The rise of autocracy can be insidious, and doesn’t come with an instruction manual on how to survive, said one of hundreds of people who got in touch to tell us what life is like in Turkey.
Over the past few years the president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has slowly tightened his grip on power, imprisoning journalists who criticise him and intimidating citizens who may not agree with him.
How do you fight back? Here are 10 pieces of advice from people inside Turkey, and from the diaspora. Names have been withheld because of the danger of speaking out.
Head off the threat at the onset
When it comes to despots, prevention is certainly better than the cure, so early action is something that respondents advocate. The moment you notice your government using any form of hate speech to debase a group – women, migrants or minorities, for example – is the moment to speak out, confront – and withdraw support.
Spread facts – but stay safe
Facts may be an endangered species these days, but they are crucial to ensuring that populists do not get away with propagating a skewed version of events. One respondent recommended “low key” conversations with everyone from “your taxi driver to your manicurist”. Others suggested regular conversations about what is happening with colleagues and friends.
Sharing information through online platforms was also suggested multiple times, with the important caveat that you do this safely. One reader described social media as “the only weapon against dictatorships”, but urged people to use “trusted VPN channels” and to be aware of how to conceal your online activity if the authorities come knocking.
This article provides a useful overview for assuring online anonymity.
Assume everyone is lying to you – even your allies
In the fake news era, the pursuit of truth has never been given so much coverage. One Turkish individual told us one should start from a baseline assumption that “everyone is lying to you, even your political allies”. The way to counter this is to check, double-check and authenticate everything.
Never assume democracy is the default mode – it needs constant protection
“This tragic and seemingly global turn towards authoritarianism and demagogy” could affect every corner of the globe, warns another reader. The struggle highlights the “fragility of democracy and human rights”.
“Never think, even for a second, that they are default modes of social organisation. They need constant support in the face of those who will tear everything down for their personal interests,” said the respondent.
Respect for justice is sacrosanct
Keep a close eye on your justice system, recommends one respondent, pointing to dramatic changes to the courts under Erdoğan, who sacked thousands of judges after a failed coup attempt against him last July. This has resulted in a system where no one dares rule against the president’s political wishes, the respondent said.
Do not wait for the tyrants to leave, because they won’t
“Fight against tyranny. Do not wait them to leave. Because they don’t,” says another respondent, who feels they were naive about the early days of Erdoğan’s rule. You may expect leaders to step down after civilised elections, but if they are corrupt they will do whatever it takes to cling on to power.
Do not treat all government supporters as monsters
One respondent, whose American friends are afraid of Trump, says their most critical piece of advice is not to treat government supporters as an alien species. “Most of them are ordinary citizens … people you know, you have talked to. They are not mere monsters, but they have deep insecurities.”
Another suggests breaking free of “your bubble” to “engage in discussion with people who truly have reasons to support the system, and try to understand them”. “After all, their dissent might just be what you are looking for,” the respondent added.
Many people who got in touch referred to the 2013 anti-government protests as a time of hope. What happened in Gezi Park should be seen as a victory, because “we did not resort to violence … we relied on humour, a weapon they couldn’t counter”, said one. But recognise that humour and passive resistance have limits in the face of some of the most determined regimes.
Seek international support
When people are so scared they cannot even join a peaceful protest, some recommended calling on international support from bodies such the European Union who can, in theory, demand better human rights standards, and threaten embargoes, or leaders from democratic countries who can use their diplomatic leverage to make your situation safer.
The state is afraid of your thoughts – that is your power
One reader said: “Whenever I feel physically trapped I think about the power of the thought. The mind is a beautiful and eternal place, and no one can ever reach it if you don’t let them.” Remember that “the state is afraid of your thoughts, and that is a huge and delightful thing”.