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12 min read

Democracy in disguise

Turkey has recently carried out several reforms rendering the country more democratic. At the same time, the same government imprisons increasing numbers of writers and opponents of the regime. How does this go together? The journalist and author Muhsin Kızılkaya depicts Turkey’s winding road toward greater openness—and points out the main problem: a constant deficit in democracy.

Credits Text: Muhsin Kızılkaya Translation from Turkish: Berrak Gocer January 08 2013

I am not sure whether there is another nation in the world that has suffered as much hardship while trying to transition from a theocracy to a republic and then to democratic rule as has the Turkish Republic.

I wonder, if the people of Turkey had been informed beforehand about all the terrible tragedies that would take place in those eighty odd years, would they still have agreed to a change of regime that would cause them so much pain? That is, what if the public had been informed that democratic rule would cost them so much? Would they have said: “No thank you, we don’t want to go through all that, we don’t want a democracy”?

I know that history doesn’t look kindly upon these kinds of questions. History examines each era keeping in mind the circumstances of the times and then moves on. Even so, is democracy really worth so much? That is, should we really have to risk so much for it?

The answer to this question should be an obvious “yes,” since mankind has yet to discover an alternative regime that is more just, more egalitarian, more liberal than a democracy. That is why the Turkish people have reached where they are today: by holding on to the dream of a democratic order in which everyone is equal, where the government serves the citizens, where no one oppresses another, and where unjust situations are exceptions.

To be completely honest, during this process there have not been enough active participants to achieve a true democratic state. People have been content with merely voting on election days. After all, someone else is there to do the thinking for them. Authorities know it well. At the end of the day, one has expected ‘the government’ to find a solution for every dilemma. Because the state has been all-powerful; the state has been supreme.

The government first reared its head with various reforms. The authorities put on hats and forced the citizens to do the same. Overnight the Latin alphabet replaced the centuries old Arab script. Countless changes like these were described to the public as ‘reforms.’ Society’s ties to its own past were severed and a unique sense of secularism withdrew religion from the public sphere; this sense of secularism was placed atop everything else as ‘a new religion.’

This was the arrangement the authorities saw fit for the people and they told the public to obey the laws of this new system. In other words, from the West (from Europe) they borrowed concepts such as freedom, equality, and democracy to which they attributed a made up ‘a la turka’ meaning—a meaning different from the one used in their homelands, where they were originally molded—and tried to impose the idea that this was the perfect order. They made up all the rules and people had no choice but to abide by them. Everything and everyone was confined within red boundaries; anyone who crossed the line was severely punished and sometimes people even lost their lives.

According to the government democracy was a fancy facade used to guard and maintain their own tyrannical rule and not an order based upon the freedom of thought and speech where each citizen can voice his/her opposition as long as it doesn’t encourage violence. After all, the public was ignorant and they were all powerful.

Their words were the only truth. Starting from 1923, the party that founded the Republic, the party of the elites (CHP), continued to rule the country. In the twenty-three years that followed, since 1946, Turkey was governed by a repressive regime that strictly restrained any opposition. Kemalism, an ideology that was supposedly the best ideology for the salvation of the country, penetrated deep into the fibers of society. All other ideologies were considered ‘harmful ideas.’ Especially leftist intellectuals, writers, and artists were subjected to extreme tyranny. Communism was especially emphasized as a dangerous idea. Religious thought was already pushed out of the public boundaries; communism now joined it as the ‘bogeyman.’ There are several examples. The poet Nazım Hikmet was arrested under funny pretexts and he had to flee his country after being imprisoned for many long years. The novelist Sabahattin Ali’s head was smashed in with a plank by an intelligence officer. When Sad-i Nursi, a Kurdish advocate of a unique understanding of mysticism and religion, died after long years of exile in various parts of the country, his body was buried at an undisclosed location.

When the era prior to the Republic ended—the era when Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Jews, Laz, Circassians, Alevis, Sunnis and Yezidis, in other words: the country’s seventy-seven peoples who lived together each abiding by its own culture, customs, beliefs, and mother tongue—some of these groups were exiled, some slaughtered, yet others were declared to be minorities and the existence of some were denied altogether.

Everything was homogenized in record time. The dominant force at hand was exactly this monistic mentality. The ‘common wisdom’ that once upheld this very society was destroyed and replaced with the social values of Turks as an ethnic group. In turn, these morals were assumed to be the ‘common values’ of the nation. Anyone wanting to spread this ‘monistic’ idea was given the utmost freedom. On the contrary, anyone who declared that this was once a multi-cultural country and that this multiculturalism was in fact enriching, anyone who claimed that other languages and cultures aside from Turkish (primarily Kurdish) live and breath on these lands and that these languages and cultures without obstructions should be made accessible to all—anyone who supported these views was severely punished. The freedom of expression and thought was suppressed through penal codes adapted from those of fascist Italy. On top of this, the country also had a military coup every ten years. So, constitutions were constantly modified and with each new constitution civil liberties were restricted more and more.

