By Javan Latson
Another blow was struck against democracy in Turkey this past week. Policemen with orders from the Turkish court stormed the headquarters of Turkey’s most popular newspaper, Zaman. Far from a peaceful takeover, the government forces clashed with protestors in front of the building, using water canons and tear gas to dispel the crowd. The hostile takeover of Zaman is the latest chapter in a complex narrative regarding current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his quest for control of the Middle Eastern country.
Located between Asia and Europe, Turkey has often served as the bridge between the two continents, and as a result has a culture with roots in European and Middle Eastern customs. A relatively large country with a population of around 79 million people, Turkey is a nation with strategic importance to various global powers. Due to it’s proximity to the Soviet Union, the United States along with the dominant nations of Western Europe allowed the fledgling republic to join NATO in 1952 in an attempt to stop the spread of communism. Turkey is also one of the few allies the United States has in the in the Middle East, and in recent years, the US has relied on access to Incirlik Airbase in the nation’s southern region in order to strike Islamic State targets in bordering Syria. The European Union is especially attentive to Turkish Affairs and polices because of the direct impact they have on its members. As a result of the Syrian Civil War and instability in the region, millions of refugees have been flocking to Europe seeking asylum with a large portion entering through Turkey. Turkey’s government is a vital concern not only for Erdogan, but for the entirety of Europe and NATO.
During the midst of this turmoil, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was sworn in as Turkey’s first directly elected president in August 2014. Erdogan is a member of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) that draws most of its support from religious Turks. The AKP claims to support the ideals of Mustafa Kemal who founded Turkey in 1923 with the hope of changing Turkey from an Islamic nation, to a secular country with a mainly Muslim population. However many secularists have suspected Erdogan and his party of trying to introducing Islamist ideologies into the government. The President has been quoted saying that “you cannot put women and men on an equal footing” much to the dismay of women and feminists. In addition to this he has sought to restrict the consumption alcohol, outlaw adultery, and restrict abortion. Much to the dislike of the secular population Erdogan in 2014 lifted a 90 year-old ban of female headscarves in high schools, and later that year began converting secular schools into Imam Hatips (traditional Sunni religious schools), which teach conservative Muslim beliefs to students. These policies have led to a growing feeling of resentment towards the president and the AKP as people become wary of gradual erosion of Kemal’s secular society into a fundamentalist nation.
As a result of the president’s actions, a substantial opposition group has formed, comprised of secularists, religious minorities, Kurds, and rivals of the AKP. These men and women have denounced the gradual “ottomanization” of Turkey, the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of President Erdogan, and the mistreatment of Kurds by the government. One of the leading critics of the president is a Muslim cleric named Fethullah Gulen who currently resides in the United States. Prior to his relocation, Gulen was a member of the AKP and a firm of ally of Erdogan, who at the time was the prime minister. This alliance soon dissolved following disagreements between the two men over policies towards the Kurds and how the government handled the 2013 Gezi Park Protests. Ever since the two went separate ways, Erdogan has sought to undermine the influence of Gullen’s Hizmet Movement in Turkey. Hizmet is an organization that promotes a tolerant form of Islam and emphasizes altruism, hard work, and education. Due to the lack of an official membership roll, it is quite possibly one of the biggest Muslim networks in the whole country, with an estimated membership totaling in the millions of people. There are said to be numerous followers of Hizmet that posses influential positions in the Turkish government and law enforcement agencies which has caused Erdogan to accuse Gulen of establishing a “parallel state” within Turkey and trying to overthrow the government. The rivalry between these two individuals has lead to a massive crusade by the government to remove any trace of Gulen’s movement from the media, police, and the court system.
In a strategic move by President Erdogan the Turkish court issued a ruling that required the management of Zaman to step down and be replaced by a new government appointed staff. Zaman is a newspaper that has often been critical of the president, and also has ties to Gullen, making it a clear target for the Erdogan regime to attack. Following a standoff between law enforcement and protestors outside of Zaman’s headquarters, one of the most outspoken criticizers of the government was transformed into Erdogan’s mouthpiece. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu described the takeover as a “legal not political” one and the government has justified the seizure of Zaman by accusing it of spreading propaganda in an attempt to destabilize the country. Sevgi Akarcesme, editor at Zaman’s sister publication Today’s Zaman, called the event “a dark day for Turkish democracy”. The government seizure of the opposition newspaper is one of many recent cases of the government restricting the freedom of press. In January more than 1000 intellectuals were placed under investigation for petitioning the government to stop military operations against Kurds in southern Turkey.The government has attacked other media agencies including Cihan, the only independent monitor of the Turkish election process since 2005, which is another media outlet associated with Fethullah Gulen. On dubious legal and constitutional grounds, Turkey has begun a systematic crackdown against the Gulen movement.
The international community has been quick to criticize Turkey’s actions. France’s foreign minister called the action “unacceptable” and that it went against European values, while French President Francois Hollande said “The press must be free everywhere”. US Ambassador John Bass tweeted that the importance of free press must be protected and State Dept. spokesman John Kirby called the takeover of Cihan “another example of an unnecessary crackdown on journalism”. The EU as a whole has told Turkey “to respect and promote high democratic standards and practices “ yet despite all this talk Turkey seems unconcerned and isn’t showing any sign of reversing the current trend within its borders. Perhaps this is because Ankara believes they possess key bargaining chips such as the ability to reduce refugee flows to the EU or access to airbases for the United States, and as a result they feel like the west needs them too much to actually pressure Turkey into making some political reform. Whatever the case may be, the war between Erdogan and the mysterious parallel state doesn’t seem to be ending any time soon, and the Turkish people’s hope for freedom will only continue to dim.