Ece Temelkuran on Erdogan, Trump, and the Banality of Evil

Ece Temelkuran

What We Can Learn from the Decline of Turkish Democracy into Populist Dictatorship

The fighter jets are breaking the dark sky into giant geometric pieces as if the air were a solid object. It’s July 15, 2016, the night of the attempted coup in Turkey. I am piling pillows up against the trembling windows. I guess they’ve just dropped a bomb on the bridge, but I can’t see any fire. People are talking on social media about the bombardment of the Parliament Building. “Is this it?” I ask myself. “Is tonight the Reichstag fire for what remains of Turkish democracy and my country?”

On TV, a few dozen soldiers are barricading the Bosporus bridge, shouting at the startled civilians: “Go home! This is a military takeover!”

Despite their huge guns, some of the soldiers are clearly terrified, and all of them look lost. The TV says it’s a military takeover, but this is not a coup as we know it. Coups usually wear a poker face—there’s no hustling or negotiating, and certainly no hesitation when it comes to using the heavy weaponry. The absurdity of the situation sees sarcasm kick in on social media. This kind of humor is not necessarily aiming for laughter; it’s more of a contest in bitter irony, which seems normal only to those engaged in it. The jokes mostly concern the idea that this is a staged act to legitimize the presidential system—rather than the parliamentary one—that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has long been asking for, a change that would hand him even more power than he already has as the de facto sole ruler of the country.

The dark humor disappears as the skies over Istanbul and Ankara become busy hives of fighter jets. We are learning the language of war in real time. What I’d thought was a bomb was actually a sonic boom—the blast-like sound fighter jets make when they break the sound barrier. This is the proper terminology for the air breaking into giant pieces and raining down on us as fear: fear of realizing that before the sun rises we might lose our country.

People in the capital city of Ankara are now trying to differentiate between sonic booms and the sound of real bombs hitting Parliament and the intelligence service headquarters. The catastrophe unfolding in front of our eyes is constantly blurred by the absurdity of the news reports on our screens. Live on air, MPs are running around Parliament trying to find the long-forgotten air-raid shelter, and when they finally do locate it, nobody can find the keys, while outside in the streets people dressed in their pajamas are kicking tanks, cigarettes in their mouths, and shouting at the jets.

A communications explosion is occurring on our TV screens, and many of us know that this is very much not normal. Turkey’s recent history has taught us that a coup starts with the army taking politicians into custody and shutting down news sources. Also, coups tend to happen in the early hours of the morning, not during television prime time. In this meticulously televised coup, government representatives appear across TV channels all night long, calling on the people to take to the streets and oppose the army’s attempted takeover. The internet does not slow down in the way it usually does whenever something occurs to challenge the government; on the contrary, it’s faster than ever. Even so, the speed and intensity of the night’s events do not allow the skeptics to properly process these strange details.

Erdoğan communicates using FaceTime, with his messages broadcast on CNN Türk. He calls everyone out into the city centers. Like most people, I do not anticipate the government’s supporters taking to the streets to confront the military. Since the founding of the modern Turkish republic in 1923, under Kemal Atatürk, the army has traditionally been the most respected institution in the country, if not the most
feared. But apparently much has changed since the last military coup in 1980, when it was the leftists who resisted and were imprisoned and tortured; the president’s call resonates with thousands.

In no time the TV screens are showing the young, terrified soldiers being beaten and strangled to death by this mob. And that is when the never-ending sela from all the minarets in the country begins. Sela is a special prayer recited after death. It has such a shivering tone that even those who are not familiar with Muslim customs can tell that it is about the irreversible, the end. Tonight, sela is followed by loud announcements from minarets calling people to the streets in the name of God, to save the president, the democracy, the nation . . . The tune of death now shares the sky with jets, the delirious “Allahu akbars” of Erdoğan supporters and the soldiers’ cries for help. And I remember the poem that started everything: “The minarets are our bayonets / The domes our helmets / The mosques our barracks / And the faithful our soldiers.” It was Erdoğan who recited the poem at a public event in 1999, leading to him being imprisoned for four months for “inciting religious hatred,” and transforming him first into a martyr for democracy, then a ruthless leader. And after 17 years, on the night of the coup the poem sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy, a promise that has been kept at the cost of a country.

My mother told me that my nephew asked the same question I’d asked 36 years before: “Did something bad happen to Turkey?”
We have learned over time that coups in Turkey end the same way regardless of who initiated them. It’s like the rueful quote from the former England footballer turned TV pundit Gary Lineker, that football is a simple game played for 120 minutes, and at the end the Germans win on penalties. In Turkey, coups are played out over 48-hour curfews, and the leftists are locked up at the end. Then afterwards, of course, another generation of progressives is rooted out, leaving the country’s soul even more barren than it was before.

As I watch the pro-government news channels throughout the night it becomes clearer by the minute that it is business as usual. Pictures and videos come through of arrested soldiers lying naked in the streets under the boots of civilians—as leftists lay under army boots after the coup in 1980—and the news channels and the government trolls on social media, not at all paralyzed like the rest of us, present us with the perspective they deem most appropriate: “Thanks to Erdoğan’s call, the people saved our democracy.”

“Allahu akbars” multiply on my street, accompanied by machine-gun shots from the circulating cars. After so many years spent under AKP rule, devotion to the army has apparently been replaced by religious commitment to Erdoğan. We are watching his face and name become the emblems of the new Turkey we’ll wake up to. Beneath the madness and the noise a carefully crafted propaganda machine is fully operational, already preparing the new political realm that will come into being in the morning. And having long been a critic of Erdoğan’s regime, as dawn breaks it becomes Kristall-clear that there won’t be a place for people like me in this new democracy.

