Sağlam Hırsız / Iron Thief: Turkey’s Crisis of Democracy

Sağlam Hırsız

Sağlam Hırsız

The halls of the School of Languages at Özyeğin University in Çekmeköy, Istanbul on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 11 were, as usual, quiet. The ten students in my class had note-taking sheets in front of them, half-heartedly listening to a lecture about nonrepresentational abstract art, jotting occasional key words and doodling cartoon characters in the margins. But as the pre-recorded lecture droned on, a faint collection of voices could be heard in the distance. Not terribly abnormal, as raucous students occasionally make distracting noises in the corridors. But the voices grew louder, and the voices were chanting. I looked up from my lesson plan. The students, too, had lifted their heads, glancing at one another and at me. When it became clear what was happening, every student rose from their desk and went to the halls. That morning, Berkin Elvan—the fifteen year-old boy who was struck in the head by a tear gas canister during 2013’s summer Gezi Park protests—died after being in a coma for 269 days.

The students were revolting.

The political turmoil in Turkey has become even more complicated since I wrote about it at the outbreak of the protests last summer. The spark that set off the Gezi protests was the harsh treatment of a small collective of demonstrators speaking against the ruling AKP government’s decision to destroy the park in favor of building a shopping mall. Naturally, outside spectators were curious how something so seemingly trivial could erupt in nationwide action. The situation, of course, was far more complex. In short, a staggering number of Turks had had enough of AKP’s Islamic-leaning initiatives and brutal crackdowns.

But more variables have entered the equation. The long-enduring Ergenekon trials finally reached their climax, with the sentencing of several military officials on the shaky grounds that they were plotting yet another military coup. The Ergenekon trials were largely a farce, too far-reaching and thinly evidenced to implicate all the oppositional figures the government wanted to put away. By the end of the year, Turkey was still number one in the world for most imprisoned journalists with a grand total of forty. A series of unpopular laws restricting the sale of alcohol, a restocking of officials in almost every branch of government with pro-AKP officers, and Erdoğan’s clearly-stated desire to run for President, and furthermore to increase the size and scope of the President’s power, have recently contributed to a growing amount of unease. Add on top all this that a fifteen year old boy, who was not a participant in the demonstrations, died nearly a year after suffering a blow to the head, and, well, you get what you get.

This, however, is but the tip of the iceberg. In late 2013, police raided the homes of several government officials and their families, uncovering a massive corruption scandal stretching from the top-tier managers of semi-state-run Halkbank to Prime Minister Erdoğan himself. A minister’s son was caught red-handed with several million Euros stashed in a shoebox in his house. Scores of ministers, parliament members, and businessmen were arrested in connection with the corruption probe, but a massive reshuffling of police chiefs and lawyers assigned to the case have forestalled any advancement, all thanks to Mr. Erdoğan and his party’s attempt to cover-up and diminish the amount of damage such a scandal might cause. Yet no matter how much AKP run around trying to conceal their misdeeds, the biggest piece of damning evidence had yet to come out.

In early 2014, recordings surfaced on social media sites of Erdoğan talking to his son on the phone, telling him to move any money he might have in the house away to another location. Several more recordings appeared, ranging from Erdoğan’s conversations with media heads discussing the removal of journalists and editors critical of the government to AKP officials openly admitting using Islam to garner votes and followers. So while the Ergenekon trials were allowed to drag on for years based on evidence largely concealed from the public (with one of the elderly accused winding up dying in prison awaiting the end of the proceedings), the government has washed legal offices and police bureaus of anyone not in lock-step with AKP despite the overwhelming preponderance of glaring proof.

That night I sat on my couch grading essays and sampling new albums. Major protests were taking place across the country, most notably in Taksim Square. Nearby, demonstrators gathered at the bull statue on Bahariye Street in Kadiköy as a sign of resistance and solidarity, mourning the loss of Elvan and demanding justice from those responsible. In my own sleepy residential neighborhood of Merdivenköy, a familiar sound rattled outside; the banging of pots and pans. I went to the deck to find a sea of people at their windows, clanking spoon against pan, whistling siren-like warnings, flicking the lights on and off. They shouted “Katil var! Katil var!

There’s a murderer! There’s a murderer!

Several students were missing the next day or ducked out early so they could attend Elvan’s funeral. Since then, not a day has gone by where the students weren’t furiously discussing politics when I entered the classroom. Signs popped up on entrances offering grizzly details of the end of his life. “He only weighed 16kg at the end,” one simply stated. Spray painted pictures of his face with its fierce unibrow lined stairwells.

