This post has been updated.
I recently returned from Turkey. I made a decision not to post while I was there and here’s why.
Things are going to hell in a handbasket. So much has happened in the past month, much of it reported in detail by the foreign press and the few independent Turkish media outlets still operating. I’m relying more and more on my Twitter feed for information about what is happening on the ground. Let me recap:
Over the past few months, the AKP has pushed through parliament bills that have essentially erased important elements of the separation of powers in Turkey. The AKP government (by which is meant the singular involvement of PM Erdogan) has laid hands on the educational system, including the Academy of Sciences, the appointment of judges and prosecutors, the police, and other formerly independent institutions. It has nearly eradicated legitimate avenues of free speech (bought and bullied newspapers and television into submission, banned social media and legalized nearly unlimited spying on its citizens). I’m probably forgetting something, there have been so many wounds to the national body in such a short time. (See my prior posts for some of these.) The essential driver behind these is not, as some might believe, the Islamicization of society and the state. What do any of these have to do with Islam? No, it is for the PM and his circle to remain in power and to retain the immense profit of those positions.
PM Erdogan wishes to stay in power. And he wishes to continue as is, with the Turkish economy functioning as a profitability machine, churning out vast amounts of money for his massive infrastructural projects, which churn out vast amounts of money for his followers. Some of that money — many millions of dollars in cash, have been recently found in shoeboxes under a bank official’s bed and located, based on a conversation allegedly wiretapped from the PM’s phone, in a safe in his son’s house. A 14-month long investigation into corruption high and low (netting a mayor in Fatih as well as the sons of ministers and the bank official) led prosecutors to issue arrest warrants and the police to bring them in to testify. Several ministers were forced to resign. One of them, on his way out the door, said on live television that the PM knew all about this, so HE should be the one to resign. Wiretapped conversations have been leaked through social media almost nightly. The “Daddy” tape is most insightful. In it, the PM apparently wakes up his son on the morning of the arrests and tells him to “zero out” what’s in his house. “But Daddy,” says the sleepy son, “there’s nothing in the house that would interest them except your money in the safe…” This is followed by an exasperated conversation, leading to a creative explosion of satire on social media about a father’s advice on which hunk of money should be delivered where.
The PM responded to the arrests by transferring or removing from their posts hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police, then pushing through the bill that henceforth allows a government official to appoint judges and to require government notification before a case like this can be investigated.
He also set up a new villain — the familiar ‘inside enemy’ working at the behest of ‘outside enemy powers’ that had been the bugaboo of generations of Kemalist schoolchildren. This time, instead of the non-Muslim minorities, the blame was placed on AKP’s former ally, Fethullah Gulen’s Hizmet movement, ostensibly working at the behest of the CIA. The government has even looked favorably on a retrial of the military officers jailed, some for life, in the Ergenekon trials, convicted of fomenting coups against the AKP government. Ah, it was all a misunderstanding. In fact, they claim, it was the Gulenists, not the AKP as everyone thought (and who took credit for pushing the army back into the barracks), that was behind the trial. Indeed, it was widely known that some of the evidence was faulty and even rigged against the generals. Now history is rewritten to show that the Gulenists were at fault for that. Some senior officers have just been released from jail (along with unsavory characters like Veli Kucuk, who is alleged to be behind numerous assassinations and has vowed to continue his “patriotic activities”). Perhaps the PM has decided he needs some friends in the army and others with special skills.
As a result, there is less and less “rule of law” in Turkey. The police don’t obey the prosecutors; prosecutors can be pulled off their jobs for unpopular investigations. The effect of this will trickle down into society. Already a whole series of people convicted of a variety of crimes have asked for a retrial, since clearly their trial procedure must have been tainted by the Gulenists. If the generals were victimized, why not them? Police act with impunity, with no fear of repercussions if they shoot teargas canisters directly at people (protesters, but also passers-by and in one recent photo a cameraman) just a few feet away.
Yesterday the funeral of a young boy killed by a blow to the head by a tear-gas canister that left him in a coma for months brought tens of thousands of people into the streets in solidarity. The boy, Berkin Elvan, was out buying bread during the Gezi protests almost a year ago. He had told his mother he would go to the grocery store because he didn’t want her to get hurt. A loaf of bread is a powerful symbol in Turkish society and many of the demonstrators at his funeral and at memorials across the country cried and clutched loaves bound in black or tied loaves to their front doors.
Another young man, Burak Can Karamanoglu, nephew of an AKP mayoral candidate, was killed yesterday during the protests surrounding Berkin Elvan’s funeral in a fight between demonstrators and a group of local AKP supporters carrying clubs and shouting religious slogans. Some in the media called it a fight between gangs of an outlawed far-left splinter group and “civil fascists”. A massive crowd of AKP supporters appeared for Burak’s funeral. While the PM has remained completely silent on Berkin Elvan’s death, he immediately blamed the “murder of our our brother” Burak on CHP head Kilicdaroglu”s “illegal soldiers” (a play on “Ataturk’s soldiers”, a trope used by Kemalists). Worse, Egemen Bagis, AKP’s former minister for EU affairs, said of the thousands of people in the streets mourning Berkin Elvan at his funeral that he couldn’t understand these “necrophiliacs”. The lack of respect and civility, much less humanity, is stunning. This has nothing to do with Islamic or any other kind of ethics. It is power and impunity run amok.
