Erdogan, emboldened by the rise of Trump, is crushing fragile freedoms – tens of thousands detained and the press muzzled. The west must end its silence
January 18, 2017 modified March 1, 2017
By Owen Jones
Democracy is a bundle of rights and freedoms wrestled from the powerful. Our rulers only surrender their power when compelled to – when the cost of resisting pressure from below becomes greater than the cost of giving ground to it.
But it is naive to regard these concessions as permanent. Elites are always waiting for opportunities to seize back their power. The ideal excuse is a national crisis, contrived or otherwise, normally involving an alliance of internal and external threats, all requiring drastic measures to defeat. The authoritarian rightwing populism sweeping the Western world skilfully exploits fear to drive back the borders of democracy.
Turkey’s regime is fast degenerating into outright dictatorship, emboldened by the imminent ascent of Donald Trump to the most powerful position on Earth. I spent last week with Turkey’s beleaguered opposition parties, newspapers and activists. Their courage is inspiring, their plight distressing.
Last July an attempted military coup failed to dislodge the autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The backlash was swift. As Human Rights Watch reported, the regime took advantage of the moment “to crack down on human rights and dismantle basic democratic safeguards”. More than 120,000 Turks have been sacked, nearly 90,000 detained, and more than 40,000 have been arrested, 144 of them journalists. Turkey is a world leader in jailing media workers, with some 160 outlets closed.
So how did things deteriorate so badly? Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) was, for many years, in alliance with a secretive movement led by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. The Gülenists infiltrated much of the Turkish state, including the army, police and education system.. It was, in part, a marriage of convenience: both sought to drive out authoritarian elements that opposed Islamism. But the means were, from a democratic perspective, dubious.
In 2013 the two sides fell out, and Turkey’s rulers accused the Gülenists of plotting the failed coup. But this charge has been used to suppress a secular opposition that has no association with Gülenism whatsoever. There have been clampdowns on the media and basic democratic freedoms, concentrating even more power in the hands of the regime.
Ahmet Şık is a prominent Turkish investigative journalist who would fearlessly challenge authority. In his book The Imam’s Army, Şık exposed how Gülenism infiltrated everything from the judiciary to the security services, building a parallel state. “Ahmet knew it had heavy risks,” a friend says, “but he went ahead and published the book.”
He was jailed in 2011, and his book was banned. Even when he was released, Şık refused to be silenced: he said the AKP and the underground terror group FETÖ, allegedly affiliated to Gülen, “were working in hand in glove”. His friends called him a hero, a label he resented. “It’s only that everyone else is silent that I look like a hero,” he said.
Turkey’s current justice minister has praised Gülen as a great Islamic scholar. But in 2013 Şık exposed a “full-scale war” between the government and the Gülenists. And after the failed coup, Şık refused to stop exposing the AKP’s past associations with the Gülenists. “If they were blaming FETÖ for the coup,” as his friend puts it, “then the AKP were partly responsible because they had worked together for so long.”
Last month Şık was arrested for spreading terrorist propaganda on social media, and not just on behalf of FETÖ – he was also accused of backing the PKK, which fights for Kurdish national self-determination and is diametrically opposed to Gülenism. So a journalist persecuted for exposing regime links with Gülenism was locked up on charges of being in league with Gülenists.
I visited the newspaper Cumhuriyet, whose office lies in the shadow of Trump Towers Istanbul. So many of its journalists have been arrested, it is on a skeleton staff. Moreover, 189 journalists have been physically or verbally abused, and hundreds have had their press cards confiscated – in effect banning them from their job. And opposition papers are being commercially asphyxiated, with advertisers pressured to withdraw.
Then there’s the opposition: members of the leftist HDP have faced mass arrests, offices raids and accusations of terrorist links. The secular centre-left CHP told me: “We represent western values, but the west has abandoned us.”
Journalists and civilians alike have been rounded up for the crime of “insulting” President Erdoğan. Perhaps in solidarity the people of the world should make his name the ultimate insult. As he cows opposition, the president now intends to rig the constitution to grant himself even more sweeping powers.
The west is largely silent. And Erdoğan is triumphalist. Last July Trump praised Erdoğan for “turning it around” after the attempted coup. And Erdoğan cheered Trump’s car-crash press conference last week: Trump, who told a CNN reporter that the organisation he worked for produced fake news, had – according to Erdoğan – put the reporter “in his place” because media organisations such as CNN “undermine national unity”.
Turkey’s fragile democracy is being bled to death. It is dusk for democracy in Poland and Hungary too, as populist rightwing governments keep the superficial trappings of democracy for appearance’s sake but hollow it out in practice. Now that the demagogue Trump is about to become the world’s most powerful man, the authoritarians believe history is on their side.
Turkey is a warning: democracy is precious but fragile. It underlines how rights and freedoms are often won at great cost and sacrifice but can be stripped away by regimes exploiting national crises. The danger is that Turkey won’t be an exception, but a template of how to rid countries of democracy. That is reason enough to stand by Turkey. Who knows which country could be next?