Book review: Kaya Genç’s novel tells tale of the political journeys of younger Turks ahead and following Gezi Park protests
During more than three years living in and reporting from Turkey, I met all sorts of people – from Sunni imams and Alevi dancers to displaced Kurds. But never did I uncover the exhaustive personal political histories that the Istanbul-based novelist Kaya Genç presents in Under the Shadow: Rage and Revolution in Modern Turkey.
The author recounts the political journeys of more than a dozen younger Turks leading up to and following the ground-shifting Gezi Park protests of mid-2013. The profiles underscore the diversity of Turkish political perspectives today, yet highlight just how little has changed in the past century.
Early in the book, Genç recalls the hope that attended the rise to power in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP. On a wave of anti-corruption sentiment, Turks chose the party of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abdullah Gül for its marriage of conservatism with western-friendly capitalism. Many in the West also took to the AKP: the party received friendly notices from The New York Times and The Guardian, British prime minister Tony Blair and German chancellor Gerhard Schröder. The fawning may have been more about a post-9/11 need for a model Islamic democracy than the potential for a stronger Turkey under the AKP. Either way, a decade of relative stability and economic growth followed.
Yet by early 2013, many had begun to sour on the AKP, thanks mainly to a dubious judicial system and a widening crackdown on free speech. A sociopolitical cleavage began to emerge. To explain its origins, Genç reaches back a century-and-a-half, to the first modern dissident movements of the Ottoman Empire.
A secret society founded in 1865, the Young Ottomans were conservative, pan-Islamic and pro-sultanate. The group sought to incorporate some European ideas of government but feared that full westernisation of the state apparatus would crush Islamic law and lead to an ideological vacuum. Its great achievement was convincing Sultan Abdul Hamid II to adopt a constitution in 1876. The sultan revoked it two years later, reclaiming power, but the Ottoman Empire’s First Constitutional Era marked a real step forward.
A generation later, another underground society emerged. The reform-minded Young Turks (organised politically as the Committee of Union and Progress, or CUP) rebelled against Abdul Hamid II in 1908 and ultimately installed a multiparty democracy that served as a western-leaning stepping stone to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular republic.
“Young Turks and Young Ottomans survive in modern-day Turkey,” writes Genç, outlining the book’s core argument. “Despite hurried analyses of the political unrest in Turkey that describe it as a fight between a monolithic group of young activists and a repressive system supported by ignorant masses who should know better, the real dynamic of unrest among Turkey’s furious youth exists between these equally influential and long-lasting historico-political positions.”
Today’s descendants of the Young Turks would include Gezi Park protester Cenk Yürükogullari. “We had built there a non-hierarchical, non-authoritarian system,” he tells Genç of the 15-day occupation of the park. “It felt like the Paris Commune!”
Another would be Sarpan Uzunoglu, a promising political adviser to the activist filmmaker and Istanbul parliamentarian Sirri Süreyya Onder, who was wounded early in the Gezi protests when a tear-gas canister hit him in the head. A revolutionary socialist, Uzunoglu was disappointed when communist organisers commandeered the Gezi movement in the months after the protests.
Mehmet Algan would be among the present-day Young Ottomans. At the height of the Gezi protests he went to Ataturk airport to greet Erdogan’s plane returning from North Africa – a decision that changed his life. In June 2015, Algan was elected an AKP MP for the southern port city of Iskenderun.
So too would Betül Kayahan. She briefly met Erdogan in the United States a week before Gezi. “He had an incredible aura,” she tells Genç. These days, Kayahan defends the AKP on Twitter and contributes to the English-language government mouthpiece Daily Sabah. Genç’s jumping-off point for his political bios is the idea of angry young Turks; “being a rebel in our youth is in our genes”, he explains. Yet many of his subjects seem neither angry nor rebellious. They tend to act soberly, rationally. Beybin Somuk, a liberal Kurd who supported the government largely because of the peace process it launched in early 2013, stayed away from Gezi because she believed the protests had been hijacked by nationalists – a group with which she, as a Kurd, had issues.
