A society that cannot grieve together cannot build a future together, writes Elif Shafak
“In silence there is eloquence,” wrote Rumi, the great 13th-century Sufi poet. But in Rumi’s home town Konya this week, Turkish football fans refused to observe one minute of silence to honour the victims of the Ankara bombings. While the national teams of Turkey and Iceland, about to play their Euro 2016 qualifier, stood in silence to pay their respects to 100 peace marchers killed in double suicide bombings, there were boos and whistles from the crowd. Spectators then shouted Turkish ultranationalist slogans and chanted “Allahu akbar” (God is great).
The Turkish team qualified for the European championship. Yet, as someone noted on social media: “We won the game, but we lost our conscience.”
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Conscience and coexistence are being put to the test in Turkey like never before. Ankara, the target of the terror attacks, is no ordinary city. In addition to being the capital of the Turkish Republic and the nucleus of state and bureaucracy, it is a city of intellectuals, artists, feminists and students. The city is home to numerous universities and NGOs.
The symbolic power of targeting Ankara is enormous. Turks and Kurds have, unfortunately, become used to violence in the south-east of the country. But bloodshed of this proportion had never taken place at the heart of the nation-state. The two suicide bombers are thought to be affiliated with the Islamic militants, Isis.
We have entered a new, unprecedented phase in Turkey’s political and social history. Anyone over 30 will testify that the country has gone through periods of unrest before. Today’s crisis is different. Domestic instability commingles with the instability in the Middle East. This is a dangerous fusion.
Under normal circumstances acts of terrorism unite people around common values. In Turkey, the chasm between the opponents and the supporters of the government is so wide that no one tries to bridge it any more. While the constitution requires the office of the president to be neutral and above daily politics, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done the exact opposite. Before the June elections he actively campaigned for his AK party. While he retains around 40 per cent support, the number of those who are openly frustrated with his authoritarianism has also escalated.
Following the elections the collective mood was different. After 13 years in power, the AKP had for the first time lost its overwhelming majority. It could have been a golden opportunity to strengthen pluralistic democracy. But the AKP government did not push for a coalition. Instead, Mr Erdogan called another election in November in a bid to introduce an even more authoritarian presidential system.
That decision was a big mistake and the nation has paid the price. Since June, nearly 700 people have been killed. Society has further polarised, the economy has suffered, violence and tension have soared. Polls indicate repeat elections will lead to repeat results that will make a coalition inevitable.
The social psychology of this nation has been bruised as a result of its divisive politics. The macho language used in parliament is pervading every level of society. The pro-government media attack anyone who dares to speak differently, accusing them of being “traitors” or “the pawn of western powers”.
The erosion of empathy in society goes hand in hand with the rise of bigotry and sectarianism. A recent US state department report said that anti-semitism is on the rise in Turkey. Discrimination against the Alevi minority is also widespread. Istanbul’s annual Gay Pride parade, a unique recognition of diversity in the Middle East, has been crushed with water cannon and tear gas.
It has become increasingly hard to voice different opinions. Journalists are being imprisoned. Cartoonists are being sued. On television every evening critical-minded people are lambasted on state channels. Instead of empathy and coexistence, apathy and distrust have become the norm. A recent survey showed that more than 55 per cent of the electorate does not believe the elections are fair and reliable.
I am worried for my motherland. I am worried because a society that cannot grieve together cannot build a future together. Yet I also know that Turkey is sui generis in the Muslim world with its robust civil society, women’s rights, secularism and its relatively long experience in democracy, however bruised that may be.
In today’s atmosphere of fear and intolerance there are countless Turks and Kurds committed to peace and democracy. For they know, as Rumi did, that “where there is ruin, there is hope for a treasure”.
Elif Shafak, Financial Times
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