To simply say “protestors good, government bad” in Turkey is a symptom of the Blair delusion, that in civil conflicts there are guys with white hats and guys with black hats, and that the West’s role is to ride into town and kill the guys in the black hats. That is what “liberal intervention” means. The main aim of my second autobiographical book, “The Catholic Orangemen of Togo”, was to explain through the truth of the Sierra Leone experience how very, very wrong this is.
In fact civil conflicts are usually horribly complex, anent a variety of very bad people all trying to gain or retain power, none of them from an altruistic desire to make the world a better place. There may be ordinary people on the streets with that altruistic desire, being used and manipulated by these men; but it is not the ordinary altruistic people on the streets who ever come to power. Ever.
In Turkey the heavy crushing of a rainbow of protests in Istanbul has been going on for at least a month now. A week ago I was discussing it with my publisher, whose son lives in the city. A fortnight ago I was in Istanbul myself.
The Turkish people I was with were natural Erdogan supporters, and what struck me very forcibly was the fact that he has sickened many of his own natural allies by the rampant corruption in Turkey at present. Almost everyone I met spoke to me about corruption, and Turkey being Turkey, everyone seemed to know a very great deal of detail about how corruption was organised in various building and development projects and who was getting what. It therefore is hardly surprising that the spark which caused this conflict to flare to a new level was ignited by a corrupt deal to build a shopping centre on a park. The desecration of something lovely for money could be a metaphor for late Erdogan government.
The park is very small beer compared to the massive corruption involved in the appalling and megalomaniac Bosphorus canal project. Everyone talked to me about that one. The mainstream media, who never seem to know what is happening anywhere, seem to have missed that a major cause of the underlying unrest in Istanbul was the government’s announcement eight weeks ago that the Bosphorus canal is going ahead.
People are also incensed by the new proposal that would ban the sale of alcohol within 100 metres of any mosque or holy site, ie anywhere within central Istanbul. That would throw thousands of people out of work, damage the crucial tourist trade and is rightly seen as a symptom of reprehensible mounting religious intolerance that endangers Turkish society.
So there are plenty of legitimate reasons to protest, and the appalling crushing of protest is the best of them
But – and this is what it is never in the interest of Western politicians to understand – Government bad does not equal protestors good. A very high proportion – more than the British public realise by a very long way – of those protesting in the streets are off the scale far right nationalists of a kind that make the BNP look cuddly and Nigel Farage look like Tony Benn. Kemalism – the worship of Ataturk and a very unpleasant form of military dominated nationalism – remains very strong indeed in Istanbul. Ataturk has a very strong claim, ahead of Mussolini, to be viewed as the inventor of modern fascism
For every secular liberal in Istanbul there are two secular ultra-nationalist militarists. To westerners they stress the secular bit and try to hide the rest, and this works on the uncurious (being uncurious is a required attribute to get employed by the mainstream media). Of course there are decent, liberal, environmentalist protestors and the media will have no difficulty, now they have finally noticed something is happening, in filling our screens with beautiful young women who fit that description, to interview. But that is not all of what is going on here.
There certainly was no more freedom in Turkey before the AKP came to power. Government for decades had been either by the Kemalist military in dictatorship or occasionally by civilian governments they tolerated and controlled. People suddenly have short memories if they think protest was generally tolerated pre-Erdogan, and policy towards the Kurds was massively more vicious.
The military elite dominated society and through corruption they dominated commerce and the economy. The interests of a protected and generally fascist urban upper middle class were the only interests that counted at all. The slightest threat to those interests brought a military coup – again, and again, and again. Religion was barely tolerated, and they allied closely with Israel and the United States.
When Erdogan first came to power it was the best thing that had happened to Turkey for decades. The forgotten people of the Anatolian villages, and the lower middle class of the cities, had a voice and a position in the state for the first time. In individual towns and villages, the military and their clients who had exercised absolute authority had their power suddenly diminished. I witnessed this and it was a new dawn, and it felt joyous.
Then of course Erdogan gradually got sucked in to power, to money, to NATO, to the corruption of his Black Sea mafia and to arrogance. It all went very wrong, as it always seems to. That is where we are now.
Yes of course I want those pretty, genuinely liberal environmentalist girls in the park to take power. But they won’t. Look at the hard-eyed fascists behind them. Look at the western politicians licking their lips thinking about the chance to get a nice very right wing, anti-Muslim and pro-Israel government into power.
We should all be concerned at what is happening in Turkey. We should all call for an end to violent repression. But to wish the overthrow of a democratically elected government, and its replacement – by what exactly? – is a very, very foolish reaction.