December 28, 2012

Alaton: Fethullah Gulen the ultimate 'other'

The AK Party government, which seems to be without an alternative and lacks an equally dominant opposition to check and balance it, is in big trouble, which they are not fully aware of, says Alarko Holding Chairman İshak Alaton.

The government is “living above the clouds,” he notes, and says if the opposition was strong and effective enough, the pending problems, which seem to be impenetrable at the moment, would have already been solved.

Alaton talked to Sunday's Zaman in İstanbul in an interview about his latest book, “İshak Alaton: The Unnecessary Man,” as well as a number of issues from politics to the economy.

Alarko Chairman İshak Alaton (Photo: Sunday's Zaman)

The AK Party's heavy influence in the political scene has become a detriment to the system's balance, Alaton pointed out, adding: “I think the breaking point is the overconfidence emanating from a victory that reaped 49.5 percent of the votes in their third general elections.” He believes the failure to find a plausible settlement in the Kurdish problem was also a byproduct of this overconfidence, along with several other factors, like the success of the hawkish fronts in both the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the state in their efforts to derail the peace initiatives.

After revealing that the next book will feature his defeats in life, the 85-year-old businessman brought up his failure to promote social democracy in Turkey as his biggest failure. Formerly a member of the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Sweden, Alaton has been a precursor of social democratic values throughout his life in Turkey, in spite of his belonging to the bourgeoisie class. “But Turkey's leftists and those who claim to be socialist shunned these ideas, claiming they are not applicable in Turkey,” Alaton said, blaming what he calls the “so-called leftists” of blindly adhering to slogans and the fallacies of the old scripts of socialism. This has more serious implications for Alaton, such as their inability to update themselves in accordance with the realities of the modern world, rendering them incapable of any contribution to Turkey's development economically and culturally. This, along with the intermittent military interventions, has been one of the two fundamental reasons for Turkey's backwardness, he asserted.

The court cases against Ergenekon, a shady organization that is accused of plotting conspiracies and fanning violence among the public to instigate chaos and eventually topple the democratically elected government, and against other coup perpetrators, for Alaton, have definitely been a great leap forward; however, he claims the courts have been wrong in sentencing all of the accused with heavy penalties of over 16 years in prison, as many of the incriminated lower-rank officers had no choice but to obey orders from their commanders. Despite all the positive steps taken in recent times on the path to democratization, Alaton says, the oligarchy of Turkey's imperious bureaucracy still persists, and there is still a long way to go to be fully rid of it.

Alaton's book also has a whole section on Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish-Muslim scholar, who inspired interfaith dialog activities all around the world and the Hizmet movement. Asked what reactions he has received for his complimentary remarks about the movement and Gülen, Alaton said 90 percent of the responses have been congratulations. Calling Gülen the biggest “other” in Turkey, he praised his struggle against ignorance and his endless invitation for the believers of Abrahamic religions to open dialogue and understand one another.

He also spoke highly of the schools opened by the movement. “The most noteworthy thing about these schools, I think, is that they mirror the positive face of our country to the world. A group of people providing education of the highest quality all around the world rises as something positive in the eyes of someone who looks at Turkey against a myriad of negative things.”

Will there be a third book in this series?

There will be a third book, but let me first set the basic framework of it for better comprehension of how it will be. I came up with a theory when we discussed it with Mehmet Gündem, the author of the two previous issues. He found my suggestion strange beforehand, but later warmed up to the idea within which the final book will be outlined. When you go to a bookstore, you encounter hundreds of books about success stories. But if you rummage around for a book that deals with the story of a failure, you find none. Not even one. I said, “Okay, let's fill this gap.” If we can manage to tell people how an experienced person failed to achieve his goal in the new book, this would be more useful, I presumed. By seeing what accounts for a failure, people could circumvent the same mistakes or learn from them because this is both a sociological and a natural event. Everyone has a life span: They live for some time and then pass away. Let's assume that you start your career in your 20s, and after some time, you become productive and start making meaningful things. Then time starts to really fly, and you reach 60. You suddenly realize that you have already arrived at “the horizon of the irreversible evening of your life.” But your main objective in life is to become wiser: An essential meaning of your life is to become smarter and advance on the path of becoming a wise man. However, it is impossible to become fully sagacious by relying only on your own experiences because you don't commit enough mistakes to become really wise. Your mistakes guide you to wisdom, but your own failures fall short of ensuring that you develop keen discernment, and you look around to see others' flaws and errors.

