After the violent episodes that have taken place in Istanbul, Berlin, Ankara, Izmir, and Fort Lauderdale in the last month I am left thinking that in a world where money is the only principle guiding human action stability will be a hard thing to find. When human values are reduced to a search for money (and, by extension, power) such fundamental human values such as compassion, empathy, and love are thrown out the window. The story of how this happened is intimately tied to the globalizing processes that have defined the post Cold War world, and my time spent in Istanbul during the last three weeks made me think about how the insatiable desire for money (and power) has caused the world to slowly unravel before my eyes, possibly portending the end of the post-cold war world system.
Driving through Istanbul on the way to the Atatürk airport on a winter day as grey as carbon has a way of making a person think. One thinks mainly about change: the changes that the city has gone through over the years and the changes that the country—and, of course, the world—have undergone during the same period. Along the main highway areas that used to be green oases, a welcome respite from the urban sprawl, are now populated by gaudy apartment buildings. The ugliness of some of the structures is striking, and it makes one wonder how some people were given architecture degrees in the first place. Yet they were, and the structures they have produced now dominate the skyline, looming grey giants meeting the grey skies in a seemingly seamless transition. These are a product of the neoliberalism that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has so enthusiastically accepted (at the behest of the United States first under President George W. Bush and, later more emphatically, under President Barack Obama). New apartments like these have sprung up around the city in recent years; a capitalist version of Krushchyovka. With the dollar climbing due to recent instability, however, these looming concrete giants portend a looming housing crisis if people cannot pay back the credit with which they bought on. These new apartments make the city—which had been known for its history—look more like Las Vegas or Dubai: a faux reality propped up by fake money, based on credit. As we drive my mind drifts off, thinking about the street scenes I have witnessed over the past few weeks.
“The ugliness of some of the structures is striking, and it makes one wonder how some people were given architecture degrees in the first place. Yet they were, and the structures they have produced now dominate the skyline, looming grey giants meeting the grey skies in a seemingly seamless transition”. Images Property of the Author.
On a bitterly cold morning I am in the suburb of Kartal on Istanbul’s Asian side outside of (ironically in a country where justice can be hard to find) the world’s biggest courthouse. I decide to hit the streets, passing a ghostly football pitch which—if not for the early morning light reflecting off fresh snow—would have been more depressing than it was. A block away an old woman walks beneath a crumbling apartment block. It looks like Aleppo and I shiver at the thought of what the future might hold but, in reality, the crumbling apartment is just a representation of Turkey’s last fifteen years. In the name of ambitious urban renewal projects the AKP has demolished older buildings in order to build new ones so as to line their pockets through the cash made off construction deals; the recent stadium boom is an example of this process in another context. Even Kartal, far as it is from Istanbul’s ever-expanding center, is not immune from the extreme capitalism that has begun to define the country.
“I decide to hit the streets, passing a ghostly football pitch which—if not for the early morning light reflecting off fresh snow—would have been more depressing than it was”. Image Property of the Author.
“A block away an old woman walks beneath a crumbling apartment block. It looks like Aleppo and I shiver at the thought of what the future might hold but, in reality, the crumbling apartment is just a representation of Turkey’s last fifteen years”. Image Property of the Author.
On another day I find myself in the shadows of Trump Towers. The American President-elect’s alleged conflict of interest in Turkey looms over a neglected Soviet-style playground on the side of a busy highway. Just one block away is what looks like a grim kindergarten, iron bars block the exit and only a half-hearted cartoon mural defines it as a place for children. I suppose it is fitting; just as there is a fine line between cop and criminal there is an equally fine line between pre-school and prison. The only thing is…this is neither; it is a Koran course for 4-6 year olds. The thought of children barely old enough to read being indoctrinated into an Islamic education is—to me at least—much more chilling than the idea of Donald Trump’s conflict of interest just one block away. But these kinds of public displays of religiosity are necessary in a country that has tried, over the last fifteen years, to re-educate its citizenry in order to manufacture a new society and ultimately a “new Turkey”; “Yeni Türkiye”. Sociologically speaking, it is as fascinating as it is disturbing.
