Writer, academic and ex-Istanbullu Claire Berlinski watches events in Turkey with a heavy heart but little surprise. To those interested in the region, she’s a leading voice on Twitter.
The footage out of Istanbul this week was depressingly familiar. The water cannons. The riot police. The Occupy Gezi protesters who last year captured the world’s attention — Turkish flags waving above Taksim Square and all that — once again feeling the brunt of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security forces as they once again take to the streets.
Claire Berlinski (@ClaireBerlinski) has been watching the events from Paris with sadness but little surprise. “The protests never really ended,” she told Crikey. “They were just suppressed.”
And suppressing popular anger is the best way of ensuring that it will eventually explode. Erdogan’s proposed crackdown on social media and the daily leaking of tapes implicating him in “almost surreal” levels of corruption have helped to build the pressure. Tuesday’s death of Berkin Elvin, a 15-year-old boy who had been in a coma since he was hit in the head with a tear gas canister last year, finally released it once again. “The protests didn’t just start again for no reason,” Berlinski said.
A former Istanbullu herself — she decided to leave the city six months ago after nearly a decade — Berlinski says that her friends in the city are deeply concerned about what might come next. “And they’re right to be,” she said. “People are talking openly and increasingly about hangings. The neighbourhood I lived in seems to get lavishly gassed every Saturday night. It sounds tense and painfully absurd.
“I don’t expect the situation to improve until all of the elections — local, parliamentary and presidential — are over, and even then I’d be surprised if it did. I don’t think things are going to get better. The idea of a peaceful transfer of power seems implausible at this point.”
Berlinski says the international community should send in electoral monitors — Turkey’s local elections are scheduled for March 30, to be followed by the first direct presidential election in Turkey’s history, in August — sooner rather than later. “If there’s any suspicion of electoral fraud, it will be catastrophic,” she said.
“That’s not some arcane known-unknown sort of thing. It’s completely predictable that if there are credible accusations of election fraud, there will be violence. The time to think about rigorous election monitoring is now, not after the elections.”
It’s remarkable how much the international perception of Erdogan’s Turkey has changed in less than a year. When Istanbullus first took to the streets last June, many people were taken by surprise. When Erdogan responded with a brutal crackdown, plenty more were taken by it, too. In one fell swoop, Erdogan tarnished, if not shattered, his international reputation as a moderate and threw the idea of Turkey as a model Middle Eastern state into disrepair. But on the ground, Berlinski and other commentators like her had long wondered why he enjoyed such a reputation at all.
“What happened last summer was particularly dramatic, and it happened in a place where it just couldn’t be hidden or ignored, so it got international attention,” she said. “But it wasn’t the first time I’d seen things like that in Turkey. Gezi got a lot of attention because Taksim was so easily made an analogy for Tahrir, and because many journalists live close to it, and because they gassed ‘important people’ like German MPs, but this sort of thing had been happening for years. Everyone I know in Istanbul has been gassed by the police for absolutely no reason at some point or another. This has been happening under the AKP for years, including with deaths.”
Berlinski tweeted endlessly during the summer protests, retweeting important information and updates from others alongside her own first-hand, eyewitness coverage. She also wrote a number of indispensible dispatches for publications including City Journal, The Tower, US News & World Report and The Spectator:
“[O]n Friday night, I strolled through Taksim and Gezi Park, and for the first time in the decade I’ve lived in Istanbul, I found myself in the City of Evet. It felt like a free country. I have never seen anything like this before in Turkey. I walk through Taksim all the time, and it is always full of cops, uniformed and plain-clothed …
“Taksim and Gezi Park, last weekend, were different, and the most obvious difference was the absence of that special gloom imparted by the sight of phalanx upon phalanx of heavily armed coppers giving every passer-by the hairy eyeball. And it was glorious — a huge innocent carnival, filled with improbable (I would have hitherto thought impossible) scenes of nationalist Turks mingling amiably with nationalist Kurds, the latter dancing to some strange ghastly species of techno-Halay, the former pumping their fists in the air and chanting their eternal allegiance to something very nationalist, I’m sure. Balloons lit with candles sailed over the sky; hawkers sold every species of Gezi souvenir, and the only smell of pepper in the air came from the grilled meatballs served in hunks of fresh bread and sprinkled with chilli powder.
She worked quickly and instinctively. “I didn’t consciously save any observations for my articles,” Berlinski said. “I recycled or expanded upon things I said on Twitter and I used my Twitter timeline to be sure I was remembering the sequence of events properly.”
It was a productive but entirely unpleasant period. Berlinski moved to Istanbul in 2005 for the most unprofessional of reasons — love — and stayed on after the relationship ended on the grounds that she’d adopted a coterie of cats. It had never been her intention to write about the country at all.
