For Most of Turkey’s History, Liberalism Has Been More Illusory Than Real

A new book lays out the continued tension between nationalist and inclusive political pursuits

For Most of Turkey’s History, Liberalism Has Been More Illusory Than Real
More than 100,000 supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) meet on Sunday June 16th in Istanbul, Turkey to counter the protests in Taksim and Gezi Park / Monique Jaques / Corbis via Getty Images

There are many words in Turkish for liberalism. In the Ottoman era, lettered elite drew from Arabic, hürriyet, or Persian, serbest, or sometimes they drew from more ornate Arabic forms, like hür or ahrar, to elaborate for their cosmopolitan peers an insistence on the liberatory potential of a commitment to constitutionalism in a multiethnic society that was, at the same time, contending sharply with quickly evolving nationalist ideations from the fringes of the empire all the way to its core. Years later, the Republic of Turkey would “reform” its language in an attempt to purge Arabic and Persian-rooted words from the language in favor of newly concocted phrases purportedly rich in a long-forgotten Turkic mother tongue. Amid this quixotic attempt to make monsters out of the language’s eastern windmills, yet another term for liberalism was introduced, özgürlük.

In the Ottoman era, and indeed to the eve of the language reform in the early 1930s, political parties, organizations and movements in Turkey took up the liberal banner in their very names — perhaps most famously in the forms of the Freedom and Accord Party (Ahrar ve İtilaf Fırkası) of the Second Constitutional Period and the Liberal Republican Party (Serbest Cumhuriyet Fırkası), a famous but short-lived opposition party from 1930. Since the language reform, however, no major political party in Turkey has taken up özgürlük as a moniker — in past decades there have been rare and feeble attempts at starting up a “Liberal Parti,” borrowing from the Western language instead of the indigenous, but on the whole, for the better part of a century, “liberalism” has not had the currency in Turkish politics to be recognized as a viable organizing principle. For self-identified liberals in Turkish politics — they are few — this is a source of despondent tragedy, a sorrow, a pity.

And yet, liberalization has remained the fervent hope of Turkey’s Anglo-American allies since the dawn of multiparty politics in the 1940s and 1950s, and much longer than that for astute Western observers. Even the most sober analysts have keyed in on the green shoots springing up amid military tutelage or under Islamist governments. Those shoots seem to take an age to bloom, if they aren’t snuffed out in the interim by periodic military interventions into civilian government and illiberal descents that seem to come in so many different varieties that political scientists have strained to attach appropriate neologisms to them — competitive authoritarianism, illiberal democracy, semi-consolidated autocracy, the list goes on. Almost invariably, these paradigmatic analyses focus on the unique nature of the authoritarian impulses at the center of Turkish political history, against which supposedly inchoate and nascent liberal movements are proved so often to be powerless. Rarely, however, do the inherent weaknesses of these liberal movements receive similar scrutiny.

The key to understanding liberalism’s consistent presence at the core of otherwise illiberal governance in Turkey lies in the history of another word, muhalefet. It’s the word at the center of Christine M. Philliou’s brilliant new book, “Turkey: A Past Against History,” which stands as a novel reconception of the nature of dissent in Turkey and an intellectual biography of the dissident satirist Refik Halid Karay.

Whereas liberalism has found many labels in Turkish history, muhalefet, which derives from the Arabic word for opposition, instead contains multitudes. It is at once opposition and dissent in the traditional meaning and yet also connotes a commonality with power, a loyalty to it in spite of certain disagreement. As Philliou often puts it, that commonality equals a “silent complicity” with power’s worst abuses even though its imagined world illuminates its raison d’être. In most of its uses, muhalefet does not connote a specific ideology or political preference, but there has always been a prominent place within it for self-styled liberals like Karay. A truly cynical reading of the role of the liberal in muhalefet would point to the way authoritarian leaders from Abdülhamid II to Mustafa Kemal (later known as Atatürk) often held out the hope of a future liberal turn in government as a ploy to ward off European encroachment on behalf of the empire’s Christian minorities, or to assuage concerns about repressive measures against Kurdish or Alevi minorities in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, when İsmet İnönü ushered in multiparty democracy in the late 1940s, Atatürk’s successor announced his commitment to a democratic future in Turkey on the very same day he signed the agreements that would bring Turkey into the Marshall Plan. From that moment on, the anachronistic reading of Turkish history that brushed away the heavy-handed excesses and radicalism of the Kemalist regime as necessary evils on the road to cultivating a liberal, democratic polity in a Muslim country — that Turks needed to be made “ready” for democracy — became a catechism for modernization theorists and foreign policy makers in the Euro-American sphere throughout the Cold War, at times with disastrous consequences. A very similar sort of magical thinking is evident through Philliou’s telling of Karay’s career and, by consequence, the history of muhalefet at large.

