Friday, November 30, 2012

Magnificent Censorship

OK, mostly it's just "Dallas" with camels
America, unsurprisingly, has not bothered to look up from "American Idol" long enough to notice, but around the world over 150 million viewers are captured every week by the steamy heroic adventures of the Sultan in "Magnificent Century".   Now in its third season, the series is a Turkish prime-time soap opera based on the life of Suleiman the Magnificent, the great sixteenth century Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.  It turns out, however, that for all its global popularity, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan is most assuredly not a fan.  He took the opportunity to make that clear while attending the opening of a brand new airport in Kutahya Province, railing against the portrayal of the Sultan guzzling wine and rockin' his harem, even going so far as to take his complaints to the Judiciary. “We alerted the authorities,” he said ominously. “We wait for a judicial decision on it. Those who toy with these values should be taught a lesson within the remit of law.”

Now, I have on multiple occasions taken the opportunity to be complimentary in regards to PM Erdogan, for his modern views and his willingness to take an independent position even when it was not the expedient choice.  I still think his response to the Mavi Marmara atrocity was an example for leaders around the world.  But in the interest of honesty, he is also capable of showing some of the authoritarian intolerance that often characterizes Muslim - led governments.  Nations have to understand that a functional democracy is much more than just free elections and some kind of separation-of-powers arrangement.  Democracy is at its core a liberal endeavor, one that requires a tolerance of diversity, not only of people but of voices and speech and lifestyles.  This is one of the fatal flaws of a Theocracy, even in a highly homogeneous population - people want to choose their moral strictures, not have them imposed upon them by force of law.

This sort of tension arises in a Democratic society when a group within that society with rigid views on social behaviors gains some level of political power or influence, and politicians begin pandering to their prejudices in order to leverage that power.  We see that play out in a larger sense in Muslim nations, but it is prevalent in the United States, and can be seen in any nation with a significant fundamentalist or provincial population.  How different is Erdogan's outrage, really, than the almost comical national consternation over a "wardrobe malfunction" during a football game halftime show?

The growth of Muslim Fundamentalist political power in Arab nations, particularly those transitioning from long decades of single-party rule to some sort of democratic political system is a real risk to their growth and success as nations.  It is completely understandable, because during those years of authoritarian rule where the government used the secret police to crush any vestige of political opposition, the only venue for that opposition to organize was the mosque.  It fell to the Imams and Mullahs to challenge the political status quo, because to imprison, torture and murder them had disproportionate negative outcomes for the regime.  Now, in the post-revolutionary chaos of the Arab-Spring, it is these fundamentalist organizations that have the organizational and financial capability to govern.  Sadly, however, their approach to governance is not wholly dissimilar from that of the despot they replaced, as they seek complete legislative control and freedom from independent judicial oversight.  Again, when people go from the battlefield to the ballot box without seeing the establishment of democratic institutions and the rule of law, they do not live in a democracy so much as under the tyranny of the majority.

In Erdogan's case, however, he does not have such freedom to act unilaterally.  Turkey has a long post-Ottoman history of being an uncompromisingly secular society, officially tolerating all religions alongside no religion, with the military as the key institution safeguarding against a slide into Muslim theocracy.  The Prime Minister has sought, with some success, to change that balance, prosecuting hundreds of officers for plotting coups in order to cow the military into accepting changes driven by the civilian government.  But no one doubts that there are absolute limits to how many basic freedoms they're willing to see sacrificed on the altar of religious zealotry.


  1. There are a lot of things in the neighbourhood to be cranky about; maybe this is leftover pissiness.

  2. Here, at least, is a case where we can say "They are so screwed."