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

Friday, September 16, 2016

Netanyahu's Shameful Words: From Judenrein to Ethnic Cleansing

Just a week ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shared on social media a short video, which on his twitter account was shared under the headline, “No Jews.” In this video, he accuses the Palestinians of supporting ethnic cleansing of the Jews of the West Bank, stating, “...the Palestinian leadership actually demands a Palestinian state with one pre-condition: No Jews. There is a phrase for that, its called ethnic cleansing.”

The timing of the video comes after the United States harshly criticized Israel’s recent decision to add 234 living units to existing settlements, stating that the State Department is “particularly troubled by the policy of retroactively approving unauthorized settlement units and outposts that are themselves illegal under Israeli law,” and that “…significant expansion of the settlement enterprise poses a very serious and growing threat to the viability of the two-state solution.”

In retaliation, Netanyahu struck back by addressing an American audience in his video message asking “Would you accept ethnic cleansing in your state? A territory without Jews, without Hispanics, without blacks? Since when is bigotry a foundation for peace.” This was followed by the State department lashing back, stating, “We obviously strongly disagree with the characterization that those who oppose settlement activity or view it as an obstacle to peace are somehow calling for ethnic cleansing of Jews from the West Bank.”

The US State Department has every right to be angry. Netanyahu’s twisting the truth, making Israeli settlers the victims and Palestinians—who are living for the past 49 years under Israeli occupation with no civil rights—the cruel masters, has proven once again that he is an ace in demagoguery. Not to mention the low level he stooped to by accusing the Palestinians of ethnic cleansing, when it is they who were ethnically cleansed from the territories that become Israel in 1948, with over 700,000 not allowed to return to their homes, upon their fleeing and the forced expulsions they endured during Israel’s War of Independence.      

To get the story straight, the Palestinians do not object to have Jews within their borders, rather they are against Israeli settlers remaining within their future state. This should be of no surprise since the settlers have and continue to occupy their land for the last 49 years. In any case, questions regarding citizenship laws of the future Palestinian state seem less burning when one faces the reality that Palestinians do not seem any closer to getting a state today than they were 20 years ago. 

However, it should not just be Palestinians taking offense to Netanyahu’s harsh words, but also the Jews in Israel and internationally as it belittles the history of the Holocaust by  putting forth the false analogy that Palestinians are no different that Nazi Germany, trying to create a territory free of Jews, otherwise known as Judenrein. In fact, Netanyahu himself used this term back in 2009, shocking the German Foreign Minister, who was on an official state visit in Israel, stating that “Judea and Samaria cannot be Judenrein.” 

This of course would not be the first time that Netanyahu has used the Holocaust to gain ground against the Palestinians. Just last year he made the claim that Hitler had got the idea of committing genocide against the Jews from the Palestinian Mufti Hajj Amin al-Husseini, which even caused the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to state that Germany is solely responsible for the Holocaust and that “we don't see any reason to change our view of history…” 

Ironically, the Israeli radical right in the past has accused the Israeli governments of implementing a plan of Judenrein, such as when it evacuated the Jewish settlements of Gaza in 2005 under the premiership of Ariel Sharon, a government that Netanyahu was a part of. The comparing of the Israeli government by the radical right highlights the danger of comparing one to Nazis, in this case clear incitement that brings back memories of the days before Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.  

This perverse manipulation of history of the Holocaust, be it by Netanyahu, or by the Israeli radical right, in reference to their fellow citizens, needs to be met with strong condemnation. The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is bad enough and false analogies by either side only makes things worse. True, it might score Netanyahu a few points among the Islamophobic Donald Trump supporters in the United States, but it also chips away at the sanctity of the Holocaust, and leaves it fair game to be used by others for their own petty political gains.  

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Turkey's Purge of Political Opponents Will Come Back to Haunt It*

Haaretz:  Despite a show of almost unprecedented unity at a recent rally – and newfound Turkish nationalism following July’s bloody coup attempt – the purges hark back to a bleak pattern in Turkey’s past.

Louis Fishman, August 9, 2016 

Will July 15, 2016 go down in history as the day Turkey tried to wipe the slate clean? 

Just three weeks after Turkey was shaken by a bloody coup attempt, the nation on Sunday came together in a mass show of unity. According to Turkish sources, at least 3 million people joined together in Istanbul's Yenikapi district to celebrate the nation's democracy and to remember the more than 250 people killed by the ruthless putschists. 

The massive rally will go down in history not merely due to the sheer numbers of citizens from different backgrounds who attended, but due to the fact that it managed to bring together warring parties, the ruling AKP government and its staunch adversary, the secular CHP, in addition to the smaller nationalist MHP. Seeing the CHPs Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaking at the same rally as the nation's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for many, was an unbelievable moment. 

This newfound unity has emerged as all parties in the parliament, including the mostly Kurdish leftist party, the HDP, which was not invited to the government rally, have come to a consensus that the U.S.-based, self-exiled religious leader Fetullah Gulen—who ordered his secret followers in the army to overthrow the democratically elected government—was behind the coup. 

