As politics in contemporary Turkey is gradually steered towards a de facto Imperial Presidency shrouded in regurgitated myths of Ottoman revivalism and defended against ostentatious conspiracies, it is easy to be sucked into the extreme polarization between the pro- and anti-government positions. It is also easy to take for granted the operation of a complex world of opinion production behind all the fuss. Those of us following political news in Turkey are always exposed to written, spoken, or gestured discourses on the state of the “New Turkey,” the evil plots of the “Parallel Structure,” and how President Erdoğan’s new palace is destined to be the seat of a prosperous nation of harmony and freedom. On the surface, we like or dislike what we perceive, but the medium itself seldom gets noticed by us. We are not always aware of the fact that the words we read, the images we gaze upon, or the angry voice of a corrupt minister we hear operate through a history of struggles over ways of framing.
Similarly, we tend to follow certain public brokers of political discourse (columnists, authors, journalists, party hacks, academics, and other so-called experts) and judge their written or oratory performances based on their individual standing—we may hate their guts or bless their souls without mulling over what made them the technicians of opinion they are. We argue in this essay that contemporary media intellectuals in Turkey are made as they make themselves, and this making does, in fact, occur somewhere. Following one of the most comprehensive studies on opinion production—Ronald N. Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley’s The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere—we suggest that for a proper understanding of this production and the producers, we need to see how the space of media opinion evolves. According to Jacobs and Townsley, the space of opinion is a space where relations, elite actors, institutions, and cultural traditions connected to the production of written and spoken public commentary accumulate; unlike the much more accessible “public sphere,” it is part of the “public communicative infrastructure in which the elites of our huge, complex societies debate serious matters of common concern.” The space of opinion crosscuts and orients itself towards politics and journalism. Inside that space, a media intellectual is simply an opinion technician: someone who has moved through a historical trajectory inside that space, who has collected and invested credibility there, and became part of the intellectual elite while he or she learned the opinion craft along the way.
We develop this argument for the Turkish space of opinion to a limited extent here. We will take the highly visible example of a “media intellectual” and attempt to recreate his trajectory inside the space to make sense of his positions and dispositions. We focus on Etyen Mahçupyan, an influential Turkish columnist and, most recently, one of the chief consultants to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu. As a libertarian and non-Muslim who is an outsider to Turkey’s mainstream political Islam, he represents a group of opinion-producers coming from non-Islamist (liberal, nationalist, libertarian, social-democratic, and even socialist) backgrounds that became embedded in state power during the governments of the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP—Justice and Development Party) since 2002. His story has unique and incomparable elements, as well as elements that give us clues about how the space of opinion got structured throughout the last quarter century.
We offer a few analytical pointers that may help steer such an investigation, without claiming to be able to fully deliver upon them by the end of this discussion:
- Not every ordinary opinion producer is able to enter the space. So how did Mahçupyan gain access and accumulate credibility?
- There is always extreme polarization within the space as it cuts across the political and journalistic fields and is affected by the conflicts there. How did Mahçupyan move through this space as the dominated and dominant poles became interchanged (roughly, anti-Islamist positions becoming dominated, anti-Kurdish positions becoming dramatically rearranged)?
- Autonomy from the political field is hard to achieve and is a precious asset inside the space. As he became more and more embedded, did Mahçupyan retain autonomy as an outsider? Can a media intellectual be partisan and non-militant at the same time?
Entering the Space
Born in Istanbul, Mahçupyan studied at Robert College and received his bachelor’s degree from the Department of Chemical Engineering at Boğaziçi University. His post-graduate studies at Mülkiye (Ankara University’s School of Political Sciences) were important for his intellectual trajectory. He wrote his MA in international economics (1977-80) and became the assistant of Yahya Sezai Tezel in the Department of Economics at Mülkiye. He was recruited into the circle around the journal Toplumcu Düşün (Societist Idea, which published sixteen issues between June 1978 and May 1980) via Tezel, who later became an editor there, and became an ardent supporter of Tezel’s anti-Marxism (a position Mahçupyan still strongly endorses today). The journal’s first editorial board also included figures like Türker Alkan, who became a well-known social-democratic journalist throughout the 1990s and 2000s; Nilüfer Arıak, who continued her career as a successful businesswoman and financial consultant; and Kadri Atabaş, who is an influential architect close to CHP (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi, or Republican People’s Party) circles and is also the designer of the party’s headquarters in Ankara. Haluk Özdalga, who would later become an MP from the ruling AKP in 2007, was also a leading figure in the journal.
