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The trauma of the attempted military coup as observed from a college campus in Istanbul

“However over-optimistic it may sound, I focused on a growth mindset and transferred it to focusing on creating a change in our emotional state.”

lead Boğaziçi University, 2012. Wikicommons/ Turkmessage. Some rights reserved.From June 6 to Augus 4, 2016, I was a visiting assistant professor at the Political Science Department of Bogazici (Bosphorus in Turkish) University, the first American higher education institution founded abroad.

This account is of my personal experience of the traumatic events that happened last year in the midst of the summer semester on July 15. I want to explain the immediate emotions of discouragement, fear, and stress that I and my students experienced on campus after the incident and how we coped with the trauma.

About one year ago, I awoke from sleep on the fifth floor of the Ucaksavar dormitory at Bogazici University, that accommodates hundreds of students and faculty members. I had fallen asleep that evening whilst waiting for my friend, who was stuck in traffic on the Bosphorus Bridge connecting the European and Asian sides of the city of Istanbul. From 10 pm onwards, Turkish soldiers had blocked the bridge, closing it to traffic, an action by a “military group” which was later denounced by Turkey’s prime minister Binali Yildirim as illegal.

What awoke me from my sleep was the huge bang, massive vibrations, and shaking of the building caused by fighter jets flying over us. Unaware of what was going on, many of us in the halls of residence thought that a war had broken out and that jets were dropping bombs on us. The dormitory administrators immediately asked students and faculty to go to the basement and stay there until the threat had passed: we were nervous, fearful, and scared.

There were rumors that the army was taking over: but that did not sound right. We were full of suspicion, our minds racing as we tried to calm ourselves down: “Why should the armed forces bomb its own population? Why shouldn’t it? It DID in Syria. Are we not another Middle Eastern country after all?!”

We heard later that the tremendous noise and shaking was a sonic boom caused by F16 jets deliberately flying under a certain altitude to cause fear among people. But we were not sure. Those could only be rumors and they might have been hiding the real cause. Uncertainty raised our levels of anxiety. A few hours later, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made an appearance via FaceTime, speaking to a news anchor who held an iPhone in front of the camera, which felt plain awkward, urging citizens to, "go into the streets and give them their answer." Fighter jets continued flying above Istanbul as state-employed imams were calling the salah prayer to rally the citizens and encourage them into the streets. That night was total chaos. We were all traumatized.

I had been an undergraduate student myself at Bogazici in the late 1990s and early 2000s before the AKP’s rise to power. And I had observed a lot of positive changes on the campus that I graduated from during the two weeks prior to this attempted military coup. The most significant change that I observed from the very first day of my return to campus was the great diversity that enriched campus life. The campus seemed to be more inclusive in many ways.

Fifteen years ago, for example, female students wearing headscarves could not enter a campus in Turkey. Many Muslim female students on campus had to wear wigs to cover their hair if they wanted access to the education that their peers had. The problematic policies of mainstream political parties with elitist mindsets combined with corruption to alienate a majority of the population before Erdogan’s ascent to power. The Kemalist, rigidly secular mindset made generations of female students invisible on campuses and in public spaces.

I always felt that a grave injustice had been done them and was now so excited to see that these girls were very vocal and confident. To me, that seemed a great achievement. In the first two weeks of our summer course, I felt I had an environment conducive to learning in my classroom. My students from all points on the political spectrum, from every social strata or creed seemed to enjoy participating in discussions about politics and current events. But this was no longer so after the attempted military coup.

The first Monday after the attempted coup, no classes were cancelled on campus. The incumbents wanted to normalize life immediately after the incident, conveying the message that things were functioning perfectly well. So on July 18, we had our class meeting. For my students, many members of the faculty, and myself, things were far from “normal” in fact.  We were all traumatized and there was no way I could behave as if nothing had happened in my class.

However, when our class met and I wanted my students to share their views about what had happened a few days ago, the conversation suddenly got very tense. When a few students made comments about Erdogan’s authoritarianism, some students, who seemed to be much older than the average college students, fiercely responded and accused those commenting on Erdogan’s authoritarianism of supporting the military coup.

Suddenly, anyone who criticized Erdogan found themselves in the position of having a pro-coup and/or militarist mindset thrown at them when in fact no one was supporting a military coup against the government. All were in favour of a democratic Turkey.

These conversations were not designed to calm anyone down. Therefore, I decided then and there to talk about our feelings and emotions. Almost everyone showed signs of distress: they felt overwhelmed, depressed, pessimistic, discouraged, fearful, and scared. Some, on the other hand, did not elect to speak at all. They showed no signs of grief, or anger, or anxiety. Perhaps that was the most difficult group to deal with.

As a precursor of mine advised me, “Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit”. I was determined not to quit or lose hope under these conditions. I believed in the need to build a culture of positivity and collaboration in my classroom. That was the moment when I felt that the pedagogical tools that I had learned back in graduate school helped me most in my interaction with my students. However over-optimistic it may sound, I focused on a growth mindset and transferred it to focusing on creating a change in our emotional state. I tried to convey to my students that it was in our hands to change how we felt, and that our feelings were not fixed, and that our success would be based on our persistence and hard work, and that eventually we could also change our emotions by working on them.

And it worked. My students began to focus their energy on their work and they stayed positive throughout the summer. Now I had retrieved class sovereignty, I felt more confident as a professor. Because no argument could beat that growth mindset.

My classroom at Bogazici seemed to me to be a microcosm of a Turkish society and politics suffering from PST (post-traumatic stress disorder). Today the same conversation about pro-democracy vs. pro-military prevails in Turkish politics. Erdogan and his supporters accuse anyone who criticize the policies of the AKP of supporting attempts to stage a military coup against the government.

This is a dangerous mistake that will not alleviate the pain or suffering of anyone party to it. It will not heal the scars of democracy but only strengthen extreme radicalism, exacerbate differences, and make Turkish society more polarized.

 

About the author

Pelin Kadercan, Ph.D, is a historian born and raised in Istanbul. She earned her Ph.D. in History from the University of Rochester. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Brown University. Her major areas of interest lie in modern European and Middle Eastern history in a global context focusing on modern Germany and Turkey, Jewish studies and international human rights. pelin_kadercan@brown.edu


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