Apr 15

New Edition and Debut Political Book Award Shortlist

new cover bigger

The second edition of Turkish Awakening is now out, with a new chapter covering the dizzying turn of events since the Gezi protests.

A belated mention that it was shortlisted for the 2015 Paddy Power Political Book Awards, in the category of Debut Political Book of the Year: http://www.politicalbookawards.com/#shortlist

I am now working on a second book so will be updating this blog less frequently – it has already long overreached its task of covering the Gezi protests of 2013. However, all eyes should be trained on Turkey as it approaches an extremely important general election on June 7. You can find my articles in Newsweek Europe, the Guardian, Politico Europe and elsewhere.

Aug 14

What is “New Turkey”?

Image: Battle of Manzikert, 1071

Today is Victory Day in Turkey, the anniversary of Atatürk’s decisive pushback of Allied forces in 1922, ending the War of Independence. The city is festooned with enormous flags, billowing in unseasonal gale force winds. Two days ago, a new President and a new Prime Minister were inaugurated to great fanfare, marred only by a booklet being hurled at the Speaker of Parliament by an enraged member of the opposition, presumably in protest at the depressing predictability of the new appointments.

Is this a brave new era or a continuation of the old? Tayyip Erdoğan is embarking on a presidency which, all going to plan, will grant him as much power as he has enjoyed over the last eleven years as prime minister. He will continue to control the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in all but name, having personally chosen his successor, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s former foreign minister, like a sultan choosing a suitably loyal vizier. On Wednesday, MPs from the AKP “voted” for Davutoğlu, the only candidate for the role of head of party (/Prime Minister), while Abdullah Gül, Turkey’s overshadowed president of the past seven years, was shuffled off stage like a redundant great-uncle. Yesterday, a new cabinet was announced – no big surprises, bar a last-minute midnight announcement that Yiğit Bulut, a controversial ex-journalist who believes assassins are trying to murder Erdoğan via telekinesis, is to be the new President’s chief economic advisor.

After this game of political chairs, we are left with the status quo: Erdoğan, stern of face and booming of voice, taking key decisions and shaping party policy while Davutoğlu, the smiling stooge, continues to sidestep delicate matters like the threat of IS on Turkey’s borders, one of the consequences of Turkey granting indiscriminate free passage to Syrian rebels in the past three years of conflict. Party members toe the line, as before, grand construction projects continue, as before, opposition parties grumble uselessly, as before. Yet this is “New Turkey”, apparently. We are on the brink of something big, at least in the imagination of the AKP: a prosperous future for a proudly Islamic Turkey that leads its neighbours and refuses to bow to the West. To achieve this, Erdoğan will have to remain firmly at the helm.

In general elections next year, the aim of the AKP is to get a large enough majority to pass a constitutional change which will grant full executive powers to the president. Erdoğan will be in power for at least the next five years, and very likely more. So keen is he on uninterrupted power that when he won the presidential election with 51.8% of the votes on 10th August, the results were not published in the official gazette, which would have necessitated his stepping down as prime minister before inauguration as President on Thursday. This has also, incidentally, meant he kept immunity from prosecution for the intervening seventeen days.

It is vital that Erdoğan keeps a continuity of power, now and in the long term, because he is the face and guts of “New Turkey”, a Turkey which is actively stepping away from the secular republic shaped by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk from the debris of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Two days before becoming Turkey’s new prime minister, Davutoğlu laid out his plan to repair the “damage” of the last ninety years – in other words, Ataturk’s republic. While insisting that this did not mean a return to an Islamic, Ottoman state, Davutoğlu’s statement echoed many made by Erdoğan, who has made a point of celebrating Ottoman sultans (most controversially by naming the third Bosphorus bridge after Selim the Grim, who massacred tens of thousands of Alevis in 1514), and pointing ahead to important upcoming anniversaries in Turkey’s historical calendar. Some of these are less obvious than others, and commemorate not just the Ottomans but even earlier ancestors, Muslim warriors from the steppes. In December 2012, Erdoğan urged the Turkish youth to look forward to 2071, the 1000 year anniversary of the Battle of Manzikert (above), when the Byzantines were defeated by the Seljuk Turks. This is, according to the new president, when “Turkey will reach the level of our Ottoman and Seljuk ancestors” – let us hope he is not envisaging a return to old-fashioned cavalry charges near the borders of modern Armenia. Erdoğan will not be alive then, but he understands very well that a lofty vision of the future is vital in keeping momentum and cementing support for the continuation of the AKP, and in the meantime, for himself.

