By Timothy Spyrou
IN THE dying month of this year and the fourth month of the new, mankind will pass two anniversaries with barely a nod. On December 5, 2013, Nelson Mandela, the father of South Africa and a guardian of human freedom, breathed his last. We mourned the giant, who, in President Obama’s funeral oration, personified the quality of understanding “the ties that bind the human spirit”. Beyond his own torment, pain and tears, he understood that those who were oppressing him also had a yearning to be free to live in dignity without oppressing others. He also saw the inherent fear that both oppressors and oppressed held- a fear of a future of vengeance visited upon them. He spoke to that yearning for dignity and he helped people, regardless of race, move beyond that fear.
On Good Friday, April 14, 1865, a man who rose from impoverished beginnings to be “a humanitarian as broad as the world” was slain as he was attending the theatre. Abraham Lincoln, who fought to preserve America and take it closer towards a destiny of greater freedom, had moral gifts that are still beyond the understanding of many. Yet, mankind will most likely be oblivious to the memory of these two giants because we are in a time that seems far removed from their lessons.
If there was a prize for the leader or leaders who are least like Mandela or Lincoln, then there would be more nominations than I could write about. This global motley crew would include both General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Muhammad Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood President of Egypt that he overthrew in a coup.
Among its honorees would be the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his failure to further peace in Asia by properly acknowledging the heinous war crimes that Japan committed against the Chinese, Korean, Filipino and other peoples before and during the WWII. At the same time, we would include China’s Xi Jinping for using the memory of Japanese crimes to stoke up nationalist tensions oblivious to what might be unleashed. We would include Benjamin Netanyahu and his coalition partners for doing everything possible, consciously and unconsciously, to sabotage efforts to achieve Arab-Israeli peace, and we would nominate some among the Palestinians for lack of belief in peace and for allowing the plight of victimhood to become the passion of vengeance.
We would of course include Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who is denying the Ukrainian people their European freedom and destiny so that he could continue keeping his fellow Russians under his control. In fairness, we would also have to include the small but powerful number of Ukrainian far right nationalists who, by not forgiving historical Russian crimes committed against ethnic Ukrainians, provide support for Putin’s narrative as he works to sow discord within Ukraine.
We would have to include Nuri al Maliki of Iraq for being so hostile to the Sunni community that they initially welcomed the likes of ISIL, and we would have to include Syria’s Bashar Assad for calculating that he would remain consolidated in power through the provoking of a sectarian war.
In a February article I wrote that both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots have to find the “Cypriot Mandela Component” to decisively resolve the Cyprus Problem and reunify our homeland for a better future. Although we Greek Cypriots have yet to learn the lessons of Mandela and Lincoln, we can be thankful for being a small, relatively stable country. Our leaders’ dispositions do not significantly harm the world. Unfortunately for Turkey and the wider region, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems to understand the arts of humility and magnanimity less and less.
Over the last several years, the atmosphere around him has grown steadily darker. He promised to build a new Turkey. Islamic piety would work hand in hand with the 21st century and embrace universal norms such as respect for pluralism, freedom and the rule of law. The new Turkey would play an active role as the fosterer of rapprochement within the Middle East. True, things have a way of blowing up in one’s face in this part of the world. But one can take setbacks with grace. Erdogan chose to take them ungraciously. Instead of being a unifier who will overcome the rifts dividing Turkish society, his controlling, proud and impulsive nature has consolidated these divisions.
Yes, there were coup plots against him and he was once unjustly imprisoned by the old order. But he could have called for a new time- a time of empathy and reconciliation between the pious and the secular, between the cosmopolitans of Turkey’s Aegean coasts and the traditionalists of Anatolia, between the army and the rest of society. Instead, he chose to govern through polarisation. Old resentments and suspicions will be sustained alongside new ones.
EU-inspired reforms opening society to freedom were made with one hand and undermined with the other. Public discourse and public deeds have turned increasingly authoritarian, demagogic and strident. If you are a young civil society activist protesting plans for the bulldozing of a historic Istanbul park, you are a “lout”. If you legitimately question the integrity of the government in the wake of corruption allegations, you are not standing up for the rule of law. You are conspiring with foreign powers to undermine Turkey.
Lincoln and Erdogan share the distinction of rising to power from the hardscrabble frontiers of their respective nations. They do not, however, share the knowledge that leadership often requires the setting aside of pride. We are witnessing the fall that follows the pride.
Erdogan may be correct in saying that the international community should remove the monstrous Assad. However have his efforts been motivated by altruism or by wounded pride? The inconvenient truth is that Erdogan and Assad once worked together.
It was Erdogan who was driving secret negotiations between Israel and Syria for a permanent peace before the collapse of the Israeli-Turkish relationship in the aftermath of the Gaza War of 2008. Remember Erdogan’s explosive reaction at Davos? From that point on, just like other Middle Eastern authoritarians, he has distracted the people from doubting his rule through demagogic outbursts at ‘Jewish conspiracies’.
When America decided against airstrikes to destroy Syria’s chemical warfare facilities, Erdogan was furious because he had planned to take part. When he disagreed with Obama’s reluctance to substantially arm the Free Syrian Army, he started to allow extremist fighters infiltrate Syria via Turkey.
The international community may share the responsibility for the Iraq-Syria crisis, but it is fair to rebuke Erdogan over the plight of Kobani. Erdogan had promised a new constitution that would recognise the cultural and civic rights of Turkey’s Kurds.
He pursued a détente with the politically stable and oil rich Iraqi Kurdistan with encouragement from the world because he understood that a thriving Iraqi Kurdistan would help a thriving Turkey build prosperity and peace within and without. It was supposed to be a time of reconciliation and renewal. However, again Erdogan proves he is not a Lincoln or a Mandela through his response to calls to save Kobani from ISIL barbarity.
He prevented America and the coalition from using America’s Turkish airbases to degrade ISIL positions, prolonging the siege because he said there was little point in saving people from ISIL as long as action is not taken to remove Assad.
He has placed Turkish forces at readiness, but continues to do nothing whilst castigating all. Only at the 11th hour has he relented to allow the Iraqi Kurdish forces move in to help their Syrian kin. Erdogan does not seem to realise that the mounting disillusionment within the Turkish Kurdish community at his failure to lead the effort to save Kobani is far more likely to cause the PKK to end peace talks with the Turkish state and return to insurgency. Why should they trust Erdogan on Turkish Kurdish rights when he is standing by as ISIL attempts genocide against Syrian Kurds? They hear him calling them “riff-raff” for their desperate, if sometimes violent protests at the plight of their fellow Kurds. They see an arrogant, petty man who is blind to the storm of ISIL’s barbarity on Turkey’s doorstep.
If only people around the world would look to themselves and find the spirits of Mandela and Lincoln. But they won’t. If we don’t want these men’s suffering, for they suffered greatly, to not be in vain, we should try looking within and without, with clear eyes of empathy. If they were to come back to life, they should damn us for our folly.