The Turkish Malaise: Cengiz Aktar on What has Led Turkey Down a Dark Path

On February 6th, two devasting earthquakes left officially over 45 thousand dead in Turkey while the actual figure is estimated to be three to four times higher. This happened in a country already suffering from a severe economic, political, and social crisis. This year Turkey is marking 100 years since the founding of the Republic in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, but the state of the country is far from the Westernized economic powerhouse envisioned by the Republic’s founder. In his most recent essay, The Turkish Malaise, Cengiz Aktar, professor of Turkish and Modern Asian Studies at the University of Athens, argues that a combination of factors have led to its current sorry state, which first and foremost is due to the fact that modern Turkey has never faced the sins of its past, and ignoring them has led to Erdogan’s swing towards totalitarianism and kleptocracy over the last 10 years.


The last time we spoke, two years ago, you mentioned that perhaps only thing that could bring down Erdogan, in your opinion, was either an economic or a military failure and no one could have expected this level of devastation. Do you think that this could really signal the end for him in view of the planned elections?


It is a major, major event by all means. And as far as the fate of Mr. Erdogan and his regime, it is certainly a game changer. Game changer in the sense that we, the researchers, intellectuals, opinion makers, we were aware of the state of art when it comes to the destruction of the major institutions in the country. I mean, the army, the judiciary, the academia, the economy, foreign affairs, and the administration, which are the six pillars that exist   in each and every nation state. So these institutions have been canceled and not superseded, or perhaps superseded in a way by some palace “cronies” who surround Erdogan, who decides anything and everything. So with this major catastrophe, the earthquake and the catastrophic response by the authorities the public at large, including international public opinion has learned about the real state of affairs. And in this sense, it’s a double catastrophe. And whether it will have an influence on the on the fate of the regime and of Mr. Erdogan, most probably, yes.

His first TV appearance was very telling. He seemed to lack any sort of empathy and to the contrary just  accusing people. It was fascinating actually, to feel that behind his anger, there was a major fear of losing the upcoming elections. And this is, in my opinion, the most worrisome part of it, because he can become very dangerous. At the end of the day, we should never forget that he has at least half a million armed men of all sorts at his disposal. 120.000 Kurdish village guards close to the regime, tens of thousands of jihadis, some 300,000 policemen – you can only become a policeman or policewoman in Turkey if you belong to the regime’s parties. So, there are around a half a million people who are ready to die for Erdogan. He came to power through elections, but the last ten years, he changed so much and he altered the country so much that he gives now all the indications that he won’t leave through the elections. All in all, he will most probably lose them but won’t accept the results.


In “The Turkish Malaise” you mention that since the AKP came to power, around 40,000 people have died under varying circumstances, showing a high disregard for life by the by the current regime. Why would this earthquake be any different?


I would say we are back in absolutist dark ages where rulers had the right of life and death over their subjects. And this is precisely where we are. Frankly, human life never had very much worth in Eastern societies but with the reign of political Islam in Turkey, it became something very scarce and rare. No one cares about who dies, there are still many people, they are over 85 million! And the authorities are demonstrating a complete lack of empathy and interest towards them. In Iran it’s the same, in Russia it’s the same. I mean we are in a slice of our History where disregard towards human life has reached unseen levels all over the world and Turkey is no exception, unfortunately.


What has been the opposition’s response to the earthquake? Have they been using this to leverage their position in view of the elections?


It’s not only the opposition. Turkish civil society, despite all obstacles put before it does a very good job. Of course, within possible limits, because the destruction is so widespread that logistically speaking, it’s very difficult to help. And now there is no more hope of finding any survivors under the wreckage.. The opposition is very present, of course, on the field, working hard. And the authorities are doing everything to impede the opposition and civil society to lend aid to the people. So we have reached such a level of dystopia in the country that no one could have imagined. For instance, they cut the access to Twitter, and Twitter was one of the only ways for people under the wreckage to signal their location and they cut it because social media users were telling the truth and pointing out the government’s and the authorities’ shortages. Frankly, I’ll repeat it, this is dystopia.


Will aid and sympathy coming from the West just embolden Erdogan?


There is no proper and accurate evaluation. It’s much too early. The need for the reconstruction will probably, easily reach hundreds of billions of euros and Turkey doesn’t have that money. Foreign governments, international financial institutions and money lenders in general are cautious about yet another devastated institution that is the “Turkish economy” and it will be difficult to lend easily money to Turkey. Some are saying, for instance, that if the opposition wins the elections – by miracle – it would be obliged to go knock at the IMF’s door, but others are arguing that the IMF doesn’t have enough funds to help Turkey and secondly, that the conditions of any loan will be so draconian that any government would have hard time having its citizens swallow such a bitter pill. We were already heading towards a very difficult period after the elections, be it with the regime or with the opposition. Now, I would say we have this additional malus, the cost that is both human and material, which will exponentially complicate Turkey’s future. It’s very tough times ahead, I’m afraid.


