The European: How is the situation in Istanbul at the moment?
Bedri Baykam: Istanbul is sunny, the summer is hot, and politics is in crisis.
If you look back, how does today’s Turkey differ from the Turkey of a few weeks ago?
Let’s not talk about weeks, let’s talk about decades. I have been struggling against the politicization of Islam for 26 years. Inflation was up near ninety percent in Turkey, and many people could be influenced by Islamist parties. It was a dangerous time, but many politicians were not aware of the dangers and gave too many concessions to the Islamists. The political scene in Turkey was very fractured: there were three center-left parties and three center-right parties that stole votes from each other – unlike from the 1950s to the 1990s, when the center-right could win almost half of the votes during an election. The Left has now become small and ideological; its mind is closed and there is no sense of solidarity. Erdogan exploited that situation and his strength started to grow. After the previous party run by followers of Erbakan was closed down by the Constitutional Court for its anti-secular agenda, Erdogan simply created his own party in 2002.
That’s the AKP, which is still the governing party.
Yes. Back then when they first entered the elections they won around a third of the votes – but two thirds of the seats in parliament! That tells you something about the ridiculous political system. If a party gains less than ten percent of the vote in national elections, the votes go straight into the garbage. Lots of parties had seven or nine percent and their votes did not yield any parliamentary seats! But I don’t want to blame it all on the system. The political opposition was very irresponsible, because they only thought about their own seats and about the party chairmanship instead of cooperating with each other.
That weakness is still showing today: Arguably, the protests weren’t orchestrated by any political party but by a wide and rather colorful assembly of different civil society groups that converged on Gezi Park.
The youth didn’t feel like they belonged to any party – including my own party CHP, the Turkish Social Democrats. Most of the young generation was apolitical: playing games, listening to music, traveling, but not caring a great deal about politics. I went around Turkey a lot and gave speeches, and the crowds would usually be older people who cared about the future of Turkey and who were concerned about the Islamic threat in politics. Unfortunately none of the opposition parties realized what freedom meant for the young generation. That’s one of the reasons why we said in the new CHP program that 25 percent of candidates for the next election should be from the youth and 25 percent should be women. I worked a lot for reaching that goal in the last 10 years.
“Turkey never wanted to become an EU member”
I want to talk about Turkey’s possible EU membership. One of the strong arguments of the last years has always been that the conditions of the membership process convinced the AKP to institute reforms that would make the country more democratic.
The AKP has always been against secularism and against democracy, but they made Europeans believe that they were doing good reforms. They fooled Claudia Roth and Daniel Cohn-Bendit and all the other EU representatives that came to Turkey. They said: “Look, there’s no torture anymore, we’re working on this, we’ve changed that, we’re making new laws.” They made Europe believe that Erdogan was like a Christian Democrat, a role model for the Middle East – but domestically the AKP worked to make Turkey more like Iran. They never wanted to enter the EU anyway: Europe used Turkey as an export market, and Erdogan used the EU membership process as a shield against the army until the generals were imprisoned. He said to the army: “Look, you cannot do anything against me as long as we are part of this process. You don’t want to scare the EU off.” But in Europe, journalists would only write that the government was reforming the country and was getting rid of the fascistic laws of the Kemalist era. We kept screaming to the world that you were swallowing a false image.
Yet Erdogan remained very popular in Turkey…
In 2007 there was already a big wave of protests. This year’s Gezi Park occupation drew on the experience of activists who had organized big marches in Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara in 2007 against the AKP. This year’s triggers are different, but the intersection is evident. But here’s what happened last time: Erdogan pushed several big court cases, the so-called Ergenekon and Balyoz trials, against writers, journalists, university professors, artists, and military leaders. The police went into the homes of writers, confiscated their libraries, all their personal letters, and arrested them. Some have been in prison for five or six years without being charged with a crime. Under the rule of law, you can arrest someone if you have proof of guilt. Here it’s the other way around: People are arrested, and then the government tries to find proof to incriminate them. Dogu Perincek, the head of the Workers Party, has been in prison for six years. His party is small, but it was at the center of the opposition because they had a good newspaper and TV channel. The director of the University of Malatya, Fatih Hilmioglu, was arrested for alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government. His biggest crime is that he advocated Kemalism and secularism in the university. Mehmet Haberal, the president of Baskent University, is one of the most important organ transplant surgeons in Turkey, and he has been imprisoned for five years for supporting secular Kemalism. Tuncay Özkan, the owner of an oppositional TV station, has been in prison for five years as well. Mustafa Balbay was the Ankara editor of Cumhuriyet, the biggest center-left newspaper in Turkey where I still write. He has been imprisoned for five years. The most important Hürriyet writers were fired because their publishers received calls from the authorities. They all asked: “What have we done wrong? What are we accused of?”