“I wasn’t thinking, ‘oh, how exciting, this is the great story I came here to see’,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘why the fuck are they tear-gassing my apartment and my cats again?’” The summer eventually took its toll: “I left Turkey shortly afterwards.”
Her first stop was India, a country that has deeply interested her for some time. But issues with visas, the question of her cats and, ultimately, the fact “I just felt too tired to start afresh as an expatriate in another deeply foreign culture” sent her back to Paris by the end of last year.
While Berlinksi says “some part of me just wants to stop reading the news from Turkey — I left for a reason”, she continues to follow her old stomping ground closely. Never a fan of the Turkish press — “a damned fine source of bitter entertainment” — she says foreign coverage of the country has improved since the event’s of last year.
“I’ve had the impression that Turkey’s been getting a lot more media coverage in the English-language press and that the quality of the coverage has been improving,” she said. “I don’t think Erdogan’s the only one we should be watching, though. He’s obviously a central figure, but what’s been happening lately also involves Fethullah Gulen, and this is where the Western press could really do with paying more attention. Because Gulen is sitting in Pennsylvania, which should obviously interest people, but strangely, very few are asking, ‘just what the hell is this guy doing here?’” (Berlinski has written numerous pieces about Gulen and his global socio-religious movement, refusing to take its professed values at face value and criticising the United States position toward it as the foreign policy actor it increasingly appears to be.)
It is for this reason that social media continues to be one of her most reliable sources information, a way of keeping her finger on the pulse.
“Turkey’s Twitter penetration/GDP ratio is unusually high,” she said. “This shouldn’t be exaggerated — the World Bank thinks 45% of the population uses the internet, and I’d be surprised if even half of them were active Twitter users — but it’s still significant. Turkish hashtags regularly trend worldwide, which you wouldn’t expect just on the basis of population.
“What’s been happening in Turkey on social media since the summer has been fascinating. During the Gezi protests, quite a few people saw, very clearly, that the news media in which they’d previously placed some confidence — although perhaps not a lot — wasn’t reporting what they could see with their own eyes. Turkish journalists have mostly been intimidated or bought off. There’s no independent judiciary. Now you’ve got these truly surreal corruption scandals and the chief venue for disseminating news about them and arguing about them is Twitter.”
And the arguments are fierce: free-for-alls in which everybody, including the government, gets involved.
“People in Turkey, as well as people who are interested in Turkey, have been riveted by the presumably Gulenist Twitter accounts — @haramzadeler333 and @bascalan — that have been releasing all these wiretaps implicating the government in corruption. The Gulenists tweet in lockstep, apparently taking their orders directly from God. I’m not kidding. For its part, the AKP has an infamous 6000-member rapid-reaction Twitter team, the formation of which spawned the backlash hashtag #Anatrollia.
“One could say the Turkey’s Twitter community is thriving. I would say it’s divided. And that would be an understatement.”
The Dragoman (@DragomanReview): My first recommendation on Turkey. If you follow him and subscribe to his daily Turkish press review, you’ll get a very accurate sense of what’s happening in the Turkish media, social and otherwise.
Zeynep Tufekci (@zeynep): A sociologist who writes very thoughtful stuff about, in her words, “the way in which online and offline have meshed in one inseparable reality in fuelling these waves of protests”. Which they really have.
Ali Kıncal (@AliKINCAL): A young Turkish economist who writes excellent and very accessible pieces in English about what’s happening in Turkey.
Erik Meyersson (@emeyersson): A Swedish political economist.
Christy Quirk (@CEQuirk): Christy Quirk’s specialty, as she puts it, is “polling, communications, political strategy and social media in the Islamic world and FSU”.
OKAN (@OKANsays): Mostly tweets in Turkish, but you can follow him for the occasional English interjection and the photo stream.
Sanli Bahadir Koc (@turcopundit): Again mostly in Turkish, but the parts that are in English are very worth reading.
On tweeting in an emergency …
The first time I realised that Twitter could be useful in an emergency was in the 2010 Haiti earthquake. My sister-in-law was working for MINUSTAH, the United Nations stabilisation mission in Haiti. My family was in Port-au-Prince. We knew that the building she worked in had been levelled, and we couldn’t reach them because the phones were down. Obviously, I wasn’t in Haiti, but there were a lot of people outside of Haiti trying to find their families. So I was, unfortunately, on the ground floor of the coalescing of a large group of people around the world who were looking for their relatives, and Twitter was the best place to exchange the kind of information we were looking for (like emergency contact numbers, which buildings were apparently OK, which ones had collapsed).
