This is What it’s Like To Spend Your Whole Life Growing Up in Erdoğan's Turkey

We spoke to three teenagers born 18 years ago this week, when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan swept to power.
November 6, 2020, 2:01pm
yyip Erdogan casts his ballot for the Turkish general elections November 3, 2002 at the Uskudar High School.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan casts his ballot for the Turkish general election in November 2002. Photo: Staton R. Winter/Getty Images

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Late at night on the 2nd of November, 2002 – as millions of Turks were preparing to go to the polls – in a city right on the country’s western coast, Zeynep was born by caesarean section. Around twenty-four hours later – as it was becoming clear something historic was happening in Turkish politics – Şerife arrived into the world in a central Anatolian city nearly 1,000km inland. By the time Hakan was born, just over a week later, in a Kurdish town further east still, Turkey was adjusting to its new political landscape: the Justice and Development Party, the AKP, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had come to power.

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By a quirk of the electoral system, the party had won nearly two-thirds of parliamentary seats with just one-third of the popular vote. In previous years, Turkey had been governed by a bewildering array of coalitions and parties; in 2002, none of them won a single seat. As one post-election headline had it – the faces of all the old-guard lined up underneath it – they had been given the kırmızı kart, “the red card”.

It feels a very different Turkey now. Eighteen years on, the party that won that day is still in power, as is its leader, now-President Erdoğan. Zeynep, Şerife and Hakan are now or soon to be adults: old enough to vote, to have sex, to marry without their parents’ permission. 

Zeynep is a self-confessed politics nut who speaks three languages. Hakan barely follows the news at all, preferring instead his long walks among the beautiful mountains of eastern Turkey. Şerife, slightly chafing against her conservative hometown, dreams of leaving it behind and becoming an architect. Asked if she can imagine a Turkey without Erdoğan, she replies, “I can’t. I wish I could but I can’t”.

It is perhaps an under-appreciated part of the AKP story that much of its early popularity stemmed from the chaos that came before it. Turkey in the late ‘90s and early 2000s was a place of multiple economic crises, of millions made unemployed and three-digit inflation. It was a period of discontent that allowed the party to sweep to power, the country’s first single-party government in 15 years. 

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Yet this is a history with little pull for those born in November 2002. All three of the teenagers we spoke to, for example, think that politically Turkey was a better place to live before they were alive, though Zeynep does add that “from what I’ve learnt from my uncles, my family, and from history lessons, I know it wasn’t stable at all.”

They remember precious little, either, of the AKP’s early years – a period of unprecedented economic growth, of some rights finally accorded to Turkey’s Kurds, when Erdoğan was billed as the Muslim democrat the West was looking for. For Turks, maybe the most tangible sign of that success was the country’s new lira. With inflation finally under control, in 2005 the government was able to knock six zeroes from its currency. Neither Zeynep nor Hakan had ever seen Turkey’s old, million lira banknotes. For Şerife, she thinks it might be one of her earliest memories, watching her father, a shopkeeper, counting them up at the end of the day.

As the author Ece Temelkuran observed, in a country where leaders have always portrayed themselves as fathers of the nation, children have always had a particular place on Turkey’s political stage. With Erdoğan, and his soft-Islamist AKP, it’s a relationship that’s had a religious bent; an education system and a culture more broadly that has been overly dominated by a secular elite. Indeed in 2012, Erdoğan famously stated he wanted to raise a “pious generation”.

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The reforms have followed in fits and starts. Over the AKP’s time in power, the number of students attending religious İmam Hatip schools has increased from around 70,000 to over one million. The curriculum in secular schools has had to accommodate more Islamic teaching. Away from the classroom, Turkish street life has been shaped in more subtle ways as well: alcohol advertising was banned, and taxes on it often prohibitively expensive.