Philliou carefully delineates Karay’s complicit silence in the face of the destruction of the Ottoman Armenian community as an example of exactly this paradoxical “opposition.” Around the time the war began, and up through the worst horrors of the expulsion and mass murder of the Ottoman Armenian community, Karay had been sentenced to an internal exile in Anatolia. From Philliou’s careful tracing of Karay’s steps from the Black Sea through central Anatolia and eventually to Ankara in 1915-16, it is plausible that he would have seen groups of Armenians in the midst of a death march toward the empire’s southern and eastern regions. What is not left to the imagination is what Karay witnessed when he arrived in Ankara.

In the months before Karay arrived in Ankara, much of Ankara’s roughly 11,000 Armenians had been deported or liquidated under the watch of district governor Atif Bey. What remained of the community when Karay arrived were several hundred households of women and children in Ankara’s Armenian Catholic community. While Karay was in Ankara, he bore witness to a fire in the city’s Armenian quarter that “seems to have been part of a systematic arson policy designed to facilitate the seizure of assets and real estate from Armenian communities that had already been stripped of most members and almost everything else.” Philliou leaves no doubt that witnessing the genocidal work of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) during this period greatly disturbed Karay. Yet witnessing this horror did not prevent him from maintaining a cordial relationship with Atif Bey’s successor, Dr. Mehmed Reşid (Şahingiray), the provincial governor of Ankara at the time of the fire, and he would wait five years, well into the War of Independence, to mention anything of what he saw in 1916.

How Karay told the story of what he saw in Ankara over the years is central to Philliou’s analysis of Karay’s relationship to muhalefet, and illustrative of the compromise at the heart of so much of liberal opposition in Turkey’s past. In the midst of the War of Independence, Karay and his liberal muhalif partners had found themselves in control of the country during the armistice period following the end of World War I. Under what is known as the Damat Ferid Pasha government, liberals held many key posts, and Karay himself was appointed the director of the Post and Telegraph Directorate — a very influential position controlling communications across the empire’s Anatolian rump state. Instead of using the power granted to them to enact any form of resistance to the considerable imperialist and colonialist measures waged on the empire by Britain, France and Italy, this government acquiesced to the sultan and to the foreigners occupying Istanbul and other parts of the empire, and Karay himself went to great lengths to sabotage the incipient armed nationalist movement in Anatolia directed by Atatürk.

After resigning his post, in August 1921 Karay would publish his first account of what he saw in 1916 in a story simply titled “The Ankara Fire,” for which Philliou provides a full and exquisite translation — one of many throughout the book. In this first version of the story, Karay rushes to the scene after what seemed like a small fire at the beginning of one evening stretched across the whole quarter by the next morning, a happenstance he makes clear is unlikely in the natural course of things. He tells of residents rushing to save precious items from their homes — which he rightly describes as having been “mansions” — items that he explicitly describes as “the possessions that rich Armenians had obtained by working with an unbearable effort over the course of many years. And that which had been saved caught fire on its own in a single moment, a heap of things spread out in a wide square. Among those things I counted exactly 14 pianos; all 14, groaning, burned and turned to ash in a painful melody.”

In telling the story at the time that he did, and in the manner that he did, he equates the destruction of the Armenian community in Ankara with the destruction of Ankara in a wider sense. The implication in the story was that those behind Atatürk’s nationalist movement “were not, despite their claims, creating something redemptive, but rather destroying the town again by making it their capital.”

Following the nationalist victory in 1922, Karay would find himself on the infamous “list of 150” — a list negotiated as a provision of the Treaty of Lausanne that would exempt 150 figures from amnesty provisions. Having caught wind of his inclusion on the list, Karay fled Istanbul for Beirut, ultimately settling in the suburb of Jounieh, where he would spend the next 15 years until he was allowed to return to Turkey. Karay became active in expatriate Turkish communities in Beirut and Aleppo, eventually changing his tune in an attempt to mend fences with his former Kemalist enemies and even engaging in some propagandizing on behalf of the Republic of Turkey in its successful effort to annex the area known as Hatay, a small multiethnic region on the Mediterranean adjacent to Syria and nestled against a mountain range.

After his return to Turkey in June 1938, which was soon followed by a general pardon of the list of 150, Karay embarked on an aggressive literary campaign to clear his name, which had been among the condemned in Atatürk’s account of the War of Independence, including republishing many old stories — which had originally appeared in the Ottoman alphabet — with significant redactions and sanitized language. Included in this series of revisions was a reimagined telling of the story of “The Ankara Fire,” now simply titled “Ankara,” in a 1939 volume of short stories called “Mad” (Deli). In this version of the story, what had seemed before like an unnatural eruption of the fire overnight was now explained away as having been a consequence of the weather, passages that were explicitly critical of the CUP were completely removed, and, most significantly, no mention was made of the fire’s origin and the targeting of the Armenian community. The point of the story is to exalt the rebirth of Ankara, which Karay witnessed upon his return. In the 22 years since he had last seen it, the city had indeed undergone significant transformation, including extensive construction and a booming population. In the story, he encounters a madman in 1916 who points to a vast emptiness around Ankara exclaiming, “There houses, houses, houses … Palaces! Palaces! Palaces!” and indeed Karay says of his return in 1938, “On the bright summer morning, the day when I first saw the new Ankara from the hilltop, I turned into that madman, on my face pleasure and delight I said with his tongue: ‘Houses, houses! Palaces, palaces!’”

