I come from a country which was founded through defence, endurance, and war. Not just against the soldiers and guns, but against dependence, dogma, and ignorance. It was sunrise when ashes of the Ottoman Empire gave birth to the Republic of Turkey. It was after sunset when President Erdogan prepared to deliver his referendum victory speech on 16th April, signalling its death.
“We are carrying out the most important reform in the history of our nation,” Mr Erdogan announced in the same preacher-like tone that led to many changes within the country in the past decade. His last, however, is his most controversial, as well as an end to Turkey as we know it; a secular, democratic Republic.
President Erdogan, wearing one of his signature checkered suits, addressed crowds of cheering supporters after being granted sweeping new powers by 51 per cent of the voters. These include choosing the majority of the senior judges and ministers, enacting certain laws by decree and being able to declare a state of emergency.
With the ability to even dismiss Parliament, this new, unique model of a president will be head of the executive, state and will continue to have ties to his political party. Tens and thousands of ‘Yes’ voters poured into the streets of Istanbul raising scarlet flags to celebrate the new regime.
Elsewhere in Turkey, the mood was very different. ‘No’ voters took to Twitter, quoting Star Wars: “So this is how liberty dies, with thunderous applause”. Some protested the legitimacy of the result, especially in the three biggest cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, all of which voted no. I stared blankly at the TV screen, watching history restate itself in my future.
A leader grabbing alarming amounts of personal power in an atmosphere of fear by promising security and stability. Many observers now fear that under President Erdogan, Turkey is rapidly moving from a secular democracy on the European model to something more akin to a Middle-Eastern autocracy or the elected authoritarian models resembling Russia and Hungary.
“An elected dictatorship,” The Economist called it. “R.I.P. Turkey,” wrote Steven A. Cook of Foreign Policy, stressing that Recep Tayyip Erdogan didn’t just win his constitutional referendum, “he permanently closed a chapter of his country’s modern history.”
“What do they want, new sultans, to rip Turkey from the modern world and take to darknesses similar to Afghanistan?” wrote Erol Manisali, a columnist for an opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet. The editor, journalists, and cartoonists of this pro-secular and left-leaning publication are, like many other Turkish journalists, currently in prison.
“The repertoire of this new generation of authoritarians is by now familiar. You control the media, you knit a patchwork quilt of elastic legal provisions under which you can prosecute almost anyone,” historian and Guardian columnist Timothy Garton-Ash stated in his piece which urged foreigners to stand up for human rights in Turkey.
“You ensure political control over a cowed judiciary, and you pump out your own nationalist populist narrative through television and social media, while accusing independent media of being a fifth column paid by foreign sources,” he said.
“Paris to Tehran real quick,” read one tweet, expressing the increasingly common fear of becoming like Iran overnight. I found that this remark made its way to many dinner tables in Istanbul a couple of months ago, a bitter joke to be brushed off as exaggeration and washed down with Malbec, while it is still legal. Just as how, in one day, the tiny tangerine tables outside cafes and bars where people drink can be packed up for good. Or suddenly you might be warned for a part of your daily routine such as kissing your girlfriend goodbye in the tube. Istanbul, a city keen to be known as European and civilised is transforming into a more religious, yet less tolerant place.
Shortly after the referendum, I stumbled upon a video circulating on Facebook, a vox pop of ‘Yes’ voters explaining the reasons behind their decision. “Whatever he (President Erdogan) does, he is right,” says one middle-aged man.
“If I catch Tayyip Erdogan on top of my mother, I would blame her for being a whore!” he jokes. This declaration seemed particularly shocking to me as our traditions, especially among the conservatives which are Erdogan’s main base, value honour and dignity obsessively and have an almost sacred perception of motherhood and mothers.
In the video other reasons for voting ‘yes’ followed: “Foreign forces are against it, so it must be a good thing,” said one. “I say yes to everything,” another claimed. “That man can do no wrong,” a third voice added.
Ten years ago millions applauded Erdogan’s plans to take Turkey into the European Union. Now the same people are cheering him as he abandons European values – even democracy itself. As a Turkish person, what I see as my country’s current most dangerous problem is not the referendum, yet what I feel it demonstrates; a division between the two poles in society and the hatred between them which has never been this striking.
Turkey has always had a turbulent history with military coups, a rural/urban divide and at times, a flawed democracy. However, it was improving, or so we thought. I believe I speak for many Turks when I say, despite all, we’ve always had hope for progress. Until April 16, 2017.
“I wonder if the schism Turkey is going through is a surprise or an expected result given its dual nature as the bridge between the east and the west,” said Emre Aydogan, a 28-year-old ‘No’ voter who has now moved to Berlin because he doesn’t see a bright future for himself in his hometown any more.
“The real danger doesn’t lie in the schism itself, but it rather lies in the unpredictable breaking point of the rope east and west are pulling from the opposite sides. Will it be the passionate future that the West promises or the strong roots that the East holds onto that wins and stands its ground as the rope breaks?” he asked.
Perhaps it is difficult for someone not familiar with Turkey’s history to understand the panic of ‘No’ voters. The country was sometimes viewed from the outside as lacking in civilisation, yet it gave its women the right to vote and be elected many years before the French or Swiss.
