Welcome to the parallel universe: Richard Falk’s interview with PM Davutoglu

Through his references to things that are mundane, Erdogan speaks to people’s pockets. And through his references to God and the ancestors, he speaks to people’s hearts.

Oguz Alyanak
17 December 2014

This article is a response to a conversation between Richard Falk and Turkey's Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, which took place on 28th September–see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4. There was much internal debate at openDemocracy about whether or not to publish the series. Read the Editor in Chief's reasons for doing so here, along with the many other responses to Davutoğlu published in this series, listed to the right under 'Related Articles'.


Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan participates with the Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu in opening ceremony of the new Turkish Embassy in Berlin. Theo Schneider/Demotix. All rights reserved.

If you find yourself wondering which Turkey the Prime Minister Davutoğlu speaks of in this interview, let me assure you that you are not alone. It certainly is not the Turkey that I think of when I remind myself of the Roboski massacre, the Reyhanlı bombings, the Gezi uprising or the corruption probe in 2013. Neither is it the Turkey that remained a spectator to the killing of Kurds by ISIS in the border town of Kobane, nor the country where journalists and researchers constantly face the fear of being linked to a terrorist organization or risking detention as they express their criticism of the government.

When you read the prime minister throw in concepts like “full democratization”, “comprehensive anti-corruption strategy”, “international credibility”, “accountability”, “protection of the environment”, “influential women politicians” and more importantly, “human dignity”, you have every right to be confused. For the Turkey that PM Davutoğlu depicts through this interview exists only in a parallel universe—one that excludes mining and other work-related accidents that continue to take thousands of lives every year, the grim conditions of the Syrian refugees, as well as the continuing suppression of religious and ethnic minorities, among others.

The realization that PM Davutoğlu’s Turkey exists in the Neverland may be an awakening for some. Yet, the awakening itself is a painful one, for it is also a reminder of one’s loneliness in the face of the overwhelming legitimacy of Davutoğlu’s rhetoric. Criticism morphs into a depressing reminder that the “realities” of the AKP’s Turkey are very different from those of a post-Gezi Turkey, for example. Such must be the bane of a revolutionary’s existence—that the wake up call that he offers to those around him gets laughed at. In Turkey, of course, we are growing fonder of imprisonment than laughter. Such has become our standard of human dignity.

I will not pretend to be the revolutionary plunged into crisis by this discourse, for I certainly am not one. As much as I value critique, what I find astonishing is how a political machine can continue to function despite facing well-grounded criticism. This brings me to the realization that to argue that Davutoğlu in this interview is both factually wrong and rhetorically misleading is stating the obvious. The challenge is to understand how a political party that is so ‘forgetful’ of its failures, many of which lead to catastrophic outcomes, still stands upright as the legitimate representative of the Turkish people.

Some might find this interview one-sided, and argue that Davutoğlu’s representation of Turkey is flawed. Others might be frustrated by not finding the types of questions they themselves would have wanted to raise in confronting the prime minister. I tend to disagree. What this interview achieves for me is to provide a window into the ways the political machine we have come to know as the AKP works. The value in Davutoğlu’s answers to Falk’s questions lies not in the illumination that it provides—for Davutoğlu does not share with us much that we do not already know, or much that we do not already object to—but the style in which it is narrated.

As I read the interview, I am reminded of the rhetoric that President Erdoğan utilizes in his political rallies. As he addresses the tens of thousands on the ground, as well as the millions in front of their television screens, he provides a narrative graced with pleasant vistas. With no mention of failures, Erdoğan speaks of things that win him votes such as economic growth, local investment in infrastructure, and the opening of new medical and educational institutions. Through his references to things that are mundane, he speaks to people’s pockets. And through his references to God, and the ancestors, he speaks to people’s hearts. As he dazes the viewers with grand projects that one could barely dream of, such as opening up a new canal in Istanbul that would connect the Black Sea with the Marmara Sea, connecting Asian and European continents with a tube/metro system under the Bosphorus and a bridge over it, dam projects, cultural facilities, and massive mosques, he builds a path that connects money with Islam.

However, this is but one part of his rhetoric. The other part comes after these sugarcoated accounts end, and where the warnings begin. He reminds his audience that all these achievements are hard earned, planned and must be enacted with diligence. His audience can relate to this hard-working, pious Muslim model that he portrays for himself and his ministers. His words carry an affective weight to them. They also represent fears that are handpicked from failures of the recent (pre-AKP) past. We are told that what is won during the time of the AKP was won against forces that are beyond one’s imagination, and were once beyond one’s power to tackle.

