Published in Newlines Magazine, 12 August 2021
The scene: somewhere in Berlin. Sporting the sharpest suit a cheap TV villain can buy, a sinister man slides a diamond necklace across a restaurant table, toward a woman we are told is the editor of “Europe’s largest news magazine.” He wants her to run a cover story smearing his archnemesis, that cunning adversary who foils his schemes at every turn — Turkey. “Don’t you hear the arrival of the Ottoman?” he warns ominously. “First Syria, then Libya, the Mediterranean … Perhaps Greece is next?”
Cut to: Syria, exterior, day. A chiseled undercover agent has just captured an archetypal baddie. Stashing the hostage under the seat of his car and posing as an average Syrian driving to work, he’s stopped at a rebel checkpoint. It isn’t his deplorable Arabic that blows his cover but the smell of the cowardly captive who has soiled himself. In a flash of martial arts and gunfire, five or seven grunts are floored. A chase ensues, and just when the bad guys are gaining on our hero, the real protagonist of the show emerges: An armed drone emblazoned with the Turkish flag swoops in with its sights locked on the convoy. The hero emerges, driving through the drone strike’s fireball — to arrive at his rendezvous point and deliver his captive to Turkish national police, who load him into a Black Hawk helicopter and victoriously fly away.
Such action-packed drama is the focus of Turkish TV’s latest spy thriller, “Teşkilat” — “The Agency.” The prime-time drama, airing Sundays at 8 p.m. on public broadcaster TRT, follows an elite unit of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) as it battles imperialist plans for world dominance and defends Turkey from any who dare to impinge on its independence and self-determination.
But this isn’t just the typical gunfights and explosions. “Teşkilat” is a two-for-one: an exercise in propaganda rationalizing a permanent state of exception, and a lesson in the ideology that is steering the Turkish state — with all the subtlety of a drone strike smashing into an International Relations 101 lecture.
“Teşkilat” is a dramatized extension of a doctrine that government officials have termed the New Security Concept (NSC). President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unveiled the doctrine at a police academy conference in November 2016, three months after a coup attempt rocked the country to its core.
The NSC ostensibly foresaw Turkey taking a more proactive stance when it comes to foreign policy and counterterrorism. “Turkey will no longer wait for problems to come knocking. Defense is over; now we charge,” Erdoğan proclaimed in 2016.
The announcement came at a chaotic time and hardly made a big splash, with attention focused on the purge that followed the putsch. Feeling himself betrayed inside and outside the borders, it was clear Erdoğan was convinced that a new order was unfolding in the Middle East without him in the picture. Gülenist plots aside, the ballooning specter of a Syrian-Kurdish enclave in Syria on Turkey’s border — one supported by Turkey’s Western allies, no less — fueled an existential panic.
An unyielding war on terrorism being an unquestionable tenet of Turkish politics — one that transcends the secular-religious divide among mainstream Turkish political parties — the NSC equipped the government with an operational philosophy that promised results on both foreign and domestic fronts. Alluring prospects of crossing names off the most wanted list with extraordinary rendition operations from abroad or flattening guerilla hideouts from advanced drones attracted a lot of interest — and not just from government supporters.
But Erdoğan was always explicit that the NSC was nothing short of a total revisioning of society through the prism of security, assuring the conference hall full of police his new vision would envelope “everything from defense to justice, health to economy, from transportation, energy, education, communication to urbanization.”
Today, the NSC has expanded into the all-encompassing paradigm in which security is the monkey wrench the government cranks every possible issue with, from accountability and transparency to the constitutional order.
Five years on, it’s clear that the legacy of the failed coup attempt of 2016 transformed Turkey and consolidated power in Erdoğan’s hands. What has not been sufficiently examined is how the allure of a jingoistic foreign policy confined domestic politics debate to a narrow, security-first debate and how the doctrine of the NSC was instrumental to ensuring the country’s main opposition went along without a fight. Like a frazzled straphanger rushing to commute to work, the main opposition got on the train without looking which direction it was heading.
