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Erdoğan Passes the Symplegades

Joseph Burke

Turkish author Buket Uzuner’s mother was dying. One temperate evening in Istanbul, she left the hospital with her editor friend. It had been a hard day. To calm her shaken nerves, they stopped at a bar for a quick raki as the sun gave its last. Sparse words and slow sips. Later as they walked in the direction of home, she saw before her the shining black coat of a street dog rise and fall with its sleeping breath. Drawn to the dog’s warmth and calm, she raised her hand to stroke it. Suddenly disturbed from its deep slumber, the dog leapt and snapped in the air, gripping her hand and drawing blood. The weight of all the strain she was under unleashed itself in that moment. From deep inside her, she screamed. People paused in the street to stare at this howling figure. Her friend ran to her side. From underneath his comforting arm, she looked up and saw the dog trembling, terrified.

Turkey’s new president, Racep Tayyip Erdoğan, is to social conservatism what Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s founding father, has been to secularism. Erdoğan had been the country’s prime minister since 2003 and has been controversially remoulding its identity since coming to power. Each measured step has strengthened the government party, Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi/Justice and Development Party (AK Party), he founded thirteen years ago. Under his tutelage, it amassed a total of twenty-one million votes in the 2011 parliamentary elections, an extraordinary forty-nine per cent of the national total, gaining it 317 out of 550 seats in the national parliament. Then on August 10th, 2014, the Turkish people had for the first time the opportunity to elect their president, traditionally a ceremonial office. Barred from a fourth term as prime minister, Erdoğan competed in the presidential election and won with fifty two per cent on the first round of voting. Emboldened by the reverence his followers have conferred upon their “Uzun Adam” (Tall Man), the country’s twelfth president has heralded what he calls “Turkey’s New Era”.

Yet, at the same time as the AK Party’s support under Erdoğan has steadily grown a significant section of Turkish society has been left feeling increasingly isolated and fearful that their secular voice is being drowned out and ignored by a religiously motivated autocrat. Their disquiet about “the Sultan”, as he is disparagingly known to dissenters, was elevated to new levels during the presidential campaign when he was accused of making a Putin/Medvedev-type castling move. During the election build-up, Erdoğan commented: “If I step into the [Çankaya presidential palace], I will be the people’s president. I will use my full constitutional powers […] The system has changed. There won’t be any interregnum, because [the presidency] would be the executive office. Meanwhile, we have many friends that could become prime minister.” The next day’s newspapers exclaimed: “We don’t need another coup leader.”

While many countries have seen their national literature bound up in anaemic prize-giving merry-go-rounds, Turkey’s writers remain vitally connected to the nation’s evolving politics and identity. This is, of course, not without cost. The country has the highest number of imprisoned journalists anywhere in the world with forty – a fifth of the global total – currently incarcerated. This in turn has driven a pernicious mode of self-censorship and public uncertainty about what can and cannot be said. Maureen Freely, Orhan Pamuk’s celebrated translator, wrote recently for PEN International: “In Turkey today, as in Turkey of yesterday, you pick up a pen at your own risk [...] But that has not silenced Turkey’s dissenting writers, who continue to speak out for democratic change with ever greater ingenuity, imagination, and force.”

While a young scientist in the 1990s, Murat Gülsoy was editor of Turkey’s popular, subversive gothic magazine Hayalet Gemi (Ghost Ship). Now a respected novelist, the bespectacled biomedical engineer has just published Gölgeler ve Hayaller Şehrinde (In the City of Shadows and Dreams), which looks back at the 1908 Young Turk Revolution when the suspension of the Ottoman Parliament by Sultan Abdul Hamid II in 1878 was lifted. The parallels with today are not lost on Gülsoy. In the summer of 2013 when a small environmental protest against plans to redevelop Istanbul’s Gezi Park was brutally put down by the police, empathetic fellow citizens from around the country crowded the streets to demand the right to peaceful protest. The result was more than a dozen deaths and thousands more injured and arrested. “There are moments of hope in history and I think they are connected together even though we do not know what the connection really is,” Gülsoy ponders aloud, as if considering what experiment might discover the link.