Watching a disaster occur has a sedating effect; like millions of people around the country, I am numb. As our sense of helplessness grows along with the calamity, the cacophony transforms into a single
siren, a constant refrain: “There’s no longer anything you can do; this is the end.” The global news channels jump in. For the rest of the world, the night’s events are like the opening scene of a political thriller, but in fact this is the climax, the dénouement. It has been a very long and exhausting film, unbearably painful viewing for those of us who were forced to watch or take part. And I remember how it began: with a populist coming to town. Which is why, as the British and American TV anchors put hasty questions to the studio analysts, I feel like saying, “As our story ends, yours is only just beginning.” A bleak dawn breaks.

I remember the exact day I experienced dawn for the first time. I woke up early one morning to the sound of the radio playing loudly in the living room, and found my mother and father chain smoking as they listened to a coup being declared. Their faces darkened as the day broke. It was September 12, 1980, and I looked up at the clear blue sky and said to myself, “Oh, this must be what they call dawn.” I was eight, and one of the most vicious military coups in modern history was just getting started. My mother was silently crying, as she was to do frequently for several years after that dawn.

From that day forth, like millions of other children with parents who wanted a fair, equal and free Turkey, I grew up on the defeated side; among those who always had to be careful and who were, as my mother told me whenever I did less than perfectly at school, “obliged to be smarter than those in power because we are up against them.” On the night of July 15, 2016 “we,” as ever, were smarter than “them,” as we combined penetrating analysis with brilliant sarcasm. But in every square of every city in the country, raging crowds were playing the endgame, perhaps not as smartly, yet with devastating effect.

On July 15, 2016, my nephew Max Ali was the same age I was on September 12, 1980. He is one and a half years older than his brother, Can Luka. They are half-Turkish, half-American, and they live in the US. They were supposed to have gone home to America on July 16, after a vacation spent with their babaanne—”grandmother” in Turkish—my mother. Max Ali is a religious devotee of babaanne breakfasts. He is one of the lucky few on the planet who know of epic Turkish breakfasts, and he believes only babaanne knows how to make them. As a family, we’re always proud that he chooses tomatoes and Turkish cheese over Cheerios, which my father calls “animal food.” Had they not experienced the dawn during the coup their memories of babaanne would have been limited to indulgent breakfasts. But instead of heading to the airport that morning, as day broke they watched their babaanne crying and chain smoking in front of the TV. My mother told me Max Ali asked the same question I’d asked 36 years before: “Did something bad happen to Turkey?” Babaanne was too tired to tell him that every generation in this country has its own dark memory of a dawn. She gave the same answer she had given me 36 years previously: “It is complicated, my dear.”

It doesn’t matter if Trump or Erdoğan is brought down tomorrow. The millions of people fired up by their message will still be there.
How and why Turkish democracy was finally done away with by a ruthless populist and his growing band of supporters on the night of July 15, 2016 is a long and complicated story, one from which we can attempt to draw lessons for the benefit of the rest of the world. Of course, every country has its own set of specific conditions, and some of them choose to believe that their mature democracy and strong state institutions will protect them from such “complications.” However, the striking similarities between what Turkey went through and what the Western world began to experience a short while later are too many to dismiss. There is something resembling a pattern to the political insanity that we choose to name “rising populism,” and that we are all experiencing to some extent. And although many of them cannot yet articulate it, a growing number of people in the West sense that they too may end up experiencing similar dark dawns.

“Turks must be watching us and laughing their asses off tonight,” read an American tweet on the night of Donald Trump’s election victory less than five months after the failed coup attempt. We weren’t. Well, maybe one or two smirks might have appeared. Behind those smirks, though, lay exasperation at having to watch the same soul-destroying movie all over again, and this time on the giant screen of US politics. We wore the same pained expression after Britain’s Brexit referendum, during the Dutch and German elections, and whenever a right-wing populist leader popped up somewhere in Europe sporting the movement’s signature sardonic, bumptious grin.

On the night of the US presidential election, on the day of the Brexit referendum result, or when some local populist fired up a surprisingly large crowd with a speech that sounded like total nonsense, many asked the same question in their different languages: “Is this my country? Are these my people?” People in Turkey, after asking these questions for almost two decades and witnessing the gradual political and moral collapse of their homeland, regressed to another dangerous doubt: “Are human beings evil by nature?” That question represents the final defeat of the human mind, and it takes a long and excruciating time to understand that it’s actually the wrong question.

It doesn’t matter if Trump or Erdoğan is brought down tomorrow, or if Nigel Farage had never become a leader of public opinion. The millions of people fired up by their message will still be there, and will still be ready to act upon the orders of a similar figure. And unfortunately, as we experienced in Turkey in a very destructive way, even if you are determined to stay away from the world of politics, the minions will find you, even in your own personal space, armed with their own set of values and ready to hunt down anybody who doesn’t resemble themselves. It is better to acknowledge—and sooner rather than later—that this is not merely something imposed on societies by their often absurd leaders, or limited to digital covert operations by the Kremlin; it also arises from the grassroots. The malady of our times won’t be restricted to the corridors of power in Washington or Westminster. The horrifying ethics that have risen to the upper echelons of politics will trickle down and multiply, come to your town and even penetrate your gated community. It’s a new zeitgeist in the making. This is a historic trend, and it is turning the banality of evil into the evil of banality. For though it appears in a different guise in every country, it is time to recognize that what is occurring affects us all.