In in your book, a lot of focus is placed on the complacency of the masses in helping bring about Erdogan’s rise and his current position not only as an authoritarian but as a totalitarian ruler. Do you feel like that recent events will create a reawakening among the people?


This is very difficult to guess at. First and foremost, in these kinds of countries, I think we should never believe or count on the reactions in social media. Social media users are widespread in Turkey. There are around 16 million Twitter accounts, half of them most likely belonging to pro-regime people. But it’s not through those who protest in social media that necessary change in Turkey will happen. I think that this pro-regime majority; the masses – in the sense of Hannah Arendt – are much too important and much too adamant when it comes to the fate and the future of the regime that it’s very difficult to tell right now whether they will shift their position or not. But we have seen this before, perhaps not at that level, but just to give you an example, in 2014 there was major mining accident where 301 miners perished on the western coast of Turkey near the Aegean Sea, in Soma. At the following elections, the inhabitants voted once again for the ruling party, whereas the response to the disaster was appalling. No one was held accountable, there were no court cases and the owners of the mine got away with it, but people of Soma still voted for the regime. Here we have a major dilemma, again, in the sense of Hannah Arendt, the masses in totalitarian regimes are of key importance, they are critical. And in Turkey we have this kind of “desire for fascism” to quote Wilhelm Reich. As these people still exist,  will they continue to support the regime? In my opinion, yes, despite everything. The first opinion polls following the earthquake disaster shows only a slight decrease in the support for the ruling coalition. Because these people aren’t voting or not expressing themselves in connection with the “materiality” of this world if I may say. They are Islamists, they have their own understanding of what life and death are and what politics is and they are ready to die for it. And so, we will see. But politically speaking, on another point here, political Islam and the supporters of political Islam in Turkey now realize that if they lose power, they will never, ever get back at the helm of the country in the times to come, if our world is still here. I think they feel this very strongly. Another regime supporter group are the “clients”. This regime has managed to create a sort of client society. Which is not just a few people, it’s millions. And if the regime is gone, so are all the benefits and the handouts along with it.

So first there is a very strong ideological and religious concern, second is the political concern, and thirdly is the material-economic concern which is just before us. And we will see how these masses will react. Of course, we should bear in mind, as I said in the beginning, that this regime and the small cluster at the top, Erdogan and his very close associates, these people won’t hesitate “to go Potemkin“. They won’t hesitate to go to the extremes to keep power, even if they lose the elections.


Turkey is the final bastion for Muslim Brotherhood affiliated regimes in the Mediterranean area. But the pace of its Islamization was very fast. Was it fostered primarily by the government or was there always a strong undercurrent, having been so repressed by secularist policies before?


Harsh secularism has curtailed the emergence of a modern and liberal Islamic thought in Turkey. This is a 200-year process starting with Mahmoud II and the westernization of the country and it has systematically targeted Islam. The majority credo was banned from the core of the State and the masses felt more and more alienated. And this alienation reached its paroxysm with the creation of the Republic 100 years ago. Many Turkey-watchers talked about the revenge of Islam with the AKP coming to power in 2002. It’s not wrong, although during its first years, at least until 2013, the AKP did a   good job. This is when we started to talk in Europe and elsewhere about Muslim Democrats. It was a new political concept, going hand in hand with Christian Democracy although we never had had the word “Muslim” and the word “Democracy” uttered together before. This is thanks to the AKP but unfortunately for several reasons it failed and it also failed because of Erdogan himself. In that sense 2013 was  a critically important turning point; with the Gezi Park protests in June, and soon after his good friend, Mohamed Morsi in Egypt was toppled, which sent him completely out of his mind as he felt his fate could be the same, and at the end of the year a major corruption scandal involving himself, his family and close associates including ministers broke. So   2013 signaled a 180-degree change in Erdogan’s mindset and future plans. Today Turkey has become a completely different polity- a totalitarian regime and country. This is probably the most symbolic fiasco and failure of political Islam in the region. Of course, there are many others like Tunisia and Syria. I think this is something that the research community will think on for the years and decades to come. The Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam were presenting a kind of political alternative and with Turkish political Islam gone, moreover becoming something completely different, the stakes now are wide open for the future of those societies because people haven’t changed religion in the meantime. Although, I think an important point to underline here is that there are many in Turkey, and perhaps also Tunisia as it’s looking a lot like Turkey at the moment, many people are disinvesting, in a way, from the religion; they remain “dazed”, and they don’t fully obey the religious rules anymore. There  is  evidence for an “exit” from Islam, or at least the Islam that is represented by the regime in Turkey, so this is a new development, actually, because the people were so disappointed and angry with the practice of political Islam. In a way, it’s a kind of revenge of secularism. There are many Turkey who, without going as far as apostasy don’t want to hear about political Islam either.


