The rise and fall of free speech under Turkey’s Islamists

Looking at the long sweep of the AKP’s rule, Kerem Öktem shows how the window of free speech in Turkey has closed.

Turkey has never been a beacon of free speech. Much of its recent history, from the 1950s to the late 1990s, was characterised by political conflict, weak governments and the manipulations of veto players like the military and the high judiciary. A significant proportion of societal issues remained under the strict control of the military guardians and, hence, off-limits for politics, public deliberation and journalistic inquiry. The list of taboo themes was long: from the history of the Turkish Republic and the memory of its founder Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) to the Armenian genocide, and from the oppression of Kurds to the role of the military in politics, a canon of pre-conceived notions of orthodox thought dictated what could and could not be talked about publicly. Hundreds of journalists, academics and public figures that fell foul of these strict limitations faced harassment, unemployment and hefty prison sentences. During the war against the Kurds in the 1980s and 90s, Turkish security forces, undercover agents and rogue operatives killed dozens of Kurdish journalists and media workers. And even the unethical entanglement of media companies with economic and political interests is nothing new.

So what is new then, considering that Turkey has never made it above Freedom House’s “partly free” rating and its media has been at best partly free, short periods of relatively laxer government control notwithstanding? It may be tempting to reduce the erosion of freedoms to a path-dependent development of robust authoritarianism, aggravated by the overly long rule of an Islamist political party. This would, however, not account for the escalation since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected president in 2014, which looks increasingly less like a case of solidifying authoritarianism and more like a plunge into fascistic madness with a revered leader and vigilante groups going after critics of the government. In terms of Freedom House, Turkey’s media has been “not free” since 2014. We cannot understand Turkey’s fascistic turn without understanding the significant interlude of widening freedoms that coincided with the first two governments of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A symbolical cut-off date of this interlude would be the elections of July 2011, which mark the end of the AKP as a pluralist political party and its gradual transformation into a vehicle for the pursuit of personalised political power.

The liminal space of freedom between Kemalism and Islamism

Turkey’s mainstream Islamist tradition, Milli Görüş (National View), the AKP’s ideological point of departure, only has a narrow conception of freedom. Freedom is above all seen as the negative freedom from the impositions of the secular state and the positive freedom to live according to one’s creed. In this strand of Islamist thinking, the greatest freedom is found in submission to God’s will. Despite this stunted conceptualisation however, the tribulations Islamists suffered at the hands of the Kemalist state created some sympathy towards others also excluded by Turkey’s secular order. They ranged from Kurds and non-Muslim minorities to socialists and liberals. For many AKP members, the creation of a larger space of freedom was hence an important political goal. This sympathy also paved the way for an alliance with liberal intellectuals, who hoped to weaken the anachronistic grip of Kemalist elites on an increasingly pluralistic society. In theory, this alliance could have facilitated a conception of freedom inspired by Islamic thought and informed by the Islamists’ experience of state oppression. In practice, both the alliance of Islamists and liberals and the conceptual possibility it promised first stagnated and then withered away. This path of freedom through Islamism is now truncated.

Another factor may have been more decisive than this uncertain Islamist path to freedom. The Kemalist state, with its secular ideology, ethno-nationalist elites and tightly controlled institutions, withstood attempts at democratic control well into the first decade of the AKP era. At no point between 2002, when the AKP emerged as the ruling party and 2011, when it gained its third term in power, did the elected government enjoy an uncontested position. Instead it was forced to fend off barely legal challenges and manipulations from the Kemalist establishment. The military’s attempt in 2007 to halt Abdullah Gül’s bid for president – apparently due to his wife’s headscarf – or the narrowly averted AKP closure case at the constitutional court in 2008 are just two examples of these existential threats. So are the even murkier coup attempts of 2003 and 2004. For its political survival, the AKP was therefore dependent on allies. These were not limited to the liberals and Turkey’s growing business community, but encompassed the European Union and the supporters of Turkey’s European future.

