Gökhan Bacık
Nov 21 2018

How the secular opposition failed Turkey

Much like Europe’s social democrats, Turkey’s secular intellectuals behave much like a religious movement, or brotherhood.

In both cases, the secular brotherhood has put up thick barriers to keep others out, while their reductionist narratives portray themselves as the only group that truly cares about democracy.

Both groups frequently give awards and prizes to their own. People with different ideological backgrounds, particularly those with a religious element to their identity, rarely manage to attract the attention of these secular intellectuals.

These behaviors help explain the fall of the secular left in both Turkey and Europe, but I want to focus more on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s approach to Turkish secular intellectuals.

Perhaps because secular intellectuals rank among Erdoğan’s arch-rivals, the president has a sophisticated strategy for them. He does not want to completely eliminate them, but rather use their criticism to help legitimise his regime. Unfortunately, many key secular figures seem to have fallen for Erdoğan’s trick.

Islamists newspapers like Yeni Şafak help Erdoğan deliver his messages to society. But television channels like NTV, which normally reflect a secular worldview, are strategically important to legitimise the Islamist regime. Secularists do not promote Islamism, but they have played a role in legitimising it.

This is largely because Erdoğan has found two key advantages over his secular brethren.

The first concerns the Kurdish question. For Erdoğan, secular intellectuals’ support for peace with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is the stance of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), is a valuable asset. This stance makes the secular opposition appear to support Turkey’s terrorist enemies, as the PKK is viewed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union.

Whether Ankara is fighting the PKK, or takes up peace talks, Erdoğan comes out looking good.

The second advantage concerns Ankara’s ongoing effort to dismantle the Gülen movement, which the president blames for the failed 2016 coup. Secular intellectuals, with their anti-Gülenist sentiment, help to legitimise Erdoğan’s fight and reap political benefits.

For example, when a leading secular intellectual was recently arrested, he said that what was shameful for him was not being arrested, but being charged with Gülenism. Another arrested secularist said the charges against came from a Gülenist prosecutor’s indictment written years ago. Erdoğan welcomes such reactions because he escapes blame.

This mentality of secular intellectuals helps explain how Erdoğan is able to manipulate their opposition for his benefit.

Islamists from Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the followers of Gülen carry most of the blame for the sad state Turkey is in today, but secularists are far from innocent. And their failure is all the more distressing given that they make up the primary opposition: they are supposed to be critical of the ruling party, to expose its flaws and make it work harder. 

The narrative of Turkey’s secularists today is problematic in several ways. To begin with, it is not a stimulating or appealing narrative. Rather, it sounds more like appeasement.

Secondly, this narrative is far from universal, and fails to speak for many victims of today’s authoritarian regime, such as the Kurds or accused members of the Gülen movement.

Finally, their narrative understates the scale of the political problems Turkey faces today. Secularists such as those of the CHP should be expressing more daily outrage in response to Erdoğan’s evisceration of Turkey’s institutions and the steady erosion of democracy.

Largely closed to new ways of thinking, Turkey's secular brotherhood has failed, and Erdoğan and the AKP reign supreme.