Maybe a little unusual in an engineering faculty, his office on Boğaziçi University’s quiet Üsküdar campus is decorated with postcard portraits of his literary heroes: Fowles, Borges, Kafka. With precision he describes the chief element in recent protests that have challenged the establishment: “Irony does not give the authorities the chance to label the people as an opponent because they are ‘just kidding’. They do not belong to some evil force. Authority always wants to find a label for you to create a sort of other, to point at you and then start to struggle with you. But if you are not taking the responsibility of such a mission but instead are ‘only kidding’ then it is very hard for the authorities.” These alchemists of demonstration concocted a strange compound mixture of humour and anger to befuddle the AK Party under Erdoğan. Governmental sound bites were inverted and converted to the cause through song, dance and public theatre.

Yet despite all this creative effort, concerns exist as to what such strategies can achieve in the long term against brute state force. When 14-year-old Berkin Elvan died last March, the hearts of a lot of Turkish people sank. The young boy had been in coma for 269 days after being struck unconscious by a tear gas canister on his way to buy bread. Ubiquitous street graffiti memorialising the boy’s bright smile often have the effect of overwhelming the spirit of defiance with sorrow. Through the prism of history, Gülsoy is doleful and reminds us of the bold countercoup that broke out in 1909 against the Young Turks: “Gezi was amazing, it was fantastic. But when you go to the history of 1908, people talk about this uniqueness, this hopefulness and this good sense of self-respect. They are very proud of themselves because they took the power of the Sultan [Abdul Hamid II] and reconstituted the parliament again. It was a big revolution, not like today, but within one year they lost everything.”

With the guttural drone of arriving and departing ferries at Kadıköy pier, I took a balcony table at the historic portside Café Deniz with Hakan Günday. The young writer is plagued by the label of “underground writer”, as if it left a stench of mediocrity. However, in 2011 Günday’s AZ (The Few) was voted novel of the year in Turkey and the rights for his most recent work, Daha (More), were snapped up by eager filmmakers at this year’s Berlinale. In person his air of punkish anarchism is seasoned with a rich, bellyful laugh and an unflinching politeness. The flow of his polished accent is only interrupted by duties to his ever present companion cigarette.

“We think that we know people, we think that we know everything. We have an illusion of knowing.” Günday emphatically refuses to sing an ode to new media’s role in Turkish society. “This illusion is given to us by the internet, by all kinds of communications systems. So we have a sensation of knowing and of being everywhere.” Many here have grown wary of information flows since their television screens began to conflict with what they themselves were seeing in front of them on the streets of protest. Particularly maddening was CNN Turkey’s decision to continue airing a documentary on penguins instead of reporting on the mass demonstrations unfolding throughout the city. “There are two kinds of information,” Günday continues, “one that comes to you and the one that you go after. The one that comes to you is mostly lies or trying to sell you something. But the one that you go after, the one you are trying to find in a huge forest, that’s much more real.”

Günday is exasperated by the Arab Spring analogies of lazy journalists who care little for the nuances of Turkish society: “The first question [from foreigners] is mostly with the name of the prime minister Erdoğan. And I ask do you know the prime minister that was before Erdoğan? They usually say no. So I say either you now love us more or hate us more. How do you know the name of this guy even though you were not at all interested before? But I know he knows it from his newspapers and TV because there is an adjective that tickles his wondering, which is Islamist!” Günday is keen to stress that Turkey’s protests saw religious and secularists search their own consciences, finding in themselves the motivation to take to the streets in an unprecedented and transformative way. Yet he sees the external media portray this as simply another anti-Islamist revolution in celebration of Kentucky Fried Freedom. “They were all there and they were all together in front of the authorities who were trying to stop them. That’s why it was a new image, a new moment that we got; a lot of people of totally different political views coming together for the right of having a voice.”

Watching a ferry gently pulling out, he says just as slowly: “Maybe the main question is this: if someday the country, whose majority of the population is Muslim, would become a democracy in European terms, would it be Turkey? Or which country would it be?” Taking a long drag, he keeps his eyes on the heavily laden ferry leaving for Karaköy. An impatient latecomer is halted from boarding by a port guard.