The government was sanctified. The government was no longer an entity that protected its citizens, but, on the contrary, one that protected itself from its citizens. Laws were implemented for this sole purpose. Books were banned, movies censored, and political parties were shut down; institutions, unions, and NGOs were prohibited.

In 1980 on September 12 a military coup turned everything upside down. The democratic system that was already crawling on all fours was shattered to pieces. All the rights that the people had fought for were lost. All the hard won liberties were now abandoned. The right to unionize was banished. All the political parties and institutions were shut down. The parliament was abolished. Hundreds were detained. Thousands were tortured. Prisons were turned into concentration camps; assault and maltreatment became an everyday reality.

With the PKK attacks that began in 1984 Turkey entered a whole new phase. Kurds had revolted many times in the history of the Republic and had been faced with heavy consequences each time. People had been massacred, like in Dersim, and the uprisings were suppressed one way or another every single time. It was assumed also that the PKK rebellions would be suppressed, but it didn’t work out that way. The rebellions continued for a long time. And as they continued the country’s resources were drained, violence escalated, and society became unbalanced. Thousands of Kurdish villages were deserted; people who were severed from their villages migrated to big cities, subsequently transforming these into giant villages.

The government, which was having difficulties suppressing the revolts, concentrated on limiting the freedom of expression instead. Through the 1990 Counter Terrorism Law they tried hushing up all opposing voices. First and foremost, Yaşar Kemal and many other intellectuals, writers, and artists were put on trial in what was then called the State Security Court. Mehmed Uzun, a Swedish citizen whose books are translated from Kurdish to Turkish, was sued on various occasions. Due to the Exile Decree any intellectuals who lived in Kurdish cities were exiled to other cities.

But this did not satisfy the regime and so began the period of unresolved murder cases. Countless intellectuals and journalists who could not be silenced by means of lawful methods were slaughtered. Journalists, writers, and scientists who held different views such as Uğur Mumcu, Musa Anter, and Turan Dursun were eliminated.

A secret organization deep within the government, which a majority of researchers call the “shadow government,” delved into the lives of the adversaries—Kurds, leftist intellectuals—and destroyed anyone who stood in their way. Suddenly the country almost drowned in a sea of blood. Meanwhile, the fact that the government wasn’t even trying to change and correct itself further intensified the prevailing air of hopelessness.

And that was the mood in which Turkey entered the new millennium. When AKP came to power in 2003 it revived the 50-year dream of joining the European Union.

It was as if they had found the magic formula. It seemed as if nothing, neither the artificial things the republic imposed upon the people, nor the idea of a revolution argued by the left, nor the sharia laws suggested by the Islamists was the ‘common ideal’ of the Turkish people. It turned out instead that the common ideal was the European Union! And Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan understood this crucial truth and hastened to make the parliament pass all the various laws and adjustments required by the EU.

This affiliation with the European Union transformed the government. And that, in turn, reinforced Erdoğan’s power. Erdoğan and his team who people thought would enforce the sharia law broke many taboos. In 2007 an operation against the ‘shadow government,’ called Ergenekon, began. War was declared on the ‘military wardship’ that had bended the political powers to suit its will for years. In 2009, the ‘Kurdish expansion’ began, though it has yet to be properly sorted out. At the same time, the government eased up on the Alevis, a group that has been badly treated and marginalized throughout the history of the Republic; and the then President Abdullah Gül for the first time ever visited a Cem Evi, which is the place of worship of the Alevis.

This move, which was labeled ‘democratization’ by some and ‘the Kurdish expansion’ by others, has yet to nurse our wounds. However, today the government has a Kurdish TV channel that broadcasts 24-hours a day. Kurdish is now an elective in schools. Colleges have Kurdish Language and Literature Departments. People aren’t belittled anymore for being Kurdish. And, although Kurdish as a language is yet not included in the education system there has been a lot of progress in this regard and the issue is widely debated.

Despite all this, many Kurdish mayors and politicians were arrested during the KCK operation that started in 2010. A great deal of authors and journalists, including Muharrem Erbey, were also detained as a part of this operation. When the suspects weren’t allowed to defend themselves in Kurdish, their mother tongues, the cases dragged on and on. While I was writing this article, almost a thousand convicts from various prisons all over the country were on a hunger strike for various demands including the right to defense in one’s mother tongue. And, subsequently, the government was trying to have the Parliament pass a law that legalizes defense in the defendant’s mother tongue.

Nevertheless, despite the KCK operations, despite the hunger strikes and the fact that Prime Minister Erdoğan abandoned the EU plans and talked about bringing back the death sentence, despite the unresolved Kurdish question that intensifies day by day and the countless journalists in jail, I believe the Turkish people still have hope.

If, however, the government truly abandons the idea of joining the EU, if it shuts down that door just like the EU did, this will undoubtedly have disastrous consequences: the country will lose all hope and maybe even shatter to pieces.

Because this we can say with certainty: all the reforms that the Turkish Republic have accomplished up until today have come about not because the people wanted them but because the European Union did.

No one cares much about the people!

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