Dr. Thoreau Redcrow*, co-director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch), discusses the authoritarian rule of President Erdoğan in Turkey and criticises the notion that he has destroyed Turkish democracy in his recent analysis published on 28 May, arguing that there was little democracy to begin with. He describes the history of Turkey as a “large crime scene” built on the bones of its victims, portraying Erdoğan as the personification of the country’s brutal past. Highlighting Erdoğan’s consolidation of power through undemocratic means, such as suppression of the opposition, particularly the Kurdish opposition, controlling the media, and manipulating the electoral process, he questions the possibility of democratic reform in such a system.
Erdoğan is not the requiem for Turkey, he is its reckoning
While it is tempting to agree with the wailing Western think tank literati and NGO industrial complex that authoritarian Erdoğan has finally killed off “Turkish democracy”, the unfortunate reality is that there was nothing left to kill. Since its foundation, the Turkish Republic has been more akin to a large crime scene with its own flag, metaphorically built with the bones of its genocided victims and serenaded with the screams of those ‘heretics’ it tortured. Such sadism was foundational, as Turkey’s creators knew they were constructing an artificial ‘Turkish identity’ based on the idea that language alone can confer ethnicity, and armed with the cruelty to destroy any group who challenged such an absurd lie or tried to preserve their own indigenous culture.
In fact, the nightmarish actions of the Turkish state can often be so cartoonishly evil, that if one accurately reports on the matter, it sounds like you are describing a ghoulish serial killer in national form. So no, rather than destroying “rule of law” in Turkey, Erdoğan’s dictatorship is its inevitable personification. Vicious, spiteful, paranoid, ignorant, conniving, and egomaniacal – the century of generational rot that spawned from the Republic’s founding has left a trail of tears and blood strewn all the way up to the gilded doors of the new Sultan’s 1,100 room Palace.
Rather than viewing Erdoğan as an individual, he should be seen as an historical amalgamation of Turkey’s crimes, with every brutality fusing together to form a ‘body politic’ with him as its crowning conclusion. Allegorically, Erdoğan is every gasp of air from the drowned and burned Greeks of Smyrna. Erdoğan is every drop of sweat from the Armenians death-marched out into the Syrian desert. Erdoğan is every fleeing mother’s scream in Dersim [Tunceli] as they jumped to their deaths off of mountain cliffs. Erdoğan is the rope tightening around the necks of Seyid Riza, Sheikh Said, and Deniz Gezmiş. Erdoğan is the bullets that riddled İbrahim Kaypakkaya’s body and the flames that melted away Mazlum Doğan’s flesh. Erdoğan is the ashes of the 4,000 burned down Kurdish villages, the ink from the kill lists used by JİTEM death squads, and the sobs of Saturday Mothers who still plead for the bones of their disappeared children. Erdoğan is the smile on the face of the assassins who shot Hrant Dink, Sakine Cansız, and Tahir Elçi. Erdoğan is the prison cell that once held İsmail Beşikçi, and currently holds Abdullah Öcalan, Nûdem Durak, and Osman Kavala. And perhaps most poignantly, Erdoğan is every agonizing scratch on the blood-stained walls of Diyarbakir No. 5 Prison, living hieroglyphics that one day may be decoded by historians to understand the diabolical nature of a sadistic entity called “Turkey”.
Stage productions are not elections
But perhaps the most surprising dynamic in the Turkish state’s recent sham ‘elections’, is the naiveté of anyone who actually believed it was possible to vote Erdoğan out of office. When history unequivocally shows that you do not jail the opposition, remove all of the HDP [Peoples’ Democratic Party] mayoral candidates who disagree with you, stack the courts, gut the judiciary, confiscate the banking sector, suppress civil society, jail all the honest journalists, seize control of the media, embezzle billions into Swiss bank accounts, and literally sit atop a golden throne – but then voluntarily allow yourself to be replaced. And just for extra assurance, Erdoğan changed the electoral laws, censored social media, criminalized all criticism of his rule, purged the state audit boards, and hand-selected the chair and many judges of the Supreme Election Council (YSK) – which oversaw the entire election process and essentially barred his stronger competitors (like Ekrem İmamoğlu and Selahattin Demirtaş) from running against him.
Furthermore, just to be 100% sure of his victory, Erdoğan cranked up his vast state-run propaganda networks – which would even make Joseph Goebbels blush – and had them devote 32 hours of TV airtime to himself, for every 32 minutes they gave to his opponent Kılıçdaroğlu. In describing this phenomenon, the novelist Kaya Genç, observed: “If you were in Istanbul in the same room with me, and if we turned on the news, we would see pro-Erdoğan propaganda around the clock.” So no, I will not insult my own intelligence and dignify the Riefenstahlian performance that Turkey just held by describing it as an election, and neither should you.
