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Anatolian Dispatches

Tarred with the Same Brush

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) and Turkish president Abdullah Gül (L) in Istanbul on May 29, 2013. MIRA/AFP/Getty Images
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) and Turkish president Abdullah Gül (L) in Istanbul on May 29, 2013. MIRA/AFP/Getty Images

There is a great climactic scene in the film Finding Nemo where Nemo’s father Marlin and his friend Dory are clinging onto a blue whale’s tongue as the vast beast bellows, its whole mouth cavity vibrating and tons of water sluicing down its gullet. Marlin is convinced the whale wants to eat him. Dory knows better. “He says it’s time to let go,” she shouts over the roar of whale and disappearing water and Wagnerian soundtrack. “Everything’s going to be all right!”

A good deal of foreign media coverage of the Turkish demonstrations reads like an interpretation of that scene. The prime minister is Marlin, untrusting to the point of paranoia, his incessant meddling in his people’s welfare the reason the trouble kicked off in the first place. But there are Dorys on Turkey’s conservative right too, we’re told: optimists whose sunny nature, combined with their knowledge of whale language, mean they know that the best way to deal with the growing wave of public anger is to let go, not to hold on with ever more grim determination.

Exactly what letting go might mean for the prime minister depends on the publication. For the Economist, it appears to mean stepping down. “[T]here are many in Mr Erdogan’s party,” a leader in last week’s edition of the magazine read, “who, like its co-founder, Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, disapprove of the prime minister’s authoritarianism and find his interpretation of democracy too narrow.” And then a few paragraphs later: “Mr Erdogan must… prepare to pass leadership of AK [his party], and executive power, to the more statesmanlike Mr. Gul at the next election.”

The Washington Post, meanwhile, takes a less prescriptive line, merely pointing out what it claims are tensions in pro-government ranks. It gives considerable space to Fethullah Gülen, an influential Turkish imam now living in the United States whose powerful neo-Sufi group has provided crucial support to Mr. Erdoğan over the past decade. It quotes him as warning the government not to disregard the protests, and as saying that “fifty-fold more wrongs are being committed, sparking more rancor and hatred.”

Some of this is true. Mr. Erdoğan’s aggressive tone is undoubtedly the most important cause of public anger by far. Other senior figures from his government have shown much more willingness to dialogue with protestors from the start. Mr. Gül is one. Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç is another. Education Minister Nabi Avcı, meanwhile—probably the most intelligent and open-minded member of Mr. Erdoğan’s cabinet—has been openly critical, going on record early on in the protests to say that government incompetence had “in five days succeeded in doing what the opposition couldn’t do in years, bringing radically different groups … together.” It is also true that once-cordial relations between the Gülen Movement and Mr. Erdoğan have been declining for several years now.

The question is how much the sweet-talking is merely tactical. Are the men seen by the western newsmen as Dorys really, truly Dorys or are they actually Marlins in Dory’s clothing? The closer you look, the more they seem likely to be the latter.

Writing on June 10 for the independent news portal Bianet, Zeynep Korkman and Salih Açıksöz compared Mr. Erdoğan’s relationship to other senior members of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to that of a husband and wife. When the protests started, Mr. Erdoğan lost his temper and swore at protestors, calling them “drunkards,” “looters” and “alcoholics,” then slammed the door and stalked off on a four-day trip to North Africa. It was only while he was away that his subordinates stepped in, like sympathetic mothers, and tried to calm the frayed family’s nerves. But then Mr. Erdoğan returned, and they fell silent again.

President Gül, forgotten up in his palace on a hill in Ankara, passed Mr. Erdoğan’s alcohol law without a murmur as the squares of Turkey filled up again with clouds of tear gas and lines of heavily armed police. Once an advocate of moderation, Mr. Arınç was, by June 17, lambasting the BBC (not necessarily a sign of radicalism) and advocating bringing the army in to quell ongoing protests. “I think the innocent demonstrations that began twenty days ago have completely ended,” he said. To end protests, “there is the police, and if that’s not enough, there is the gendarmerie, and if that is not enough, there is the army.”

In terms of tone, it is difficult to think of two political figures more different than Mr. Erdoğan and Mr. Gülen. Mr. Erdoğan hectors; Mr. Gülen has the melancholy, downcast eyes of a spiritual man sorrowed by the imperfections of the world, and he is easily moved to tears. The language they have used over recent weeks, however, shows striking parallels.

Take Erdoğan’s justification of the alcohol laws that helped stoke the protests in the first place. “I don’t want a generation of drunkards,” he said last month. “I want a pious generation that will stand up for its hatred.”

