Many people who knew me back when I was an Erasmus student asked me why I went back to Istanbul. I never hid the fact that it’s not specifically my favorite city. It’s crowded, loud, the traffic is a mess, and other issues. Alas, I returned, partially, because Turkey is a fascinating country to observe. For instance, I believe that Turkey has been looking for a common identity for quite a while. Perhaps since the fall of the once powerful Ottoman empire.
The struggle that is going on is very open, not only in terms of Taksim and Gezi protests, but also in regard to the “Kurdish question” or the constant revision of school books (recently, the militaristic address written by Atatürk himself has been exchanged by one of Erdogan).
Between the Dardanelles and Diyarbakir, some strive to define Turkey around its Islamic heritage, others want to reach out to liberal western democracies. To some, Turkey is a nation-state, and those who don’t believe in the nation are traitors. But to some, the concept of the nation is secondary to their cultural identity, making them dangerous in the eyes of the public. I think that the result of this smouldering uncertainty are frequent unrests, yet it also helps explaining why so many Turks are drawn to an almost religious worship around a leading father figurine, finding its matches only in dictatorial personality cults.
How is collective identity being established? In a way, by changing the perception of history into a common one with a certain narrative. The narrative around Atatürk, for example, includes a heroic fight against foreign villains, a power emerging from the ashes of an empire, and a stern man who unites the proud Turks under one banner. This is exactly what you see on the big statue on Taksim square, a square that has recently been refered to as the “ugliest square of the world” by the current Prime Minister. Naturally, his party has its very own narratives.
Sadly, all institutionalised narratives, even the ones employed by democratic parties, are simplistic. Simple messages sell better. Very efficient would be the populist, crude, both uniting and isolating “It’s us against them”-mentality. Currently, leading AKP members throw their political enemies in a pot and stir; PYD is the same as PKK, ISIL as PKK, etc. It’s not so how similar those really are. What is important is the sole claim, since drawing a line between a perceived “them” supposedly creates an “us”. Making out collective enemies is a field in which the Christian, right-wing AfD of Germany and the Islamic AKP of Turkey strangely overlap. Fertile ground for dehumanizing your opponents.
Racism, sublime or in-your-face, is an issue all societies have to deal with. It’s pretty much like bills; they’re a pain in the ass to talk or think about, but ignore them and soon people will knock on your door with big sticks, either to make you pay, or because they think you’re not like them and thus deserve to die.
The problem with racism is that, even though we’re technically not born racist (or aware of the concept of race*), we are born with an inclination to bring order into our mental worlds by categorisation, such as good and evil, disgusting and tasty, straight and gay. This wasn’t problematic if we were also born with the innate capability of deconstructing our own categories. Sadly, human beings are terribly badly manufactured and we have to learn many lessons by ourselves. Hence, I always think it’s incredibly stupid when magazines title stuff like “We thought racism in football had been defeated”. Racism, just like sexism or fast food restaurants, grows back, as it poses the simplest answer for complex questions.
Also, racism has surprisingly little to do about actual foreigners in your country. The GDR behind its wall didn’t allow Thai factory workers to mingle with the German population. Today, eastern Germany has a significantly smaller immigrant population – but more crimes against foreigners than the west. It’s also the area in which extreme right parties gain the most votes. The assumption is that in the west, Germans got used to immigration and noticed that strangers are not so different to themselves. An exception to this is the governor of Germany’s richest federal state of Bavaria, a professional polemic who’s an expert at ignoring facts to the benefit of boasting his follower’s self-esteem. Pretty much like the GDR government.
A similar example would be Russia. In my experience, speaking out against foreigners, especially from central Asia, is socially accepted and rarely considered racism. The glaring beacon of tolerance, though, is the most beautiful city of Kazan, a cultural crucible between Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. A place where it’s not uncommon to meet blonde, blue-eyed, Muslim Russians who speak a Turkic (though not Turkish) language.
Coming back to the topic of narratives, it is useful to look at the impact of racism and its likes (other than the impact of boots on the heads of poor minorities). There are economical impacts, such as foreign investors staying away or being kept away. Also, white males rather than able people being lifted into powerful positions is a problem in most countries. But there’s also the other impact I noticed; once you start subtracting people out of the sum of humanity you care about, you don’t really stop. The list of people who’re “us” shortens according to your current needs, possibly until the Macbeth-ian scenario in which the only person you cared for in the beginning is left, which is yourself.
In this light, I’m never surprised when polemics get caught in corruption scandals. To an extent, we’re the artisans of our personal morales; if a politician abides from being empathic towards perceived stranger groups, why would he be empathic towards anyone? Ultimately, every group is constructed, artificial in that sense.
The danger is invoked by populists all over the globe. They warn of “them” taking what is “ours”, but everyone can be made part of “them”. Liberal authors and journalists experienced this in McCarthy’s USA same as farmers found themselves suspects in a perceived all-Russian conspiracy during the Stalinist era. German language knows the term “Mitläufer” for a person who doesn’t directly support a radical movement, but also abides from opposing it, either due to personal benefit or neglect. Actually, a big portion of German language literature, from Zweig’s “Buchmendel” to Tellkamp’s “Der Turm”, focusses around such “Mitläufer” trying to withstand the storms of their times by ducking. Ultimately, the tides turns against them.
A pioneer of sexual science, Arthur Kinsey, once claimed that “the living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects”. It is foolish to give into paranoia and isolationism. The world, each country and each human being are the complex sum of numerous identities. Maybe, here at the Bosphorus, or anyplace where political tectonics grind against each other, the desire for simple answers is carried to the surface quicker.
* It actually is “just” a social concept, as biological research has shown. The only people to whom genetic differences between groups are interesting are anthropologists and their likes. If you have to google “anthropologist”, you probably don’t need to care.