I have never personally witnessed these things and neither have most of the people who tell me about them. I have, however, seen literally hundreds of building sites where the construction takes place only at night.

“Forty degrees!”

No one said anything about what, precisely, the HYP would do if it took power. I listened carefully for words like “taxes,” “budget,” “investment,” “trade,” “education,” “constitutional reform,” “anti-corruption task force.” I didn’t hear them.

“Fifty degrees!”

***

The picture is not entirely unrelieved. In Istanbul, it doesn’t feel like a crisis. When I step outside, I see covered women walking down the street arm-in-arm with uncovered ones. Really, I do—all the time.

The AKP has had some successes. Hyperinflation remains under control, for now. The currency has been stabilized. The banking sector is more transparent and better supervised. Certainly, there has been economic growth, even if it is impossible to say how much and doubtful that it is as much as the government claims. The ease of opening and operating a business has improved. The AKP has been trying strenuously to join the EU, and has implemented a number of important human rights reforms at the EU’s insistence.

It remains risible, however, to imagine that Turkey is institutionally prepared to enter a common market ruled by laws, lofty intellectual abstractions, and well-functioning bureaucracies. So long as Turkey’s institutions remain rotten, Turkey will remain vulnerable both to political Islam and to an ecumenical menu of alternative nightmares: a retreat to anti-Western authoritarianism, violent unrest of the kind seen in the 1970s. None of this would be remotely in the interests of the West, still less in the interests of the 70 million people who live here (give or take five million).

It is critically important that Americans and Europeans grasp this. Turkey’s strategic and economic significance is massive. It has the second-largest army in NATO; it provides a crucial energy route to Europe; it is sitting on much of the water in the greater Middle East. For these reasons and more, the West is pinning its hopes on Turkish stability and prosperity: it is fondly imagining a Europe that extends to the southern Caucasus; pipelines overbrimming with oil and gas from the Caspian; and a friendly, Westernized Turkey that cooperates with plans to project democracy (or military force) into the Islamic world.

There is a good deal of wishful thinking and delusion in this vision. In part because the Turkish language is difficult, foreign observers tend to be unaware of a large body of work done by Turkish academics about the real state of the Turkish economy and its civil institutions. In part because Turkish politics are Byzantine—no surprise, that—few make much of an effort to understand them. In part out of desperate eagerness to see Turkey function as an example of a successful Muslim democracy, Westerners tend to ignore evidence to the contrary. In part because U.S. troops aren’t dying here, no one cares.

To quote The Economist again: “A Turkey successfully integrated into the EU…would be a great achievement…setting an example for the Middle East beyond.” It would be evidence, former Italian Foreign Minister Gianfranco Fini has remarked, of the “compatibility of Islam with democracy.”

Well, yes, it would be. So would a stable, prosperous, peaceful, and democratic Iraq. The question is not whether it would be evidence of this, but whether it will be evidence of this. As in Iraq, wishful thinking will not make it so.

***

Ogün Altıparmak laughed in the sad way Turks do when they tell me how it really is and recount their stories of a corrupt, rotten, lavishly wealthy Turkish elite whose conspicuous consumption dwarfs the paltry imaginings of my Occidental mind. When I asked him if I could quote him by name, he said, “Do it. The only one I’m afraid of is God. Everybody knows.”

“But nobody knows,” I replied, familiar by now with the refrain.

He nodded. “They forget,” he said, “that God knows everything.”

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