Most of TRT’s past productions like “Resurrection: Ertuğrul” were interested in mythologizing the heyday of Islamic empires. Unlike its predecessors, “Teşkilat” is a modern-day tale. The story of a glorious nation that flips the table when it doesn’t like the cards it’s dealt, an invincible intelligence unit with omnipresent war machines, agents who die for their country, all designed to excite a patriotic audience. The show is carefully beaded with nationalist messages, but its religious undertone is weak. None of the female leads wear hijabs. There are frequent nods to modern Turkey’s founder Atatürk, who is a war hero for nationalists — a sentiment not necessarily shared by all conservatives.
Turkish elections are often won by small margins, and identity-based alliances are often the key to victory. The ruling alliance, fearing it’s hemorrhaging supporters due to the economic crisis, is especially nervous about newcomers like İyi Party which was formed out of defectors from the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and joined the main opposition.
The growing strength of Turkey in recent years has drawn comparisons to Erdoğan fashioning himself a sultan figure in a new Ottoman empire. However, such analogies are misplaced. The Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) turn away from pan-Islamism toward nationalism dates back to 2015, a milestone equal in significance to the coup in the year that preceded it. Unable to form a government when the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) entered the Parliament, then-Prime Minister Erdoğan was fresh off a fight with Gülenists and in dire need of a new ally. Turning to the MHP and its leader Devlet Bahçeli, the AKP and the MHP endeavored to revive a long-elusive alliance dubbed the “Turkish-Islamic Synthesis.” First coined by a right-wing intellectual club calling themselves Intellectual Hearths in the 1970s, the Turkish-Islamic Synthesis was the official state policy in the brutal aftermath of the 1980 military coup but remained elusive in the splintering that followed. The authoritarian ideology emphasized social cohesion through cultural and religious motifs, and places Turkishness as the primary basis of an ideal citizen and Islam as an organic precondition of that national identity.
By allying with MHP, AKP threw out the window its quest for uniting the Muslim ummah — and along with it the peace process with the Kurds as well as the brief period of rhetoric about goodwill and progress. “One nation, one flag, one homeland, one state” became the motto. This was no multicultural empire they were pushing for but a purebred and infallible nation-state.
Following the coup, the alliance of convenience solidified into a long-term partnership. With the definitive exodus of the Gülen movement — both politically and in the sheer number of public servants’ positions left open — Bahçeli, once a bitter rival of Erdoğan, had a golden opportunity to trade his last-place share of votes for a huge share of the state.
Bahçeli wasn’t showing up empty-handed either. The Grey Wolves, the MHP’s ultranationalist paramilitary wing, was ready under his command. No stranger to the shady workings of the Turkish state, the group had a significantly cozy relationship with MİT during the ’90s, a time of numerous unsolved political assassinations and enforced disappearances.
Together, AKP and MHP wasted no time in implementing a gradual reconfiguration of the state. One of the biggest transformations took place in the security bureaucracy, accomplished through a series of emergency decrees. The police were given authority to detain people without a court order. A new battalion of armed local watchmen were employed to patrol the streets at night; later they were given the authority to body-search and even detain people.
A pro-security clique returned to prominence within the state apparatus, and with it came the reemergence of some shadowy mafia figures, which had allegedly partnered with intelligence agents to carry out extrajudicial killings in the 1990s. One of those figures, the now-exiled mafia boss Sedat Peker, has recently captivated national attention by fashioning himself a whistleblower, divulging confessions about the government’s business with underworld actors.
From 2015 to 2017, Peker organized pro-government rallies, vowing at one to “hang those calling Erdoğan a dictator.” He also famously menaced a group of university professors who published a letter calling for an end to a violent crackdown in the country’s predominantly Kurdish cities by threatening to “bathe in their blood.” The convicted mobster has recently explained that the reason for his actions was that “a climate of fear was needed.” The government denies all allegations and dismisses Peker as a “filthy gangster.” But at the time, Peker was an integral part of the new political climate that was about to emerge.