On the eve of her fiftieth birthday, Ayfer Tunç was already waiting for me when I arrived to meet her in the district of Ortaköy. Author of famed books such as The Night of the Green Fairy and former chief editor of the country’s most significant publishing house, Yapi Kredi, she sat at a window in Feriye Café pensively looking out onto the never-tiring Bosphorus. As I say hello, I am struck by the breathtaking view and turn a merely late introduction into a rather fumbled one.

There is a palpable sense in which many in Turkey are unsure where it is their country is going. They are adamant that religion does not divide them. Turkey is a Muslim country and they are proud of their immense history and culture. Why would they not be? Nonetheless, they are also fearful that there are those who wish to make capital, political or otherwise, on division and conflict both at home and abroad to the detriment of Turkey’s future.

Before the çay has arrived at our table, Tunç is speaking quickly and enthusiastically about the value of Weltliteratur in breaking down erroneous differences between people. She tells me how she has always tried to focus on the ordinary lives of people in her stories, that this is the true mission of all great literature. Now, however, big picture politics is inescapable: “When I was writing my last novel Gezi happened and I stopped. For two months I couldn’t write anything because I had to think about the country, the future and democracy.” This time of reflection has left her unambiguous about the political regime: “The polarisation made by the prime minister, we call him crime minister, is used as a weapon in this country. And so I have no idea what other people think in the country.”

Embodying the ebb and flow of optimism and pessimism that pervades Turkish political discourse, she talks of the promise of creative, empathetic opposition on the one hand and the manipulation of diversity by the establishment on the other. She is at once frustrated and defiant; taking off her distinctive large, red-framed glasses she says: “These days are the worst days. The young generation needs more time and this system resists them very strongly because they know they will change their world.” She has an anxiety that only manifests itself via integrity.

In 2004, Tunç was a writer for the immensely popular Turkish television series Aliye, which portrayed a woman who divorced her cheating husband and moved with her children to make a new life for herself in Istanbul. This was a daring story for society to receive. By the time the authorities realised how appealing the show was to the Turkish public it was too late to do anything about its progressive plotline. It is women, she says, that have been particularly affected by the AK Party’s indomitable progress in recent years. While she credits them for efforts to tackle violence against women, the party still does this, according to her, from within a discriminatory framework: “[The government] cannot stand the independent woman. They don’t want the independent woman. They don’t want the woman who decides her body, her life, her self. They want to see the woman as part of the family, mother, wife, daughter etcetera, but they don’t want to see a woman as just a woman.”

Istanbulites, like Tunç, are particularly sensitive to Erdoğan’s presidential rule given memories of his tenure as mayor of their city between 1994 and 1998. When elected as city leader Erdoğan did commendably tackle its water shortages, horrendous air pollution and public transport problems. Nevertheless, lingering in their mind from that time are his proposals for a “cultural cleansing” of the city, to include the banning of alcohol in cafés and the erection of a mosque in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square. Back then, Erdoğan was a thorn in the side of a much mightier secular establishment. As a member of the Welfare Party (a precursor to today’s AK Party) he saw the party banned by the courts for allegedly threatening the country’s secularism and became a vocal critic of the judicial system. The authorities lost patience with him when he read an Islamic poem at a public event that included the lines: “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers ...” A ten-month jail sentence and a criminal conviction meant he was forced from his position as mayor, only being able to return to political office when his newly founded AK Party won national elections and changed the law.

Since his mayoral days, Erdoğan has used personalised political power to boost economic growth in order to garner broad-based support for his social conservative agenda. Soner Çağaptay’s recently published book, The Rise of Turkey: The Twenty First Century’s First Muslim Power, succinctly explains how Turkey has emerged as a strong economic force, quadrupling its economy since 2002, and how the AK Party has been trying to translate this into international political stature. However, according to Çağaptay: “Turkey can only become the twenty first century’s first Muslim global power if it remains true to itself, synthesizing Islam and its Western overlay, the yin and yang of Turkishness since the days of the sultans.”

Çağaptay, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes that it was the application of this yin/yang strategy that propelled Turkey’s economy in the first place. Turkey kept itself open to European investment while simultaneously shifting trade to emerging markets and Muslim-majority countries. Turkey’s east-west ambidexterity has managed to increase global trade from $82 million in 2000 to over $389 million in 2012, while also raising foreign direct investment from just under $2 billion in 2003 to $16 billion by 2012. Consequently, between 2000 and 2012 average life expectancy increased from sixty-nine and a half years to just over seventy-four years and expected years of schooling rose from eleven to thirteen. It is this significant progress that has secured his large support base –not mindless religious ideology as some might suggest, but genuinely felt improvements across a range of social indicators.

