There are no military patrols in the streets. There is no state of heightened tension; there are no sudden razzias, no police barricades. Presumably, this is not so in other parts of Turkey, as, presumably, in the Kurdish regions. But the regime is maintaining an air of normality in large parts of the country and this is, no doubt, a deliberate policy. The ongoing state of emergency will be more acceptable to the population at large as long as it goes hand in hand with a sense of normality.
Turkey is not the only country maintaining a semi-permanent state of emergency. Such an arrangement is a convenient device for governments to rule in a less democratic fashion, by-passing parliaments and the opposition, enacting laws without having to listen to objectors, being ready to intervene brutally whenever it is considered appropriate. We can think of these semi-permanent states of emergency as signs of a broader, global retreat from democracy. In the US, which prides itself on its democratic freedoms, that retreat is signaled by the accumulation of power we have witnessed in the hands of the president. The American Congress has, in fact, abdicated many of its constitutional powers and has left it to presidents to negotiate and abdicate international agreements, to impose and withdraw sanctions, to start and stop military interventions. Erdogan’s state of emergency and American presidential “democracy” are, in fact, of the same ilk.
Though conditions appeared more or less normal in Turkey, there were, however, signs to indicate the special character of this normality. The day I arrived in Ankara was a public holiday: “International Children’s Day,” established by Ataturk in 1920. There were Turkish flags on display wherever you looked, some covering entire buildings. Gigantic electronic screens displayed everywhere the same fluttering Turkish flag. Some of the flags were accompanied by pictures of Ataturk, others by images of president Erdogan. Television channels were full of children in uniform or traditional costume happily singing patriotic songs. Erdogan himself could be seen surrounded by small children paying fulsome tribute to him. He was, in fact, everywhere on the channels. Now surrounded by children, now by journalists, now by politicians, shaking hands, walking here, walking there, addressing rallies, talking calmly, talking dramatically. Like Trump and his associates, the current Turkish regime knows of the power of the media, the importance of the ever-present image of the ruling power.
I had hesitated for months before accepting the invitation to a conference on “political realism” at Bilkent University in Ankara. Some colleagues had warned me not to go under any circumstances; others advised me that there would surely be no danger. Some thought it was inopportune to travel to Turkey at this moment because it might be seen as supporting the current regime; and still others considered it especially important to go in order to give moral support to our Turkish colleagues. Once at Bilkent, I found out that a number of invited speakers from abroad had in fact canceled their visit. Even so, the conference was a success though everyone avoided public talk about the immediate political realities. In private conversation, our resident colleagues were ready enough to speak out in strong words. But there was clearly anxiety in the air. Some visitors from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul spoke of raids on Campus and arrests of students and faculty. They reported that professors had been warned not to engage in political activism; otherwise they might be laid off and deprived of their pensions – a serious threat for the older faculty. Shortly before traveling to Turkey one of my academic friends had, in fact, passed me a message from one of his colleagues at Boğaziçi. It said:
political situation awful here and getting worse everyday. now erdogan
specifically attacking bogaziçi university. the special anti terror
squad raided the dorms and arresting students, and awfully mistreating
them, beating walking on them booting on throat which they learned
from the americans. ı am involved.
you kick up support if ı get jailed
Meanwhile, the trains were running on time.