I was one of the few who found my relatives, or found them alive, anyway. Istanbul’s also on a massive fault line, so after that, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to establish a Twitter-based emergency communication system in Istanbul; I thought having that set up in advance could be lifesaving. But I now think there’s no need to plan this. By this point everyone in Istanbul knows that Twitter’s where you’d go to get information of the kind you need after an earthquake, presuming you can get on Twitter, and people self-organise immediately on social media when disasters happen.
On Turkey’s strategic importance …
I suppose Turkey’s strategic importance is obvious. Critical geography, big economy, big military power, etc. But having lived there for so long, and being deeply emotionally attached to the country, I can’t just look at it in cold strategic terms. I didn’t set out to be a Turkey correspondent or a Turkey pundit; it just happened to be my home, for years, and I ended up writing about it because if you’re a fish the state of the aquarium seems pretty important to you.
Is Turkey of pressing importance to the West? Probably, but what worries me more is what Turkey might do to itself. You’ve got what’s basically a large peasant population that’s recently moved into the cities, they’re living on a credit bubble (and it’s produced grossly unrealistic expectations) and they’re now being told daily that foreign imperialists are plotting against them. Oh, and the whole country’s just a breathtaking kleptocracy. The potential for this to go horribly wrong is pretty obvious, isn’t it?
I think what the West missed, and what they’re still not grasping, is that what happened over the summer wasn’t a freak. It’s been obvious for years that this government isn’t serious about turning Turkey into a Western-style liberal democracy. I don’t know why they got away with saying that they were liberal democrats for as long as they did. Turkey’s economy under the AKP was never a miracle economy and no one numerate should have hyped it as such. The civil rights situation was slightly improved in the early years (mostly because of reforms passed under the pre-AKP parliament) but rapidly reverted to norm. We saw extensive wire-tapping and leaks, extensive exposure of personal details in some papers, 4am raids on homes, endless pre-trial imprisonment, etc, at least from 2007 onwards — almost every week. And seriously, everyone knew about the corruption. Everyone.
But for years Western journalists and pundits were always talking about the “Turkish model”. They were constantly, gushingly praising the AKP. These pretty significant think tanks and pundits were complicit with the AKP and the Gulenists in assuring the Turkish public that they were now experiencing “liberal democracy” and “rule of law”, when this clearly wasn’t the case, and if nothing else, this contributed to enormous confusion about what those terms mean. Turkey lost precious years during which real reform was a possibility. Religion was politicised in obviously dangerous ways, and no one in Europe or the US was pushing back against any of the crazy things the government was saying or doing. No one was saying, “are you serious? This isn’t at all what we mean by ‘liberal democracy’.”
Why? Not paying attention? Wishful thinking? I genuinely don’t know. The standard Turkish-conspiracy answer is that we intentionally promoted this myth to serve some obscure imperial purpose, and I do understand why this is widely believed. When you’re sitting there listening to the sirens and wondering who they’re arresting today and some toad in Washington swims up on television to assure you that you’re hurtling toward democratic perfection, you can really only explain it in one of two ways: either these experts in Washington are complete idiots, or they’re lying for a reason. The first seems more likely to me.
On the trials and tribulations of being an expat …
What it’s like to watch your country from abroad is a book-length subject, I suspect, but I’m finding it hard to go from that deep, uneasy feeling that something’s bothering me and having a coherent thing to say about what, precisely, that is. The short answer, I suppose, is that I took for granted that because I’m American and because I grew up in the US, I deeply understood the place, would always understand it, and would never really need to spend much time or effort trying to understand it. What I seem to be discovering is that after spending about 25 years overseas — I’ve really only lived in the US for a few years, total, since I turned 18 — it’s possible either that I’ve changed or that America’s changed and that this isn’t really true anymore. I have an uneasy feeling, both in reading the news from the US and when I go back, that I’m not instinctively getting it. This is recent, by the way. It’s just the past few years, maybe since the 2008 financial crisis. And I have no idea if something in me has changed or if something in the US has changed.
By “not getting it”, I mean the deepest sort of thing, the sort of thing you don’t get when you travel to a very foreign place. Body language, for example. And obviously, this is profoundly — I mean profoundly — disconcerting, because “American” is the only national identity I have and the only one I could possibly have, so if I don’t really understand America, I pretty much don’t understand myself. It’s one thing to find Turkey puzzling or to find India very tough to figure out — that’s what you’d expect — but not quite understanding your own country is like looking at your own limbs and thinking, “are those really mine? But they look funny — did someone graft another set of arms on to me while I was sleeping?”. And the question I’m asking, of course, is “was America always this weird? Did I just not notice it before? Or has something happened to the place while I was gone?”.