Turkey: Our Ally With Less Press Freedom Than Russia
Several friends have recently visited Istanbul, which sounds like an interesting place full of culture, history, good food, and hospitable people. I will not be visiting that bustling city of 14 million, however, and may never go, because of this column you’re reading now.
I won’t be traveling to Istanbul or Turkey’s capital of Ankara because of the hypocrisy of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the man elected president of that nation last year. To be more precise, it’s not because he’s a hypocrite, and likely a crook, not to mention obviously power-mad. Eliminating countries where the heads of state exhibit those qualities would restrict any world traveler. No, the reason is that attributing such traits to Erdogan is now treated as a criminal offense in Turkey — and the inside of a Turkish jail is not my idea of a holiday.
Turkish politics is not often foremost in Americans’ minds, but that might need to change. The average American may know that almost all Turks are Muslims, and that the country is in NATO. They may or may not know that Turkey’s frightful losses in World War I, its genocide against Armenians, and its partial occupation after the war led to a nationalist movement led by a World War I hero named Mustafa Kemal in the early 1920s.
This movement swept away the remnants of the Ottoman Empire. Kemal, later officially re-named Kemal Ataturk — “father of the Turks”— shuttered the caliphate, dissolved religious courts, codified political rights for women, secularized the schools, and switched his country from the Arabic to Latin alphabet.
Turkey remained neutral in World War II, but not in the Cold War. It was a dependable U.S. ally and a European buffer with the Soviet empire. The collapse of the Soviet Union and rise of pan-Islamic politics led to the rise of another Turkish political movement, one both populist and Islamic. German-educated Necmettin Erbakan emerged as its leader. He became Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister in 1996, but the military dissolved his government after a year.
By that time, his protégé, Recep Erdogan, had been elected mayor of Istanbul in a crowded field. Despite fears that he’d seek to impose religious rule, Erdogan governed pragmatically. It seems now that he was only biding his time, but the signs were always there: He pronounced himself Istanbul’s “imam,” and said revealingly, “Democracy is like a streetcar. When you come to your stop, you get off.”
In December of 1997, Erdogan was arrested for taunting higher authorities by reciting a religious poem, which he followed with a fiery speech threatening anyone who tried to quell public displays of religion in Turkey with a “fiery volcano.” He was arrested, as he half-expected, but when he was marched off to prison thousands of Turks—many of them secularists who supported free speech—marched with him.
After getting out of prison, he ran successfully for office again, this time in national elections. His party won in 2002, making him prime minister. Last year, he ran for president, heretofore a neutral and largely ceremonial position. Erdogan has different ideas: He’s begun to talk openly of turning the job into something akin to a monarchy. He has the house for it: Last year, he unveiled an ornate new presidential palace on Ankara’s outskirts that he made a point of noting is bigger than Buckingham Palace.
Such moves have made Turks with democratic impulses uneasy. So has Erdogan’s reputation for corruption. Police investigations into his business dealings resulted in the December 2013 leaking of a tape—uploaded to YouTube—in which Erdogan is heard instructing his son on how to hide tens of millions of dollars. Additional recordings revealed that Erdogan interfered in judicial cases, ordered media outlets to run stories supportive of the administration while muzzling the opposition, and approved leaking a sex video featuring a political opponent.
His administration’s response was what you might expect: blaming the entire mess on a plot involving Israel and the United States, the mass firings of cops, and shutting down the Internet. In a speech, Erdogan vowed to “rip out the roots of Twitter.”
This kind of thuggery has continued unabated. In his 2014 presidential campaign, Erdogan repeatedly attacked Israel as having “surpassed Hitler in barbarism.” After winning, his government orchestrated the mass arrests of 23 journalists and writers in a single day. Among those facing trial are the editor of Turkey’s largest circulating newspaper, the chairman of a respected broadcasting company, several popular columnists, and six screenwriters.
The revenge prosecutions continue. On Wednesday, the chief prosecutor’s office in Ankara issued warrants for the arrest of 54 police officials on charges of wire-tapping the president. They’ve also issued an arrest warrant, on unspecified charges, for Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric and former Erdogan ally who has been living in exile in Pennsylvania for a decade. Erdogan evidently blames Gulen for stirring up this corruption stuff. Like me, I guess he won’t be traveling to Turkey anytime soon either.
Perhaps the pinnacle of Erdogan’s pettiness (I hope he doesn’t also make alliteration a crime) came last week when one of his lawyers lodged a complaint with prosecutors against Merve Buyuksarac, a model who was Miss Turkey in 2006. Her crime? She posted a poem on Instagram from a satiric magazine that may or may not have suggested Erdogan is a master thief. The prosecutor is seeking a term of four years in prison.
It turns out that Erdogan did not tear the roots out of Twitter. Instead, his henchmen patrol the country’s social media for evidence that private citizens are criticizing them. Turkey has always been an uneasy democracy. Soon, they won’t even have the pretense. Erdogan seems determined to lead his nation off “the streetcar.”
A France-based human rights group, Reporters Without Borders, says that Turkey’s Press Freedom Index has steadily declined during Erdogan’s dozen years in power. It was 99th in 2002; it now ranks 154th, putting it behind such bulwarks of liberty as Russia and Iraq.
It has been a source of surprise in the U.S. why Turkey hasn’t done more militarily to combat the barbarism of ISIS, which is taking place within easy striking distance of the Turkish military. Perhaps it shouldn’t be. Perhaps, too, Americans should start asking themselves if this is a government worthy of being called a U.S. ally.