North Africa, West Asia

The unbearable burden of being an intellectual in today’s Turkey

The motto 'we will let neither the assailants nor the sufferings they have inflicted upon us determine our future' seems quite fitting for both past and current generations of Turkish thinkers. Is this the only way to keep one’s sanity in an open-air nuthouse?

Halil Gurhanli
13 March 2014
Demotix/Barıs Karadeniz.All rights reserved.

Lawyers announcing to the media why they cannot do their jobs on the Ergenekon case.Demotix/Barıs Karadeniz.All rights reserved.

Though it is a deeply humane and courageous act, one cannot help but feel depressed when reading a Turkish intellectual’s confession that she has been mistaken in her support for the Justice and Development Party (JDP) and her hope that it would fulfil the long-awaited dream of a tolerant, democratic, inclusive Turkey.

Have a look, for instance, at İhsan Dağı's recent piece: "What happened to the dream we once had?" A genuine worry for the society's future is easily discernible in its tone. It is a deeply melancholic account of losing what one never had in the first place, the evaporation of a liberal dream in which the oppressive Turkish state would simply cease to exist. This deserves to be quoted in length:

We had a dream that Turkey would become a democracy and everyone free, where no identity is excluded, no idea punished. The state would have no “other” or “internal enemy,” and never forget that it exists to serve the people. The rule of law, not the law of rulers, would prevail and render the human, not the state, untouchable.

Aware of its limits, the state would not use its regulatory power to interfere in individuals’ preferences, worldviews and lifestyles. As a liberal, I have supported this vision and thought that the JDP shared it. I have fallen in love with the possibility that in contrast to the authoritarian secularism, etatist Kemalism and military tutelage, such an alliance of conservative and liberal values could build a democratic and free country.

Although we have occasionally proceeded in this direction during the last decade, the pattern in the past few years has taken us so far further in the opposite direction so that we have in fact regressed to behind where we once started.

I have been mistaken. In a matter of a few years, the people whom I considered to be political liberals have rapidly turned into authoritarians. As all the institutions that are supposed to guarantee our basic freedoms are brought under government control, the country is being steered in an irreversible direction where it is not obvious who might protect us, the individuals and their rights and liberties, against the transgressions committed by the authorities.

Currently the state has been consolidating its power to such an extent that in the near future there will be no channels left to voice objection. We are heading fast towards an era where different opinions, dissent and opposition are punished. I see it clearly now that what we thought to be “the thing” was just a crude dream.

Dağı's is a very revealing example of how deeply the political traumas of the recent past has scarred many of today’s liberals in Turkey, which have only now begun to fade away. It would not be an exaggeration to describe the political atmosphere in Turkey during the dark decades of 1980s and 90s as one of a permanent state of emergency whereby the entire society was restructured on the groundwork the 1980 coup brutally laid down and cemented with its 1982 constitution. The post-coup governments fully employed, to the point of near suffocation, the ideological and repressive apparatuses of the state in order to reorganise all spheres of life in accordance with a deeply illiberal, militantly secular, nationalist and etatist ideology.

Throughout this period, liberal intellectuals, along with leftists, Alevis, Kurds, Islamists and others who fought for different, heterogeneous future paths for Turkey and, therefore, did not fit into this homogeneous ideal, were violently eradicated from the political scene (some literally, others figuratively). These traumas are so deep-seated that they have made Turkish liberal intellectuals like the one quoted above, who is otherwise highly capable of deploying rationality in her own interest and having a critical stance with respect to her socio-political circumstances, extremely vulnerable to those who seemed capable of offering a way out of the dark pit she found herself in. Her critical mind was clouded by the light coming through the crack which was opened once the centre-right coalition government collapsed during the most devastating economic crisis in Turkish history in 2001.

Because of this trauma-induced fear of the violent intrusion of the state into ever-expanding spheres of life, since the day JDP government took office in November 2002, Turkish liberal intellectuals have given far more than just the benefit of the doubt to the party and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Rather than subjecting its deeds to a rigorous test, she opted for a strategy that was both brutally Machiavellian and clearly trauma-induced in equal measures. In accordance with the motto, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” she not only wholeheartedly embraced the government’s policy measures curbing the role of military in politics but also took an active part in launching attacks against those who voiced concerns about the long-term effects of these measures and the intentions behind them.

