Republic Day, Election Day, and the Calm (!) Before the Storm
WARNING: The following article contains a good deal of cynicism, sarcasm, patriotism, and, naturally, political opinion. If you feel like you can't handle these things, I suggest you look elsewhere for an exciting read.
As you may or may not know, today is Republic Day in Turkey. In 1923, a new generation of Turks founded a new country out of the ashes of a once grand, then extinct empire. The new republic was founded upon the democratic ideals of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who became our first elected president exactly 92 years ago today. These ideals can be summarised as follows: republicanism, the idea that a nation must be ruled by its own people, populism, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "support for the concerns of ordinary people", secularism, the separation of religion from various government institutions (e.g. state, law, education, and culture), revolutionism, explained by Ataturk himself as any bottom-up process that improves and modernises a state, nationalism, in the sense of love for one's fellow citizen (no matter what ethnicity!) and a loyalty and devotion to one's country, and statism, a call for cohesion in government in order to shoulder national challenges with tenacity, as one. As with any set of political ideals, these are not perfect, nor are they by any means easy to implement in the short or long term. However, two things are indisputable: that these ideals were supported by concrete action in the years that followed, and that they were many years ahead of their time, especially when you consider what their precedent was.
I want to focus on one of these specifically: secularism. Because without it, if you take a closer look above, the other items become a lot more suspicious, their implications a lot more slippery. So, you say, Mustafa Kemal was against religion, he set out to abolish it and become a poor impersonation of a Western country. I beg to differ. His explanation of the necessity of secularism is candid:
"Religion is an important institution. A nation without religion cannot survive. Yet it is also very important to note that religion is a link between Allah and the individual believer. The brokerage of the pious cannot be permitted. Those whouse religion for their own benefit are detestable. We are against such a situation and will not allow it. Those who use religion in such a manner have fooled our people; it is against just such people that we have fought and will continue to fight."
But this is old news. A critique of the current Turkish political climate can come in a variety of new forms, because secularism went to the dogs many years ago. And people were quick to embrace the change somehow. Domestically, Erdogan's name became synonymous with liberation for religious conservatives, as he lifted the headscarf ban in schools, universities, and for civil servants. Abroad, people suddenly started calling Turkey a "modern Islamic nation", which is a bit odd when you consider that the percentage of Muslims in Turkey remained at 98%, as it had more or less always been since 1923.
Let me open a side note here: the lifting of the headscarf ban is the one religion-focused AKP decision I resolutely stand behind - at least in theory. It is a human right to be able to express your religion in a democratic country, no matter what your religion may be. However, the "headscarf controversy" is something Turkey has never been able to get right since its inception, perhaps out of a fear that this one small freedom will send the secular house of cards tumbling down. Instead, we have shifted rapidly from one extreme to the other. Currently, the headscarf has become synonymous not with the pious, but with AKP supporters, religious cults like the Gulen movement, and further subdivisions of Islam. Civil servants are told that they must adopt this political tool collectively as a family if they want employment in the public sector. This was the first divide that Erdogan brought to Turkey: you're either with us, or you're out. End of side note.
Let's focus more on Erdogan: he's loud, proud, and has gradually eliminated any checks on his own power. The police? His personal protection force, as seen in the Gezi Protests of 2013. The military? Dead, after the hundreds of allegations and arrests that pushed them into obscurity. The judiciary? They've all been openly replaced by fervent AKP supporters. The media? They're split into three groups: most have become Erdogan's lapdogs, keeping Turkey in the dark,a huge proportion are still under arrest, and the minority have become the last men standing from a once-independent press, and are fighting to keep their readers alert and aware of what is going on. These journalists are abused, insulted, and threatened by Erdogan on a daily basis. Social media? Fighting fit, thankfully, but switched off at the flick of a button on his whim - and Erdogan isn't even afraid to arrest 14-year-olds for "offensive" tweets.
And what about AKP, the "Justice" (lol) and "Development" (they would like to have you believe) party? Whenever I open-mindedly try to see the argument for voting in favour of this party after all these years and all this country has been through, I am cut short by the inevitable realisation that Turkish people are afraid of change. And also that they believe the short-term is infinitely more important than the long term. The economic development in Turkey over the last ten years is a shameful and sad facade for anyone who wants to pretend it is going to last - check out this Foreign Policy article if you don't want to take my word for it.