So, I thought I need to figure out how to convey my own failures sincerely to others, and the third book will cover them.

What has been your biggest failure in life?

When I was in Sweden, I worked as a welder in a factory. I was an ordinary worker. I also enrolled in the Social Democratic Workers' Party of Sweden youth branch. They trained me with other trainees like Olaf Palme, who later became the prime minister and was assassinated. We were the same age. I personally witnessed the magnificent results of a social democratic administration there. Social democracy elevated Sweden from being one of the most backward nations to the wealthiest country in the world. Capital and labor walked hand in hand; they walked together. I have narrated this success story over and over again in conferences, but Turkey's leftists and those who claim to be socialist shunned these ideas, claiming they are not applicable in Turkey. It is written in books that capital and labor cannot get along with each other and must remain in constant conflict, they said. Turkey's left-branded folks develop a mantra, a philosophy by memorizing the prejudices in books and rejecting any debate over them.

One of my biggest defeats in this life was this failure to promote a modern, liberal social democracy in Turkey, despite all my efforts. I opened a stall and called people to come and buy social democracy, but no consumer was interested in it. My stall remained idle there, gathering dust all around, and eventually I gave up. They don't buy it, and they don't understand it. The claimants of the left in Turkey are incapable of putting forward an idea as to how Turkey can prosper. Their political parties don't have a valid economic advancement program. They utter a bunch of rambling cants and bring forth their outdated programs when you ask. They are lazy thinkers. They are too lazy to update their thoughts in accordance with today's realities.

I have always believed that Turkey has everything to rapidly develop into a prosperous economy. However, I have figured out that basically two factors have posed impediments to attaining this. The first factor is the military interventions. The coups have always started over economic achievements. The second reason is the failure of the so-called social democrats to improve their thoughts; their sticking to the dogmas and principles of the past; their delusion that the scripts of the 19th century are still valid and plausible in today's world. They didn't lend a hand to the efforts to develop the nation.

They falsely assumed that a despotic order is required to govern the people. This mentality was inherited from the Ottomans; new brains weren't born overnight. Atatürk summoned the bureaucracy that was serving the Sultan to Ankara. And a majority of them were of İttihad and Terakki origin.

Can we say the bureaucratic oligarchy has lost its supremacy in the Turkish administration?

No, I believe it still persists.

Didn't the Ergenekon trials, sentencing of coup plotters, etc., change the picture?

Despite all these, the same forced attitude is seen in the judiciary. It may be prevented, but perchance the current government may want this situation to continue. I don't know, but it may be their policy.

But there is a current within the judiciary that is bold enough to face the Ergenekon and military interventions.

This is certainly good and useful. The trials ended [with] positive results to some extent, but even they have some controversial aspects. For instance, I personally believe that sentencing all 325 suspects to serve 16, 18 and 20 years in prison was very harsh. Most of them weren't so … guilty, I believe, since they were invited to attend a meeting -- in February or March 2003, several months after the elections -- at the grand barracks in Haydarpaşa. The meeting was presided over by the chief of the military staff, accompanied by the top brass generals. Among the other 225 attendees were officers from lower ranks. They were mostly listening to what they were being told. They are ordered by the top commanders to do certain things in the event of a coup and if anyone of them disobeys, they will be downed.

Another negative issue is that you are imposing heavy penalties [on] a coup plan, but when it comes to a real coup, you are only pretending as if you are judging.

Do you mean the Feb. 28 [1997] or Sept. 12 [1980]?

