The days when the Western media was full of praise for the “Turkish model” led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) seem very long ago. Once upon a time Turkey was said to have created a successful template for other Muslim majority countries to follow, marrying democracy, free market capitalism and pragmatic Islam.
Since then the government has steadily turned the authoritarian screws. A peace process with Kurdish rebels collapsed in summer 2015 leaving parts of the southeast in rubble; terror attacks have shaken Turkey’s biggest cities; the economy is sputtering in the middle-income trap with GDP per capita stuck at around $10,000; a military coup was avoided last July but the ongoing state of emergency is giving cover for an extensive government power grab; social faultlines are being further strained by the April 16 referendum on further tightening Erdogan’s iron grip on power; talk of leaving the country has become commonplace among many educated citizens.
The 180-degree shift from hope to gloom shows how easily news coverage can be distorted by convenient overarching narratives. While Erdogan was once simplistically characterized in Western reporting and analysis as a model leader for the Middle East, he is today denounced as the single source of all the country’s problems. The subject of an increasingly bizarre cult of personality in Turkey, he is a figure of increasing fascination abroad. Foreign correspondents despair about editors’ obsession with the Turkish president: A larger-than-life character guaranteed to stir interest among readers.
A book like Ece Temelkuran’s “Turkey: The Insane and the Melancholy” would not have appeared during the heyday of the “Turkish model.” One of the country’s most widely read writers and journalists, Temelkuran was always skeptical of the “model” narrative. In this book, she voices frustration at being dismissed or ignored by Western observers years ago. “To be one of those intellectuals during the AKP’s first term in power meant permanent exile from respectable circles,” she writes. Today, the leftist secularist Temelkuran looks on in despair at the state of the country as everything she warned about comes to pass. Both the strengths and weaknesses of “The Insane and the Melancholy” come from this steely consistency.
Temelkuran is the author of 14 books in Turkish and two in English, including “Deep Mountain” (2010), a sensitive exploration of both sides of the Turkish–Armenian divide. She was a prominent media presence in Turkey until the mainstream newspaper Habertürk fired her for writing columns critical of the government’s response to the Uludere/Roboski massacre by the Turkish air force of 34 Kurdish villagers accused of smuggling for the PKK on the Iraqi border. This new book gives a representative example of what an intelligent observer in Turkey thinks and feels about the past 15 years, but it is not one to read for a more holistic account of what has been going on.
Temelkuran cites the Sept. 12, 1980 military coup as a milestone that has shaped Turkey to this day. Defying simplistic characterization of the Turkish military as a bastion of secularism, the motivating principle behind that coup was the “Turkish-Islamic synthesis.” After armed clashes between left- and right-wing militias nearly led to civil war during the 1970s, the post-1980 military regime tried to impose a sweeping unity on the country by promoting religious values and conservative nationalism. It also ripped open the protectionist Turkish economy to the unforgiving winds of global market forces. Temelkuran recounts all this with a weary shaking of the head.
She is astute on the AKP’s repackaging of history, which flatters voters with an airbrushed and Islamicized version of Ottoman heritage, suppressing its genuine richness. In this account, Turks are “the mighty grandchildren of the Ottoman and will once again assume [their] former grandiose, intimidating identity,” Temelkuran writes. “They prefer a yesterday that they themselves build with wooden swords and janissary marches to the actual pictures of history.” She recognizes that the emotional force of these ideas is more important than their historical accuracy. In the words of the former President Süleyman Demirel, “Yesterday is yesterday, today is today.”
But the limits of Temelkuran’s approach are most obvious when she assesses the AKP. The book entirely fails to empathize with government supporters or understand where that support comes from beyond “ignorance.” At worst, she patronizes them as little more than dupes. Temelkuran correctly describes the Turkish government as “working like a historical resentment production center,” but she goes no further. Why do these resentments resonate so much? What was the political vacuum that the AKP stepped into in the first place?
Many ordinary Turks say their lives have become more comfortable since the AKP first swept to power in 2002. Millions have been lifted out of poverty. In health care there has been a big expansion of insurance to cover poorer people. It would not harm Temelkuran’s case to recognize these realities while still pointing out the inadequacies that continue to ravage the lives of many citizens. As in many other countries, Turkey’s left is largely made up of the educated middle and upper-middle classes, and there is a yawning gap between it and the (largely religious) masses whose rights it wants to defend. “The Insane and the Melancholy” encapsulates this dilemma.
Turkey may be a canary in the coalmine for the global democratic retreat over the past decade. It might be a crazy place, Temelkuran writes, “but it looks today as though most of the world is headed in more or less the same direction.” Nationalism and illiberalism are indeed on the march everywhere, and “The Insane and the Melancholy” is an interesting but flawed attempt to understand how one country got to where it is now.