[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News]
I have friends who frequent the chic bars of Nişantaşı and Bebek – Istanbul’s most upscale neighborhoods. Many are your typical “secularist Turks,” disgusted by the sight of a headscarf. Last weekend, I came across to one of them, and asked, “Hey, where do you think the country is heading to?”
“To darkness,” he said, with despair and fear in his eyes. “With these Islamists infiltrating everywhere, we are doomed. They will wipe us out.”
Sounds familiar, right? Perhaps even to some pieces you read in these pages, which make the very same argument, albeit a bit more elegantly.
The rule of distrust
But wait a minute. I have other friends that I have not told you about yet. These are the ones who have never been to those chic bars, for they never ever drink, or even go to places where people do. They are deeply religious and unshakably pious. When I ask them “Hey, where do you think the country is heading to,” they sound more optimistic than my secular friends, but they express a similar fear: they believe that the “deep state” can strike back any time, and wipe them out.
Both of these camps, in other words, are driven by fear, more than anything else. They both worry that the country will be dominated by the other side, and their own camp will be somehow victimized. When you ask what their ideal is, most seem to be content with a live-and-let-live Turkey, in which all live according to their own ways. They just don’t believe that the opposing camp will be tolerant enough to accept that consensus.
Things are made worse by our national addiction to conspiracy theories: Both camps are equally suspicious of grand plots, only with very different actors and objectives. Secularists believe that the “Islamists” have infiltrated all state institutions, mastering all politics behind the scenes, with the support of the EU, the United States, and some unidentified “global powers.”
On the other side, there is a similarly sweeping conspiracy theory about the Ergenekon network and its unlimited powers to master almost all evil in recent history. (I, too, believe that “deep state” and Ergenekon exist, but in more limited and modest forms.) This conspiracy theory, too, is supplemented with the idea of foreign support. Many in the Islamic camp believe that the U.S., (or, at least, the neo-cons) Israel, and, again, some unidentified “global powers” are behind the “deep state.” (The EU gets less heat this time.)
Now, if you listen to only one of these totally opposite yet somewhat similar narratives, you can perhaps be convinced by it. If you listen to both, you can first get confused. But if you listen long enough, you may start to realize that what you see is a cultural and political war between two camps that are similarly distrustful of each other.
A similar pattern can be seen in the other major fault line in Turkey: the gap between the Turkish majority and the Kurdish minority, to use the term in a cultural sense. Interestingly, this is a new dichotomy, for we have denied even the very existence of Kurds for a long time. But now there is an intense dialogue and friction between the two sides, and distrust is again the rule of the game: many Turks fear that the right that Kurds want to achieve will create a slippery slope towards the division of Turkey and the creation of an independent Kurdish state. Most Kurds, on the other hand, fear that the Turks will make them settle for less than what they deserve.
Where from now?
Looking at all this, it is easy to become pessimistic about Turkey’s future. Such a deeply divided society, you can say, will never find peace of mind.
Yet I am more optimistic, for good reasons. First, none of the political camps I mentioned are homogenous. In each of them, there are more moderate figures who can engage in a constructive dialogue with people from the other side, and criticize the mistakes of their own.
Moreover, some of the fears in these camps tend to calm down over time. The secularist paranoia about the Justice and Development Party, or AKP’s, supposed plans for an Islamist revolution is still alive, but a bit less stiff than it was three or four years ago. The AKP has been in power for eight years, after all, and has done nothing more ambitious than try to set the headscarf free in universities and speak a little more loudly against Israel’s war crimes than previous governments.
On the other hand, the conservative fear that the ultra-secular generals are always cooking up some coup scheme will also tone down, as nothing really big has happened. There is already self-criticism on this in the conservative side. Most recently President Gül, a conservative by persuasion, took an important step, by criticizing longtime arrests and “courts with special powers.” His principled stance received praise from many in the secular camp.
So, I have the hope that we will become a less fear-stricken country in the years to come. We will also not merely move from “one authoritarian system to another,” i.e., from Kemalism to Islamism, as some commentators have claimed.
A decade from now, probably, people will rather say, “the country moved from an authoritarian system to democracy, with some hassles and excesses on the way.” And they will enjoy the privilege of living with less fear in their minds.