The closer and more obvious anniversary will be 2023, the centenary of the founding of the Republic of Turkey – now only nine years away. Erdoğan has made every indication that he will be firmly in charge at this point, marking the birth of the “New Turkey” being carefully introduced to the public by the AKP’s hardworking marketing team.

Grand plans, limitless ambition and ever-increasing self-confidence. This is neither New Turkey nor Old Turkey: this is, for the foreseeable future, Erdoğan’s Turkey.

Jul 14

“Women must not laugh in public” – AKP moralising reaches a new low


Ten days before historic presidential elections in Turkey, the Deputy Prime Minister has brought to the country’s attention the pressing matter of female modesty. “Woman must not act in an alluring manner but must preserve her purity”, said Bulent Arınç, co-founder of the ruling Justice and Development Party and close ally of the Prime Minister, Tayyip Erdoğan, who is widely expected to win the election on 10th August. “Women must not laugh in public… Where are our girls, who blush delicately, lower their heads and turn their eyes away when we look at their faces, our symbols of chastity?”

Arınç was speaking on the subject of Turkey’s “moral collapse” at a meeting to mark the Islamic festival of Eid el-Fitr. His advice became, ironically, the source of much mirth on social media and inspired a flurry of photographs of Turkish women laughing, perhaps through gritted teeth. While Mr Arınç took care to provide advice for men, too (“Man will not be a womaniser”), his fixation on the behaviour of Turkish women enraged both men and women who are already deeply resentful of the Justice and Development (AK) Party’s moralistic hectoring. Despite this outraged reaction, however, many Turkish voters will applaud Mr Arınç as the voice of reason, his sermon the tonic Turkey needs. He represents a party which employs Islamic ideals, ever more explicitly and insistently, to appeal to its core base of support among conservative Turks. The timing of the speech so close to elections was not an unfortunate coincidence.

On 10th August, Turks will for the first time vote directly for their President, and as such, the election is effectively a popularity test for Prime Minister Erdoğan, who has been in power for eleven years and is now seeking to continue as a self-styled “active” Head of State. Mr Erdoğan has long claimed to represent the pious working man of Turkey and has overseen landslide victories for his party in three consecutive general elections. He knows perfectly well he has alienated the more liberal and secular of Turkish voters with his religious rhetoric but this is, by now, immaterial. The AKP’s aggressive policy of polarization encourages deep commitment to Erdoğan and creates a stark division within the Turkish population. Almost 50% of Turks vote for Erdoğan: the formula works.

The Prime Minister has made no secret of where he stands in the debate on women’s role in Turkish society: in 2010, he declared that “Women and men are not equal. They only complement each other”. During his election campaign ten days ago, he visited a dormitory of female university students in order to warn them not to be “too picky” but find husbands as soon as possible. The two opposition candidates in the presidential race have, less dramatically, supported women’s rights; Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate of the left-wing People’s Democratic Party, regretted the lack of female presidential candidates and openly discussed the problems of domestic violence in Turkey in his manifesto. The main opposition candidate, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, responded to Arınç’s comments on public modesty by saying that Turkey needs to hear its women laugh more, not less.

While these views will not get the publicity they deserve, the social media storm created by Arınç’s parochial advice was significant in its breadth and diversity. Some of the women laughing in the photos wore headscarves, others bikins. Many were joined by male friends and relatives – joyous, immodest selfies. Many of Arınç’s intended audience of conservative Turks will have agreed with him, but by no means all.

On 9th August, the day before the presidential election, women will gather in central Istanbul to take part in a “laughing protest”. While admirable, and surreal, this will be sadly fleeting, like many of the protests in Turkey. If all the women in Turkey chose not to vote for Mr Erdoğan on 10th August, however, he would lose, resoundingly. Who, then, would have the last laugh?

