Abused, hated, and hunted: ‘Eternal solitude’ of the Turkish intellectual

Against the solid, collective adoration of President Erdoğan, what strikes any observer is the solitude of the intellectual, which is an enforced isolation whether or not inside prison. Taken together, these two phenomenon – victorious masses in denial of democracy and the individual in defeat – not only marks the tragedy of Turkey, but also points out to the continuity of the regime, which Erdoğan envisages as a one-man rule.

In the best sense of Catonism – taking its name from the famous Roman conservative, Marcus Porcius Cato (234 BC – 149 BC), Erdoğan’s vision has become much clearer after the referendum in mid-April. With the once-secular military smothered by his will, Jihadism introduced into the schoolbooks and religious marriages now on the agenda, Turkey has entered the stage of what Barrington Moore described as ”advocacy of the sterner virtues, militarism, contempt for ‘decadent’ foreigners and anti-intellectualism.”

Last week, Turkish public was delivered the ‘news’ that it was just about that: constructing a new regime. In a TV channel, Ayhan Oğan, one of the top figures of Erdoğan’s party, AKP, declared, in a well-known arrogant manner, that ‘we are now busy building a new state. Whether you like it or not, founder of the new state is Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.’

The main-opposition attempted to trigger a debate on these words, but to no avail. There is not much steam left in the party, CHP, which was formed by the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, as it watches the accelerated erosion of fundamental values which kept Turkey intact for decades, albeit on a fragile democratic order.

The dilemma of the CHP lies, among other points, in its inability to form a strong, diverse intellectual ‘belt’ around it. That may have to do with the essence of Kemalism – which Karl Popper may easily have placed among other ‘closed’ ideologies he had scrutinized – and, as a result, the CHP always kept the finest of the Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals at a distance. It was seen as more precious to protect the state, than allow the independent thinkers to debate ways to reform it.

As a matter of fact, I have met no one in Turkey, among the secular, elite supporters of the CHP, who would appreciate the the famous line in Tomaso di Lampedusa’s famous line in his masterpiece, ‘The Leopard’:

“If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”


The pathos of the Turkish intellectual was the one that condemned her/him to loneliness – the unending desire for change. In what some would call despair, many of them had welcomed the new spirit, that the early AKP had represented, and in the lack of a better alternative at the left of center, they chose to gamble.

The game was over already, weeks before Gezi Park protests. What the chairman of the AKP’s Istanbul branch, Aziz Babuşçu, had said was a prequel to Oğan’s blunt declaration. ”Those who are our stakeholders, this or that way, will not be able to continue” he had said then.

”Let’s take the liberals. They have been stakeholders, but the future is the one of reconstruction, which will never be as they imagine or desire it. So they will not (be allowed) to be with us. Those who walked along with us yesterday, will be walking wth those forces that are against us. They will never accept a recontructed Turkey and a future we aim to improve.”

These words were from a closed door party meeting then, and echoed as a wake-up call for many intellectuals – from left or right flanks – who had lended a hand in the EU-led reform process. From then on, it was all a series of political steps reminding that the game was over.

Yet, a lot of time was wasted in vain to build a bridge between the CHP and the disillusioned intellectuals. What made it impossible was the gap in between that the CHP refused to acknowledge how grave and urgent the Kurdish Issue is for Turkey’s future. Erdoğan has read into this very sharply, and did his best – very easily – to keep them apart.

After Gezi Protests and during the demolishing of the legal order which began in early 2014, it was obvious that the most vulnerable segment to authoritarian push was the intellectuals; squeezed into their isolation; with no political interlocutor to rise to the occasion. They were not many, they were marked one by one, the black lists were ready for round-ups, and Erdoğan knew one thing: When they were picked by the police, as singles or in groups, not even the CHP would dare react properly, let alone the masses which support it. The game was long over, and this was the ‘coup de grace’. He can do anything with them, any time now, they are now his hostages on free foot, if not in prison.

In a recent essay, Soner Cağaptay, a senior Turkish analyst based in Washington described the systematique of Erdoğan-style Catonism as such:

”Erdoganism blends post-colonialist theory with anti-Westernism. According to Erdoganists, after World War I, Ataturk’s cohort of secular republican founders struck a deal with the Allies to subjugate Turkey under Western interests. The tradition of subjugating the people’s will to the West continued under various secular parties that governed Turkey until the AKP took over almost a century later. The coup attempt of July 15 threatened the people’s will once more, according to this story, but this time, the people fought back… July 15 was proof that the people’s will needed a resurrection, or Dirilis.”

