Ziya Meral interviewed by BBC World and BBC News channels on the coup attempt in Turkey on 15 July 2016.
A talk by Ziya Meral on how our wrong assumptions about religion and violence lead to wrong inferences on the relationship between the two. He argues that violent conflict shapes religion and forces religion to accommodate use of violence, rather than the common belief that religions cause violence.
As someone with one leg in the academic and the other in policy worlds, allow me to share with you common mistakes academics are vulnerable to commit when speaking to professional audiences. I wrote these down with the genuine belief that we need more trained and informed minds in the professional world, and hopefully help a new generation to ignore these, thus become better communicators and influence decision makers :
A) Stop complaining about time limits given to you at the start of your talk. Yes, we don't have a whole day for you to unload everything you know. In fact, if you cannot communicate clearly a topic in a focused fashion in 25 mins, then you might not be the expert on it. More irrelevant side points made gives impression that you don't actually know the core issue, or if you do, that it is burred under an avalanche.
B) Delete most power points, in fact, do not use them unless absolutely necessary. They always take longer than time given to you and distract your audience. You look amateurish as you keep skipping them, apologising and complaining about time given to you.
C) Think of your audience and what they need to know and what you are asked to provide, and not what you are interested in or happy to talk about. It is disrespectful to people who invited you, who won't invite you again.
D) Stop referring to your students in statements like "as I always say to my students". No one cares and that power and identity dynamic does not translate to professional world.
E) Mind the attitude. I know it might feel like you are gracing an audience, but till you win a Nobel... They are gracing you by sparing their precious time and inviting you. Your attitude sends a lot of undesired messages, and limits your future chances in those networks. Often, you might not realise that there are people in the audience with same academic qualifications as you, with more actual work experience on the issues you are speaking about and access to information you will never be able to read. A little humility won't hurt, but might be very useful.
F) Keep bios short and sweet, then on your CV you can make a giant roll of achievements (especially all those scholarships you got to pay your tuition fees ) and research interests, but in real life events, beyond a short paragraph it does not work.
G) Do realise, that in an academic setting asking interesting questions and problematising ideas are helpful exercises, whereas in professional settings they are not. Put forward your analysis, clear and tangible implications. It is not a postgraduate seminar, but a chance for you to help people who need to make actual decisions on issues with real life consequences.
I) Technical jargon within your discipline should be kept to bare necessity, and explained. Excessive use of words unique to your discipline and schools of thought you engage with do not work in professional settings and does not impress people.
J) You have a lot to give the world, often more than you realise. Half of your intellectual capital should be spent on knowledge, the other half on how that knowledge translates in addressing issues we face. The imbalance between the two is often visible to your audience.
K) Finally, this is a bit personal: fashion matters. When you are addressing a professional audience, you must dress accordingly. You might feel ideas matter more than how you present yourself, but surprisingly, even the postgraduate seminar fashion reflects particular social codes and dynamics. It is simply adapting to your audience, granted the aim is to influence them.
The report, co-authored by Ziya Meral, explores how the British Home Office processes asylum applications made on the basis of religious persecution. It surveys international and domestic law provisions on religious persecution and asylum, as well as best practice on processing such applications, before turning to how such a process unfolds in day to day practice. It uses real life cases provided by experts, stakeholders and individual refugees who testified before two hearings organised by the APPG on International Religious Freedom or provided written statements.
In light of the findings of this report, Members of the All Party Parliamentary Group make the following recommendations to the Home Secretary:
1. Immediately start disaggregate asylum claims on different convention grounds and, specifically, keep a record of the number of asylum claims made on the basis of religious persecution as well as the acceptance vs. rejection rate of such cases so as to assess the true scale of such claims and how sensitively such claims are being dealt with.
2. Provide focused training on freedom of religion and belief and assessments of religious freedom and persecution based asylum applications to decision makers.
3. Ensure that the policy guidelines and judicial decisions that relate to freedom of religion or belief cases are used by decision makers.
4. Issue a specific statement to decision makers clearly stating the good practice principles and legal frameworks that apply to religious persecution cases and examples of shortcomings by decision makers stated in this report in light of them.
