Category: Turkey

Climate of fear: Two years in Istanbul


It is sobering and painful to imagine bad fortune befalling those places you hold dear; to know that the streets that you once frequented and the bridges you once traversed have become bit part players in a much larger tragedy.

I first discovered Istanbul during its calmer days. I arrived in the city in the autumn of 2013; my first encounter with the ancient cultural heart of an altogether unfamiliar country. Istanbul captivated me at once with its energy and quirkiness, with its fascinating and shambolic mingling of cultures, and with its passion and unrelenting buzz.

Admittedly, all was not entirely well in the Istanbul that I first saw. In the summer of that same year, the Gezi Park protests had brought the city’s various discontents into stark view. The heavy handed crackdown by Turkey’s government against those protests was an ominous sign of things to come. During the Gezi events the world saw a flow of images showing Turkish police with tear gas and water cannons turning on protestors with vicious intent. These images became a dominant motif for Turkey over the months and years that followed Gezi.

I will never forget one ordinary Saturday afternoon in late 2014. I was wandering Istiklal Caddesi with friends on a mildly sunny day. The avenue was busy with people young and old, families, and foreign tourists. Suddenly we were startled by people running in our direction. It turned out there were police hot on their tails armed with excessive amounts of teargas.

We were about to be caught in the crossfire and knew that a gassing could be really unpleasant. So we ran for the nearest side street and took refuge in a vehicle workshop, where the owners rushed to batten down the steel door and where together we all waited until the danger had passed by. Outside, the air was acrid with the lingering stench of teargas.

Since those early days there have been many more dramatic events in Istanbul and wider Turkey. Most notably, the ruling regime has stepped up its level of control, bolstered by another resounding win at the ballot box in mid-2015, when Turkey held its most recent general election. The leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a divisive figure. At first I thought he was unpopular with most Turks, judging from the opinions of my liberal and mostly secular English-speaking Turkish friends, who never missed a chance to criticise him.

But as I got to know Turkey more deeply it became clear that the man had widespread popular support, just not from the demographic that constituted most of my social scene. On the contrary, Erdogan supporters came from the working classes, from the more religious and less well-educated sections of society. This is a general statement but one that largely holds true.

To understand Turkey better it is important to remember that Istanbul is not really Turkey, and Turkey is not really Istanbul. In fact, most of Turkey resides in the wider Anatolian regions, beyond Istanbul, where society tends towards the poorer, more conservative and more religious. These are the heartlands from where President Erdogan draws the majority of his support base. These are the voters that have kept the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in power for almost fifteen years.

Erdogan is undoubtedly a gifted politician. Although he may lack a university education (his degree is believed to be fake), he has used his time spent on the streets of Istanbul to learn exactly what makes the common Turk tick and he has leveraged this knowledge to great effect. He is ruthless too, as shown by his cynical manipulation of Turkish society to achieve his political aims.

In summer 2015 the tide shifted in Turkey. A challenger party, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), won enough general election votes to give it a seat in parliament. This denied the AKP the majority rule it had expected to win. The result was a hung parliament amid calls for the ruling party to form a coalition. Anyone who knows Turkish politics and the personality of Erdogan himself knows how impossible this is. There was stalemate for a number of months until a second general election was called in November.

Between the first and second elections a number of unusual events befell Turkey. In July, not long after the first election result was announced, a truce between the ruling party and the PKK (Kurdish independence party, notorious for long-standing conflict with the Turkish state) suddenly fell apart. It was unusual, because this truce had been in place since 2013, with the goal to embark on a peace process. As a result, conflict duly resumed in the south-east between the PKK and Turkish security forces. Turkey was once again embroiled in a civil war.

Then, just before the November election was due, Turkey suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Two suicide bombers blew themselves to smithereens amid a peace rally in the capital Ankara, killing 102 people, most of them young. They had been rallying for peace in the Kurdish southeast. The finger was pointed at Islamic State. But the militant group, normally so quick to claim responsibility for its actions, has so far remained silent on this attack.

Eyewitnesses at the Ankara event noted the surprising lack of security forces during the peace rally. It was almost as if the government wanted the rally to be attacked. Some have even gone as far as to claim the AKP deliberately orchestrated the bombing to tip the November election in its favour. Be that the case or not, it worked. The AKP won a landslide victory and regained full control in parliament. I was out of the country when the results came through.

