Old Turkey and new Turkey


Currently at the top of Turkey’s agenda is the rerun of the Istanbul mayoral elections. As a quick reminder, opposition candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu won the elections in Turkey’s largest city on 31 March. However, after the results were contested, he was removed from his position as mayor and new elections were ordered.

Because Istanbul is the biggest city in Turkey, the election isn’t just about Istanbul anymore. Of the two candidates running for mayor, İmamoğlu seems to have more votes, but both candidates are appearing everywhere, even holding rallies in other cities. Due to great demand, they finally went head to head in an open debate on television.

Televised debates, a completely normal occurrence in the modern world, have not taken place in Turkey for 17 years. The last debate was between AKP Chair Tayyip Erdoğan and CHP Chair Deniz Baykal; after that, there have been no televised debates between political leaders before an election.

On the eve of another election, seeing the candidates on TV and considering all that has changed in the intervening 17 years, it seems Turkey has forgotten a lot and become inured to these changes, so much so that CHP Istanbul Mayor candidate İmamoğlu revealed that if he is elected, alcohol won’t be sold in community recreation facilities and men and women will use public swimming pools at separate times.

In case you didn’t know, before AKP took power, alcohol sales were legal in municipal facilities and public swimming pools were mixed-gender, but even bringing that up nowadays is enough to get you accused of being anti-religion. Also, some voters find İmamoğlu’s statement acceptable and in-line with Turkey’s current situation, maintaining that it’s a way of catering to AKP voters.

For some time, the ruling party’s slogan has been “New Turkey,” and now it’s as though a large portion of the population has internalised the norms of this “new Turkey.” Still, it wasn’t such a long time ago that most people in Turkey, or at least those in the big cities, didn’t think this way.

Whenever I try to remember the old Turkey, the first thing that comes to my mind is Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis, also adapted into an animated film with the same name. Told from the point of view of a little girl, Persepolis is about the time just before the Iran revolution and the events afterwards, when the Islamists were rising to power.

Those who don’t know what Iran was like before the revolution may be surprised to learn that in the Shah’s time, life in that country was completely different from how it is now under the mullahs’ leadership. Was the Shah’s reign wonderful or even better? There was poverty and cronyism. Political dissidents were tortured. Persepolis has a character who describes his torture after leaving prison. All of this is still happening in Iran today.

Still, it’s true that Iran was relatively freer under the Shah. Women could wear what they wanted, there were restaurants, clubs, and cafés where people could mix, and there were no issues with alcohol sales. These days in Iran, a taxi driver is hailed as a hero for ordering a woman out of his vehicle because her head wasn’t fully covered. Another resemblance between then and now is that those who are critical and stand up for democracy are punished. In short, both periods had unacceptable leadership.

Turkey is coming to the place described in Persepolis. Just as people could not be critical of the Shah, today it’s forbidden to criticise the President of Turkey. Although there’s still political humour similar to the graffiti seen during the Gezi protests, the days of making fun of leaders are now over. It used to be that no one shied away from poking fun at the President. There was a TV show called Plastip featuring the leaders as rubber puppets and that even sharply criticised Kenan Evren, the architect of the last coup.

As for today, if there is any kind of criticism of the President, it turns into a trial for the crime of “insulting the President.” Starting from when Erdoğan was depicted as a cat in a cartoon, there is no place for criticism anymore. It seems that in the era of post-truth, even unspoken words and unwritten sentences are a reason to end up in court.

Is old Turkey better than today? It’s difficult to say yes, but it’s clear it was freer in certain respects. There were plenty of problems, like unsolved murders, torture, disappearances, and the military taking away the accreditation of newspapers they didn’t like. Just like in Iran, in new and old Turkey, the ones who are in trouble are those who support democracy and think critically. And Kurds who want equal rights.

Turkey shouldn’t be surprised if it soon turns into a dystopia like in the movie Demolition Man, where people can only eat the foods the leader allows, and alcohol, cigarettes, and salt are forbidden because in the new Turkey, the prohibitions are increasing bit by bit. For example, first the school curriculum was changed, then the number of religious classes went up, and now they’ve decided not to teach the theory of evolution anymore. In other words, the first thing implemented gets some pushback, but after that, people start getting used to the change.

The greatest comedian in Turkish cinema Kemal Sunal’s swear words are now forbidden and newspapers blur out women’s arms and legs, serving as proof that the new Turkey’s future will not be free.

Turkey is different from Iran in that it didn’t turn into a post-revolution religious society ruled by mullahs. Instead, this transformation is happening through elections with political Islam and AKP’s distancing itself from Western values. However, the biggest difference is that Turkey is experiencing a collapse in terms of social ethics. Rapists walk free while they await trial because they “had consent,” wife murderers get reduced sentences for good behavior if they come to court wearing a suit, and the pain of families who’ve lost their children is dredged up again and again. These all seem like common occurrences nowadays.

In the future, a book like Persepolis about this period in Turkey will be published, but no one will easily accept their own complicity in Turkey’s current transformation.

© Ahval English

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

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



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