What is the contentious issue here? The defense of secularism or the challenge that those people might pose to Erdogan’s claim to political power? There has always been the notion of a Kemalist “deep state,” a shadowy network of secular elites and generals who control the levers of power, and Erdogan has often invoked that conspiracy – which many Turks and observers consider plausible – as a justification for going after oppositional leaders.
Erdogan said that they planned a coup against him, and his opponents responded: ‘We simply want to gather a democratic opposition to the AKP.’ But the government tried to invent a conspiracy and also arrested a whole bunch of generals in the Balyoz case, and tried to establish links between the writers and the generals. It was an imaginary coup d’etat! They AKP had created an empire of fear – I am using the past tense because of what has happened over the last three weeks – and tapped the phones of political opponents. People would whisper criticism of the AKP into each other’s ears because they were afraid to use the phones or leave them around even when they were shut off. Now they have weakened the remaining opposition; the army leadership is more dead than alive and the media is very quiet. You could see it on May 29th, when the protests first erupted.
Most Turkish TV channels screened documentaries instead of covering the demonstrations.
They broadcasted documentaries on the lives of penguins! Only three small channels, including Dogu Perincek’s channel, “Ulusal Kanal” and “HalkTV” covered the street protests. The media doesn’t have the courage to tell what is going on in the country. We call them the “penguin media” now: Penguins have become the symbol for big corporate media organizations that lack guts and have abandoned their sense of reality.
“It’s like a Charlie Chaplin movie”
I want to go back to the role of the youth. What triggered the sudden outburst of political expression?
For many years, we were very sad that the youth did not take to the streets. We created the Artists’ Initiative one and a half years ago to protest the politics of the AKP with the slogan “We refuse.” We refuse all these fait accompli. We refuse undemocratic governance. We refuse the enforcement of an Islamic lifestyle. Yet there were always very few young people; most of our supporters were middle-aged or older. But something has happened: Erdogan had dimmed the lights of democracy very slowly, but because he has now eliminated the army and the press, he has started to accelerate the changes and has taken control over the law. High court justices are now named by the Ministry of Justice, which is controlled by the prime minister himself. So the Islamization of Turkey has accelerated, Erdogan has introduced laws against the consumption of alcohol. He said: Religion dictates this law – why would you prefer instead a law that was made by two drunkards? He was referring to two Turkish presidents, Kemal Atatürk and Ismet Inönü, although the AKP denies this. They also proposed outlawing abortions and Caesarean-sections, and some courts started adjudicating the permissibility of different sexual positions. You have no idea what stupidity we had to go through! It’s like a Charlie Chaplin movie.
So the protests erupted once the government started to aggressively target people’s private lives?
They were attacking our lifestyle and our city. Could you imagine if the French government decided to bulldoze the Champs d’Élysées or that the British government destroyed Piccadilly Circus? The plans to destroy Gezi Park stand at the end of everything I have been telling you for half an hour. It was the drop that made the bucket overflow. And it created a tsunami! The youth, which we had dismissed as apolitical for all these years, suddenly turned into Erdogan’s nightmare. They woke up from a twenty-year coma and Gezi Park was suddenly occupied by tens of thousands of young people, by workers, by unemployed people, by the heads of corporations, bourgeois families, bankers, artists, fruit sellers, taxi drivers – everybody was there! They were united by their hatred of someone who was destroying their lifestyle. When Erdogan said, “we can plant new trees somewhere else,” he failed to understand that of course it’s not just about the park! Green spaces are very important, but this protest is about much more than that.
You described a very consolidated system of political power. Now the Gezi Park camp has been evicted, and I wonder whether the loose protest coalition can also consolidate the power of dissent. Or was this a singular event that won’t lead to much change in the long run?
