The Limits of Erdoğanology

7 July 2013, Today's Zaman

Until the Gezi Park protests broke out, I didn't know there were this many Turkey experts in the world. Thousands of articles were published.

The vast majority of them were pretty much the same, used the same vocabulary, reached almost identical conclusions and had similar punch lines using different anecdotes.

Most articles had two major focal points: Gezi Park and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. As the protests spread across the country and showed tremendously complex and varied patterns even in different parts of İstanbul, all of the protests were reduced to clear and tidy narratives and observations inferred from the limited scope of Gezi Park, if not personal experience with tear gas.  

Much has been said about the protests and their different interpretations, although we still do not have a nationwide study and analysis of all the different types and phases of the protests. Yet very little reflection has been done on how quickly the most talked about issue was Erdoğan, both at home and abroad, and whether this helped or blurred our perception of what was happening.

This problematic trend began in Turkey. Shortly after the early morning raid on Gezi Park and the first wave of protests against police brutality, chaotic public anger focused exclusively on Prime Minister Erdoğan. Protesters and their supporters came to despise his unshakable stand and harsh words against them. Many said this led them to keep protesting. He represented all that they wanted to change in Turkey.

Meanwhile, not a small portion of the population in Turkey found comfort in his strong stand. For his constituency, Erdoğan's strong stand met them where their fears were. For them, the protesters represented the old system, and if Erdoğan was toppled, nothing would stop the old rulers of the land from once again discriminating against them and excluding them.

Amid chants asking for Erdoğan to resign and chants by pro-Erdoğan groups saying, “We will not let you lynch him,” the political figure of Erdoğan became the symbolic sacrifice that was both demanded and denied; both sides were doing it for the “sake of Turkey.”

Thus, we were back to the culture wars that previously made Mustafa Kemal Atatürk the symbolic battleground for the competition for control and monopoly of the public sphere in the 2002-2008 period. You either loved Atatürk until tears fell every time you saw a handsome picture, or you despised him to such a level that you saw him as the cause of everything that had gone wrong since 1923. Atatürk was simply a cover for deeper problems and tensions in the country.

What Erdoğan said, what Erdoğan didn't say, how he said it or how he did not say it became the main focus of reports, debates and hysteria on social media. However, what he said or didn't say was ultimately irrelevant. Erdoğan did not create the deep fault lines that were once again exposed. Neither a strong state nor a dominant cohort of the public that instinctively wants to control all aspects of life and wider society, nor police brutality and weak rule of law, nor the problematic state of the media, was new to Turkey.

Erdoğan, as a politician, dwells on the social and political horizon of the country, and within that sphere played a rather precarious and problematic political game, seeking to gather support by appealing to pre-existing fears, worries and sensitivities. Even if he were to resign tomorrow, the same issues and the same horizon remains fixed in Turkey and will continue to create same problems in the near future.

If domestic transference to Erdoğan was caused by domestic culture wars, it can be argued that we have witnessed another type of transference to Erdoğan internationally that echoed the silent codes of a “clash of civilizations” and “Islamists versus the free world” narratives. A mythical vision of Erdoğan, long held but now seemingly fulfilled emerged: Erdoğan, the omnipotent and omnipresent, in full control and single-handedly leading, ruling and shaping Turkey, taking it toward a much denied but now apparently clear and certain dark end.

In this picture, there was no place for Turks, or Turkey, for that matter. Turkey's complex history and multiple realities, along with its intricate state and social structures, all evaporated. All factors that shape, limit, enable and push Turkish domestic and foreign policies beyond the wishes of a single individual, let alone a government, were omitted in grand, sweeping conclusions.

You might not see it in what you read, but Erdoğan is a product of Turkey and performs and reacts to events within the limited space granted by that reality. Erdoğan is not a Jedi knight. He is a mortal. His persuasion, his powers, his acts are limited. He was elected by the people. He remains in power, not because of cunning manipulation of a zombie nation but because of his political skill and public support for him, just like any other elected leader in the world.

If he does not perform according to the voters' interests, then he will not remain there. His executive powers are not that of a dictator or a sultan. He should be criticized and held accountable, just like any other leader, within a clear framework of human rights law, but not in abstract mythical caricatures that reach cosmic levels.

Excessive focus on Erdoğan only blinds us to much deeper conversations we need to have about Turkey. Such a focus is only good for shallow conclusions about a complex country. It has no analytical value in making sense of where Turkey is, where Turkish politics stand, or where they will go next.