Turkey: The Rise and Fall of Secular Democracy

Posted February 23, 2014 on 2:13 pm | In the category Erdogan, Europe, International Broadcasting, Public Diplomacy, Turkey, Uncategorized | by Jeff

Abdullah Gul, President of Turkey, has signed into law a government proposal designed to give the government extraordinary powers of censorship over the Internet, including blocking of specific sites viewed as a threat to the Turkish government and collecting the histories of web searches of individuals’ computers. This is Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest attempt to eliminate free speech in a country that until recent months had served as a model of secular democracy in the Muslim world.

While Turkey’s economy and its people’s overall quality of life had flourished for 11 years under Erdogan, the very personal nature of his leadership had for some time been moving the country toward a less democratic culture in which religious Islam began to play an increasing role, personal and political corruption began to flourish, and freedom of expression began to suffer. The root of the problems is a competition between Erdogan and his brand of Islam and that of Fethullah Gulen the leader of a Sufi-based brand of Islam. Gulen, a former ally of Erdogan operates a large Turkish social, political and educational enterprise from his current home in Pennsylvania. He became disillusioned with Erdogan’s personalized Islam-centric approach to leadership which at best can be characterized as arrogant; at worse as megolamanic.

Political moves by Erdogan during the past year have placed the country’s commitment to secular democracy as well as his power at risk. It began with a public demonstration against Erdogan’s move to replace a public park in Istanbul with a shopping mall but it was clear that much of the demonstrators’ incentive was Erdogan’s increased authoritarianism. The demonstrations grew in size and led to a brutal police crackdown that was abrupt and violent, leading to at least 7 deaths and thousands of injuries. Erdogan’s response included a clumsy attempt to blame the U.S. and Israel for inciting the demonstrations. What followed included street riots, and police arrests of Erdogan allies for crimes of vast public and private corruption. Erdogan responded with take-overs of the police and judiciary, censorship of news, arrests of journalists and academics for speaking out, and the new restrictions on access to Internet content. All of this has contributed to a decline of the Turkish economy, and the erosion of the Turkish model of a secular democracy into a state with two Islamic sects fighting for power while secularists struggle to regain influence.

While most of the damage done to date is to the Turkish people and their democratic state, Turkey’s importance to the West raises the international stakes. Turkey’s geography, its importance for stability in the Middle East, and its unique ability and position to blend secular democracy into a 99% Muslim population with a rich history of power and influence lends it an importance beyond the merely symbolic. It has benefitted from a successful, growing economy, a commitment to education for all (including women), a thriving tourist industry, an agricultural output that is the envy of its region, and the second largest military among NATO members.

While its efforts since the late 1980s to become a full member of the EU have been rebuffed, that became less of an issue as EU countries’ economies have suffered through years of an ill-advised austerity while Turkey’s thrived. There is, in fact, little incentive or interest now in Turkey in becoming an EU member. As a further indication of Erdogan’s movement away from the West, he gave a contract to China to build its missile defense system, provoking alarm among fellow NATO members – especially the U.S. – while signaling his desire to shift turkey’s interest away from the West and towards greater influence in Asia.

Western democracies have held up turkey as a model of what can be accomplished in a Muslim country committed to secularism and democracy. As Erdogan continues on his current path that model may cease to exist. While the future of turkey lies in the hands of its people the West needs to do whatever is possible to short circuit Erdogan’s autocratic limits on free expression. The U.S. has begun to play a small role in that effort by supporting various “pirate” radio stations run by Turkish expats dedicated to providing a free flow of information currently being kept out of Turkey’s tradional press and media. While clearly premature for the U.S. to add Turkey to its official international surrogate broadcasting efforts the time for a Radio or TV Free Turkey may well be approaching. The European Union also needs to take a hard look at Turkey’s limited membership role in the Union and begin to apply pressure for the return of basic human rights, including a free press and unfettered access to social media and the Internet in general.

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