I am talking about the Sept. 12 coup.

We hope the trial will go to the end.

All I am trying to say [is] that there is an imbalance in people's minds. I mean, you are “supposedly” investigating a realized coup but fail to [hand down] deserved punishments to the coup committers. Their excuse is ready: The general is 94 years old, the other is 92. But you are not [investigating] the others, the younger sidekicks.

You place special emphasis in your book on the presence of a balancing factor to stem an excessively powerful government, which mean the existence of noteworthy opposition. You state that the opposition in Turkey is ailing.

That is true.

You say Turkey lagged behind the modern world in acquiring wealth because the opposition failed to internalize social democracy, and also stress the peril that “the absence of an alternative is the biggest danger of the current government.” Isn't this the situation in which we live today?

Yes, and they are actually in big trouble, which I don't think they are fully aware of. They are living over the clouds. If only we had an appropriate opposition that knows what it should do, the government would also clean up its act. It may have opened the path to … peace in the Kurdish issue, but now, the way to peace has become uncertain once again.

I think the magical word you use in your book to describe this issue is “balance.” Would you say the opposition lost this balance, but the government also failed to seek it and hence it has to be careful?

Certainly. When its

Is this what concerns you the most?

I am worried more about the problems in southeast Anatolia coming one after another. The only resolution possible is to bring peace to the southeast.

What caused the big shift in the government's attitude on the Kurdish issue, after the period you tagged “magnificent.”

Those who favored the continuation of the belligerence succeeded. Several actions led to such indignation among the public that both sides started to once again think that war is the only solution.

How do you assess the government's failure to show commitment to its initial objectives?

The government should have adhered to its original principles with determination and should have said “We will bring peace at all costs.” But it didn't. It also fell into a trap. It said, “Society wants to keep the dubious battle; we will continue with the war.” But there was no need for this after all the achievements up until 2004. Looking back after many years now, I realize that those who fanned the war succeeded as the others rose to the bait easily. Today, there are still many figures in the political arena who openly support the revival of seeking peace, including President Abdullah Gül, Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç, and surprisingly, Parliament Speaker Cemil Çiçek. Today I can't see anyone who bluntly opposes peace.

You mention in your book that not only the political lobbies, but also certain groups from the economy and the media provided support for military interventions. Can you give examples for those?

Sure I can. One such example was at the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association's (TÜSİAD) general assembly meeting in 1997, several months after the [Feb. 28] military intervention. A few months before the intervention, as per a request from the TÜSİAD administration, professor Bülent Tanör prepared a report titled “Democratization Perspectives in Turkey” funded by TÜSİAD. The report finally came out and copies were brought to the general assembly meeting to be distributed. This report was listed among the activities of the existing administration during the past year. Then, people started to deliver speeches at the meeting, one after another. Cüneyt Zapsu was the first to address the group and spoke highly about the report. He was followed by İbrahim Betil, who also expressed very positive remarks. But later, some 10 people took to the podium and all lambasted the report, harshly criticizing it, saying there was no such need for TÜSİAD to look for paths for more democratization. Prominent figures of the association rejected this report without even bothering to read it, saying that “TÜSİAD should not be involved in such activities.” Then a voting to acquit the managerial board kicked in and more than half of the over 400 members of the association, who were present at the meeting, didn't cast their votes due to the report. We, the team who had hammered out the report, were paralyzed. That was a shame. You're asking me for a concrete example of anti-democratic example and there can't be anything worse than this.

Can TÜSİAD be corrected?

The same thing was seen in 2010 when they rejected to claim a report on a more democratic constitution, which they had assigned a team to prepare. Another example was seen again during a general assembly meeting. Cem Boyner was there to address the audience. He gazed upon the managerial board. The nine-member board was sitting presided over by Boyner's wife. He asked, “Will you able to stand behind this report this time?” There was no reaction. I went to him and kissed him on the cheeks before the cameras. What they did was to issue a press release three days after the meeting to announce that they didn't adopt the report. The same ignominy. I will recall Karl Marx here, who claimed that in all societies, the bourgeoisie carries the flag of freedoms. However, this is not the situation in Turkey.