”The revolutionary language of Dirilis gave Erdogan the opportunity to renew his fight for an executive presidency with fresh fervor. In the months following the coup attempt, pro-Erdogan civil society organizations held numerous panels and conferences about the failed putsch across the country with titles like “July 15: From Resistance to Resurrection.” When the AKP organized a constitutional referendum on April 16 to elevate Erdogan’s powers, its ad campaign capitalized on this language, declaring, “July 15 Resurrection, April 16 ”Risorgimento” [Resurgence].”

All this exposes the precious solitude of the Turkish intellectual, now, more than ever before, exposed by profound disillusion and despair. The ‘March for Justice’ had lit up a flame of hope, but seems to have faded quickly. Intellectuals are divided also between illusion and realism, many of them trapped by wishful thinking.

Perhaps it is as described by a Kurdish veteran politician and thinker, Tarık Ziya Ekinci (91) most recently. Arguing that Kemalism will never ever have a strong enough social base to claim power, and the AKP now replaced the CHP as the ‘party that seized the control of the Turkish state” he wrote:

”A political party’s success is measured by its ideological-cultural hegemony in the society and today the only party that has the ability is the AKP. Its core ideology is Sunni Islam. In all the Muslim states throughout history, its leaders were seen as the representatives of divine power. This is the reason AKP insists on the one-man rule points out to the committment to thşs tradition. The choice of our Muslim people is in this direction.”

If true, this is the worst possible situation for any intellectual, with a sense of dignity and conscience.

”Erdoganism has set Turkish democracy on a path to self-destruction, and there seems to be no exit wrote Cağaptay.

The damage done is so vast that he may be right.


About yavuzbaydar

Yavuz Baydar has been an award-winning Turkish journalist, whose professional activity spans nearly four decades. In December 2013, Baydar co-founded the independent media platform, P24, Punto24, to monitor the media sector of Turkey, as well as organizing surveys, and training workshops. Baydar wrote opinion columns, in Turkish, liberal daily Ozgur Dusunce and news site Haberdar, and in English, daily Today's Zaman, on domestic and foreign policy issues related to Turkey, and media matters, until all had to cease publications due to growing political oppression. Currently, he writes regular chronicles for Die Süddeutsche Zeitung, and opinion columns for the Arab Weekly, as well as analysis for Index on Censorship. Baydar blogs with the Huffington Post, sharing his his analysis and views on Turkish politics, the Middle East, Balkans, Europe, U.S-Turkish relations, human rights, free speech, press freedom, history, etc. His opinion articles appeared at the New York Times, the Guardian, El Pais, Svenska Dagbladet, and Al Jazeera English online. Turkey’s first news ombudsman, beginning at Milliyet daily in 1999, Baydar worked in the same role as reader representative until 2014. His work included reader complaints with content, and commentary on media ethics. Working in a tough professional climate had its costs: he was twice forced to leave his job, after his self-critical columns on journalistic flaws and fabricated news stories. Baydar worked as producer and news presenter in Swedish Radio &TV Corp. (SR) Stockholm, Sweden between 1979-1991; as correspondent for Scandinavia and Baltics for Turkish daily Cumhuriyet between 1980-1992, and the BBC World Service, in early 1990's. Returning to Turkey in 1994, he worked as reporter and ediytor for various outlets in print, as well as hosting debate porogrammes in public and private TV channels. Baydar studied informatics, cybernetics and, later, had his journalism ediucatiob in the University of Stockholm. Baydar served as president of the U.S. based International Organizaton of News Ombudsmen (ONO) in 2003. He was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at University of Michigan in 2004. Baydar was given the Special Award of the European Press Prize (EPP), for 'excellence in journalism', along with the Guardian and Der Spiegel in 2014. He won the Umbria Journalism Award in March 2014 and Caravella/Mare Nostrum Prize in 2015; both in Italy. Baydar completed an extensive research on self-censorship, corruption in media, and growing threats over journalism in Turkey as a Shorenstein Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
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