Ilhan Tanir
Nov 25 2017

The 'zombification' of Turkey

Arbitrary arrests in Turkey are so frequent nowadays that few register more than a blip on the Richter scale of public attention.

But two recently have. The first arrest was of Osman Kavala, a businessman and respected human rights activist. The second was of Şaban Kardaş, head of a think-tank called ORSAM, known for its largely uncritical support of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s governing style. 

There is speculation that these arrests represent the regime’s first steps in a further crackdown on civil society.

This prognosis may be unduly optimistic.

Rather, the arrests may signify a regime no longer content to merely wage war against vocal dissenters and those whose lifestyle preferences differ from its own, but one now training its guns on logical thought itself, even when used in the service of the regime.

How else can the detention of Kardaş be explained? He is a man who has largely devoted his energy to the thankless task of putting flesh on the misshapen bones of the regime’s vision.

These detentions are signs of a regime moving beyond authoritarianism and beginning to lower itself into the waters of totalitarianism. Authoritarianism at least pays lip service to notions of logic, but is no longer a sustaining home. The new water may feel cold and unwelcoming. The handholds are slippery too. And there may be no turning back.

When one abandons logical thought, one must also abandon the ends it serves. School curricula are already feeling the chill. Science classes are being steadily removed, replaced with religious lessons. History too is being repackaged to present a version of events that depends on the present rather the past, one in which Erdoğan plays the lead role.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses for a photo with students of a religious girl school in Istanbul, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service, Pool photo via AP)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan poses for a photo with students of a religious girl school in Istanbul, Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016. (Kayhan Ozer/Presidential Press Service, Pool photo via AP)

The ability to think is no longer needed. It is not welcome anymore, because thought can lead to dangerous places.

Thus it is no longer the case that arrests and detentions need a rationale. Indictments are just pieces of paper with something written on them. The words have only ornamental value now, connecting indictments to a bygone era in which the words had a practical purpose.

If they make even vague sense then the indictment has been drawn up improperly: sense provides evidence of critical thinking and critical thinking can be applied to topics such as a consideration of the regime’s merits.

We are past that stage now.

Defendants attempting any reasoned rebuttal of the charges, assuming they can make sense of them, are simply advertising their guilt. A defence consisting of inchoate mumblings and mutterings is more likely to attract the judge’s leniency.

The regime may be paranoid, but it also is desperate. It seems it is spiritually, morally, ideologically, financially bankrupt. There are no arguments left to hide behind, so reflection is discouraged and arguments, even favourable ones, are now a target.

Indeed, the regime has so little confidence in its underpinnings that it has abandoned any examination of them. Consequently, it has decided to reduce even its own supporters to automatons; cheering, nodding and waving flags reflexively on cue.

This can be already seen when Erdoğan, for whom adulation is a means of papering over the cracks, speaks to his party faithful. As his speeches get more extreme and incoherent, the decibel level rises, reinforcing the cycle.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a political rally in Strasbourg, eastern France, on October 4, 2015. Russia's bombing campaign in Syria is a "grave mistake" and its support for the regime will be judged by history, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on October 4. AFP PHOTO/FREDERICK FLORIN
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a political rally in France, on Oct 4, 2015. Russia's bombing campaign in Syria is a "grave mistake" and its support for the regime will be judged by history, Erdogan warned. AFP/FREDERICK FLORIN

The national will, which Erdoğan so often invokes, and which he assumes he embodies, has become a zero-sum game. If Erdoğan embodies it entirely, then others, by definition, cannot. So any signs of independent thought are a threat to his embodiment of that will — stealing from him as it were. People should just lend their support, not attempt to articulate or justify it.

This is the level that Turkey is reaching towards, ruled by a regime that can no longer conceal its self-serving nature, its avarice and its corruption and so has declared war on the faculties that allow people to make such judgments.

If this proceeds unchecked, Turkey is not heading into uncharted waters: Erdoğan and his loyalists lack the ingenuity to create a new vice. They are rather following a track that leads to somewhere like North Korea, a society so regulated, so stunted, so carelessly cruel and so crushingly dull that the ability to think drops dead of its own accord.

To get there a country must consume itself almost entirely to inhibit its own potential. But give the Turkish regime enough time, enough prisons and enough indifference and it might just succeed.

Should Turkey reach that condition it will be not just a failed state, but a zombie state with a zombie society: a hard shell containing, nurturing and sustaining absolutely nothing.

Alternatively, the regime’s accelerating progress towards totalitarianism might indicate that it is running out of road. Ever more draconian measures, rather than setting the agenda, may instead be the reactions to an uncontrollable stumble, attempts to pass it off as a choreographed plan.