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Turkey: ‘Surreal, Menacing…Pompous’

Riccardo Venturi/Contrasto/Redux
Supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Istanbul, June 7, 2013

One of the most disturbing aspects of the government’s intolerance of anything it perceives as a challenge to its authority is its repressive treatment of the press. Around sixty journalists are currently behind bars. Most of them have reported favorably on the Kurdish nationalist movement, the PKK, and are victim to the country’s draconian terror laws. At least twenty journalists received prison sentences of between six and thirty-four years as part of this summer’s Ergenekon verdict. For the most part, they are accused of activities such as gathering news from sources close to the PKK and expressing hostility to the government in telephone conversations, actions that have been interpreted as “aiding and abetting” terrorists or “attempting to change the constitutional order by force.”

In many cases denied bail and access to the charge sheet that has been prepared against them, these allegedly pro-Kurdish prisoners are presumably being held as political hostages by the government for use as the peace process with the PKK inches forward. But others, writing on non-Kurdish issues, have also been indicted, not least by Erdoğan himself, who has issued writs against several journalists who have made fun of him. Self-censorship is the result. It is directed from the boardroom, as newspaper owners try to avoid the fate suffered by two antigovernment newspapers, Milliyet and Sabah, which lost control of their well-known publications as a result of government pressure. (A company run by Erdoğan’s son-in-law bought Sabah at auction—he was the sole bidder.)

Equally insidious is the widespread use of intimidation to pressure newspapers and their employers. Columnist friends of mine have lost their jobs as a result of a phone call from the prime minister’s office. One well-known broadcaster and columnist, Nuray Mert, told the Committee to Protect Journalists last year that her career had effectively been ended as a result of the prime minister’s criticism of her in a public speech. The huge court case that ended recently with the jailing of the former army chief of staff, along with many other retired officers, journalists, and politicians, was held under similar highly politicized conditions, its fairness compromised by what human rights advocates regard as the misuse of protected and partisan witnesses and the lengthy pretrial detention of many of the accused.

A vindictive authoritarianism is taking hold of Turkey. To the prime minister’s supporters this is regrettable but necessary; many I have spoken to think that the protest at Gezi Square was organized by foreign agitators, and that the protesters should have been crushed more harshly than they were. In a democracy, these people believe, the will of the majority is determined at the ballot box and then carried out. This, they say, is what had been happening quite successfully until the liberals, realizing they were too few to win an election, turned to seditious activities instead. The idea that the beliefs of liberal minorities should be legally protected and might actually have an influence on policymaking has not been accepted by the government, which claims to speak for the majority.

But the architect of Turkey’s polarization isn’t the liberals; it’s Erdoğan. He has read into successive election victories a license to involve himself in every aspect of the nation. His abrasive, physical style of oratory betrays no self-doubt. Opening his arms to his audience, bringing his hand over his heart, he criticizes the lives of his subjects, and his views are rarely less than vigorous. All drinkers are alcoholics; every family should have three children; wholemeal flour is best (“our children will be stronger…the bonds of trust between us will increase”); abortion is murder and Caesarean sections should be avoided. Twitter is a “menace” and those opposed to road-building should go and live in a forest. The prime minister appears to dislike expertise when it disagrees with him. “You have nothing to teach us about sociology,” he told a politely dissenting social scientist.

As much as the tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets, it was Erdoğan’s contemptuous way of addressing the Gezi demonstrators that hardened feelings against him. Liberals are skeptical of a leader who commands slavish adulation from his followers—a former adviser to the prime minister told me there is no “mechanism of self-criticism” in Erdoğan’s entourage. The government is touched by paranoia; Erdoğan’s chief adviser has accused foreign powers of using telekinesis to try to kill his boss. The government creates an aura that is surreal, menacing, and insufferably pompous. Unsurprisingly, it was the butt of humor during the Gezi protests. “Enough!” ran one graffito after a night of brutality by the security forces. “I’ll call the police.” A gay group unfurled a banner that said: “You have nothing to teach us about sodomy.”

Erdoğan has encouraged a species of conservatism that is now the dominant mode of life throughout Turkey. The culture is pietistic, implicitly anti-Alevi, and materialistic. This last factor is new, for until quite recently virtue was associated with austerity and self-reliance; now the faithful demand rewards in this world in the form of high-performance cars, iPads, and so forth—acquired using the family credit card.2 Following a pattern that American conservatives would recognize, these Turks are both in sympathy with the conservatives in the government and growing more detached from it in their everyday lives. Private schools and hospitals have proliferated and the middle classes prefer to live in the private housing communities that have sprung up in Istanbul and elsewhere.