There are voices from the margins though that have argued vociferously that Turkey’s economic growth is chimerical, based on a bubble of cheap credit and construction not dissimilar to that seen preceding many other economic meltdowns of recent years. Erdoğan has stubbornly advocated for further interest rate cuts against the advice of most economists warning against causing explosive inflation. While some unimaginatively point to Erdoğan’s religious views on usury to explain this economic strategy, the reality is that the AK Party machine simply cannot afford to pull the reins on its economic chariot because supporters are heavily invested in its preservation. Many fear undue political pressure on the country’s central bank has been necessary to maintain the greasing of the state’s neopatrimonial wheels. Over the phone from Washington, Çağaptay told me that: “[Erdoğan] might meddle [with] freedoms and that may scare away the liberals but the core AK Party voters who have bought into the party’s agenda of political economic stability, and therefore wealth, will continue to vote for it because all these people who have bought mortgages for the first time in their lives are scared that political instability means economic instability. Nobody wants to go back to the horrible decade of the 1990s in Turkey.” Sustaining this economic success, however, is not merely a matter of keeping credit flowing. Erdoğan also needs to show international markets that it is able to withstand potentially destabilising events at home and abroad.

Almost anywhere in Istanbul one can see small, bedraggled Syrian children with roughly bundled satchels weighing them down as they scurry to catch up with the only people left that they know. Moving in and out between the countless urban masses, they do not have a second to cry, though the youngest whimper incessantly. There are now more than a million Syrian refugees in Turkey, the majority of whom are children, and only about a quarter are in official refugee camps. There is a huge cost to the state, purportedly already in excess of $2.5 billion. The rest of the world has only provided fifty-one per cent of what the UN has said it needs to undertake its humanitarian response in the country this year.

As the scale of the slaughter in Syria became apparent, Erdoğan eventually stepped up to denounce Bashar al-Assad. Like many then, he believed that the Syrian president’s days were numbered. Now that the Syrian leader is back on his feet, albeit still in a quagmire of rebellion, Erdoğan sits a little more uneasily. Not only does Assad remain in power but the infiltration of more extreme forces into its neighbour poses a new problem on its eastern border. “Turkey actually faces not one but two threats from Syria: [the] first is the Assad regime, which will never forgive Ankara for what Turkey tried to do. Turkey tried to kill Assad. Number two is al-Qaeda with growing enclaves in Syria. Today al-Qaeda may not be targeting Turkey but it will ultimately, inevitably, bite the hand that feeds it.”

In the face of this symbiotic threat, Turkey is struggling to show it is in control. Erdoğan’s bold move against the Syrian regime has been a largely impotent gesture: “Turkey is finding out that its ambitions to become a regional power are undercut by the fact that Turkey has accumulated huge amounts of soft power, it is the economic giant of the Middle East, but it doesn’t have the matching hard power to shape the outcome of events.” This becomes even more apparent as Russia plucks Crimea from its back garden without so much as a Turkish whisper and the threat of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, a much more serious prospect than the loose association that is al-Qaeda, grows exponentially.

Erdoğan’s greatest threat of all though may lie a little further afield. Earlier this year leaked telephone conversations supposedly revealed him to be directing his son to fraudulently conceal large sums of money. These accusations of nepotistic corruption were particularly damaging to him, having carefully cultivated an image of purity (ak in Turkish) in over two decades in politics. He was predictably quick to blame former ally Fethullah Gülen, the influential Islamic preacher in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania, for fabricating these tapes in order to further his Hizmet movement. This grouping is a somewhat mysterious grassroots association with neither a visible presence nor an official membership but thought to have sympathisers throughout the institutions of the state. Estimates vary wildly on the number of people who participate in it, anywhere from one to eight million, but critics accuse it of creating a seditious “deep state” structure within Turkey with ambitions to topple Erdoğan. Following the leaks, an enraged prime minister went on the offensive, summarily dismissing three hundred and fifty police officers as Gülen supporters. Twitter and Youtube bans were pursued (partially revoked in the courts) and a significant expansion of secret service powers was secured. Many were in shock at the increasing audacity of the country’s leader and feared greater restrictions on public expression.