Indeed, for more than two decades, Erdoğan has continually showed that he will do whatever is necessary to retain his grip on power, a delirious devotion that entire Kurdish cities learned of with deadly consequences. This led him to destroy 14,000 homes in Şirnex [Şırnak], spend 78 days flattening the city of Cizîr (Cizre) – while burning alive hundreds of people in basements, demolish the historical UNESCO center of Amed [Diyarbakır] (Sur), and pulverize Nisêbîn [Nusaybin] into a cement graveyard – which he then fenced off with barbwire so Kurdish parents could not even pull their dead children from beneath the rubble. Then again, this is a deranged man who has defended incinerating four teenage Kurdish girls playing volleyball with his Bayraktar killer drones, leaving all non-sociopaths to recognize that such a regime is irredeemable.
Yet, some privileged pacifists in the West would argue that oppressed people like the Kurds are still obligated to patiently wait for political power to grow out of their occupiers’ ballot box. When reality shows that in such scenarios, human rights are only ‘granted’ when you have the organized armed force to ensure them. Without organized means of self-defense, spectacles like Turkey’s current ‘election’ are merely a charade legitimizing your own subjugation. Because if freedom was possible through democratic means, then there would not be a dictatorship to vote out in the first place. And as Frank Schwabe, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe delegation acknowledged, “[Turkey] does not fulfill the basic principles for holding a democratic election.”
Rotten fruit does not re-ripen
Which is why I am genuinely curious. How do you democratically reform a criminal racist state that throws Kurdish captives from helicopters, floods the ancient ruins of Heskîf (Hasankeyf), uses missiles to massacre the people in Roboski, aligns with the Turkish mafia and fascist Grey Wolves to kidnap and murder its opponents, and whose national pastime is arresting Kurds and torturing them while forcing them to sing Turkey’s national anthem? What sort of magical qualities does a ballot box have that it can humanize a state where Kurdish children are routinely beaten by their Turkish teachers for speaking their mother tongue, or reform a state that created a ‘jihadist highway’ to arm and utilize ISIS as a proxy mercenary force to terrorize millions of Kurds across Greater Kurdistan? How does letting a Kurd stamp their vote on a piece of paper cover up the war crimes of a state that has been using illegal chemical weapons against Kurdistan’s guerrillas, trying to complete the ISIS genocide against the Yazidis in Şengal, and unleashing a hellish five-year occupation on the Kurdish region of Afrin in Rojava?
The Turkish state is a terminal illness in need of a drastic ‘cure’, and most of those democratic ‘antidotes’ who may have theoretically been capable of helping construct a new, more just Turkey, have been imprisoned or driven into exile. And this exodus will only continue, with the Turkish journalist Yavuz Baydar positing that Turkey’s younger generations are having their futures “devoured by doctrines of Islamism and Nationalism”, adding that “I am expecting an escalated exodus of the elite, the qualified, and the disillusioned, who will leave Turkey for good.”
Relatedly, two recent quotes help display the paradoxical nature of today’s crumbling Turkey. The first is a dispiriting remark that displays the alienation and Stockholm syndrome of his battered supporters and comes from a 58-year-old Turkish man in Istanbul named Kadir, who has been driving a minibus for 40 years and told the BBC, “We are with him every step of the way, whether the price of potatoes and onions rises or falls. My dear president is our hope.” The second, is from a local Kurdish teacher in Amed named Suna, who reflected to Al Jazeera, “I find it difficult to express my feelings, there is a very serious problem of rights, law, justice, freedom and democracy in this country, and the reality of a society that lives on the poverty line.” Unfortunately, since the Turkish lira hit a record low two days prior to Erdoğan’s coronation and the Turkish central bank’s net foreign currency reserves have slipped into negative territory for the first time since 2002, many more people are about to be forsaken to a life of desperation.
Moreover, in a twisted fate, the lawless Kemalist deep-state that previously existed to overthrow and lead a coup against a hypothetical Islamist betrayer of Atatürk’s secular ideals such as Erdoğan, has largely been dismantled by him as well. Leaving the coastal urban ‘white Turk’ elites who like to make jokes to Kurds about state assassins in “white Toros” cars, at the mercy of the new ‘black Turk’s’ populist and patriarchal demagogue with his rural-based bearded and headscarved Ummah. The former shadowy Turkish deep state cabal of organized crime, drug traffickers, Operation Gladio NATO-trained anti-communist military officers, and pale Janissary-descended ultranationalists with delusions that they share lineage with Genghis Khan – have now been replaced by a kleptocratic neo-Ottoman messianic Caliph, who is cocooned by corrupt sycophantic cronies and allied with every Takfiri Salafist head-chopper in the Middle East. From ISIS in Rojava, al-Nusra & al-Qaeda (HTS) in Idlib, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the Sultan Murad Brigade decapitators he sent to terrorize Artsakh— Erdoğan has continually attempted to fulfill his past declaration that, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets, and the faithful our soldiers.” Coupling with this mission, Erdoğan has used his state madrasas to indoctrinate a generation of Turkey’s children, who are now young adults and fill the entry levels of his entire bureaucracy.