“On another day I find myself in the shadows of Trump Towers. The American President-elect’s alleged conflict of interest in Turkey looms over a neglected Soviet-style playground on the side of a busy highway”. Image Property of the Author.
“Just one block away is what looks like a grim kindergarten, iron bars block the exit and only a half-hearted cartoon mural defines it as a place for children. I suppose it is fitting; just as there is a fine line between cop and criminal there is an equally fine line between pre-school and prison. The only thing is…this is neither; it is a Koran course for 4-6 year olds”. Image Property of the Author.
Standing on an overpass outside the Çağlayan courthouse—like Kartal’s courthouse, it is another of the AKP’s major infrastructure projects—I can see firsthand the attempts to manufacture a new society. As Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger note, traditions are invented. In the same way, nations—like Benedict Anderson argues—can be thought of as “imagined communities”. The current AKP government does not agree with Atatürk’s conception of the Turkish nation and has therefore engaged in an aggressive re-interpretation (or re-imagination) of Turkish society. Opposite the overpass I stand on, the highway signs give a left exit for the 15 July Martyr’s Bridge; before last summer’s attempted coup it had been known as the Bosphorus Bridge. When it was completed in 1973 it was the longest suspension bridge outside of the United States and represented a major engineering feat for Turkey. During the AKP years—motivated by a fascistic desire to develop more and more major construction projects (like the aforementioned courthouses)—the bridge had to be reclaimed. The renaming of the bridge, therefore, is an important part of manufacturing a new society. Like the renaming of stadiums—and the erasure of the names of important historic figures like Atatürk and Ismet Inönü from them—the renaming of the bridge ensures that subsequent generations will be less likely to remember the years before AKP rule.
“Opposite the overpass I stand on, the highway signs give a left exit for the 15 July Martyr’s Bridge; before last summer’s attempted coup it had been known as the Bosphorus Bridge”. Image Property of the Author.
This kind of societal engineering has been slowly creeping into all walks of Turkish life. The hill above Beşiktaş’s stadium, formerly known as “Beleştepe” (Freeloader’s Hill) for the fans who would gather on the sidewalk to watch games at the old Inönü Stadium without paying admission, has been re-named “Şehitler Tepesi” (Martyr’s Hill) in remembrance of those who perished during the 10 December 2016 bombings in the area. Beyond Istanbul, a regional MP from Muğla province proposed that the district of Marmaris—where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was staying as last summer’s attempted coup unfolded—be renamed “Gazimarmaris” or “Kahramanmarmaris” (Veteran Marmaris or Hero Marmaris). Any one with a rudimentary knowledge of Turkish history will know that the prefixes of “Gazi” and “Kahraman” were given to the cities of Antep (now Gaziantep) and Maraş (now Kahramanmaraş) due to the heroic acts of their citizens during the Turkish war of independence. Again, like the renaming of the stadiums and the bridge, the call to rename the district of Marmaris represents an attempt to erase—or at least overwrite—the history of the modern Turkish Republic. Like the rising tide of violence in Turkey, this kind of renaming will soon become a “new normal” as people get used to the changes; the “invented traditions” will become “real traditions”.
Later in the day I marvel at the subway cars in the Istanbul Metro. When I first lived in Istanbul, a few of the metro cars were decorated with advertisements for various Western brands—again, a sign of Turkey’s creeping ardent support for global capitalism—yet most were advertisement free. Now, they are wrapped in a red and white nationalist message that reads “We are a country; we will not let Turkey succumb to coups or terrorism”.
“Now, they are wrapped in a red and white nationalist message that reads ‘We are a country; we will not let Turkey succumb to coups or terrorism'”. Image Property of the Author.
Even the money is not immune from this kind of subliminal messaging; a one Lira coin is given to me as change that—surprisingly—does not carry the image of the country’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Instead, the “heads” side has an image of a Turkish flag being raised with a message remembering the martyrs of 15 July’s attempted coup. This “Democracy Lira”, as I call it, is yet another new development and another move to, subliminally and slowly, push the memory of Atatürk onto the backburner.