Toplumcu Düşün was unique in terms of its anti-communist but pro-social-democratic stance, experimenting with ideas imported from socialist and libertarian heterodoxies of the time. The journal thus attracted individuals like Mahçupyan who had a disdain for the Leninist “action politics” of Turkey’s Left (especially within the period’s campus culture) and who rejected what they saw as its authoritarianism. Thus Toplumcu Düşün supported the CHP after its electoral victory in 1977—its founders hoped that the CHP would move towards “democratic socialism” of some sort. In 1977-1978, the journal’s contributors frequently socialized with the CHP’s rank-and-file in Ankara. Taking an anti-totalitarian stance against what he perceived as “Jacobin” tendencies of the Left, Mahçupyan frequently wrote articles for Toplumcu Düşün that distanced himself from the “terrorism” of that period’s armed clashes between right-wing paramilitaries and revolutionary groups.
Mahçupyan’s views on “proper democracy” and “being properly democratic” were also influenced by the introduction of the “center-periphery paradigm” on the pages of the journal, through the writings of the leading proponents of this paradigm, Şerif Mardin and Metin Heper. Reading Turkey’s late Ottoman, early Republican, and contemporary political history through an overarching clash between an authoritarian (in Republican times, Kemalist) bureaucratic center and a marginalized civil society representing (predominantly) fragmented Sunni-religious claims appealed to Mahçupyan’s evolving opinions on how Turkey should democratize. If “culturally-alienated” religious and conservative segments of the society, which in actuality were the majority with respect to the Kemalist elite (and its laicized electorate), could be re-integrated into the Turkish polity through stronger democratic representation, other marginalized groups would also be brought back into the fold.
Following the coup of 1980, Mahçupyan ceased his intellectual activities for some time. In his writings, he reports experiencing great disappointment and desperation in this period. To support himself, he worked in the service sector as a manager (employed by the Eczacıbaşı Group for a while). After 1989, he started working for a consultancy firm, learning to work on “productivity-enhancing cultural and psychological change in companies.” Because of the kind of consultancy work he was doing, he studied social psychology, an engagement that has also left its permanent mark on his opinions regarding the “democratic mentality.” He started writing for daily papers and embarked upon a path of public visibility from 1990 onwards.
Increasing Public Visibility
As a result of his initial exposure inside the realm of public opinion, in the early 1990s, Mahçupyan was approached by the organizers of the libertarian Yeni Demokrasi Hareketi (YDH, New Democracy Movement), led by Cem Boyner, a powerful industrialist and founder of the Boyner Group. His engagement with the YDH greatly boosted his public visibility. This elite organization (initially established as an NGO in 1993) became an institutional focus of the debates on what was then called the “Second Republic,” criticizing the hold of the Turkish Armed Forces over politics and the promotion of Turkish civil society against the state. Along with key opinion producers like Mehmet Altan, Cengiz Çandar, and Asaf Savaş Akat (who are still active and reputable inside the space of opinion), Mahçupyan joined the debates criticizing the Jacobin, authoritarian, and militaristic characteristics of the “First Republic” and calling for a new regime that would celebrate pluralism and the democratic will of the people. It should also be mentioned that the political-economic outlook of this Second-Republican position was neoliberal, calling for a night-watchman state, a transparent and pro-business taxation regime, and business-led economic development. Thus the promotion of civil society-based liberties extended to the removal of the hold of the Kemalist state over the market economy. The argument for the “institutionalization of rule of law in Turkey” became key for the YDH’s discourse.
At this point in the 1990s, we should delve into two transformative trends inside the political field that have structured public discourse and have permanently influenced the trajectories of libertarian media intellectuals like Mahçupyan until this day. First, with the rise of the Welfare Party (the Islamist movement often considered the precursor of today’s AKP) in the late 1980s, the debate on whether to “contain” political Islamism by any means necessary or to embrace it as one of the democratic (and democratizing, as far as Islamists could prove effective in bringing the marginalized back into to the fold) forces of Turkish politics became a hotbed of forceful contention. In Mahçupyan’s opinion, a militant opposition to Republican laicism was the most common expression of his sympathy towards the Islamist challenge to Turkey’s ancien régime (“Old Turkey” vs. “New Turkey,” an opposition endorsed more strongly by Islamist supporters of the government). Secondly, as the Army forced its decision to provide a militaristic “final solution” to the conflict with the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party) upon the polity, the debate on whether to democratically negotiate the Kurdish movement’s demands or to totally cut the PKK’s links with Turkey’s Kurds through legal, political, paramilitary, and military violence extremely polarized the space of opinion. For Mahçupyan, Turkish nationalism, which historically pushed Kurds (among other minorities) outside the polity, is another arch-enemy of the propagation of a democratic mentality in the country.