In the fullest statement he has so far made about the protests, Mr Gülen covered very similar ground. “Saying [the protests] have absolutely nothing to do with a demand for rights,” he told his followers, “would be to ignore some innocent people, some innocent demands. And then, when it comes down to it, we have failed them. These are generations that have come into being as a result of our failure.”

It sounds almost reasonable at first reading—the hint of self-criticism, the apparent effort of empathy. Except that Mr. Gülen’s chief priority since he began gathering followers around him in the early 1970s has been the creation of a “golden generation” of pious youngsters immunized against communism and atheism.

He went on in his recent statement to flesh out the idea. “Unless the root of the issue is dealt with, unless we begin with the reforming of the generations, unless those generations, those innocent generations, are brought into contact with things flowing from the soul and from the spirit, unless their souls are made to drink it in … unless their very neurons are steeled through discipline, these excesses will continue.”

Gülen even took the prime minister to task for the increasingly overt moralism of his government, the crackdown on drinking, the constant emphasis on the need for large families, and the demonization of abortion. “Reacting in an unplanned way to these wild people and their wild ways serves only to stir things up,” he said. “It is the root of the issue that needs to be dealt with.”

It was not that he opposed Erdoğan’s vision of the future, it was merely the way he was going about trying to achieve it. Political scientist Yüksel Taşkın says the message was perfectly clear: “To do this job properly, you need our help!”

And, by a curious irony, the most prominent symbol of Gülen’s root and branch solution to reforming future generations played out in front of massive crowds less than five miles up the road from where the police (allegedly a hothouse of Gülen followers) were lobbing gas canisters into hospitals and crowded hotel lobbies. The 11th International Turkish Olympiad, an annual spectacle involving thousands of children from schools Gülen’s supporters have opened on every continent of the world, is a celebration of what their organizers call “Turkish, the language of peace.”

Had it not been for the protests, the event would have been front-page news in Turkish newspapers over the past week. There is nothing fiery or radical here. The children dance Turkish dances and sing Turkish songs, and the huge crowds applaud. But there is a narrow, suffocating feel to the whole thing: the way the teachers proudly leading their little groups of foreign students from venue to venue look so similar, the kitschiness of it, the fact every poem the children are made to learn seems to be written by an Islamist poet.

A column by the editor-in-chief of the daily Zaman, which is said to be closely allied with the Gülen Movement, gives a sense of the pervading atmosphere of hyperventilating emotionalism. “What were the ‘children of Turkish’ thinking about these tragic incidents?” Ekrem Dumanlı asked, referring to the protests. “What were those angelic children seeing in this twilight where devils were swarming? Were they afraid? Were they intimidated? … I inquired about their perceptions. I learned that the children always felt themselves engulfed in an atmosphere of love.”

It is easy to see why this concern for the spiritual health of tomorrow’s adults is shared across the conservative spectrum. Surveys of the crowds who gathered in Taksim Square after the police crackdown on the original small environmental protest late in May showed roughly three-quarters of the people there were younger than thirty. It is a youth protest very different from anything Turkey has ever seen before. Given that 25 million Turks—a third of the population—are under the age of 19, conservatives must worry the younger generation is slipping from their grasp.

And this bulking together of individuals into faceless generations is a venerable Turkish practice. In his near-untranslatable comment about his desire for a generation that would “stand up for its hatred,” the prime minister was quoting a famous twentieth century Islamist poet’s hymn to an Islamic youth that would rid the country of its enslavement to imitators of the West who were baser than beasts, youngsters who would fight for “their religion, their language, their brains, their wisdom, their purity, their homes, their hatred and their revenge.” And Necip Fazıl, the poet and thinker who inspired the generation of Islamists that includes Erdoğan and Gül, was in turn inspired by Kemal Atatürk’s own Oration to the Turkish Youth. This most famous political text, with its call on pure-hearted revolutionary youngsters to overthrow governments if they stepped out of ideological line, is the source of so many of Turkey’s political problems.

That is the greatest tragedy of the government’s mishandling of the protests. For a brief couple of years during the first decade of the new millennium, Turkey looked to be stepping beyond political polarization. There was a multitude of voices. People who by rights should not be talking to each other were. Slowly, the old dualisms seemed to fall away. Today, with their divisive talk of engineering generations, the government and their allies risk taking the country right back to the start: two faceless masses bellowing the same tired old phrases at each other across the divide, nursing new wounds that will take another generation to heal.

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Nicholas Birch
Nicholas Birch lived in Istanbul, Turkey, from 2002 to 2009, working as a freelancer. His work—mainly from Turkey and Iraq—has appeared in a range of publications, including the Washington Post, Time Magazine, the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement. He was a stringer for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London until the end of 2009. He now lives in London.


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