Turkey’s lost voices

Written by Editor

Ece Temelkuran’s The Insane and the Melancholy Book published.  

I wish I had written Ece Temelkuran’s The Insane and the Melancholy. Or rather I wish that it had not needed to be written.

Years ago, when he was still an historian, Bernard Lewis helped foreigners make sense of Turkey with his The Emergence of Modern Turkey. Since this came out in 1961, many books have covered the travails of post-war party politics, the role of the country’s military and the use of religion to combat the left. But, with the rise and rise of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, these analyses have all been overtaken. That was another Turkey. One which, for all its flaws of implementation, had some aspiration to and echo of European parliamentary democracy. One which does not exist any longer. One whose values now seem quaint, almost irrelevant.


Some facts are clear. In spring 2016, Turkey came 151st out of 180 countries, below Russia, in Reporters without Borders’ ranking of press freedom in 2016. And that was before the post-July arrests of over 140 journalists and the closing of TV stations and newspapers—170 to end-October, according to the Turkish Journalists’ Association, and more since. Purges of erstwhile allies of President Erdoğan continue, banks and companies are seized, reports of the beatings, torture and rape of those arrested circulate on the BBC and social media. Many of those affected had nothing to do with the failed coup but reported or monitored human rights and the intensifying civil war with the country’s Kurds which in the past 18 months has displaced 500,000 people from the conflict areas.


Some have argued that because Erdoğan has a mandate, we—foreigners and Turks—have to accept that Erdoğan “may not resemble our stated democratic ideals, but he may be their future.” Such statements make a mockery of the word “democratic.” His mandate depends on the extent to which he has crushed the concept as he has inexorably destroyed the institutions which could protect it.

Temelkuran’s book sets out how this has been done and the cost to each individual, particularly when it comes to his/her relationship with themselves.


It is an intimate book. Each page has the same, almost sensuous, feel present in the works of the poet Nazim Hikmet but absent from some decorated recent Turkish writers. She is concerned at the creeping corrosion of values, seeing fascism as “the gradual loss of humanity. The progression is so slow and slight as to be invisible to the naked eye… By the time it draws near and introduces itself, it’s too late. For it harbours a secret that corrupts everything it touches… Not kills, corrupts… like mildew or humidity… Its victory is in its facility to change what people are made of. Respect for one’s fellow man is the first thing to go.”

The Turks care for children, particularly those of other people. Erdoğan talked a lot about the children killed in Egypt’s Rabaa Massacre of 2013 and wept on television for the seventeen-year old Esma, one of the victims. But it is different when it comes to children at home. A report by two opposition MPs—one a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights—lists how between 2004 and mid-2015 120 children died as a result of what they called Erdoğan’s “AK Party’s child-hunting policy,” continuing: “All child murders…have been unpunished or finalised with sentences that were more like prizes.” As for 14-year old Berkin Elvan, who died after being hit by a police gas canister during the Gezi Park protests of 2013: “His parents were not even allowed to mourn as the Prime Minister prompted the crowd to boo Berkin’s family during his pre-election rallies, accusing them of being terrorists.” In November, the government tried to introduce a law which would protect rapists of children if they married their victims. At least on this, the outrage was such that it backed down.


Temelkuran was a political journalist, dismissed for her criticism of Erdoğan from newspapers Milliyet (in 2009) and from Habertürk (in 2011). Her Deep Mountain, Across the Turkish-Armenian Divide (2010), struck me for the way she delved into the anguish of a young, progressive Turk coming to terms with a denied part of the country’s past. “Hasn’t the Turkish flag enough blood on it for generals not to encourage children to write poems in their own blood,” she asks in this.

She has published 12 books in Turkish, one on hunger strikes by Turkish political prisoners, and has won at least one humans right prize. She was heavily trolled after her final article in Habertürk and even today recent articles on the open forum website Ekşi Sözlük criticise her looks, say she should work in a bar or café, and call her Turkey’s Rosa Luxemburg. To some, her faults are being westernised and criticizing Turkey to foreigners. But who exactly are her critics? Erdoğan has invested heavily in social media. On May 8, 2015, the AK Party launched with a fanfare its New Turkey Digital Office with 200 people working on a two-shift basis, 24 hours per day. The tone of the attacks on her speaks of the level of debate in Turkey and reinforces the points she makes about the degeneration of values in her country in the past decade.

In her new book, she writes about 17 photographs in “Turkey’s disorganised photo album.” Two of these relate to the Dersim massacres of 1937-1938. Like the Jews of Thrace, the Alevi Zaza Kurds of the south east had objected to a forced assimilation programme. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk sent in troops and airplanes. Between 13,000 and 40,000 people died. (Temelkuran gives a higher figure). The first bomb was dropped by Sabiha Gökçen, Atatürk’s ward and probably a survivor of the Armenian massacres of 1915. “That a child who was the victim of one massacre has grown up to be a bomber in another… yes, the pure historical tragedy of the situation stretches the limits of credulity.” Gökçen now has Istanbul’s second airport named after her.

In 2013, Erdoğan apologised on behalf of the state, describing the massacre as “one of the most tragic events of our near history.” His apology was less an expression of regret than of attack, being directed against the opposition Republican People’s Party which was in power in the 1930s. For incidents which have taken place on his watch such as the bombing of 34 civilians at Roboski in 2011, Erdoğan has never apologised. Nor did he console those who lost relatives in the bombings at Suruç and the Ankara Gar in 2015. 134 died in those two incidents. And many more continue to do so as parts of Diyarbakir, Cizre and Şilopi are blown apart in the army’s fighting with the Kurds of the area.

In early 2014, Erdoğan seemed to have his back on the ropes. Allegations of corruption had caused the resignation of four of his ministers and tainted his family. But in that year’s municipal elections he increased his share of the vote compared with five years earlier—even if his vote was down on that in the intervening general elections. Since then, there has been no alternative voice in the mass media, and since this summer’s coup attempt virtually no centre of criticism whose members have not been arrested.

It is easy to rabble rouse when there is no alternative voice. Temelkuran cites an analysis of Erdoğan’s speeches by the humorist Ozan Tüzün and the eight phases of his “algorithm.” Step one is to change the rhetoric around any accusation in order to stop it from being wrong and to portray it as something good. The following steps could be from a populist’s primer, but Erdoğan deploys them on a daily basis. The “multi-voiced democracy” of the conservative leader, Süleyman Demirel, has given way to a relentless monotone. In this discourse, the “They” are the educated, the privileged and the secular, and the “We” are the victims, the pious and, until the rise of Erdoğan, the oppressed.

In the west we will not hear other voices. Temelkuran’s book tells us what some would have been saying.

Source: prospect

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