51.4 Percent Insane, 48.6 Percent Melancholy: The Turkish Referendum

By Nicholas BredieMay 3, 2017

51.4 Percent Insane, 48.6 Percent Melancholy: The Turkish Referendum

Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy by Ece Temelkuran

ONE CAN TELL a lot about the psyche of a nation by looking at its money. Consider the United States $20 bill, current site of the nation’s foundational drama. Will Harriet Tubman, suffragist and anti-slavery Guerrilla fighter, unseat Andrew Jackson, white male slaveholder and Native American genocider, from the face of the bill? What seemed a sure, if small, victory, is now very much in question. Could the perhaps fatal contradictions of the European Union be resolved by eliminating the iconography of the member states stamped on euro coins? Or banishing the anonymous bits of Pan-European architecture currently printed on the bills? I defer to the experts. However, it doesn’t take an expert to unpack the Turkish mint’s decision to replace the face of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk on the one-lira coin with an image of multiple hands raising the Turkish flag. This image is officially 15 Temmuz Şehitleri ve Gazileri Anısına (In Memory of the July 15 Martyrs and Veterans). For those who may not remember the significance of that date among a year of gut-punch days, July 15, 2016, marked the attempted coup d’état against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And while that military coup failed, it has facilitated another kind of coup represented by the replacement of Atatürk — a metonym for the Turkish Republic — with the populist image of the coup resisters. This coup was completed through the contested constitutional referendum that just occurred on April 16, 2017, in which the same hands depicted on the coin have handed Erdoğan effective dictatorial power over the country until the year 2030.

Turkey is often characterized in terms of benevolently unresolved complexities. It is a “bridge between East and West.” It is “a secular democracy in the Islamic world.” Istanbul is “capital of three empires, but not the Turkish Republic.” The Hagia Sophia “was a church, then a mosque, now a museum.” And while these koans might be thoughtlessly tossed off by your uncle upon returning from his Aegean cruise, each represents a tortured facet of the Turkish Republic, a 93-year-old national project whose attempts to sublimate and control these complexities have effectively lead to its own demise. Other nations eager to table discussions of their complex pasts and presents would do well to look at the story of the Turkish Republic, and right now one of the best places to explore that story is Ece Temelkuran’s book Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy.

Temelkuran’s book, translated by Zeynep Beler, is a sprawling psychohistory of the Turkish nation. A journalist whose firing in 2012 could have served as a “fire bell in the night” ahead of the current crackdown on the press, Temelkuran puts her country on the couch. She examines its origins, particularly the regulations implemented by Atatürk and his successors to “modernize” and “Westernize” the portion of the Ottoman Empire they’d managed to save out of the ashes of World War I. It is easy to forget, but Turkey is one of the last standing nationalist projects from the post–World War I period. Unlike postcolonial nations that could define themselves against their colonizers, nations like Turkey (or, say, Soviet Russia) could only define themselves against their own past. This led to a number of artificial changes to Turkish society, from the fez’s banishment to the disbanding of the sultanate and the caliphate in favor of a secular nationalist government. Temelkuran sees the effect of these regulations encapsulated in the change by fiat of written Turkish from Arabic script to the Roman alphabet. The reason for this change was more than a simple desire for the “Western”: it was famously impossible to distinguish the Turkish language sentence “Mehmet became a pasha” from “Mehmet pasha died,” when written in Arabic script. The Ottomans depended on context to determine meaning. Roman script better reflects the important vowel inflections of the language, leading to a more direct written style and greater literacy rates. But as Temelkuran points out, the Turkish people’s connection with their past was severed overnight:

I’m talking about grandchildren who couldn’t read letters from their grandfathers, people who couldn’t understand wills and land titles dating back to the Ottoman era, people who were unable to read old poetry or even love letters found in the attic.

This radical break came alongside other “regulations” such as a ban on the Kurdish language and the dismantling of the Ottoman public sphere where religious and ethnic minorities could voice their opinions and practice their beliefs. The overall psychological effect of this repression is, according to Temelkuran, a collective amnesia, schizophrenia, and paranoia on the part of the Turkish Republic.

