TRAVEL: U2, basketball and the Deep State of Turkey

ISTANBUL – You didn’t have to be interested in politics to know that monumental changes have been happening in Turkey the past few weeks. 

A crowd of about 50,000 fanatical U2 fans at Ataturk football stadium outside of Istanbul booed Bono – which rarely ever happens – when he mentioned meeting Turkish leaders and walking across the Bosphorus Bridge between Europe and Asia, which normally doesn’t allow pedestrian crossings. 

Swept into a nationalist frenzy by their basketball team, a sellout crowd of 15,000 fans at Sinan Erdem Dome jeered and whistled at political leaders as they presented medals after the United States beat Turkey 81-64 at the finals of the world basketball championships. 

The timing of Sunday’s referendum on constitutional changes, which the government won 58%-42%, could not have been more meaningful in Turkey. It was the 30th anniversary of a bloody coup in 1980 by a military which oversaw the constitution at the heart of the referendum. It was the end of the tourist high season and the culmination of the Bayram holiday to end the Ramadan fasting period – the holy month of Islam. 

Perhaps as much as the referendum results, the U2 concert and the world basketball championships show where Turkey is at, and where it is headed as a nation. 

The long-awaited U2 concert was one of the biggest spectacles in recent times in the Middle East, drawing fans from across the region including hundreds of self-styled rebels from Iran, who paid US$350 to fly into Istanbul from Tehran for the show. 

Yet the 2,300-year old city’s lack of “software” to go with its massive infrastructure projects, such as Ataturk Stadium, took the shine off the event. Thousands of fans got stuck in the mother of all traffic jams, starting from about 5 pm, to go the Olympic Stadium (which Turkey hopes will win it the 2020 Summer Games) a white elephant in the wild outskirts northwest of Istanbul. 

The Iranians and others standing on a crammed city bus for four hours missed the opening act Snow Patrol. Fearing they would miss U2’s opener schedule for 9 pm, hundreds of fans hopped out of buses and taxis, which weren’t moving, and walked up and down hills in darkness for about an hour. Some fans even tried a short-cut through a dark canyon, prompting local Turks to dub the event “the Olympic disaster”, and our march to the stadium “the Olympic marathon”. 

Luckily for the fans, U2’s crew caught word of this organizational mess and delayed the start an hour. At last, U2 treated the fans to a two-hour show featuring most of their big hits, plus cameos by a belly dancer and Turkish pop singer and politician-social critic Zulfu. 

As expected, Bono dove straight into Middle East politics. “Radio Tehran, we can hear you,” he said before Sunday Bloody Sunday. “Radio Palestine, we can hear you. Radio Israel, we can hear you. Washington, can you hear us?” 

Bono was about to embark on an ode to the Bosphorus Bridge, after the government closed traffic to allow him to fulfill his dream of walking from Europe to Asia. He appeared surprised when the mainly middle-class Istanbul crowd booed him. “Really, can we talk about the bridge? It’s a beautiful bridge.” 

While promoting Amnesty International and some of his myriad causes, Bono perhaps didn’t know about the referendum, and the public perception that the government was using him to bolster its image ahead of the vote. 

The government didn’t treat the fans so kindly. Since the show ended after midnight, there weren’t enough city buses to transport 50,000 fans back to the city. Thousands of fans, who had now been standing for eight hours, had to hike another 30 minutes to an hour into a dark ravine to find taxis which demanded about a week’s wages – 100 to 200 lira (US$130) – for the trip back to Istanbul. 

By comparison, the world basketball championships from August 28 to September 12 were run with great enthusiasm and efficiency, as the government spent about $120 million on the event, winning praise from Turkey’s coaches and players who played before sell-out crowds the final week. “We had a great chemistry, starting from the president to the players and coaches and medical staff,” said Turkish captain Hedo Turkoglu, who plays for the Phoenix Suns in the National Basketball Association in the US. “We were like a great family. We saw ourselves more than our own families for two months.” 

Turkoglu and other team members appeared offended when the partisan crowd booed and hissed at Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ally President Abdullah Gul before the game and during the medal ceremonies. “They are the leaders of this country, and they lead this country very well,” said Turkey’s coach Bogdan Tanjevic, an ethnic Serb, after the game. “They gave us love and we feel this love, so we played very well.” 

The event also demonstrated Turkey’s dislike for the United States, as fans even booed the mild-mannered Kevin Durant, a 21-year-old budding superstar who played college ball in the alternative music capital of Austin, Texas. 

This reaction underscored a recent Pew research study that found only 17% of Turks have a favorable opinion of the United States, due to its meddling in the Middle East. Sensing this, US coach Mike Krzyzewski adopted a diplomatic tone at post-game press conferences, thanking the whole country and especially the Turkish staff at the Four Seasons hotel. “I’ve never seen a country celebrate a team more than this one,” he said. “We as a country are trying to show great respect for the World Championships. I’m not sure we did that a decade ago.” 

As a whole, the timing of these events seemed to pay off for Erdogan and his governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). “The regime of tutelage is now part of history. The aims of those who support coups will not be achieved,” he said on TV, on a night when almost everyone in the country was watching it. “Those who expect to benefit from dark places will be disappointed. Those who said ‘yes’ and those who said ‘no’ are equally winners because advanced democracy is for everybody.” 

His critics don’t feel that way. Millions of Kurds across the southeast, where guerrillas have fought the government for three decades, boycotted Sunday’s referendum. The secularist main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) claimed the reforms are part of a master strategy to introduce an Islamic state by hand-cuffing the courts. Many of the 42% of the public who voted “no”, especially in Istanbul and on the Aegean coast, dislike the de facto transfer of power to the mainly poor Islamic folk in the center and east of the country who voted “evet” or “yes” to the constitutional changes promised in the referendum. These critics are suspicious of Erdogan’s Islamic motives, and call him “Sultan Erdogan”. 

Speaking privately, several Turkish journalists and fans used a basketball analogy to explain their distrust of the government. They say it’s as if a team ahead in the score is given the power to rewrite the rules of the game to cripple their rival’s best shooters. They were referring to the Turkish military, which has toppled governments four times since 1960, and recently had dozens of officers arrested for allegedly plotting two separate coup attempts. 
The 17th set of changes to the constitution will likely weaken the judiciary and armed forces, part of the “deep state” that has effectively ruled Turkey the past century. The parliament and the president will have more power to appoint the games referees – key personnel on the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Board of Prosecutors and Judges. Army officers, who have long dominated the game on the inside, will be subject to trials in civilian courts. The day after the vote, several rights groups filed petitions calling for the prosecution of retired general Kenan Evren, 93, for the imprisonment and torture of thousands of leftists after the 1980 coup. 

The Turkish media appear divided along party lines. 

“Nobody can stand in the way of Erdogan now,” columnist Mehmet Yilmaz wrote on Monday in the mainstream Hurriyet newspaper. “What Turkey will see now is a series of steps that will turn him into [Russian premier Vladimir] Putin.” The Zaman news agency, which supports the government, meanwhile said the referendum will pave the way for a “more free and democratic era”. 
Yet most media gave more priority to basketball on its front pages, showing what the nation really cares about – national prestige. Regardless of political divisions, Turkey has probably never been more confident as a nation in the post-war era. 

As Turkish coach Tanjevic said, “We are champions of the rest of the world, except for the United States.” 

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