You are saying this to someone who has much of that burden on his shoulders. I am close to many organizations, I have long fought for Taksim Square, I have been part of this struggle for 26 years. The key is to convince CHP to open its doors to members from other parties, to act in the spirit of solidarity. Many young people still don’t feel that they belong to any political party – and they don’t have to feel like CHP members, but they must vote for CHP in the coming elections. If they don’t, then all this energy will be wasted. CHP is the largest opposition party, and it’s important to consolidate its electoral power to avoid wasting votes on the ten-percent clause and to prevent another Erdogan win. If he wins another election, he will say: “Look at all that noise you made, but I am still the ruler of Turkey.” After the CHP wins, they should get rid of the ten-percent threshold right away.
That seems like a formidable task: Representative democracy and political parties have lost popularity not only in Turkey but in many countries that have recently seen youth protest movements.
It will be a very hard job to convince the young people to vote for CHP, and to convince the party to open its doors to the youth. The primary goal has to be to get rid of the current government through democratic means. Once that is done, the ten-percent clause can be lowered and everyone can go back to their own party or group, may it be socialist, or hard-core Kemalist, or communist or green.
“I want the best democracy in the world”
The AKP remains popular among large parts of the population, and many Turks seem to welcome the country’s economic development or the larger public presence of Islam. What explains that continued electoral strength of the government?
Support for Erdogan has declined to around 33 percent. He never said, “let everyone live as they want.” Instead, he applied pressure on anyone who disagreed. When visitors from Europe came, they usually saw peaceful streets, but the government and the police were very repressive. Four demonstrators have died in recent weeks. People were beaten, people lost their eyesight. Police shot teargas canisters at people from a few meters away and started to use real bullets. They even teargassed a nearby hotel and a hospital where protesters had taken shelter. Not even in war time are you allowed to attack hospitals! The international community must now say: “Mr. Erdogan, that is not acceptable. We will show you what you can do and what you cannot do.” Erdogan wants his supporters to take to the streets against the opposition instead of trying to gain support from everyone. A democratic prime minister would never do that!
How about yourself? You were attacked as well…
I almost died when I was attacked and heavily stabbed with a knife by an Islamist. But I was lucky, all the other writers from my newspaper have actually died in similar attacks. I was in the hospital for a few weeks, and then I started writing again, fighting again. Because living without freedom is not living at all. They can teargas us, but they cannot scare us anymore. Game over!
European politicians have argued that it’s important to maintain a dialogue with the AKP. Do you agree?
A foreign committee has to explain to Erdogan what democracy is, and that his arguments aren’t believable anymore. He seems to think that the prime minister has the right to do whatever he wants after the election. He transforms the definition of democracy into a definition of dictatorship. He doesn’t respect human rights, the rights of minorities, party pluralism, checks and balances, or the free press. Erdogan was extremely shocked by what has happened, because he convinced himself that the AKP’s empire of fear has weakened the opposition and the army and had stifled the youth’s desire for freedom. Now he has a big problem: The empire of fear is dead. People from different parties and associations who would never have cooperated before came together and refused to remain passive. The big question is whether that solidarity can be carried into the next elections. We have much homework to do.
What is your vision for Turkey? A return to Kemalism? A European-style liberal democracy?
We want the best democracy in the world. We don’t want a democracy that is “bon pour l’Orient,” just good enough for the Middle East. We don’t want “so-called democracy” or “pseudo-democracy,” and we certainly don’t want a government that treats us like shit. We don’t want the presidential reforms that Erdogan envisions, which would strengthen the presidency and set him up like an elected sultan with all powers in his hands. We definitely don’t want that. I hope that Turkey will find the right balance between a free economy, equal rights for all races and genders, social democratic and workers’ rights, the freedom of speech, science and the arts, without threats of war. We want a country that has peace at home and peace abroad, as Atatürk said.
What role should religion play in a future democratic Turkey?
In a free society, anyone can adhere to any religion, can pray to any God, can go to the Hajj as a Muslim or stay at home on Fridays as a Jew. But no laws should be made on the basis of religion. That’s what secularism means. When religious and secular lifestyles clash, you cannot just defer to the sanctity of religious values, because the values of secularists are also untouchable. If you tolerate that someone goes to a Mosque to pray regularly, you also have to tolerate that others will go to discos or art exhibitions and drink alcohol and watch sex films. One lifestyle is no less important or sacred than another lifestyle.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Michael Hardt: "Dissatisfaction makes me hopeful"