Fear and loathing in Turkey

“I used to have a very healthy relationship with my religious students,” Turkish academic Bülent Somay told the BBC. “But now they feel they're the elite and we're the pariah. Years ago, they were trying to get power. Now they have it, they're questioning our right to share it.”

Somay’s observation applies beyond his religious students; the expression of similar sentiments is all too common by supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) online and in pro-government media. The moral superiority and the vengefulness that underlie their perspective is the wound that bled democracy in Turkey to death.

In my previous article for Ahval, I touched upon the role of fear and anxiety about the future in rising nationalism and societal polarisation. Not only are rising nationalism and societal polarisation harbingers of political violence to come, but they also undermine democratic institutions and norms in the process. The “white Turk” discourse and the memory of Feb. 28, 1997, when a coalition including a predecessor of the AKP was ousted from government after a National Security Council memorandum, were major contributors to the transformation of fear to a desire for revenge.

I have written extensively about the white Turks-zenci Turks discourse, which Erdoğan himself often refers to. The term “white Turk” started out to denote a socioeconomic class. Later, it was adopted and politicised by Islamists, who contrasted it with the term zenci (black) Turks. While Islamists likened themselves to the oppressed zenci, they saw all secularists, regardless of their socioeconomic status, as elite white Turks. The term “white Turks” has long lost its analytical utility, but it has not lost its demagogic value. Islamist leaders and commentators evoke the discourse to remind supporters of their oppression before the AKP came to power. In the process, “white Turk” was transformed from a discourse of victimisation, to a hateful and vengeful cue to have some ill-defined secular sector of society pay the price.

The AKP did bring many innovations to traditional Turkish party politics, especially borne out of its experience in municipal governance. However, it failed to move beyond the trauma of Feb. 28, 1997.

The memory of Feb. 28 meant, for the AKP, that its political power was always under an existential threat. The 15-year history of AKP governance is fraught with defensive manoeuvres to hold on to power. Controversies over the 2007 presidential election, the 2008 Constitutional Court case to close the AKP, the 2013 Gezi protests, the December 2013 corruption scandal and, of course, the July 15, 2016 coup attempt have only strengthened the feeling of insecurity.

The trauma of Feb. 28 was passed on to the AKP constituency as well. The feeling of being victims at the hand of “secular elites”, especially the military, is so strong that it has not abated after 15 years of AKP power and the subjugation of the Turkish military to civilian control.  

AKP supporters benefitted from its rule both materially and emotionally. They found themselves with new privileges and opportunities; however they felt these were always under threat. They had fear and anxiety about their future, and these fears and anxieties were very much tied to the political future of the AKP and of Erdoğan himself. If Erdoğan lost, they would lose the newfound privileges and this shared fate allowed Erdoğan to portray his political rivals as the enemy. This has polarised society and is a dangerous trend.

The June 2015 general election was the first time Erdoğan came close to losing political power after the main pro-Kurdish party gained enough seats to deny the AKP a majority in parliament. The electoral setback ushered in a new wave of nationalism and vilification of the Kurds. The AKP leadership and supporters entered a feedback loop of nationalist fervour, which continues today. Similar dynamics drew a big wedge within Turkish Islamism, between followers of U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen and AKP supporters.

A recent research project entitled “Dimensions of Polarization in Turkey” highlights the ideological and emotional divide within the country. Most respondents assigned moral superiority to supporters of the party they felt closest to and assigned negative traits to supporters of the party they felt most distant from. An important correlation of this finding was that most respondents also approved of limitations on the political rights and freedoms of supporters of the party they felt most distant from. In addition, supporters of the AKP and the nationalist MHP showed a higher perception of group superiority compared to supporters of other political parties.

Juxtaposing the overall high levels of perceived moral superiority among respondents and AKP supporters’ high level of group superiority, it is not surprising that we observe only silence or approval in the face of outrageous rights violations in Turkey today.

For the first time in the history of the Turkish Republic, an Islamist political party came to power in 2002 as a single ruling party. It had suffered due to the lack of democracy in the country so the expectation was that it would eliminate undemocratic norms and institutions so as to give itself a higher chance of survival under democracy.

Fear and anxiety of losing, fed by past trauma which in return fed vengefulness and polarisation, has taken the country in exactly the opposite direction.


And here we are.