Minutes after the procession from Okmeydani Cemevi to Şişli Mosque for Elvan, the police force intervened, firing tear gas, deploying water cannons, and using rubber bullets against mourners and protesters. The death of Berkin Elvan reignited the fire temporarily dampened once the massive protests in Taksim Square—and around the whole of Turkey—died down. When the lesson called for a discussion about which media outlets students preferred, many chose Sabah or Hürriyet. And jokingly, many added that Zaman—a newspaper owned by Fetullah Gulen, a prominent international Islamic figure residing in Pennsylvania—had recently become trustworthy. Why, all of a sudden, would anyone trust what such a rightwing religious daily had to say? Simply put, Gulen is no longer an ally of the prime minister.

Erdoğan announced nearly two years ago his desire to close all dersahnes, tutoring centers that assist students in learning English or studying various subjects in preparation for university entrance exams, many of which are owned by Gulen, whose schools are spread around the globe. Until this point, Gulen and Erdoğan had assisted and supported each other, with Gulen’s daily Zaman serving as a near-mouthpiece for the AKP government. No small favor, as Zaman is the country’s highest-circulating daily, with more than twice the numbers of number two spot-holder Posta. But Erdoğan’s determination to check Gulen’s domestic influence and eliminate dersahnes—and, by extension, cause a major blow to Gulen’s ability to attract followers—has unsurprisingly turned Gulen against him.

And this is not the first account of Erdoğan turning his back on those he claimed were allies, and he’s done nothing to improve relations with countries whom he does not get along. Breaking a longstanding ‘don’t lose your neighbors’ policy—no fighting with border nations, no assisting countries who would try to do so—Erdoğan quickly railed against Bashar al-Assad, claiming the Syrian president had only a few months left in office at the outbreak of the internal crisis. Further, NATO granted Turkey a powerful armed apparatus to line up along the border, yet that border has no systematic checkpoints, and Al-Qaeda members fighting Assad’s army freely come and go. And as if stiff rhetoric and terroristic support weren’t enough, the Turkish air force shot down a Syrian aircraft that had crossed the border on Sunday, March 23, which resulted in nothing short of intensified tensions. To those outside the region, Erdoğan has repeatedly blamed agents of the West for inciting the Gezi protests, and insists that Western forces are attempting to overthrow his government despite bewildered US State Department proclamations to the contrary. Those who think Erdoğan might then join a Russian federation should note that Russo-Turkish relations have been in the toilet for years, and the recent grounding of a Russian plane in Turkey on the accusation of transporting arms and the recent threat of a Turkish blockade on the Bosphorous should Russia’s annexation of Crimea go too far don’t lend credibility to the claim. In short, Erdoğan is isolating himself and Turkey from the international community, solidifying his power at home because he knows his base is strong enough to support it, regardless of what the outside world thinks.

This is a dangerous moment for the country.

In the early morning hours on March 21, AKP blocked Twitter across the country, claiming that Twitter had failed to comply with legal requests to remove content deemed offensive to the public. Erdoğan had threatened earlier that he would block Twitter (and Facebook, and YouTube) should the need arise, and indeed it has; because these sites have been used to disseminate information and evidence regarding widespread corruption within the government and banking sector, namely the damning phone recordings, they are prime targets for complete censorship. This isn’t only a matter of egregious infringement on the freedom to access the internet or freedom of speech. This is a matter of freedom of communication. It’s impossible to predict whether Erdoğan will follow through on his threats to ban Facebook, but so far he’s made good on what he had promised, so there is every reason to believe that if the opportunity present itself, he will follow through. Scarier still is that widespread censorship of the internet will leave many Turks at the mercy of the many ‘unofficially’ controlled state media outlets—the ones that aired documentaries on penguins while the Gezi protests were in full swing.

