On Friedman’s Attitude towards Turkey

Facebook Meets Brick-and-Mortar Politics” Nice article on Egypt and Turkey from Thomas Friedman in today’s New York Times.  Even though his advice to Egyptian moderates seems to be unclear, he does nail it at the conclusion: Give your people growth and you can gradually curb democratic institutions and impose more religion as you like.” It certainly holds true for Turkey, whose A.K.P. government has already passed, or is trying to pass, laws that censor the Internet, newspapers and TV, curb alcohol use, criminalize adultery, abortion (as well as C-section births), all sorts of nudity and pornography, and many other things that it deems un-Islamic — all of that in parallel to the unprecedented economic boom and development in the country’s history.  Friedman’s observation was also true for other Muslim countries in the past, especially the GCC area, and many more countries beyond those if you just replace politicized religion with other types of authoritarianism (see post-Yeltsin Russia, or Lee’s Singapore).  There is nothing unique to Turkey in this story.

What I found surprising is that the time it took for Friedman to progress from his unbridled love for the A.K.P., all the way from demanding the U.S. to invite Turkey to join NAFTA, to his sharp criticisms of Erdoğan’s authoritarian tendencies in his last few op-eds on the issue.  I first had a chance to meet him a few months after he wrote War of Ideas Part-2.  I explained to him that I shared his optimism for Turkey’s development for the decade to come but not for the socially liberal democracy he envisioned her to be.  He was surprised to hear that someone who is personally affected by the Nov. 2003 Istanbul bombings thought that he had shortcomings in his description of Turkey around that event.  I listened to him speak at a small event a couple of years later where he had seemed to change his mind already, and I followed up with an e-mail in Feb. 2009 but didn’t hear back.

Granted, hindsight is always 20/20, but for an “expert on the Middle East,” I would have expected more prudence before painting an Islamist government as the ultimate role model for all of the region.  Or he could have confined his arguments to the economic realm only.  Then, no one concerned with Turkey, including yours truly, would have thought of him as a flip-flopper.

(For a chronology of some of Friedman’s post-A.K.P. op-eds on Turkey, see War of Ideas Part-2, As Ugly As It Gets, When Friends Fall Out, Letter From Istanbul, Letter from Istanbul Part-2, and Facebook Meets Brick-and-Mortar Politics.)

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