Turkey is a country, where daily life of people who have a minimum level of literacy is perplexed by political agenda. Every single day wakes upon an outstanding number of news of sorts. There is no continuity in any sphere of public life; the state shuffles, the legal base is ever changing, the sides of any argument differs from a moment to the next. Even the geographical location does nor help: On the west, an ever cramping European Union is finding a way out from its economical and social crisis, and on the east a war with possible worldwide political implications is breaking havoc. As a result political, religious and ethnic fault lines are cutting through public life in an irrevocable fashion. But all these developments did not happen overnight; in the land of permanence, history might shed a light on the last decade, which brought Turkey to a proverbial boiling point.
In fact one might argue about Turkey that even social change is there to prove there is no change in reality when you look at things from a broad perspective, the broadest of which is time itself. The current state was founded on the ruins of a long-standing empire whose mere power was based on military might and a continuous welfare system for its subjects based on ethnicity. As long as the state prevented its military deterioration and kept its subjects at bay by a degree of social content and religious superiority it prevailed. The economics of this power was based on war spoils, which eventually were supplemented by the geopolitical advantages turning into trade incentives via the hands of its various Christian population. Muslims of the empire were reserved for state duties, military and farming whereas the Christians were left with nothing else than trade and industry with a heavy tax burden and a ban on state affairs. As the state lost its economic splendor those who benefited from its riches became poor and others who improved their wealth as a result of industrial revolution in the west in terms of import of practical end products and export of necessary raw materials created the main division in the society. Towards the end of the19th Century, although the fate of the empire looked like worsened by the wars in the west, political intelligentsia was humming with a nationalistic rhetoric along the lines of that division. Forerunners of the state were aware that a recovery was only possible through an economic jolt and not via the already humbled military might of the state. Yet, they needed the veil of war to realize their plans. As the Great War unfolded in 1914 they have already cleared many trade stations near the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean Asia Minor from the Christian supremacy. The state tradition that they were born into didn’t present them with many options; they occupied and plundered the means of trade and accumulated wealth in Asia Minor for the decades to come. When cleared from ethnic diversity and after the wealth accumulated in the hands of the state and people who owe the state for their livelihood, the division shifted but continued to exist nonetheless. Against the state owned enterprises, their subcontractors and subjects stood the new outcasts of the society: ethnically, socially and religiously underprivileged. Universal nature of empire’s structure of subjects was exchanged for a citizenship based on obeisance to the official doctrine of Turkish Republic. As long as the new republic was able to provide the majority with benefits that division served to keep the nation undivided. But it lacked resources, tradition and the corporate principles to dwell upon, such as education and a system based on an impartial jurisprudence. During the 20th Century it had many failures; both economical and political. But it was able to keep the majority of the population in check and survived those. However, the political pundits never invested in a modern state to create a supra national identity. The division prevailed. It took the form of imperialists vs. workers, democrats vs. junta supporters, Turks vs. Kurds; but essentially it existed between the people who contained the outposts of the state doctrine and the rest who were impoverished independent of their ethnic or political affiliation. Throughout the years the society never questioned the existence of such a state. Debate was always on the limitations of its power. Turkish people defined their liberties within an ever-changing space that was allowed by current codes and practice as prescribed by the state.
History repeating itself
In the beginning of the last decade the state ownership changed hands. Disempowered religious conservatives by the founding principles of Turkey with the aid of an election code, tailor-made for a single party regime by the previous junta, and the lack of leadership and complacency by the previous ruling parties took over the government after the elections of 2002. The long-standing division of the society enabled them to switch sides and ripe the benefits of the ex-ruling class. They were aware of the divide, they promised their followers to change the system and replace it with a democracy without any nepotism, promised religious freedom for all. However they were either illiterate or purely mala fide in their intentions. They were only able to reverse the situation; the new order created its own affluent where merit was measured by obeisance to the party and the rest of the population increasingly were left with no economical options to hold on to their standards. Ethnic minorities were the only groups left as pariah before and after that transition. In this context, Kurdish enlightenment played a major part in introducing a new level of division in society. They were not questioning the lines of the divide (as most other groups did), but they questioned the system as it were. They did not only demand their freedoms but also a system where all would have their own areas of freedom and access to opportunity within the society. Furthermore they stopped acting within the system, went to the margins and had evolved their armed resistance to a new level; they educated their voluntary conscripts in philosophy, politics and alike. Finally, they had made the government to sit down with people who were called terrorists before and started to negotiate peace.
