Now that we are hours away from the ending of this annus horribilis, ‘year of the grim reaper’, ‘year of immeasurable cruelty’, do we have any sense of hope as we exit?
I simply don’t know. I will have one memory of 2016, as a year Stefan Zweig’s ‘Die Welt von Gestern’ (The World of Yesterday) promises to be the world of present, as a script to be dress-rehearsed into reality.
Most of the horror in 2016 took place, as known, in Turkey as the collective stage. 365 days ending in a dense nightmare; yet unfinished. For many Germans I met in the past months, I noticed how their memory awoke to the horrors of the dark past when they watched the Turkish version of ‘The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui’.
Folly is the midwife of collective frenzy which opens all the paths to absolute intolerance that marks totalitarianism. It comes in many forms – as it did in history, documented masterfully, for instance, by Barbara Tuchman in her ‘The March of Folly’ – and in our troubled time, it has been spreading through the virus of pure ignorance of populism, or, ‘elected despotism’.
It was painful for many of us to witness the most extreme elements of it taking place in Turkey, the entire year.
Every day of the annus horribilis left us observing it in convulsions, of helplessness, as the country tumbled down into a space of lies, deceit, hatred and oppression. Struggle for democracy fell short, misdirected and opened the stage for the ugliest form of quest for power; a ‘winner crushes all’ process which resembles the full-scale fights erupting in saloons of the old western movies.
These things only happen when each and every one flouts the law, abandons all respect for justice. In this sense, no matter the details, Turkey has during 2016 turned into a laboratory by which outsiders would find all the clues for a disaster when everything emerges in its worst form; when a malevolent leadership, intoxicated by absolute power, deliberately brings out the despicable elements of infamy and evil hidden in human minds.
When this happens, the frenzied society takes over, leading the leader one folly after another, as the people get poisoned and blinded by misjudgments. The chilling bursts of crowds calling for the death penalty in Turkey in the past months are whipped by its president and soon, we will find out, how difficult it will be exit from such a mess.
This mass desire about capital punishment – a collective ‘kill wish’ – is just an example. We know that 2016 will go down in history where the rule of law in Turkey has been buried to the ground, seen moreor less as redundant by the leadership. That is the worst thing that can happen to any society, but most harm is inflicted in emerging democracies where the spirit of freedom and rights is in total clash with other social segments who favor blind intolerance.
The victims in such cases are the intellectuals who seek the truth to express and share it in public, and the underdogs of the society; both vulnerable to the extreme. This has happened on daily basis, in all layers of Turkish society, in what I call the laboratory of cruelty. It is now the source of immense uneasiness, unhappiness.
As a friend working in a culture foundation in Istanbul summarized to me, when I asked her how they are feeling: ‘We are all short-circuited here, you can’t imagine’ she said.
Let me give you the most recent snapshots to illustrate. Some days ago, Fatma and Elvan Alpay, mother and daughter, were busy in a bank to resolve an issue. They had been notified that the electricity in their flat was about to be cut-off in the coming days.
The reason? Fatma Alpay’s husband, Dr Şahin Alpay, has been kept in prison for more than five months. One of the most outspoken truly liberal voices of Turkey, well-known also for his cooperation with Ebert and Naumann foundations on matters related with democracy and media freedom, 73-year old, and rather frail academic and columnist is accused of links with terrorist activities, branded by the government as ‘FETÖ’ (Fethullahist Terror Organisation). Last week his assets and bank accounts were seized – although an indictment is not even in sight – and his spare funds were blocked. His wife was not allowed to draw money despite the fact that she was part of the joint account.
The ruling for the seizure included 53 other journalists, including the internationally renowned poet and philosopher, Hilmi Yavuz. Salt added to the wound that even his pension payments were blocked.
One can only imagine the sheer night are the relatives are subjected to the cruelty, that seems endless. When I asked a lawyer, who has a long experience of human rights issues, he sounded gloomy. ‘The seizure ruling means one thing’ he said to me over the phone. ‘The prosecutor will demand, I hope I am wrong, that he will demand very heavy prison sentences for these journalists.’
Elsewhere, reports say that jailed journalists from daily Cumhuriyet were taken to a ward with no heating, for days. One of them, Kadri Gürsel, Turkey representative of International Press Institute (IPI), asked his visiting wife for a coat, but she was not allowed to bring it in, because ‘it did not fit into the standards’.
Meanwhile, as colleagues prepared for a New Year card to be sent to those in prison, they learned that it was forbidden to send them to Ahmet Altan, a former editor in chief of daily Taraf, and his brother Prof Mehmet Altan, a columnist.
With the most recent arrests of five journalists – alleged to be part of hacking of the mail accounts of Berat Albayrak, Energy Minister and Erdoğan’s son-in-law – the number of those in jail now are 154.
This figure corresponds to about 60 % (sixty, in letters) of all the journalists in prisons worldwide, a despicable conclusion by the Turkish authorities, as we exit 2016.
The most recent development is the arrest of Ahmet Şık, a fiercely bold journalist, who after spending more than a year in jail between 2011-2012 because of a book scrutinizing the infiltration of Gulenists into the state apparatus, lately digging into the dark background of the coup attempt, and the murder of the Russian ambassador.
He was targeted also due to his critical tweets. As he was taken into custody, the release of Aslı Erdoğan and Necmiye Alpay, two literary figures linked with the pro-Kurdish newspaper Ozgur Gündem, came as a limited relief. Limited, because they are both banned from travel abroad.
The Kafkaesque absurdities know no boundaries. A man, running the cafeteria of daily Cumhuriyet, was late to his work some days ago. When asked by a security officer why, he said that he had to drive around to find a parking spot because the roads were blocked due to an event which President Erdoğan would participate. Security officer tried to joke, saying, ‘if he passes by here, you can serve him some tea then.’ The cafeteria runner responded, ‘no way I am doing this.’
He was arrested hours after. T
he judge sending him to prison in the courtroom is reported to have lectured him: ‘He (Erdoğan) keeps pardoning people, yet you people refuse to stand still…’
Then, there is the story of the man who proposes to a woman, in a town near İzmir. When she refuses, he informs the police that ‘she is a member of FETÖ’.
This incredible anecdote is one of many which reveal how mentally polluted the people have become.
Recently, a couple, both academicians, from Turgut Özal University, were caught near the Greek border, in Edirne, suspected of fleeing the country. I learned that it was their nearest relatives who had informed the police about them.
Sounds familiar enough to remember the horror in Hitler’s Germany, or Stalin’s Russia, some 80 years ago.
2016 also marked how insensitive, apathic large parts of Turkish elite indeed was, as the authoritarianism crept in with full force.
Most recent victim of the arrest wave was Prof İştar Gözaydın, a secular sociologist specialized on the role of religion and a top expert on ‘Diyanet’ (Directorate of Religous Affairs, also known ell in Germany). Not a sound of protest came from the academic community. Intimidation and fear in Turkey undoubtedly has reached a peak.
So, as we exit 2016, watching the events in Turkey – and elsewhere – with concern, I wonder how careful we all should be for what we wish for.
We are all on a minefield, with Kulturkampf of all senses everywhere, and my only hope for 2017 is that we maintain our strength in our professions, to continue to battle for human dignity and freedom.
That will require much deeper sanity and resilience than ever before, everywhere.
Let us, at this crucial moment, wish each other luck.
We need it.