2011, Lessons of Hubris

The Arab uprisings expose the self-delusion of the powerful – from the region itself to Turkey, Germany and the rest of Europe. This is a moment to register and build on, says Kerem Oktem.



Two world-historical events in 2011 changed the world as we knew it.

In the Middle East, the Arab uprisings have revolutionised our understanding of Muslim societies. Arab demonstrators – men and women, with and without beards and headscarves – have emerged as subjects of history and masters of their own destiny: no more will they be imagined as ahistorical pawns in a history devised by others. For the first time since 9/11, most western commentators felt emboldened to go beyond the banal Manichean dichotomies that became commonplace under George W Bush’s “war on terror”.

In Europe, the European Union sleepwalked ever deeper into a financial and political abyss. This remains worrying for the continent’s people and alarming to all more widely with an interest in maintaining the union’s (and especially the Eurozone’s) stability. But it has also had the beneficial psychological effect of reinjecting a sense of proportion and humility into what had become a largely self-congratulatory and triumphal discourse of European efficacy and even supremacy, particularly in relation to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

At the best of times, the coincidence of these great historical shifts could form the starting-point of a new phase in world politics and public debate, where much toxic discursive waste – such as the “clash” of civilisations, and its mimesis, the “dialogue” of civilisations – would be dumped. In the world as it is though, this is much less likely. For in Europe, xenophobic and nationalist tendencies are gathering pace; while the two veritable revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, seem to be eating their children, and the struggle against oppression elsewhere in the Arab world is exacting an unbearable price for the civilian population.

Germany and Turkey

Two other aspects of 2011 are less prominent than these world-historical events, but are closely interrelated and revealing. The first involves Germany, and illustrates a momentous blindness in German (and probably also European) self-perception; the second involves Turkey, where an interlude of democratic deepening and promising reform is now being drowned in hubris and greed.

In linked incidents on 4 November 2011, a house burned down in the eastern German city of Zwickau and a campervan was set alight (causing the death of two middle-aged men) in Eisenach, under 200 kilometres away. These incidents began to unravel what was soon being called the biggest scandal in post-1945 Germany, wherein over several years a gang of three Germans had in a series of well-planned attacks across the country murdered eight Turks, a Greek and a policewoman.

It was so hard to face the reality that initially, investigators and the media wanted to believe that the perpetrators were a Turkish mafia organisation, family members or even (as Der Spiegel magazine hinted) elements of the Turkish “deep state” – rather than members of a self-styled “National Socialist Underground”. When that became unavoidable, Germany’s modern identity –based on the dichotomy of Germans and Europeans as representing the good and civilised, while Turks and Muslim immigrants are the threatening “other”– was forced to confront its rooted prejudices. A refocus on fascist and racist crime is in train. But from the sudden acknowledgment of “brown terror” and endemic, abrasive racism to a reconsideration of German (and European) hubris it is still a long way.

The passing year has seen intense attention on Turkey, both for its booming economy and its active regional diplomacy. An ill-defined “Turkish model” was projected as an aspiration for post-revolution Arab states and embraced in by foreign-policy circles in the United States and even in some European capitals. This denoted a reasonably democratic, economically successful, and above all pro-western government under “moderate” Islamists: the antidote to and a means of containing the potentially disruptive revolutionary developments in the Arab world.

But something very different has been happening in Turkey behind the shiny façade of rapid growth and democratic advance. After the ruling AKP’s third successive election win in June 2011 under its charismatic but bellicose prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the party has turned towards a mix of robust authoritarianism and neo-liberal orthodoxy. What started as a humble if determined Islamist movement fighting for the common good and the common people against an overbearing Kemalist state has descended into a quagmire of avarice, vengefulness and lust for power.

A government that has established near-hegemony by displacing the Kemalist state apparatus without discarding its illiberal worldview now knows no limits. Its army units bash villagers gathered to prevent private dam constructions, its forces teargas and frogmarch students demonstrating for free education, its police arrest critical journalists on trumped-up charges and its judiciary dispatch them into never-ending detention cycles.

Several thousand supporters of Turkey’s Kurdish movement are now in jail as alleged members of a notional terrorist organisation. Prominent intellectuals, such as historian Büşra Ersanlı and publisher Ragıp Zarakolu, have been detained on political grounds and are held in conditions reminiscent of the 1990s – the worst time in Turkey’s modern history in terms of the infringement of basic human rights.

Turkey’s democratic hopes are falling apart amidst the tightening of AKP control and the disintegration of the country’s European Union membership perspective. The AKP’s conservative wonderland might continue to be protected by a growing economy, rather as the majority in Russia seemed until the recent protests happy to trade democratic freedoms for the chance of prosperity. But when the inevitable slowdown comes there will be a terrible mess; here again Russia might be a good benchmark.

The Arab uprisings of 2011 have thus done more than allow men and women in the region to enter the emerging public space and make their claims heard as citizens. They have also helped to expose the hubris and self-delusion of Germany and the European Union, of Turkey and of the leaders of the Arab world. If only, so far, for the blink of an eye. In 2012, it might be worth holding on to that precious moment.


Kerem Oktem is research fellow of the European Studies Centre at Oxford University. His latest book isAngry Nation: Turkey since 1989 (Zed Books, 2010). His website is here

Kerem Oktem‘s earlier books include (co-edited with Kalypso Nicolaidis & Othon Anastasakis), In the long shadow of Europe: Greeks and Turks in the Era of Postnationalism (Brill, 2009); and (co-edited with Celia J Kerslake & Philip Robins), Turkey’s Engagement with Modernity (Palgrave, 2010). He is the principal researcher of the British Academy-funded project on Contemporary Islam in the Balkans


This article first published at OpenDemocracy.

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