It was in this liminal space between successive hegemonic constellations of power, the receding Kemalist and the strengthening Islamist, and helped by a range of alliances, that freedoms flourished. As will be clear by now, this interlude was not the result of a principled stance on freedom but was largely opportunistic. And still, it did allow for the decade of a rising Turkey, not in the sense of the neo-imperialist foreign policy of Ahmet Davutoğlu, but in an almost Kantian sense of a country emerging from its self-imposed immaturity. The harbingers of a society ready to face the many demons that Turkey’s violent history had created and to engage in more responsible forms of politics were unmissable. An outpouring of artistic and intellectual creativity as well as journalistic boldness was the visible result. A vibrant civil society and the maturing Kurdish movement began to fill, expand and negotiate this opportunistic space of freedom. A generation of young people came to experience a country that was more colourful, fun and promising than the dusty Kemalist Turkey of old. It encountered a state that had become far more lenient, less ideological and committed towards delivering quality services to its citizens. In this environment, the media fared better than at most other times in the country’s recent history. Private TV and radio stations, newspapers and the internet media allowed for a considerable degree of plurality of political views. The space for critical debate and investigative journalism was taken up enthusiastically by a younger generation of journalists, for whom the state-induced murders of media workers in the 1990s seemed a distant memory of a not-so-distant past. And in the Kurdish provinces, a cease-fire with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) extended into an, albeit fragile, peace, with a growing platform for legal Kurdish politics and a diversifying Kurdish media.

Even in this interlude of opportunistic freedom, Turkey was not a liberal country. Neither did its status ever change to “free” on the Freedom House scale. Yet together with the neoliberal economic growth drive, the assurance of a European future and the country’s rising economic power, liberal reform and occasional setbacks in the sphere of Kurdish politics or secularism seemed to be counterbalancing each other. This perspective of ostensible balance may explain why the AKP government succeeded in keeping much of Europe and some liberals on its side well into the 2010s, even though the space for freedoms began shrinking from the mid-2000s. Towards the end of the decade, as the AKP was establishing its dominance in state and society, authoritarian tendencies became harder to ignore. Phone calls from the prime minister to newspaper editors and even TV show hosts became commonplace, while television reporters began to mind their words. Media groups critical of Erdoğan and the AKP came under attack in the pro-government press and faced harassment by tax authorities and heavy fines.

By Erdoğan’s third election victory in 2011, Turkey felt more like a competitive authoritarian regime akin to Russia than a country set for European Union membership. Under different circumstances, this regime might have been able to consolidate. The gradual process of state capture and ideological reorientation – not by choice, but by the reluctance of the Kemalist establishment to give up power – may have allowed for a transition to a longer-lived and relatively stable arrangement of authoritarian power. Yet the political and economic arrangements of the AKP’s growth machine, marked by clientelism as much as by a system of mutual favours of business and the political class, began to show strains in a less beneficial global economic climate. To keep the machine going and the system of mutual favours alive, a vicious circle of ruthless exploitation replaced the once vibrant economy of small and medium-sized enterprises and exporters. Mega-infrastructure projects, frantic real-estate projects on public land, the brutal exploitation of natural resources, the dispossession of villagers and the growing cases of lethal work place accidents became harder to ignore. The pro-government media began to put a positive spin on all these major issues, while government control over independent media groups tightened.

It needed two unprecedented challenges to AKP power in 2013 to deliver a veritable shock to this already unstable system of political and economic interests. The popular unrest emanating from Istanbul’s Taksim Square in May and June, the Gezi protests, and major leaks of evidence of massive corruption in the highest levels of the AKP government on 17 and 25 December. These two events probably constituted the emotive watershed, after which Turkey began to veer towards fascistic escalation. Ever since, the logic of governance has been simple, effective and ruthless: power maintenance through extreme polarisation of society along political, religious and ethnic lines, a personality cult around President Erdoğan and a shift to policies of intimidation of all opponents through a combination of political pressure, a streamlined use of the judiciary and brute force.

The monsters of ‘new Turkey’

The “new Turkey”, which Erdoğan’s handpicked “new AKP” has propagated fervently, at least since his election as president in August 2014, is only nominally democratic. The elections of June 2015 were effectively annulled because they failed to deliver an outright AKP election victory. It is a country in which companies, banks and media outlets close to the Gülen movement, a religious network led by the cleric and former AKP ally Fethullah Gülen, have been taken into state trusteeship only to be sold on to pro-government businessmen. The Doğan Group, once Turkey’s largest media trust, has been tamed through tax evasion cases, while the offices of its flagship newspaper Hürriyet were repeatedly attacked by armed mobs in 2015. It is worth noting that this was not the spontaneous attack of a group of zealots, but a premeditated attack led – and publicly defended – by the chair of the AKP youth organisation. This kind of mob violence became a key mode of governance since 2014, when more discreet forms of censorship and intimidation failed to deliver the desired results.