While this is not the place to try to summarize the unfolding of political Islam and the Kurdish movement in Turkey during the last twenty-five years, it would be useful to underline certain elements of these episodes that have gradually shaped the opinions of media intellectuals like Mahçupyan, who have later become deeply embedded in state power.
For the debate on political Islam, the two problematics below have reinforced the opinions of Mahçupyan and other libertarians about how Turkey should be democratized, during their contention against the laicist hardliners of the 1990s.
(1) Freedom of religious expression: The legacy of the 1990s for the debates during the AKP years was all about restrictions on religious education, discourses, and symbolism. The ban against the headscarf in schools and public institutions (gradually dismantled by the AKP) was the perfect operational stage for the “strong Kemalist state vs. excluded religious civil society” argument and for the libertarian defense of freedom of expression.
(2) Opposition to the February 28th coup: The defense of the constitutional right of political Islamists to contend for parliamentary power was integrated with the libertarian opposition to the anti-Islamist interventions by the Army (which is also an opposition to the complicity of various center-left and center-right governments). Criticisms of what has come to be called “The Process of 28 February 1997” (following the Army’s demands to weaken and eventually liquidate the Welfare Party) were ultimately a libertarian call for the abolition of military tutelage over civilian matters. Ten years later, after 2008, at the zenith of the bourgeois alliance between the AKP and the Gülen Movement, Mahçupyan and others would repeat their arguments against the autonomy of the Army during the Ergenekon Trial, this time from a dominant, instead of dominated, position inside the realm of public opinion production.
With regard to the relations between the State and the Kurdish movement, the discourse that helped Mahçupyan and other libertarians hoard media credibility was more straightforward. Against the dominance of the army over the state’s policies about the conflict with PKK, a non-militaristic, reconciliatory approach through parliamentary politics and negotiations was called for. The ethnic discrimination against Kurds and the rightful demand for bringing justice to the war crimes perpetrated against them could be reconciled with the “state vs. society” or “center vs. periphery” vision by demonstrating how Kurdish communities were excluded. While the PKK was frequently criticized by Mahçupyan for its own authoritarianism, and the party’s claims for representing the demands of Turkey’s Kurds were challenged by him, pulling Kurds back into the fold of the Turkish democratic polity remains (until today) a top priority in his opinion production. Above all, for Mahçupyan, the Turkish state is obliged to provide an environment where Kurdish social demands can be freely raised and discussed, and where communication should be open—a point which is also true, according to Mahçupyan’s opinions, for Islamist demands.
Now with these two unfolding episodes in Turkey’s 1990s in mind, let us get back to Mahçupyan’s own trajectory. In the mid-1990s, although he did not want to carve a politician’s career out of his engagement with the YDH, Mahçupyan’s involvement provided him with a broader medium to reinforce his convictions about Turkey’s political affairs. During his involvement, he invested more time to focus more on social-psychological issues and interpret political, cultural, or economic events from that perspective. Mahçupyan’s cultural- and psychological-reductionist approach, developed in the 1990s, is comparable to an esoteric “new age” ideology, a mishmash of old Turkish libertarian ideas (inspired by figures like Mehmet Ali Aybar and İdris Küçükömer) and corporate consultancy-speak, albeit applicable to the burning matters of his day. He thought that the proliferation of a democratic mentality would lead to a political environment where minorities would not be oppressed, and that they would be entitled to seek opportunities to convince the majority to see things their way. Once an increasing number of individuals have democratic mentalities, it would be possible to create “shared ethics” among them without undermining their diversities. Thus Mahçupyan’s democratic individuals are not “liberal” in the sense of being self-centered, rational, atomistic—that is where he rejects classical liberalism and is more in line with communitarian interpretations of the myth-like ideology of “Ottoman co-existence of different identities.”
His involvement with the YDH did not last long in this period (neither did the YDH itself). He believed that once the NGO became a legal political party, it would be unable to make much difference. According to Mahçupyan at that time, politics proper should aim to change people intellectually, to transform their mentality, whereas a party playing the game of power in the current conditions of Turkey would be unable to accomplish that aim. Such a view might appear contradictory to Mahçupyan’s current endorsement of AKP politics, but in fact, we think that his faith in the AKP’s potential to bring Turkey closer to a democratic mentality is a case of “there is no alternative.” He is “consistent” in his esoteric way: after thirteen years of its single-party rule, he believes that the AKP continues to represent the majoritarian (Turkish-Sunni) societal forces that hold the key to Turkey’s genuine modernization and democratic transformation, and that the most promising democratic mentality will grow among today’s lower and middle class Turkish Sunnis. He thus could write, in January 2015, while defending the party’s whitewashing policy towards the four former ministers accused of corruption and bribery, that AKP rank-and-file did not want the ministers to be punished because the people did not want them to be punished. As they protected the ministers, party members "identified with the perspective and concerns of the mass that carries Turkey`s common sense and forms its legitimate ground."
