When elections are a ‘conquest’

When elections are a ‘conquest’

Last Saturday, President Tayyip Erdoğan joined a huge rally in Istanbul, which marked the 562nd anniversary of the Turks’ conquest of Istanbul. (We Turks celebrate this “conquest anniversary” every year, for apparently we can’t get enough of having taken the city more than two dozen generations ago.) 

In the speech, as usual, Erdoğan slammed a whole range of conspirators and traitors that have targeted his rule with devious plots. One novelty was the New York Times, which Erdoğan not only insulted as a “rag” but also blamed for being an enemy of Turkey since the time of Sultan Abdülhamid II (1876-1909). (Some kept wondering, however, why some members of the president’s own party, such as Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, have written opinion pieces for this same paper if it was such a quintessentially evil outsource.)
What I have found most notable in this impressive rally was Erdoğan’s depiction of this Sunday’s general elections as yet another “conquest.” “The conquest,” he bluntly said, “is Inshallah on June 7.”

One obvious problem with this conceptualization is that envisioning other (non-AKP) political parties as the enemy. (I am not even getting to the fact the constitution in fact decrees that Erdoğan must be impartial, a principle that has recently turned into a joke.) For conquests are realized against enemies, which you want to crush and subdue. If this is the way politics are carried out in a country, needless to say, that country will find anything but peace of mind. 

What is even more curious is that the AKP already “conquered” Turkey long ago, if this means being in power. AKP governments have been ruling the country since 2002, and AKP municipalities administer most cities, including Ankara and Istanbul. But since Erdoğan is looking forward to a new “conquest,” this must be something far greater than mere governance in a parliamentary democracy.

Well, we know that this thing that is far greater is embodied in the “presidential system” that Erdoğan is super keen about. But is this merely an end in itself, or a means to a higher end? Probably both, for “the presidential system” has lots to do with Erdoğan’s personal ambitions and concerns. But it also fits into a “historic” mission that is indeed captured well in the very term “conquest”: It is the act of Muslims taking a land from the infidels.

But how can this be meaningful for Turkey, a society whose overwhelming majority (98 percent, by some estimates) profess to be Muslims? Well, according to some of these Muslims, they themselves are the “real Muslims” and other ones are, at best, nominal ones. 

You can see this us-the-real-Muslims-vs-them feeling powerfully in the AKP and pro-AKP propaganda of the past two years. At its core, it is the depiction of other political trends in Turkish society as soulless degenerates or hypocrites who serve the enemies of Islam.

All this militantly religious propaganda is bad for Turkey for sure, for it creates deep scars in our society. But, since I care, it is even worse for religion itself. For the instrumentalization of religion for the sake of such an aggressive political cause only devalues religion. It gets deprived of the deeper moral truths it is supposed to represent, instead becoming a battle cry driven by hate and lust. The result is that religion begins to push people away, rather than win hearts and minds.

That is why the end of this “conquest” of the Turkish society by the AKP might be the exact opposite of what the AKP hopes to see: A very disenchanted society, angry with religion for what is done in its name. In a way it is similar to what happened in Catholic Europe, particularly France, where the religious authoritarianism of the church triggered a secular backlash. The post-AKP era, I think, will also be the era of a secular backlash.