“Instead, the ‘heads’ side has an image of a Turkish flag being raised with a message remembering the martyrs of 15 July’s attempted coup”. Image Property of the Author.
But they claim it is for a good cause, because a military coup is anti-democratic, right? Of course any military coup is bad…but the response to this violent attack on democracy in this case is also a cynical attempt to use “Western” ideas to further a fascistic engineering of society. Ersin Kalaycıoğlu’s essay about civil society in Turkey (from Amin Sajoo’s Civil Society in the Muslim World) outlines how this process took place in the context of the headscarf debate in Turkey during the 1990s:
although the Sunni conservative women’s organisations seem to espouse human rights and democracy in their propaganda, they do not generally espouse values like gender equality or respect for a majoritarian form of democratic rule. They instead seem eager to change society to what they regard as a conservative-religious community, while holding an authoritarian image of the state (Kalaycıoğlu in Sajoo, 2002: 266).
In the era of globalization, where “Western” values like democracy and neo-liberalism have become part of the dominant ideology, those who might not accept such values have realized the value of using them to further their own goals. It is not surprising to see why this has been such a successful tactic, since it keeps the investment—and money—flowing.
Mohammed Arkoun links this process—in the context of the Islamic world—to the end of the cold war:
If the end of the cold war opened a horizon of fleeting hopes of a shared and controlled emancipation of all societies, then the 1990 Gulf War and its aftermath inaugurated the vision captured in the ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis. The deep, unspoken reasons for these post-colonial and post-cold war situations have yet to be adequately analysed—and indeed are too often veiled by social and political scientists whose task should be to unveil the persistent will to power, economic war, and the geopolitical strategies that underlie the tensions between the dominant ‘West’ and ‘the Rest’ (Arkoun in Sajoo, 2002: 36).
In order to become accepted as a part of “the West” it is necessary to speak the language of human rights and democracy. Doing so means that even if a country such as Turkey may not be accepted as part of “the West” in cultural terms, they will be accepted in economic and political terms. In a world where money is the bottom line this game works and that is why—particularly during the years of President Obama’s rule in the US—the AKP has flourished despite its less-than-democratic record.
But this does not mean that there have not been pockets of resistance to the hegemony of the AKP and neoliberalism. Walking down the streets of Beşiktaş, a stronghold of the liberal opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), a graffito is scrawled across the façade of an apartment building: “Zafere kadar daima! Adios Fidel” (Until victory always! Adios Fidel). The shout out to Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are small-scale rejections of the ongoing commodification of Turkish society, one that has made Turkish society into a caricature of what it has been: Honest, Proud, and Respectful.
“Walking down the streets of Beşiktaş, a stronghold of the liberal opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), a graffito is scrawled across the façade of an apartment building: ‘Zafere kadar daima! Adios Fidel’ (Until victory always! Adios Fidel)”. Image Property of the Author.
I saw that respectfulness thrown out the window at Ataturk International Airport when I read the words on a Turkish Airlines advertisement: “Our Lounge in Istanbul is Bigger Than Some Airports”. I cringed at the audacity, the sheer classlessness, of such a claim. It smacked of the kind of nouveau riche sentiment that comes from someone who—upon striking it rich by ill-gotten means—suddenly moves into a McMansion and ditches the Toyota for a Mercedes overnight.
“I saw that respectfulness thrown out the window at Ataturk International Airport when I read the words on a Turkish Airlines advertisement: ‘Our Lounge in Istanbul is Bigger Than Some Airports’. Image Property of the Author.
I saw the pride of Turkey be thrown out the window when I roamed the Grand Bazaar in search of presents for friends back in the US. Gone were the bustling alleys that I was used to, full of tourists speaking every language of the world. Instead it was almost abandoned, even the blatant display of the national flag could not raise the morale of shopkeepers. Indeed, in the shop I stopped at, all three employees—including the owner—told me of their plans to move to the United States in order to work with a friend who owns a Turkish restaurant. With tourists scared away due to the violence, these once proud shopkeepers are left contemplating a different future.
