Wednesday, February 22, 2017

The Cultural, Political and Intellectual Hollowing Out of Turkey*

Haaretz: "The delegitimization, if not criminalization, of any opposition – political, media or cultural – by Turkey's ruling party coincides with a crucial referendum on expanding presidential power even further."

It has been just over a week since the police clashed with Ankara University students and teachers who were protesting the latest country-wide purge of 330 academics. In this round of expulsions, Ankara University was hit particularly hard: 72 academics were removed, in effect strangling its prestigious School of Political Science. Such protests are quite rare nowadays: Turkey’s State of Emergency, declared following the July 2016 Coup attempt and renewed twice since, affords the government the use of stringent measures against any protesters.

Only miles away from the protests, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, signed off on a controversial parliamentary bill that will go to a referendum on April 16. The bill, if passed by 50% of the Turkish public, will inaugurate a presidential political system. Among the changes, Turkey will no longer have a prime minister, the president will be able to appoint ministers, dissolve parliament, and also have the right to declare a State of Emergency. Armed with a ‘Yes’ vote, Erdogan could theoretically remain in power until 2029. Essentially, the new system would legitimize Erdogan’s already de-facto unitary hold on power, for the long term.

The holding of the referendum comes at a time when it’s clearer than ever that, in parallel to the AKP’s desire to weaken parliamentary power, the purges are weakening the explicit or incipient oppositional power of Turkish civil society.

The academics and others being arrested or sanctioned may be staunch critics of the government, but their removal cannot be seen in terms of the anti-Gulen narrative pushed by the government since the coup. A large proportion of the academics fired in recent purges were signatories of the pro-peace petition signed over a year ago. In other words, many of those purged have no connection at all with the Gulen movement accused of carrying out the coup, and certainly, signing a pro-peace petition cannot be parsed as a profession of support for the Kurdish PKK terrorist organization. 

Indeed, the Gulen movement had been deemed by the Turkish government as a terrorist organization, known as FETO, even before the coup attempt. The numbers of alleged FETO members now purged defy belief: over 100,000 people have been purged from state employment and tens of thousands detained and/or arrested.  

One of those government critics arrested is the well-known investigative journalist, Ahmet Sik, who was detained late last December on charges of disseminating propaganda on behalf of the PKK and FETO. While linking Sik to the PKK seems far off—simply he is perhaps one of the most independent journalists in Turkey—linking him to the Gulen movement is simply preposterous; in 2011, he sat in jail for a whole year, after being arrested for writing an anti-Gulen book (those were the days when the AKP was in a coalition with the Gulen movement, before parting ways in 2013). Sik’s arrest appears to be a blatant response to his ongoing, acute questioning of the government’s coup attempt narrative.

Then there is the arrest of fashion designer Barbaros Sansal, for a biting New Year’s Eve tirade attacking the AKP, exclaiming that one day Turkey would “drown in its own shit.” Sansal, a social butterfly with a sharp tongue who never shies away from confrontation, was deported from his home in Turkish Cyprus within 48 hours of releasing the recorded video statement. Once in Istanbul, he was brutally attacked by the airport ground crew and then detained; he remains behinds bars, despite the court rejecting the indictment of “inciting the public to hatred or hostility” made against him. It seems the courts are giving the state another chance to prepare fresh charges against him. 

Of course, Sik and Sansal are just two of many journalists, writers and artists in prison. Some of them are detained for hours, and others for months at a time, such as the renowned author, Asli Erdogan, whose release after four months was as random as her arrest. 

Then there are the members of Turkey’s third largest party, the mostly Kurdish HDP (and plenty of their activists) who are behind bars, such as its co-leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, due to alleged ties with the PKK. In addition to these two Members of Parliament, currently nine other MPs from the HDP have been detained or arrested. 

Of course, there are also those jailed for their ties to the former Gulenist media networks, who face a judicial process without due process; they are particularly lonely targets as they often don’t benefit from solidarity from some of Turkey’s anti-government journalists who are often staunchly anti-Gulenist as well. One example, is the 73 year old woman journalist Nazli Ilicak, who has been held pending trial for over six months.

With such a gloomy picture of the current and future state of Turkish democracy, the question arises: What will happen to those who oppose the referendum that could irrevocably centralize power in Erdogan’s hands?  And do they have a chance of blocking it? What public fora are left to discuss or challenge the ‘Yes’ vote campaign? 

Even newspapers once critical of the government, such as Hurriyet, recently refused to publish an interview with the Turkish Nobel Prize winner, novelist Orhan Pamuk, after he stated that he would vote “No.” The nation’s Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, constantly declares that “No” supporters are in the “same ranks,” as terrorists.

