March 13, 2017

GUEST ROOM | A Breakdown of the “Turkey: A State of Emergency” Talk

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Doom was a dominant theme in Myron Taylor Hall this past Friday. This was unsurprising, considering the subject of the event there — “Turkey: A State of Emergency.” The speaker panel, hosted jointly by the Clarke Initiative for Law and Development in the Middle East and North Africa and the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Initiative, aired out some of Turkey’s dirtiest political laundry. Each of the panelists zeroed in on one particular undemocratic facet of the Middle Eastern nation’s recent political tumult, from extrajudicial detainments to growing anti-intelligentsia sentiment to the increasingly precarious livelihoods of the four million Syrian refugees there living. Most generally, the talk was geared toward unpacking the political machinations of President Reccip Tayyip Erdogan in the wake of this summer’s failed coup attempt.

The statistics are jarring. As moderator Mostafa Minawi illuminated, conservative estimates claim that since a state of emergency was declared in the failed coup fallout, 125,000 individuals have been politically purged. Turkey, Minawi lamented, “holds the dubious honor” of leading the globe in incarcerated journalists. In addition, burgeoning domestic violence with Kurdish minority groups in southeastern Turkey has claimed 2,000 lives and displaced around 500,000 persons. Perhaps most distressing, the nation will vote on a constitutional referendum this upcoming April 16 which, if passed, will grant Erdogan near-totalitarian control of the slowly Islamizing country. Including diverting from a parliamentary system to an executive presidential system, the amendments would lend Erdogan full reign in composing the national budget, disallow calls for censorship on members of parliament, expand and complicate the legal prerequisites for impeachment and permit the president to declare future “state of emergencies” at his own discretion. As Howard Eissenstat, a professor of history at St. Lawrence University and an affiliate with Amnesty International contended, “things have gone disastrously wrong in Turkey.”

It might be tempting to pin all recent fracas on President Erdogan’s shoulders. As Eissenstat suggested, though, while Erdogan is the most significant player contributing to Turkey’s current state, his hypothetical departure alone could not redirect the nation’s undemocratic course. Even if he were to disappear in a proverbial puff of smoke, the issues Turkey faces  would  not. “The judiciary is still broken {and} the political system is still broken,” Eissenstat lamented.

The direness of Turkey’s strife is difficult to swallow. Stringent divisions have been developing in Turkish culture. As Minawi claimed and many audience members agreed, a sense of emergency has imbued all facets of daily life. This dynamic eventually materialized at the talk. Anguished sighs filled the room. The frustration even began creating a rift between audience and panel. During the question and answer segment many audience members — most of them young Turkish nationals — confronted the panel for expressing unnecessarily pessimistic perspectives. Accusatory murmurs rippled throughout the crowd.

I might have contributed to the murmuring myself.

Democracy in Turkey is waning, yes. But hope still exists. For example, as panelist Elif Sari pointed out, March 8th’s Women’s Strike found its way to Turkey despite the government’s explicit objection currently to non-approved demonstration. Eissenstat also offered a quasi-hopeful prospect by recalling Turkey’s tumultuous 1970’s. One reason that the nation bounced back from that incredibly polarized and violent period was because “they realized they needed to become an international player.” Eissenstat took solace in knowing that there is a “pain threshold” in regard to political stratification and that, eventually, Turkey’s leaders will recognize that their nation cannot contend without first-rate universities and significant international investment.

As someone who visited Turkey this past summer in the weeks following the failed coup, I am optimistic. Most Turks I met were largely unfazed, despite having been rocked by a most unusual and unexpected attempt to disrupt daily life. They were confused and concerned, of course, but they were not deterred from continuing life at normal operating procedure. For example, from a rooftop perch in  one evening I sat in awe while a fully-fledged firework show erupted across the Bosphorus. I watched, entirely flabbergasted, as the colorful counterfeit explosions soared over the Hagia Sophia mere weeks after very real explosions shook Istanbul to its core. Where I sat, people were drinking and socializing and enjoying the fireworks. They were living their lives. It was then that I realized: Turkey might be a divided nation roiling in political and social turmoil, yes. But damn if Turks don’t have a high stress tolerance. They will get through.


Andres Vaamonde is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room runs periodically throughout the semester. Comments can be sent to [email protected]