ISTANBUL — Although the word turbulence doesn’t exist in Turkish, it is probably the best description of the state of politics in Turkey these days. But we have other words, many of them, that denote “tension,” “masculinity” and “polarization,” all of which afflict the Turkish state.
Turkey is a liquid country, a watercourse of conflicts and contradictions. The mood changes weekly, sometimes daily. Until recently the country was seen as a successful combination of Islam and Western democracy, a power broker in the Middle East. That view is rapidly fading, and the river that is Turkey is running faster than ever.
With local, presidential and general elections coming, this is a year of loud polemics and quiet concerns. Citizens glance through websites dozens of times daily to see what else has happened. During a vote that gave the government greater control over the judiciary, members of Parliament exchanged blows; a bloody nose was a testament to our bruised democracy.
Nothing reflects the tempest better than the recent proliferation of conspiracy theories.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly accused outsiders of being behind the protests in Gezi Park last summer, which left six people dead and 8,000 injured. Several government officials insinuated that dark forces were operating behind the scenes, including the Jewish diaspora, the C.I.A., the BBC, CNN and the interest-rate lobby, a term for a cabal of domestic and foreign banks that officials believe want to harm Turkey to further their own interests. A Turkish BBC reporter was openly accused of being a foreign spy. Protesters in Taksim Square were called terrorists. The German airline Lufthansa, it was suggested, was trying to scuttle an important new airport for Istanbul.
On social media there are endless rumors about “deep state within deep state.” Gradually, Turkey is turning into a nation in the grip of paranoia.
Nobody takes anything at face value anymore. There is a growing public suspicion that the news is filtered, if not manipulated. Recently leaked tape recordings revealed that opinion polls published in a major newspaper might have been tampered with to please the government. Journalists have marched to protest curbs on press freedom.
In a country where freedom of expression is curtailed and media diversity has shriveled, social media is the only alternative platform of communication, information and misinformation. A new Internet law passed by Parliament further threatens freedom of opinion, though President Abdullah Gul, who said he would approve it, has conceded that parts are problematic.
If the Gezi riots fueled conspiracy theories, the recent corruption investigation fanned the flames. Government officials talk constantly about foreign plots. Turkey has done too well, they say, and now hidden actors want to stop it from growing. These accusations resonate with some segments of society.
Why are we so in need of contriving conspiracy theories?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that Turkey is still not a mature democracy and its politics are masculinist, aggressive and polarized. Turkey’s polarization affects every layer of social, cultural and economic life. When checks and balances, separation of powers and media diversity are all at risk, those in power become too powerful.
And part of the answer lies in old fears that go back to our upbringing. One of the songs from my childhood went: “One, two, three … long live the Turks … four, five, six, Poland plummeted … seven, eight, nine, Russians are traitors … ” We children merrily sang this song on the streets, declaring that the Italians were cunning, the Germans pigs. We grew up believing that Turkey was surrounded on three sides by water and on four sides by enemies. The Greeks aspired to reconquer Istanbul and make it Constantinopolis. The Arabs were untrustworthy. The Russians plotted to seize the Bosporus. Everybody wanted a piece of Anatolia, our land, and a Turk’s only friend was another Turk.
In the past, one of the strengths of Mr. Erdogan’s party, Justice and Development, was a foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” That policy has not been sustained.
This government, which liberal intellectuals once supported in the hope that it would push Turkey to join the European Union, restrict the role of the military and enact democratic reforms, is nowadays reviving overused rhetoric.
When Mr. Erdogan speaks he addresses the nation’s subconscious. He speaks to our primordial fears and xenophobia. And without realizing, we, millions of us, become children again, waiting in the school courtyard for the headmaster, the baba, to tell us how ill-intentioned every foreigner is and how united we must stand against the world.
Yet, at the same time, this warped mentality no longer entices. Times have changed. The youth are far more open to the world than the previous generations, and the people are ahead of their politicians.
As much as we tend to buy into conspiracy theories, we Turks have also grown very, very tired of them.