If the elections are still to be held in May, what are the opposition’s chances? Will they be able to reach some of the AKP’s electoral demographic?


This opposition was composed of 6 parties. One is totally irrelevant, two are avatars of the AKP, the ruling party, and another one, the Good Party, is the avatar of the MHP which is in the government and what remains is the CHP, the main opposition party, which founded the Republic. The Good Party left on March 3rd . This being said, at the end of the day, do they have  a different program from that of the regime? Not much! Because they are not proposing anything that Turkish society, particularly the youth is expecting. All they seem to be saying is that they want to go back to the pre-AKP era, which was far from satisfactory because it ended up by producing the AKP. I have no problem with the AKP of the first years. They did a  good job, such as the EU process, etc.; Turkey was a rising star as we tend to forget sometimes. This opposition denies everything, every single practice and policy that was put in place under the AKP government. I mean   it’s not only unfair, but also irrelevant. For instance they just pay lip service to the EU process of the country in their so-called program; foreign policy is discussed on just 3 out of 244 pages. Frankly, it’s not serious. They are not talking about leaving Syria, for instance. They have nothing to propose for Greece, Armenia, Karabakh, Iraq etc., and all these problems that are building up and pulling the country down by the day.

This opposition has a major problem. They have only two policies, if we can call them policies. The first one is that they are dead against Erdogan, and they think that the day Erdogan will go, his regime and supporters will collapse. This is a major mistake. They disregard the masses who support the man by labelling the regime “Erdoganism” and believing that once he is out, all flowers will flourish. This man has a kind of support that has never been seen in the history of the Turkish Republic since 1923. Of course things may change but this “mass” aspect should be taken into account and the opposition doesn’t seem to do so sufficiently and they are just betting on Erdoganism losing. Their second “policy” is to bend over backwards to ensure that they don’t appear in the same frame as the Kurdish political movement. Turkey is a very young society and these youths have all sorts of expectations and actually they are leaving as soon as they manage to find something abroad. There is a massive brain drain   due to the fact that these   well-educated youth consider that not only the regime, but the opposition as well doesn’t constitute an alternative for their future.


To end, can you reflect briefly on Turkey’s current relationship with NATO considering the ongoing war in Ukraine?


Turkey was part of the so-called “free world” after 1945 for a number of reasons, it was a full member of NATO and all postwar European institutions   right from the beginning. This has been shifting the last ten years, which I call the de-westernization of the country and we will see how far it will go, whether it will hold. But this is not just true for the Islamists. The anti-Western pattern is also   common in the ranks of the secularist opposition. Just to give you a very recent example, the United States sent a major Navy ship for the earthquake search and rescue operation and parts of the opposition were very upset with this, calling the move as part of a plan to invade Turkey It’s a bit like in Russia, actually, this anti-Westernism, which in Russia dates back to Peter the Great. And in Turkey it’s the same, although westernization in the Ottoman Empire started 100 years later, but it’s exactly the same pattern. And this pattern is common to  those who behave according to political Islam or the secularists. So, Turkey is drifting away from anything concerning Western values, standards, norms, and principles since some time now. If the opposition wins, of course, things may change a bit, we may go back to square one, but if the regime continues, this pattern will probably deepen and Turkey will go  berserk. These norms, standards, values, and principles are major obstacles to the smooth functioning of totalitarian regimes, exactly like in Russia. And many in Europe still have difficulties understanding this. Germany, for instance, never understood that under Merkel, and continued to deal with Turkey as if it were a normal country. Turkey has not been a normal country in the last ten years, and it should be taken for what it is and not pretend that what is happening there is just a small deviation from normality. Turkey is a totalitarian country with its basic illnesses   still there. And this is what I’m trying to explain, or at least give some tools for the readers [of the Turkish Malaise] to  grasp the Turkish reality. These shortages or these malaises go back to the ethno / religious cleansing, starting the last years of the Ottoman Empire and continuing until 1924; 30 years of ethno-religious cleansing of non-Muslim minorities. These crimes have never been accounted for, never been memorialized, and never dealt with and this has created such a contempt for the rule of law in the country that Erdogan’s kleptocratic rule, which has led him to become one of the richest men in the world, is peanuts compared to 3 million non-Muslims, wiped out from Turkey and for which virtually no one spares a single thought.  . If Germans had not been compelled to face their Nazi past, would they be where they are today? And the same question goes for many countries in Europe. It’s a critical debate. And I  feel, for instance, that   some Eastern European countries who joined the European Union, one of the reasons why they are still stuck or are incapable of becoming full democracies is because they don’t talk about their past as collaborators of the Nazi regime and its deeds during the Second World War.


Cover Photo: A man rides his motorcycle past collapsed buildings in the city of Antakya on February 19, 2023 (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP).


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