Today as a reflection of the past
The Turkish state was aware that the land below their feet was moving. The common divide of the society they had fed for centuries was disappearing. The government resorted to the only solution culturally available; forget about the promises and plans and strengthen the state to fight against the current danger. Culturally a threat against the state overrides any priority in Turkey; all are dispensable when it comes to the continuity of the state.
The chaotic state of the 20th Century when it came to change had created similar problems for Turkey. Each and every government before the current one responded the same. They all empowered the state (through states of emergency, special courts, and junta regimes) by deteriorating the quality of management tools such as courts, schools, state organizations and finally liberties. Each constitution, each modification of the rule of the land during this period was one step forward then two steps back. At the end, every change in penal code, each new constitution, all ended up more and more against civil rights. Add to this, ever reluctance of the forces of enforcement in respecting basic civil rights and liberties, Turkish people, on the both sides of the divide, ended up living in an increasingly authoritarian system. Only a minority of the people complained, since respect for the state was expected from the people at large: they were taught that it was the only way there could be.
When the war in the Middle East, especially the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq tested Turkey’s resolve, the centuries old divide was already in place for the state to take part within its nature. The current state of affairs in the region alleviated to deteriorate the political climate. On one side there was Sunni Muslims which majority of Turkey see as brothers, and on the other the Kurds, the eternal scapegoats the state conspired about in dire times since the 19th Century. But the major mistake was to underestimate their accumulated power and experience in such situations. Lived under guerilla warfare for more than 30 years and with just a little to lose, they occupied the streets and raised their usually mild level of unrest to a frightful level of urban resistance. The reaction of the state in the face of that development shouldn’t be a surprise for the reader: a new penal code where an opposition or resistance against the ruling doctrine would be severely punished.
The economic locomotive of the system, after losing its textile and agricultural base to the Far East competition and EU customs union regulations, became the construction business. But over supply and alternative destinations slowed down economical growth during the last few years. Social instability throughout 2013 and 2014 amplified the negative outlook. Excessive taxation per item sold instead of taxation of income and the unpredictable nature of government fiscal policies also decreased foreign investment flow. On top, Turkey is one of the most expensive countries in the world on basic food and energy prices.
Is there a future?
The system is at a crossroads in Turkey. Will it disintegrate and find a new path to a major change in character? Or will the history prevail and a new mode of an authoritarian regime will be established. Experience and the ignorance of public unrest and deepening of the divide by the administration tell us the latter is more likely. Newly elected President continuously ignores the voices from the opposition and critics. As in any authoritarian regime with deaf ears on constructive criticism, unrest only results in more tightening of the rope, which in turn results in more unrest and so on.
Developed countries are discussing about isolation of Turkey from western organizations. If Turkey reverts from the laws legislated for EU accession since 2004, with the so-called new penal code in works, it may as well be a “farewell” to its exclusive membership in the western club as a Muslim democracy albeit a feeble one. That might in fact be exactly what the current government is aiming for: isolating Turkey from its previous allies to consolidate the party’s mandate and hegemony over the country and rule with extraordinary privileges, namely a sultanate of sorts. And there seems to be no force in action to prevent that from happening if true.
For all on the “wrong” side of the deeply cut divide of Turkish society another period of either physical or proverbial exile is imminent. Some of those underprivileged groups such as religious and ethnic minorities would find refuge in foreign countries as they did in the past. Some might take the level of resistance to a new level of conflict: warfare. Some radical groups might find a chance to raise their flag amidst the political turmoil. One thing is for sure; the tranquility that the administration supposedly places so much emphasis on would not be present in the near future. Having opposition views and expressing them will be gravely punished. Writing about crimes will have more severe consequences than actually committing them. And most will accept that because they will “feel more comfortable” in an environment where they will hear no eccentric voices. They will not react, for reaction would be more costly than silence, at least for today. Today is the only reality they have. Because the “silent majority” in Turkey is just that: silent. They keep on being complacent with what the state serves them. For the restless and people who care for their personal and communal future there is one option when there is no beacon at the end of the tunnel for a change: