The Constitution is Suspended” was, presciently, the headline of the last edition of Turkey’s largest daily newspaper, Zaman, before the government took control of it on March 4. Editor-in-chief Abdulhamid Bilici was fired, the newspaper’s website went of
The destruction made room for a new creation. It now praises President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his glorious “New Turkey”.
The attack on Zaman should come as no surprise. The paper has been associated with Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric who lives in exile in Pennsylvania. Gulen, once an ally of President Erdogan, broke with the Turkish leader about two years ago and the media group switched from being pro-government to anti-government. The pro-Erdogan media has begun to call the followers of Gulen the “Fethullah Gulen Terror Organisation” and seized all assets of the Gulen movement, including the new dailies, various news sites and 17 different universities across Turkey. Officials seek to justify these actions by dubbing the Gulen movement “the most dangerous terrorist organisation of the past 1,000 years”.
This crackdown is merely the latest of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian moves, which have included imprisoning critics, sidelining the military and re-igniting the war against Kurdish separatists. He now controls much of the media and has made Turkey a leader among countries that jail journalists. Along with his campaign to wipe out a free press, his government’s prosecutors have opened nearly 2,000 cases against Turks in the last 18 months for insulting Erdogan, which is a crime.
Turkey was once on track to be a model Muslim democracy, but the clampdown by Erdogan implies he never believed in democratic principles. These actions raise serious questions about whether Turkey can continue to be a trusted member of Nato, which was founded as a security alliance based on common values.
The entire Turkish press is being taken over by the current regime, which insists that democracy is about nothing but elections, and the winner of elections – as the embodiment of the “national will” – has the right to dominate every aspect of society.
The other disturbing, and potentially most destabilising element, is the brutal crackdown on Kurdish groups in the east of the country who aspire to an autonomous state. Some commentators compare the level of damage seen in some Kurdish districts to the early days of the war in Syria. Curfews have been enforced in the main Kurdish city of Diyarbakir and in Idil, a district in Sirnak province, where Turkish forces are continuing operations against Kurdish militants. Amnesty International has called the extensive curfews “collective punishment”.
The United States and Europe, swayed by the imperatives of realpolitik, have responded in the meekest of terms to Erdogan’s harsh measures. The refugee crisis that is roiling Europe needs to be addressed urgently and Turkey is one possible ally in Europe’s desperate efforts to block the refugees from entering European countries.
The US and Europe blunt their criticism in hopes of persuading Turkey to help contain the refugee crisis. Erdogan’s stance has hardened and he has set new demands for his cooperation, including billions more in aid and earlier membership in the European Union for Turkey.
The refugee crisis has given a strange new twist to the power equation between the EU and Turkey, a situation that allows Erdogan to behave with impunity. Turkey will not go through with an agreement to take back Syrian migrants from Europe if the European Union does not fulfil its pledges.
Under the deal, Ankara will take back all migrants and refugees who cross the Aegean Sea and enter Greece illegally. In return, Europe will take in thousands of Syrian refugees directly from Turkey and reward it with money, visa-free travel and progress in its EU membership negotiations.
It would be good to remember that the war in Syria began with the brutal suppression of street protests. Had President Bashar al Assad taken a more conciliatory approach and addressed the demands of protesters, perhaps Syria would not have faced destruction and its citizens would have been spared the worst humanitarian disaster in recent history. Turkey’s high-handed actions do not bode well.
Indeed, there is a salutary lesson for any country struggling with the forces of democracy. In the 21st century, citizens’ demand for greater transparency, rule of law and basic human rights cannot forever be crushed.
Meera Kumar, a New York-based freelance writer, was formerly with the Asian Development Bank. Her commentary has appeared in journals throughout Asia.