A significant number of people from around the (Muslim) world consider Turkey as a ‘moderate’ Muslim state, ‘least involved’ in geo-political conflicts.
This illusion has been considerably damaged due to Turkey’s first covert and now overt involvement in the current phase of the conflict in the Middle East.
Its covert role involved the supply of arms to the so-called “rebels” in Syria and erecting the notorious organization Islamic State. Its overt role involves its brutal war against Kurds.
Turkey’s internal politics, too, has problems of its own — problems that are largely an off-shoot of Erdogan’s exclusivist rule.
This external sphere of politics, however, covers only an extent of Erdogan’s rule and the course of action he has tacitly put Turkey on. There is, however, an internal sphere too, which not only is linked to the external sphere, but also helps us conceptualize the nature of Erdogan’s rule as totalitarianism.
While we discuss this issue here, an increasing pile of instances of political suppression and use of force against political opponents continue to remain largely out of the Western media’s headlines due primarily to Turkey’s Nato membership and the “vital role” it is playing as the US’ new “sweetheart” in the Middle East.
Recent developments, especially since the last held elections, have glaringly brought this totalitarianism to the surface. Even just before the elections were held, Republican People’s Party leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu was lashing out against Erdogan’s rule. To quote him, “Turkey is heading rapidly toward a totalitarian regime. One cannot speak of democracy in a country if there is no freedom of the press. The bans on Twitter, YouTube, the pressure on the newspapers and TV channels are unacceptable.”
The irony is that such restrictions are not only reflective of the intolerant and exclusivist nature of Erdogan’s “democratic” rule, but also relate him to the totalitarian nature of Saudi Arabia’s political system which is even more notorious for allowing no political space whatsoever to political opposition, freedom of expression and speech or any other democratic right.
A parallel between Turkey and Saudi Arabia can easily be drawn here by citing two different yet related cases of suppression of freedom of expression and propagation. While Saudi Arabia is all set to behead a 21-year-old Shia activist Al-Nimr who was arrested in 2012 when he was hardly 17 years old, Can Dündar, editor-in-chief of the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet, who had the audacity to expose the supply of arms and ammunitions from Turkey into Syria in the form of “humanitarian supplies”, is being trapped into a life-term in prison. The State prosecutor, according to the Turkish media, has requested the maximum penalty of an aggravated life sentence, one life sentence and an additional 42 years in jail.
Dündar had exposed how Turkish intelligence agencies were directly involved in fomenting conflict in Syria through a sustained supply of arms and ammunitions to the so-called Syrian “rebels.”
Evidences provided by Dündar and presented in the Turkish court clearly demonstrate how Turkish forces and agencies have been directly involved in shelling and support operations for Nusra front and other jihadi groups in Syria. This confirms the reported eyewitness accounts from Kassab and other cities that Turkish helicopters and heavy artillery were used in support of Nusra and the other terror groups during the 2014 and current campaigns.
Dündar is, however, not the lone traveler. According to the figures provided by international Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey was the world’s leading jailer of journalists in 2012 and 2013.
Although the number of journalists imprisoned decreased in 2014 with the release of some with pro-Kurdish sympathizers, the repression has taken on new forms and new targets, many of whom the Erdogan government broadly accuses of being “agents of the Gülen movement,” – the international network of schools and business ventures run by former Erdogan ally, and now rival, Fethullah Gülen.
This accusation has become the boilerplate pretext for the repression of a variety of media figures and outlets in Turkey, essentially anyone who challenges Erdogan policies vis-à-vis Syria, corruption, censorship, and a host of other issues.
“There are 44 journalists in jail today. Around 1,150 journalists have lost their jobs in past five years. We see practices harsher than those of the military rulers in this country,” said Kılıçdaroğlu in his address to foreign journalists.
In December 2014, Turkish police raided the office of Zaman newspaper alleging that Zaman was responsible for “launching an armed terror organization.”
The Istanbul Public Prosecutor’s Office released a public statement, giving the list of individuals to be detained in the operation.
“The detentions have been ordered [for the people on the list] to take their testimonies on charges of founding and directing an armed terror organization, being a member of this organization, and engaging in forgery and slander,” the statement said.
State propaganda notwithstanding, the reality of this sustained campaign against those who do not subscribe to State policy is that Zaman and Samanyolu are known for ties to US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who has been at odds with the Turkish government, particularly since last December.
The government accuses the Gülen movement of trying to stage a “coup” via a large corruption probe that broke in December 2013, which included a number of former cabinet ministers and their relatives, along with many state officials — a direct threat to Erdogan’s single party and unchallenged rule.
While explaining the reason(s) for Erdogan’s campaign against Gülen, Kılıçdaroğlu said that the former allies have fallen apart as Erdoğan is attempting to create an enemy because “dictators tend to create enemies.”
A joint statement issued by The Turkish Journalists Association (TGC) and the Turkey Journalists’ Labor Union following the police raid said “almost 200 journalists were previously held in prison on charges of being a member of a terror organization, violating their right to a fair trial. Journalists are now being detained once again. These developments mean that freedom of the press and opinion are punished in Turkey, which takes its place in the class of countries where the press is not free.”
Erdogan’s rivalry with the Gulenists is deeply rooted in the former’s intransigence in sharing power with one of the most powerful groups in Turkey. While the Gulenists’ support was of crucial importance for Erdogan in defeating the secularists, the presence of the Gulenists within Turkish establishment was now going to be a source of permanent trouble for Erdogan in the sense that he could no yield any real power as Turkey’s President.
Within Turkey’s Parliamentary system, President enjoys only nominal authority. This being the case, Erdogan could never have any real power as long as the Gulenists were powerfully positioned in Turkey’s judiciary and bureaucracy—hence, an elimination campaign against the Gulenists.
According to some reports, early last year, the government moved against what it saw as a “parallel state”, the seeding of Gulenists throughout Turkey’s establishment. More than 2,000 senior police officers were moved or fired in January 2014, according to the European Commission. The majority were in investigative or intelligence roles. A total of 96 judges and prosecutors were also removed, with some of them also put behind the bars.
The Gulenists were and still are, however, not the only ones in Erdogan’s long list of enemies. Recent elections did bring a pro-Kurdish party, People’s Democratic Party, to the forefront of Turkey’s politics. However, ever since their meaningful success in elections, the party has been subjected to systematic political persecution.
In a very recent incident, a crowd of ultranationalist protesters attacked offices belonging to Turkey’s Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), after anti-terrorist demonstrations in multiple cities turned violent. The incident was, according to local media reports, deliberately foiled by the ‘ruling elite’ to snub Kurdish factions as part of Turkey’s military campaign against the PKK elsewhere in the region, including Syria and Iraq. Similar incidents also took place in some other cities, such as Kirsehir, where HDP offices were attacked.
Turkey is descending into chaos due to its numerous military and political operations and it is on the verge of political and economic collapse.
Political opposition is increasing against Erdogan, as clearly expressed by some major parties including the ultranationalists. The ruling Party is left with limited or no options but to call fresh elections — a call that might not be acceptable to many political actors in Turkey. Whether fresh elections are called or not, it is quite obvious that Erdogan’s totalitarian ambitions are virtually pushing him to a situation wherein he may self-destruct his “golden rule.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics.
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