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Why The Whole World Conspires Against Turkey

[Originally published in Hurriyet Daily News] A few days ago, I received an email from a high school student asking for my advice on his homework. He was hoping to get "some perspective" to write on a catchy topic: "The schemes cooked up against Turkey: The clashes between the right and the left, Alevis and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds, etc." In return, I wrote a short answer: "I suggest not looking at these matters from the perspective of 'the schemes cooked up against Turkey.'" The next day, I got this reply: "But can you still help me on the schemes cooked up against Turkey?" "Well, I don't think that there are such schemes," I said when I wrote back. "That's the point!" Manufacturing paranoia I haven't heard back yet, but I know that this argument will be hardly convincing for this high school student and millions of others Turkey because it is almost a national act of faith to believe that there evil powers in the world who constantly conspire against our precious country. That is simply why, the same faith decrees, that we have political tensions "between the right and the left, Alevis and Sunnis, Turks and Kurds, etc." This is not because that we Turks, by nature, have a special gene for paranoia. The latter is rather carefully nurtured by the state. It is one of the first things we learn in school. We learn how to read and write, how to respect your elders, and also how to beware of another Treaty of Sevres. The latter, the infamous 1920 peace treaty that divided Turkey into pieces and gave most of it to Europeans, along with Kurds and Armenians, is recalled in the world by only a few historians. But every Turk knows Sevres very well, for the state keeps its memory alive, and statist ideologues convince the nation that it is still in the secret drawers of Western powers, waiting for the right time to be re-implemented. It took me a while to figure out why the state intentionally manufactures such paranoia. The first "aha!" moment was to read George Orwell's 1984, in which the totalitarian party justifies its rule by referring to imaginary enemies outside. Of course 1984 is a dystopia, and Turkey is far from being that bad, but the logic of creating enemies (within and without) is similar: It leads the citizens to obey the state willingly and unquestioningly. More particularly, the belief in "schemes cooked up against Turkey" helps the Turkish state explain away the real problems we have in society. It also hides how the state made these problems much worse by its mindless policies. Take the Kurdish question, for example. The official explanation for it, for a long time, has been something like this: "There are foreign powers which want to divide or weaken Turkey. They manipulate minor differences within our society to create big rifts. They pay off some unpatriotic citizens with bribes, and the latter engage in treason and rebellion against the state. But our almighty state will crush them soon." As you can see, this implies two things: There is no Kurdish reality. And the Turkish state is free of any guilt. The truth, in my view, is that there always was a Kurdish reality, which gradually led to the emergence of Kurdish nationalism. And the Turkish state has fuelled the fire, unintentionally, by its tyrannical policy of "Turkifying" the Kurds, and its brutal ways of pacifying their opposition. Now, since this conspiratorial mind is quite state-sponsored, its main proponents are those who venerate the state: The Kemalists and other nationalists. But other political camps are not immune from the same mindset. They just have conspiracy theories of their own. The 'liberal' version Even some of the "liberals," I must say, seem to be influenced by the conspiratorial mind. (I am using the word in quotes, because even reformed Marxists can be called "liberal" in Turkey these days, whereas I prefer to limit the term to classical liberalism, to which I tend to subscribe.) What we see here is actually a mirror image of the Kemalist mind. While the latter puts all the blame for social tensions on "foreign powers," the "liberals" I am speaking about put all the blame on the state, and especially the military. Although I am not the greatest fan of the Turkish military and other institutions of the Kemalist establishment, I think this is a bit too much. I, first of all, believe that the Kemalists are not evil people who enjoy seeing blood on Turkish streets. They are rather quite patriotic. The only problem is that their patriotism leads to authoritarianism rather than democracy and liberty. The second problem I have with the "liberal" conspiracy theories is that they tend to whitewash society, ignoring the real problems we have there. Even if some nasty episodes in Turkish history - such as the Alevi-Sunni clashes of the 1970s -- were really sparked by state "provocations," they would not be possible without the deep-seated bigotries within society. Those bigotries, we must understand, are the root causes of our social tensions. And if we can heal them, no "scheme cooked up against Turkey," if they really exist, can really do us much harm.
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