LONDON – “In Turkey, we are progressively putting behind bars all people who take the liberty of voicing even the slightest criticism of the government,” wrote author Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s first Nobel Prize winner. “Freedom of thought no longer exists. We are distancing ourselves at high speed from a state of law and heading towards a regime of terror” that is driven by “the most ferocious hatred.”
Pamuk wrote those words in Istanbul, but they were not published in Turkey. He sent them to Italy’s leading liberal daily, “Repubblica”, because no Turkish paper would dare to publish them. Indeed, almost the entire senior editorial staff of Turkey’s oldest mainstream daily, “Cumhuriyet”, was arrested recently, allegedly for supporting both Kurdish rebels and the Islamic secret society controlled by exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
This is rather like accusing the Wall Street Journal of supporting al-Qaida and the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Cumhuriyet always defended Turkey’s secular constitution from those who dreamed of creating an Islamic state (like the “Gulenists”), and it always condemned Kurdish separatists who resorted to violence.
But now its editorial staff is in jail, alongside 37,000 other people who have been arrested, often on equally implausible charges, since the attempted coup last July. (President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s government has amnestied 38,000 ordinary criminals to make room in the jails for the political prisoners.)
Erdogan’s government holds the “Gulenists” responsible for the attempted military coup last July, and they probably were. But he is exploiting the “state of emergency” (which he has just extended for another three months) to suppress all possible centers of opposition to his rule. Whatever their real views, they are all are accused of being either pro-Gulenist or pro-terrorist.
The Gulenist menace has been inflated to preposterous proportions. Erdogan’s deputy prime minister Nurettin Canikli, said in a recent interview with the BBC that members of the group have “practically had their brains removed. They’ve been hypnotized. They’re like robots. Each one of them is a potential threat. They could commit all sorts of attacks, including suicide bombs.”
“For 40 years this terror organization has infiltrated the furthest corners of the country — ministries, all institutions and the private sector. It’s not just the judiciary, courts, the police, the military. It includes education. In fact, education is the field that they have entered best,” Canikli said. (Half of the 100,000 people who have been fired from government jobs worked in education.)
Erdogan now even blames the Gulenists for shooting down a Russian combat aircraft on the Syrian-Turkish border one year ago — although at the time he proudly claimed that it was done on his orders. He also forgets to mention that he and Fethullah Gulen were once close allies dedicated to the task of “Islamizing” the Turkish public services.
Their shared objective was to ensure that most of the jobs in the government’s grant — military officers, teachers, police, judges, the senior civil service — were held by pious Muslims. This was a huge task, since for almost a century these jobs had largely been the preserve of secular Turks who thought that religion had no business in politics.
The change was accomplished by giving Gulenist candidates the answers to entrance exams, by manipulating military and judicial appointments, or just by the naked exercise of political power, and by 2016 it was an accomplished fact.
But eventually Gulen and Erdogan had a catastrophic falling out — probably over which of them actually controlled these tens of thousands of deeply religious officials — and Erdogan belatedly realized that he had created a hostile force in the heart of his own government apparatus.
He showed as little foresight in his dealings with the Turkish Kurds. In an earlier, more responsible phase of his political career Erdogan actually engineered a ceasefire with the PKK, the main and most violent Kurdish separatist group. But when he lost an election last year and needed to win back the Turkish ultra-nationalist vote, he did it by breaking the ceasefire and re-starting the war against the Kurds.
His clandestine support for the Islamist fanatics of Islamic State was equally foolish. In the end he came under such pressure from United States, from Russia, and from Saudi Arabia that he was compelled to break the link — and discovered that his erstwhile friends in IS get very cross when they are spurned. IS bombs now go off in Turkey all the time.
So he has alienated a lot of people, his plate is very full, and he urgently needs to thin out the number of his enemies. The failed July coup gave Erdogan an excuse for taking extreme action against them, and even against other domestic opponents who have always played by the democratic rules. He has seized the opportunity with both hands.
It is ugly and sad, for 10 years ago Turkey seemed to be entering an era of stable democracy and growing prosperity. This tragedy was not bound to happen: one man’s ruthless ambition has derailed an entire country’s promising future. It’s not clear when, or even if, it will get back on track.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist and military historian.