Turkey’s difference from other Muslim-majority countries was that those in favour of democracy and secularism are not a distinguished and educated minority. It seems to be at least half of the country, as the referendum suggests. They are people who were used to living in a decent amount of peace with lifestyles and freedoms not drastically different from those of their European counterparts. Now they are being denounced as siding with terrorists by their own government, simply for not wanting a one-man regime — especially one making sure a purging leader stays on the job until 2029.
I forget the current state of my country on rare occasions and remember it as the diverse, harmonious tourist haven it used to be, with its people known for their hospitality and warmth.
The Turkey of my childhood was not merely a naive illusion of mine but a reality for many Turks. A place where it was safe for girls to skip around in short skirts, which in some parts of the country is not a freedom to be taken for granted. A place where it was safe to think and have different opinions and voice them. Beneath the rosy glasses of my youth lay inequality for its people, both financially and educationally. Perhaps this is what led us to the state we are in now.
On the night of the referendum, I remember my aunt telling me there used not to be such strict lines between people in Turkey, that it was once considered more shameful to judge thy neighbour. She told me that some people fasted during Ramadan and others did not, in the same neighbourhood.
But at the end of the day, they shared their bread in massive wooden tables in their gardens, one bringing pilav, and the other yoghurt to help with the summer night heat, how they would visit each other’s houses for late night tea and gossip. She told me of wedding tables, one woman with a headscarf chatting with another who is sipping raki. There was no judgement, no funny looks.
Loud men in tavernas, shouting and arguing over political debates with turquoise and violet veins bursting through their foreheads, then playing tavla with laughter.
“People used to have kindness and respect for each other,” my aunt muttered, more to herself than me. Ours is a culture sprinkled with Mediterranean and Eastern roots, strong faith, being loud, short-tempered, yet respectful and soft-hearted, facing towards Europe. Or at least that was my idea of our culture; one of diversity, harmony and tolerance.
I recall a conversation I had with a cab driver, young, chatty and somewhat conservative. He tells me he was inspired by the film Taxi to do this job as he offers me a Marlboro Red and the conversation shifts to politics as it does with every driver, a routine tradition in Turkey.
“What is really going to change if it’s a ‘Yes’, anyway?” he grins whilst making a sharp turn, raising his voice to drown out the upbeat Turkish pop. “I mean, they blame him for everything but not one person can do that much bad by himself, think of it, someone not a university grad, from a poor neighbourhood, all on his own, becomes the President of the country! Now, that is something to be respected, isn’t it?” he said.
I realise then and there, this infatuation with Erdogan’s underdog story and his populist rhetoric is the reason behind the immense support he receives. His supporters care more about the man than the change of policies or what is happening to the country’s system. To them, they trust in a person, who is one of them. The unheard. The voice of those who did not feel represented by the government for many years.
Nobody saw Turkey becoming the fearful state it is today when Erdogan was first elected. The critics were muffled by a stabilised economy following the crisis of 2000-2001, Turkey saw business growth, a construction boom, and EU promises under Mr Erdogan. Becoming the Prime Minister in 2003, he represented the conservative working class and sought reforms for them such as allowing women to wear headscarves in public institutions, which was once illegal.
In the Turkish language, there are two corresponding words for ‘religious.’ One describes a person who has faith and practices his religion; the other someone who sees his religion in a sectarian sense; banishing all other doctrines and beliefs and wants to spread religion to all areas of life.
It was during his rise when Erdogan collaborated with Fetullah Gulen to take down his possible secular enemies; the man he accuses of attempting the coup d’etat in June 2017. Gulen is a cleric residing in the U.S. with many followers in Turkey of unknown identities, in high-position jobs. One of Turkey’s biggest strengths has been its military system and powerful army, to many a legacy from the past.
Part of the ‘jingoistic rhetoric of our Ottoman ancestors’ as Elif Shafak, a Turkish novelist, political scientist and a writer for The Guardian, calls it. The country had a history of coups during times of chaos by the once famously secular Turkish Armed Forces which some Turks saw as a sort of guard for democracy in the past. The Gulenists, it turned out later, infiltrated the army, the police, the judiciary, and many other agencies: however, all the secular army generals and journalists who warned about this potential danger were locked up at the time.
Eventually, as with all the power-oriented alliances between self-centred leaders, Erdogan and Gulen fell out and between them began a Cold War. Gulen released tapes alleging Erdogan and his family were involved in corruption, which the President strongly denied. Turks are used to going from shifts of power and change views quite rapidly. Shafak describes Istanbul as a place of collective amnesia.
“Our history is full of ruptures, and every new establishment that comes to power starts by erasing the legacy of the previous establishment,” she stated. President Erdogan, who recently became the sole rule maker of Turkey, was facing the shutting down of his party by the judiciary system in just the close date of 2009. He is now in complete control of it, removing any potential peril of being questioned, checked or restricted.
Not so long ago, in 2015, President Erdogan saw significant protests from a big part of Turkish people in the Gezi Park protests, he denounced the peaceful protesters as terrorists, provoking his supporters against them and responding with police brutality.
