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Turkey’s downward spiral

We are delighted to feature this guest op-ed by Irfan Hussain, columnist for Dawn. 

Of late, Turkey has been the source of a number of depressing stories. Once held up as an example for the Islamic world of the viability of secular democracy in a Muslim country, we now have a state where the freedom of the press and the independence of the judiciary have been virtually eradicated. A flourishing democracy under such conditions is inconceivable.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used the recent coup attempt to drive a bulldozer over the essential underpinnings of a free society. In a recent report on the sad state of the Turkish media, the New York Times gave the example of Kadri Gursel, a popular columnist for Cumhuriyet, the biggest and oldest opposition daily in Turkey. Mr Gursel is now in jail awaiting trial for the ‘crime’ of suggesting to his readers that they all light cigarettes to protest against Erdogan’s habit of lecturing all those who smoked near him. Although clearly tongue in cheek, the column has landed Mr Gursel in jail on terrorism charges.

120 journalists are in prison, making Turkey the leading country to lock up media persons. Some have been accused of ‘subliminal messaging’ by writing critical articles before the July coup. Others have been arrested for suggesting that the government should resume talks with PKK, the banned Kurdish organization. Hundreds have been charged with the crime of ‘insulting the President.’

Perhaps more damaging in the long term is the closure of 150 news outlets, including TV stations, newspapers and online websites. These are being offered for sale to pro-Erdogan businessmen. Erol Onderoglu of the Reporters Without Borders press-monitoring outfit, is deeply pessimistic about the future of the Turkish media:

“There is no critical journalism, 90% of the free press is destroyed directly or indirectly. Investigative journalism is considered treason. Journalism has been stolen by the government.”

And it is not just the media that has been devastated by the Erdogan government. Erdogan has been able to lock up and sack tens of thousands of his opponents by using sweeping emergency powers in the wake of the July coup attempt. And now, he seems to be on the brink of his dream to wield supreme power by holding a referendum on converting the office of the president – currently a figurehead position, at least in theory – into an executive presidency modelled on the American chief executive. Already living in a new 1,000 room palace, his dream of becoming an Ottoman sultan would finally come true.

When he was in Pakistan recently, he spoke about a vast network of ‘Feto terrorists’. This is the name he has given to the Hizmet (or Khidmat) organization created by Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled cleric who is accused of being behind the coup attempt. Erdogan likens the organization to the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda; this is a bit of an exaggeration as it runs hundreds of schools and social welfare institutions around the world. And even if some of its supporters really attempted to overthrow Erdogan, it is bizarre to accuse teachers working at the excellent Pak-Turk network of schools in Pakistan of plotting a coup in Turkey. The way these poor people and their families have been thrown out of the country, after years of teaching our children, is simply disgraceful.

Yet another sign of Turkey’s authoritarian drift is the arrest of at least ten MPs from the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). These include the party’s leader, Selahattin Demitras, often described as the ‘Turkish Obama’ for his charismatic presence. These MPs have been accused of supporting the outlawed PKK, the Kurdish separatist organization.

Clearly, Erdogan is moving systematically to eliminate all sources of possible opposition, and clear the decks for a lifetime presidency. These tendencies have caused widespread fear in Turkey among many Turks who have grown up in a climate of secularism and freedom. Suddenly, they find the rights they had taken for granted snatched away. And yet Erdogan remains popular with his constituency of religiously conservative Turks.

This divide, although not new, has taken on a sharper edge with Erdogan’s policy of pushing Islam in the public sphere. During his long term as Turkey’s ruler, the country has been transformed from a democracy to a state where religious freedom is now at risk.

Abroad, Turkey’s current trajectory under Erdogan is causing deep consternation. The Turkish application to join the EU is now looking more distant than ever. NATO has observed Turkey’s confused — and confusing — approach to Syria with growing apprehension. The country’s earlier support (together with Saudi Arabia and some Gulf states) for the most extreme jihadist groups fighting in the Syrian civil war led to the growth of the Islamic State and Al Nusra. And Erdogan’s pathological hatred for the PKK and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG, has caused a dilution of the anti-IS efforts.

As Erdogan has shifted and twisted in a regional storm, friends and foes are trying to figure out what direction he wants to take Turkey in. He has mended fences with Russia, Israel and Egypt, while distancing himself from the United States and the EU. While Turkey remains a major regional power, Erdogan’s dream of an Ottoman revival remains a distant one.

About Ahsan Butt

Assistant Professor, Schar School of Policy and Government, George Mason University

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