Simply put, even if the CHP and HDP, the major opposition parties, together with the numerous small independent groups working against the presidential bill, can muster up a majority of ‘No’ votes, there is still little hope that the current status quo will change. Even the failure of the referendum wouldn’t wave a magic wand that would cause the AKP and hardcore Erdoganists to relinquish their power. Nevertheless, even with the cards stacked up against them, these opposition forces have no other choice than to rally for a resounding 'No' vote, in hope that whatever vote they achieve will at least mark to the government that a significant proportion of the country is unhappy with the current state of affairs. Remarkably, despite these fears of retribution, there is a growing chorus of voices from different political backgrounds, calling for a 'No' vote.    

The government is building on fear to swing the vote in their favor. This contrasts starkly with the past, when the AKP gained votes by promising a better future. They’re hoping now that the ‘Yes’ vote will be propelled by a deep anxiety about what the future holds. It is likely that many could very well vote ‘Yes’ simply to avoid the chaos that could follow a victory by the opposition. Their vote would be backed by voters who believe a resounding ‘Yes’ victory will once and for all settle the political hierarchy and social unrest and put the AKP back on track to leading to a more peaceful future. 

The Turkish electorate is tired; since 2014, it has witnessed four election campaigns; one for municipalities (2014), then for the presidency (2014), and then two parliamentary ones in 2015, after the AKP was initially unable to form a coalition. 

With each election, the country becomes more polarized. At the same time, the electorate has to live through other critical strains and tensions, not least the threat of terrorism that has struck numerous times in the heart of its major cities. The war with the PKK has no end in sight, and the number of Turkish soldiers killed in Syria is growing. The economy is sinking. The country experienced a traumatic coup attempt, showing the fragility, or if you like, the resilience, of the state. The unity that atrocities and the coup attempt triggered have been notably short-term.

Risking unfounded optimism, clearly the best scenario for the next two months would be a peaceful period in which both ‘No’ and ‘Yes’ camps will be able to present their starkly different visions of a new Turkey, and that whatever the turnout of the referendum, Turkey won’t encounter the violence some are predicting. However, truth be told, if Turkey’s leaders are not careful then the serious difficulties and injustices of today will only be a foretaste of what’s to come. The worse-case scenarios are no longer so hard to imagine.

This appeared in Haaretz on February 19, 2017. Click here for the link.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Elegy for Turkey, Now a One-party State*

Haaretz: "The grotesque sight of parliamentarians being dragged into police cars, mouths covered by the hands of the security forces, is the latest sign that [Turkey] reaching a point of no return."

In late night raids last Thursday (November 4) , Turkish security forces rounded the heads of the mostly Kurdish HDP party and 11 of its Members of Parliament. The government accused them of an array of charges alleging membership in, or support of, the outlawed Kurdish PKK terrorist organization. The two leaders, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, are now officially under arrest and in prison awaiting trial. 

With the recent sequence of aggressive government clampdowns, it would be a lie to say that many in Turkey were surprised at the arrests. Just last week, the HDP co-mayors of Diyarbakir, including a former MP, Gultan Kisanak, were also arrested. However even for seasoned observers already used to the Erdogan government’s accelerated post-coup authoritarianism, the speed and manner of the operation to arrest the HDP leaders was nonetheless shocking. The sight of lawmakers being forced into police cars, at times pushed around by security officials young enough to be their children, was a grotesque show of force. One former MP, Sebahat Tuncel, was literally dragged and gagged while being detained at a protest.

With the arrests, Turkey has erased this summer’s sympathy and support, not least internationally, following the ruthless attempt a group of army officers to take down the state on the night of July 15, bombing the country’s parliament and shooting down hundreds of civilians who were defending its country’s democracy. Internationally, and despite fears by many that Turkey was already well on its way to turning into an authoritarian state, the Turkish government’s slate was wiped clean and it was in effect given a window of time to “clean house.” 

Inside Turkey, in the attempted coup’s immediate aftermath, it had seemed that a new found unity between Turkey’s religiously-oriented AKP-led government and the CHP, the major secular opposition party, might lead the country on a new path: of stability and hope for change. 

However, following the post-coup purges, which have left over 100,000 citizens fired from jobs in the private and public sectors and almost 40,000 arrested, those among the opposition who had supported the summer’s unity slowly started to realize that what they had imagined as a new beginning was merely a passing midsummer delusion. The Wall Street Journal has termed these collective events as "the largest mass purge the world has seen in decades."

This feeling has only been exacerbated by the fact that the purges are extending far beyond the Gulenists—followers of the U.S.-exiled Fethullah Gulen, blamed for the coup attempt—to include diverse opposition voices as well as harsh critics of the government. 

