“We still have chaos here, and you need chaos to create something. There’s no chaos in Europe and you’ve lost your innovation. We have it, it’s dangerous but it’s very hopeful. We need your wisdom, your discipline and will-power, and you need our chaos and our energy, our emotions and our ambition.”
Near the end of his book, The New Turkey: The Quiet Revolution on the Edge of Europe, Chris Morris recalls this statement by the Turkish journalist and author Ahmet Altan, perhaps most famous for his essay “Atakurd,” which imagines an alternative history of Turkey. Altan’s words seem more than appropriate right now.
I began reading Morris’s book about two days before the protests in Taksim Square in Istanbul began. Once events started to spread across Turkey, I wanted to finish the book as quickly as I could. The New Turkey is from 2005, a little dated, very focused on Turkey’s bid for EU membership, tied to the metaphors of Turkey as a “crossroads” and a nation “pulled in two directions,” and concerned with questions of Turkish identity and stability. The book is good, but not great. It provides a nice survey of turn-of-the-century Turkish history and politics and some pleasant anecdotes of Morris’s years living there and reporting for the BBC. Yet, Morris’s tone conveys a certain belief about liberal politics and belief in stability, identity, and authority that leave me uncomfortable.
To be clear, Morris is no Rightist authoritarian, and The New Turkey suggests no authoritarian or fascist paradigms to solve any of Turkey’s problems. Rather, the book is invested in the authority of progress, (human) rights, and (liberal humanist) resolution, in the authority of stability. It strives to set our minds at ease over Turkey, portraying it as complex and hard to understand but hardly unstable and far from incomprehensible. If only Turkey could stabilize its institutions and resolve its paradoxes and contradictions.
This belief in the authority of stability, who could argue against it? Who doesn’t want it? What’s so bad about it?
Altan’s words at the end of the book, a tiny passage within 250 words of prose, remind me why I’m suspicious of stability, why I don’t want it always, and what is bad about it. Chaos is creative, innovative, dangerous, hopeful, energetic, emotional, ambitious. Chaos is democratic. Democracy is chaotic. What the events in Turkey demonstrate is a mutualism, a fragmented, cooperative, temporary, protest against authority, stability, certainty. What the events in Turkey demonstrate are democracy in action. I’m very interested in protests now as their demands are around protesting. I’m very interested in the collaboration and mixing of the groups involved–feminist, environmentalist, queer, securlarist, anti-authoritarianist.
Even the best commentary on the events I’ve read this week, such as Soli Ozel’s “Turkish urban uprising has smashed national wall of fear,” and Daron Acemoglu’s, “Development Won’t Ensure Democracy in Turkey” return to metaphors of identity, maturity, and stability. To a point, I don’t completely disagree with either of these writers, but I do think they’ve gotten it backwards.
According to Ozel, “It is about Turkey’s future identity. It is about creating a genuinely secular, democratic republic that is comfortable with all the constituent elements of its identity and the institutionalisation of the rule of law, independence of the judiciary and respect for citizens’ private lives.”
According to Acemoglu, “Turkey has become more democratic in the sense that the previously disenfranchised have become empowered. But it has not taken many steps toward liberal democracy.”
The question isn’t whether Turkey is democratic enough, secular enough, comfortable enough, respectful or mature enough for the demonstrations. The question is how the demonstrations already demonstrate Turkish democracy in action.
Burasi Turkiye. “This is Turkey.” A common expression of fatalism and resignation that usually comes with a shrug of the shoulder and a pained smirk. What are you going to do? Some things never change. Yet, these protests are also Turkey, and they demonstrate that this Turkey is not wooden, static, fixed, stable, boring, lifeless–odun in Turkish. This is Turkey, but not a wooden one.
I’m looking forward to my next read, Angry Nation: Turkey Since 1989 by Kerem Oktem. I hope it destabilizes how I am thinking right now as I await the next update from Turkey.