Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reported to once have said “that democracy, for him, is like a bus ride… ‘Once I get to my stop, I’m getting off.” Once seen as a kind of democratic reformer, Erdogan has increasingly become an authoritarian autocrat with fascist leanings. Under his rule, press freedoms have been restricted and journalists, democratic activists and political opponents have all been imprisoned. Having consolidated power, Erdogan has recently sought changes to the Turkish constitution to create a more powerful executive presidency that will dominate the Turkish political scene. So, is President Erdogan about to get off the bus?
On July 15, 2016, the world witnessed an alleged military coup against the government of Turkey. But, was it really a coup, or a “wag the dog” style hoax by President Erdogan and his AKP Party allies? Some experts have questions about the coup that make them skeptical. Here are just a few of them:
- “Coup 101” protocol is that you arrest and detain government officials as soon as possible, yet these coup leaders made no effort to detain President Erdogan, even though they knew where he was vacationing. Instead they let him board a plane and return to Istanbul.
- Rebel jets reportedly harassed and locked target on the plane carrying President Erdogan back to Istanbul, but never made any attempt to shoot it down or prevent its return.
- Coups traditionally take control of communications, cutting off the internet and confiscating television/radio stations. But these coup leaders made no attempt to stop internet communications and only took over a minor television station, allowing President Erdogan to rally and call his supporters to the streets, while coup leaders told their supporters to stay home.
- Following the coup attempt, Erdogan’s government arrested and relieved of duty 50,000 military personnel, teachers, police officers, and public officials. The broad scope of these arrests and detentions indicate they already had a target list and perhaps advance knowledge of the coup.
As stated by Middle East expert, Professor Ephraim Herrara, during a July 24th interview with Arutz Sheva, “This means we really cannot know whether this was a coup by officers, or one staged by Erdogan, so that he can eliminate the opposition.”
We may never know if the coup of July 15, 2016 was real, or a staged event. But, what we do know is that President Erdogan has used this event as reason to extend his authority and reduce political and individual freedoms in the country. So, who are those being arrested and detained by the government?
President Erdogan is publicly accusing followers of moderate Sunni cleric Fethullah Gulen as being behind the failed coup. In an address to the nation, he said the coup attempt came from “a faction in the military, the parallels,” which is understand as a reference to the followers of Gulen, who number millions in Turkey and the world. Once an ally of Erdogan’s AKP Party and government, Gulen’s followers became the political target of Erdogan after 2013, when pro-Gulen police and prosecutors brought corruption charges against many in Erdogan’s inner circle. They are now listed as terrorists by the Turkish government. So, what do Gulenists believe and why does Erdogan consider them such a threat?
Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish imam who preaches an inclusive brand of Sufi Islam that emphasizes cooperation and tolerance, promotes democracy and the rule of law, views Islam and the modern world as compatible, and stresses the importance of education beyond the narrow confines of the Islamic religious schools system. The Gulen Movement operates numerous schools across Turkey and beyond, including more than 100 charter schools in the U.S. These schools emphasize math and science, while avoiding proselytization. Boys and girls are educated on an equal footing.
Similarly, the Kurdish led HDP, or People’s Democratic Party is a target of Erdogan’s authoritarian rule. According to their website, they seek freedom, equality, peace and justice for all citizens of Turkey, regardless of ethnic background, religious belief, or individual thought. They promote the establishment of democratically elected and autonomous local governments that guarantee the inclusion of all people in political decision making. They fight for the equality of women and see discrimination against the LGBTQ community as racism.
In essence, President Erdogan’s AKP-led government is targeting groups that advocate for secular democracy, human rights, equality and freedom of religion.
What, if anything, can America and the West do to discourage the backslide of freedoms in Turkey and support those advocates of democracy in the country?
First, world leaders should speak out against the restrictive, fascist policies of President Erdogan. Following the break-up of the Soviet Union, we heard from many former dissidents who were inspired and encouraged by the public criticisms of former Soviet policies by world leaders such as President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher.
As a further step, freedom-loving governments should support opposition parties, individuals and other organizations who advocate for democratic reform in Turkey. Groups like the HDP, CHP, Kurds, Alevis, and Gulenists should all receive our support, both publicly and privately. We should offer financial assistance, technical assistance and equipment, and campaign strategy to help them regain political power.
Turkey’s role as a NATO member should be reconsidered and revoked if democratic freedoms aren’t restored by the Erdogan government.
The European Union should publicly state that Turkey’s application for EU membership is in jeopardy without democratic reform.
And finally, democratic nations should collectively apply sanctions against Turkey, in necessary, to promote needed political reform. If not collectively, individual democracies such as the United States, Israel, and one or more European states should be willing to stand firm and apply their own sanctions to advance freedom in Turkey.
I’m sure that greater minds than mine will have more and better suggestions to restoring democracy in Turkey. What is certain, is that as the only Muslim nation in the Middle East with a tradition of democracy and the rule of law, we cannot stand by and allow Turkey to regress into a fascist, authoritarian dictatorship.
Samuel Griswold is the author of the historical thriller novel, True Identity, about a Mossad agent who loses his memory while working undercover in Iraqi Kurdistan. Read more at www.samuelgriswold.com.