This piece first appeared in the Guardian Comment section on 30th July: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/30/turkish-women-laughing-presidential-election.

Since then, Arınç has tried to salvage himself by claiming he was referring to celebrities with “fake laughs” but only succeeded in heaping more ridicule on himself by proceeding to denounce women who go on holiday without their husbands and “cannot see a pole without draping themselves on it”.

Jun 14

Geziversary: A Dark Commemoration

2013 PSY Concert All Night Standing

On Saturday 31st May, 2014, people gathered in the streets near Gezi Park, Istanbul as they had done exactly one year before. This time their mood was very different, however – bitter and fatalistic, with little of the exhilarated energy that characterized protests last year. This year, Gezi Park was cordoned off hours in advance. Civil policemen holding batons patrolled street corners, sinister backup for the thousands of riot police and their water canon trucks stationed around Taksim Square. Only the most determined and politicized of protesters headed out to the unequal battle with their gas masks and hard hats, leaving mainstream Gezi veterans watching events unfold on their TV or Twitter screens at home. This year, the government has learned from its mistakes.

The obvious but crucial point to be made about this year’s protests is that they happened at all: people are still angry. There is plenty to protest about in Turkey; arguably much more than last year, considering the allegations of grotesque government corruption, business cronyism and misconduct that have emerged in the wake of the December 2013 wiretapping scandal and the recent Soma mining disaster. Yes, Gezi Park has been saved, but the Gezi protest movement has moved far beyond that now. The reason so many people rushed to support the original group of protesting environmentalists back in May 2013 was the violence of the police suppression, and that is still part of what people are protesting, in a horribly predictable vicious cycle. Images of people beaten, gassed and detained in cities across Turkey circulate with sickening familiarity on social media, and they are certainly not confined to those protesting the status of a small but iconic urban park.

These images are shocking, but the shock is – sadly – dulled now by the knowledge that this has become the norm, and will probably stay the norm for some time. It is difficult to imagine anything on the scale of the public’s two week occupation of Gezi Park last year happening again under this government’s watch. The events of May 2013 caught the government off guard. In the last year, there has been plenty of practice for the police force described by Prime Minister Erdogan as “heroic” to become adept at stopping any significant protest gathering momentum. That knowledge is at the core of many people’s anger at the government, and at the same time the reason that they cannot fully express it.

My favourite memory of the protests last year is a crowd of people holding out red carnations to commemorate those who had already died, pressing around an advancing TOMA (water canon) in Taksim Square. These people were so determined to protest peacefully, so united, it was impossible not to be moved. This year, the event that stuck in my mind was someone throwing a glass bottle at police from an unseen window on high. The bottle smashed and police quickly pointed their guns at the crowd, who backed off. Here was explosive anger and cowed fear, a horrible indication of how peaceful protest is becoming increasingly desperate.

We’re also hearing ever-more polarizing language from the government, in particular the Prime Minister. One of the most famous clips of Saturday’s protests is of CNN’s Ivan Watson being forcibly detained mid-broadcast by a policeman who refuses to accept his press card as proof of his journalistic credentials. The ridiculous spoof-like quality of the clip has caused much merriment, but that merriment turned sour today after Erdogan referred to Watson as a “creep” and an “agent” who was caught “red-handed” provoking trouble during the protests. The fact that the Prime Minister can refer to a journalist doing his job (and brusquely prevented from doing so) in such a way is not, at this point, surprising, but it is worrying because so many people who listen unquestioningly to their Prime Minister take his words very much to heart. When journalists tried to get to the protests on Saturday, they were stopped by police who accused them of having fake press cards, and then told that only Turkish press were allowed to cover the protests. Several of them were asked, with great suspicion, if they were German journalists, because Germany happens to be the main target of Erdogan and the pro-government media’s xenophobia at the moment.

It will be a very sad day when the raging rhetoric of an unscrupulous government makes foreign nationals feel unwelcome in Turkey, to the point where they want to leave. I hope fervently that will not happen. In the meantime, I applaud the attitude of Ivan Watson, who has entered into the spirit of events by changing his description on Twitter to “siyenenci” – or CNN-ci (purveyor of CNNism). A light touch, Mr Watson, bravo.