Most of Temelkuran’s narrative fixes on three points of recent Turkish history: the 1980 coup, the rise of Erdoğan and the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, Justice and Development Party), and the Gezi Park moment. It is hard to overstate the effect of the 1980 coup on contemporary Turkish society. Staged in the name of ending the political violence that defined Turkey in the 1970s, and facilitated by the CIA, the coup effectively erased political discourse. This was accomplished through blacklists, arrests, and disappearances, many of which remain unresolved to this day. As Temelkuran points out, the coup leaders went even further in their attempt to control the body politic, banning 63 words from television including “compromise,” “critical,” “memory,” “nation,” “peace,” “recollection,” “revolution,” and “spiritual.” Most importantly for Temelkuran’s understanding of the current situation in Turkey, they banned the word “resistance.”

The effect was like giving the country a political autoimmune virus. Americans take for granted not only the right to political speech but also a full vocabulary with which to articulate their political identity. Freedom is the go-to concept in the American political project, for better or worse. The situation in Turkey is the opposite. Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar’s novel The Time Regulation Institute (1961) famously satirized the regulating impulse of the Republic, with a character worrying that half the time in Turkey was lost through unregulated clocks. The 1925 “hat law,” which banned the fez, appears comic as well, until you consider how it has been implemented to suppress conservative women’s rights to wear the headscarf. The general’s regulation of language after the 1980 coup was at once the natural outcome of this strategy and the overreach that led to the end of their control. A society continuously denied any ability to speak about itself seems destined to produce any number of unintended consequences. In contemporary Turkey, these include the armed intifada on the part of the country’s Kurdish minority, an apolitical urban youth who “turned the corner” and embraced consumer-oriented lifestyles, and the rise of market-friendly political Islam.

The last of these, fostered through the mandatory religious education that the coup believed would counterbalance left-wing radicalism, emerged as the defining political force in contemporary Turkey. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and those who helped him to power were able to synthesize the 1980 coup’s liberal markets with a long simmering resentment against nationalist elites who, in the name of the Republic, had controlled the country’s political life through the military. Thanks to the urban migration that brought religious Turks to Istanbul in droves to work in textiles, Erdoğan became mayor and then prime minister on an anti-coup platform. Religious freedom, economic opportunity, civilian control of the military, a revived appreciation for Turkish history and place in the world, justice for victims of the coup, and peace with the Kurds were all platforms of his party. However, as the past 14 years have shown, the AKP have been better students of the coup than its undoers. If the 1980 coup was a tragic overreach by Turkey’s secularists, then the July 15 coup attempt was the farce that allowed the AKP to consummate its own violent rewrite of the Turkish national conscious. The purge of the military, academia, and the media in the wake of July 15, 2016, dwarfs the one undertaken by the leaders of the 1980 coup. Sibel Hürtaş, writing in the Al-Monitor, estimates that a million Turks will experience “civil death” in the form of lost jobs, blacklisting, and de facto work bans. As the grandson of a blacklisted State Department employee, I have seen how the mark of these forms of oppression remains with families long after a society has moved on or forgotten the causes behind them. At the same time, the strategy of regulation has metastasized into a permanent state of emergency justifying both the consolidation of Erdoğan’s power through the recent referendum and the hot war against the country’s Kurdish minority in the Southeast.

Temelkuran shines in her analysis of how Erdoğan successfully weaponized the Turkish Republic’s complexities, transforming them into a narrative of victimhood and “us” versus “them.” Erdoğan has always sought to exacerbate Turkey’s complexities rather than try to resolve them, a populist strategy we all should be familiar with now. From his first term in office, Erdoğan contrasted the part of the country that lived a “Western kind of life” with those who hoped for a “serene life” — serenity being a common code word for that which the Republic’s secularism has denied its religious population. This aggrieved state is formalized into what Ankara University professor Fethi Açıkel has called “The Pathology of Sacred Victimhood.” Temelkuran explains,

Even when charged with fraud with transcripts as proof, when hundreds of people were imprisoned on political charges, when no dissident voice could find an outlet in the media, when people were beaten to death for not fasting, when the Turkish lira plummeted against the dollar, or when 301 labourers died in a single night in a mine operated by government-affiliated capital, the government was “victimised and wronged” and it was all a conspiracy against them.

If this sounds familiar, take it as a warning. The AKP have remained in power using this strategy since 2002, and thanks to the referendum, they will almost assuredly stay in power through 2030. Temelkuran recently wrote about the effect of 15 years of “sacred victimization” on her fellow citizens for Index on Censorship’s “Turkey Uncensored”: characterizing a young AKP supporter in a YouTube video trolling Dutch police, she writes,

He was just about 10 when the AKP came to power. He grew up imbibing the belief that he could do anything if portrayed himself as the underdog. He thinks that educated people are evil because it has been drilled into his little mind by the political machine. He has been ruthlessly force-fed Turkey’s rewritten history, which is a bizarre combination of the greatness of our illustrious ancestors and how the secular elite paired with Westerners to steal Turkey’s greatness through devilish tricks. He believes that if one man rules the country all the confusion will be gone, Turkey will be great again and everything will be awesome.

