The devastating earthquake on Feb. 6 that ravaged south and central Turkey and northwestern Syria, resulting in the loss of more than 46,000 lives, revealed many fault lines beyond those in the earth. It’s been noted that the disaster has exposed the widespread corruption—in the form of the many shoddy construction contracts that were approved by the government despite tightened regulations that had been adopted after the 1999 Izmit earthquake—on which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule of 20 years has been based. But the earthquake has also brought to light a fault line between the country’s scientists and academics and a regime based on contempt and disregard for knowledge and expertise.
Turkey’s scientific community of geologists, engineers, and architects knew and warned that an earthquake might occur sooner rather than later. Naci Görür, a professor of geology and member of the Science Academy, Turkiye, warned about active earthquake fault lines three days before disaster hit Kahramanmaraṣ and neighboring provinces in early February. He had told the public and the government that it should soon anticipate another violent trembling of the earth. When I visited the Science Academy in mid-December, this possibility was being openly discussed.
Of course, earthquakes, like tornadoes, are notoriously difficult to predict, but when they do hit, they may be less devastating to life and property if well-established international scientific and technological guidelines have been followed. These include not only construction guidelines but also preparations of large empty spaces in the centers of cities and towns where people can congregate when buildings shake, crack, or start collapsing. Instead, the Erdogan government granted zoning amnesties to contractors that allowed them to ignore safety codes and skirt construction guidelines.
Building on a monumental scale has been the mark of Erdogan’s regime. The new Istanbul Airport—which opened in October 2018 and slowly replaced the old Istanbul Ataturk Airport—has a planned capacity of 200 million passengers per year. Its size of 7,594 hectares (19,000 acres) will make it one of the world’s largest airports, ahead of those in Beijing, Atlanta, and Dubai. The writer Kaya Genc observed: “Many consider the airport and Erdogan’s two other huge infrastructure projects, a new intercontinental bridge in Istanbul and a canal connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, as irrational endeavors”. Even Erdogan has called them “crazy projects”.
The proposed canal connecting the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara has been opposed by scientists, architects, and urbanists for years on account of the ecological damage it could cause to life forms, ancient waterways, and the historic center of Istanbul, which would become an island squeezed between the Bosphorus Strait and the new canal.
Yet Erdogan’s magical thinking does not stop at building projects. His economic logic has been equally remote from scientific assessments. To pay for this frenzied construction, he has kept interest rates low for years, leading to a substantial fall in the value of the Turkish lira. A well-known academic and journalist friend put the matter succinctly: “I try to stand where I am financially, but the ground under my feet shifts me and sends me backward”.
Political theorist Hannah Arendt observed that a certain defiance of reality and remoteness from facts are characteristic of totalitarian thinking. Erdogan is not a totalitarian ruler but an authoritarian one in a country struggling to maintain the institutions of a multiparty democracy. His dismissal of facts as fabrications of his enemies and his contempt for those who point to economic or environmental realities that cannot be bent at will are characteristic of his mindset as well. Having devoted the last decade to a Kulturkampf against the media, universities, academics, and scientists, Erdogan is depriving Turkey of one of its most important assets in the hour of its greatest need.
As Ersin Kalaycioglu, one of the country’s distinguished political scientists and constitutional experts, observed in an email to members of the Turkish Academy of Sciences with regards to the government using the earthquake as an excuse to shift all university education online: “It is a big mistake to burden our young people with all the difficulties of online instruction precisely after two years of the COVID pandemic during which they were not able to receive a proper education”. Whether the government wanted to use university dormitories to accommodate thousands of newly homeless victims or whether, by disbanding students from campuses, it wanted to defuse political organizing and resistance is a moot question. Probably both considerations were involved in the decision reached by Erdogan and the Council of Higher Education.
Oct. 29, 2023, marks the centenary of the Turkish Republic. Turkey rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire after a war of independence against European imperial powers that had been dividing the country among its inhabitants—and repressing the memory of the genocide of Ottoman Armenians in 1915. It could have been a model for post-colonial nations everywhere.
Yet during my visit last December, my colleagues’ and former students’ pride about the anniversary of the republic was tinged by a discouragement and sadness I hadn’t seen before. Two decades of rule by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and his Machiavellian authoritarianism had left them demoralized. Many doubted that elections scheduled for June 2023 would actually be held. Some of my aging relatives there, in their 80s, believe that, if Erdogan seems likely to lose, the elections will not be held. With martial law now declared in provinces hit by the earthquake, and with the magnitude of the disaster becoming public in the rest of the country, Erdogan may postpone the elections until the hostility toward his party has subsided and his fortunes appear more secure.
It may seem churlish to view natural disasters through political lenses. Yet the economist Amartya Sen’s study of famine in India showed that open societies, in which knowledge and information flow freely, are better able to cope with catastrophic events than are authoritarian regimes that repress the circulation of solid information and professional assessments.
It is too late now for the 40,000 dead and the millions of others who fear for and mourn their loved ones, their livelihoods, and their homes, but the fault lines bared by this catastrophic quake must be bridged in the future. The 100th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey is the right occasion.
Seyla Benhabib is Yale University’s Eugene Meyer professor of political science and philosophy, emerita, and a senior research fellow at Columbia Law School. Benhabib was born in Istanbul where she spent her childhood and adolescence.