Horror filmmaker Can Evrenol recounts his protest experiences as a visual artist encountering cinematically pleasing images. And Lara Fresko, an art curator from an old Istanbul Jewish family, delivers a clear-eyed appraisal of the Gezi occupation – noting the sudden emergence of an alternative economy, while questioning the overly vocal presence of nationalist groups. It’s a credit to Turkish youth that, despite incredibly stressful, unpredictable circumstances, they are often able to maintain a cool remove.
Except, that is, for the writers. Crippled by anxiety after a long protest-related court case, Aytug Akdogan can no longer make a living as a writer after Gezi, and moves back in with his parents. Several weeks before Gezi, the young film critic Berke Göl is choked by a policeman during a protest to save the Emek Theatre. A photograph of the incident is broadcast on television, and, since Turkey had by this time become the world’s leading jailer of journalists, goes viral as a symbol of oppression.
After Gezi, the government switched tactics, muscling media outlets to self-censor. Editors and reporters who refused were either fired or forced to resign. When the journalist Sibel Oral was working at the liberal newspaper Taraf in late 2013, its founders, Ahmet Altan and Yasemin Çongar, chose to resign rather than toe the government line. Oral followed them out the door. A few months later she was fired from her job at the conservative Aksam for a tweet directed at Erdogan. A report released around that same time by the Shorenstein Centre at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government found that more than 1,000 journalists lost their jobs in similar fashion in the months after Gezi.
A century ago, Genç reminds us, the shoe was on the other foot. In the early days of CUP rule, Hasan Fehmi, editor-in-chief of the conservative newspaper Serbesti, vocally opposed its liberal-minded reform agenda. In April 1909, he was shot and killed on the street, likely on the order of the Young Turks. Years later, Atatürk would launch a broad crackdown on conservative voices. In 1925, his government executed the Islamic scholar Mehmet Atif for arguing, in an influential pamphlet, that it was absurd for Muslims to ape westerners.
Genç’s profiles do neglect a few key players: we never hear from members of the police or military, the militant left (Kurdish and communist groups) or the Gülen network. One might argue that the politics of the members of these groups would be predictable. Yet this book is largely about undermining political predictability.
Also, both Somuk and Uzunoglu ultimately decided that the AKP government’s peace process with the Kurds made the regime acceptable. Yet since the resumption of violence in Turkey’s southeast in mid-2015, it’s been all but impossible to argue that the ruling AKP is working to resolve the Kurdish issue. Genç wrote the book in late 2015 and early 2016 – when violence in the south-east was at its peak – yet he never checks back to learn whether events have altered their views.
Still, Under the Shadow serves as an excellent field guide for Turkey’s emerging generation. One of its most impressive achievements is something the author has left out: his own political views. In a deeply polarised Turkey, this Istanbul native has dived bodily into the muddy trough of Turkish politics and emerged nearly spotless, making strong points for government supporters and critics.
The book closes with an epilogue about the July 15 coup attempt, after which many thousands of Turks again filled Taksim Square. “Powerful politicians started talking about the flow of free media and the value of information,” Genç writes. “People were ecstatic to be on the streets.”
But now, months later, as the purge against government critics expands to include more than 100,000 people, with about 130 journalists in jail and social media recently blocked, it’s hard to talk of the flow of free media and ecstatic people in the streets.
“We are undergoing a period of change, and such periods are always painful,” Somuk tells Genç at one point, referring to Gezi. “This energy had to be released, this confrontation had to be made. There was no other way for Turkey to go forward.”
One wonders when that might happen. Nearly 30 months have passed since Gezi, and Turkey looks to be sinking ever deeper into this painful period of change.
David Lepeska is a freelance writer who also contributes to The New York Times, The Guardian and Foreign Affairs.