Friday, September 23, 2011

Science and a politically assertive Turkey

by Salman Hameed

It is quite evident that Turkey is flexing its political and economic muscles in the middle east. When I was in Turkey last year, I had couple of conversations there that singled out Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davotuglu, for his intellect and for the real brains behind the current government. Couple of days ago, Davotuglu stressed for a greater strategic partnership between Turkey and Egypt and called for an "axis of democracy":
 Strikingly, he predicted a partnership between Turkey and Egypt, two of the region’s militarily strongest and most populous and influential countries, which he said could create a new axis of power at a time when American influence in the Middle East seems to be diminishing. 
“This is what we want,” Mr. Davutoglu said. 
“This will not be an axis against any other country — not Israel, not Iran, not any other country, but this will be an axis of democracy, real democracy,” he added. “That will be an axis of democracy of the two biggest nations in our region, from the north to the south, from the Black Sea down to the Nile Valley in Sudan.” 
His comments came after a tour last week by Turkish leaders — Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mr. Davutoglu among them — of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, the three Arab countries that have undergone revolutions this year. His criticism of old allies and embrace of new ones underscored the confidence of Turkey these days, as it tries to position itself on the winning side in a region unrecognizable from a year ago.
Whether you agree with him or not, can I say that this is a brilliant framing of its foreign policy. If this is not impressive enough, I was struck by his acumen of using history (even though Ottoman Empire and Egyptian relations were mostly tumultuous) and Ibn Khaldun:
Mr. Davutoglu credited a “psychological affinity” between Turkey and much of the Arab world, which was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for four centuries from Istanbul. 
The foreign minister, 52, remains more scholar than politician, though he has a diplomat’s knack for bridging divides. Cerebral and soft-spoken, he offered a speech this summer to Libyan rebels in Benghazi — in Arabic. Soon after the revolution in Tunisia, he hailed the people there as the “sons of Ibn Khaldoun,” one of the Arab world’s greatest philosophers, born in Tunis in the 14th century. “We’re not here to teach you,” he said. “You know what to do. Ibn Khaldoun’s grandsons deserve the best political system.”
Okay - that said, there is also much happening inside Turkey. For example, there is a concern for the autonomy of Turkish Academy of Sciences (TUBA), after the government changed regulations on the appointment of its members. The members of the Turkish academy, in response, threatened mass-resignations. Just two weeks ago, Nature had an editorial on this issue and criticized the actions of the ruling Justice and Development Party:
On the eve of a week-long holiday to celebrate the end of the fasting period of Ramadan, the Turkish government executed an extraordinary scientific coup. On 27 August, it issued a decree with immediate effect, giving itself tighter control of Turkey's two main scientific organizations: the funding agency TÜBİTAK and the Turkish Academy of Sciences (TÜBA), the governance of which is now so altered that it can no longer be considered an academy at all.
At least TÜBİTAK is a state agency. It matters much more that the government is taking over TÜBA, which was founded in 1993 as an autonomous organization under the patronage of the prime minister. It has nearly 82 full members (from a total membership of 140) and has been doing all the things academies should do — including offering scientific advice to the government, publishing reports, and giving scholarships and awards. TÜBA has also been active in international organizations of academies such as the InterAcademy Panel, ALLEA (the organization of European academies) and the Association of Academies of Sciences in Asia (AASA). 
A June decree transferred TÜBA to the Ministry of Science, Industry and Technology. The current decree raises the number of full members to 150. One-third will be appointed by the government and one-third by YÖK, the Higher Education Council, most of whose members are in turn appointed by the government or president. 
The current decree also says that TÜBA will be involved in creating a series of basic-research institutes.        
Read the full editorial here. There is of course politics involved in here. But the underlying threads are unclear to me. I know that there is a larger battle between "secularists" and "Islamists" in Turkey (and both of these terms have to be considered with the appropriate Turkish context - please see this earlier post on this: Is 'Islamic Fundamentalism' on the Rise in Turkey?). Some of these battle lines go through academia, and the above fallout is perhaps a result of that. Considering the growing Turkish economic prowess, it will be a shame if science becomes a casualty of politics at this juncture.

It would be great to hear comments from some of our Turkish readers on this matter. How are these actions being viewed in the universities?

And while we are at it, here is an article on the first mosque in Turkey designed by a woman. It looks stunning. Here are three pictures:


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