People are somehow extremely willing to overlook the pitfalls of the last few years - the blatant disregard for human rights, the bribery, the suspiciously inexhaustible amount of wealth one man has accumulated over ten years (resulting in a vast personal palace twice the size of Versailles), the arrogance, the police brutality. They instead choose to sit down and say, "well, our economy is better than it ever was", or "well, the newcomers could be even worse", or "well, at least none of this has affected me or my livelihood directly. And look at all our pretty new shopping malls!". It is not Erdogan and his cronies that leave me speechless anymore, it is these people.
I recently came across an article by Suat Kiniklioglu in the New York Times which seemed honest enough at first, but the more I read into it, the more it made me angry and sad that this is what most modern Turkish "liberals" look like. The former AKP member is sullen and self-righteous: "The A.K.P. was once the most progressive force in Turkish politics, but it has undergone a damaging transformation since the fateful Gezi Park protests of 2013", "It’s true that the A.K.P. was never a liberal party, but it had a clear interest in Turkey’s democratization", "It is clear that the A.K.P.’s promise to consolidate Turkish democracy, solve the Kurdish question and join the European Union has utterly failed". Dear Mr. Kiniklioglu, let's get real: firstly, a party doesn't change its policy overnight. What clearly happened in the Gezi Protests to anyone who has an inquisitive mind and a critical brain is that the AKP felt powerful enough to show its true face and unleash its full potential. Furthermore, it is highly dubious that a party whose spokespeople are ludicrously dismissive of womens' rights, who think that innovation in education comes from replacing a huge proportion of state schools with Imam Hatip (religious) schools, who jail their journalists and blatantly bribe the impoverished working class to vote in their favour could have ever been interested in democratisation. And finally, Mr. Kiniklioglu, to me, Erdogan and the AKP don't look or act like they've "utterly failed" in any way. Never will you hear remorse or apology in any of their speeches. They have not failed; instead, they have succeeded in blinding both yourself and millions of other people to their actual intentions all along. Taking over every state institution takes time and effort, Mr. Kiniklioglu, and you've got to be sly and subtle to get there. Thus, your article for political absolution is a very sorry attempt. We have only to Google your name to realise that you're a dedicated supporter of the Gulen cult; how nice and convenient that your own split from the AKP coincides with the "parallel government" divide between Erdogan and Gulen. Once a bootlicker, always a bootlicker. So please do not insult the people who have been opposing the AKP from the very beginning by declaring that this predicament is "Turkey's self-inflicted disaster"and painting us all with the same brush.
This is why the country is so tense before the Sunday elections; people have been easily fooled, divided, and been shown scapegoats for so long that no one knows how to vote anymore. After the Ankara bombings earlier this month, the government named many culprits: the Islamic State, the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) , a Syrian terrorist organisation, various combinations of the above. However, Prime Minister Davutoglu has also gone on record saying the whole thing was terribly sad, but based on public surveys before and after the attack, their voter share has increased dramatically - how lovely! Many are of the opinion that MIT (the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation) is behind it all, and there is ample evidence to suspect that the government gave the order to pull the trigger. Even if there is a chance that any of the above militant organisations are behind the attack, there is currently no doubt that the government had prior knowledge of the attack, yet chose to let it happen, since an atmosphere of utter chaos and suspicion is the perfect way to kick HDP (the Kurdish 'Peoples' Democratic Party') below the 10% and usurp their newly-acquired seats in parliament in the upcoming elections. Divide and conquer politics at their best.
There are three days between Republic Day and Election Day this year, and the atmosphere will be anything but calm. But for once, if we can vote with our minds and not our pockets, if we can imagine the long term rather than the short term, if we can remember the ideas that gave us the liberties we are gradually losing today, if we can learn to make our own decisions rather than following others' blindly, if we can cut out this cancer which slowly threatens to ruin the entire country from within - if we can do these things, there is promise for the young generations of Turkey. If not - well, it suffices to say that there are even darker days ahead.
Happy Republic Day, everyone. Cumhuriyet Bayramimiz Kutlu Olsun.Make sure it's not our last.