Can is an educated, middle-class professional, living in a European country, who has, by any reasonable interpretation of the word, had a successful career. He is a nice guy, an intelligent and articulate man with a loving family, great friends and unusually supportive colleagues. Everything in his life seems to be going pretty well.
But Can has a small problem: his full name is Can Dündar, and his day-job is editor of Cumhurriyet, the main opposition newspaper in authoritarian Turkey. This means that, as a result of one day publishing a story about illegal arms shipments to Syrian Islamists, not only is he suddenly imprisoned without trial, but that his life is later found to be in serious danger.
This is his diary of the start of all this: the three months he spends in a Turkish prison, leading up to the trial. If you are expecting a re-run of Alan Parker’s Midnight Express, the brutal 1970s film about the life of an American inmate in a Turkish prison, you will be disappointed. But in order to cast a veneer of 21st-century respectability over such matters, authoritarian regimes like Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s nowadays turn to more subtle, psychological methods to drive people over the edge.
Political detention in Turkey, now a growth industry, is all about solitary confinement. By taking intelligent people and cutting them off from human contact, you aim to break their spirit and send a message to other would-be advocates of free speech. The result is more 1984 than Midnight Express.
In the book, what engages the reader from the first is Dundar’s blank refusal to be broken, to use any lever, any pretext, to banish boredom and – vitally, in his case – to keep writing tirelessly, thereby maintaining the injustice of his incarceration alive in the minds of Turkey’s and the world’s media. Above all, he realises it is vital to keep one thing intact: his sense of humour.
And so he writes of his wife, his teenage son and his courageous friends who keep vigil for him outside the prison. His warders, his lawyers and his orthodontist. He jokes about the idiocies of the Erdogan regime. His mind cannot be allowed to be constrained by his four walls; if he weakens, he is lost.
It is ultimately an uplifting tale, but nevertheless a sobering one. Modern Turkey has recently been, in the big cities at least, a place hard to distinguish from any European Union state, as evidenced by the Western feel of downtown Istanbul. To give another example: two years ago, I worked on a big Europe-wide project for a multinational. Both my immediate, and my departmental, bosses were well-educated Turks, from middle-class families like Dündar’s.
Despite a wide discrepancy between such families and Turkey’s poorest, it is still a relatively affluent state in global terms, which for decades has oscillated between full Westernisation and democracy on the one hand; and, on the other, slipping back towards authoritarianism. Historically the latter has meant military dictatorship, but under Erdogan it has a different flavour, one increasingly underpinned by Islamist meddling in the state apparatus. As Dündar puts it elegantly: ‘a nation trying to sustain democracy on a perilous pendulum swinging between the barracks and the mosque’. The irony is that it was this very phenomenon, the mixing of church and state, which the nation’s founder, Atatürk, wisely build its constitution to prevent.
In the book’s preface, we learn that, after Dundar is acquitted last February, he later narrowly avoids being shot on his way to court to answer further charges. Then in May, of course, we had the attempted coup: the perfect pretext for Erdogan to start to close down all remaining dissent and consolidate his grip on power. By the time of writing, Dündar has ultimately been forced to flee the country for what he calls the ‘crime of journalism’. A few weeks ago, Cumhurriyet had its editor and a number of journalists arrested, along with a number of opposition members of parliament. Turkey’s democracy is entering a very dark period. But Dundar and his colleagues fight on.
There are lessons for us here.
First, it serves as a stark reminder that even in the early 21st century, just outside that comfortable bubble carved out by the EU’s borders, and even in relatively developed economies, there remains a world where democracy and human rights cannot remotely be taken for granted. Even inside EU borders, Hungary is arguably going slowly down a similar road to Turkey and may yet turn out be the EU’s first non-democracy.
Second, that a relatively democratic and Westernised country can quickly turn to be not so. From here, it is difficult to see how Erdogan will ever be dislodged without a successful coup (that said, Turkey has quite a history of those). We can see, from recent events in the US, how easily reactionary populism can take hold even in some of our truly established democracies, let alone in young ones like Turkey.
Further, in post-Brexit Britain, it is fashionable to forget the considerable impact that the EU has had on preventing many eastern European states from going the same way. What is clear that we live in times where the wave of democratisation that happened during the last years of the twentieth century is now in stark retreat. As leftist internationists and democrats, this trend must be fought with all our might; not to mention the parallel trend towards isolationism, currently gripping both left and right across the world. This is worse, as it encourages the comfortable citizens of western Europe not to care, indeed to see their neighbours as a threat and not an opportunity. Both phenomena, depressingly, have their apologists, and not just on the fringes of left and right.
Third, we live in times where decency and speaking one’s mind may in themselves require significant acts of personal and political courage; to hold onto one’s beliefs and not bow to conventional wisdom.
It is no exaggeration to say that this applies in democratic countries in the grip of populist thinking – be it Britain under the Brexiteers or Labour under Corbyn – as well as ones which are less so. If our own Labour MPs will take heed of this need for courage and act accordingly, we may yet be on our way to recovering the fortunes of our great party.
To see an example of how quickly democratic nations can fall, in the last few weeks, Turkey’s parliament attempted to pass a law to excuse men who rape 13 year olds, as long as they marry them afterwards. That is the level of cultural regression that a once-modernising state is on the brink of embracing.
It would be a tragedy for Erdogan not to be fought against, and it is reassuring to know that people like Dündar are willing to stand up and be counted. We need to not only support them, but keep insisting that our own politicians show similar courage in the face of the siren calls of isolationism and populism; to stand fast, in short, against the scourge of conventional wisdom and the tyranny of the majority.
We Are Arrested by Can Dündar
Biteback | 320pp | £14.99