July 13, 2014

‘Transparency doesn't have a place in Turkish political culture'

Transparency is not a concept which is accepted in Turkish political ethics. That is part of the reason why society has remained largely indifferent to the serious corruption allegations brought against the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, according to İştar Gözaydın, a professor of law and politics from İstanbul University's faculty of science and literature.

Turkey's AK Party has been at the center of serious corruption allegations, yet it managed to garner a good 45 percent of the vote in the municipal elections. According to Gözaydın, the main reason behind this is a general lack of moral values in society. People decide whether something is moral or not according to whether a given act or situation has been caused by the people they support or not. Partisanship and polarization are hallmarks of the society, a situation which existed long prior to the AK Party administration.

According to Gözaydın, who is one of the founders of the human rights organization the Helsinki Citizens Association, another reason why voters have remained indifferent to widespread alleged corruption is a lack of confidence in judicial mechanisms. “They remain indifferent because they think that raising their voices will not make any difference and that the state will pursue its agenda anyway,” she said, adding that the Turkish tendency to pursue conspiracy theories is another culprit behind the indifference. People often rely on explanations which indicate that some external powers will shape events and the future. Another reason is problems with the freedom of expression in the country, Gözdaydın noted.

Gözaydın also said that the government, by protecting ministers who are accused of corruption, is making a political choice. She also noted that the increasingly polarizing discourse employed by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can be considered a human rights violation. She said often those in power conclude that their approach to a certain issue is the only absolute truth. “This is not just about Erdoğan or the AK Party,” she said, explaining that it is a general tendency of society. She said what politicians should do is to drop the misconception of absolute power. “Election of a political group as holder of administration does not mean that another group will not be preferred by the people in the future. What really matters here is to allow the minority to speak up. This is hard to achieve; but once it is achieved, a real democratic culture is created,” she said.

Gözaydın, the author of many academic books on the relationship between religion and the state, including the 1993 title “Müslüman Toplum, ‘Laik' Devlet: Türkiye'de Diyanet Isleri Baskanligi” (Muslim Society, “Secular” State in Turkey: Directorate of Religious Affairs), shared her observations on a number of current issues in an interview with Sunday's Zaman readers.

You have mentioned that you are fed up with the state, corruption and gangs within the state. Most recently, legal action into four former ministers was postponed until 2015. What would you say about this?

It is obvious that resolution of some crucial matters has been postponed. Why do they do this? What matters is the answer to this question. Most probably, they believe that the coming presidential election should not be affected. We have seen this in local elections before. There is a tendency to postpone things. This indicates that there is a lack of confidence and transparency. However, what should be done in such a case is that the matter should be resolved immediately. But a political choice is being made here, and the culprits are being protected. In other words, they want to protect their supporters.

Why are people indifferent to corruption?

I believe that one of the main problems with our society is the lack of an established ethical code. Everyone chooses to do whatever is in their best interest. There is no ethical standard. In the event of some case of immorality, people consider whether or not it was one of their supporters who was involved. Everybody prefers solutions that do not undermine their interests. This is not a restricted to the Justice and Development Party (AK Party). It is evident in all institutions. Sadly, people criticize holders of power; however, when they seize power, they tend to do the same thing and see no problem with it.

So will things never change, even if the people in power change?

Unfortunately, this is the case. Regardless of whether the source of malfeasance is religious or irreligious, we face a problem of sorely lacking ethical standards. But sadly, this is not something that can be fixed through discussion. You cannot develop a moral approach through debate. We need to understand this as a common problem in order to develop a lasting solution.

How should we understand an indifference to bribery and corruption in a predominantly Muslim country in reference to morality and religious precepts?

Morality is a universal principle for which religion need not be the reference. It is all about the man. A person is fearful of a Creator or his own conscience. A man should be able to honest confront himself.

You hosted a radio program, “Our rights.” Do the people know their rights in Turkey? Is pursuit of justice seen as an uprising against the state?

Yes and no. It is true that the Turkish people have a sense of a mighty state. This applies to the legal domain as well as matters of political participation. For many years, reference has been made to the weakness of civil society. Whether or not ordinary people are concerned about this is a separate matter. In Turkey, civil society attempts to benefit from the state. There is a political culture that seeks the preservation of advantages rather than creating a structure separate from the state. This is also because of how we understand and define the state. There are two approaches to the problem of state in the literature: The European system referring to state power and public power and the Anglo-American structure in which a contract is made between the state and individuals. Moving away from the “mighty state” approach to the idea that “I pay tax, so the state has to be accountable for its acts” is not an easy process of change. It concerns a variety of different factors, including human psychology, mentality and morality.

