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The dream of a European Turkey is drifting away

On Friday night, my country felt more like a chaotic part of the Middle East

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

23 July 2016

9:00 AM

In Turkish the word ‘yurt’ has two definitions. It means ‘place’, ‘land’, ‘territory’, ‘homeland’. It could also indicate a round, portable tent, the likes of which have been used by nomadic tribes for centuries. In my imagination I have always liked to combine the two definitions, wondering if motherlands could be just as peripatetic as their people. I know, for one, that no matter how itinerant I might have been all my life, it follows me like a shadow, this sad motherland of mine. Turkey’s many problems occupy my mind, crush my chest, weigh down my soul, invade my dreams. Not only me, of course. There are so many who just cannot help worrying about this beautiful country. Especially since Friday, the night when a horrible coup attempt erupted, killing 290 people, wounding more than 1,400.

Turks are no strangers to coups d’état. It was a running joke as I was growing up in Ankara that democracy was an unreliable clock that every ten years or so stopped working and needed to be wound up again by the army. That image must have stuck in my mind, for I remember coming home from school one day and drawing it on a piece of paper: a huge, antique clock and next to it, a man in a uniform with shiny epaulettes and brass buttons. This was my definition of politics when I was about eight years old.

The reality was less colourful. The army has had enormous power over national politics throughout modern Turkish history: 1960, 1971 and 1980 were full-fledged coups d’état, followed by lesser interventions in 1997 and 2007. Each military take-over was worse than the one before, stifling civil society, erasing freedom of speech and paving the way for human-rights violations and, in some cases, systematic torture in prisons and detention centres.


Perhaps this is why when a cabal within the army took to arms last week, Turkish citizens of myriad backgrounds opposed it in unison: the liberals, the Kemalists, the leftists, the Kurds and the Alevis. It is remarkable that ‘the other half of the society’, those who do not vote for President Erdogan’s AKP and remain critical of its policies and ideology, refused to side with the putschists, even though they had an opportunity to do so. For the first time in a long while, Turkey’s political parties spoke and acted as one. It was of the utmost importance to see that the main opposition CHP (Republican People’s Party), the pro-Kurdish HDP (People’s Democratic Party), the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party) and the AKP government itself could for once share common values. When the putschists invaded private TV stations, the liberal media defended the very government it had been constrained and suppressed by all these years. This was an extraordinary thing: kudos to Turkey’s principled journalists.

We Turks, in our many millions, both in Turkey and outside, spent the night glued to computer screens and mobile phones trying to get our heads around the events unfolding. We had never seen a ‘live coup’ before. At first, it felt rather surreal. The sight of the Bosphorus Bridge blocked by tanks and soldiers will remain etched in the collective memory for a long, long time. Then things started to get darker. It wasn’t surreal any more. Only scary. Bloody. There were reports of gunfire on the streets, civilians being murdered, jets flying low over rooftops… And then the unthinkable happened: our parliament was bombed.

Consumed with worry, sadness and grief, few Turks will have slept that night. When it was clear that the coup had failed we breathed a sigh of relief. Had it succeeded, Turkey would have plunged into deeper chaos. The plotters — and whoever they are must be objectively investigated — did a terrible disservice to the Turkish people, wrecking the country’s already fragile democracy.

The photos of the soldiers who were being arrested and stripped half-naked were heartbreaking. In Turkey there is a nickname for low-ranking soldiers: ‘Mehmetçik’, derived from Mehmet, one of the most common names, and given a suffix which makes a diminutive sound— ‘the son of the nation’. There are hundreds of monuments to ‘Mehmetçik’ all over the country, including in Gallipoli. I believe there were many such soldiers on that night, some of them ruthlessly used by the plotters as pawns. It is highly likely that many did not know what they were involved in until it was too late. Now they will be labelled ‘traitors’.

What will happen next is a matter of grave concern. Already, more than 50,000 soldiers, judges, police, teachers and civil servants have been removed, suspended or detained. While you would expect the government to identify who was behind the plot, there are serious worries about a witch hunt against all dissenters. The rule of law should never be abandoned. Equally worry-ing are the fractures in society. While it is admirable that so many people came out on to the streets to stop the tanks, uncontrolled mass emotion could easily go awry, exacerbating old ethnic and social conflicts. There are talks about reintroducing the death penalty, which had been abolished in 2004 as one of the prerequisites of EU membership. Liberals and democrats had rejoiced on the day capital punishment was abolished. We had felt one step closer to Europe. It was a different country back then.

Until recently Turkey was a country at least trying to be part of Europe. The only way it can succeed in this is by adhering to the rule of law, the separation of powers, and pluralistic democracy. But on Friday night Turkey felt more like a chaotic part of the Middle East. Like a peripatetic yurt, my motherland seems to be on the move again. It must turn back before it is too late.

Elif Shafak is a Turkish novelist and academic. Her most recent book is The Architect’s Apprentice.


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