The last hope of Turkey’s lazy democrats

The last hope of Turkey’s lazy democrats

After the controversial Iranian-Turkish citizen businessman Reza Zarrab was arrested in the U.S. last week, it was not only cheered by thousands of ordinary Turkish citizens but also welcomed by all circles of opposition and dissidence as a fresh chance to weaken the ruling party. This reaction from ordinary citizens who have lost trust in the Turkish judicial system is understandable. But it is quite problematic to expect U.S. justice to compensate for the injustices of Turkey’s over-politicized judicial system and to expect international pressure to compensate for the weakness of opposition here.

I have long criticized Turkey’s democrats for being “lazy democrats” waiting for a savior. The values of democracy, freedom, civil society - and the intellectuals who endorsed them - became popular after the 1980 military coup regime in 1983, as the ideologies of left and right lost their appeal. But democracy remained an abstract concept as long as the idea was never connected to the effort and struggle for democracy. It remained limited to conferences, panel discussions and intellectuals’ clubs – and never led to true engagement. 

People too lazy even to go to parents’ meetings at their children’s schools, or to go to “apartment meetings” to fix problems in their buildings, engaged in big debates about how to save the country through grand projects like working on proposals for a new democratic constitution. In countries like ours, democracy is seen as a sublime topic that has nothing to do with everyday life. 

In the end, it was agreed by almost all democrats that EU membership would save the country, as Turkey’s “internal dynamics were too weak for democracy.” For example, secular democrats were reluctant to support the rights and freedoms of conservatives, like lifting the ban on headscarves in universities. That is why they did not object to the 1997 “post-modern coup” staged against Islamists.

In fact, even the Islamists refrained from struggling for their rights and freedoms after the 1997 coup. They reinvented themselves as “conservative democrats,” which became the founding ideology of the current ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). After successive AKP election victories, everyone from secular democratic intellectuals to the secularist business elite turned out to be “true democrats” eager to define the AKP as Turkey’s new democratic dynamic, opting to rely on this dynamic to democratize the country. 

How things turned out so badly and how Turkey slid from the prospect of democracy to conservative authoritarianism is a long story and a matter of controversy. However, once that happened many of the democratic supporters of the AKP became arch dissidents. Apparently they did not feel the need to change their habit of expecting democracy to come as a result of anything other than their effort and determination.

Today, Turkey is going through very difficult times and the scope of democratic struggle is ever-diminishing.

But we must face reality and try to find a way out, or otherwise all aspects of social and political life will deteriorate - let alone the prospect of democratization. It is sad to witness the same laziness (and sometimes worse) on behalf of many democrats in these dire times. Only a few people engage in any effort to challenge the authoritarian ways of the government, even if it only needs a small effort and risk, like going to the court where a journalist or academic is being tried on accusations of treason or supporting terrorism. 

Still, many of us prioritize people’s political affiliations and disagreements, hindering most of us from expressing true solidarity and challenging authoritarian measures. Still, those who have not yet lost their job need to be careful to avoid the fate of their colleagues. Worse, those who are already marked as “enemies of the government” (and indeed the entire nation) are waiting for something to happen to save the country from this ruling party - be it an economic crisis, international pressure, or U.S. courts. I think the real tragedy lies there. 

The sooner we understand that democratization can only be realized by our efforts and sacrifices, the better.