People refrain from reacting because they fear something might happen to them

Do you attribute the indifference of the people to their recent inability to pursue justice through legal recourse?

They remain indifferent because they think that raising their voices will not make any difference and that the state will pursue its agenda regardless. This is also partially attributable to our tendency to believe in conspiracy theories. They rely on the assumption that external forces are responsible for what happens to them. The problematic nature of freedom of expression should also be noted. Perhaps people avoid raising an objection because they fear that something might happen to them.

You are one of the founders of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly. There have been many human rights violations in Uludere and Soma. How many people should die for the recognition of human rights?

The international conventions should have been enforced; however, more than 300 people died because of greed and personal interest. I believe in the principle that you should forcefully claim your rights rather than waiting for their recognition by others. Human rights are a realm which depends on stakeholders raising their voices. They have to engage in struggle.

Do you agree that the prime minister's polarizing discourse, which demonizes a variety of different groups, is a violation of human rights?

Yes, this could be considered a human rights violation. There is a social and cultural problem here. The holders of power conclude that their power is absolute when they see that they are in the majority. In addition, they further conclude that their approach is the only truth. This is not just about Erdoğan or his party. Sadly, this can be observed in many other cases as well. Therefore, what really matters is to do away with this assumption. There is no such thing as absolute power. Election of a political group as holders of administration does not mean that another group will not be preferred by the people in the future. What really matters here is to allow the minority to speak up. This is hard to achieve; but once it is achieved, a real democratic culture is created.

What consequences have authoritarian tendencies had in Turkish political life so far? How will the current authoritarianism evolve?

I am not sure how, but the boundaries of the people should not be pushed and tested. The change should be made by democratic means which would not lead to any sort of violence.

What would you say if we review the relationship between transparency and state from this perspective?

Transparency is something that Turkish political culture is not familiar with and does not much prefer. There are many things within the state apparatus that cannot be publicly discussed. But I believe that we need to have a structure where everybody should be held accountable and everything could be discussed when necessary.

The Directorate of Religious Affairs has no chance of raising objections within the state mechanism

You have done a lot of work on the Directorate of Religious Affairs. What would you say about its silence on the corruption charges?

In the final analysis, it is a state unit. I believe that the directorate holds an important place in terms of state-religion relations in Turkey. On the other hand, it is also obvious that its preferences and actions are influenced by its position as a state organ. It has no chance of raising a dissenting voice within the state mechanism. But it did issue a statement on the Soma incident. This does not mean that I am making a positive or negative comment on its role. I am just taking the photo. This is the overall photograph.

How much does religion affect individuals and the society in Turkey?

Society and religion influence one another in terms of their emergence and evolution. The transition from an agricultural society to an industrial society in Turkey has also transformed the religion. In the new social structure, religion has gained a new content and position. The need for spirituality in the midst of the flaws of modernity in the aftermath of the 1980s made religion more visible in this part of the world as well. The localization of religion is inevitable because of the conditions. Turkey has generated its own version of Islam out of its cultural structure and the interaction among different communities; the religious communities are the products of this interaction.

What sort of measurement can there be for religiosity in Turkey?

It is obvious that we cannot speak of a monolithic religiosity in Turkey. However, the way religiosity is reflected leads to visible differences when the cultural context is taken into consideration. This refers to a rich diversity in Turkey.

The Hizmet movement should be more focused on the Kurdish issue and women's issues

You also studied the Gülen movement. Given its past and present activities, how did it contribute to the transformation in Turkey?

Although we are going through a turbulent time now, I believe that the movement has been very influential and beneficial, particularly in the field of education. I also believe that the Hizmet movement will see greater transformations in certain fields. The time we are living in now offers this opportunity. If it goes through a process of self-criticism, reviews its notions and redefines its identity in fields it once avoided, the movement will make a contribution to universality in Turkey.

And what fields are those?

Nationalism, the Kurdish issue and women's issues. It may engage in extensive thought concerning gender roles and spur transformation in this field. Within the scope of their activities, I also believe that they will contribute to additional subjects including human rights and democracy.

Published on Today's Zaman, 12 July 2014, Saturday