The past elections in Turkey were predominantly viewed through the lens of conservatism versus liberalism or religiosity versus secularism. Yet this paradigm does not adequately capture the situation. No small part of the vote for the AKP was predicated on the belief of ordinary Turks in the positive validity of conspiracy theories or in the climate in which the relationship between discourse and truth is fractured. Understanding conspiracy theories and the social environment that both supports and feeds upon it is necessary to situate the political climate of Turkey and comprehend the political possibilities of its elite.
Historical Trauma and Living Memory
The collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I and the subsequent war for Independence are historical moments that are routinely re-experienced in Turkish culture. Education and public discourse frame the events as the decline and fall due to corruption and loss of virtue epitomized by Ottoman technological “backwardness” followed by the rebirth of the nation through the overturning of the imposed post-war order. The reborn nation mythologized as modern, secular, and ethnically homogeneous, was capable of active participation in history again.
Beneath the triumphalist remembrance, however, are more dark currents. Frequently referred to a “Sevres Syndrome”, so named after treaty that aimed to partition the Ottoman Empire and Anatolian Turkey itself, many scholars refer to this traumatic cultural memory as a many-faceted siege mentality, simultaneously encompassing hostile foreign powers, duplicitous minorities, and traitors. Throughout Turkey’s modern history ultranationalists have revisited this touchstone event to contextualize and justify expunging enemies from within the body politic, whether by the militant Grey Wolves in street violence against left-wing activists in the late 70s or by the MHP party when condemning overtures to Turkish Kurds. However at the level of popular discourse, adages such as “the Turk has no friend but the Turk”; Turkey as surrounded by “Four enemies and three seas”, or “under every stone can be found an English spy”, to use a few examples, are relatively innocuous representations of a far deeper issue. The siege mentality exists within the reciprocal relationship with the “deep state”.
The deep state conspiracy theory that of a shadowy manipulative cabal within the military and bureaucracy is a complex theory presenting different facts to different people. The existence of the deep state is far more complex as its real links overlap with Cold War era moves to establish counter-guerrilla partisans to combat communism, real mafia penetration of state institutions, or a military-government elite in the security apparatus pursuing self-interest. In its current and most debilitating incarnation, the treasonous stand-in is the one-time Erdogan aligned, Gülen Islamic social movement, accused of constructing a terrorist parallel state within the government and her institutions.
Conspiracies and Public Discourse
The academic study of conspiracy theories in society range across epistemological issues, including lack of information or psychological predispositions towards Manichean clashes of good and evil, as collective processes of constructing and sharing meaning in groups, or emphasize the constitutive role of conspiracy theories in the formation of societies. What is clear is those conspiracy theories are not so much changing people’s beliefs but filling a hole in meaning.
A 2018 report by the Open Society Institute reported Turkish consumers are the second-most media illiterate when compared to countries in Europe, pointing towards lower social trust and low regular reading levels. A study by Reuters Institute Digital News Report details the astonishingly high number of made up news reports. With the highest number of arrested journalists in the world, predominantly charged with “coup links”, the fate of Turkish citizens receiving media beyond a hodgepodge of carefully selected facts, insinuation, and outright distortions is depressing. Turkish modern history is full of crises in which causality and meaning are undetermined or vague. Four coups, the first in 1960 and most recent in 2016, and a “post-modern” coup in 1997 are traumatic experiences. The Turkish economy, alternating between stagnation and hyper-growth, with all the social dislocations this ensures, and a long history of suppressing political Islamism from the public sphere contributes to a sense of unreality for those newly enshrined in power. Theories regarding the Illuminati or anti-Semitism have deep currency here precisely from a lack of media and critical literacy.
The AK era is one that has filled the space this media illiteracy by peddling an extraordinary range of conspiracy theories that operate within the two larger discursive frameworks of Sevres and the Deep State. The Gezi Park protests were alternatively conducted by foreign agents, disruptive atheists, Lufthansa, George Soros, or the interest rate lobby, “a secret international group profiting from high-interest rates”. Tape recordings of Erdogan involved in corruption are fabricated by foreign powers. The rise of ISIS and actions of the Kurdish separatist PKK were supported by Western governments to break up the Turkish body politic, one of Erdogan’s advisors, is being attacked by telekinesis, and foreign agents are creating artificial earthquakes to disrupt the economy.
Sustainability of Governance
Turkey in the AK era is supremely illustrative of our current crisis of liberal governance. How long the focus on the interior and exterior enemies for all political and economic ill will relate to support for Erdogan and the AK directly informs discussions in the West on the long-term viability of populist governments and the rule of “elites” in a liberal democracy. The collapse of trusted media in the West finds its precursor here. Erdogan has maintained his grip on power precisely through the use of conspiracy theories and undercutting of opposing narratives. The conspiracy of foreign agents meddling in an otherwise robust economy or the interest rate lobby committing treason against the nation seems to have resonated with voters insofar as they awarded the election to Erdogan despite the very real poverty being inflicted on all Turks through spiralling inflation and mismanagement. What is poignant and especially dangerous to consider is that this nexus of conspiracy theories and political success isn’t necessarily the result of outright censorship, but the supplying of a hype-rational (within the confines of a particular perverse logic) vision that competes with reality. The entrenchment of authoritarian rule has come about through the bewitchment of a majority of citizens by the conspiratorial vision that is more appealing and explanatory that reality. The ongoing purge since the 2016 coup, claiming 170,000 dismissed academics, officers, or public servants, 319 arrested journalists, and 3003 closed schools, to cite a few figures, reflects this conspiratorial one-dimensional thinking.
In the campaign for the June general election, conspiracy theories throughout social media claimed that the Turkish lira’s decline was the work of a shadowy group of Westerners aiming to weaken Erdogan of support in the elections. What is the relation to actual voting polls? 42 percent of Turks and 59 percent of AK voters saw the decline in the lira as a plot by foreign powers. As with all reports like this in the current climate, this should be taken carefully. But the point remains that policy alternatives, or even the basic mandates, for public institutions are held hostage as to whether they fit within the one-dimensional narrative. Alternative media, social media bubbles, and alternative facts are worrying trends in the West, and its consequences are easily found in Turkey. What is the prognosis for the next few years of AK rule? Actual governance is irrelevant seems to be the message. Yet with the newly expanded powers of the government and the public infatuation with conspiracy theories, when and where reality confronts theory will be essential. How far delusion can support a government is an important lesson in the era of Trump, Victor Orban, and Putin, and who loses when reality and theory finally, irrevocably clash is something we all should be watching for.
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