Let’s start with the question of sanity. Here is a letter from Turkey’s leading civil society leader, Osman Kavala, who spent months in prison for the following reasons: having dinner with a visiting American academic; for organizing the failed coup of 2016; and funding an urban uprising in Istanbul in 2013 or supporting Kurdish separatists, depending on which version of the official story you chose to believe:
“I have just completed the fifth month of my sojourn at Silivri [Prison]. My health is in good shape and I walk for almost two hours in my courtyard. I have no complaints about the food. At the recommendation of the prison doctor, I have started using glasses and that has made reading easier. Between reading, taking notes, walking and the laundry, time flies. My [penal] restrictions were lifted last week. Being now able to write and receive letters and have more time with the lawyers will make my life here easier.
“Another significant change in my life is that I now get sunlight in the courtyard. The sun that was absent during the fall and the winter is now showing its face from above the walls. That brings a considerable amount of relief. Even though we cannot quite smell or see it, we can feel the arrival of the spring from here. [. . .] What we cannot feel is a change in the bad weather conditions that have taken over the judiciary.”
Full disclosure: Osman is a good friend. He is a tall, handsome, middle-aged man who has selflessly devoted his wealth and energy into building a civil society in Turkey. His arrest under absurd allegations last November initially felt like a cruel joke. But now that he has spent months in prison, still without indictment, nothing about Turkey’s new regime looks funny after all.
What struck me when I recently read Osman’s letter in a small Armenian newspaper was how calm he sounded. There’s no panic or despair, just a patient yearning for justice. Following political trials here, I have witnessed a similar composure and sense of humor among other prisoners caught up in Turkey’s dragnet, such as the famous group of nine journalists from the newspaper “Cumhuriyet,” or the former chairman of the pro-Kurdish party, Selahattin Demirtas, all of whom are accused of “supporting terrorism.” In many ways, those serving time have sounded healthier and more resilient than the millions of us living outside in the madhouse that Turkey has become.
If you think I’m exaggerating, here is a glimpse of a few things that have happened recently. Three weeks ago, a group of students from Bosphorus University, Turkey’s most prestigious college, were dragged from their dorms and arrested for peacefully protesting another student group – which was tactlessly celebrating the Turkish capture of the Syrian town of Afrin by distributing sweets on the liberal campus. Our president condemned the anti-war students in a rally. “We will find these terrorist students through surveillance footage and do what is necessary. We will not give these terrorist, communist youths the right to study at these universities. We will catch those marginals by the ear and throw them to the ground.” And he did.
Then we had our own version of a U.S.-style school shooting when an academic raided the university where he worked and killed four of his colleagues. The caveat was that in the Turkish case, the man had been a snitch who worked with the police and university administration to identify “Gulenists” in his university. He told on everyone, left and right, and along the way, started thinking they were too many crypto-Gulenists that ought to be eliminated.
Our nation’s self-lobotomy starts at schools and extends through state institutions into every corner of society. Roughly 70,000 students are in jail in Turkey, but the figure doesn’t include those that have been kicked out of schools over the past few years on – what else? – terrorism charges. Then there are the academics on trial for signing a peace declaration, professors who have fled abroad, teachers who are unemployed.
In the Orwellian world that has is being created in place of a Turkish democracy, televisions are awash with dramas about the grandeur of the Ottoman Empire, the media parrot the government, and religious schools are replacing secular ones to answer Erdogan’s desire for a “pious generation.” Our economy is sinking because no one wants to invest in a country that sneers at rule of law – but also because President Erdogan, who famously described himself as an “enemy of interest rates,” doesn’t understand how the market works. As our currency plunges in value, Erdogan blames our economic problems on his political enemies.
The absurdity of life in Turkey today may be a natural outcome of the authoritarian drift at the top. No one can tell the boss the truth, and so everyone must pretend his desires are reality. Eventually, this collective delusion creates a level of daily insanity that feels unbearable. In many ways, a civil society leader like Osman describing the arrival of spring in the jailhouse courtyard is experiencing a saner, though harsher, truth than those of us outside. On release, he will move from the prison to the asylum. I will rejoice in his freedom but regret that he will now know what a madhouse Turkey has become.