Thunder before the storm
Ironically or perhaps poetically, in this way, Erdoğan has done more material damage to the façade of the modern quasi-European Turkish Republic than any enemy of Turkey ever could have dreamed of. And I am not just referring to the 50,000+ earthquake victims his construction corruption recently condemned to concrete mass graves. Gone are the unrealistic dreams of joining the European Union, and in their place is a pariah nation more akin to Taliban-led Afghanistan, with an increasingly worthless currency that has lost 91% of its value since 2013, and inflation rates on food and energy that routinely exceed 100%. Erdoğan’s blinded faithful are thus left with a scenario where they cannot even afford to buy onions, while the Sultan’s wife collects luxury Hermès handbags. But at least they can sustain their hunger with the bodies of dead Kurds who are regularly stabbed to death in nightclubs, parks, and on the street, for playing or listening to Kurdish music, or in the latter case for not singing “I would die for you, my Turkey.”
I sincerely wish I could reassure my many Kurdish friends throughout occupied Northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) that it will eventually get better, but I know with every ounce of intuition that in fact it will get much worse. Erdoğan’s lifetime Presidency is now a painful foregone conclusion and only death will remove his fangs from the necks of Bakur [North Kurdistan]’s 20+ million Kurds. The economy will remain in shambles, thousands more will soon join the huddled masses languishing in Erdoğan’s dungeons, and the best two options for Kurds who desire any semblance of freedom will be “heading to the mountains” to join the armed resistance or leaving the country. As Erdem Ünal, the CHP [Repubican People’s Party] chief in Amed’s historic Sur district recently summarized: “The people are intimidated, there are cameras everywhere. If more than two people gather, the plainclothes police arrive. Erdoğan left Kurds with two options: mosque or prison.” True to Unal’s observation, right before the first round of supposed voting, Erdoğan’s Gestapo arrested 126 Kurdish journalists, lawyers, artists, and theatre actors.
More depressingly, Erdoğan’s death cannot bring deliverance. So even if Turkey had its own principled Colonel Stauffenberg willing to carry out an Operation Valkyrie solution, one of his inner-circle henchmen would simply take his place. Plus, in the long-term, Erdoğan and the AKP [Justice and Development Party]’s likely political successors will emerge from the farther-right as a mutated version of the MHP [Nationalist Movement Party], and be even worse. As they will not have any pretense of caring for the multi-ethnic ‘Caliphate’ but want an even more racist Turanist Fourth Reich, that is even more anti-Kurdish than the current regime. The seeds of this future ideological mutation are already present in the opportunistic candidate Sinan Oğan, who has all of the neo-fascism of Erdoğan, with none of the faux-grandfatherly concern for non-Turkish “Muslim brothers and sisters”. They future shift could also be detected in the hapless candidacy of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who shamefully tried to outflank Erdoğan from the nationalist right, by pledging to deport millions of Syrians, while referring to them as an “unruly flood of people flowing into our veins.”
Ridicule the Führer
Could there still be a final 1945 Berlin bunker moment on the horizon? I guess one can hope. But really, nobody should be surprised by the timeline that got us here. As in 2016, Erdoğan cited Adolf Hitler as the example of why Turkey should shift from parliamentary system to a presidential one, while granting him full executive powers. And now that he has five more years to disembowel Turkey in his distorted image, the world will see many more balcony speeches where he spews his demented ire, and flares his nostrils during his own Nuremburg Rallies in Ankara. However, now, just as then, Erdoğan should be greeted by all journalists, academics, and observers with nothing but vitriolic contempt (like I am using in this article).
For example, before dying in the Dachau concentration camp, the writer Friedrich Reck-Malleczewen passionately denounced the Nazis in his journal Diary of a Man in Despair. And in reading his description of Hitler’s Germany as a “caricature” which was “smeared by a malignant ape escaped from the leash”, it is hard not to notice the parallels to Erdoğan’s Turkey. In light of that, I will close with Reck-Malleczewen’s words, but merely add one word in brackets – Kurdistan – to show the analogous meaning.
“I know that this land [Kurdistan] is the living, beating heart of the world. I will go on believing in this heartbeat, despite all the covering layers of blood and dirt. But I know also that the thing up there that rumbles and thunders is the denial of right and justice, of truth and faith and everything that makes life worth living.”
So, in that respect, occupied Northern Kurdistan should refuse to give up, despite the daunting task ahead of them. If the Kurds could survive Turkey’s attempts to eviscerate and annihilate them in the 1980s and 1990s, they can surely withstand the coming wave of reprisals by Erdoğan for their ‘insolence’ at believing they deserved basic human rights. Accordingly, in regards for that glimmer of hope amidst the darkness, I will end with my favorite sentence in Turkish, a phrase I personally heard protesting Kurds chanting many times over the years, both on the streets of Amed, Êlih [Batman], and Dersim, but also in Hanover, London, and Paris: Kürdistan faşizme mezar olacak! (Kurdistan will be the graveyard of fascism!).
* Dr. Thoreau Redcrow is an American global conflict analyst who specialises in geopolitics, stateless nations, and armed guerrilla movements. He is a frequent speaker before the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva and has been a foreign policy advisor for several groups seeking self-determination. He has previously worked on the ground throughout Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, Eastern Africa, and the Middle East. He is currently Co-Director of The Kurdish Center for Studies (English branch).