American Public Perception of Security in Turkey — Terrorism, Nationalism

By: Adam Shirer, THO Non-Resident Fellow

I have never been to Turkey.

In 2017 I participated in the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) program to study Turkish. The USCLS program is meant to provide language education and cultural exchange through an overseas immersive environment, but the Turkish program was held in Azerbaijan. From 2006 to 2015, the program had been held in Turkey, but it was moved due to security concerns prior to the 2016 failed coup attempt in Turkey. At that time, the State Department’s Country Report on Terrorism in Turkey identified concerns about the terror groups ISIS and the PKK. Azerbaijan was chosen as an alternate location because the two countries are similar in terms of language and culture. However, many citizens in Azerbaijan grew up in the Soviet Union, and did not speak Turkish or even Azerbaijani natively. My host family was an example of this and spoke mostly Russians between themselves, and so I wonder how much of the cultural immersion I missed.

Another exchange program, the Fulbright English Teaching Assistant program, was still scheduled to send participants to Turkey that year. Those plans were cancelled only after the failed coup attempt and the state of emergency that followed. This suggests that there was a different reason for suspending the Fulbright program to Turkey than for relocating the CLS program.

The state of emergency gave President Erdogan the power to avoid normal judicial and legislative processes. When these powers were used to arrest thousands of people and remove many more from public office for suspected connections to terrorism, the international community responded with concern and criticism. As someone who has studied both intelligence studies and freedoms of speech, I saw Turkey’s response as understandable and at the same time very alarming. International law recognizes restrictions on free speech for national security as legitimate, but the line between preventing terrorism and suppressing essential democratic practice should be drawn carefully. The different security concerns that impacted these two exchange programs are made explicit in the current State Department travel advisory to Turkey, which advises American tourists to “[r]econsider travel to Turkey due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions.” Both of these concerns have been major issues in Turkey’s international affairs just this month, with the disappearance of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the continued detention of (and finally, release of) American pastor Andrew Brunson who was held on charges of terrorism.

When I suggest to friends or family that I want to travel to Turkey soon, they generally respond by advising against it. And the reason is because of the potential acts of terrorism. Turkish people I have talked to as well caution that it is has not been safe to travel to recently, but more specifically, it has not been safe for non-Turkish people to travel to.

At first glance this distinction appears to echo the State Department’s travel guidance, which states that terrorist organizations “explicitly target Western tourists and expatriates.” But according to the State Department’s recent terrorism reports, U.S. citizens have not been the target of attacks in Turkey — only 3 U.S. citizens have been killed or wounded in terrorist attacks in Turkey in 2016 and 2017.

If the main security concern in Turkey is terrorism, then Turkish and non-Turkish people alike face similar threats. If Turkey is less safe for non-Turkish people than for its own citizens, then it must be a different reason other than terrorism. For the State Department, this reason is arbitrary detentions carried out by the government.

Because this concern arose during the state of emergency and caused the United States to suspend its Fulbright program, it is significant both that the state of emergency has ended and that the Fulbright program has resumed in Turkey. Nevertheless, there is a lingering concern about the constitutional changes that occurred during the state of emergency. The release of Andrew Brunson may have eased tensions between the United States and the new Turkish government; but it is important to recognize that President Erdogan refused to interfere with the court. The court convicted Brunson and only released him because of the two years he was already under arrest.

For people travelling to Turkey, this conviction should still raise some concern. However, its significant media coverage should be an indication that this is not the norm, even in the face of arbitrary detentions. Tourism to Turkey has increased to an all time high, including from other western countries such as the UK, whose travel advisory notes that “most visits are trouble free.”

I plan to finally visit Turkey later this year, and hopefully again next year.