Another state of emergency decree in 2017 placed the intelligence service under direct oversight of the presidency. By empowering MİT to collaborate with the military, it could begin to act more autonomously in conducting its own operations outside the country’s borders, without the help of foreign allies’ intelligence cooperation. With changes to the law, MİT’s personnel, its wartime and state of emergency activities, budget, investigations against its chief and testimonies of its agents are contingent on the president’s approval.
“You look at the law and you realize why prosecutors don’t want to follow up with enforced disappearance cases,” Gülseren Yoleri, chair of the Istanbul branch of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, told Newlines. New regulations also pose the risk of criminal charges for the press disclosing MİT members’ identities or information about its duties in any way.
The foreword of MİT’s 2020 activity report states that “the agency took on active roles in conflict zones on behalf of the country’s interest … increased its efficiency in foreign intelligence, and carried its counterterrorism efforts abroad.” The public report declares MİT’s annual spending as 2,449,000 Turkish lire ($287,428 U.S.) without further details. According to the inventory provided to the Parliamentary Committee on Budget for 2020 and made public by an opposition MP, MİT’s allocation shows zero housing, zero vehicles, zero mobile phones.
“There is a legal basis implemented to make sure MİT only answers to the president. There is no information on its funds, what they spend it on, where they spend it,” Yoleri told Newlines.
In the pilot episode of “Teşkilat,” Turkish police in a machine-gun-mounted helicopter launch a cross-border raid in Syria, mowing down 20 or 30 anonymous terrorists as a Bayraktar TB2 drone covers for them. But why is there a Turkish police helicopter in Syria? What are these highly trained assassins doing when they’re not fighting terrorism? Our heroes kidnap a man in broad daylight in Ankara and shove him into a black minivan — is that legal? Enforced disappearances used to cause scandal, protest and parliamentary inquiries. Now they are plot points for an action thriller.
Is anyone on the Turkish political landscape questioning the implications of these practices — real or imagined? Apart from the country’s inexhaustible yet incessantly marginalized civil and human rights advocates, the answer is no.
While domestically the NSC dismantled checks and balances, abroad it bought the government a lot of political credits to cash in back home. Leaving them no choice but to approve successful military incursions for the sake of national security, Erdoğan brought the opposition exactly where he wanted.
Turkey’s military footprint started expanding from neighboring Iraq and Syria to Qatar, Libya and Somalia. The NSC made “Turkish intelligence” a prestige term that inspires fear and respect and won back some of the credibility it lost after the coup attempt. The indigenous defense industry grew to a level never thought possible, capable of producing technology once exclusive to countries like the United States and Israel. Not only have Turkey’s prided, domestically produced drones brought success to the domestic defense industry with lightning fast and highly marketable victories such as the summer war in Nagorno-Karabakh, but they also became the centerpiece of its militarized foreign policy.
The biggest success of all for the NSC, however, was relocating the conflict with Kurdish militants out of Turkey’s cities and effectively killing all chances of establishing a “Kurdish corridor” in Syria: an existential-level concern that the opposition couldn’t possibly say no to.
Rendered impotent by the fear of appearing soft on counterterrorism, the Republican People’s Party (CHP) backed the government abroad and at home, with controversial practices like lifting parliamentary immunity. The party’s leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu admitted later that he had approved the immunity bill — which would eventually get a majority of Kurdish politicians jailed — only because it was “a trap to portray CHP siding with the PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party].”
It didn’t even work. In 2019, Kılıçdaroğlu was attacked when he attended the funeral of a Turkish soldier killed by the PKK. He was forced to take shelter in a nearby house, surrounded by hundreds of men, some shouting “PKK out” and “burn the house.” Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar dispersed the crowd saying, “Dear friends, you have delivered your message.” As the head of state, Erdoğan didn’t condemn the lynch attempt against the country’s main opposition leader. Kılıçdaroğlu must reflect on what he must have done to anger these people so much, his partner Bahçeli suggested.
Not condemning but on the contrary encouraging the association of legitimate opposition politicians with terror was a testament to the ruling alliance’s growing disinterest in democratic politics. At the same time, the incident exposed the spectacular failure of the main opposition’s tactic: compromising on democratic principles to avoid being portrayed as terrorist sympathizers. The opposition had been unable to realize that what they had been feeding would grow to devour the state.