Yet the effect of this is still not at all clear. One survey, for example, shows that far fewer young Turks identify as religious, pray, or fast, than they did a decade ago. As recently as October, Erdoğan admitted to his party that “we have a young population but haven’t realised our vision of civilisation.” While some of their parents are practising Muslims, none of Şerife, Zeynep or Hakan described themselves as particularly religious – though, as Şerife added, “my dad doesn’t know that yet, and I don’t think he would welcome it.” 

But of course, this government’s impact has been felt. All three, for example, are currently studying for the marathon of school and university-entrance exams that begin this month. Coupled with the ongoing school closings and re-openings caused by the pandemic, it is, Zeynep confirms, “very, very stressful.”

Zeynep’s parents went to university, but Hakan – the son of a foreman – and Şerife – the daughter of a shopkeeper – would be the first generation of their families to go, should they pass their exams. It’s an experience that speaks to the enormous expansion of higher education that has occurred under the AKP. As one pro-government newspaper put it, “the 7.6 million students in Turkey’s universities exceed the population of Bulgaria.”

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After university, Hakan hopes to gather enough money to undergo paid military service – a system, introduced last year, where conscripts need only do one-month of military training, and are exempted from the other five months by paying a substantial sum. It’s a sign of another change, quiet but significant, in Turkey over the last 18 years. Conscription, once one of the most formative parts of becoming a man in Turkey, and shared by millions of older Turks, has been gradually whittled away. 

Perhaps most notably, none supported Turkey’s previous ban on religious symbols in public buildings – meaning, in practice, the marginalisation of women with headscarves in public life. It was, for years, a topic of bitter debate in Turkish politics, and its repeal in 2013 is still one of the AKP’s signature achievements. For Şerife, the ban was simply “a really depressing thing”, almost baffled that it could ever have been in place – a mark, really, of how much Turkey has shifted.

For this is a generation that came to consciousness fighting different battles. Asked what her first political memory was, Zeynep cites the Gezi Park protests of 2013 – when a sit-in in Istanbul, initially against the redevelopment of the city’s central square, sparked weeks-long protests against the government all over Turkey. Just 12 at the time, Zeynep remembers being “afraid of what I saw, of people crying on TV, of fighting each other, and the hatred between them.” Violently put down by the police, the protests ended with several dead, and many detained. As Zeynep says, though she didn’t really understand what was happening, “I was on the side of the people in the park.”

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Their adolescence has coincided with a different phase of AKP’s rule, marked by a stuttering economy, and an authoritarian turn. In contrast to the early boom of their childhood, now around one in four young Turks are unemployed. Inflation, unofficially at least, is soaring. This year alone, the lira has lost 28% value against the dollar. ‘How could I not worry about it?’, asks Zeynep. Hakan, as a result, plans to study abroad, saying Turkey has become a ‘low level’ country. Şerife would have liked to, but can’t now “because of the exchange rate.”

But maybe the most long-lasting effect could be the government’s approach to opposition. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey jails the second most journalists in the world. 

Asked how this atmosphere affects her daily life, Zeyney said, “If you criticise the state in any way you’re afraid of going to jail. If someone [on TikTok] makes a video about the economy, or about the education system, in the replies there’s always the same joke, ‘it’s cold in Silivri’.” Opened in 2008, an hour from Istanbul, Silivri is one of the world’s largest prisons.

Yet it’s not just online. As Şerife explains, “we limit ourselves without even knowing it”, avoiding controversial topics with people they don’t know, for example. All three admit that they censor what they say, sometimes at the encouragement of their parents, too. Asked what effect this has on growing up in Turkey, Şerife says they have become “an insecure generation”.

Of course, these three teenagers’ lives do not represent the experience of an entire generation – how could they ever? – but theirs is an arc that does seem to symbolise something broader: of the creation, and then the alienation, of a middle class.

But teenage hope is also difficult to dislodge. And, indeed, might be crucial in determining Turkey’s future – 18-29 year-olds are the largest voting bloc in the country. I ask Zeynep whether she believes another Turkey might be possible. “Why shouldn’t it be?” she responds. “Without hope we can’t live.”