Turkey: Whose Side Are You On?

NOTE: Unpublished Post, it can be used in full by notifying the author.

Last 12 months have been truly draining for all who research and write on Turkey. We not only saw dramatic events and ups and downs that were difficult to decipher and make sense, we saw a toxic and suffocating climate descending on the Turkish public space and conversations on Turkey anywhere in the world.

Often, it felt like tidal waves of strong and clear views carrying masses and with it those whose day time jobs are covering and analysing those events. Polarization has been fierce, and there has been no option for anyone but to fit into a clear camp in clash with others.

In Turkey, one either had to sing praises of PM Erdogan and see him as the Messiah, or had to see him as the new Hitler committing mass crimes. One either had to be supporting a 'revolution' symbolised by urban and self-assuredly 'modern' Turks or 'protection' of the nation and 'national will' of similarly self-assured bearers of 'authentic' Turkishness.

Then came the further fragmentation as AKP-Gulen Movement clash unfolded, now, we had to take one side or the other, either enjoy the tremendously worrying damage caused to the state structures since it was the 'Islamists' clashing with each other, or take the side of AKP or its challengers from within the state.

Chronic troubles of Turkish public space only amplified these clashes; our incapacity to engage in a conversation with different views without intense emotions outbursting and the ultimate result of that being attacks, slurs, relativisation of whoever simply does not agree with us 100%.

Within fierce emotive public space that only fosters emotive political partisanship, any chance of an analysis or view outside of the unfolding social and political clashes became impossible. Any comment you made were made to show 'your true colors', thus essentialising an ultimately crooked ontology and sudden loss of any personal worth or value. Friendships broke down on the basis of a single tweet or view expressed, with the most intense personal judgements passed. Any attempt to analyse Turkey outside of 'are you pro or against Pm Erdogan?' horizon became impossible.

Within the last 12 months, I have been named the following among my fellow Turks;  AKPist, Gulenist, Pro-Zionist, Americanist, Pro-Armenian, Free Mason, Religious Muslim, a Muslim selling out. These are made all the more ironic by the fact that I am a Turkish Christian with no affiliation or interests in/with/from any of these groups. Sadly, it seems it was impossible to be perceived as a person just expressing personal views, I must have had a side I belonged to.

So thus, any conversation on Turkish foreign policy outside of two-options (it is a major failure of Islamist government vs it is a great success ) became impossible. Foreign policy conversations became grandeur metaphors, only scoring a pro or anti government goal in an imagined match. The world outside melted into the world inside, melting reality that remained outside of Turkey into Turkish discourse olympics.

Say, you fully agreed that media was being coerced and facing intense government pressure, and raised this as a concern, but if you did not stop there and also raised the low standards of Turkish press and how columnist culture also contributed to current polarization and toxic air in Turkey and how not every journalist is a bearer of non-biased and free media, and how we are seeing an accumulation of decades long unhealthy state and business interests in management of truth, you were seen as simply supporting Erdogan.

Say, you fully agreed that the police used out of proportion force and committed abuses during Gezi protests in Istanbul and courts are failing to bring these to light, and say that you saw a lot of good and promising signs of an invisible and yet important group of people who are not represented by mainstream politics and who demand rights for all, but if you did not stop there and said in later stages of those protests in Istanbul we saw a come back of all the old ghosts in Turkey that suffocated the initial promise and that any analysis that does not fit Gezi into how all other protests across the country differed and the long term reasons behind that social eruption, and you doubted the poetic framing of a 'Turkish spring' you found yourself with once again supporting brutality of Erdogan.

Say, you too remained worried for decades now of the patriarchal nature of Turkish politics and society, and serious issues with rights of women in the country, violence against women and gross problems with child brides and sexual abuse. But, when PM Erdogan started speaking in his own own way on the need for Turks to have more children, you did not see this as an Islamist call, but actually a valid point on the demographic trends in Turkey and serious future awaiting us with an aging population, then you found yourself back to supporting all the ills faced by women in the country.

