Turkish writer Kaya Genc opens his latest work of non-fiction, Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey, with the stark and horrifying scenes that mesmerized Turks on the night of July 15-16, 2016: the night the Turkish army attempted, but failed, to carry out a coup against the civilian government. Quickly, however, Genc takes the reader back almost thirty-six years to another, successful coup in 1980, which all but restarted the history of the Turkish Republic. Through the voices of the generation that was born and came of age since the 1980 coup, Genc explores the contradictions, polarization, and shattered expectations of the modern Turkish Republic.
In his book, Genc profiles more than a dozen young Turkish citizens from a diverse array of geographic, socio-economic, political, and ethno-religious backgrounds. He weaves their individual stories into four large arcs, which examine how this generation has shaped political activism, fine arts, media and business in Turkey. Most importantly, and in contrast to most other accounts of Turkish youth, Genc profiles both opponents and supporters of the current AKP government.
The first section of Under the Shadow covers the Gezi protests, which took place in the summer of 2013. At the time, there was extensive coverage of these demonstrations from the point of view of protesters. The many Turks who opposed Gezi and continued to support the government of then Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his party, the AKP, were, however, largely absent from the romanticized, English-language media coverage of the protests.
In his book, Genc revisits Gezi both from the perspective of the young protesters and Erdogan’s supporters. For example, he profiles Cenk Yurukogullari, a student activist who was among the first to pitch a tent in what would become a sprawling protest encampment, as well as several other young activists that supported the protests. Genc also interviews a young, aspiring AKP politician Mehmet Algan, who recalls how inspired he was when he joined a crowd of supporters at the Istanbul airport to greet Erdogan after he returned from a trip abroad, during the Gezi protests. The energy of the crowd, combined with Erdogan’s defiant attitude, drove the previously a-political Algan to throw himself into supporting the AKP. “That night we came to our own and this is how I started feeling like a part of Erdogan’s party,” Algan told Genc.
Stories like Algan’s are crucial to understanding how Erdogan was able to come back stronger than ever, after Gezi. He did this by creating a narrative that discredited the demonstrator’s demands and assured his supporters that they held the moral high ground. From Algan’s point of view, Erdogan’s speech at the airport captured this message for the first time: “Our defensive approach about the protests suddenly changed; in the previous two weeks we felt like the Gezi people were our moral superiors, that they purportedly had moral superiority; now it felt like the opposite was the case.”
To undermine the protesters, Erdogan told his followers that, in a democracy, the only appropriate way to challenge the power and authority of the government is through elections. It was an argument that resonated. As Algan recounted to Genc: “… protests are actually better when you want to get rid of a dictator, like Mubarak in Egypt. When you have a democratically elected president, then trying to topple him in the street has little meaning.”
As Genc underscores in his narration of last summer’s dramatic events, Erdogan’s position as an embattled, democratically-mandated leader was reinforced once again after the coup attempt. Even as Erdogan’s authoritarian powers expand, the idea that he is within his rights as an elected leader remains strong in Turkey.
Politics move fast in Turkey. The shell-shock Genc describes after the coup attempt has already morphed into fear and exhaustion, as purges have decimated the military, civil service, and media. In the midst of arguably the worst political oppression in decades, however, the creative and defiant spirit of protest continues to grow among Turkey’s youth.
At the moment, Erdogan is pushing hard for a “yes” vote in a referendum, scheduled for April, that will give him unprecedented and nearly unchecked powers. Turks who have publicly expressed opposition to this measure have been accused of supporting terrorism and fired from their jobs. Even so, many young Turks have drawn on the organizing skills they learned during Gezi to campaign for a “no” vote. As with Gezi, creative methods of protest, such as upbeat opposition songs and memes, have helped spread the message of resistance, both on the street and online.
As hard as Erdogan is working to crush the Turkish political opposition, the youthful energy that Genc chronicles in Under the Shadow refuses to be cowed.