ali abaday
Jul 21 2018

Explaining Turkey through popular culture

Explaining Turkey’s political situation to someone who has never lived in Turkey is always difficult. Over the years, I’ve tried to answer people’s questions, especially those of foreign journalists, but very few have been able to understand.

For example, before US President Donald Trump brought the term “deep state” into the international political dialogue, this was a concept that did not resonate with foreigners, not to mention the notion of the “parallel state.”

These days, when someone asks me about Turkey, I explain using examples either from history or from popular culture, and it’s pretty effective. If, by chance, I’m talking to someone who’s familiar with comic books, DC Comics’ Injustice series is a great reference.

Injustice begins with a pregnant Lois Lane, and Superman shares the happy news of his impending fatherhood with Batman. But then, when the Joker kidnaps Lois Lane and poisons Superman with kryptonite, the Man of Steel unintentionally kills the woman he loves and their unborn child. After this, Superman enters a dark, depressive period and kills the Joker. Having killed someone for the first time, Superman engages in a mission to stop all the wars in the world and violently punish anyone who is guilty of committing a crime.

While Superman is carrying out his mission, other heroes like the Flash and Wonder Woman come to help him out. On the other side are superheroes like Batman who feel Superman is behaving too much like a dictator, and so they take actions against him.


The story of Injustice, which lasts for five years, actually comes from a comic book that was followed by a video game with the same name. It holds a very important place in DC’s body of work. Also, it shows how a leader can start off with good intentions but become poisoned with power over time, and it beautifully describes how this leader can even drift away from those closest to him.

So when people ask me about Turkey, I tell them that after AKP’s first term (2002–2007), the party underwent a change similar to Superman’s, and like Superman, President Tayyip Erdoğan can no longer tolerate any criticism from anyone. The cartoon crisis that recently took place at Middle East Technical University is the most straightforward proof of this.

Of course, we can’t expect everyone to be familiar with comic books. For them, some references from earlier pop culture will do. George Orwell’s excellent novel 1984 is an answer in itself. A great majority of Turkish media is under the government’s control, and just like in the novel, today’s enemies can become tomorrow’s allies. Some allusions to 1984 include Turkey and Russia almost entering into a state of war after Turkey shot down a Russian plane but then Russia became Turkey’s closest ally, or the fact that all of the prosecutors in the Ergenekon case are now considered conspirators of Fetullah Gülen… Keeping up with news that changes this quickly is truly reminiscent of 1984.

Taxi drivers who listen in on opposition passengers’ conversations and then complain to authorities or students who report on their teachers for making dissident statements are also examples that help to understand the psychology of Turkey these days, where citizens report all opposition to the authorities.

When it comes to legislation or the implementation of new laws, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End or Demolition Man, co-starring Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes, are also helpful pop culture references.


In Childhood’s End, a type of alien called Overlords comes to Earth and makes a better future for people with advanced technology.

Similarly, in Demolition Man, many prohibitions are in place to bring out the goodness in people. The society of the future is shaped by these bans—for example, no one uses salt or smokes cigarettes, and swearing is forbidden.

In both of these examples, there is a group of people who refuse to accept these prohibitions or give up the things they love. In Childhood’s End, they live together in a small area, but in Demolition Man, they have to move underground. For those who don’t care for government policies in Turkey, their situation is somewhere in between these—the places they may live in peace are becoming fewer, and for some of them, instead of going underground, the solution is to move to another country.


Of course, right now in Turkey, cigarettes and alcohol aren’t banned, but with large tax increases and heavy limitations on alcohol purchasing have caused sales to decrease. Films and movies have so many scenes cut and so much blurring of certain things that they are rendered unwatchable. On top of this, in the name of protecting the morality of society, child abuse, rape, and violence are increasing. There’s not really anyone who cares to do anything about these.

When explaining the situation in Turkey, my favorite example is for those who know a bit about Ottoman history—the Committee for Union and Progress. The party that destroyed the Ottomans is like today’s AKP. Just like Enver Paşa, Tayyip Erdoğan doesn’t think he’s made any mistakes. Just as Union and Progress members rejected criticisms and warnings from outside the party, so do AKP members.

In case you’re wondering about the similarities with the end of the Ottoman Empire, you’ll find a lot of answers from Turkey’s most famous detective novelist Ahmet Ümit, who describes the Union and Progress era in his book Elveda Güzel Vatanım (Farewell, My Beautiful Homeland). He writes Talat Paşa as saying, “I believe it’s not money or women but the leaders that are the greatest enemy of morality. When the leaders lack morality, it turns the people into thieves and degenerates.” This book has since been made into a comic book by illustrator Bartu Bölükbaşı.

ahmet Ümit

However difficult it is to explain to foreigners that, with the new regulations, the council of ministers is now exempt from Parliament’s vote of confidence, it is just as difficult to explain to those living in Turkey why it’s important for these ministers to receive approval and the problems faced by other regimes. For those who know Turkey from afar, using pop culture and history to explain these issues is helpful, but for those who support the new presidential system, there is unfortunately no way to explain in even the most basic sense the importance of democracy, the separation of powers, and liberty. Perhaps Injustice would do, but I’m not even certain about that.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.