…If Berlin was characterized by an endless number of political tribes, movements, and causes, from free love to vegetarianism; an endless number of social experiments, from nudism to yoga; and an endless number of artistic styles, from the neue Sachlichkeit to the twelve-tone row; so, too, is Istanbul. My e-mail in-box is full of invitations to join Vipassana meditation courses, Reiki retreats, concerts, openings of new galleries, and, above all, ralliesâ€”rallies for the liberation of transsexuals, rallies for the liberation of Gaza, rallies against the rape of animals (of all things). And at all these rallies, one finds the police, flanked like centurions, with their truncheons, shields, and gas masks at the ready.
Since Turkeyâ€™s return to civilian government following the 1980 military coup, constraints on individual rights, economic and political activity, and the institutions of civil society have been loosened. Under the AKP, restrictions on broadcasting in the Kurdish language have been lifted. The death penalty has been abolished. The National Security Council has been given a civilian majority and its role downgraded. Military judges have been replaced by civilian ones in the State Security Courts. International human rights conventions have been given primacy over domestic Turkish law.
Many of these reforms may be, as critics have long charged and as I increasingly agree, a Trojan horse, motivated by the AKPâ€™s yearning to eradicate the militaryâ€™s power and thus the primary obstacle to the partyâ€™s domination over every aspect of Turkish society. They have nonetheless prompted the sense that a genie has been released from the bottle, for good or ill.
Still, the AKP gives with one hand and takes away with the other: the concentration of the media in the hands of government cronies has dramatically contracted press freedom, as has the governmentâ€™s persecution of journalists and its use of punitive taxation to bring dissenting elements into line. Everyone here believes his phone to be tapped. When I meet critics of the government for lunch, they remove their cell-phone batteries. They think itâ€™s harder for the spies to hear them that way.
The sprawling Ergenekon case has resulted in wave after wave of predawn arrests. Ergenekon is said to be a shadowy ultranationalist clique behind a series of bombings, the assassination of journalist Hrant Dink, a shooting at the Council of State, and a grenade attack on a left-wing newspaper. The government claims that Ergenekon planned to assassinate the prime minister, murder Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, shoot down Greek fighter planes, and bomb mosques packed with worshipers as a pretext for staging a coup. Hundreds of writers, generals, and opposition politicians have been detained on suspicion of involvement in this nebulous conspiracy. Many have languished for years without trial.
The accused say that Ergenekon is fictitious. â€œThis is 100 percent political,â€ one defendantâ€™s lawyer said. â€œIt has all been cooked up by the government and by the imperialist powers, the CIA, Mossad, and the Jewish lobby and the European Union, to eliminate Turkish nationalism.â€ The only belief that unites this fractured society is that the Jews are somehow to blame. Whether Ergenekon is real or ErdoÇ§anâ€™s answer to the Reichstag fire, I cannot say; it is surely true that many have been arrested and that many more are terrified.
There is clearly something about the moment when an authoritarian society begins to liberalize that makes it unusually fragile. Fragile because democratic political concepts are new and alien; fragile because inexperienced democracies are prone to misadventures; and fragile because, in the case of both Weimar Germany and modern Turkey, there were serious and perhaps fatal flaws in the very way that the democratic experiment was conceived, flaws embodied in both nationsâ€™ weak, disputed constitutions. Simultaneously, these cultures were and are magnificently expressive and creative precisely because the process of liberalization and democratization unleashes vibrant energies, hitherto suppressed. Powerful emotions inspire powerful art. To live in these political circumstances is to experience emotions beyond the normal range, to perceive life in more dramatic terms.