Becoming Safely Embedded
Before the YDH participated in the 1995 general elections with its libertarian program (combining left-wing elements with respect to rights and liberties and right-wing elements with respect to its free market fundamentalism), Mahçupyan distanced himself from the movement, though he continued to share many of its principles. The party could only secure about 0.5 percent of the votes, and by 1997 it dissolved itself. During the severe “total crisis” years of Turkey between 1999 and 2002, Mahçupyan went on defending his version of democracy based on an analysis of various existing and non-existing “mentalities,” without explicitly endorsing any powerful political actor, but expressing his sympathies with the newly formed AKP’s claims for being “conservative-democratic.” He supported himself through his job in corporate culture, writing film scenarios and also consulting for the prominent liberal think-tank, the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV). This latter connection proved long-lasting and brought further credibility for his position as an opinion producer—while he consulted on and off for the think-tank, he directed TESEV’s Democratization Program between 2010-2012.
Mahçupyan’s culture-centered and abstruse approach to Turkey’s democratization gained a new impetus as the AKP came to power in 2002. He had started writing his column for the daily Zaman, the Gülen Movement’s flagship publication, in 2001. For the next thirteen years, he used the column as the principal platform for his endorsement of the ruling party. Only after the clash between Gülenists and the government became more threatening for his position in 2014 did he leave Zaman. He chose his side and accepted an offer from the daily Akşam.
In order to envision the breadth of Mahçupyan’s newly-achieved embeddedness, a few words on this daily newspaper are in order. In 2013, closing a “sweet deal,” Ethem Sancak, a powerful industrialist and an AKP member, bought Akşam from the government-controlled Tasarruf Mevduatı Sigorta Fonu (TMSF, Savings Deposit Insurance Fund). The paper was rapidly repositioned as another mouthpiece to justify AKP policies. Mahçupyan’s fellow columnists in the daily include Cengiz Özdemir, an AKP lackey and a big-shot conservative media executive; Murat Kelkitlioğlu, another conservative media executive; Emin Pazarcı, still another conservative media boss; neoliberal economists Cemil Ertem and Deniz Gökçe; and regular party thugs like Kurtuluş Tayiz and Turgay Güler, who appear to do the “dirty work” with their character-assassination and conspiracy-theorizing in their columns and media appearances.
The drastic changes in Turkish politics during the three consecutive AKP governments since 2002 have presented ample opportunities for Mahçupyan to translate his political positions into practical readings of popular events. His original critique of Turkish nationalism (linked to the “Kurdish Question”) and Republican laicism (linked to the “Question of Islamism”) proved consistent, the only difference being that this time, Mahçupyan’s moved towards the dominant side. As the AKP consolidated its power after 2007-2008 by taking legislative and juridical measures (which, we learn today, became possible with the vast and illicit surveillance apparatus the party established in alliance with the Gülenist police) that led to the effective removal of the army’s influence over parliamentary politics, Mahçupyan’s position inside the space of opinion became ever stronger. Following the lawsuits (most visibly the Ergenekon Trial) against the army’s dark networks, where many high-ranking officers were charged with establishing a terrorist organization, Mahçupyan’s long-lasting rebuttals of nationalism, military tutelage, and exclusion of Kurds and Turkish Sunnis found a new ground for justification. He raised his public profile even higher through his media presence, appearing more and more frequently in debate programs, repeating his old mentality-based arguments.
