Tough times to be a Turk

Tough times to be a Turk

My beautiful country, Turkey, has never been an easy one to live in, but it became even more challenging since the beginning of the Gezi Park protests at the end of last May. Politics has become very divided, making any commentators get easily demonized by one of the bitterly opposed camps – or sometimes by both. As put nicely by a colleague and friend, Suat Kınıklıoğlu, in his latest piece:

“Social media is full with mutual accusations and recriminations. Each side accuses the other of being a traitor. Each side tries to demonstrate how much they have been victimized. Each side portrays the events as a major turning point that confirms their mutual fears. Friends, colleagues, even families have been divided depending on where they stand on the Gezi Park protests. We ‘unfollow’ colleagues on Twitter, ‘unfriend’ people on Facebook and refuse iftar (fast-breaking) dinner invitations. We pretend we do not see each other at airports.” (“We had a dream,” Today’s Zaman, July 17, 2013)

I, personally, got my share of this bitterness too. Dozens of angry emails and tweets condemned me for not “supporting democracy” anymore – because they saw Gezi Park protests as a “coup attempt,” whereas I did not. Others blamed me for “trying to hide the conspiracy against Turkey,” and even working for “the Zionist lobby,” simply because I dismissed the conspiracy theories about the “dark powers” behind the protests.
But why is Turkey such a polarized county? Why all this bitterness and anger?

If you pose this question to the people on both sides of the great divide, they will tell you that “the other side” is just so horrible. According to religious conservatives, the seculars are arrogant, domineering, dictating bullies who will never respect their rights and will always try to topple their democratically elected governments. According to seculars, however, it is the conservatives who are arrogant, domineering, dictating bullies, who will never respect their “way of life” and will always try to create “authoritarian democracy.”

If you asked me, I would tell you that both sides are actually similar, because they share the very same political culture. They all love conspiracy theories, and see politics as a zero-sum game. They all see consensus as weakness, and consider self-criticism as treason.

In fact, the core of the problem is the Turks’ burning deficit of trust with each other, which has been documented in various academic studies. According to a survey carried out in 2011 by Bremen and Leuphana universities, for example, among 50 different nations, Turkey proved to be the one in which people have the lowest level of trust in each other. (The highest levels of trust were documented in Sweden and other Scandinavian nations, in case you were wondering why they are peaceful, liberal and democratic societies.) Research done by Turkey’s Bahçeşehir University the same year also found similarly low levels of trust.

This low level of trust constantly perpetuates social tensions, which then result in angry political rhetoric and militant political action. On the one hand, this makes Turkey a very interesting county, in some ways more exciting than Scandinavia. On the other hand, however, it sometimes makes life hard and even uninspiring. And this summer seems to be one of the zeniths of that downside.