May 14

“Coal isn’t free” – Turkish government culpability for Soma

soma protest 2

Much of the anger that has enveloped Turkey since the Soma mining disaster twelve days ago has been directed at the government. “Prime Minister resign!” shout the crowds of protestors marching all over the country. “Soma was a massacre, not an accident!” People are sickened by the scale of the tragedy and the apparent negligence of the mining company, but there is also a strong sense that the government was complicit in this disaster. The day after the blast, during a protest in Istanbul, I saw a young woman with a coal-smeared face, quietly holding a placard which read: “So it seems coal isn’t free”.

Here was a cynical message that got to the heart of Turks’ anger at the government. It referred to something more serious and deeply grounded than the spectacularly botched PR job of the Prime Minister’s visit to Soma, his insensitive cataloguing of 19th century European mining disasters, apparent slapping of a Soma local, the use of force by riot police on mourning relatives of the miners and the absence of apologies, resignations or explanations days after the blast.

“Coal isn’t free” is a darkly significant statement in today’s Turkey. Tayyip Erdogan’s government has made itself extremely popular over its twelve years in power by declaring itself the champion of the masses and giving out subsidies to poor families all over the country. These subsidies have included bread, macaroni and coal and are often bestowed in the run-up to elections. So far, so socialist, at least superficially. At the same time, however, the AKP has thrown itself into accelerating the program of privatization in Turkey that began in 1984. While government spokesmen boast of the billions of lira generated by these sales, the AKP’s critics accuse it of selling assets cheaply and strategically to sole bidders, and failing to check up on workers’ standards post-sale. A statement from the four main Turkish unions shortly after the blast accused the government of complicit guilt, for “even privatizing the safety supervision in the workplace”.

The Soma mine was privatised in 2005, and Soma Holding now pays royalties to the government in the form of 15% of its coal production. The mine still technically belongs to the state, which guarantees that it will buy all coal produced at the site, giving every incentive to the mining company to ramp up production while cutting costs. In an interview in 2012, the owner of Soma Holding, Alp Gürkan, boasted that he had reduced the extraction cost of coal from £77 per tonne to £14 through measures like making electric transformers on site rather than importing them. Miners who worked at the site also said that the company employed cheap technical specialists who were not union members, and failed to replace old, outdated equipment, which became particularly dangerous given the furious rate of production. When asked why the mine did not have a refuge chamber, Gürkan replied that it was not required by law.

All this adds up to a powerful impression that the government does not legislate on safety measures and the mine owners do not bother to meet them because this is mutually beneficial. Only two weeks before the blast, on 29th April, the AKP majority rejected the opposition’s parliamentary proposal to look into safety standards at this particular mine, saying that the mine was perfectly satisfactory and that “God willing, nothing will happen – not even a nose bleed”. The Energy Minister, Taner Yildiz, visited the Soma mine nine months ago and branded it “an example to all mines in Turkey”. Despite Prime Minister Erodgan’s claims that the Soma disaster was on a par with almost any other international mining accident in the world since 1862, Turkey’s rate of mining deaths is shocking at seven lives per million tonnes of coal, compared to China’s four. In terms of general workplace safety, Turkey is third worst in the world.

The incriminatory facts and figures of the Soma disaster were compounded by the government’s response to public anger. Dramatic images from the past ten days speak volumes of the government’s zero tolerance to criticism: a top aide of the Prime Minister kicking a mourner in Soma, lawyers handcuffed, a weeping 10 year old protestor dragged away by police in Izmir and journalists under custody in Istanbul. One Turkish lawyer said to me: “What has Turkey become? It feels like living in a Central Asian dictatorship; it feels like Borat.”

In the wake of outrage over Erdogan’s handling of the crisis many are adamant he should not stand for President in August. If he does, they don’t want him. Given that the AKP’s core voting base continue to support him wholeheartedly, however, this mining disaster has contributed to what feels more and more like sectarianism in a country that once gave so much cause for hope.

