Orhan Pamuk’s last novel, Turkish referendum and Eastern fathers…
In his latest work, The Red-Haired Woman, Nobel laureate and Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk, has picked two stories — one from the West and one from the East — and scrutinized the ways these stories influence an individual’s life. Both Pamuk’s chosen stories are ones of fathers and sons.
The story from the West is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in which a young hero kills a man without knowing he has killed his own father. In retelling the tragedy of King Oedipus, Pamuk refers to Sigmund Freud’s preface to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, connecting the effect of ‘killing the father’ to gaining ‘free will’.
The story from the East comes from Iranian poet Ferdowsi’s famous long poem, Shahnameh, and is another piece about unknown identity in the relationship between father and son. In this story, father Rustum kills his son Sohrab without knowing he’s his son.
To some extent, Pamuk depicts the very similarities between two stories; however, he also succeeds in deriving the differences between them.
For instance, while the author Sophocles is describing in detail the zeal of Oedipus to find his father’s killer, what matters most for Ferdowsi is depicting in great length the fight to the death between Rustum and Sohrab.
In another take, Pamuk implies that killing the father provides a chance to become ‘an autonomous individual’ through self-realization and that killing the son emasculates free, will which has always curbed by the authoritarian father.
After a long search, Oedipus discovers out that he is the very killer of his father and then blinds himself alongside a self-imposed exile. To the contrary, Rustum’s murder goes unpunished. These two different fates inspire Pamuk to ask, “Will there be no one to punish the Eastern father?”
When speaking of Turkish political history, murder of a son is never out of context.
Recently a Turkish TV series, Magnificent Century, dramatically depicted the Magnificent Suleyman’s order to kill his son and expected heir to his throne, Shehzade Mustafa. Suleyman ruled the Ottoman Empire between 1520 and 1566 and considered his son Mustafa’s autonomous behaviors as an obvious threat. For Ottoman Sultans, nothing is more dangerous than a game of thrones.
After the collapse of the Empire, politics are translated into Republican terms; however, the very concept of ‘father’ lingered. Founder of modern Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal, considered himself as the father of Turks. It was for this reason that from many suggestions, he picked ‘Ataturk’ (father of Turks) as an official surname, which became obligatory by law in 1934.
According to some observers, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who admittedly tries to make a ‘New Turkey’ out of the old Republic, follows the steps of his predecessor. For his supporters, Erdogan is the ‘Father’ already, just like Ataturk. For opponents, however, the process of being a father is still underway.
Cumhuriyet daily columnist, Kadri Gursel, noted that “Erdogan wants to be our father” three days before the coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The context of the column was the viral Internet video, which showed President of Turkey becoming incensed with a young citizen who was smoking in front of him. Gursel claimed that this attitude could only be explained by ‘fatherly instincts.’
Gursel’s inspiration was Turkish scholar Bulent Somay, for whom the term ‘father figure’ was only produced by exceptional situations. Thus, Erdogan was struggling to build such an exceptional situation in order to trigger a war or conflict inside and outside the country.
Cumhuriyet columnist ended his piece with these remarks:
“The only way to stop Erdogan from becoming a father is to refuse his fatherhood. Since Erdogan wants to be our father by force, then Turkey’s all need is a rebellious son like Muhammed Bouazizi, who sparked the revolution which toppled the dictator of Tunisia.”
Kadri Gursel is currently in jail with more than 150 other colleagues, and this very column is among the accusations.
This strong refusal against Erdogan’s fatherly instincts emerged for the first time during Gezi Park protests in June 2013.
At that time, Erdogan had been the strongest figure in politics in Turkey for 11 years, during which time an entire new generation emerged. According to studies, young Gezi Park protestors were much more educated and cosmopolitan than the societal average. They were using social media and global language of resistance to expand beyond the stereotyped discourses of Turkish politics.
In those days, any political analysts explained the Gezi Park protests as a demand for change coming from the new middle classes, aroused by AKP’s economic contributions to the society. In other words, the protesters were Erdogan’s ‘children.’
Only Erdogan grasped the moral superiority of protests, however, which could be fatal for his future. This was the reason he felt threatened and weighted, all in all, to consolidate his power.
While Erdogan found the ‘exceptional conflict’ moment, he masterfully cemented his grip on AKP voters. Surprising for some, his supporters warmed to an identity clash with the opposition who, in their terms, wanted to take the leader from their hands. In a very short period, a new category called ‘Geziciler’ (Erdogan called them ‘riff-raffs’ or ‘capulcus’) was stamped on political discourse, and the conservative sect of the society embraced the idea of ‘protecting Erdogan against enemies.’
In the aftermath of Gezi, Erdogan adopted social polarization as a weapon against his enemies. Six months later, judiciary unearthed a huge corruption and bribery scandal. Erdogan accused the prosecutors and police forces of being Gulenists (once an ally) and claimed that the scandal was a plot against him. Soon enough, the government cracked down on the police department and judiciary apparatuses in order to drop these cases.
Despite all the sound and fury, AKP survived the local elections in March 30th of 2014 by granting more than 40 percent of the vote. Moreover, Erdogan was elected as President in August 2014 without any trouble.
