The Young Scholars on Turkey (YSOT) Program presents
"Lessons from Turkish Civil Society for the Arab Spring "
The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
12:00 - 1:30 PM
Moderated by Kadir Ustun, Research Director, SETA Foundation at Washington D.C.
By Mary Hope Brenneman
Jacob Zenn presented his research on civil society development in Turkey under this year’s YSOT theme of “New Turkey in a New Middle East.” Zenn opened by noting Turkey’s exceptional status in the region; that of a secular democracy with a majority Muslim population. He then went on to explain how there has been an increased openness for the development of civil society in Turkey over the past decade. Various statistics aid in supporting this point: civil society organizations have increased by 44%, 10% of the population is now engaged with NGOs, and more than 1 million people involved in civil society organizations are women. Zenn attributed these positive developments to two main changes in Turkey. First, the supervision of civil society has been transferred from the police department to local governors. This has eased restrictions that civil society leaders and members felt as a result of police involvement. Zenn contended that this led to an increased feeling of freedom in the development of civil society. Second, associations have recently been allowed to receive foreign funding and support without obtaining specific government approval. Not only has this also increased the feeling of freedom among civil society groups, but it has increased their ability to develop. Zenn pointed to Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union (EU) as a primary motivator for these changes.
While outlining these two changes that have led to increased civil society development, Zenn provided probable effects of this recent development. He noted that civil society organizations seem to be centered in urban areas, while less than 25% of organizations are found in rural areas where the need for civil society and NGOs is more pronounced. Zenn later said that this uneven distribution may be a result of poor administration of EU funds in supporting the development of civil society groups. In addition, Zenn theorized that the development of religious organizations in civil society has helped to keep Turkey’s government secular. This happens because the population can use civil society organizations, rather than the state, as an outlet for religious expression. However, Zenn added, there is a danger in civil society (particularly religious groups) becoming too closely tied to decision-makers in the government. In response to a later question, Zenn noted that the close connection between the IHH and the AK Party is viewed as dangerous and has suffered some backlash in Turkey. Zenn concluded with reflections on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s recommendation of a secular regime in Egypt. This recommendation, according to Zenn, represents a Turkish hope for secularism in the broader Middle Eastern region. The key is to find the right balance between state, religion and civil society.
Zenn received his JD degree from Georgetown University Law Center where he was a Global Law Scholar and recipient of the Certificate in Refugee Law and Humanitarian Emergencies. He was an intern at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malaysia and at the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD) in Yemen. He was the recipient of the Arthur C. Helton Fellowship from the American Society of International Law and the Chadbourne & Parke LLP Middle East and North Africa Fellowship. Jacob received his B.A. from Emory University. He received a graduate degree in international affairs from the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Nanjing, China.
Zenn’s publications on international security were published by the Jamestown Foundation, West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, the Asia Times, Hurriyet and the Yemen Times. He is also a member of the Department of State’s “Young Turkey/Young America: An New Relationship for a New Age” initiative.