Turkey: getting out of the vicious circle
Throughout history, relations between the “Turks” and the “Europeans” have never been simple. In recent years, while Europeans have been happily travelling to Turkey to spend their holidays there (before the region became inflamed), they have not always been so ready to recognise its inhabitants as a veritable alter ego. To start with, religious differences were the main focus of difficulty, but now the growing authoritarianism of its current president is fast becoming the primary cause for concern. In fact, after the military putsch of 15 July, which saw almost 250 dead and the parliament under attack, a number of Europeans almost seemed disappointed that the coup had not succeeded, raising their voices against the ferocious repression that followed. That reaction was not exactly popular in a country that feels disliked, and one where conspiracy theories are rife. It was also a blow to the moral authority of Europe.
A vicious circle of violence
To understand what is happening today in Turkey, you need to delve into the country’s history and the anthropology of its inhabitants. After the car bomb attack in the centre of Ankara in March 2016 by Kurdish PKK dissidents, the journalist Mustafa Akyol wrote that the vicious circle of combat between violent radical forces and an arrogant authoritarian state resembled a cinema film made by Turkey every decade, only with different actors. This vicious circle, he added, would continue “until one day people realise that there are no ‘forces of evil’ in our nation, but a certain degree of evil among us all.” Recognising this is one of the major challenges facing this country.
Turkey is one of the countries in the world where people have the least confidence in one another, a population divided into groups despising each other, fear each other, each group talking about the others but rarely to the others, whether they are “secular” Kemalists, devout Sunni, left-leaning Alevis, Kurds or Armenians. Moreover, the whole society (family, school, political parties etc) is conservative (patriarchal, authoritarian, hierarchical and imbued with an ethics of honour). A sense of compromise is more or less non-existent and, as a great many diplomats posted in Ankara have observed, “the Turks have no idea how to negotiate.”
A pyramidal State
The people are not helped by a State in which they have little confidence and which, when questioned, manipulates the existing divisions, revives fears of internal or external conspiracies (something it is doing very well at the moment) and repolarises society to further its aims – because the Turkish State, whatever hands it is in, seeks to control all areas of society in a pyramidal manner. That is why the State is the object of desire for all the groups that form Turkish society. All means are justified to seize or influence it. Whether by military coups, infiltration by Gülenists (which is a reality), or elections – this is a regime where “the law of the strongest” prevails. The current political regime in Turkey is called “majority democracy”. For better or for worse, it is now a “majority” that has power in Turkey and imposes itself on the others.
A swing of the pendulum
Modern Turkey itself is a young country not even a century old, born and built up in violence. Is it realistic to want Turkey to become a pluralist democracy while this violence still haunts one and all? Although since its creation Turkey has been moving two steps forward, one step back, it has nevertheless made progress. The most recent advances were made in the early 2000s, when national power was seen to swing gently between the hands of new political, economic and cultural elites and those of a section of the population who had hitherto been scorned by the elites in place, all this with the help of reforms implemented within the framework of negotiations with the EU. But due to a slowdown in the pace of reform, the obstacles encountered by other groups, the geopolitical developments in the region and the personality of the current president, there has been a radicalisation of existing power. This has caused a complete reverse swing of the pendulum, crushing the others, because it is better to crush than to be crushed.
The solution will only be found in a process of real dialogue between all the groups making up the country, and a new social contract. But if that is going to be achieved, everyone will have to stop being afraid of the others and looking out only for their own security at the expense of others. To that end, some impartial pressure coming from outside would be highly desirable. The process of integration into the EU could have acted as a catalyst, but for that to happen the European Member States need to overcome their own fears and commit themselves properly alongside the Turkish population. Unfortunately this is not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
Jean-Marc Balhan SJ
Visiting lecturer at the Centre Sèvres (Jesuit Faculty of Paris) and a Member of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Islam in the Contemporary World (CISMOC, Catholic University of Louvain); he has lived since 2001 in Ankara, Turkey.
Translated from the original text in French