When hundreds of army members, journalists, academicians, politicians and activists with nothing in common except their political opposition to the JDP were convicted of conspiracies to overthrow the government on extremely dubious grounds, she was quick to label the minority who pointed out these obvious shortcomings as militarists, etatists and coup-sympathizers. Her trauma-induced desire to finally put the army back into the barracks impaired her intellectual faculties to such an extent that she not only overlooked the numerous legal flaws of these trials, but also confused systemic attempts by the JDP government to amass much of the state power under its executive with the return of power from military/bureaucratic authorities to civilian ones. Disregarding the systemic flaws of Turkish political institutions, she failed to question who or what would fill the functional void the military/bureaucratic apparatuses would inevitably leave in the area of checks and balances against executive authorities.

One would expect to hear her voicing at least some concern, particularly given the fact that the JDP government, despite ruling the country single-handedly for over a decade with a clear parliamentary majority, has been extremely reluctant to draft a new constitution to replace the blatantly illiberal one born out of the 1980 coup, the one that protects ‘the state from the actions of its citizens’ rather than the ‘fundamental rights and liberties of the citizens from the state’s encroachment.’ The same is true also for the spheres of business, civil society and media, where the ownership structures were rapidly altered to the immense advantage of pro-government circles whose growing hegemony over their respective markets remained largely unquestioned by liberal intellectuals until in recent years.

The JDP’s promise, willingness and display of power to slay the monster who traumatized the liberal intellectual blinded her capacity to ask the most fundamentally liberal question of all: now that the military/bureaucratic apparatuses of the semi-authoritarian Kemalist regime are gone, who will control governmental power? In the current political climate where the legal, institutional and civil societal bases of Turkish democracy appear to be more crippled than usual, this void is currently being filled by two opposing actors: the JDP and the Hizmet movement, a faith-based organization led by Islamic preacher Fetullah Gülen whose proponents are believed to be holding key positions in state bureaucracy, especially the judiciary and police.

In a tug of war that has recently escalated to a whole new and exceptionally violent level when a graft probe implicating top-level members of the government and their families started on December 17, 2013, both sides are struggling to widen their respective spheres of influence and inflict maximum harm on one another, weaponizing whatever resources they happen to have to hand. Convinced that the probe, which led to the resignation of four ministers, was ordered by the Hizmet movement to weaken his government, PM Erdoğan launched nationwide purges in the ranks of judiciary and police in order to eliminate Gülenists and put an end to the probes. To minimize the damage and prevent further attempts, the government also pushed through a series of legislative changes that bring key institutions of judiciary, intelligence and communication under direct executive control.

These steps were reciprocated by online leaking of the recording of phone conversations allegedly between PM Erdoğan and his son Bilal on the day the graft probe hit the surface. In these conversations, Erdoğan appears to be urging his son to organize his larger family and remove $1 billion cash from their residences, in case the search raids spread to those addresses. Although many specialists confirmed the authenticity of the recording, Erdoğan and his government adamantly labelled them as the latest episode of the same conspiracy responsible for the graft probe as well as the summer 2013 anti-government protests around Turkey, in a plot aimed against the JDP government by the Hizmet movement and other foreign and domestic dark forces unhappy with the country’s growing strength and independence. At the time of writing this piece, there were talks of yet another major government offensive against the Hizmet movement, which seems to be defined as the “new internal enemy” in the last National Security Committee meeting.

Taking full advantage of the deeply crippled model of governance, the 1982 coup constitution was brought about in the name of political stability, whereby the single-party government controls both the executive and legislative branches thanks to the 10 per cent electoral threshold. The JDP government currently attempts to fill the functional void left in the sphere of checks and balances itself.

Financially, government spending remains unaudited since the beginning of 2012 and will remain so at least for the coming three years, thanks to the executive orders incapacitating the Court of Accounts. With a recent legislative change the government has also brought the once-independent Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors under executive control, granting the justice minister de facto authority to appoint and sack any member of the judiciary. In recent years, the government has taken similar steps to tighten its grip over the universities, National Intelligence Institute, Central Bank, Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency and Telecommunications Directorate as well. In this sense, these recent steps can be considered as essential components of the JDP’s “totalizing” political strategy that aims to gather all the reins of state power within the hands of government, not only the executive and legislative but also the judiciary.

Relatedly, the above-mentioned counter-attacks allegedly instigated by Gülenists can be considered as pathological symptoms of an exceedingly imperfect political system, ad hoc attempts to impose some sort of limitation against the increasingly totalizing power of the JDP government. In the absence of democratic legal foundations or independent institutions that are strong enough to hold the government accountable for its actions, it seems as if the Gülenist networks within the ranks of the judiciary and the police have begun to exploit the prerogatives of their offices to fulfill this function.

