The Turks Draw a Line

At a United Nations Forum in Vienna on February 27, 2013, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed the view that Zionism was "a crime against humanity." It is perhaps too strong to assert that the violent behavior of police and security officials acting on behalf of his regime in the events starting in late May 2013 attacking Turkish citizens who are demonstrating in Istanbul and 50 other cities against his government amount to a "crime against humanity."

But injuries to more than 4,000 people, the killing of at least two, the arrest of hundreds of individuals, the hospitalization of some 4,300 people due to excessive use of tear gas against the protestors, and the refusal of Mr. Erdogan to condemn the violence committed on his behalf show that he has little justifiable claim to moral, let alone political, judgment of any country.

His moral delinquency was even more apparent when Erdogan defended these brutal actions by saying that all countries, including those in Europe, used tear gas. He called the protests "undemocratic," and declared, "among the protestors there are extremists, some of them terrorists." He dismissed the protestors as part of a plot against him by national and international opponents. This time he did not specifically mention "Zionists" as being behind this conspiracy.

The protests in fact had started as a small sit-in environmental peaceful demonstration on May 27, 2013 to persuade the government to give up its plan to develop the area of an Istanbul park, the Gezi public park in the historic Takrin Square. The park, the last green area in central Istanbul, was to be turned into a military barracks and an open-air shopping mall. For citizens this was symbolically a park of secular Turks that was being destroyed.

As a result of the harsh treatment of this small group by the police, who set fire to the tents of the protestors and used pepper spray and tear gas against them, the number of protestors grew spontaneously. These protestors have not been advancing any ideological position nor are they politically partisan. Cutting across ideological, religious, and class lines, and including secularists, nationalists, trade unionists, and leftists, they have become a civil disobedience movement while changing the focus from environmentalism to a broader protest against government policies and the gradual erosion of freedom.

Up until this point, Erdogan has had a charmed political life, winning three free and fair elections each time with a larger vote: his political party gained 34.3 percent in 2002; 46.7 percent in 2007; and 49.83 percent in 2011. Since he became prime minister in 2003, the Turkish economy has grown 5 percent a year on average. He claimed to have created a regime that was a synthesis of Islam, democracy, and market economy. He argued he had created the only really democratic regime in the Muslim world. His party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), claimed to be more than an Islamist party, but certainly used Islamist themes to win popularity. It has been able to cow the Turkish military leadership, some of whose leaders have been imprisoned on criminal charges, into not challenging the regime.

It is his perception of democracy as "majoritarian," in essence disregarding public opinion, that has led to the increased protests and made him a polarizing figure intolerant of criticism. Some have called it "neo-Ottomanism." The famous Turkish writer and Nobel prizewinner Orhan Pamuk has spoken of Erdogan's aggressive style of rule as "oppressive and authoritarian."

Some protestors portrayed Erdogan as a new "Sultan" or even as "Pharoah." Some argued that Erdogan was planning to assume the powers of the Caliphate and run the country by decrees. Erdogan has urged the introduction of a new constitution with a powerful presidency, making it clear he would fill this position. His AKP party has recently imposed limits on alcohol purchases, making sales illegal between 10 p.m. and 6a.m., and forbidding any alcohol in restaurants near schools and mosques. Erdogan's rule has attacked women's reproductive rights, limited kissing in public, and called for married couples to have at least three children.

It was noticeable that the Turkish media in general were reluctant to cover the May protests; instead TV broadcast cookery lessons and soap operas. The silence of the media was deafening. What is now apparent is the unwillingness of the mainstream media, while Erdogan has been in office, to cover protests and opposition to the regime, and the attempts of the regime to control free expression. One of the main daily papers, Sabah, has been owned since 2008 by a company whose CEO is a son-in -law of Erdogan, and therefore is predictably always supportive of the government as are other media groups. On the other hand, critical media have been punished; the country's largest media group, was fined $2.5 billion for covering a corruption case.

The most important factor in this control of the media has been attempts to influence journalists, by blackmail, by calls from the prime minister's office, by harassment of women reporters, and by imprisoning members of the media. Astonishingly, Turkey, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, has jailed more journalists than any other country in the world, including China. The Committee provided the figure of 49 journalists in prison at the moment. Using anti-terror and penal code statutes, the government has held many others on terror-related charges or involvement in anti-government plots.

The government does not appear to differentiate very carefully between freedom of expression and terrorism. A major example is the case of Tayip Temel , editor of the only Kurdish-language daily, who faced more than 20 years in prison because he was a member of a banned Kurdish organization. The Journalist World Press Freedom Index (Reporters without Borders) calls Turkey "currently the world's biggest prison for journalists," ranking it 154 out of 179 countries regarding free expression. Not surprisingly, journalistic self-censorship is not uncommon.

The Western response to courageous Turks protests has not been similarly valiant. Secretary John Kerry did call the Turkish foreign minister to discuss the situation, but the latter ended the conversation by replying that Turkey was not a second-class democracy. Even the members of the parliament of the European Union complained that the EU's foreign policy spokesperson, Catherine Ashton, had not reacted quickly to criticize the violent Turkish crackdown on the anti-government protests. Interestingly, those EU parliamentarians did criticize "disproportionate use of force," perhaps the first time this allegation has been made of any other state than Israel.