These stories are emblematic of two compromises liberal elites in Turkey have made repeatedly, stretching back to the era of the Young Turks. The first compromise is apparent in the first version of the story — Karay was willing to raise the accusation of inhumane war crimes only at a moment when it clearly benefited his closest companions in the government. Liberal elites at that time and since have rarely demonstrated much interest in mass politics. Even when they have organized political parties such as the Freedom and Accord Party of the late Ottoman era or the very short-lived Liberal Republican Party of 1930, they have acquiesced to the exigencies of nationalist parties and elites. Karay’s compatriots only found themselves in power following WWI because the government was itself in shambles, and though they were liberals, they remained loyal to the sultan. In essence, the liberal path to power in Turkey has been to speak to power and remain in its thrall rather than to speak to people and build popular consensus.

The second compromise, self-evident in Karay’s sanitized 1939 story, has been an easy willingness to absolve Turkish nationalism of its worst sins — namely, its treatment of non-Turkish minorities, including Armenians, Kurds, Greeks and, more recently, Syrian refugees. The achievement of Atatürk’s government is indeed great — out of the near absolute ruin and chaos of World War I, he defeated Western colonial-minded powers and established an autonomous republic that brought literacy, economic recovery and women’s suffrage to the Turkish people. In the face of that, liberal-minded observers in Karay’s time and since have been all too willing to wave their hands at the bloody excesses of that process and hail Atatürk as the archetype of a modernizing and democratizing beneficent dictator.

Karay, in Philliou’s telling, depicted himself and his fellow muhalifs as “tragic heroes.” But in reading his life story, one cannot help but see this self-reference as equal parts vainglorious and solipsistic, in some senses a prefiguration of the “white Turk” mentality that marks much of this era’s secular Turkish bourgeois. Karay is a perfect example of the kind of dissident who is willing and capable of launching trenchant, cleareyed criticism of the elite but rarely willing to cross the “red lines” that would result in serious consequences for his own life or career — even if he did, unwittingly, cross such lines and face exile on two occasions. At the same time, this sort of “opponent” is totally disinterested in building real political power or placing himself at the head of a movement of real opposition.

In today’s terms, Karay the dissident shares much more with Orhan Pamuk, whose work is held up as a prism through which the world can view contemporary Turkish crises but who has faced only relatively light brushes with the contempt of the Turkish state, than he does with Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-leader of the Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party, who has been imprisoned for the last three years and whose party now faces a possible closure. Indeed, in the face of the recent recognition of the Armenian Genocide by the Biden administration, Demirtaş’s party was the only one of Turkey’s muhalefet parties to issue a statement in support of the recognition. Even Ekrem İmamoğlu, who has represented something of a liberal hope for the future of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) since he defeated the candidate backed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in two contested mayoral elections in Istanbul two years ago, issued a harsh rebuke of the announcement.

Karay himself, though he made his peace with the Kemalist regime of the interwar era, never fully abandoned his political identity as a muhalif, and though his writing became much less political after that time, he continued to associate with the intellectual circles of the muhalefet up to his death in 1965. He was a tacit supporter of the Democrat Party, the first of the muhalefet parties to wrest power from the CHP, and was skeptical of the CHP and İnönü’s return to power following the 1960 coup d’état. Philliou reminds us of one of the last interviews Karay gave, to a journal run by veteran leftist muhalif Aziz Nesin in 1962, wherein he said, “I am a muhalif. From the worst government to the best government I will always be a muhalif to all of them. I don’t practice it anymore. But I like those who do.” After saying that, however, Karay paced over to a bust of Atatürk he had in his home, and as if to reassure the skeptical said, “I love him. I am a Kemalist.”

Notwithstanding this complicity with nationalist and authoritarian excesses, Philliou argues in her afterword that it is only since the 2013 Gezi Park protests that muhalefet has resurged as a salient term in the Turkish political scene, and it is hard to argue with that. As Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule has become more hard-edged, his hold on the political consensus has appeared more brittle, and opposition from traditional foes, former allies, and younger Turks has become vociferous despite often brutal repression. Philliou invites comparisons between this age of muhalefet and that of the early republic, and in contrast to the high-water mark of the AKP’s ascent in the late 2000s when “the concept of muhalefet seemed dormant at best.”

The comparison begs the question of why the term gains currency in the midst of Turkey’s most authoritarian periods and seems to fade as democratic consensus appears to build — a counterintuitive arrangement if one accepts that a liberalizing democracy such as Turkey’s should invite political competition. Answering this question is no easy feat, but should the AKP’s grip on power break in the lead-up to the next scheduled elections in 2023, it will become all-important for a more inclusive, more democratic and more liberal future in Turkey.

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