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‘The “Butler Did It” Theories of the Turkish Elections Get Us Nowhere’

To blame rampant nationalism or sneaking Islamism for the many failings of Turkish democracy is lazy journalism

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends his inauguration ceremony on 3 June 2023. Photo: UPI/Alamy

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Political commentaries are like murder mysteries. There is a crime to be solved (unexpected election results); several suspects (politicians, institutions, the masses); a gathering in remote settings (exotic countries, inner cities and boorish rural areas); and a detective (the foreign journalist, the pundit or the expert) charged with the task of finding the culprit. 

A successful ‘whodunit’ grabs the readers’ attention from the get-go, convincing them that they could solve the crime on their own. “The author must play fair with the reader”, writes American art critic and mystery novelist S.S. Van Dine in his widely cited Twenty Rules for Writing Detective Stories. “He must outwit the reader, and hold the reader’s interest, through sheer ingenuity”.

Originally published in 1928, at the height of the golden age of mystery writing, Van Dine’s short article is considered to be one of the key texts in the critical study of detective fiction. There are very definite laws for the writing of detective stories, he tells us, that every “respectable and self-respecting” author needs to follow. The most remarkable of these is rule number 11 which states that “servants – such as butlers, footmen, valets, game-keepers, cooks, and the like – must not be chosen by the author as the culprit. It is a too easy solution. It is unsatisfactory, and makes the reader feel that his time has been wasted”.

Judging by these standards, most commentaries on the results of the recent elections in Turkey would have flunked the test, and yet for reasons that are difficult to fathom, mainstream media never gets tired of running the same hackneyed clichés or tedious Orientalist tropes about nationalism and Islam, election after election.

Don’t expect clever plot twists or complicated characters. In Turkey – or any other non-Western country for that matter – institutions don’t matter, civil society doesn’t exist, political culture is obedient, and the masses have no agency.

Whether draped in the colours of the national flag or cloaked under a religious veil, it’s always the butler. 

Lazy Commentary

The 14-28 May double elections – which extended President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rule into a third decade with more than 52% of the 64 million votes cast – were not an exception.

“In Turkey’s elections, nationalism is the real winner”, Al-Jazeera told its readers. “Nationalism is ‘definitely a winner’ in Turkey’s presidential elections”, France 24 declared.

As always, the culprit had a helper or co-plotter but, once again, it wasn’t one which left much room for imagination.

“Erdogan Looks to Islamist Fringe to Bolster Electoral Alliance”, Bloomberg informed us. “Arab Islamists Rally Behind Erdoğan In Upcoming Turkish Election Deemed ‘Battle Between Islam And Unbelief’”, wrote The Middle East Media Research Institute

The problem with ‘the Butler did it’ theories of Turkish elections is not that nationalism or Islam played no role in the outcome. Obviously, they did. They always do. Much like the proverbial criminal butler, they are always there – as part of the scenery, and as one suspect among many, but certainly not the most unlikely one.

To blame rampant nationalism or sneaking Islamism for the many failings of Turkish democracy is nothing but an anti-climax, and a glaring sign of lazy journalism; the pundit’s ineptitude and lack of originality. 

To solve the mystery and identify the real culprit, we must peer behind the façade, and uncover the deeper plot at work. 

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Turkey’s Culture Wars

The deeper plot that lies beneath Turkey’s current woes and its endless waltz with authoritarianism is one of ‘culture wars’.

I use the term culture in the sense American sociologist James Davison Hunter defined it in his influential 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America – as rival interpretations of the good and “how the good is grounded and legitimated”.

Oddly enough, despite its widespread use in current debates on issues of identity and politics, few people know about the origins of the concept of ‘culture wars’, as I showed in my recent book, Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke. One reason for this is the exclusively American focus of the expression.

Hunter’s aim is to make sense of what he perceives as a fundamental realignment of American public culture, one that affected all major institutions and the elites who lead these organisations. But the culture wars thesis is helpful in understanding societal conflicts in other contexts too – not only in the English-speaking world, and certainly not limited to post-material identity-related issues. 

Turkey’s culture wars are nothing new.

They started before the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 and continue until today under different guises and with varying intensity. Some call them a tug-of-war between secularism and Islam; others talk about a long-running dispute between centre and periphery; still others, between tradition and modernity. But these labels fail to capture the full complexity of the split, for the fault lines cut across conventional divisions along political, economic and sociocultural lines. 

