The online Free Dictionary defines ‘irony’ as “The use of words to express something different from and often opposite to their literal meaning.” The source adds that “Something is ironic if the result is the opposite of what was intended; an ironic event is an incongruous event, one at odds with what might have been expected.” The Meriam-Webster Dictionary offers two similar definitions of ‘irony’: “the use of words that mean the opposite of what you really think especially in order to be funny;” and “a situation that is strange or funny because things happen in a way that seems to be the opposite of what you expected.”
With my non-native proficiency in the language, I could not seem to think of a good Turkish equivalent for the concept of irony. I’m not sure if Kötü Tesadüf – literally “bad coincidence” – quite captures the idea. Alaylı might be another translation of ‘ironic,’ but the term as I understand it means something more akin to ‘mocking,’ ‘teasing’ or ‘sarcastic.’ Pulling out my thick Langenscheidt English-Turkish Dictionary, I found confirmation of Kötü Tesadüf and Alay as the definition of ‘irony,’ and also istihza – which I suspect is an Arabic origin word and is more often translated as ‘sarcasm’ or ‘mockery.’
I really did not expect Turkish to lack a real, authentically Turkic equivalent of the word ‘irony,’ whether in the English sense of the word or its old French and Latin origins (ironie and ironia). Politics in the Turkish Republic involve more irony than anywhere else on earth I can think of.
We could start with the “Turkish” War of Independence, when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rallied Muslim Ottomans to defend the Sultanate and Caliphate against Christian and Western powers. After winning the war, Ataturk went on to abolish the Sultanate and Caliphate and founded a secular republic that repressed public expressions of Islamic piety. He also aligned the new Turkey with the Christian West, holding yesterday’s European enemies up as the model that Turks should strive to emulate. Although the new republic was secular, most Christians were labeled “Greeks” even though they spoke Turkish and not Greek, and around a million and a half of them were deported to Greece. The irony of it all was quintessential, but not in any ‘mocking,’ ‘teasing’ or ‘sarcastic’ sense.
Soon after Turkey became an electoral democracy in 1950, the military stepped in to hang Adnan Menderes, the most popular freely elected Prime Minister Turkey had yet seen. Then the Turkish generals drew up a more liberal constitution that did more to protect individual freedoms and the democratic process, and promptly withdrew back to their barracks. By the late 1980s, Turkey was being described as the most democratic Muslim state in the region at the same time that it remained the most repressive country towards Kurdish identity, culture and language. Although Saddam, Assad and Khomeini were infinitely more authoritarian than any of their successive Turkish counterparts, they at least recognized and admitted the existence of a Kurdish people.
All of which brings us to today. A politician imprisoned for Islamist incitement in the late 1990s founds a new, moderate and avowedly secular Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party, or AK Party) in 2001. Campaigning on a platform of honesty and anti-corruption, in 2002 the one-year old party wins enough votes in the general elections to eclipse the older corrupt political parties and form a majority government on its own. The Islamist political prisoner of yesterday becomes Prime Minister and brandishes Turkey’s dream of joining the European Union to push through democratic reforms. The Americans embrace him and support him, and international business and investments flood in from all directions. Soon the former-Islamist-but-now-democracy-loving Prime Minister tames the Turkish military and dismantles the “deep state” apparatus truly running the country from the shadows.
Then, starting on December 17, Prime Minister and his AK Party (‘ak’ means ‘white’ or ‘clean’ in Turkish) find themselves embroiled in a huge corruption scandal. Cabinet ministers are forced to resign and their sons are imprisoned after shoe boxes containing tens of millions of dollars and euros are found in their homes and that of the president of Turkey’s state bank. Soon surreptitiously taped phone conversations between the Prime Minister and his son – during which the Prime Minister is heard to tell his son to hide all the money outside the home somewhere, and quickly – get leaked. The leak is thought to come from a unofficial movement of devout anti-Islamist Muslims whose followers hold many official positions in the police and judiciary in Turkey.
To safeguard the rule of law, the Prime Minister then dismisses thousands of prosecutors, judges and police officers – especially those involved in the corruption investigations. He appoints a new "deep state" to secure the new establishment. To protect democracy, he quickly passes laws to bring the judiciary and intelligence organizations directly under his government’s political control. To protect average citizens from the Internet and whatever may leak its way into that sordid realm, he pushes through a new censorship law. As the Prime Minister bravely fights on, he blames the United States, Europe, investors, international businesses and many other former friends for the whole conspiracy against him. Whereas in most countries electoral politics means that leaders must resign after evidence of serious corruption comes to light, this Prime Minister confidently announces that the voters (rather than the judiciary and police that he dismissed) will pronounce him ‘innocent’ in the upcoming elections.
Thinking about all this, I really could not believe that Turkish does not have a word for irony, at least in the sense that I use it here. So I went online to google translate, punched in the word ‘ironic,’ and clicked “translate to Turkish.” The screen flashed back the word 'ironik' at me.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since August 2010. He is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement (2006, Cambridge University Press).