Has Turkey Betrayed the West?

15th May 2013

On January 25 of this year, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a stunning but widely overlooked announcement: His government was interested in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Founded in 2001, the SCO includes Russia, China, and the four post-Soviet Central Asian republics. Its goal—implicit yet unmistakable—is to serve as an authoritarian counterweight to the democratic European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). So while SCO communiqués have the flavor of NATO pronouncements, pledging “cooperation” on maintaining security in the region, the group has not, for example, supported humanitarian missions to protect vulnerable civilian populations as NATO did in the Balkans and more recently in Libya—operations that resulted in the downfall of authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the SCO has offered a platform for anti-Western rhetoric. Two years ago, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told the group that the United States had orchestrated the September 11, 2001 attacks “as an excuse for invading Afghanistan and Iraq and for killing and wounding over a million people.”

But the most telling evidence of the SCO’s purpose is the condition that its members cannot simultaneously be members of NATO: Turkey is currently a “dialogue partner,” a form of observer status. Ankara, of course, has traditionally placed great value on its NATO membership, playing a significant and influential role thanks to its geographic location on the border of the former Soviet Union and its proximity to Iran, Iraq, and the greater Middle East. As Turkey’s campaign to join the EU remains stalled, however, Prime Minister Erdogan’s gaze has turned eastward. In January, he said that if Russian President Vladimir Putin chooses to “include us” in the SCO, “we will forget about the EU.”

As Turkey’s campaign to join the EU stalled, its government turned to the east instead.
Such threats could be a tactical move to put pressure on EU decision-makers, especially in Paris and Berlin. In February, the EU’s German energy commissioner showed his sensitivity to such pressure when he said in a speech, “I would like to bet that one day in the next decade a German chancellor and his or her counterpart in Paris will have to crawl to Ankara on their knees to beg the Turks, ‘Friends, come to us.’”

But there is something far more worrisome in Erdogan’s bluster—something that may reflect a more profound turn that Turkey seems to be taking. Under the leadership of his Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP), Turkey is moving away from the liberal and democratic ideals of the EU and toward something rather alarming.

Unlike NATO, which counted Greece and Turkey as members when both countries were ruled by anti-communist military dictatorships, the EU prides itself on being a bastion of progressive values. Members must swear to respect the democratic system, union rights, human rights, gender equality, political pluralism, and press freedom. In addition, members must submit legislation on a host of issues, from environmental protection to food safety regulation, to various EU bodies for review. Thus far, Turkey has only fulfilled one of the EU’s 34 conditions for entry, pertaining to funding for scientific research.

Possible Turkish membership in the EU has produced a cottage industry of think tanks, experts, books, and a steady stream of journalism. Whereas the post-Cold War accession of former Eastern Bloc nations like the Czech Republic, Poland, and the Baltic states was always considered a matter of time, the application of Turkey, formally tendered in 1987, has been much more problematic. Despite the optimistic pledges of Turkophilic European officials that the country’s place in the EU is “natural,” the question of whether a country of over 70 million Muslims can fit into Europe—however post-Christian—is a serious one. And amidst the debate over the role of Islam and the attendant concerns of secularism, gender equality, gay rights, and other issues important to the EU, perhaps the most glaring indicator of Turkey’s inadmissibility is not even culturally based. Rather, it is the Turkish government’s unrelenting attacks on different forms of free speech—especially freedom of the press.

Simply put, Turkey does not ensure the freedom of the press. Turkish prisons today house more journalists than any other country on earth, including China and Iran. Last year, Reporters Without Borders labeled the country “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” This year, it listed Turkey as 153rd out of 179 countries on its annual World Press Freedom Index, behind the Palestinian Authority, Russia, and Singapore. At the end of 2011, there were somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 cases pending against various journalists, and the government enjoys broad authority to prosecute them for doing things that in democratic countries would earn them awards. For example, “breaching the confidentiality of an investigation” and “influencing a fair trial” are illegal in Turkey, rendering investigative journalism a dangerous enterprise. Turkish journalists are prosecuted simply for doing their jobs.

