As far back as 19-year-old Deniz can remember, her parents had adorned their living room with a massive poster featuring Recep Tayyip Erdogan. This year, the young student from Ankara persuaded them to remove it. “Finally,” she tells Kathimerini with obvious relief, “they have understood that this man and his government have tarnished every possible dream for the future of this country, now even targeting my entire generation.”
Deniz belongs to Generation Z, along with roughly 13 million young Turks who have known nothing but a country under the hegemony of the Islamic ideology of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Erdogan – first as prime minister, then as president – and always as “Reis, or Chief” as Deniz and her peers sarcastically call him. Unlike most Western countries, Turkey is undergoing a dizzying demographic explosion, with more than half of its population under the age of 32. The demographic trends have not gone unnoticed by Erdogan either, who in 2012 announced his intention to cultivate “a pious generation of Muslims.” His main tool was the funneling of billions of dollars into Islamic education, utilizing “imam hatip” schools – Islamic secondary education institutions that have quadrupled in number and expanded to all educational ages. A decade later, the experiment has backfired.
“There is no doubt that imam hatips are far worse than the education we were receiving before,” says 20-year-old Tunahan from Konya, clarifying that though he identifies as Muslim, he bears no similarity to the Islamic ideology championed by the AKP. “Instead of useful skills that could help us in the labor market, today’s schools are megaphones of hate speech. The teacher who was tasked to teach us math barely knew how to do basic calculations. In the age of the internet, where we can all search for the truth on our own, the government’s attempt to turn schools into propaganda vessels is blatantly obvious,” he says.
Tunahan’s case would appear to be an exception some years ago, but statistics prove he is a representative example of his generation. Polls released in 2020 paint young Turks as a generation that is becoming less traditional, less religious, and more extroverted compared to the youth of the past decade. Their extraversion seems to be turning toward the West, as 66% of young people between the ages of 18 and 25 want their country to join the European Union, according to a poll by the German Marshall Fund released a few days ago. “We want a future with more opportunities and freedoms, but also a government that supports us all, regardless of identity,” said Deniz, stressing that the pandemic has sent youth unemployment soaring to 25%.
A key point cited as to why youngsters are turning away from Erdogan’s vision also seems to be the escalation of tensions with the Bogazici University student community in early 2021. Erdogan’s decision to bypass protocols and appoint the businessman – and known plagiarist – Melih Bulu to the position of rector at the institution infuriated both students and academics of the most renowned Turkish university. As students started holding demonstrations against the appointment, the Turkish government resorted to the well-known cocktail of violent repression and accusing protesters of disrespecting Islam – in fact using the LGBT student community as a scapegoat, characterized as “perverted terrorists” by government officials. That move caused an eruption.
“Erdogan’s miscalculation was this: He forgot how much of a landmark Bogazici is in Turkish society,” says Dilara, a 24-year-old former student who has left the country and is now living abroad. “You cannot blame the educational institution where virtually all young people aspire to study without provoking the reaction of an entire generation,” she explains, adding that the events sparked wider skepticism in Turkish society. “We saw so many moving images of a different Turkey, where LGBT students walked hand in hand with young, pious females wearing headscarves. This captures exactly the spirit of our university: a collective identity that fights to build a safe space for every student, regardless of whether they are religious or secular, traditional or modern. Against this vision, as it turns out, we have one single, common enemy,” she concludes.
Alienated from the gagging environment of self-censorship rampant in the Turkish media system, young Turks are also constantly resorting to alternative digital platforms to express themselves and verify public discourse. Even there, however, they face a growing repression of their freedoms. A week ago, two 23-year-olds posted a satirical video on TikTok titled “Where to use a Turkish passport,” in which they used the document as a bookmark, oven glove and placemat, aimed at criticizing the universal travel restrictions brought on by the pandemic. Promptly, the two young Turks faced charges of insulting national symbols, were summoned to court, and placed under probation and travel restrictions.
Yet despite the escalating crackdowns, theirs seems to be a generation of defiance. Can, a 24-year-old who recently faced jail time because some of his posts were also deemed “offensive,” boldly confesses to Kathimerini: “Usually, because Erdogan and his party are in charge of almost all news outlets in the country, it’s easier for them to hide their failures from their voter base. But the catastrophic handling of the pandemic has exposed them, not only to young people, but to society at large.”
The young Turks who shared their thoughts with Kathimerini do not seem to be rallying behind any one single party or ideology. Some of them proudly declare themselves to be Muslims, others atheist, while others identify as nationalist, liberal or apolitical. But they all seem to be united by an obvious exhaustion and deep desire for change. “There is no universe in which I would vote for Erdogan, whoever his opponent may be,” concluded Tunahan, before adding in contempt, “This country urgently needs to open a new chapter.”