It was reported that among last week's purge of academics, some signatories of the January 2016 pro-peace petition have been sacked. One outspoken human rights activist and world renowned author, Asli Erdogan, has been under arrest for over two months as well. At the same time, a recent decree has targeted the autonomy of Turkish academia by cancelling the election of rectors by universities themselves. Now the head of each university will be appointed directly by the president, from among candidates chosen by the government-appointed Council of Higher Education. 
Then, early last week, the secular newspaper Cumhuriyet, the closest press organization to the opposition CHP (the same party that supported national unity after the coup) was raided, with its Editor-in-Chief detained along with twelve other executives and journalists and staff members. Included among those rounded up is Kadri Gursel, a well-seasoned and mainstream journalist. The clear message from the government was: Everyone is within our reach and we can shut you down too, if needed, just as we forced the closure of 15 other media outlets just days before. Those outlets are part of a total of a 130 media outlets forbidden to broadcast or print in Turkey. 

It is important also to remember that aside from the famous journalist, authors, musicians, and politicians detained or arrested, there are many more ordinary citizens who have been deemed guilty by association and rounded up. 
As in previous crackdowns, they’re especially hard to keep track of: they lack the name recognition or specific affiliation which attracts the attention that facilitates keeping track of the progress of the charges against them; Turkey has famously untransparent procedures regarding their treatment or trials. We can only imagine how many innocent people have been caught up.   

Turkey seems to be quite close to the critical threshold where other countries will simply write it off. The barrage of bad news is just too much to absorb. Where news stories about Turkey use to excite interest, today, I imagine most readers of the international press don’t even bother to read them. The country that for so many years captured their attention and led them to visit, study and even move there, and invest in it. The Turkish government is caused extreme damage to the country’s image, a degradation that will take years, if not decades, to reverse. 

In fact, just last week, the United States ordered consulate staff families in Istanbul to leave the city due to fears of an ISIS orchestrated attack against Americans. Just a week before that the U.S. State Department warned Americans they could be subject to attack or kidnapping in Istanbul by “extremist groups,” such as ISIS. These warnings confirm a deep and telling lack of trust in the Turkish security apparatus by Western intelligence agencies. 

As someone who led educational trips to Turkey, can I honestly take international students there now? With what can I convince academic colleagues to bring groups to a place where the freedom of speech they enjoy and uphold is disappearing, where newspaper editors and parliament members are being arrested and media outlets are shut down on a whim? 

It would be wrong to ascribe all Turkey’s problems to the coup attempt and its aftermath. But rather than using a rare moment of unity to push forward a new agenda, its government has set it back on a path of continued turmoil. However, Turkey’s democracy and civil society won’t be rescued by another round of scathing criticism, from the U.S. or by the European Union, which has already demonstrated its disinterest in prioritizing democratic freedoms over a deal keeping Syrian refugees in at bay from Europe. 

The answers to Turkey’s problems can only be found inside Turkey. If its government adamantly continues on this dangerous path of usurping power, it won’t only be the opposition who will face an unrecognizable homeland. It will also be the fate of government members, blindly marching forward in an insatiable hunt for more power, who, in their quest to rule the country, are tearing the country apart at the seams. 

*This appeared in Haaretz on November 6, 2016. Click here for the link.  

Monday, September 26, 2016

Turkey’s Opposition Fails a Critical Test: To Challenge Erdogan*

Two months have passed since the July 15 Turkish coup attempt and the purge and arrests have continued unabated, with emergency laws striking at not just those accused of plotting the coup, the Gulenists, but also those with suspected ties to the outlawed Kurdish separatist group, the PKK, as well as a swathe of other staunch critics of the government. In some extreme cases, even family members of those suspected of sedition have been detained, as vicarious punishment and to leverage the surrender of suspects in exile or hiding.

Turkey's media: Under lock and key

For example, the world-renowned author Asli Erdogan is being held on terror charges for her work at the banned newspaper, Ozgur Gundem, which the government claims is a PKK mouthpiece. There are fears she may suffer permanent injury due to the conditions under which she is being held.

Similarly, singer Atilla Tas − whose criticism of the nation’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has made him more popular as a symbol than as a musician − also has been arrested. He released a defiant comment from prison: "My conscience is clear because I am innocent. My only crime was to criticize the government. I will not be subdued.” 

Then there is the journalist Can Dundar, former editor-in-chief of the Cumhuriyet newspaper, Turkey's oldest and staunchly secular broadsheet, who fled the country and vows to remain abroad as long as the state of emergency is in effect. His wife had her passport confiscated, a violation of her civil rights, effectively blocking them from seeing one another. It's worth noting that even before the coup and subsequent purge, Turkey's press was rated as “not free” by the Freedom in the World's 2016 report, while the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders ranked it low down, at 151st among 180 countries surveyed.

