The Sultan’s Wrath : Erdoğan

What an Autocratic Turkey Means for the Region and the World

The crossroads of the world, the region that merges east and west into an intense infusion of tradition and modernization. The Republic of Turkey links Europe to the Middle East and Asia, the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea and unites it in the central hub of Istanbul. The republic also holds great economic, cultural and military influence throughout the regions surrounding it. Yet as uniting and central as Turkey seems, the state itself is divided into two parts. The western provinces that flourish under a booming economy and have secular values or the eastern provinces that are under privileged and are more conservative.

Mustafe Kemal known as Atatürk

To fully understand why Turkey is the way it is, along with its importance in today’s geopolitical theatre, we must visit one of the darkest times in Turkish history, 1920. There, the skirmishes of the first great war are slowly coming to an end, the Ottoman Empire is all but defeated and its territories divided among the victors of the great war. Two years later the title of Sultan was removed, and the great Ottomans were no more. Then a bloody war of independence ensued that took thousands of lives, and from the ashes of the scorched Turkish heartland united under Mustafa Kemal known as Atatürk. This army officer and revolutionary would go on to establish the Republic of Turkey and lead it to a modernization never seen in an Islamic state. The fact that so many states wanted to defeat the Turkish people united them under Atatürk and with his new state, his “Six Arrows” policy was implemented. The Six Arrows referred to Republicanism — which drew upon the rule of law, Stateism — focused on a well-regulated economy, Reformism — targeted social reform within the republic, Populism -encouraged civic virtue, finally, Nationalism — focused on National unity along with Secularism — being the separation of state and religion. A large portion of the population embraced these ideologies, yet an equal amount of opposition was available as well.

In a move to disassociate the republic with Islam, Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. The caliphate served as the religious and political focal point in the Turkish society and instead moved towards the separation of religion from government. He also instituted the use of the Gregorian Calendar, European numerals, and replacing the written Arabic letters with the Latin alphabet. The office of the Sheik al Islam, a position that presided over religious affairs along with schools, charities as well as clothing items such as the Fez were also abolished. This effort was to completely sever the chains of Islam that held the Turkish Republic back from modernization. Finally, in 1928 Islam was removed for the constitution as the religion of the state, ending the Islamic past of Turkey.

East Versus West

As the Turkish state began to evolve, two prevalent sides emerged, the Western Marmara heartland and the Eastern Anatolian highlands. As the west grew rich from trade, the capital generated was invested in the Anatolian highlands and massive economic growth came with that investment. The economic growth was so impressive that many eastern cities were dubbed the nickname “Anatolian Tigers.” This term was used to refer to and explain the phenomenon of a number of cities in turkey have displayed impressive economic growth since the 1980’s. Yet this economic growth created tensions between the elites ranging from entrepreneurs to industrialists, state officials merging into the political system. Likewise, Islamist groups merged into educational and cultural groups in resistance to the Six Arrows of Atatürk. These religious leaders claimed that secular values were damaging and alien to the Turkish culture and were inconsistent with Muslim society. With that, two competing groups were created, the Marmara faction adhered to secular codes and the Anatolians stuck to conservative and religious values.

However, the internal Turkish rivalries were not restricted to secularists and clerics. In the 1970’s a low-level insurgency erupted between the left-wing Communists and the right-wing Nationalists resulting in 5000 casualties. As Turkey licked its wounds and the conflicts came to an end, cities began to grow. In the Year 2000 Istanbul reached a population of 8.8 million. With that, Turkey needed to reassess its political alliances. In the early 2000’s the government had devised a diplomatic plan named the “policy of zero problems with our neighbors.” This allowed Turkey to normalize relations with old adversaries like Cyprus and Armenia. Turkey was also able to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran in partnership with Brazil while mediating between the Arab states and Israel. Furthermore, several energy and construction deals were made with the Russians and even reach settlements with PKK militants (Kurdistan Workers Party). This made the Turkish state the keystone of stability in the Middle East and the ultimate mediator, truly the crossroads of the world. Unfortunately, there comes a man that seems to be undoing all of the hard work that the state of Turkey has done.