5. Ensure that the case workers and interpreters used by the Home Office and decision-makers uphold the same standards of professional conduct expected from Home Office staff. All such individuals should be trained to have adequate knowledge of different forms of religious persecution and the right to freedom of religion or belief, the specific religious terminology of different religious groups as well as the cultural contexts of applicants, especially if the applicant identifies as a member of a religious group perceived as ‘heretical’ by others adhering to the same religion. This depth of knowledge is needed so that the religious and cultural contextual meaning of the asylum applicants’ words can be understood and clearly conveyed. In particular, it must be ensured that the case worker/interpreter’s own cultural context does not give rise to bias in their work.
6. Given the complexities of asylum cases involving religion, just as all LGBTI asylum case decisions are reviewed by a Technical Specialist before being issued to the applicant, ensure that cases involving religious persecution are also checked by an expert supervisor to ensure consistency and due process in all cases.
7. Work with faith-communities and charities specialising in freedom of religion and belief to check credibility of applicants, and keep up to date information on global developments.
8. Ensure that the asylum procedures are sensitive to the applicants’ experiences, backgrounds and well-being. Also ensure that applicants should not be caused unnecessary distress and should feel able to speak freely, especially in cases where the case worker/interpreter is a member of the religious community that has carried out the applicant’s persecution. In such cases, applicants should be re-assigned to a different interpreter (and/or case worker) with whom they feel comfortable to speak freely.
9. In cases where individuals have been granted asylum on grounds of religious persecution, the UK Home Office should fast-track dependents’ applications and visas for them to join the successful applicant. While it is of course welcome that dependents are permitted to settle outside the country in which they are persecuted, the current 3 – 6 month processing period of dependents’ applications is a time during which the applicants may also be at real risk of persecution.
10. Take account of judicial findings and objective information on the safety of internal relocation of religious minorities in the countries from which they have fled. Developments in communications technology have enabled information about individuals targeted by violent ‘extremist’ groups to be shared with ease, even if they move across a country, making the possibility of internal relocation often an unviable option.
House of Commons, Foreign Affairs Committee began taking evidence for their Political Islam Inquiry. Ziya Meral testified before the committee, along with Dr Omar Ashour, Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter and Dr Courtney Freer, Middle East Centre, London School of Economics. The aim of this session was to explore the following:
- The policies of the political Islamists, and their relationship with democratic practices
- The relationship between political Islamists and more violent or extreme groups
- The UK’s Muslim Brotherhood Review, and the future evolution of Political Islam
The 21st century provides unprecedented opportunities for common citizens to advocate for causes they believe in and issues they are passionate about. This is the century of non-governmental organisations, small interest groups, and campaigns launched by individuals. Many do an excellent job in contributing to the betterment of this weary planet. Yet, many also suffer from lack of reflexivity over how they go about their advocacy, what undesired messages this sends, and how sometimes their efforts might be counterproductive.
After a decade of professional work advocating in human rights, foreign policy, defence and security issues, allow me to highlight some basic lessons I have learned from my own mistakes and mistakes I see being committed commonly by others.
Not poetry, or emotions, but facts alter policies and make meaningful campaigns: If you are arguing that there is an issue, prove it, demonstrate it and communicate it in such a way that it leaves no doubt behind and opens eyes. Lousy arguments, grandiose claims, and poorly produced briefings only weaken credibility and open the door for doubt and criticism. It is all the more important to do so if you are challenging a formal body or a government. You might be right, but if you have not given your best to make your case, they can easily relativise your points and brush you aside.
Have a strategy: Meetings, pictures with high level officials or angry press releases sent out to any email address you can get hold of are worth nothing, unless they are carefully considered steps towards carefully considered objectives. We all want peace on earth, and goodwill among men, and no one has the power to single-handedly solve complex issues we see unfolding. You might have a long term vision to end poverty, conflicts and human rights abuses, but for your efforts to have any meaning, you have to focus on achievable, tangible and strategic steps towards that vision. Before acting on a cause, stop, think and have a long term game plan. Often, the most effective strategies are quiet and behind-closed-door work that takes a long time to actualise. Know the pitfalls of public campaigning, and use publicity moderately. It is a double-edged sword, and at times can hinder long term change.