These are forces that he invents names for, such as the more recent “parallel state”, and its earlier version, the “interest lobby” (although the lobby narrative seems to have made its comeback with the “international literature lobby”.) The failure to participate in a continuous fight with these forces, which requires one’s submission to the leader through votes cast, and money donated, would bring an end to all the pleasant vistas that Erdoğan provides. In this narrative, events like Reyhanli, Kobane, Gezi become stands taken against peace, prosperity and freedoms, not for these values.

Such is the simplified morphology of the political rallies that Erdoğan has personally led during his many terms as prime minister. It would be unfair to expect a shift away from this style of addressing an audience, which has proved to be such a success in the last 13 years. Reading the Davutoğlu interview as a continuation of this discursive tradition makes his words less surprising.

One could rightly argue that no one, regardless of his/her level of education or income, would fall for this wishful thinking. That no one would be naïve enough to be tempted by the stories told. I think this is what most opponents of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in Turkey and elsewhere do not get, despite having been repeatedly proven wrong in the past 13 years. In order to see the dazzling impact of this narrative, one needs to step out of one’s own comfort zone and to interact with the other, which, in this case, constitutes of proponents of the Erdoğan/Davutoğlu/Justice and Development Party.

Summer in Kayseri

My research in Kayseri this summer provided me with an opportunity to do exactly that. As part of my study of ethnography, which initially had little to do with Turkish politics, I spent most of the summer in Kayseri, which is known to be one of the AKP’s strongholds. In the most recent municipal elections (2014), the AKP got almost 59 per cent of all votes cast in Kayseri. That is 14 per cent greater than the national average, placing Kayseri amongst the cities in Turkey with constituents who cast the most votes for the AKP.

Throughout my encounters with locals in Kayseri, I have experienced first hand how much trust people have invested in the AKP. Part of this trust was built around the success stories that Davutoğlu also mentions in the interview. Although Kayseri is located around 800 kilometers away from Istanbul, many of my informants brought up the “Channel Istanbul” project and the third bridge over the Bosphorus as things that everyone in Turkey—and not just proponents of the AKP—should be proud of. When I mentioned the detrimental effects of such projects on the environment, I was told that such worries should not stop Turkey’s march forward.

The AKP represents projects that have instilled in my informants the hope for the future. A growing economy, increase in GDP/capita, rapid industrialization and urbanization, a stronger military force, more universities, hospitals, cultural complexes - all this matches the demands of a rising Muslim bourgeoisie in Kayseri very well. Even those who have not so far seen much improvement in their lives during the AKP phase of government still opted for Erdoğan, and not another leader in the presidential elections (Erdoğan won a sweeping 66 per cent of the votes in Kayseri), perceiving Erdoğan as the only leader who could be trusted to be a hardworking, pious leader.

During my stay in Kayseri, the bigger discussion was over Fethullah Gülen. Many of my informants, particularly those who are over 30, had conflicting views on Gülen. Gülen used to be an esteemed figure for them. His struggles with the Turkish state prior to the AKP reminded my target group of their own struggles with the Turkish state and bureaucracy. However, when Gülen confronted Erdoğan for his “alleged” involvement in the corruption probe (the scandalous audio tapes depicting AKP ministers’ involvement in shady deals), he promptly lost the sympathy of many of the AKP voters.

Blaming him for collaborating with anti-AKP forces (the repertoire would range anywhere from protestors on the streets to the state of Israel) to bring Erdoğan down, my informants chose to stand by Erdoğan’s side, who later on would initiate his fully-fledged siege of Gülen sympathizers in legislative, administrative and judicial institutions, as well as universities and the media. When Davutoğlu asks in his interview “who will judge the mistakes of politicians?” and answers his question by asserting “the people. Not the military, or a religious group”, his words are those of a wise politician who knows his constituents. This, at least, is the conclusion that I came to after a summer spent in Kayseri.

Paralelci misin? [Do you belong to the parallel?] my informants would ask me jokingly as I spoke with them about life in this Central Anatolian town. My intention was not to talk about politics at all, but I was to learn that this was an impossible endeavor, especially for a native ethnographer. As both the Davutoğlu interview and my own communication with proponents of the AKP might indicate, the answer to that question seems to lie very much in the eyes of the beholder. 

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