Post-coup bonus: Purge the Kurds

Having already seized private businesses with assets worth billions of dollars linked to Gulenists, the Turkish government has now moved on to seizing control of municipalities. Last week, democratically-elected representatives were removed from 24 local governments for their alleged ties to the PKK, and four more for their links to the Gulen movement, with state appointees taking the reins.

Along similar lines, the arrest on terror charges of the charismatic politician Selahattin Demirtas together with other leaders of the mostly-Kurdish HDP, the third-largest party in parliament, seem almost inevitable in the current environment. The latest moves against the HDP will only make the situation more precarious in the mostly Kurdish southeast, signaling greater potential bloodshed and unrest there. 

The purge of both Gulenists and activists working for the Kurdish cause (including both Kurds and Turks), should not come as a surprise, since sanctions against them had already begun before the night the coup plotters tried to hijack the country’s democracy with commandeered F-16s and tanks. 

However, the sheer numbers of those purged in the post-coup attempt are testament to its gravity: over 40,000 people have been detained or arrested, and almost 80,000 suspended from their employment. Most recently, in addition to the thousands of educators purged for ties to the Gulenists, over ten thousand teachers with alleged ties to the PKK have been removed from classrooms in Turkey.      

Turkey's opposition fails crucial test

Unfortunately, following the coup attempt the nation’s major opposition party, the CHP, failed the test of working to keep the government in check. Only in the last few weeks have the party members begun to raise their voices against the injustices of the current purge. Last week, its leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, declared that a “witch hunt” was underway: “Those who prevent writers, journalists and intellectuals from celebrating Eid al-Adha with their loved ones have no right to talk about democracy….” The CHP states it has already received 30,000 complaints by citizens of unfair treatment.

So what happened? It seems that immediately following the coup attempt the CHP party was caught off guard, unable to dictate a clear response, adopting instead the positions articulated by CHP-aligned critics of the government in the mainstream media. Even during the first hours following the coup, numerous analysts from their camp were convinced of a Gulenist plot, and ditched more critically-oriented investigative reporting to join the government chorus panning the apparently inadequate Western coverage of the coup. They accused the Western media of not showing solidarity with Turkey. While the unifying of government and opposition voices helped encourage an important sense of national unity, it left the opposition void of any vision for the future. 

This knee-jerk reaction was fed by these journalists’ disdain for the Gulenists due to bad blood between the secular camp and the Gulen movement, which even predates the falling out between the AKP and the Gulenists during the last three years. A few years earlier, military officers, journalists, and CHP lawmakers were wrongly tried on trumped up charges during the Ergenekon trials. Those falsely accused blamed Gulenists for masterminding the proceedings, and they blasted journalists at Gulen-owned media outlets for either remaining silent or even cheering the arrests of journalists. 

In their anti-Gulenist fervor following the coup, it seems that many analysts within the CHP camp, the only substantial and still legitimate opposition voice in Turkey, didn't stop to ask whether they were in dereliction of their democratic duty by not digging into the intricacies of the coup and to investigate the mass arrests of people who appear guilty of nothing more than association. 

Too little, too late

The opposition's lack of strategy was made further evident by the fickleness of its party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who first turned down an invitation made by Turkey’s powerful president to join in July's truly massive National Unity rally; Kilicdaroglu later reversed course and accepted, despite the purge already being in full swing. This massive rally brought millions to the rally site of Yenikapi, and despite the fact that Kilicdaroglu did use the stage to mark a middle road, his performance was blurred by its weak contrast to Erdogan, who stood firm as the unchallenged President of the Republic.

As the voices of opposition have grown stronger among the CHP, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has promised that crisis desks will be set up in order to work with people wrongly accused in the purge, a problem that also Erdogan has recognized. However, Yildirim has also discarded the claim by the CHP that the decree laws set out by the state of emergency are unconstitutional, leaving the opposition little hope that they will be able to stop the purges' proliferation. In other words, the CHP’s challenge to the decree of a national state of emergency was far overdue.  

The failed coup attempt offered Turkey’s government the chance to turn over a new leaf; to show a clear legal and moral intention to distinguish, by means of a transparent and fair process, between the Gulenists (and perhaps other factions) in the army and civil arena who were actively behind the coup and those many thousands, or tens of thousands, who were swept up with them. 

The CHP’s inability to seize the moment and strongly condemn the arbitrary extent and nature of the purges from the start was a critical failure, and one that serves to undermine its integrity and sustainability as an opposition force. Despite tentative but welcome signs from the CHP towards highlighting the exponential injustices of Turkey's ongoing purge, it still seems like a classic case of acting too little, too late. 

**This article appeared in Haaretz on September 20, 2016. Click here to link