Do your homework on your advocacy targets: Knocking on every door and meeting everyone with an official title is not advocacy, but having a busy week of meetings that goes nowhere, changes and achieves nothing. Locate who and which official body can bring change on the issue you are working on. Do not fall into the mistake of thinking the highest person in that body is the person whom you should meet. Often, it is their advisors and mid-level management that take practical decisions and can quickly act on tangible requests. Relationships are everything in advocacy, not as a means but as the very end. Work hard to earn the trust and friendship of your advocacy targets, and work harder to maintain them by providing excellent information, impartial advice and research-based expertise.
Do not transfer your frustration with the world onto the first official you meet:You might feel your heart palpitating a bit as you enter an official building with an impressive name. You have a long model-UN speech prepared to shake and rebuke officials sitting inside – people who have never heard what you have to say and who have no hearts or morality. In reality, those buildings are full of people like you: human, moral, deeply passionate about making a difference. I have sat in countless meetings where academics and activists continually rebuked and angrily challenged officials, all along thinking they are advocating for change. Such juvenile approaches might help you feel better, but they close doors for you among people with whom you need to work. Advocacy is not a therapy session, but a sophisticated form of diplomacy. It demands measured behaviour, respect, humility, and a knowledge of when to speak up and most importantly, when to shut up.
Involve and respect people you claim to be advocating for: It is always deeply disappointing to see people claiming to be campaigning for vulnerable people, but who do not include their voices, requests and involve them in organisations and campaigns. It is also deeply unethical to simply campaign for people without ever getting their permission and support for your work. Without ethical considerations on whether your advocacy might cause more pain for them, relativise their suffering, or put them in a difficult spot, advocacy turns into a harmful show that only benefits the advocates, not people they are claiming to help.
Leave your ego, politics and ideologies at home: If you are claiming to be raising your concerns for a humanitarian cause, then make sure why and what you are doing is for that end and not about you, your domestic politics, and your ideologies. Nothing so undermines advocacy and relativises suffering of people around the world as domestic political agendas which cherry-pick incidents to score a domestic political point. Nothing so kills humanitarianism as an advocate whose entire framework is actually themselves, their fame, their importance, and their place at a big table. Self-promotion is not advocacy, but just self-promotion using charitable aims. As a test of your motivations, ask yourself: Am I willing not to be publicly credited if something great happens? Am I willing to work with and advocate for people whose beliefs, values, and ideologies are different than mine? Am I willing to step back from the buzz and stage lights? If you cannot answer 'yes' to these questions, then you have to stop and reflect hard and long about your motivations. The answers will almost always already be clear to people around you.
With great opportunities come great responsibilities. We have more and more chances to impact the way things are in the world, but unless done correctly, not only do such opportunities go to waste, they can also be harmful and raise serious ethical problems. Thus, a good advocate is almost always self-critical, cautious, and committed to ensure that his or her efforts actually mean something.
Below are seven key changes that need to occur for Turkey to be able to contain the current fallout from its ad hoc Syria policies particularly since 2012. They are written from the perspective of Turkey's security and long term interests.
1) Shift policy focus from toppling Assad to ensuring immediate and nationwide ceasefire: It is high time to completely re-orient Turkey's focus. Yes, Assad staying in power is not conducive to positive peace, but in the immediate necessity of negative peace, ceasefire is much more important. Turkey can and should maintain its view that Assad cannot stay in office, but should not in anyway be part of any effort to oust him through military means. Such efforts did not, and will not work, and while it is Assad who is culpable for his crimes, pushing for that outcome is only producing new victims and refugees. Turkey has done all it can, and paid a serious price for it. It now has no option to prioritise both its safety, and establishment of peace in Syria.