The key matter of AKP’s propaganda was the ‘exceptional war’ with the enemies of the state. Similar to universal conservatism, many Turkish people uphold the stability of state as the most important indicator of being safe.
It is not surprising that Erdogan’s relentless victories against his rivals caused a kind of fatigue among his supporters. Thus, for the first time from 2002, under the leadership of Ahmet Davutoglu, AKP was unable to hold a ‘one party’ government in the general elections on June 7th of 2015. The biggest share in that success of political opposition belonged to, with the popularity of young leader Selahattin Demirtaş, HDP’s walk into the parliamentary by claiming 6 millions of votes.
At those days, Erdogan was conducting a peace process with Kurdish armed militants (PKK) through HDP politicians and commentators were arguing that ‘peace’ restrained nationalist central voters from supporting AKP.
As Orhan Pamuk wrote, in the fight between Iranian father and son, Sohrab overcomes his father Rustum and prepares to kill him. However, Rustum fools him: “Do not kill me at the first attempt, overcome me again. Then, you’ll deserve to kill me. This is our custom. If you follow, you will be considered as a truly courageous man.”
So, Erdogan shouted ‘Again!’ in the midst of a chaos perpetuated by the MHP’s leader, Devlet Bahceli, who never wanted to participate in a coalition with the pro-Kurdish party. There would have been a re-election in 1st of November 2015.
Before the re-election, however, Erdogan turned his attention to ‘old establishment.’ His first move was to dismantle the main opposition party (CHP) by arranging a meeting with old and defeated CHP leader, Deniz Baykal. In the meantime, the peace process was terminated and a grand military operation launched in South East region against PKK. AKP adopted the anti-Kurdish nationalist agenda of the Nationalist Party (MHP). Also at this time, Turkey experienced the deadliest terror attack by ISIS on October 10, 2015, which killed more than 100 people and caused fear to rise exponentially among Turkish citizens.
Back to fathers and sons. Every segment of Turkish politics contains their own father and son story. Much like Turgenev’s novel, fathers represent the ‘old’ and sons the ‘new.’ Both sides have their strength and flaws.
While ‘fathers’ are fragments of the old and cracked status quo, ‘sons’ are born and raised by the repercussions of Erdogan’s politics and of fathers’ failures. Old establishment was configured by Cold War politics, while newly emerging political actors are byproducts of a more globalized Turkey.
There were consequences of these cleavages in each political party.
Pro-Kurdish party HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas, the star of the campaign during June 7, 2015, ran for election with his famous slogan, “We will not let you be president.” Demirtas argued that some MPs inside HDP were uncomfortable with that slogan and labeled these MPs as ‘secret Erdoganists.’ As a matter of fact, Demirtas’ remarks targeting Erdogan accelerated the collapse of peace negotiations between AKP and PKK. HDP’s party program was based on democracy rather than ‘peace,’ and Demirtas stated this clearly in a highly-disputed interview.
Between election and re-election, HDP’s zeal to convert itself to a less pro-Kurdish and a more progressive liberating party was undermined by PKK’s terrorist attacks. As a result, HDP lost more than 1 million votes on the day of November 1st. When analysts blamed PKK for this loss, the leadership of PKK insisted, “If we had not been there, HDP would not have been able to take 5 percent of votes.” Moreover, some institutional fragments of pro-Kurdish political movements could support Erdogan’s presidency bill while Demirtas was in jail.
Another conflict between the old and the new became apparent when Cumhuriyet daily’s columnists and editors were arrested. As secular powerhouses, both main opposition party CHP and modern Turkey’s oldest newspaper, Cumhuriyet, were moving through a transitional stage for a while. They were struggling to open a space for different walks of life, such as pro-Kurdish and conservative figures. However, an ultra-nationalist wing of the party and old editors of the newspaper accused those institutions of collaborating with ‘enemy’; that is, Kurds and Gulenists. At the end of the day, they had become ‘fathers.’
Last but not least, a similar divide appeared inside the right wing nationalist party, MHP. Devlet Bahceli, leading the party for almost 20 years, was challenged by his MPs in order to give way to a new leadership. Unexpectedly, after the November 1st election, those opponents’ efforts to congregate delegates were halted by local courts, which were under control of AKP for some time. Father of right-wing nationalists killed more active and newly emerging sentiment inside the party with the help of Erdogan. Securing his position, Bahceli paid back AKP’s favor by supporting Erdogan’s presidency bill soon after the coup attempt on July 15, 2016.
The upcoming referendum on April 16, 2017 may be the final round of the battle between fathers and sons, which started officially with the Gezi Park protests. The danger is simple: Turkey’s archaic and authoritarian political fathers could destroy secular, liberal, and world integrated and spirited sons. Constituting a majority of ‘yes’ to power-ups for the presidency would speed up brain drain and/or suffocate what remains of Gezi Park.
Alongside social media, a less tolerable political and social environment is already poisoning daily life in Turkey.
Here, Erdogan is not the only problem. The specter of ‘old Turkey’ wants to prevent MHP from producing healthy central politics, CHP from leaving burdens of the past, and the pro-Kurdish political movement from being demilitarized entirely. A search for a new story and meaning in Turkish politics is about to be sacrificed.
“Will there be no one to punish the Eastern father?”