Mr Erdogan himself too followed the same course, anyone who challenged his policies were publicly blamed to be foreign agents, or immoral people against the 'will of the people' who are out for drinks, porn and simply want to pursue a coup. In fact, his public tone of voice have only amplified the intense social dynamics and he has played a serious part in undermining a lot of his good work and a lot of the current mess we are in.

Last few months' clash between conservative Turks also showed they too share the same instinct for suffocating any other conversation than they want or any other view than they promote. If the 'secular' Turks had used more of a 'western' vocabulary to silence others, now, conservative Muslims use a full a range of Islamic terminology to silence, undermine, slur and relativise their opponents.

Use of hashtags in Twitter, and non-stop repetition of the same intense personal attacks with just another way of saying it fades any beauty there was in public space opened by the social media. This really makes us understand more and more why God asked us not to use his name in vain in the Ten Commandments. When you survey what is being written and said by conservatives, it is almost as though the Lord Almighty will be voting in 2014 elections.

Amidst all claims of piety and a spirituality that make the holder of those values feel superior to those who do not share them, conservative voices too demonstrated that they are no better or saintly than any other 'sinner' they see themselves in comparison with. In fact, such an appeal to a cosmic support for very mundane personal interests and weaknesses caused them to be more closed to interaction than those secular nationalists who also saw a cosmic legitimacy given by Turkish race for their own power monopoly.  

Within this picture, of course, any chance for a genuine attempt to converse in order to understand and arrive at a better picture disappears. Articles, conversations, media interviews and social media interactions are all zero-sum assertions that far from seeking to convince others by persuasion, merely seeks to demonstrate how immoral, how fascist, how idiot the others' voice is.

And sadly, academics, journalists and policy wonks too share the guilt of all of this. The thin line between being an activist academic or a journalist and simply riding a particular wave as an academic and journalist got crossed continually. It was horribly sad to see academics, journalists and policy researchers to copying the same emotive slurs and ad hominem attacks to views of their own colleagues, only giving themselves and their own wavelength the aura of intellect, 'objectivity' and integrity. When such voices who automatically find a hearing by virtue of their titles behave that way too, there is not much hope left for the larger society to assume a respectful engagement and a civic public space.

So where does this leave us? For some, this is all Erdogan's fault, if not these 'Islamists' who are out there to turn us into Iran, interfere with our bedrooms and drinks. For others, this is all fault of foreign powers, enemies of 'will of people', secular anti-God sinners. First, the 'other' has to behave, then it will all work out.

For sure, the way a country is being governed has a lot to answer for where things are. And yet, those who govern, those who are in politics, those who write, those who tweet, those who protest and clash against them, are all us. These are our problems, making each one of us responsible.

That is where vision of a Turkish democracy shows its biggest fundamental flaw: a disassociation of personal responsibility in the public space. The Turkish nation state vision gave no room to us, and promised to do it all on our behalf, including democracy and management of public space. Now that such strong state monopoly has been fragmented, we are left with the haunting task of owning Turkey individually and what we are demonstrating is only the residue of 80 years of social engineering, politics of forceful silencing and dominance.

Whatever it is that we long for as a 'democratic Turkey' starts within me, within you. From the way I tweet, I speak, I write, I engage with you, with others. Only in such a personalised vision of democratic responsibility our attempts and desire for a better Turkey can start to take deep roots. Only by practicing personal calm and openness and willingness to engage, can we achieve a public space where each one of us is heard without fear of being lynched.

Only in a public space like that can our politicians learn to behave as their attempts to polarise and cause intense emotions would no longer work for them. Only in a personalised vision of a Turkey that is for all, where all is heard, treated equally and respected, can we hope that next generation of Turkish politicians, academics, journalists, policy researchers and civil servants will not see themselves as the ultimate and exclusive owners of this beautiful country or think that if they are the loudest and the most witty in slurring someone, then, they are on the right track.