2) Take a longer view on advances of PKK related groups in Northern Syria: Turkey has every right to be concerned with PKK achieving a territory it governs in Northern Syria. It is fair to assume it will only be a serious security risk for Turkey until there is an indefinite ceasefire and end of hostilities between Turkey and PKK, which is not possible in the near future. While Turkey has taken a strong diplomatic line in challenging its allies empowering actors with direct relationship with PKK, it has also shelled YPG targets and threatened a stronger action. In realistic terms, Turkey cannot stop YPG by merely such a threat or limited shelling, to do so would require a serious military investment including sending troops, which is out of question at this stage. Such responses also impact relations with key allies such as US negatively, which Turkey cannot afford to let deteriorate. The other option is to take a longer view: continue diplomatic stand within a constructive frame that just like with Iraq's KRG, a Kurdish ruled part of Syria could be a great partner for Turkey but that means PKK has to end hostilities to Turkey, and play a waiting game to see the end of PKK advances. It is one thing to seize a land in current conditions in Syria with US and Russian air backup and international goodwill vis a vis fighting ISIS, all together another to maintain it when those factors change and militancy needs to give way to governance. There is still the question of how Sunni Arabs forced out of their homes and rest of Syrians, including Assad regime, will eventually respond to advances of PKK related groups. Turkey's harsh responses might only be undermining its long term interests. If in the process of quick changes Kurdish groups in Syria follow KRG's model and move on from PKK's hold, then it is only good for news for Turkey. Ultimately, however, only a domestic solution to Kurdish issues in Turkey will ease security risks emerging from Syrian territory. Therefore, the main security threat for Turkey is domestic and Turkey can find a way to solve it unlike developments in Syria.
3) Continue to be a cautious partner in anti-ISIS campaigns: Turkey was right to be weary and sceptical of willy nilly US quick-fixes on ISIS. It is right to remain so and offer support but do not pursue any adventure without full commitment from US and all allies. It is after all only Turkey with a 900 km border with Syria, not US or any other concerned Western ally. ISIS is here to remain in myriad forms, and its root causes and future of Sunni experiences in Iraq and Syria will demand a truly complex diplomacy from Turkey, which can be undermined by ill thought through 'defeat ISIS with any idea possible, but only ISIS not sort out rest of the country' approach. Without a robust focus on stability in Iraq and Syria, all anti-ISIS efforts are temporary victories. However, Turkey has to take domestic threat from ISIS networks much more seriously and work much more closely with European allies on counter-terrorism for its own security.
4) Gradually distance from all armed groups within Syria: It is time to clearly accept: supporting of armed groups did not achieve the aim. It has made Turkey vulnerable, charged relations with allies, placed it within a proxy war with other stakeholders it cannot afford to lose. It is time to gradually pull back from all direct support and engagement. If the process is handled right, it can even open new diplomatic influences for Turkey in post-conflict Syria. It has been a risky, and ultimately truly costly and counter-productive policy with serious human costs and security outcomes. It has placed Turkey within regional fault lines that it cannot maintain. Turkey has to retreat to its pre 2011 policies of being a neutral partner with all countries in the region based on geo-economic interests.
5) Make border security number one priority: Turkey has undertaken some impressive steps on security of its Syria border last 18 months. It must continue to advance them, and make border security a priority. This is not about the usual 'jihadi highway' perspectives, but about the fact that Syria will take decades to recover from what it has gone through, and a failed state on borders is never a positive for any country.
6) Start preparations for the next phase: This too shall pass, like each war. Sooner or later fatigue, field victories, consumption of resources and will to fight will de-escalate the armed clashes. It will then be about localised skirmishes and tensions, and eventually re-construction of the country. Turkey will be the main passage way for reconstruction, from provisions of goods to hosting of all international actors that will work on reconstruction for decades to come. This will give Turkey a serious economic boost and an important influence channel in Syria and internationally. But this can only happen and reach a maximum profit if Turkey is seen as a neutral peace supporter for a unified Syria and protection of all Syrians. Turkey's honourable treatment of Syrian refugees will be a truly positive platform for Turkish share of reconstruction of Syria. It is time to prepare Turkish businesses, NGOs, civil society, and diplomats for the next phase.
7) Internalise a Syrian population as part of Turkey: Some Syrians will never leave Turkey. Many Syrians are being born and will see Turkey as much as home as their countries of origin. Till Syria is fully back on its knees, many have no incentive and so much trauma to face if they return. Thus, Turkey has to internalise a sizeable Syrian population as its own from now on. Its focus on Syrians cannot be short term management of 'guests'. They are not anymore. But they cannot be seen simply as burdens. They can play a seriously positive domestic economic and social role if their cohesion and adaptation is actively encouraged. While the latest EU deal has attracted headlines, and offers some temporary relief for troubled European politicians, for Turkey, question of Syrian refugees is a generational one. Therefore, they have to play a key aspect in a new Syria policy.