At the best of times, Turkey’s rising global visibility and attempts at regional leadership in the Middle East did contribute to the perception of Turkey as a success story. The Arab uprisings in 2010 and 2011, the authoritarian retrenchment that followed, and particularly the Syrian war destroyed any prospects of a Turkish leadership role in an Arab world united under the Muslim Brotherhood. It also created a minefield for whistle-blowing journalists. The editor-in-chief and another senior journalist of the post-Kemalist opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet were charged and imprisoned pending trial for publishing pieces on Turkey’s weapon shipments to jihadi fighter groups in Syria in May 2015. All investigations they had been working on and other cases that may be deemed harmful to state security – such as the terrorist attacks in Suruç, Ankara and Istanbul – have been subjected to a reporting ban. Dozens of veteran journalists have lost their jobs in mainstream newspapers, migrating to a handful of courageous internet news portals. They still have a voice, but a significantly reduced one that is easily muffled by a toxic pro-government media whose vitriolic style and dehumanising language would be well able to withstand comparison with the Völkischer Beobachter.

As the AKP government becomes embattled on the domestic and international fronts, the challenge of the maintenance of power becomes evermore daunting and policy failures evermore visible. Critical observers agree that President Erdoğan unilaterally annulled the peace process with the PKK and the Kurdish movement in order to marshal voters who had deserted the AKP in the June 7 elections back to the party in November’s repeat elections. This plan did indeed work, partly because the PKK, emboldened by its newfound power in Syria, played along. The cost of this policy, however, may prove to be too high to pay. It appears that the ghosts of the 1990s, the extrajudicial killers and paramilitaries and the deep state have returned to the Kurdish provinces as the monsters of the “new Turkey”. Entire neighbourhoods, particularly those with a strong presence of PKK members and young, disaffected militants, have been laid to waste. Military personnel and unidentified snipers have targeted civilian populations in several cities. The number of civilian casualties has risen. The case of the old town of Diyarbakir, Sur, is a particularly harrowing one. Painstakingly restored in the last decade by its former mayor Abdullah Demirbaş as the centre of a multicultural city with several churches and mosques, large parts of the district have been reduced to rubble. Most of its residents fled their destroyed homes when the curfew, now in its third month, was lifted for a few hours. Turkey seems to have come full circle, from the horrendous Kurdish war in the 1990s via the gradual cessation of hostilities in the 2000s to a credible chance for a peace agreement in 2015, only to be subjected to a condensed version of the 1990s war.

Despite this escalation, dissenting voices abound. The “Academics for Peace” Initiative called for a cessation of hostilities in the Kurdish provinces, highlighting the human rights abuses of the Turkish security personnel. 1128 academics from Turkey and several hundreds abroad, including the author of this article, signed the initial petition. They were met with a barrage of hostility from the pro-government media and a concerted action of intimidation. The newspaper Yeni Akit published the entire list of signatories and their institutions. A website maintained by the AKP mayor of Ankara upped the ante and added the photos of all signatories to the list. Several thousand more academics, students and others signed the petition from Turkey and abroad, while the government started both a counter-campaign and a concerted action to punish the signatories. All universities have been pressed to hold disciplinary proceedings against members of staff who signed it. Most, though not all, caved in. In some provincial universities, anti-terror units stormed the houses of signatories, seizing personal belongings. All face legal or disciplinary proceedings. The global support for the signatories is overwhelming and constitutes a fine example of academic solidarity in times of distress. Also at the national level, the support for the “Academics for Peace” is moving. Nevertheless, the message is clear: everyone, whether an academic, journalist or layperson faces severe risks when speaking out against the government.

What future?

Many of the young people, who grew up in the relative comfort of the AKPs better years, rebelled for the first time during the Gezi protests. They thought that Turkey’s police would not shoot its own citizens, but they were wrong. Most of them have been silenced and dragged back into line. Many of the young people in the Kurdish provinces, who grew up during the few years of a fragile but wonderful peace have lost their hope of a future in Turkey. Some of them are now digging trenches in Kurdish cities. They are fighting the security forces. Many of them will die. No alternative to the government’s politics of fear seems to exist. Little criticism is heard from a United States enthralled by its domestic politics and a European Union transfixed by the refugee crises. The AKP power project may be deeply compromised, its neoliberal growth machine may be failing and whatever spaces of freedom were tolerated under the AKP may have been lost, but Turkey has not yet hit rock bottom. Before it does, campaigners for freedom and human rights will fight an uphill battle. They will be emboldened by the experience of generations of advocates of freedom, who have stood up to injustice in Turkey and established a veritable tradition of resistance against dictatorship.

Kerem Öktem is Professor for Southeast Europe and Modern Turkey at the University of Graz, Austria and author of Angry Nation: Turkey Since 1989

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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