All the while tensions were ratcheting up across Turkey. The feeling was palpable in Istanbul’s over-crowded subways and heaving streets; not only tension but also fear. The country had started to feel unstable. I was fairly shielded from the effects of this fear, as I lived far from the city centre at that time. The place where I lived was a low-key working-class suburb, where nothing except occasional boredom was a concern. But friends living in the centre spoke of their nervousness using public transport and being in busy enclosed spaces such as shopping malls.

Istanbul was changing.

The following year, things took a turn for the worse. There were two separate suicide bomb attacks, one in January in touristy Sultanahmet followed by a second in March in the heart of Istiklal Street. Both times foreign tourists as well as Turks were killed. These two locations were absolutely the most effective choices for destroying the tourism industry in Turkey, which indeed they did.

Another suicide attack in late June, a particularly brazen one targeting Ataturk Airport, cemented the climate of fear in Istanbul. It sent many people fleeing elsewhere if they were able to do so. Expats began talking seriously about leaving; while Turks entitled to foreign passports were trying urgently to secure them.

To their credit, the Turks had the airport up and running again within hours of the attack, which was convenient for some but rather alarming for others. Things felt normal when I flew out of that same airport just days after the attack, apart from the commemorative display in the arrivals hall where 42 people had been blown and shot to shreds.

This leads us up to the most recent news of this weekend’s coup attempt. It’s a time of high drama for Turkey. Erdogan has called on the US to extradite his arch-rival, elderly Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he has accused of orchestrating the coup via his many supporters in positions of power in Turkey. It makes little sense for Gulen to do such a thing.

What rings more true – alarmingly – is that the AKP somehow set up the coup attempt as justification for the subsequent arrest of thousands of judges and senior military figures – which happened within two days of the coup. How the wheels of so-called justice can move so fast is mystifying, unless of course the coup was expected, planned and carried out by those loyal to the AKP.

Now is a golden opportunity for Erdogan to make his final bid for total control. His dearest wish is to change the constitution to allow executive powers for the presidency. If this occurs, it could be a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey. The country will have transitioned into a dictatorship in all but name, just like its current civil war in all but name against the Kurds in the southeast.

There is no telling now what the future holds for Turkey. If it continues down this path Erdogan is likely to achieve unquestionable power. What that means for the common people of Turkey is as yet unknown. Now relegated to an observer instead of a more active participant, I can only hope that whatever comes next will avoid doing further damage to the city, country and people among which I spent some happy, formative and productive years. It feels like Turkey is descending into an abyss, but inshallah, as the Turks say, things will not be as dark as they seem.

No exit on the Bosphorus

View from Galata tower, Istanbul

“May you live in interesting times”

The quote supposedly comes from an ancient Chinese curse, in which the word ‘interesting’ can be substituted for ‘dangerous’.

It rings true now more than ever. Our times could scarcely be more interesting, or more dangerous. At least it feels that way.

First this week came news of a shocking tragedy in Nice. A man murdered over 80 people by running them down with a truck on the city’s popular Promenade des Anglais. The attack was the latest in a growing parade of similar ones aimed at France.

The day after, it was Turkey’s turn to grab headlines. The country has already suffered more than its share of terrorist attacks, even more than France. But the latest news was something very different. It started with a few tweets about the sudden closing of Istanbul’s Bosphorus bridge. Next came more tweets about army helicopters circling the skies of Ankara. After that, #Turkey was trending on Twitter and social channels were flooded with all kinds of chatter. What for? The Turkish military had staged a coup against the government and announced they had taken control of the country.

A coup is not unprecedented in Turkey’s history; in fact the country has seen many before. But there have been none since the strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan took power in 2002’s democratic elections. He has remained popular ever since, backed by a core base of near-fanatical supporters.

On the night of the coup Turkey’s mosques rang out with an unusual call, not the call to prayer, but a call from Erdogan for the people to fight back against the military. Accordingly, Erdogan loyalists took to the streets of Ankara and Istanbul in their jeans and t-shirts to battle the coup leaders and protest the coup itself. Later the following day, it was announced that the coup had failed.

No one in their right mind would wish a coup on any country. But in Turkey, people have long been simmering under tensions driven by the authoritarian governing style of the AKP, in particular Erdogan himself. He is a divisive figure who brooks no opposition or even criticism. He regularly arrests people deemed to have insulted him, including foreign citizens outside of Turkey.

