"No one can defeat the Turkish state"

Commentary | Uncomfortably numb

How it felt to watch Turkey fall to autocracy, from the inside.

A junior army officer shoots a general in the head before being executed by other fellow officers. Soldiers fire at defenseless crowds. Policemen shoot at the military; tanks roll over people; angry mobs lynch soldiers. Warplanes bomb the Parliament building.

On July 15, a group of army officers allegedly attempted to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime in Turkey. In addition, Erdogan claims he was the subject of an attempted assassination while he was on vacation. After narrowly surviving this supposed attack, he appeared on Facetime from an unknown location to urge people to resist the coup by fighting aggressors in the streets. After flying to Istanbul, he slowly regained his power.

According to many, including analysts, scholars, government officials, and Erdogan himself, most of the soldiers involved in the plot were followers of Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Turkish preacher and entrepreneur of the self-styled ‘Hizmet’ (Service) movement, a highly influential and shadowy religious cult well-positioned in the state apparatus. Once strongly supported by Erdogan himself, Gulen’s relationship with the Turkish President is now rife with conflict . Since 2013, the two sides have been waging an unrelenting war for supremacy where both have enacted the culprit and the victim’s role respectively.

Was it really Gulen? Was Erdogan informed in advance and ready for a backlash that would then give him the upper hand? Or was Erdogan responsible for the staged coup, using it as a power grab? We don’t know. We probably never will. The failed coup attempt on the night of July 15 corroborated my strongest conviction about our country: getting a taste  of the authentic ‘Turkish experience’ is far more thrilling and delirious than being the protagonist of the most sensational Hollywood movie ever made. Here, fiction is de trop. As Robert Walser famously pointed out, “we don’t need to see anything out of the ordinary. We already see so much.” Perhaps a little too much.

In fact, Turkey is one of those countries where one is taught, at a fairly young age, to master the most honorable art of watching and ignoring. “Keep calm, and mind your own business.” Syrian kids living in poverty within Turkey, ISIS bombs exploding in airports, and at open-air summer weddings (the last one a few weeks ago, killing fifty-five people) and an unacknowledged civil war raging in the Southeast in which the state has been continuously disenfranchising and killing Kurdish peoples for the past forty years, do not even crawl into our daily conversations. We’re just like you, except we talk about soccer instead of hockey.

For the past fifteen years, we have been watching our once-democratic, moderately conservative leader mutating into a third-rate dictator: building tasteless palaces, prioritising the financing of projects that could jeopardize the economy, and jailing, persecuting, and marginalizing anyone uttering the mildest, most inoffensive criticism. It would have been uncharacteristic for Erdogan not to follow such a long-established pattern of tyrannical ruling.

Watching one’s country drift into quasi-dictatorship is a curious affair: a regular man rises to uncontested power under the supportive, passive, or despairing gaze of all others. Millions are left contemplating how this ‘chosen one’ became the embodiment of a nation, reformulating and imposing the ‘will of the majority’ onto powerless and subdued minorities; an omnipresent, self-declared messianic figure that gradually invades civilian lives, dictates their mind, and penetrates their nightmares. Weary of putting up a forlorn resistance that will only lead them to jail, people finally give up.  Sarcasm, cynicism, and eventually nihilism prevail, while hope withers away.

July 15 was a dark day, a day when Turkish people were left with a tragic choice: a populist and merciless autocrat or a cruel, cold-blooded military intervention that could’ve led to a civil war. In any case, the only predictable outcome in this highly unpredictable country will be that things are bound to get worse. The recent crackdown on tens of thousands of teachers, professors, doctors, businessmen, journalists, activists, politicians and even athletes and stand-up comedians labeled as ‘plotters’ or ‘terrorists’ will inevitably bring more injustice, which in turn, will lead to more frustration, violence and instability.  

In the meantime, we can seek refuge in Kurt Vonnegut’s words, watching and ignoring the gigantomachy that rages on and threatens our future:

“No matter how corrupt, greedy, and heartless our government, our corporations, our media, and our religious and charitable institutions may become, the music will still be wonderful”

For how long can we keep mumbling cheery, bustling tunes in the dark? I don’t know.