January 17, 2016

Before the witch hunt reaches all…

Sevgi Akarçeşme

When you live in Turkey, hardly any news has a surprising effect. Yet, Turkey continues to break its own records while we witness jaw-dropping developments as a result of ever-increasing levels of authoritarianism.

For more than two years a relentless witch hunt has been going on against anyone who is believed to have any kind of association with the grassroots Hizmet movement, aka the Gülen movement. Significant portions of government critics were wrongly convinced that the fight between the government and the movement is about a disagreement over power sharing. If it was about acquiring more power and taking advantage of being close to the government, the movement could have continued its business as usual rather than standing up against it for the universal values that differentiate the movement from an interest-based political party. The government had strayed from the European Union track, which would have encouraged more diversity and democratization within Turkey. Coupled with the government's desire to crack down on anyone who does not display full obedience, the movement pulled its incautious support from the Justice and Development Party (AK Party).

Given the government's impressive (!) ability to eliminate all critics, not only the movement, but also diverse voices within the media, it was evident that the witch hunt would not stop there. As people remained silent, others were swallowed by the government one by one, as if by a monster, as the government's appetite turned ever more insatiable.

The rulers' latest targets are the 1,000-plus academics that signed a declaration calling for peace in the Southeast in the face of ongoing clashes between the state and the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Contrary to what the government and the president repeatedly argue, I do not think there is any terrorist propaganda or praise of terrorism in the declaration. Yet, I do believe it lacks a call to the PKK to end its attacks. In the absence of a sufficiently independent media, I would not be surprised if the majority of the public is made to believe that those academics actually support terrorism. As if disinformation were not enough, a crime boss also openly targeted and threatened the signatories of the declaration, saying he would like to spill their blood and take a shower in it!

A number of prosecutors have launched investigations against several academics upon a call for punishment from the country's top office. While counterterrorism units detained numerous academics, the office doors of some of them were marked with threatening messages. A number of so-called universities, which should be the bastion of free speech and protection of free thinking, were quick to sack their faculty members for signing this now infamous declaration. At this point, the content of the call does not really matter. What matters -- and is frightening -- is the climate in the country that allows the harming of this many academics' careers from different institutions to go relatively unchecked. Even the prime minister, who is also an academic by profession, argued that this could not be considered in the category of free speech. Is free speech under protection only for ideas that we find agreeable and acceptable?

The even more alarming dimension of all the depressing developments of the past week is that not a single pro-government pundit opposed the campaign against free speech. On the contrary, a pro-government columnist known for his targeting of opponents, called for the formation of “civil death mechanisms as in the West.” According to this mechanism, he argues, even before prosecutors take action, universities should fire such academics and society should isolate them.

All these scary incidents signal a relentless continuation of a witch hunt against anyone who does not show loyalty and obedience to the government. Though belated, the remaining free and democratic elements of society in Turkey should unite against oppression before we reach a point that is irreversible.

Published on Sunday's Zaman, 17 January 2016, Sunday