When the constitutional court declined calls to order the shutdown of the HDP, Bahçeli suggested it was time to shut down the constitutional court. When the Turkish Medical Association (TTB), one of the oldest and respected of Turkey’s civil society institutions, criticized the state’s negligence toward health workers during the pandemic, Bahçeli suggested it was time to shut down TTB. And when posed a question about pension funds for early retirees, Bahçeli asked the public to “make sacrifices for Turkey’s independence.” He said, “A howitzer shell costs a thousand dollars,” warning that the public purse needs public efforts to fight terrorism.
Maintaining a constant state of exception requires the continual production of enemies — and productions like “Teşkilat” are convenient opportunities to engrave those enemies in the public’s imagination. The show is unabashed about its xenophobic fantasies, painting Westerners in the darkest shade possible. There is the menacing cadre of foreigners who, calling themselves “The Firm,” plan their meetings at a cartoonishly large table in a dramatically under-lit room. Scenes of a French spy who masquerades as a language teacher murdering his Turkish wife or German MPs offered bribes to lobby for sanctions against Turkey serve absolutely no plot point other than to leave no doubt that foreigners are evil.
The show’s scripted dialogue is often a barely hidden mimicry of government officials on the nightly news. “Whenever we refused the roles tailored for us, they unleashed coups on us,” ruminates an agent to his colleagues in a heartfelt monologue. “They attacked us with terror. They always found a traitor to fire bullets at us. After all, when they ran out of bullets, the economic war began.”
Last summer, when the lira began its nosedive against the U.S. dollar, Turkey’s communications czar Fahrettin Altun explained that “imperialist barons are playing filthy tricks to prevent Turkey’s rise to power.”
The proposition that Turkey is under ceaseless attack works for those in power on multiple fronts. Any mismanagement of the economy, diplomatic failure or human rights concerns raised by the international community can be dismissed out of hand as the intervention of the imperialists, furious over an independent Turkey.
There is a lesson in elementary history books every Turkish schoolchild remembers: that the Ottoman Empire’s collapse began when it “reached its natural borders” and had nowhere to go but implode. The same may be said of the hawkish security project officials in Turkey have been pushing. Because just like “Teşkilat,” it’s increasingly detached from reality.
The story of a country fighting for its survival and paying the price for it inspired enough support for the current government to scrape by in elections so far. But alluring fantasies don’t pay bills. The pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of the state. With the lira shedding more than half its value in the past three years, it is growing increasingly difficult — even for faithful supporters of the government — to justify their hardship with a narrative of foreign meddling. The IMF’s pandemic report classed Turkey in the “least-supportive” category in terms of recovery expenditures, spending less than 2.5% of its GDP. In an attempt to salvage tourism, the government granted full access to foreigners vacationing in Turkey while citizens were put under another lockdown. Projecting influence over the eastern Mediterranean is nice, but what good is it if Turks can’t visit their own beaches?
Finances are not the only issue. The climate of fear brought on by a constant crisis mentality has made life claustrophobic for a dynamic population of 82 million that skews young. According to a poll from February 2021, 70% of 18-to-24-year-olds of all political inclinations wish to move abroad.
The NSC intertwined foreign and domestic policy, the latter now focused almost exclusively on counterterrorism. But a height of absurdity has to be reached eventually. If there’s anything the average citizen experiences as much as the economic crunch, it’s the level to which the accusation of being a “terrorist” so routinely enters one’s daily life. The epithet is so preposterously overused that it’s a source of ridicule. When a report emerged claiming a former trade minister — already sacked because of a corruption scandal — spent 380,000 Turkish lire ($43,880 U.S.) of public funds to decorate her residence, Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu took to social media to dismiss the claim, saying the newspaper that reported it is “with the PKK.”
Replying in a tweet, one citizen wrote to ask the minister if he would kindly designate his employer as a terrorist organization because of unpaid wages.
“Any terrorist group will do.”