How Nietzsche Explains Turkey #TurkishElections2018
In 1989, a small Islamist party called Refah, or “Welfare,” holds a conferencetitled “National Consciousness.”
In the crowd are mustached men with lean faces; many of them are old, wearing skullcaps Muslims use during prayer. Soon, a tall, thin young man dressed in a well-tailored suit rises to speak. “May the peace of God be upon all believers,” he says. His polite bearing, however, belies his firm message. He invokes the ur-enemies of Turkishness— “Agop,” the Greeks, and “Jacques” and “Hans,” a reference to the Europeans. They distribute birth control to the villages, corrupt the youth, and scoop up Turkey’s national wealth, he claims, adding that Turkey’s bureaucrats, farmers, widowers, and orphans are all forced to pay them interest, “that which will facilitate the reign of the Jew.” Meanwhile, the ruling class lies around on nude beaches, sips fancy alcohol, and gawks at exotic dancers from the far corners of the earth, he says. All the evil, theft, and corruption in the country, the man says, can be traced to a mentality of surrender to the West. But Turkey’s true heirs will eventually take their country back. “You must love,” he says, “you must be possessed with the idea that holy justice will reign in this country.”
In the years to come, the young man, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, would be elected mayor of Istanbul, prime minister of Turkey, and, in 2014, president. Today, he is reconfiguring the very DNA of the state. Last year, he redrafted the constitution to create a super presidency that will allow him to reshape the state apparatus over the next decade. First, he’ll need to win one more election, the first round of which will be held on June 24.
For many Turks, the world is split between its functioning and malfunctioning halves—and they know precisely which part is theirs. It’s humiliating to know that the other half of the world knows it too. Regular “Progress Reports” by the EU remind them that their country is constantly judged by people apparently occupying a higher civilizational plane. People will caution the government against jailing journalists, or caution the opposition against protesting them for it, not based on principle, but because it is “bad for Turkey’s reputation”—code for: Everybody is looking at us. Stop being uncivilized! It’s a culture of self-pity coded into the country’s fabric for centuries. Ressentiment is a rebellion against this destiny—and that rebellion, more than anything, fuels Erdoğan’s success.
Everyone in Turkey has heard Erdoğan recite perhaps his favorite poem, written by Sezai Karakoç, one of the most influential of Turkey’s Islamists.
Don’t give in and say it is destined, there is a destiny above destiny
Whatever they do, it is futile, there is a ruling coming down from the heavens
No matter if the day ends, there is a design mending the night
If I am ever scorched, there is a castle built from my ashes
With every defeat heaped upon defeat, there is a victory ascending
Animating these lines is the sense of an epic struggle to push through defeat. The engine of that struggle is the mythical power of the nation. German romantics developed the concept of Das Volk, the common people who embodied the inherent values of the land—the antidote to all things divisive, metropolitan, and foreign.
In the economic sphere, ressentiment mimics the most visible aspects of Western modernity. The Erdoğan government builds mammoth airports, knockoff theme parks, and universities in every city. The president himself places immense faith in growth numbers, reciting them at every opportunity. Like ressentiment through history, Turkey’s deplores the mechanization and “soullessness” of the west, but to avoid future humiliation at its hands, it inflicts the same kind of disruption on its own society. Citizens today suffer mine disasters, contaminated rivers, and never-ending traffic. This isn’t development for its own sake as much as a hasty push toward modernity.
This competition with the West rages across the airwaves, too. Every day, news programs presents everything the government does not like—terrorist groups, opposition parties, the CIA, interest rates—as the tool of a powerful monolithic enemy out to destroy the millet. Historical fiction helps sell this narrative: TV dramas about swashbuckling Turkish heroes liberating Anatolia from the Byzantines, conquering Istanbul, and fighting the British in World War I. There is usually a depraved Christian king or a crafty Anglo-American spy trying to enslave the Turkish nation, thwarted by sheer millet resolve. In a much-cited scene from one of these shows, Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who appears to be modeled after Erdoğan, discovers that the British ambassador is trying to cheat him. Furious, he smacks the ambassador across the face, shouting “Begone!”
Even if he wins this election, Erdoğan will have a hard time molding the country according to his design. For years, he has accused opposition parties of being a bunch of un-milli, terrorist-loving losers. But this group represents half of Turkey’s population, and it is getting organized. Day by day, it is assuming a moral authority that should sound familiar to the AKP. Muharrem İnce, a former physics teacher and Erdoğan’s surprisingly serious opponent, attackedErdoğan on the campaign trail: “He calls me wretched! It’s true. I am the candidate of the wretched! My opponent is a white Turk. He drinks white tea in his palace. I drink black tea, just like you. That is why he is a white Turk, and I am black. All the TV stations are his, all the newspaper are his.”
The crowd booed. “He writes the headlines, I wage war against the headlines!” Deafening cheers from the crowd. “With him stands the media. With me, stands the millet! The millet!” The crowd loved it.