We should also note the function of Mahçupyan’s Armenian identity for his embedded position inside the space of opinion. While it is a fact that his screenwriting for the film Salkım Hanımın Taneleri (“Mrs. Salkım’s Diamonds,” directed by Tomris Giritlioğlu) earned him additional visibility as a Turkish-Armenian intellectual, he was not very engaged in opinion production about discrimination against non-Muslim citizens in general or the Armenian Genocide in particular. He did not base his career as a media intellectual on his ethnic identity, nor did he have an interest in representing Turkish-Armenians through his political opinions. On the other hand, the 2007 assassination of Hrant Dink, editor-in-chief of the Turkish-Armenian bilingual weekly newspaper Agos, influenced his trajectory inside the space of opinion. Whether he liked it or not, he was called upon to take a position on the plight of Turkey’s Armenians, as well as the role of the memory (and denial) of the Genocide in this plight. After Dink, he became the next editor-in-chief of Agos until 2010. His opinions on his own identity and on Turkish-Armenians in general are heterodox (in comparison to the anti-government dispositions of many Turkish-Armenians after Dink’s murder) and they are consistent with his general criticisms of politics that are imprisoned in the collectivist tendencies of identity defense. He often called for a “way out” of Turkish-Armenian identity and invited Turkish-Armenians to seek ways to normalize without surrendering to Turkish nationalism. On the other hand, it would be naïve to argue that his being Armenian (in a heterodox way) had no impact on his good relations with the Gülenists (until 2014) and the government. Regardless of his disinterest in the “market value” of his ethnic origins inside the space of opinion, his endorsement of Sunni-majoritarian politics as a non-Muslim is an asset for pro-AKP positions and lends him more credibility.
As his media renown grew, Mahçupyan’s credit also grew in government circles, and he became more closely engaged with power politics. First, he became part of the post-2010 debate in Turkey for the drafting of a new constitution. Believing that the AKP’s conservative-democratic politics (which, he has often admitted, has certain mild shortcomings) carries the potential to establish a common ethical ground that will bring together diverse sections of Turkish society, he went on to defend the governing party’s major policies, among them, principally, its new compromising politics towards the Kurdish Movement. In that regard, around April 2013, he joined the AKP-endorsed group of “men of reason” (âkil adamlar) that traveled around Turkey’s provinces to promote the reconciliation process between the government and the PKK, which largely proved to be a PR stunt to strengthen the AKP’s hand. In October 2014, Mahçupyan’s role as a “provider of reason” for the AKP has been rewarded with an official position as “chief consultant” to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Useful, not Idiot
There was a debate in 2013-2014, as the AKP’s authoritarian practices became more and patently violent and paranoid, especially following the suppression of the Gezi episode and the still ongoing liquidation of Gülenist cadres from state institutions. Some authors accused secular, liberal, or libertarian intellectuals who were pro-government of being “useful idiots” (a phrase wrongly attributed to Lenin, who did not use it) for the legitimacy of the AKP regime. Such intellectuals were deemed to be stupid for believing in the AKP as a democratizing force and were shunned for being used by the party. While we can see why such embedded figures (occupying a power position dominating their attackers) would themselves be attacked, we believe that such figures are perfectly reasonable individuals capable of pursuing their practical interests inside the space of opinion.
As can be traced in the way he moved through the space of opinion, there is no idiocy at all in Mahçupyan’s becoming a media intellectual. It is certain that this process was not entirely calculated and orchestrated by him. His path was steered by causes changing the political and journalistic fields he worked in. Nevertheless, he usually knew what he was endorsing and why. Even though we oppose many of his endorsements and disagree with the analyses behind them, Mahçupyan gradually made himself believe that the AKP is the most progressive organizer of the Turkish people’s democratic will. That is his prerogative, which brought him influence, reputation, and probably money. On the other hand, like most media intellectuals, he has a utility function—not only as a consultant, teacher, and policy-justifier for the powers that be, but also as a broker of relations inside the opinion space.
The trajectory we attempt to describe here is not historically unique. One could compare Mahçupyan’s relation with the AKP and its Dear Leader Erdoğan with Ahmet Mithat’s relation with the Palace and Sultan Abdülhamit in the 1870s. When Ahmet Mithat, a hardworking writer and a skillful journalist, distanced himself from the Young Ottomans and was pardoned in 1876, he decided to commit himself to the intellectual legitimation of Abdülhamit’s plans to save the reputation of Ottomanship. In 1878, he began to publish the daily Tercüman-ı Hakikat (“Interpreter of Truth,” which ran until 1921) and quickly made a name for himself in the Palace for a publication devoid of any criticisms of the Sultan. His paper received twenty gold pieces from the Palace each month and he himself received Mecidiye badges and numerous medals for his services. He finished a political treatise by 1878, Üss-i İnkılâp (“The Foundation of the Revolution”), explaining the reasons behind Abdülhamit’s policies and why the Sultan never made mistakes. Ahmet Mithat also discussed the military conflicts of the time, again from the perspective of validating the accuracy of Abdülhamit’s strategies. More importantly, Üss-i İnkılâp laid out a core ideological principle that would preserve the Empire: that the Ottoman nation is neither “Turkish,” nor “Islamic,” but properly “Ottoman,” above ethnic and religious identifications. Useful, compensated. And smart.
 See Ronald N. Jacobs and Eleanor Townsley, The Space of Opinion: Media Intellectuals and the Public Sphere (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 13.