The young man was threatening the police, who had interfered with a pro-referendum rally in Rotterdam, Netherlands, by promising that Ottoman soldiers would rape their grandmothers. The temporal logic makes about as much sense as #MAGA, but the threat behind it is just as real.

In between the rise of the AKP and its current institutionalization, Temelkuran finds a glimmer of hope in the 2013 Gezi Park protests. These began in response to a plan to replace a public park with a shopping mall made to resemble the Ottoman artillery barracks the park had initially replaced in 1940. A pause to appreciate the absurdity of this situation is appropriate, and fine evidence of Turkish neurosis in the AKP period. The protests grew into what could be described as a temporary autonomous zone, a place where Turks from all walks of life came to the park to occupy, protest, or simply witness a break in the day-to-day silence. In the park, the schizophrenia and amnesia, the paranoia that is the psychopathology of life in Turkey, gave way to trust. Political factions cohabited among the sycamore trees, an imam sheltered secular protesters in his mosque, an industrial magnate allowed people to use his hotel to recover from tear gas. Temelkuran holds this moment dear. For her, it shows that Turks are “tired of this schizophrenic situation. We want to trust. We want to trade in the security farce for the feeling of trust.” I think anyone who was there for those weeks would agree with her.

The shortest section of Temelkuran’s book is entitled “Tomorrow.” At 12 pages, it represents what she learned from the Gezi moment. The outlook is fairly bleak, perhaps because of the Turkish Republic’s unwillingness to resolve or even air the complexities inherent in its foundation. The only way to defuse these complexities is for democratically minded Turks to own them. Much in the way that intellectuals like Nell Irvin Painter and James Baldwin show “the race problem” in the United States to be a problem with whiteness, Temelkuran suggests that “the Kurdish problem” is actually the Turkish problem. Majorities need to see how their fears are weaponized against themselves by opportunistic politicians. Leaving the past un-confronted is an invitation for it to be rewritten. A similar analogy could be made to Baldwin’s critique of white America’s obsession with its own innocence. Though it is not illegal to air guilt about slavery or native genocide, as it is in Turkey to do so about the Armenian Genocide, the notion of the United States acknowledging responsibility for these acts and their consequences is treated as absurd. In contrast, one could look to the practice of installing Stolpersteine, brass plaques in the sidewalk marking the last residence of Holocaust victims, as an example of nations attempting to own their past.

For those of us who have known a certain side of Turkey and loved it, the April 16 referendum feels like the end of something. Not of the complexities which have been with the modern state of Turkey from the outset, but of any remaining space to address them. At the end of her book, Temelkuran relates a conversation she had early in her career with an unnamed “experienced politician” in Turkey. When she asks what he thinks will become of Turkey, the politician replies, “Sweet young lady, this country has a safety valve that no one seems able to locate. This country will be fine. It will always pull together at the last minute!” The referendum has likely fused that valve shut, leaving those in Turkey to feel the pressure build. Despite the narrow margin of victory, and the numerous calls by international monitors to investigate ballot fraud, Erdoğan and the AKP are taking their mandate to return Turkey to its glorious if autocratic past. Just hours after United States President Donald J. Trump called Erdoğan to congratulate him on his big win, at least 38 people were arrested in dawn raids. They were charged with “trying to agitate people against the ‘yes’ vote.”


Nicholas Bredie is the author of the novel Not Constantinople, forthcoming from Dzanc Books, June 2017. With Joanna Howard, he is the translator of Frédéric Boyer’s novella Cows, published by Noemi Press (2014).

LARB Contributor

Nicholas Bredie is the author of the novel Not Constantinople, forthcoming from Dzanc Books, June 2017. With Joanna Howard, he is the translator of Frédéric Boyer’s novella Cows, published by Noemi Press (2014). His writing has appeared in The Believer, Lucky Peach, The Brooklyn Rail, Fairy Tale Review, Opium, Puerto del Sol, and elsewhere. After living and working in Istanbul, Turkey, he is now in Los Angeles, where he is a PhD fellow at the University of Southern California.


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