Ziya Meral is interviews by France 24 on terror attack in Ankara and Turkey's counter terrorism responses.
A terror attack in Ankara sends tremendous political signals and have tremendous security policy implications. Ankara is not only the nation's capital city, it has always been seen as its safest and most orderly metropolis. Yesterday's attack was the third one to hit the city within the last 6 months with unprecedented levels of civilian casualties. They alter perceptions of safety, confidence in the state, and touch deep social fault-lines, grievances and emotions.
The personal and political pressure this puts on policy makers is clear. Such attacks always evoke strong military responses. With initial signs pointing to PKK for yesterday's terror attack with almost all casualties being civilians, it is fair to expect that Turkish air force will bomb PKK targets in Northern Iraq through out the day, mass arrests of people with PKK links across the country will follow, HDP officials that do not follow a careful balancing act and emerge in support of the attack (after the last attack, an HDP MP was present at the burial of the suicide bomber) will face fierce political and legal pressure.
Yet, none of these will achieve the desired security outcomes for Turkey. In the short run, heavy security responses are understandable and often necessary. However, without addressing three major issues Turkey will continue to face serious insecurities: Kurdish issues, Syria portfolio and Chaos.
Much has been written on Kurdish issues in Turkey, and there is already a mass body of literature on how the issues can be addressed. Yet, neither the PKK nor the state seem to accept the fact that their self declared aims will never be achieved and use of force only deepens problems and have serious human costs. PKK will never be able to create a Kurdistan or cantons it governs out of Turkey, and given how such things became possible in Syria or Iraq, it will have to wait till the country collapses or is invaded by a superpower, both of which are rather implausible. Turkey will never see PKK leave weapons behind and disappear and continue as if nothing has ever happened and that somehow peace merely means lack of PKK attacks. Kurdish grievances are real, and they demand real responses. Political creativity, constructive attitudes and a genuine shared desire to work things out are needed, but alas, such basic commodities are rare in Turkey's zero-sum highly emotive and highly tribal social landscape.
In regards to Syria, Turkey's policy has been ad hoc and reactive, like all other stakeholders. It has evolved from seeking to use personal relations to convince Assad to compromise to eventually partaking in operations in supporting rebel groups to oust Assad. Though Turkey's Syria policy is largely now about its own security and concerns over advances of PKK related groups in Northern Syria, unless Turkey seeks a way to untangle itself from the war it will continue to pay a high price. Turkey has to accept realities on the ground, shift to a self-defensive long term policy and declare a new policy of ceasefire focus rather than toppling Assad.
What makes it impossible for Turkish policy makers at this stage to face these challenges, however, is the chaos that has dominated the country's politics, state structures and public arena for the last 2 years. Currently, Turkey faces a structural chaos with an over reaching presidency undermined prime ministry. Ever since the Gezi protests, but more significantly since the shady corruption scandal that broke out and triggered a messy clash between AKP and Gulen movement, Turkey has been managed through a state of exception, with the government taking any extraordinary measure it can take to protect itself with serious human rights breaches and chaos across state structures.
In the process, Turkey has become a country that can neither rejoice nor mourn together, or find a common sense to unite around. It has become an angry country, with ever shrinking and fragmenting tribal outlooks as each new development divided people more. Pressure on media and denials of freedom of expression are only fueling mistrust, dangerous propaganda and misinformation. This alone impacts Turkey's security climate more than it is imagined. It hinders solutions. It creates a perfect storm for new terror groups to emerge, young ones with no memories of where militancy took us seeing streets and mountains as a solution, and angry public demanding a heavy zero sum security response.
The key question that remains is whether the current Turkish government will be able address these. And the answer to that is possibly a No. AKP has played a part and at times was the main actor in these tensions. While it still enjoys a domination of politics by virtue of having no real opponents, it is no longer driven by pragmatism but only by its survival and securing of a presidential system. This means that unless AKP has an epiphany and decides to turn back to what it was prior to 2011, or unless a new party emerges, or somewhat miraculously CHP completely reforms itself thus emerge as a middle ground that can meet anxieties of the wider public, Turkey is set for a truly vulnerable 5 years ahead.