One can understand why minorities like the Alevis associate these gated developments with social and sectarian homogenization. While visiting a colossal housing colony in Istanbul, for instance, I met a woman of Alevi origin who had become a devout Sunni through marriage into a Sunni family and vigorously criticized the Gezi protesters. From the AKP’s point of view, however, Istanbul has improved greatly under its rule. The city has indeed boomed, with new infrastructure and a housing price bubble to rival any in the developing world.3 Among the recent constructions are homes for the poor; the spectacle of unregulated shanties clinging to the hillsides is rarer. Over the next few years Istanbul will have the world’s biggest airport, a gargantuan bridge over the Bosporus, and two cities in the greater metropolitan area of one million inhabitants each. Each day seems to bring a new discovery for the city’s taxi drivers. “Lovely,” said one as we drove through a tunnel that had opened that very morning. “It’s all owing to Tayyip,” he went on—“lion of a man!”

By contrast, I have spoken to architects and planners whose relations with the government have broken down over what they describe as the haphazard and unplanned nature of the city’s expansion, inadequate oversight, environmental damage, and mass evictions of the poor to make way for the middle class. The new bridge over the Bosporus, a very senior planner told me, could permit the urbanization of a huge stretch of old forest—on which, he said, the city’s fragile ecology depends. Work has now started on an enormous neo-Ottoman mosque that Erdoğan wants to be visible from everywhere in Istanbul, and that will have the tallest minarets in the world. At the same time, his deputy prime minister has hinted that the great domed space of Hagia Sophia, formerly a church, then a mosque, and now a museum, would be reconverted into a mosque.

Erdoğan’s opponents publicly celebrated the International Olympic Committee’s rejection of Istanbul’s bid to host the 2020 Olympics. (Tokyo won.) I have heard liberals express satisfaction that Turkey’s boom now seems to be slowing—the consequence of falling confidence in emerging markets in general, and the effects of the Gezi demonstrations. (The stock exchange dropped sharply following the unrest.) Anything that tarnishes the prime minister’s self-image is welcomed by Turkish liberals.

On September 30, the prime minister announced new pro-democracy reforms. Under these, instruction in Kurdish will be allowed in private schools (though not in state schools) and an electoral threshold that has had the effect of limiting Kurdish representation in parliament will be abolished. A long-standing ban on women in hijab working as civil servants is also to be lifted—except for some judicial and military personnel.

Erdoğan’s pro-Kurdish measures were designed to revive the peace process. Politicians close to the PKK have described the new reforms as inadequate, and thousands of Kurdish nationalists remain in jail under Turkey’s anti-terror laws, but Erdoğan is the best Turkish prime minister the Kurds have ever had; a return to violence is unlikely.4 An injection of pious women into the civil service will advance the prime minister’s plan to make the state more religious. But he will do nothing that would help his opponents. The jailed journalists stay jailed. And there will be no recognition for the Alevis.

To many Sunnis, the Alevis are wayward Muslims who should be encouraged to return to the true faith—not encouraged in their heresies. The Alevis had a prominent part in the protests in Gezi and the prime minister has hardened his tone against them. He has made disparaging asides about them in speeches and the new Bosporus bridge is to be named for an Ottoman sultan who slaughtered Alevis by the thousands. Erdoğan’s Sunni supporters and the Alevis also differ on Syria, the country’s main foreign policy challenge.

Turkey’s Alevis have only a hazy affinity with Syria’s Alawites, but they felt acutely threatened when it looked as though Bashar al-Assad would fall quickly and be replaced by a Sunni regime supported by the AKP government. This is what Erdoğan had in mind when he became an early proponent of regime change in Syria back in 2011, receiving opposition leaders and facilitating the transfer of arms to rebel groups. But Assad did not fall and the price of this policy has been high. Half a million Syrian refugees have arrived in Turkey, the border areas are unstable, and the Erdoğan government has been embarrassed by accusations that it has been helping opposition groups linked to al-Qaeda, accusations it may have been trying to answer when the Turkish army shelled fighters from one such group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, earlier this month. In May, fifty-three people were killed in attacks, believed to have originated in Syria, on the Turkish town of Reyhanli (The prime minister pointedly noted that the dead were all “Sunni.”) Erdoğan has not concealed his frustration at the United States’s refusal to topple Assad; but he has been unable to do so on his own. These are all points made by Erdoğan’s liberal opponents, Alevi politicians in particular.

Erdoğan is Turkey’s most powerful leader since Atatürk, but the Gezi events have been a serious challenge to him, and their effects will continue to be felt. By picking fights with those who disagree with him and encouraging sectarianism, he is condemning his country to a period of turbulence, while undermining his own reputation as a path-finding democrat in the Muslim world.

—November 20, 2013

  1. 2

    Erdoğan’s Islamism is nothing if not pragmatic. The economy remains dependent on interest-charging loans that are banned under Islam. Erdoğan insists that a global network of financiers (by which he means Jews) is trying to weaken the country, but he has done more than anyone to expose Turkish consumers to what he calls the “interest rate lobby.” The country’s foreign debt has nearly tripled since the AKP came to power. 

  2. 3

    The flat I bought in 1999 for $28,000 is now worth around $800,000. Alas, it is now owned by someone else. 

  3. 4

    The government had been hoping to convince Kurdish nationalists in parliament to support proposed changes to the constitution that would attach new executive powers to the post of the presidency. Erdoğan is expected to run again for president next summer. Kurdish acquiescence in these plans now looks less likely. 

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