On September 8, 2006, a group of undercover policemen arrested Füsun Erdogan (no relation to the Prime Minister) in broad daylight, forced her into a car, and drove her to an isolated house where she was made to lie on the floor, blindfolded. As the founder of a radio station critical of the government, she was indicted for “attempting to change the constitutional order by force” because of her alleged membership in the banned Marxist Leninist Communist Party. The only evidence against her was not unsealed until months later, and it was dubious in the extreme: a list of party members that includes her name, which her lawyers claim is a fake. She remains in jail to this day—over six years of provisional detention—and underwent an operation for thyroid cancer last November.

Füsun Erdogan is not alone. In its battle with opposition media, the Turkish government heavily abuses the practice of detention without trial. Over 75 percent of the country’s jailed journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), were detained while awaiting trial or verdict. Several have been charged under the umbrella of the Ergenekon case, an ongoing investigation into an allegedly vast conspiracy involving media personalities, politicians, and generals to overthrow the government in a military coup. Thus far, nearly 150 people have been jailed on charges of being party to the plot. Last year, the government arrested the former chief of the military staff, Ilker Basbug, on allegations that he, too, was involved in the scheme, despite having retired two years prior.” The notion that [Basbug] headed a terrorist organization just strains credulity,” Eric Edelman, the former American Ambassador to Turkey, told The Economist.

Policemen and prosecutors don’t always resort to such heavy-handed tactics, however. The strategic use of arrests, tax investigations, and public condemnations from the prime minister and his acolytes has had an obvious chilling effect. In 2008, for example, Erdogan chastised a magazine for reporting about air pollution, saying, “Either you will close your journal down or you will not write lies.” Numerous columnists and reporters from opposition-minded newspapers have been fired or seen their work marginalized over the past ten years. “Time and again,” says a 2012 report by CPJ, “the authorities conflated the coverage of banned groups and the investigation of sensitive topics with outright terrorism or other anti-state activity.”

The AKP’s attempts to silence critics extend beyond targeting individual journalists. In 2009, the government imposed a $3.2 billion fine for tax evasion on the country’s largest media conglomerate, the Dogan group, owner of the popular Hürriyet newspaper as well as other print and television outlets. Dogan has been highly critical of the AKP and the fine exceeded the value of the company’s assets, neither of which is likely a coincidence. Prime Minister Erdogan insisted that he had no role in the matter, as the case fell under the jurisdiction of the tax authorities, though he had earlier called upon his supporters to boycott Dogan in its entirety.

Pianist Fazil Say was sentenced for tweeting against religion. Photo: Wikimedia
Ironically, the AKP has based its campaign against journalists on laws originally enacted by Turkey’s former military government, which seized power in a 1980 coup. While the AKP invokes the specter of the coup constantly in its struggle against Turkey’s secular forces, the laws it uses against its critics are the same ones used to persecute and imprison AKP and other anti-government activists under military rule. As a result, even as the AKP characterizes practically every voice critical of its rule as a harbinger of a return to military dictatorship, the hallmarks of military dictatorship are readily apparent in the party’s own behavior. Indeed, according to CPJ, the Turkish state’s various offenses against free speech “constitute one of the largest crackdowns CPJ has documented in the 27 years it has been compiling records on journalists in prison.”

Nor are the government’s tactics of repression limited to stopping journalists calling for political change. On April 15 of this year, the renowned pianist Fazil Say received a 10-month suspended sentence for “insulting religious belief held by a section of society.” His offense? He retweeted words attributed to the poet Omar Kayyam asking whether the Garden of Eden was a brothel; and then sent out a tweet of his own that said: “I don’t know whether you have noticed or not but wherever there is a stupid person or a thief, they are believers in God. Is this a paradox?”

