Why Turkification will never work

A country as heteregenous as Turkey can't be held together by an autocrat, so what to do?

Umut Ozkirimli
3 May 2017
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Prizewinning photo of young girl hurt during clashes between riot-police and prostestors after the funeral of Berkin Elvan, 15-yr.old boy by Bulent Kilic/AFP. Flickr/Jordi Bernabeu Farrus. Some rights reserved.For all the hype surrounding it, the outcome of the 16 April constitutional referendum in Turkey was, ‘officially speaking’, a foregone conclusion. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, overbearing president of the republic and the architect of the draconian draft that has been presented to the people, had made it clear that he would accept no expression of the “national will” that did not favour his political fortunes already in the aftermath of the June 2015 national elections when the ruling AKP lost its parliamentary majority.

Aided and abetted by a trigger-happy PKK, he embarked on a ferocious war in the predominantly Kurdish southeast, and shifted to a policy of open confrontation with the Daesh, thereby whipping up the security concerns of the electorate which granted him the majority he yearned for in the November 2015 snap elections.

This time he did not take any chances. In any case, he did not need to. Turkey had long become his personal domain, under the ostensibly watchful eyes of western governments who simply conveyed their “concerns” over countless breaches of human rights (while rubbing shoulders with him to thwart the flow of refugees) and an ever-growing industry of “Turkey experts” who were busy promoting their careers by filling pages upon pages on an apparently never-ending “slide into” authoritarianism. It is thus not surprising that the referendum took place “on an unlevel playing field”.

It is thus not surprising that the referendum took place “on an unlevel playing field”, in the words of the OSCE’s International Referendum Observation Mission, with the help of the state of emergency imposed right after the failed July 2016 coup.

Not satisfied with existing, almost unlimited, restrictions on fundamental rights and freedoms, the government went so far as to blatantly interfere with the voting process itself, notably prompting the Supreme Board of Elections to change the ballot validity criteria while voting was under way which in turn rendered some 2.5 million votes contested, this in a referendum whose outcome was decided by only 1.3 million votes.

But how did Turkey get here? Why were the results silently accepted yet again, not least by the main opposition party CHP which was quick to disown the few who took to the streets to show their discontent or condemn the Council of Europe Assembly’s recent decision to “re-monitor” Turkey?

Why don’t we see mass protests or, if that is deemed to be too dangerous as indeed it is given the government’s brutal record when it comes to suppressing dissent, acts of civil disobedience, e.g. boycotts, strikes, and so on?

Uncanny communitarianism

The answer to these questions partly lies in one of the most enduring (and relatively underexplored) aspects of the Turkish social and political landscape, what I would call “uncanny communitarianism”. That the republic inherited a very heterogeneous population, a hodge podge of tightly-knit religious and ethnic communities, is hardly an original observation. This was indeed what has led the founding elites to embark on a massive process of “Turkification” with the ultimate goal of creating a nation unified by a shared culture, around common goals and aspirations. That they have miserably failed to do so, however, remains a taboo that few are willing to speak about openly.

Turkey has always been (and still is) an archipelago of communities held together by fiat and when necessary by force, be it by powerful leaders such as Mustafa Kemal, İnönü, and their wannabees like Menderes and Erdoğan, or by the self-appointed guardians of the republic, the army.

Yet this contrived unity did not produce a society of shared values and practices, let alone a nation with a sense of a common past and destiny. Communitarianism alla turca was a far cry from the ideal formulae put forward by political philosophers like Alasdair McIntyre, Michael Sandel or Charles Taylor which presupposed, in the words of Amitai Etzioni, a “pluralism (of communities) within unity (the society)”, an overarching framework of shared understandings and institutions. The communitarianism that left its imprint on the republic was at best an “uncanny communitarianism” – and here I am using “uncanny” in its original sense of “mischievous, malicious” – a pluralism of communities without any unity.  Uncanny communitarianism is bounded; it does not extend to other communities which it treats with distrust, hence it is not open to dialogue.