“Gone were the bustling alleys that I was used to, full of tourists speaking every language of the world. Instead it was almost abandoned, even the blatant display of the national flag could not raise the morale of shopkeepers”. Image Property of the Author.
I saw the honesty of Turkey thrown out the window in the Akmerkez mall—Turkey’s first, before one was built in every spot imaginable—where a Carhartt sweater was selling for almost 150 USD. The irony of a blue collar brand being sold as a luxury good was not lost on me, but it is not surprising in a world where consumption might be the last value that human beings hold dear. As Arjun Appadurai notes in Modernity at Large, referencing Norbert Elias, “consumption has become the civilizing work of postindustrial society” (Appadurai 1996: 81). If, in the neo-liberal era of globalization, being “civilized” means gouging consumers for a sweater then honesty can be easily ignored.
“The irony of a blue collar brand being sold as a luxury good was not lost on me, but it is not surprising in a world where consumption might be the last value that human beings hold dear”. Image Property of the Author.
It is important to note, however, that these processes did not happen in a vacuum. Turkey did not magically adopt the values of neo-liberal economics and globalization by itself. While hesitating to give credence to the conspiracy theories that the United States is to be blamed for all ills (it isn’t), it is undeniable that President Barack Obama’s record in the region—and track record with Turkey—has been less than stellar. I started to think about it when I took a short trip to Istanbul’s “Little Syria”(in Fatih district)—for an admittedly positive perspective, please see Vice News’ rosy portrayal. In short, the place is depressing. The signs are all in Arabic, and Turkish is barely spoken on the streets. While Vice might want to underline how culturally “enriching” the Syrian presence is, the truth comes out that the vast majority of Syrians do not want to live in Turkey. Understandably, they want to live in their own country. That is the paradox of globalization and globalism; immigrants are to be accepted yet immigrants do not want to be immigrants in the first place. They would—as we all would—prefer to live in a place where their language is spoken and where they are not treated as second class citizens.
“The signs are all in Arabic, and Turkish is barely spoken on the streets”. Images Property of the Author.
While wandering the back streets and contemplating what different notions of “home” might be for different people, I couldn’t help but begin to wonder why these Syrians were in Istanbul in the first place. The Obama administration in the U.S.—in a move that must go down in history as one of the most ill-conceived—pushed for President Bashar Al-Assad’s ouster. But for what reason? I personally can see no geopolitical benefit (from the U.S. perspective) coming from a destabilized Syria, and the meddling in a sovereign state’s foreign policy strikes me—as an American—to be fundamentally against the purported values of the United States of America. Uprooting millions of people from their homes could never have had a positive result, and sadly Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan went along with Mr. Obama by aligning against Mr. Assad. Again, the motive was—most likely—economic from the Turkish perspective.
But when the allegiance to money becomes stronger than the allegiance to your country—your constituency—problems emerge. In Turkey these problems have manifested themselves in the form of ethno-nationalist Kurdish terrorism, and on 5 January 2017 a courthouse in Izmir was attacked in the latest heinous act of violence to hit Turkey. Unfortunately, one cause of this violence is the willingness of the Obama administration has to arm the Kurds in order to use them as a bulwark (re: pawn) in the fight against ISIS/ISIL/DAESH. (For a comical video of US politicians trying to claim that they are not arming terrorists in Turkey, please see Breitbart’s story.Turkey has been stuck between a rock and a hard place as a result of Mr. Obama’s policies, and Mr. Erdogan has bet on the wrong horse. And for Mr. Obama, too, it seems that the lure of money—by way of the military industrial complex, which benefits from arming both Kurds as well as NATO allies (in response to a perceived Russian threat)—has trumped (pardon the pun) his own identity as an American since he seems to truly be “going out in a blaze of self-interest”, particularly judging by his response to claims of Russian hacking during the election. Mr. Obama’s narcissistic obsession with his own legacy has made him neglect the best interests of his country, a situation that is deeply disturbing to someone like myself who cares about the well-being of the United States.
