February 1, 2017

Turkey’s Moves Against Dissent

Nick Ashdown*

Purges in the country are an expression of an authoritarian transition underway for years, analysts say.

When pressed to recall the police detentions she has faced during the past two months, Nuriye Gülmen says they are so frequent that she now has trouble counting the interval from one to another.

"Was it six days ago that we were last taken into custody?" the 34-year-old leftist academic asked her comrade, 27-year-old Semih Özakça, in late December. Both have been protesting being dismissed from their positions for alleged ties to illegal organizations.

The two academics are among more than 125,000 people that Reuters reported were fired or suspended across Turkey in government-led purges following an attempted military coup last summer that has led to an ongoing state of emergency.

Following action in late January by Turkish lawmakers to expand President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's authority, analysts say the purges are part of a broader movement to eliminate public criticism. This week, Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.,-based nongovernmental organization, issued a report stating that the country is experiencing its worst decline in personal freedom in more than a decade.

"I tend to see the coup (attempt) as having acted as a radical accelerant to a transition that's been underway for a number of years," says Howard Eissenstat, an expert on Turkey who teaches at St. Lawrence University.

By all accounts, 2016 was a very bad year for Turkey. Dozens of attacks carried out by the Islamic State or militant Kurds left hundreds of people dead or injured. Turks who hoped 2017 would usher in more peace were shaken by a New Year's Eve attack on an Istanbul nightclub that killed more than 30 people and injured more than 60 others.

In the middle of the attacks last July, military officers attempted to overthrow Erdoğan. The cumulative result of the failed coup and terror attacks – which targeted foreigners as well as Turks – has been a sense of greater political and economic anxiety in the country. To counter that, the parliament earlier this month picked up debate, Reuters reported, on reforming the country's constitution to consolidate Erdoğan's power. Supporters say a strong executive presidency will prevent the instability of coalition governments seen in the 1990s.

Critics worry that the move will lead to further authoritarianism.

Gülmen, the academic, says she has been detained about 20 times since beginning her daily demonstrations against the government began in Ankara last Nov. 9. Özakça says he has been detained nine times since he joined Özakça.

"I have wide bruises on my legs because [police] dragged me on the ground, and swelling on my arms," Gülmen says. On Feb. 11 the two were again detained, with photos on Twitter showing their faces cut and swollen.

Gülmen is charged with being connected to the Hizmet, a global Islamic community led by U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, ally turned arch-rival of Erdoğan. Ankara accuses Gülen's adherents, tens of thousands of whom were employed in Turkey's military and civil service, of organizing the failed coup. Gülmen, a secular leftist, says she has no connection to the Hizmet and opposed the coup.

The purges initially targeted military officers suspected of direct involvement but soon expanded into an immense dragnet against all government critics. Civil servants, professors, journalists, politicians, school teachers, businesspeople, and even professional athletes and celebrities have been targeted.

Experts accuse the ruling Justice and Development Party, the AKP, of using the coup as an excuse to get rid of all critical voices.

"There's likely … a witch-hunt to go after a whole variety of groups that Erdoğan and his wing of the AKP view as antithetical to their interests," says Joshua Hendrick, a sociology professor at Loyola University and leading authority on Gülen.

Professor Eissenstat, of St. Lawrence University, says middle class professionals have been targeted as the AKP builds its new loyal ruling class. "It's effectively a redistribution of wealth and it creates new opportunities for AKP loyalists."

The largest group caught in the crosshairs are Gülen's acolytes. Many experts say that even if some followers in the military were involved in the coup, as evidence suggests, it's excessive to target anyone suspected of being connected to the Hizmet.

"Your run of the mill (Gülen follower) was not necessarily aware of any event if, in fact, the Gülen movement was an architect of [the coup]," Hendrick says. He believes several groups in the military, possibly including Gülen's followers, organized the coup.

The purges have devastated communities, Hendrick says.

"Families [and] social networks are being torn apart," he says. "Such a large component of the more highly educated of the social conservative side of Turkish political culture were affiliated with [the Hizmet]."

The ruling Justice and Development Party has dubbed the Hizmet "FETÖ," or Fethullah Terrorist Organization, claiming it's no different from the Islamic State.

"FETÖ, by acting as a terrorist organization, has created its own stigma," says Zeynep Jane Kandur, columnist for the pro-government Daily Sabah and volunteer member of the AKP. "Anyone involved in trying to overthrow a democratically elected government, in using violence to achieve political aims, must accept the stigma attached to this."

Other targeted groups aren't related to the Hizmet or coup in any way, but have been critical of the AKP.

On Nov. 22, the rights group Amnesty International reported that 375 nongovernmental organizations were shut down, bringing the total number of NGOs banned since the coup to about 1,500. Among the closed organizations were lawyers' associations, women's rights groups, humanitarian relief foundations and the leading children's group, Agenda: Child.

"None of our association's activities can even be connected to violence, and the allegation in question is unacceptable," says Emrah Kırımsay, co-founder and board member to the Agenda: Child.

Some of those targeted aren't even prominent government critics. Last October, the daily newspaper HaberTürk said 40,000 people had been reported as "Gülenists," some by their own family members. Police, however, believe the majority of the claims are illegitimate, made by people with personal grudges. AKP officials have repeatedly encouraged people to report their fellow citizens as Gülenists.

Eissenstat of St. Lawrence University says the purges have politicized Turkey's security services and made democratic opposition more difficult, weakening the country's fight against terrorism.

The purges also have damaged Turkey's economic climate by intensifying the country's brain drain and increased the wariness of foreign investors, Eissenstat adds.

* A Canadian journalist who has been based in Istanbul for three years.

Published on U.S. News, 1 February 2017, Wednesday