While the persecution of journalists is especially jarring to Western ears, Turkey’s attack on freedom of speech goes much deeper, extending to the basic question of language rights. In yet another throwback to the authoritarian past the AKP claims to disdain, the party has vigorously enforced a 1991 law banning the use of the Kurdish language in any official setting. Although Kurds constitute one-fifth of Turkey’s population, this law applies to public school instruction and even speeches in parliament. The law has been used against a series of Kurdish politicians, most notably Leyla Zana, the first female Kurdish legislator, who was harassed by the government in 1994 after uttering a single line of Kurdish in her opening remarks to parliament. Later that year, Zana was sentenced to ten years in jail on the spurious charge of collaborating with the PKK. While imprisoned, she won the EU’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, and the European Court of Human Rights found in her favor. The Turkish government, however, ignored the ruling, and last May she was again sentenced to ten years in prison, this time for “spreading militant propaganda.” That Turkey’s persecution of its Kurds continues despite the government’s much-hyped “Kurdish Opening” policy of bettering relations with its largest minority illustrates the deceptive way the AKP markets itself to the West as a modernizing, progressive force.

In addition to words in the Kurdish language, there are other things one cannot say in Turkey. Thanks to Article 301, introduced by the AKP government in 2005, it is illegal to insult the “Turkish nation” (the original version of the law outlawed any insults to “Turkishness”). Article 301 is inherently vague, giving the government wide authority to prosecute whomever it wants. The most infamous use of the article was against Nobel Prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk. His crime was to acknowledge the reality of the Armenian genocide in a 2006 interview with a Swiss magazine. Though the charges against him were dropped after massive international pressure, Article 301 has been deployed against many other individuals.

Indeed, the Turkish government has spent massive amounts of money and political capital lobbying against recognition of the Armenian genocide (particularly in the United States), and the issue resulted in one of the most tragic cases of persecution under Article 301. Hrant Dink, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, was murdered in 2007 by a Turkish nationalist after being tried and convicted for speaking about the genocide. The conviction was viewed as a crucial factor in stoking the popular hysteria that led to Dink’s death. “We have killed a man,” Pamuk said, “whose ideas we could not accept.” Another journalist, Temel Demirer, was charged under Article 301 for saying that Dink was “not murdered because he was Armenian but because he recognized the Armenian genocide.” Demirer’s three-year sentence was suspended, but his conviction was not overturned. Last year, a Turkish court acquitted 19 suspects accused of involvement in a government plot to murder Dink. The verdict earned a reprimand from Reporters Without Borders, which stated that the “court has proved to be powerless to shed light on all the complicity within the state apparatus and to identify the masterminds. No one can regard this case as solved.”

Defenders of the AKP argue that Turkey’s problems with EU membership and the freedoms that go with it cannot be blamed solely on the ruling party. When the AKP first came to power in a 2002 landslide victory, it did so with an unabashedly pro-EU platform. Though the party stressed the importance of Islam in Turkish society, distinguishing itself from the country’s adamantly secular political tradition, it nonetheless campaigned on the importance of Westernization and democratization. But Turkey’s accession to the EU, the AKP’s defenders claim, has been spurned by xenophobic and Islamophobic forces in Europe. This, combined with Europe’s continent-wide economic crisis, has made EU membership less attractive to many Turks, and weakened their enthusiasm for the reforms necessary for EU admission. “The Turkish wish to join the EU was always driven mainly by economic reasons rather than ideological reasons,” Birol Baskan, a visiting professor at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, told Al Jazeera in 2010. “Turks never cared about being European.”

If that is indeed the case, then European Turkophiles have a great deal of explaining to do. Turkey shouldn’t respect press freedom—or any other democratic rights—in order to join a powerful regional bloc. It should do so because press freedom is a cornerstone of any democratic society, the sort of society Erdogan and his colleagues repeatedly claim to have built in Turkey. To blame the EU for Ankara’s indifference to press freedom denies Turkey’s political leadership any agency over the direction they have taken, and absolves them of responsibility for imposing an increasingly brutal and repressive policy.

Europe has created a union that, despite its numerous flaws, is built upon democratic principles worthy of being promoted around the world. From the Balkans to the Caucasus, the lure of EU membership has had an undeniably positive impact. A crucial, perhaps the most crucial, aspect of any functioning democratic state is the freedom to speak one’s mind. The EU would never tolerate a member state that jailed journalists or outlawed critical speech. Indeed, such actions would be grounds for expulsion. If the Turkish prime minister does not understand this, then perhaps the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is precisely where his nation belongs.

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