To make sure they don’t pose a threat to his control, Erdogan has comprehensively muzzled Turkey’s press and stifled its academic community. His obsession with bringing down erstwhile ally Fethullah Gulen has become a defining feature of his rule. Indeed, there are already murmurings going around that Gulen and his supporters orchestrated last night’s coup attempt. No doubt, the AKP is the source of such rumours.

Now it’s the morning after the night before and Turkey has a lot of cleaning up to do. 200 people are reported to have died in the course of the coup attempt. Whatever the reason for this turn of events it is certain that Turkey today won’t be the same as yesterday. The tourism industry is already decimated, reeling from the effects of eight separate terrorist attacks since last summer.

Some say the coup attempt was orchestrated by Erdogan insiders as a way to secure even greater power. It may sound far-fetched to the casual observer. But for those who know Turkey the idea will have an ominous ring of truth. If that’s the case then it proves Erdogan will stop at nothing to reach his goals. The coming days will reveal all. These dark times for Turkey could soon get even darker.

Who on earth votes AKP?

With the continuing bad coverage they receive in much of the global media, the casual observer may wonder how Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP have managed to hold power in Turkey for over 12 years. Erdogan has said birth control is ‘treason’, told the EU to ‘butt out’ of Turkey’s internal affairs, and compared a mining accident that killed over 300 people to the safety standards of Victorian Britain. Turks take to social media to share their dislike and contempt for President Erdogan.

Foreigners in Turkey often joke about his seemingly wild remarks. As a casual visitor to Turkey, talking to Turks may leave you with the impression that no-one, absolutely no-one, is in favour of the AKP. After all, Turkey is meant to be a democratic country, so someone must be voting them in. Every time an election comes around, the AKP wins. Who is voting for the much-maligned AKP? Quite simply, most average working-class Turks.

To understand the current situation, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning of AKP rule. In 2002, when the party came to power, Turkey’s economy was in a mess. Erdogan, as prime minister, brought the country out of the doldrums and turned it into an economic powerhouse. Quality of life for the average Turk increased substantially. Today, the availability of easy credit has meant that ordinary people can afford a standard of living that would have been inaccessible to them in the past.

Glancing around on public transport in Istanbul shows that most people own expensive smartphones. Turkey has become a consumerist society, reflected by its jam-packed shopping malls. Many people buy their homes on credit. A lot of voters believe that if another party gained power, Turkey’s current economic strength would be at risk and they may lose their current standard of daily life.

What does the typical AKP voter look like? Much of the time they are working class, religiously conservative, live outside of Istanbul and Izmir, and have a fairly low level of education. They have more immediate things to worry about than freedom of speech and accessing Twitter. These are matters of luxury. Instead, the average Turk’s daily concerns include keeping their homes going, feeding their families and maintaining their standards of living. If the AKP can facilitate all this, then it must be the best party to vote for.

What about the Gulen question? We hear a lot of talk, some of it bordering on the hysterical, about the ‘parallel state’, led by the exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, apparently plotting to bring down the Turkish government. But just a few short years ago, the Gulen movement (known as Hizmet) and the AKP were political allies. What changed? Some analysts say that the tipping point was the difference of opinion between the two regarding the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010. Others insist that conflict and power struggles between the Gulen movement and the AKP were bubbling under the surface long before this public incident brought them out in the open.

Whatever the case, the relationship has frozen solid. Gulen and anything associated with him have become ‘bete noir’ in Turkey. This is bad news for those institutions linked to the Hizmet. Graduates of Hizmet universities are suffering because many employers refuse to hire them. When these students started their courses, their university was considered strong and a solid choice for good future prospects. Now the political climate has changed dramatically, and these young people are experiencing problems as a result, because they just happened to choose a Gulen-linked institution.

Foreigners living in Turkey, especially those with basic or no comprehension of the Turkish language, often develop a distorted picture of the country’s political views. The types of Turks we make friends with tend to be those with higher levels of education, who are secular and have European leanings. They are usually English speaking members of the middle class who are active on social media and would consider themselves ‘intelligentsia’.

In practical terms, it would be difficult for a foreigner with limited Turkish to casually discuss Turkish politics with the average working class Turk. So as foreigners we often end up thinking that most Turks despise the government and scoff at the president’s ridiculous remarks. We hear them bemoaning the perceived loss of various freedoms, and airing their views on Turkey’s slide towards becoming the next Islamic Republic. When we see a picture like this, it’s easy to think ‘who on earth votes AKP?’ But the reality is, so many Turks do.