Something is rotten in Turkey

Something is rotten in Turkey

These days, the most exciting leisure activity for millions of Turks is to get on the Internet every night and wait for the next scandalous “tape” to go online. Because almost every night, a new alleged wiretapped phone conversation between the most powerful men in Turkey, such as Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, is exposed. Every audio file goes viral instantly and leads to heated discussions and angry protests on social media. Some even go out on the streets to voice their dismay – before getting water cannoned or gassed by the police. 

If they are authentic, these audio files reveal a very dirty state in every sense of the word. There is corruption, bribery, intervention in legal processes and even in the elections within football teams. There are dozens of examples of government pressure on the media, or pressure on individuals by the media.

Meanwhile, these very exposures reveal something else, too: Somebody has been collecting and archiving them, and is now revealing them for public consumption just weeks before the upcoming local elections. Moreover, while some of these wiretappings seem to have a legal basis (they were recorded with a court order due to the corruption probe that was launched on Dec. 17), others seem to have been executed illegally. All this confirms the long-held belief that Turkey is the home of a STASI-like “wiretapping republic,” which eagerly spies on its citizens.

In other words, everything that is being exposed these days – both the exposed material and the exposures themselves – proves there is something very rotten in Turkey.

Those who are likely to interpret this as the outcome of the fall of Turkey’s secular elites and the rise of religious one would be making a mistake. Turkey’s secular past (say, the era before the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, which came to power in 2002) was really no better. In the fact, the authoritarian, corrupt and STASI-like state machinery is a making of those former elites. The new, more religious elites are only responsible for proving no better than their predecessors.

Alas, in the beginning, they seemed much more promising. Since Turkey’s religious conservatives were often the victims of our authoritarian state, they came with a program of liberal reform. They did realize important reforms and thus won the support of pro-EU liberals. I, personally, even saw the signs of an “Islamic liberalism” that can emerge from the Turkish experience.

Today, I must admit that I was a bit too optimistic. I overlooked the fact that the “Islamic liberalism” of the new elites emerged more out of necessity than principle. (The necessity was the threat posed by the military and its secularist allies.) I also underestimated the persistence of political culture. I did not foresee that the corruptive effect of power could work so effectively.

The future will look brighter only when we move beyond the current period and everything that is rotten about it. To become a worthy democracy, Turkey has to save itself from the sea of nepotism, self-righteousness, paranoia and political fanaticism that it is swimming in these days. The only good outcome of the current crisis may be to help more people realize this burning need for change.