When I am asked who the bourgeoisie class in Turkey is, I never name TÜSİAD. Instead I name [Turkish Confederation of Businessmen and Industrialists] TUSKON, [Independent Industrialists and Businessmen's Association] MÜSİAD and local associations.

Fethullah Gülen the ultimate 'other'

You have allocated a whole section in your book to the Hizmet movement, with a lot of positive remarks about Fethullah Gülen and the movement. What kind of reactions have you received?

Almost 90 percent of the reactions were congratulations. You hear the least expected things from the least expected person.

Do you mean his identity as a prominent religious figure?

You could say so. Look, I am an “other” and I have expressed this for my entire life. Last week, The Economist magazine wrote about me as the “other,” quoting me when I said to Professor Jenny White from the US three years ago that “this society never made me feel that I belong to it.” This is harsh, but a reality. President Abdullah Gül invited me to Çankaya Palace in Ankara to promote my first book and I addressed 600 people there. After my conference, I saw Hayrünnisa Gül, his wife, and told her that so many people listen to me and give me accolades here and eventually I am an “other.” She responded to me by saying “you are wrong Mr İshak, since I am the real ‘other' here. I haven't appeared in public for the two years since I moved in here due to the headscarf I am wearing.” Those who are not the “others” must think twice to find out why this society has disintegrated so much. I believe things will get better after the generation of those who claim on TV screens that Turks will resist granting Kurds equal rights disappear.

You mention in your book that the new “human type,” which is also envisaged by the Hizmet movement, will be a remedy for the process of creating “others” in the society?

It will be so. What excites me the most in this Hizmet movement is the schools abroad. I saw the schools in South Africa. We got the land for the school in Moscow from the municipality as a free allocation and granted it to the movement. Today, hundreds of thousands of pupils are receiving education in these Turkish schools, which are generally ranked among the best schools in their countries all around the world.

The most noteworthy thing about these schools, I think, is that they mirror the positive face of our country to the world. A group of people providing education of the highest quality all around the world rises as something positive in the eyes of someone who looks at Turkey against a myriad of negative things.

As I also stressed in my book, the Jews that had to migrate to the US several centuries ago to escape the tortures in Russia or parts of Europe invested heavily in educating their children. They were poor people, from simple occupations like shoemaking, but they somehow schooled their children by reducing spending on even the most basic needs. And then these educated children sent their own children to better schools. After several generations, the most elite, productive and prominent people in the US were the Jews.

You also give some figures in your book like there are only 14 million Jews in the world but they have a power to shape the rest of the world.

Yes, the Jewish population corresponds to only 0.2 percent of the world population. What keeps Israel standing is the Jewish lobby in the US. A more striking fact is that 32 percent of the Nobel winners are Jewish. So, looking closely, the weight that this movement puts on education is a well-received message. The Hizmet analysed the Jewish case and said we can also attain a similar success by relying on education.

How does the Jewish community perceive the movement?

A few years ago, there was a silly article in the Wall Street Journal about the Hizmet. I called Alon Ben Meier, who is one of the most prominent people in the US's Jewish media. He introduced the Wall Street Journal's reporter, who had penned the negative article on Hizmet, to these people, saying your article is wrong. And afterwards, the same person wrote another article the next week expressing his wrongdoing and misunderstanding. So the Jewish lobby helped them overcome this problem because I believe our goals are the same. Our goal is education. Look, the worst danger awaiting the world is ignorance. Let me give you a recent example: Taliban killed a group of UN workers in Pakistan who were there to provide vaccinations against polio. This is pure ignorance.

You say that Gülen is deliberately misrepresented in Turkey and he is in a self-imposed exile in the US. So, in fact, he is also an “other.”

Certainly. And maybe he is the most “other.”

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 23 December 2012, Sunday
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