One might wonder just how a power-hungry tyrant like Erdoğan can continue to have near-unwavering support in light of these allegations. There’s no easy answer. One explanation is that a large portion of the AKP base is comprised of rural, uneducated, technologically-illiterate folk who not only are unaffected by a ban on social media websites, but who, in all likeliness, see such things as a waste of time. Another explanation is that the religious rightwing see Erdoğan as some sort of savior, as he did initiate some sorely-needed reforms regarding the treatment of women who wear headscarves. Under all previous regimes since the formation of the republic, headscarved women were prohibited from entering any government building, including universities and hospitals, if they were wearing said headscarf. They could not teach in public institutions, could not be a member of a political party, and could not work in any mayoral office. Erdoğan reversed this, and as a result there has been an influx of conservative young women filling the classrooms of higher education. The prime minister is also responsible for making strides in talks with the PKK (Kurdish Worker’s Party), an outlawed political party considered to be terrorists at home and abroad. The conflict between the rural Kurds and the Turkish military has been ongoing for over thirty years, and for the first time it seems the violence has a serious chance of being relieved, however popular or unpopular his method of dealing with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. Furthermore, when AKP rose to power in the early 21st century, the IMF offered initiatives to stem the hyperinflation that plagued the Turkish economy in the 1990s, resulting in many public assets turning private, but ultimately shoring up the economy.

But the plot thickens.

On Thursday, March 27, YouTube access was banned when a video featuring an incomplete recording of a national security meeting surfaced. Several high-ranking officials, including intelligence chief Hakan Fidan, discuss the possibility of staging a false-flag attack in order to justify military action against Syria. AKP predictably called this ‘villainous,’ and in response completely restricted the video-sharing website. The implications of this are enormous. It is the stuff of which conspiracy theorists dream. And now, with elections only a few days off, the government is scurrying to tie up loose ends.

For the last few weeks it has been impossible to go more than a block without running into a barrage of candidate posters and streams of political party flags. AKP with its emanating lightbulb. CHP showing streams of fireworks. Saadet holding the crescent moon with three stars. Local elections are to be held on Sunday, March 30, and the tension in the air is almost palpable. Party-painted vans drive down every residential street and across every highway blaring music and rhetoric. Parties advertise their man running for municipal offices anywhere a space is available. Every morning on my way to work I cross a bridge over the Tem highway, and to the right across a large overpass one can see an enormous billboard with a stern picture of Erdoğan, brow ruffled, accompanied by twenty-foot tall letters spelling out Sağlam Irade.

Iron Will.

At work a colleague and I mused over a cigarette about the differences between how Erdoğan and other leaders handled protests in their countries. At least Obama pretended to care when the participants of Occupy Wall Street made themselves known. But Erdoğan? He might as well have told the protesters to go fuck themselves.

“Could’ve been worse,” my friend said. “He could have just shot them,” a grim reminder of what has happened to the south in Syria. A co-worker from Iran, in response to the YouTube blackout, quipped, “Every day I feel more and more at home.” Another colleague from Syria, who left the country at the dawn of the conflict, picked at his lunch nervously when conversation came around to the subject of Turkey’s divided population and the increasingly heavy-handed response of the police to the protesters.

No one knows what’s next. Were Turkey one giant thought experiment, we might assume that the agents would act rationally and in concordance in order to uproot AKP from its stranglehold on offices across the nation. But that is not the case. The bigger parties, namely the center-left Kemalist CHP and rightwing nationalist MHP, haven’t even considered the possibility of a coalition, scooping up with them some smaller but fairly reasonable parties like federalist BDP and social-democratic DSP. CHP, second in size to AKP, hasn’t figured out in over a decade that merely opposing Erdoğan’s stances is not enough to mobilize a population and convert the uninitiated; such a strategy is no more intellectually rooted than Erdoğan’s should-be dictum ‘Follow me.’ And while AKP has lost some support in the past year, it’s still overwhelmingly strong, many of its followers stuffing their ears with more cotton at every further mention of the government’s crimes.

But Turks are not given to despair. Dark as the horizon might look, demonstrators have admirably refrained from violence, taking a note from Socrates’ maxim that it is better to suffer an injustice than to commit one. People of obviously different political shades do not eye each other with contempt in the street. When I took the minibus home just this afternoon, tired after a full day of class with students restless at the end of the module and ready for the weekend, I sat in the back of the nearly-empty vehicle. A young man, clearly of leftist persuasion given the Ataturk insignia on his backpack, instantly sprung to his feet when an elderly woman in a headscarf struggled to make her way onto the bus. He held out his hand, helped her to her seat, took her money to the driver.

Canim, canim,” she said in appreciation, and smiled.

My dear, my dear.

There is hope.


2 thoughts on “Sağlam Hırsız / Iron Thief: Turkey’s Crisis of Democracy

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