Osman Kavala, PODEM, and the tragic end of Open Society in Turkey

There are certain books a lot of people heard of, or at least think they have an idea about. French philosopher Julien Benda’s 1927 essay “The Treason of the Intellectuals” is one of these. The essay traces the origins of the concept of “intellectual” from ancient Greek philosophy to the Enlightenment and scrutinises the social functions of intellectuals.

We do not know how many people have actually read this essay, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that a far greater number than those who read the book use the cliché “the treason of the intellectuals” to advocate for a certain political position.

Benda’s essay is essentially a settling of accounts. Beginning in the early 20th century, the intellectual class began to move away from independent thought and turned its back on universal values. Being an intellectual, he claimed, is not about pursuing everyday interests. Instead, it is about producing art, science, and philosophy without material concerns.

In Benda’s time, differences were becoming politicised, and people’s passions about divisions on the basis of nation–race–class (the “other,” to use a more fashionable term) were turning into mutual hatred. Politics was not being guided by morality, rather the other way around; politics was now guiding morality. Benda firmly believed that it was the intellectuals who bore the greatest responsibility for legitimising this.

Needless to say, Benda did not envision a completely non-political intellectual. The “treason” he had in mind was about how intellectuals let politics infect art, science, and philosophy, and “soil” it, so to speak. Those intellectuals who had been relatively oblivious to the allure of power ceased distancing themselves from everyday interests and instead started pursuing power.

According to Benda, this treason would come with a heavy price, and in the near future, the world would experience one of the worst catastrophes in human history. History proved Benda correct. Less than ten years after his book was published, Europe would sink into the clutches of fascism and a bloody war.

As Turkey is hurling from semi-democracy to full autocracy, what brings Benda to my mind is Osman Kavala, who has been in detention for over 44 days. Actually, I wanted to write about him and his “old friends” who had chosen to forget him a while ago, but I decided to wait when I saw Dilek Kurban’s Nov. 3, 2017 piece for the website T24, called “Regarding Osman Kavala.”

Sooner or later, Kavala and others like him tend to be forgotten, and aside from a handful of true friends, no one else was going to remember him or remind us of him.

But it did not turn out that way. After the first intense days of his arrest, an increasingly louder chorus of voices from inside and outside of Turkey has been calling for Kavala’s release. For the thousands of nameless victims of the regime, this support is important, though gut-wrenching, as the struggle for freedom (unfortunately) walks on top of its symbolic figures, and Kavala (like Ahmet Şık, Nuriye Gülmen, and Semih Özakça) is one of the most innocent among them.

It is precisely the silence of Kavala’s former colleagues, who were supposed to be “relatively oblivious to the allure of power”, and their almost frantic attempts to distance themselves from Kavala that tells us so much about today’s Turkey.

In 2015, a group that parted ways from the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV, of which Kavala was a board member) founded the Center for Public Policy and Democracy Studies (PODEM). When the pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak accused Kavala of being associated with PODEM, it posted the following “statement” on their website:

“In the October 25, 2017 issue of Yeni Şafak, journalist Yılmaz Bilgen penned an article about Osman Kavala titled ‘His Dossier Is Bursting,’ which appeared on the front page and page 15. The sole intention of this article was to associate PODEM with illegal organisations and other institutions. PODEM works to maintain its prestige, trustworthiness, and spotless reputation in the eyes of the public. Since PODEM began its activities as a civil society in 2015, all of its work and institutional relationships have been transparent and independent. Contrary to what is written in the article, the organisation has absolutely never been associated with Osman Kavala or his activities.”

The news item that targeted PODEM, whose Board of Directors includes such prominent names as Can Paker, Süleyman Seyfi Öğün, Oral Çalışlar, and Rona Yırcalı, is just one example of the dozens of instances of desktop sophistry we see each day in the government-controlled media.

What is perhaps more interesting, the “news item” in question mentioned another member of the Board of Directors, Serdar Erener, whom it accused to be a part of Kavala’s A team, one who concocted slogans “intended to incite hatred”.

Erener is not just a member PODEM’s Board of Directors; he is also listed as a personal financial supporter. We cannot know why his name was left out of the “statement”; perhaps simply because he has not been arrested yet.

And this is the reality of the unabashedly autocratic New Turkey. One has to refrain from making the leader uncomfortable or get on the trolls’ radar. Especially if you have served as the chair of TESEV’s Board of Directors and chair of the Advisory Board of the Turkey branch of the Open Society Institute, neither of them particularly liked by nationalists, left or right.

Then you would have to commute from one TV channel to the next, knock on the doors of every pro-government newspaper available to say that you have been removed from all these duties for being in favour of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

But this is not enough either; the zeitgeist requires you to quickly forget you were describing yourself as a “Marxist businessman,” and to dress up as a defender of the regime. You claim that the presidential system is the culmination of the decades-long struggle of the masses – which you call “the people” – oppressed by the “White Turks” and the military tutelage.  

The “Whites” “haven’t noticed the underlying intelligence” of the people and considered them ignorant. But it was not ignorance, you say, it was a class struggle. You assert that the “Tayyip Bey” that you have known for 20 years is not an authoritarian person – he just has his finger on the pulse of the people. He and the AKP are fighting against “national sovereignty and the exploitation of the people.” “To misinterpret the presidential system by taking advantage of people’s lack of information is not something that can be couched as intellectual morality!”

Dwelling on this “profound analysis” and the peculiar understanding of intellectual morality would be an insult to the reader’s intelligence. Similarly, it would be a waste of time to remind anyone that most of those who had prepared reports for TESEV when this gentleman was its chair are now either behind bars or abroad, in exile.

Whether the founders of PODEM or its current staff can be considered “intellectuals” is a moot question (though it is difficult to give a positive answer to this question if we take Benda’s definition of the intellectual as someone who produces knowledge). My problematic, the theme that runs through my contributions to Ahval, is to make sense of Turkey’s transition from a semi-democracy to full autocracy, to understand the underlying dynamics of this period and the lasting mechanisms of this transition.

I will thus reiterate a point I made earlier. The crisis Turkey is currently facing is not just a political, economic, or cultural one. Perhaps more than all of these, it is a crisis of morality. The AKP may have contributed to its onset, but it is more a result than a cause.

The distinguishing sign of this moral collapse is not the number of journalists, academics, and activists in prison; it is the millions who do not speak up against injustice, in fact who even approve and enjoy it. Those who are largely known as opinion leaders openly strive to legitimise a fascistic regime. The Turkish bourgeoisie, concerned with public tenders, is impassive.

Let me finish on a personal note. I have also prepared reports for TESEV, and I took part in their meetings. I felt proud to be workmates with my former students, even if temporarily. I parted ways with most of them after the 2013 Gezi protests. I did not care. After all, we did not have to share the same worldview. Ending friendships and ignoring things was a choice too. But to ignore the statement written about Osman Kavala… that is something else entirely. Obviously, my former students chose to be “Little Eichmanns”. Perhaps under the influence of their “gurus” like Can Paker, Etyen Mahçupyan, and Ali Bayramoğlu, or perhaps out of their own free will. Whatever the case, I am embarrassed for them. I feel sorry for the many hours I spent sharing my limited knowledge with them.

But the Little Eichmanns will be crushed and thrown into the dustbin of history. No one will remember their name, and if so, not in a good way. What is worse, it will take generations to clean up the wreckage they will leave in their wake.