If everything can be put down to a conspiracy, then people can act with impunity. There is no need to fear repercussions from individual police brutality or blatant expressions of sectarian hatred. In a previous post, I described the new regulations banning hate speech — they appear limited to things like refusing someone a job because of their religious preference. Insulting Alevis, as the PM has done in public, seems to be allowed, just as “Armenian” is not infrequently used as an insult. But then, the regulations at this point mean nothing. There are no prosecutors to prosecute and no police to arrest anyone, except those on the wrong side of the newly blooded divide.
The PM’s “us versus them” discourse has been honed to a knife point, shearing open the only recently healed social wounds that divided Alevi (Berkin and Kilicdaroglu) from Sunni (Burak), Kurd from non-Kurd, Muslim from Jew and Christian, and secular liberal from conservative pious. He is ripping apart the fabric of society and fanning the blood-lust that has so many times dragged Turkey down the path of sectarian violence.
It is such a shame for a Turkey that truly was on a remarkable path to peace and prosperity, most recently under AKP leadership. This is the part no one can understand — that the PM would undermine his own accomplishments over the past ten years, the legacy that he would have left to Turkey and to the world as a remarkable and astute, if pugnacious, leader. He is also creating problems within his own party, it is said, physically beating his ministers if they displease him.
A feeble opposition with no new ideas is unable — just weeks before a crucial election — to capitalize on the fact that AKP is on the defensive by putting on display a better economic plan or showing themselves to be less corrupt. As one working-class friend in Istanbul told me, AKP is the party of ‘Do it’, and CHP is the party of ‘Don’t do it’. Those who wish to jump the AKP ship, either as voters or politicians, have nowhere to jump to.
For the first time in my memory, people are worrying about whether or not the upcoming elections will be fair, given the new technologically advanced voting booths they expect to be employed and the huge stakes in the outcome. How easy is it to rig an election electronically? Are the continual wiretap leaks an attempt to illegally influence the election? People are asking whether foreign observers are needed. What happens afterwards if a substantial part of the population, on one side or the other, believes that the election results were rigged? It will add fuel to the vortex of rage already distending society, like lava rising beneath the soil of the nation.
Recently I have been talking to old friends about their experiences in the incredibly polarized and violent 1970s, a period of brutal street-violence that embraced the entire Turkish nation in its decade-long death-grip (and which I witnessed first-hand), but that has essentially been wiped from Turkish memory. It is as if history began in 1980 with the coup, which is now often rewritten as a plot by outsiders to weaken Turkey, not as a response to a failed government and economy and a society exhausted by continual death and destruction. Not a few of my friends anxiously noted parallels with the present situation.
It is said that PM Erdogan has on several occasions suggested that the answer to situations like Gezi and the protests has three steps. First you employ the police, then the army, then, if that doesn’t work, you put your own people on the street. It is questionable whether the weakened army in Turkey would step in against its own citizens on the street. So we go straight to Option Three, to hell in a handbasket. When PM Erdogan returned from a trade trip to Morocco during the Gezi riots, he was received at 2 AM at the Istanbul airport by an enormous crowd that chanted things like, “Just give us the word, we’ll take care of those Taksim people” and “Minority, beware.” He didn’t encourage “his people” to go out and take care of business, but after that there were disturbing incidents of gangs of men roving the streets with clubs and knives, some chanting Allahu Akbar, others chanting military marches, and others simply hailing insults along with blows on any demonstrator that came their way. What if PM Erdogan decides it’s time for Option Three and unleashes his supporters? This time, people will take out their guns and go after the relatively politically innocent young demonstrators. The parents of the Gezi youth, though, themselves survivors of the 1970s, will know what to do. And there we have a scenario of hell and an illustration of the adage that history that is unexamined is destined to repeat itself.
Let us hope that PM Erdogan has enough self-control not to go to Option Three, with which he will destroy all that his party has accomplished and possibly destroy the nation as well. Valdimir Putin reportedly once warned never to corner a rat because then it becomes the most dangerous animal on earth. It will do anything to survive, anything.
In response to some thoughtful commenters, I want to explain what I mean by my somewhat misleading implication that “religion has nothing to do with it”. What I mean is that Islam as faith is not the driver of current events, as feared by those who think the AKP’s main purpose is to spread pious conservative ethics and practices. Rather, what we are seeing is a calculated reintroduction of sectarianism, which includes the demonization of religious differences, in order to control and manipulate the population. To some extent Sunni/AKP identities have been merged and act as political markers to distinguish those who are “with us” against those who are “against us”. As one of the commenters noted, Sunnification has a long history in Turkey (and the Ottoman empire before it). It finds resonance in society, especially among people who have been convinced that the nation is under threat by outsiders. (I wrote about the impetus toward intolerance and the “unmixing” of populations from the Republican period to the present in my recent book, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks.)
The threat can be presented as coming from other Muslims as well, not only non-Muslims, secularist “coup-mongers”, and the Alevis. For instance, the AKP has recently defined as Enemy # 1 the Gulenist Hizmet movement, which is also Sunni, so I do not wish to overstate the Sunni aspect of sectarianism. What is salient for understanding the trajectory of Turkish society is not the labels, but the continual division of society itself into groups that can be manipulated and set against one another.
What is interesting is that the AKP in its first years of power took the position that “Turkish Islam” was special because it was more tolerant (due to its Central Asian heritage), despite the “we are brothers” rhetoric it employed when it visited countries in the Middle East to sign trade deals. It shared this view with the Gulenist Hizmet movement. Perhaps the AKP/Hizmet split has now released the AKP from its Central Asian heritage altogether and it is free to divide and conquer according to its own sectarian template.