In this respect, the graft probe that surfaced on December 17 can be seen as a decisive attempt to force members of the government to account for their actions and remind institutional and legal limits of their power. But this attempt was fast proved futile by the government’s draconian response that left the judiciary and police in disarray, displaying Erdoğan’s absolute refusal to recognize any limits to his power in no uncertain terms.

It was only after this attempt to bring those who appear to have been involved in criminal activities to judicial courts failed, that the online dissemination of the sound recordings emerged as a last resort to try them symbolically in “public” ones. In this sense, it likens the act of a comic-book vigilante who transgresses the law that protects corrupted leaders in order to unveil the latter’s misdeeds, enabling the public to see the truth for themselves. The “verdict” of this public trial in Turkey will become clear quite soon, in the March 30 local elections.

The problem here is not just the depressing state of institutional impotence, whereby citizens are burdened with an immense responsibility of holding a “public” trial in the form of elections for what is essentially a criminal case. It is also that these “vigilantes”, who nowadays attempt to function as an ad hoc safety valve against the totalization of power in Erdoğan’s hands, used to be his closest allies until very recently.

As prosecutors and investigators in a series of sensational trials mentioned above, Gülenists have played crucial roles in convicting numerous leading opposition figures of conspiracy to overthrow Erdoğan’s government on dubious evidence. They have not only swept key institutions of the state clean for the government to consolidate its power on, but also sent an intimidating message to their own critics in the media and elsewhere, showing just how blurry the line between dissent and crime has become.

Even though this alliance came to an end once the JDP government started to feel threatened by the rising power of Gülenist formations and launched an attack against them, it does not alter the fact that the movement is a far cry from the vigilante that its sympathizers would like to present it as being. Indeed all the signs so far indicate that it is a network of interest-based relationships whose actions are not bound by any code of ethics but by a ruthless pragmatism, and that its goal is not the greater public good but good old power.

And most worrying of all is the fact that the Gülenist movement, in any real institutional/legal terms, simply do not exist. With no written code, formal membership, hierarchical structure or legal personality, this vast entity is infinitely less accountable than any one of its so-called “members,” which makes it near impossible to bring the movement in front of even a “public” trial, should the necessity emerge.

What happens in Turkey indeed compares to a cruel, primitive war, in which many feel stuck between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Even some of the staunchest opponents of JDP find themselves siding with the government in its battle against this shady network with a mysterious agenda and an infamous record in intimidating its opponents. Conversely, many militant secularists, who used to despise the Gülen movement due to its anti-Kemalist ideology and the enigmatic ways in which it operates, applaud and cheer every time a new tape unveiling the criminal dealings of government members is leaked online.

This is extremely dangerous and “traumatic” for all who happen to be going through this period of Turkish political history. Just like the Turkish liberals who were scarred by the oppressive regime of military/bureaucratic tutelage during 1980s and 90s, the current generation is undergoing a deeply distressing period that may well leave a trauma in their intellectual psyche.

In a recent interview, Sunay Akin, a well-known Turkish novelist and social critic, likened this current condition of Turkish society to that of a massive ‘open-air nuthouse’ where all points of reference of normality rapidly evaporate and everything becomes acceptable, leaving many begging for any set of signifiers that could attach some system of meanings to the real components of the increasingly chaotic life surrounding them, regardless of how “abnormal” those meanings actually are.

It is crucial to remember that, like all governments, the JDP era will sooner or later come to an end. And considering the way things have been unfolding for a while, it is probably not going to be a pretty one. After all, as Nazan Üstündağ put it, the recent political history of the Middle East is a graveyard of leaders who tend to depart only when there is nothing left to lead and who do not hesitate to drag their countries down along with themselves. But it is important not to make the same mistake as the liberal intellectuals of previous generations who could not help their actions being determined by the political traumas of the past. For the sake of pure and simple vengeance, they provided intellectual support to a regime that now has turned into yet another nightmare.

In support groups, survivors of terrible psychological and physical sufferings often repeat a motto that is in the vicinity of the following one: we are going to let neither the assailants nor the sufferings they have inflicted upon us determine our future. This motto seems quite fitting for both the past and current generations of Turkish thinkers, who need not to focus on the details of how their intellectual faculties are being blatantly violated by the main actors of Turkish politics at the moment, but rather to plunge into building a future where the country’s current predicament would not play any determining part. This seems to be the only way to keep one’s sanity in an open-air nuthouse.

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