What made the most impact on people’s minds, however, were the constant and brutal terror attacks. I saw that there are few things that can change perceptions as profoundly as fear when I witnessed glimpses of despair in every face that walked by me in Istanbul and signs of depression in almost all of my peers.
The bus home after a long day’s work being the time of the day you fear for your life. Feeling a fist in your stomach when your parents don’t give a call within ten minutes of landing at the Ataturk Airport. I am saddened to write that feeling paralysed and obsessively refreshing the news page and Twitter is a norm for Turkish people these days. Followed by feeling almost guilty for being alive and well.
The coup attempt was the final straw. It was rebel soldiers in the army in massive tanks versus the people, urged by President Erdogan to occupy the streets and fight back. Between the continents of Europe and Asia and over the waves of Bosphorus, many civilians were shot under fire from tanks, giving their lives without a second thought. With 265 people dead, the coup attempt failed, yet its aftermath was a state of complete paranoia as it seemed anyone could be a Gulenist, thus a traitor to the country.
A witch hunt began as nobody could be trusted; policemen, academics, soldiers, generals, judges. 50,000 people were arrested and another 10,000 were sacked. The status quo was; what is remaining of the police forces arresting anyone that President Erdogan might perceive as a threat, which could be anyone from a teacher in one of the many schools funded by Gulen to a man who shared a caricature of the President on Facebook. Turkey became the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, overtaking China. The bridge of tolerance between the west and east became a place of fear, drenched in blood and injustice.
The single most crucial fact about Turkey’s Referendum is that it took place in this atmosphere of paranoia, quite literally while there was still a state of emergency declared. The propaganda to change the system dramatically began in this climate where everyone just wanted to feel some kind of stability again.
While Turkey entered a new path with its new regime, there is serious doubt about the legitimacy of the referendum which was won by a narrow vote. The election was viewed as unfair by the Organisations for Security and Cooperation in Europe, warning of irregularities after a Turkish electoral board decided to allow votes that were not officially stamped. Officials from The Council of Europe — which Turkey is a member of, pointed to an inadequate legal framework and last-minute changes in counting the ballots, as well as a skewed pre-vote campaign in favour of the ‘Yes’ vote and intimidation of the opposition.
“A government that does not even trust their own voters,” read a headline by Emre Kongar, a Turkish columnist, “they are distorting the truth, they cannot even say yes we trust our leader and we’re bringing one-man powers.” The posters I saw all around Istanbul promoting the yes vote were shockingly misleading, suggesting the exact opposite of their targets and policies.
Big bold words exclaimed how this would be an addition to the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, how this would make the President more questionable. While the President’s new authority to renew the elections is openly highlighted in their motion, they deny this by saying there is no power to dismiss the Parliament.
“First, know your place,” stated Erdogan in a victory speech, addressing foreign criticisms. “We won’t see or hear the politically motivated reports you prepare. We will continue our path,” he said. The President does not seem to care it is a path that half of the nation did not agree to partake in.
“Mankind is a single body and each nation a part of that body,” said Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of The Turkish Republic, a secular, modern and self-sufficient country. Also known as ‘Father Turk’ he was the most influential leader the country ever saw until Erdogan, with an entirely opposite vision for Turkey. Turkish people who are concerned about where the country is headed under Erdogan’s rule are more passionate than ever about defending the values of the Republic and Ataturk.
“We must never say ‘what does it matter to me if some part of the world is ailing?’” stated Turkey’s founding father. “If there is such an illness, we must concern ourselves with it as though we have that illness,” he said.
Turkey’s new drift to an illiberal state makes it a cautionary tale as its future will affect that of the entire region and democracy everywhere. The fact that a threat to democracy somewhere is a threat to democracy everywhere is one reason for the world to be concerned about what is going on in Turkey. Just as important is Turkey’s geopolitical position between Europe and the Middle East as well as its vital role in the crisis in Syria. And the fact that, unfortunately, we are not alone in this journey.
There is a new worldwide trend at present; that of the authoritarian, macho, nationalist, strongman leaders. They demonise oppositions, associating them with terror and creating a common enemy. This helps them to grow their supporters and power, but it also creates divisions between their people. Nations who are divided within themselves or have flaws in their democracy cannot have a safe and prosperous future. Leaders who thrive on hatred, polarisation and fear are not new to the pages of history. I’m afraid this chapter we’re experiencing is awfully reminiscent of one that brought nothing but poverty, war and death.
With that being said, my aim is not to invoke panic but to inform. If you need fear to prove a point, your argument isn’t strong enough. Different opinions or maybe even clashing values should all be welcomed in democracy — until the point where there is no democracy nor freedom, but intimidation and injustice. As one authoritarian encourages another, intellectuals everywhere should be concerned with these perils that they think will never affect them.
It should concern every American as Turkey’s case shows an extreme of what a leader of the same character, ambition and the agenda of personal power is capable of doing. It should concern every European to have an illiberal Islamist state on their borders. What is happening in Turkey should concern every human in favour of democracy and freedom.
Illustrations by Antonella Vismara Vivas