This is not to say that Turkey’s precarious security situation is to be blamed solely on the United States; on the contrary Mr. Erdogan has made some very poor decisions motivated, no doubt, by money. But this also means that the crisis in Turkey is not wholly self-inflicted. Violence is not confined to Turkey, it can unfortunately find a person anywhere in the world. Just days after returning to my home in Florida an attack took place where five innocent people were killed by a gunman at the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport. This latest mass shooting will no doubt be used for gun control advocates in the USA, even though the shooter himself apparently “heard voices” and “allegedly told authorities at the time that an intelligence agency was telling him to watch ISIS videos, according to law enforcement officials”. His family members assert that he had been different since returning from serving in Iraq from April 2010 to February 2011 and that he didn’t get the help he needed. Far from being a case for the gun control advocates, it seems that this tragic event was the result of blowback from imperialism and reflective of America’s failure to properly take care of the veterans who make huge sacrifices for their country—these men and women deserve much better treatment.
Unfortunately, it is all-too-often the poor who end up fighting their rich leaders’ wars and the case of the United States is eerily similar to that of Turkey, where we have become accustomed to seeing the dilapidated homes that martyred soldiers (fighting Mr. Obama’s—and by extension Mr. Erdogan’s—war in Syria) have come from. But this is just one of many parallels between the United States and Turkey in the 21st century. The latest parallel was revealed on 9 January 2017 in the form of Turkey’s debate over a new constitution as Mr. Erdogan looks to change the country’s political system to a presidential one (like the United States), allowing him the chance to stay in power until 2029 (he has already ruled the country as Prime Minister from 2003-2014). Of course—in his defense—Mr. Erdoğan “and the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) say the presidential system would bring Turkey into line with countries such as France and the United States and is needed for efficient government”. This argument is no different than the argument quoted above regarding the headscarf; it is a use of “Western” and “democratic” values to further authoritarian policies.
“Unfortunately, it is all-too-often the poor who end up fighting their rich leaders’ wars and the case of the United States is eerily similar to that of Turkey, where we have become accustomed to seeing the dilapidated homes that martyred soldiers (fighting Mr. Obama’s—and by extension Mr. Erdogan’s—war in Syria) have come from”. Images Courtesy Of: http://www.sozcu.com.tr/2016/gundem/suriye-adina-mi-sehit-olmalilar-1310098/
In light of the recent developments I cannot help but feel like the post-cold war era of neoliberalism may be coming to an end. When a country like Turkey can make such a mockery of democracy—and when even the American President Barack Obama mocks his own democracy by implicitly calling for a third term, saying “I’m confident that if I — if I had run again and articulated it, I think I could’ve mobilized a majority of the American people to rally behind it” one must realize that that is how an Al-Jazeera writer can call the United States a despotic “stan”. It has become abundantly clear that democracy is becoming a shameful façade, used by any and all to get their way. I am hopeful that the world can learn from the dangers of succumbing to the influence of—and desire for—money (and power). This is why I hope people in Turkey do not give up on their country. In recent years many friends of mine have expressed a desire to emigrate abroad just like the shopkeepers in the Grand Bazaar mentioned above. The problem is, the obsession with money is everywhere and emigration does not help. As Mohammed Arkoun explains in his essay Locating Civil Society in Muslim Contexts from Amin Sajoo’s Civil Society in the Muslim World, “emigration to foreign countries or to enclaves inside oppressive regimes […] delays the emergence of a civil society in more and more disabling societies, and it enhances the construction for the future of pluralist spaces for a wider citizenship in advanced, democratic regimes” (Arkoun in Sajoo, 2002: 38). Given that the “pluralist spaces” are rapidly collapsing in “advanced democratic regimes” due to processes like the refugee crisis, it seems—to me at least—prudent for us all to not give up on our countries just yet and develop strong civil societies. I know I haven’t yet given up on either of my countries just yet.