By Ali Sarilgan
We tend to put too much emphasis on certain words. One single trigger word coming out of a passionate mouth can define someone’s entire ideology and set the tone for any discussion. Capitalist. Socialist. Liberal. Conservative. Oversimplification is a dangerous art, but hey, if politicians can get away with it, so can I.
So I’m going to be a shameless linguist and state that the entire division between the alleged Eastern and Western worlds springs from one single word, a single word that can define both cultures with extreme accuracy: politics.
The word “politics” comes from the city-states of ancient Greece. In Greek, “Polis” means city, in which the citizens would gather around the agora to practice the earliest form of democracy. And “Politeia” (by Aristotle’s definition) translates to “affairs of a state conducted by citizens.” This word evolved over time and has now become an essential part of our civilization.
But meanwhile in my home, Turkey, and throughout the Middle East, a different word is used to convey the same meaning: “Siyaset.”
The word siyaset is derived from the Arabic root “sys.” A “seyis” is a person who tames, trains and, when necessary, punishes horses. It bears a religious connotation, resembling the Shepherd in Christianity, granting the ruler divine reign over his people, or as the word suggests, his horses.
And how about China, another authoritarian regime of our endlessly polarized world? Their own version of siyaset is the word “政治” (zhengzhi). The character “政” (zheng) is defined as “political affairs,” while the character ‘治’ (zhi) is defined as treatment, government and punishment.
For centuries, eastern thinkers, from Confucius to Omar Bin-Hattab, wrote “Siyasetnames,” guides for easier and swifter “rule for the people.” The West didn’t produce anything of the kind until Machiavelli, and quickly replaced his notions with the Enlightenment ideas of thinkers like Rousseau and Locke, to create guides for easier and swifter “rule by the people.”
The two synonyms “siyaset” and “politics” in reality are antonyms. Politics is free speech, questioning and an endeavor for the common good. Siyaset is obedience, silence and a submission to the ruler’s desires. As politics distributes power, siyaset collects it onto one person. Politics belongs to the people, but siyaset belongs solely to the state. Siyaset may have elections but will only call upon its people once every four years to vote, while politics will create a medium for people to freely express themselves day in and day out.
When you turn on the news and hear about the war in Syria, when you scratch your head wondering why democracy just doesn’t work in the Middle East, when you see desperation in the eyes of 432 orphans as they watch their fathers being dragged out of a collapsed mine in Turkey, when your eyes tear up looking at the pictures of the little refugee washed ashore, when you hysterically call your family from your Stanford dorm to see if they got hurt by a terrorist explosion that claimed 102 lives, think of these two words.
Politics is freedom.
Siyaset is peonage.
For us, the consternated democrats of Turkey, who began using “politics” with our Republican Revolution only to lose it in the last decade to the siyaset built by a sinister government, politics is an obvious yet far away answer.
When we look up to our government all we see is a rider violently lashing onto our reins and when he looks down from his saddle, all he sees is a neighing animal bound to his will.
So what will become of us? Will we hide behind the trivial argument that non-Western culture is incompatible with democracy? Then where will we place all the non-Western democrats who rose up against authoritarian regimes?
The brave students who stood for their rights in 1989 on Tianamen Square. The hundreds of thousands of Filipinos that poured to the streets of EDSA in 1986, demanding democracy. The freedom fighters who tore down the wall in 1991. The people of South Africa who rallied behind Mandela against racism. The secular Muslims who rose up against theocratic dictatorships in the Arab Spring. Where will we place these heroes?
The values of democracy are very much universal. By the very freedom-seeking nature of humanity, we will change oppressive regimes worldwide and build together a future where the leaders will jump off their saddles and meet their people eye-to-eye, a brighter future where all siyasets and all zhengzhis will flourish as politics.
Contact Ali Sarilgan at sarali19 ‘at’ stanford.edu.