Uncanny communitarianism is thus bounded; it does not extend to other communities which it treats with distrust, hence it is not open to dialogue. It is exclusivist, based on (perceived) immutable criteria, be it religion, ethnicity or even lifestyle and worldview. And it is intolerant of difference (both within and outside), of dissent and criticism. I believe uncanny communitarianism is key to understanding the eradication of Turkey’s already deficient democracy and the particular ruthlessness with which this was carried out, the weakness of the opposition, both political and social, and the lack of organized resistance to authoritarianism.

It is of course true that the faultlines that criss-crossed Turkey were not invented during the AKP rule. What is new, and here the credit goes to Erdoğan, is the widening of the rift between them, the profound animosity that have started to mark the relations between various communities, and the exhaustion of almost all channels of dialogue.

This was apparent already before the referendum when, for example, a stadium full of people booed the victims – not the perpetrators! – of the largest terrorist attack on Turkish soil in October 2015 (simply because they were perceived to be “lefties” or Kurds), or when crowds applauded Erdoğan who chastized the parents of Berkin Elvan, the 15 year old Alevi boy killed during the 2013 Gezi protests, for being terrorists.

Yet the opposition fared no better. Thus secular CHP voters mostly remained silent when entire Kurdish cities were being obliterated, or sought refuge in worn-out slogans and symbols which alienated the pious, conservative majority and non-Turkish minorities; the left, a tiny minority, kept on looking for a scapegoat, often settling on the “liberal intelligentsia”, an even tinier minority, without whose support, they believed, Islamists could not have implemented their political agenda.

The liberals were not able to overcome their disdain for the military or the secular nationalist elites who were running the show before the Islamists took over the regime, to the extent of condoning flagrant breaches of the rule of law as was the case during the infamous Ergenekon, Sledgehammer or KCK trials, a joint production of the AKP and Gülen community. The victims of these sham trials, in turn, rejoiced in the plight of the Gülenists who had to pay a heavy price for breaking their alliance with Erdoğan.

Even after the referendum where the official birth certificate of a full-blown autocracy has been – allegedly – given the popular seal of approval, uncanny communitarianism continues to cripple the efforts to create a unified front. Can Dündar, the poster child of persecuted journalists, does not hesitate to re-tweet a post by a well-known pro-Erdoğan pundit which described the Kurds as “the architects” of AKP’s victory, turning a blind eye to massive violations of rights and freedoms in the Kurdish southeast (Dündar said he does not agree with all his retweets later, without specifically mentioning this one).

Most followers of the notoriously inept CHP and his tedious leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu seem to be content with their party’s role as the walking stick of Erdoğan, and retreat to coastal areas, the potential ghettos of “new Turkey”. The left, the liberals and the few remaining Gülenists and other, smaller, religious groupings, on the other hand, are still bitterly pitted against each other, as if re-enacting the famous scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian, expatiating upon the “differences” between themselves (People’s Front of Judea) and others (Judean People’s Front).

What is to be done?

It is clear that a country as heteregenous and vibrant as Turkey cannot be held together by an autocrat who relies on a slim majority, no matter how fragmented the opposition is. This leaves us with two options. Either the country will be thrown into chaos and disorder, a state which cannot be tolerated by the international community given Turkey’s pivotal role in the region and in various strategic alliances. Or the opposition will finally decide to bury the hatchet, even if temporarily, and start acting together.

Needless to say, this does not require taking up arms or engaging in violence which would be tantamount to mimicking the regime. In fact, as Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan show in their award-winning book Why Civil Resistance Works, based on an analysis of 323 cases of violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent resistance campaigns are almost twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts. This is particularly true in the case of antiregime resistance campaigns. Nonviolent resistance campaigns are almost twice as likely to achieve full or partial success as their violent counterparts.

The answer to the Leninist question, “what is to be done”, then, is not hard to come by. What is harder is to overcome uncanny communitarianism, to leave behind the bitter feuds and quarrels that stand in the way of an organized civil resistance. This may require us, as one of the protagonists in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s unique The Little Prince puts it, to endure the presence of a few caterpillars until we become acquainted with the butterflies. Not a particularly heavy price, I would hazard, if this is indeed the only way out.


Spring Azure Butterfly with a caterpillar. Flickr/David DeHetre. Some rights reserved.

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