Article first published in the New Statesman, 23rd March issue. Since then, Soma mining officials have been arrested and released in a limp scape goat operation. Erdogan has addressed a rally of Turks in Cologne, Germany, slamming the German government (and “the West” in general) to wild applause and accusing his opponents of smelling the Bosphorus rather than the Soma mine. A bizarre and aggressive speech.

Photograph from the BBC

May 14

Soma Updates and Donation


It’s hard keeping up with the horrible news unfolding. Everyone I know here is struggling to come to terms with the news, especially as the rescue effort is hijacked by a media frenzy over the PM’s unfortunate visit to the mines. Here are some articles which cover what miners themselves are saying and give some background about the effect of privatisation on mines’ safety standards after 2005. I am trying to keep up with first hand reports on Twitter – @AScott.

I have posted a link below to a fundraising site to help families who have lost not only their loved ones in the mines but their livelihoods too. Thank you.




Funding site: http://www.gofundme.com/97qeg8

May 14

Erdoğan’s self defence over Soma disaster was badly misjudged


Yesterday in the devastated town of Soma, a crowd of angry mourners mobbed the Turkish Prime Minister’s convoy as it drove slowly through the streets. Boos and jeers threatened to drown out the Prime Minister’s words as he addressed the families of those who died in the blast. When he attempted – briefly – to walk amongst the crowds, their hostile reaction forced his anxious bodyguards to hustle him into a nearby supermarket, where he became embroiled in a scuffle. This was a far cry from the welcoming flowers, smiles and cheers that Tayyip Erdoğan usually receives on official visits.

The Prime Minister has badly misjudged the Soma disaster by delivering an insensitive speech bristling with self-defense. Telling the relatives of dead and dying miners that “these types of incidents are ordinary things” was his way of deflecting any kind of responsibility for the blast in the wake of reports that the government ignored safety concerns about the privately-owned Soma mine raised as little as two weeks ago by opposition MPs. The anger in Soma was echoed in cities across Turkey as thousands of people with coal-smeared faces took to the streets, carrying placards that read: “Soma was not an accident, it was a massacre”. They called for the resignation of the energy minister, Taner Yıldız, and of Erdoğan himself.

There is anger at a generally blasé attitude to worker safety that prevails nationwide, and a strong sense that this blast in particular could have been prevented. Twitter has yet again proved itself as Erdoğan’s bête noir by facilitating the spread of several damning photographs relating to the government’s response to Soma, pre and post-blast. One of these shows an opposition minister speaking in Parliament on 29th April, brandishing a miner’s hard hat and warning of poor conditions in the mine, as two AKP ministers chat amongst themselves in the background. Another photograph, taken yesterday, shows the Prime Minister’s advisor Yusuf Yerkel (above) enthusiastically kicking a protester in Soma as he lies on the ground, already overpowered by a couple of gendarmes.

The government and its media mouthpieces have jumped into self-defense mode, and Erdoğan’s speech yesterday was typical of the belligerence that marks his response to any kind of criticism. Yesterday, he chose to recount a long list of mining disasters which have occurred abroad, stretching back to a British disaster in 1862 and lingering on accidents which have occurred in America, “which has every kind of technology”. His advisors seemed to have spent precious hours researching foreign mining history instead of coming up with a detailed course of action to assure the public of Erdoğan’s commitment to finding those both directly and indirectly responsible for the blast.
To many people, the insensitive tone of this speech and the irrelevance of much of its content needs no spelling out. However, when I spoke to an AKP supporter this morning about it, he was keen to explain the speech to me in its best possible light. Erdoğan expressed deep sorrow, he pointed out. It was quite right to remind the public of similar disasters – what fault was there in that?

The instinctively protective reaction of this AKP supporter explains, in a nutshell, why Erdoğan will survive what in most countries would be a serious PR disaster. He has survived more personally targeted attacks in the last six months, and his prickly self-defence is unlikely to fail him now, when he enjoys the fanatic support of almost half the population. He is rattled, however, and the protests yesterday had a raw anger that was missing from recent, more political protests. Soma is now the biggest mining disaster in Turkey’s history, and people want answers.

Photo via CNN Türk
This article first appeared in the Guardian’s comment pages 15th May