The Turkish Complex: Bigman, Hero, Traitor, State

My new piece in The National Interest just came out. It is an analysis of Turkish current events, seen from a slightly more anthropological angle than usual. I identify repeating themes and patterns that underlie Turkish society and politics. I first encountered these while doing new research last year into Turkey in the turbulent 1970s (thanks to Stockholm University Institute for Turkish Studies for supporting the research). These insights have pointed me in new directions.

Turkey’s turn toward pugnacious autocracy over the past few years has caused consternation in Washington and European capitals. Some pundits blame it on the rise of Islam in a country that previously had been ruled by secular Kemalist governments. Since 2002, the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been elected three times at the national level with an ever-greater percentage of the vote. In the 2014 local elections, too, it neared 50 percent. As the party has deepened its hold on Turkey, it has felt more secure in pressing what many assumed has been its agenda all along: authoritarian rule and the Islamicization of society.

This view ignores two important things: that Kemalist governments tended to be tutelary, illiberal democracies shepherded by an intrusive military; and that during the decade after its election, the AKP, led by former Prime Minister and now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, transformed Turkey into a liberalizing, internationally engaged, economic powerhouse that had the respect and ear of the world’s leaders. If one simultaneously exaggerates the successes of Turkey’s Kemalist leaders and the recent failures of the AKP government, distortion is bound to result, and one is left unable to really account for the seeming knife-edge turns in Turkey’s political character.

But the error goes deeper than that. The Islam-secularism dichotomy, virtually the only framework most Western observers use in trying to grasp things Turkish, is no longer a useful diagnostic (if it ever was). We are seeing instead a recurrent cycle of conceptual patterns and associated roles—those of the “bigman”, selfless hero, and traitor—that have long characterized and destabilized Turkish political culture. These roles and their interactions are driven not simply by competing ideologies, but by on-the-ground rivalry between network hierarchies and a general fear of social chaos.

Read the rest here:

6 Responses to “The Turkish Complex: Bigman, Hero, Traitor, State”

  1. Oh, dear, really?

    OK, sure, Islam/Secular is too simplistic. But is this any better: “The post-Kemalist honeymoon lasted about ten years before Turkish democracy sprang back, like an overextended rubber band, to a familiar defensive posture in which the group in power focuses on defending its networks against rivals.”

    So, Turks as a culture have a certain elasticity and tensile strength, and hey have it as indviduals as well, such that Erdogan had either to break or to return to his cvulturally encoded autocratic configuration? He didn’t want to, mind you, he wanted to be what Akyol described today (as an option for him) the Turkish Mandela, but in this posthuman and still structural-Althusserian (not even Foucauldian) age, the culture made him do it? As it made Gulen switch from the Elvis of Global Ecumenism to bigman himself?

    If this is so ingrained, why did you think it could be otherwise and only discover these deep structures of culture now? And does it not necessarily follow that Turkish democracy and Turkish liberalism are oxymorons?

    if it is not so ingrained, you should write one of two articles: why the break happened or why there was in fact no break, only a brilliant levereging of US and EU desires to capture all levers of the state. But that’s not a path I see allowed in this essay.

    Rubber bands!? Oh, snap! So much for my hope that there might be something to Demirtas. (Or is a Kurd a paper clip, which can maintain a different shape?)

    Also, this: “The younger generation, it is true, has no personal memory of the humiliations, imagined communities, and divisions of the past. Its members’ focus is on upward mobility and, for many, on social justice. An entire generation—half of Turkey’s population is under thirty—has grown up with one hand on the internet, the other on a credit card.”

    You’re an anthroapologist. You must have read about collective memory and its inheritance. The notion of “personal memory” (odd insistence on individual agency given the rubber band thesis) is so often contradicted — not troubled but flat out denied — by work on collective memory. Imagined Communities are constructed on Imagined Memories, after all. You have to know that. And under 30 “grown up with one hand on the internet, the other on a credit card” is how much of that population? How do they have time to join ISIS and turn “eastern Turkey … [into] the functional equivalent of Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province”? Does ISIS stage concerts featuring the horsey dance as well?

  2. […] The Turkish government’s contentious new security bill is fully in line with EU norms and universal values, PM Davutoğlu has stressed The Turkish Complex: Bigman, Hero, Traitor, State […]

  3. I don’t know krmcn, Prof. White’s analysis — rubber band metaphor included — makes sense to me, and a lot of people find her work very helpful in understanding the social and political chaos of this hateful, backward land known as the Republic of Turkey. Also, your comment is way too long. Get your own blog if you’re going to ramble on like that.

  4. Erdogan who started out as a “Sultan wanna-be” turned into an “Islamist dictator.” Let’s not forget years ago he defined democracy as a tram to take to the desired destination and that’s where one gets off. In the Muslim world those who use religion as a tool to run a government and manipulate the people are Islamists not Muslims; there is a major difference between the two.
    It is sad that military has to be part of checks and balances in democracy but it’s a must in countries run by Islamist mentality. Look what happened in Egypt. At least Erdogan is a street smart Islamist and is taking his time to reverse Republic of Turkey unlike Morsi who tried to switch Egypt overnight.

  5. thanks this article Jenny. I am Turkish and Muslim.

  6. Here is the video that Jenny White was describing:
    “Millet Eğilmez”

    Jenny’s writeup of the video:
    “Although the AKP dispensed with many Kemalist-era practices, the discourse of selfless hero has remained, for it is deeply rooted in Turkish culture. The AKP video for the 2014 local election showed a mysterious stranger in a foreign-looking trench coat cutting the rope that held up an enormous Turkish flag. As the falling flag’s ominous shadow floated across the land, citizens of every persuasion began to run toward the flagpole, masses of them diving into the Bosphorus to swim to the flag’s rescue. In a chilling special-effects ending, citizens swarm on top of each other to create an enormous cone-shaped hive, seen from the sky. One young man, his face aglow with fervor, climbs on the backs of the others to the top of the pile and grabs the broken end of the rope, flinging himself outward to certain death while pulling the flag back up. ”

    A Greek, Western European or American would consider such a depiction of their people as a vast ignorant, ultra-nationalist mob as an insult, but above it is being used successfully by the most popular Turkish political party in decades to promote their election campaign. That video reminded me of the CGI swarms seen only in Hollywood zombie movies to depict the mindless hordes. I think even the fake secular faction of Turks who hate the AKP and pretend to be so different, would have also loved that video, if it only promoted a “respectable” Kemalist party.

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