By Abraham Thicke
Jon Stallworthy’s poem ‘The Trap’ is about a man whose house is menaced by an unseen monster. On successive nights it draws closer, crossing the lawn, trampling the flowers, killing the watchdog. Finally, the protagonist constructs an enormous gin-trap on his porch. His neighbours awaken to a terrible scream in the darkness. In the morning they find the man crushed in the jaws of his trap.
Turkey, in its understanding of, and interactions with, the world increasingly resembles Stallworthy’s protagonist. It finds marks on the grass, broken flowers, a dead dog — and presents them irrefutable evidence of a monster. In Turkey’s case the monster, or rather monsters, are a succession plots that aim to bring the country, or more generally the Muslim world, to its knees. Most take the same basic form — hatched abroad by shadowy cabals and enacted with the help of domestic traitors
The regime’s spokesmen and its media organs are relentless in promulgating these monsters, indicating the importance they attach to them. Large segments of the public accept them at face value. One reason is that many of the monsters are based on grains of truth. For instance, many of the military coups that occurred in 20th century Turkey were supported by the United States or did not receive a strong push back from Washington. There is also a strong case that 2016’s coup attempt was organized by Fethullah Gülen, the US based leader of a cult like religious movement who was formerly close to the Turkish regime. These examples notwithstanding, the vast majority of Turkey’s monsters more closely resemble fantastical beasts and the narratives they haunt have all the evidential basis of fairytales.
Whether Turkish decision makers also sincerely believe the monsters are real or merely use them cynically as tools to help maintain popular support is an open question. The answer is likely to be nuanced and, because of the inherent difficulty in separating sincere beliefs from those that are merely instrumental, it is beyond the scope of this article to attempt to provide an answer.
However, regardless of the status of these beliefs in the minds of Turkish decision makers, the narratives themselves have a substantial effect both on Turkey’s standing in the world and on the state of Turkey in general.
Costs and benefits
First, the regime must maintain some degree of consistency between the narratives it puts out and its actions. Failure to do so would undermine public acceptance of the narratives and reduce support for the regime.
Seen in this light, the succession of crises involving the Turkish regime and international actors can be partly explained as generated to sustain the narrative. So too can the succession of purges within the machinery of the Turkish state and the business community, particularly since last year’s abortive coup. One victim of the endless international crises and domestic upheavals is the Turkish Republic, which sustains damage to its international reputation, to its institutions and to its economy.
The human cost is also fantastic, with tens of thousands jailed or deprived of their livelihoods.
The beneficiary, in the short term, is the Turkish regime which is able to strengthen and maintain its grip on power, though at the longer term expense of weakening Turkey. It is as if the regime, as it consolidates its position as master of the ship, reduces the ship to an increasingly unseaworthy state. The costs of servicing these narratives are therefore considerable.
A second consequence stems from the fact that the narratives must somehow accommodate and explain events as they unfold in real time. This is problematic because the narratives offer a poor fit with the facts. A straightforward example is the repeated insistence of regime officials that Turkey has an independent judiciary. This is no more convincing than repeatedly insisting that a burning house is not on fire. The reason, of course, is the existence of abundant and convincing evidence to the contrary. Explanatory narratives cannot change facts. They merely represent them more or less faithfully.
However, the regime’s level of investment in its narratives is so great that it cannot afford to abandon them. So rather than fitting the narrative to the facts, the facts must be fitted to the narrative. The result is increasingly bizarre plot twists. For many this scarcely matters. Accepting the narratives is an act of faith rather than of rationality. But for others, sooner or later, the limits of credibility will be exceeded. Further, as the narratives become increasingly fantastic, they become less effective as tools to recruit fresh support for the regime.
So, in the long term, the narratives cannot sustain their basic purpose. All they can do is maintain the backing of hard core regime followers, while support leaks from the flanks. In the meantime, as the regime is forced to act in a manner that is, at least superficially, consistent with increasingly unwieldy narratives, ever increasing damage is incurred.
A third, related, consequence is that as the narratives become increasingly divorced from reality the regime loses credibility. Domestically, whilst a substantial proportion of the Turkish populace is currently in thrall of the narratives, the regime’s credibility with another large segment of the population is cut to ribbons. Were the regime to suddenly adopt a realistic narrative, this group would remain sceptical simply because of their prior experience.
It is the same in international relations. Turkey’s credibility is shot. The consequence of this is that when the regime voices genuine and legitimate concerns they go largely unheeded. An example, alluded to earlier, involves the role of the Gülen movement in 2016’s attempted coup. The reluctance of foreign governments to co-operate in terms of extraditing suspects stems partly from the regime’s solid record of bluff, bluster and bulls.. Much like the little boy who cried wolf, Turkey now finds that when a monster does actually come loping from the forest, no-one heeds its cries. As my three-year-old child is fond of saying, ‘Are you pleased with what you’ve done?’
Who cares if Erdoğan and his inner circle really believe in the monsters they talk about so much? Not me. Not much anyway. Just like in Stallworthy’s poem, a monster that exists only in the mind can do as much damage as a real one, and likewise a storyteller doesn’t need to believe the story she tells for it to have an effect. But the trap is real. And the pain the trap inflicts when it snaps shut? Is that more real than the monster? No, it isn’t. But a broken neck is.