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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / Human Rights

Turkey’s long road to repression

Turkish newspaper editor Can Dündar is in exile after being convicted of “leaking state secrets”

Prior to July 15, very few people inside or outside Turkey could have predicted this year’s coup attempt.

However, the consequences of the failed takeover, unclear as they may be, have at least the virtue of righting a few of the international press’ more worn-out clichés: the Turkish military is no guarantor of secularism, given its apparent infiltration by Gülenists; the Gülen Movement, despite the smarmy praise of the former vice-chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is in fact precisely the kind of shadowy international organization whose interest in politics should be taken seriously; and the AKP’s “Turkish model” – the supposedly perfect marriage of Islamist politics and secular democracy, once widely touted as the region’s best hope – is exposed in no uncertain terms as a sham: the empty project of a man concerned solely with power.

Though there is no doubt the recent increase in repression is extraordinary – both in its speed and scale – its advent should not be thought of as an operational departure for the AKP government. The symptoms of the country’s current malaise have been apparent for well over a decade, reported on by journalists in Turkey, but largely ignored by the West: another lamentable deaf ear to pleas from the region’s democratic groups.

Looking to the past

Can Dündar, a former editor in chief of opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, warned in London at the end of June that Turkish political freedoms had “not ever been this bad,” comparing the situation to that in China and Russia. This was a little more than two weeks before the coup attempt, and given the closure or takeover of a host of opposition outlets, including Dündar’s former newspaper, the situation has only worsened since. Dündar is now living in exile after being convicted of “leaking state secrets.”

So how did Turkey get to this point? To writer, former journalist and unwitting dissident Ece Temelkuran, modern Turkish history is a succession of vendettas, a cycle of violence shifting from one end of the political spectrum to the other. A left-leaning coup in 1960, a right-leaning one in 1971, and a general bloodbath in 1980 were what launched the country on its present trajectory. According to Temelkuran, the left never really recovered from the last bout, and ended up unable to impede the rightward shift of Turkish politics, leaving the field clear for authoritarians and Islamists to contest power.

Enter Erdoğan. In December 1997, the mayor of Istanbul and former member of the far-right Welfare Party fell prey to residual Kemalist heavy-handedness, in the form of an archaic censorship law. He was sentenced to a few months in prison after reciting a poem in a small city in the east of the country. To it, he had added the verse:

The minarets are bayonets, the domes our helmets

The mosque is our barracks, the believers, infantrymen.

This divine army awaits my faith,

God is great, God is great

Less than five years later, his new party, the Justice and Development Party (abbreviated in Turkish as AKP), won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections. The most surprising feature was the party’s strong support from liberals and secular centrist intellectuals.

Though it may be easy to ascribe AKP’s success to populist spin, the win was too large to be defined solely as such. While Erdoğan has time and time again displayed a particular prowess for playing the victim, and (until very recently) regularly made a show of his piety, his appeal to such a wide coalition of support originated elsewhere. For decades, the armed forces held a forceful grip on Turkey’s politics, and the AKP wanted to wrench it free. To that end, Erdoğan’s party presented itself as one of tolerance and inclusion, one that would fight for democracy and, crucially, unite the country and its disparate minorities under the banner of religion. Combined with a laissez-faire approach to the economy, his party swept to victory across much of the country. Popular support at home and abroad came hand-in-hand with the cooperation of Hizmet, the opaque transnational organization founded by Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, whose international network no doubt helped drum up foreign approval.

The illusion did not last very long. The popular narrative today, endorsed in many of those media outfits formerly guilty of praising the “Turkish model” of secular democracy and Islamist politics, argues that Erdoğan’s rule was a success until 2011 (incidentally, the year his falling out with Fethullah Gülen began). However, in truth the facade collapsed much earlier. The AKP-Gülen partnership began maneuvering in the mid-2000s to take control of the military and judicial system. They promoted Hizmet members within these two spheres as a counterweight to Kemalist influence, and as a way to increase pressure on other secular voices.

Three events help illustrate this period. First, the murder in January 2007 of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, dogged by political lawsuits for months prior to his assassination. A vocal advocate for minority rights in Turkey, his death sparked massive protests all over the country. Second, the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials – since then proven to have been based on forged evidence – that prosecuted both Kemalist senior officers in the military and civil society actors for supposedly plotting a coup. Finally, the completion of the massive Silivri Prison in 2008, equipped with its own courtroom, and designed for the hundreds of political trials that have since come to dominate the Turkish judicial landscape.

This authoritarian course revealed itself as early as 2005, when laws were first introduced to make the prosecution of dissidents easier. This was followed by the constitutional changes of 2010, which effectively allowed both AKP and Gülenists unfettered control of the judiciary by making parliament directly responsible for the composition of Turkey’s highest tribunal, the constitutional court. The result of this authoritarian turn is the Turkey of today: a country in the midst of economic crisis, plagued by terrorism and civil war (lest we forget the ongoing conflict with Kurdish separatist groups), and whose civil service seems caught in a struggle between Hizmet and AKP. Given the license his government gave Gülenists in the years prior to 2011, Erdoğan’s purported reaction to the coup, supposedly masterminded by Gülenists, had a certain pathos to it: “What did you want that we didn’t give to you?”

The Western view

Particularly alarming to the Western reader may be the utter lack of analysis, reporting, and criticism these developments elicited in our press (until 2013’s Gezi Park protests, that is). For too long, governments and media outlets have been eager to toe the line and praise Erdoğan’s government as moderate, even as evidence to the contrary mounted. In the US, the Bush and Obama administrations needed for various reasons (including but not limited to the War on Terror and a necessity to maintain good relations) to present Turkey as a role model for Arab countries. Few bothered to question their assumptions. Even in 2011, a year when the European Court of Human Rights received 9,000 applications against Turkey, an intellectual like Slavoj Žižek could openly praise the country as a perfect marriage between Islam and democracy, and fall well within the critical consensus. This error has been widely repeated by the press’ more bien-pensant elements.

There is no defending such an unquestioning approach. Moderate though the AKP may have been in terms of religion, it certainly hasn’t been when it comes to authoritarianism. Over the past decade, Western commentators ignored secular Turkish journalists and activists who courageously criticized their country’s bearing. In the meantime, Erdoğan has revealed himself to be the Turkish embodiment of what we too, in Europe and the United States, now have the chance to appreciate up close: populist, far-right politics. His party’s brand of communication – deflective, accusatory, and couched in lies – is eerily reminiscent of our own post-truth platforms. Let’s hope this resemblance doesn’t extend to governance.