Since signing a petition to end state violence against Kurds in southeast Turkey, academics critical of the Turkish regime have come under increased scrutiny. These “dopey academics” as the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to them join other critics as public enemies of the New Turkey. Their names, photos and institutional affiliation circulate the social media. Pro-government columnists describe them as traitors, and terrorists.
The rhetoric is certainly no more palatable across the Atlantic with the newly-elected American president, Donald Trump, lashing out at people who disagree with him, spewing insults to those who point out his factual errors (lies), and name-calling certain segments of the American population. Like Erdoğan who utilizes Statutory Decrees/Emergency Decree Laws, Trump, through Executive Orders, puts his demagoguery into practice. But the present responses to Trump are different than those in Turkey today. Rather, they are reminiscent of earlier political protests. In this way the question of what has happened to Turkey is, more than ever, relevant to the US.
Condemning critics for cooperating with powers that conspire to bring Turkey down has a long history. One well-known example is the 1980 coup d’etat, where, following the declaration of Martial Law, Law 1402 on State of Emergencies of the then-in-use Constitution of 1971 was enacted to indict approximately 5000 public servants, including 150 academic personnel. Since July 15, 2016, over 120,000 public servants have been purged from their posts, including 7000 academics who lost their jobs and 144 journalists, who are currently in prison.
The crackdown takes a particularly despotic form given the political climate. Terror is no longer confined to Turkey’s southeastern borders, but is spreading to urban centers in Central and Western Anatolia. Since mid-2015, 20 suicide bombings or violent attacks took place, killing over 400 people. Kurdish militant groups or ISIS claimed most. The last was a mass shooting at an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve celebrations, which took 39 lives.
The coup attempt of July 15, which some skeptics argue the President staged to gain popular support to suppress his critics and establish himself as a supreme leader, also feeds the Turkish state’s iron-fisted policies. According to Erdoğan, the coup was a great blessing/gift (lütuf) from Allah. It certainly was as he, and members of the ruling party, swiftly proposed constitutional reforms, including a transition from a parliamentarian system of governance to a presidential one. In about three months, under a State of Emergency, citizens of Turkey will participate in a constitutional referendum to decide the fate of their regime.
Particularly troubling, the interrogations include not only the coup plotters, but anyone critical of the current regime: members of the Parliament and legislators affiliated with the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP); members of the press and investigative journalists who discover ties between corrupt officials and terrorists; human rights activists and judges who raise issues over the unconstitutionality of arrests and purges; and researchers and academics, including the signatories to the petition, who decry state violence. While the international community describes most of the charges as travesty of justice, the situation is not far from tragedy either.
To write a critical piece on Turkey today is not only a risky affair but also an unfeasible one as access to critical voices is severely limited. Reporters Without Borders ranks Turkey 151 out of 180 countries for press freedom in 2016. The crackdown on alternative media has taken many forms: closure of media outlets (at least 20 radio/TV channels were closed down since September 2016) and websites (over 100,000 blocked as of 2016); reporting bans and gag orders (following suicide bombings and other traumatic events, like a video of ISIS militants setting Turkish soldiers ablaze in Northern Syria); imposition of fines; Internet blackouts; temporary Twitter and Youtube bans; VPN and Tor bans; and bandwidth throttling.
Upon returning to the US this January after a yearlong stretch of fieldwork in France, I found that many friends and colleagues now feared the future of their country under a leader whose ignorance they despised. On January 21, the date of the Women’s March, many of them gathered in downtown St. Louis to stand in solidarity. Their anger and eagerness reminded me of emotions that I experienced during the Istanbul Gezi Park Protests in 2013. Fast-forward three years, and I find myself asking, what happened to those feelings of mine?
Today, I cannot even bring myself to envision hundreds of thousands claiming the streets in Turkish urban centers to protest the current regime. Or to type half the nasty tweets my American colleagues type about their president. Part of the obstacle is legal. The Legal Package to Protect Freedoms, passed in April 2015, does the opposite of what its title suggests and expands police power to suppress popular protests. It is also illegal to insult the Turkish President. Although that has always been the case, President Erdoğan takes personal insults very seriously—to the extent that you can get arrested for a Facebook post.
The other part has to do with lack of belief in change. After the witch-hunt for the signatories of the petition started, a friend asked me: “What was I thinking signing it?” Another, with whom I have collaborated on various projects before, chose to become less visible on public platforms. Not out of fear, but perhaps of a gradual loss of hope for a better future. Today, each of our attempts to reach out to the public through our writing proves to be futile. “Why write?” we ask each other. Why the struggle? What difference will it make, other than leave us misunderstood and frustrated, and get us in trouble.
This despair, however, is equally troubling. It is both an isolating experience, and counterproductive—not the best state of mind for a post-fieldwork graduate student. Most graduate students feel lonely returning to their departments after fieldwork. Returning to the US under the helm of a new President perhaps accentuated this feeling for me, as all I could hear were dystopian narratives on America’s future. Yet, as anthropologists, our strength comes from listening to stories told here as well as elsewhere. And in this space, I choose to share stories on Turkey with you. I intend the proceeding writings on Turkish politics and society to be therapeutic for me, as well as others, who share similar anxieties about their country’s future.
Oguz Alyanak is a PhD candidate in sociocultural anthropology and a McDonnell scholar at Washington University in St. Louis. His fieldwork in Strasbourg, funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, was on moral anxieties pertaining to Muslim Turkish men’s going out habits.