This newfound unity, which is currently riding a wave of Turkish nationalism, also has many people asking if the days of extreme political and social polarization in the country might be a thing of the past, and whether this marks the dawn of a new day in Turkey. Certainly, the new hope we are seeing is a welcome change and a major step in the right direction. Unfortunately, at the same time, the mass purges that followed the failed coup attempt do not seem to be forging a new future for Turkey, but rather hark back to its much bleaker past. 

Since July 15, and since the subsequent three-month-long state of emergency was declared, the Turkish government has set out to eradicate Gulen followers from all civil and military sectors. Almost 15,000 have been detained, and the number of sacked workers is staggering: around 50,000. In addition, hundreds of university deans have been forced to resign and thousands of schools have been closed, along with universities affiliated with the Gulen movement. In addition, newspapers and radios have been shut down, and dozens of journalists have been arrested. If all this was not enough, reports have emerged of widespread torture of detainees.

There is no doubt that the government is responsible for protecting itself and its citizens from illegal organizations out to undermine it, which justifies some of the state's measures, but at the same time the net is being thrown wide and infringing on the rights of many individual citizens who had nothing whatsoever to do with the coup. 

The current purge follows a dangerous pattern that is well known in Turkey. From the first days of the Turkish Republic to the coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, Turkey has found itself in vicious circle of purges and paybacks. One of the most recent followed the 1997 “post-modern” coup d’etat, which set out to cleanse the country of political Islam in the parliament and its influence within the ranks of the military and bureaucracy. As a result, politicians such as Erdogan, then Istanbul’s mayor, found themselves behind bars, together with Gulenists, who were also locked up or lost their employment. It was around this time, in 1999, that Gulen left Turkey in self exile. 

The AKP, which came to power in 2002, was founded as a direct response to the 1997 purge; it cemented a coalition of religious politicians, including Gulenists, and liberal ones, who challenged the military’s role in Turkish society. However, despite the overwhelming power of the AKP over the state’s institutions, the ruling party continued the tradition of “paybacks,” targeting those who they deemed responsible for the purge against them in 1997—the same ones believed to be responsible for crimes of the deep state—that become known as the Ergenekon trials. 

These trials led to the arrests of hundreds of high-ranking military personnel and civilians, including journalists, who were accused of plotting to overthrow the AKP government. In 2013, 275 suspects, including the former Chief of Staff, Ilker Basbug, were sentenced to long jail terms (many for life), in trials that lacked transparency and were built on fabricated evidence. In fact, even if there was a kernel of truth to some of the claims against those arrested, that truth was lost very quickly among the obvious injustices. 

This leads us to today, and the current purge against the Gulenists, which is an acceleration of a slow-burn purge that began over two years ago after a falling out between Gulenists and Erdogan’s AKP. In 2014, a group of Gulenists occupying key positions in the judiciary challenged the government head on with the December 17, 2014 indictments of AKP members for massive corruption, leading all the way to Erdogan’s family; for him, this was nothing short of a staged coup. Following this, Erdogan distanced himself from the Ergenekon trials, claiming that the Gulenists had duped him into believing that the convicts were indeed guilty of their crimes. Within a year, after a new trial, most of the convicted members of Ergenekon had been freed through the well-known revolving door of Turkish prisons (gaining Erdogan hefty political leverage among some of those released). 

Using the Ergenekon trials as a vantage point, it is much easier to understand today’s purges. In fact, it is no surprise which journalists have been arrested: those affiliated with the Gulen movement, or others who used Gulen media outlets to voice their staunch opposition to Erdogan. It is also unsurprising that many people who often staunchly oppose Erdogan’s rule remain silent in the face of the current purges, under the pretext: When our colleagues were being arrested during the Ergenekon trials, where were those writing for Gulen’s media outlets who justified the arrests of innocent journalists? The same holds true for academics. Where much noise has been made over leftist academics imprisoned recently for signing a pro-peace petition, a relative silence reigns over the arrest of academics for Gulenist affiliations. 

Unfortunately, just as with the Ergenekon trials, the recent foiled coup attempt also seems to lack a clear narrative. It is unlikely that Gulenists in the army acted alone, however, in the name of unity, and to “get” the Gulenists once and for all, it seems that all the major political parties, government and opposition alike, are glossing over this. 

Like past purges, it is unlikely that the rule of law will be upheld, and it is safe to say that many innocent people have already become victims of Turkey’s vicious historical circle. As with the Ergenekon trials, it will be almost impossible to keep track of those detained, arrested or put on trial. What we are seeing is a high-octane settling of accounts with the Gulen movement that has managed to anathematize more opponents than it can handle. 

Turkey’s payback-purge pattern, especially in its current and extreme form, will not solve the country’s greater problems; it will not bring justice to those killed fighting for democracy, and it certainly does not bode well for Turkey over the long run. Rather, it only shows Turkey regressing to past behaviors—and just as previous mass purges have only come back to haunt the country, so will these. 

If Turkey wants to take the high road and show that July 15 is indeed a new beginning for the country, it can do so only by making sure everyone who is responsible for this heinous crime is convicted to the fullest extent, and that innocent people, regardless of their affiliation with the Gulen movement, be afforded legal recourse and self-dignity. This also pertains to those liberals who opted to use Gulen media outlets to attack the government, and who, like those mentioned above, have nothing to do with the disgusting July 15 attack staged against Turkey.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on August 9, 2016. Click here for the link