In Bookforum, Ece Temelkuran reviews the book The New Turkey and Its Discontents by Simon A. Waldman and Emre Caliskan. Temelkuran reveals that she read the book in a heartbreaking and illuminating context: in exile in Zagreb, where she fled to avoid persecution and imprisonment in her home country of Turkey. From this vantage point, Temelkuran finds that The New Turkey and Its Discontents provides a helpful history to the currently authoritarian tilt of the country, even as it says too little about the brave dissidents resisting Erdoğan’s consolidation of power. Read an excerpt from the review below, or the full piece here.
Since the international media now tends to represent Turkey as a crazy dictator’s fiefdom where anything can happen, I wonder as I read who will be interested in such an involved, One Hundred Years of Solitude–esque family tree of Turkish politics, especially at a moment when both Europe and the US are enjoying their own political crises. But The New Turkey is an important and in some ways corrective addition to the conversation about the country’s recent history. It refuses to reproduce two extremely common political myths that have helped the AKP legitimize its rule in both the national and international arenas. The first is the idea that in the years before the AKP took power, the Turkish army had been enforcing the state’s secularism while much of the Muslim Turkish population yearned for pluralism and religious freedom, which they got at last with Erdoğan. As the book shows, this is false. After the 1980 coup, the army actively supported Islamist movements, such as the Gulen, and during the Cold War used them to help keep leftist groups in check—the AKP and its support base are in many ways the fruits of those years. The second myth the book helpfully demolishes is that the AKP was dedicated to participatory democracy in its first term, yet magically transformed into a brutal, dictatorial political machine during its second. The authors show that Erdoğan in fact gradually dismantled state institutions from the start, concealing his intentions through strategic alliances with so-called liberal democrats until he did not need them anymore.
What the book leaves out is when and how the abracadabra was performed. Turning the pages, I remember the series of paralyzing incidents Turkey has witnessed in recent years, not least the Ergenekon trials, in which hundreds of secular citizens were imprisoned based on manufactured evidence that they were connected to a planned coup. It was shameless, ludicrous: Suddenly, people from diametrically opposed political camps were being rounded up together, members of leftist groups indicted alongside the very paramilitaries the state had used against them during the Cold War. The situation produced a still-popular joke that aliens were running a massive experiment on Turkey to see what it might take to drive an entire human population to lunacy.
Image of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan via www.sozcu.com.tr.