Hunter’s metaphor is more useful than contending conceptual tools in at least three ways. First, it invites us to see the competing understandings of reality that lie beneath mundane policy disputes or institutional crises. The 2023 earthquakes which claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people, the unstoppable depreciation of Turkish Lira, or the egregious abuses of human rights don’t have the same meaning for those who stand on different sides of the culture war. Various polls have shown that support for Erdoğan was more or less intact in cities worst hit by the earthquake. More than half of the voters didn’t hold the Government responsible for the deepening economic crisis, or at least didn’t consider it to be more important than other issues, above all fear. 

Second, the culture wars thesis shows us how important elites are in shaping the framework of people’s commitments. When he revisited his earlier arguments in 2006, Hunter stressed that this is not simply a matter of noisy extremists shouting in the dark. The elites are the ones who provide the concepts and define the meaning of public symbols.

When Erdoğan waved a prayer rug in a campaign rally, he knew that the crowd would boo his rival Kılıçdaroğlu, an Alevi no less, who accidentally stepped on one with his shoes during an iftar gathering. The truth value of such overtly absurd statements as “if the opposition wins, they’ll let people marry animals” didn’t matter so long as they produced an alternate reality and managed to evoke fear.

Hunter is aware, of course, that the majority of the population is not invested in culture wars as much as the elites, and tend to be more moderate and less motivated. But when issues are framed in such stark terms, public choices are forced. In other words, when push comes to shove, most – even those in the middle – make a choice.

Don’t miss a story

This is also because, and that’s the third advantage of using the culture war framework, the moral visions offered by contending elites become meaningful in relation to their opposite, the enemy Other. The choices people make are a means to reassert their collective identity, often in the face of what is perceived an existential threat.

This was what the opposition candidate Kılıçdaroğlu wanted to tap into when he talked about sending Syrian refugees back, protecting women from Erdoğan’s new coalition partners, notably Hüda-Par with alleged links to Kurdish Hezbollah or the Islamic fundamentalist New Welfare Party. Similarly, Erdoğan wanted to delegitimise his opponent by portraying him as a stooge of the Kurdish militant PKK.

And not only the elites. Anyone who spent a couple of hours on Turkish Twitter the night before the second round of the elections, when it was announced that Turkish actress Merve Dizdar won the Best Actress Award at Cannes Film Festival, would have noticed the emotional rift that kept the two sides of the culture war apart – with Kılıçdaroğlu supporters interpreting this as sign that things were finally going to change versus the Erdoğanistas who lashed out at Dizdar who dedicated her award to her “sisters who never give up hope no matter what and to all the rebellious souls in Turkey who are waiting for the good days they deserve”.

In the context of culture wars, nationalism and Islam don’t explain much in and of themselves. They are part of the symbolic environment which makes particular political arrangements possible and acceptable. As party ideology is less important than the deeper normative conflict, alliances are formed and dissolved in a heartbeat; promises are made and broken; and politics is trapped in a spiral of emotions.

Whatever the merits and limitations of Hunter’s thesis, the culture wars perspective is much more helpful than ‘the butler did it’ theories which might function like the devices S.S. Van Dine advises detective story writers to steer clear of – for example, the butt of a cigarette left at the crime scene, forged finger prints, leading us to the wrong conclusions. Equally importantly, the focus on culture wars alerts us to the persistence of deep-seated differences which have the potential to undermine attempts to find a way to live together.

So far as Turkey is concerned, it would not be wrong to say that the Rubicon has been crossed.

The Kemalist project was successful in creating a modern state out of the remnants of the crumbling Ottoman Empire, but it failed in creating a nation united by a commitment to shared values. Erdoğan’s equally paternalistic ‘New Turkey’ didn’t fare any better. As it prepares to celebrate its centenary, the republic remains bitterly divided into several mutually hostile communities which would rather go their own merry way than coexist together.

Whether Turkey can survive this and make it into another centenary is a mystery that not even the best detectives can easily solve, whether they stick to Van Dine’s rules or not. 

Umut Özkırımlı is a senior research fellow at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacionals; a professor at Blanquerna, Ramon Llull University; and a senior research associate at CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). He is the author of recently published ‘Cancelled: The Left Way Back from Woke

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