Public security a la Turca
Emrullah Efendi, an Ottoman education scholar, became the minister of education in 1910. He was elected to the Ottoman Parliament in 1909 from the Kırklareli province in Thrace.
The Balkan Wars were raging at the time, and governments were rising and falling like the hills of Istanbul. Emrullah Efendi resigned in 1911, was reappointed shortly thereafter, and lost his job again with the fall of the government in July 1912. He died in 1914, before he could see the Balkan Wars give way to the much deadlier Great War.
When Emrullah Efendi was in government, Istanbul witnessed its first ever International Workers Day celebration on May 1. The first of such celebrations in the Ottoman Empire was held in Izmir in 1905, then in Skopje, in today’s Macedonia, in 1909. Both Istanbul and Izmir observed the day in 1912.
The holiday had been born out of the Haymarket affair in Chicago, where, in May 1886, labor leaders protested the killing of workers by the police. It might have taken two centuries for the printing press to come to Turkey, but it took less than two decades for International Workers’ Day celebrations to make it here. I guess the world was already becoming smaller and smaller in the late 19th century.
Yesterday marked the 110th year of our observance of May Day, yet we still have our problems with the holiday. It was long regarded as a communist affair and was occasion to violent protests in Taksim Square. In the 1990s, the occasion slowly oozed its way into the mainstream and in 2009, Parliament officially recognized International Workers’ Day. Then Prime Minister Erdogan opened up Taksim for peaceful protests, saying that his government wanted to expand the holiday to embrace all political stripes of the country. Yet here we are, with thousands of police blocking the streets, preparing their shields, sticks and gas masks. The city has called for a total shutdown around key downtown areas. I understand that we have to take measures to ensure peaceful marches, but a total shutdown? If the only way we can ensure public safety is through imprisoning people in their homes, we have a problem. There must be a balance between safety and liberty, because without one, we cannot have the other.
That reminded me of Emrullah Efendi. While he was the minister of education back in 1910, he joked that it would be a lot easier to run his ministry if he simply closed all the schools. That was the year when Turkey had its first May 1 celebration. The minister was only joking at the time, but Turkish bureaucrats today seem to take his idea seriously. They think, “I can’t lose if I don’t play.” If you are a bureaucrat or minister and the cost of even marginal dissent on your watch is prohibitively high, you will try to avoid making any decisions at all. Just call off the event and you are safe. Did you receive information about possible demonstrations that may spin out of control? Lock up the public transportation system and initiate a de facto curfew. Did you hear that sports fans may boo a government official? Call off the match. That’s the public safety oxymoron a la Turca nowadays: establish order through facilitating a complete shutdown.
However, the same thought process can result in an inverse outcome in other areas. I was talking to a Korean academic who was comparing our two countries’ industrial incentives. “You lack focus,” he said. “We support only the activities chosen to be cash cows for the next decade. You Turks try to get behind everything at the same time.” We are either being egalitarian about our industrial incentive schemes, or we are trying to avoid thinking at all in order to make decisions. And I don’t think industrial planners are too concerned about egalitarianism. After all, you don’t want to be “the guy” who backed a specific sector, and then take the fall for it if it doesn’t work out. So “Do everything,” you tell your superiors, “don’t ask me for my opinion.” In this scenario, the decision makers shirk responsibility in order to minimize their liabilities, leading us to mediocre outcomes in all areas. If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.
May Day started more than a century ago in Chicago, when police officers beat and killed the very citizens they were meant to protect. Many governments are working hard to absorb the lessons of that story. Some days are better than others, but mayors and ministers keep adjusting their decisions to balance liberty and security. That is their job. It is a shame that their Turkish counterparts were too afraid this May Day to do theirs.