Buket Uzuner, whose first novel Two Green Otters: Mothers, Fathers, Lovers and All the Others has sold more than a million copies in Turkey, was glad of the opportunity to write an essay for the rapidly expanding Turkish Airlines about her beloved area of Moda in Istanbul’s Kadıköy. Streets lined with colourful candle-lit lanterns hung on blooming cherry blossoms and coffee shops with ice cream crêpes, Moda has long been noted for its openness to diversity and progressive ideals. One of its favoured attractions is Moda pier, which is capped off by Tarihi Moda Iskelesi restaurant, a local institution. A quirk of Istanbul local government rules means the little jetty on which the restaurant sits is not part of the Moda municipality but rather falls under the control of the central city AK Party authority. Consequently, you cannot purchase alcohol at the restaurant, a peculiar anomaly in the district.

Uzuner used the opportunity of the magazine piece to bemoan the presence of prohibitions in this liberal enclave: “In my article, I was writing how this area is so tolerant because of its multicultural life. But suddenly this alcoholic ban didn’t fit in the picture.” When her essay was published she noticed that the paragraph about Moda pier had been sloppily removed. Annoyed, she was eager to find out what was going on: “I called the editor and she said: ‘I did it myself because I believed that if it was published [the city municipality] would get angry.’ I said ‘This is censorship!’ and she replied ‘I did it for your sake.’ This is why I was disappointed, it was so normalised. She was not a bad person. She thought she was doing something good for me, saving me.”

Not satisfied to leave it at that, she brought a case to court. There she found herself doggedly accused by lawyers of being unpatriotic. Nevertheless, the author persisted and eventually won her case after two tough years, receiving her requested one Turkish lira in compensation. Despite this exceptional victory, she fears that since her case there has been a continued erosion of personal autonomy in Turkish society: “The government’s biggest problem is that they believe the lifestyle they choose is the best for us too. They don’t understand why we don’t like it. They say alcohol is not good so it is right we do not sell it to young people. Yes but we have to decide that for ourselves. It is this they don’t understand.”

Erdoğan is as deliriously popular as he is viscerally despised and this is a dangerous political position to be in. His presidential victory speech suggested some conciliatory tones: “I want to build a new future, with an understanding of a societal reconciliation, by regarding our differences as richness, and by pointing out not our differences but our common values.” However, it will take more than rhetoric to convince Erdoğan’s sceptical opponents that he means it.

Political mistrust is often exemplified and entrenched in the most unusual of circumstances. Istanbul has an extraordinary 150,000 or so street dogs. They are placid and much loved. Residents leave out food and water for them, they even spend much time constructing kennels for their local favourite. So in 2012 when the AK Party decided it would round all the dogs up and banish them to the city’s outskirts there was outrage. A treasured aspect of Istanbul life and an integral part of the city’s cultural history, maddened residents recalled a worryingly similar law introduced by Sultan Mehmed V in 1910 when tens of thousands of dogs were rounded up and abandoned to die on a barren island in the Marmara Sea. Istanbul was soon thereafter struck by an earthquake, which was interpreted as divine displeasure at the animals’ mistreatment. The dogs were quickly brought back to the city where they have remained part of the social fabric since and more recently an anathema to the AK Party’s vision for Turkey.

It was on a particularly glorious sunny afternoon that Uzuner told me the story of her mother’s illness. Still a little distracted by grief, she said that she planned to go back to find the dog that had bitten her, to make a reconciliation. Repeatedly she insisted that it was her fault, the dog was sleeping and should not have been disturbed. It was important, she felt, in these times of national division and personal trauma to make peace with him. Both the dog and her country were delicate and precious. Between mournful sighs and bright laughter, waving her bandaged hand in the air she said: “My mother’s generation and my generation, we thought that secularism was granted. Now we realise those things are not granted. We now want to fight to keep them.”

1/10/2014

Joseph Burke is a writer and researcher with a background in philosophy and politics, having worked previously across Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

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