Erdoğan’s New Turkey

In 2002 the Justice and Development party known as the (AKP) came to power in Turkey. This allowed the Turkish citizens to explore their religious identities more freely. Erdoğan also made massive economic reforms that gave massive growth to industries such as agriculture, mining, banking, construction etc. Trade flourished under Erdoğan and therefore his religious and conservative ideologies and initiatives were justified by his supporters. The infrastructure greatly improved roads along with hospitals, schools all improved granting Erdoğan legitimacy and winning him nearly a dozen elections consecutively. However, all these economic reforms were just a stepping stone and over the last decade he has grown more authoritarian. After recently winning the election for president, he had changed the entire political system and swapped the more democratic parliamentary representative democratic republic to an executive presidency, giving him all of the power. The new government is split up into nine advisory boards that focus on science, technology and innovation, education, economy, security and foreign policy, law, arts and culture, healthcare, and local administration and social policies. They will all have a vice chair including two additional members that report directly to Erdoğan.

Diagram of How the New Government is Structured

Erdoğan’s Iron Fist

In 2013, the Gezi Park protests against the authoritarianism of Erdoğan and his policies were on display. A small sit-in in Istanbul to defend a city park from urban development turned into a harsh crackdown with tear gas and police brutality as a result, the protests grew greater. Faced with the largest protests in over a decade and an unbearable amount of social unrest, Erdoğan made this controversial remark in a televised speech: “The police were there yesterday, they are there today, and they will be there tomorrow.” After weeks of clashes in the streets of Istanbul, his government at first apologized to the protestors and called for a plebiscite, but again he had ordered an even tougher crackdown on protesters.

A protester crying out

On 20 July 2016, Erdoğan had declared a state of emergency after an attempted coup d’état. The state of emergency was originally supposed to only last three months and the seal of approval from parliament was all Erdoğan needed. This was then extended three more months allowing him to clean house and solidify his position further. The ongoing Turkish purges included the elimination of any independent media along with detaining tens of thousands of the populous, particularly those politically opposed to Erdoğan. Upwards of 50,000 have been arrested and more than 160,000 let go from their jobs by last March (2018). Two prominent Turkish journalists Can Dündar and Erdem Gül were arrested and detained, potentially facing a life sentence for their criticism of the Turkish government.

Protests in Gezi Park

In August (2016) Erdoğan further increased his crackdown on journalism. He had several journalists who were about to publish or had already published articles that questioned his authority and claimed that his administration is corrupt imprisoned. A damning revelation surrounding all of this is that the current number of Turkish journalists that are incarcerated by the government is higher than any other state. That means states like North Korea, Cuba, Russia and China combined can’t hold a candle to the number of journalists being held in Turkey. Moreover, Erdoğan started eliminating any internal opposition, whether it was from within the government or the public sector, and what better way than to charge them with terrorism? The perfect charge, as Turkey claims to be a strong ally in the war on terror and has been conducting operations in Syria to fight the Kurdish rebels and the extinguished Islamic state. alone would assume that those being charged would go through a proper judiciary process. But several states in the international community have and continue to complain about the lack of proper judicial process and unjustified incarceration of potentially innocent people.

In January of that year (2016), over a thousand academics had organized a petition that criticized the harsh military crackdown on ethnic Kurdish neighborhoods and towns in the eastern part of Turkey. Regions like Silvan, Silopi and many more were targeted and assaulted. The academics had called to end the violence and “Nazi like” tactics. The Turkish government including Erdoğan had condemned those who had signed the petition and accused them of “terrorist propaganda,” alleging them to be “the darkest of people.” Furthermore, he called for action by the institutions and universities, stating that “Everyone who benefits from this state but is now an enemy of the state must be punished without further delay.” It was only a matter of days before over 30 of the signatories were all arrested in “swat team” like raids in the early hours of the morning. After a quick talk with the Turkish authorities the academics were released but not before being fired from their jobs. Along with being denounced by Turkey’s Science Academy for such “wrong and disturbing” treatment. Erdoğan had vowed that the academics would pay the price for “falling into the pit of treachery.”

In April of 2017, Erdoğan had further confirmed his authoritarian attitude and successfully passed legislation that made it illegal for the legislative branch of Turkey to investigate his executive branch of government. Now this undeniably has dictator written all over it in capital letters. The Republic of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has lost any democratic characteristics that it had. By destroying the system of checks and balances along with freedom of speech Erdoğan answers to nobody and is free from accountable for any of his actions. To add insult to injury, members of the international community like the United States should offer stiff diplomatic resistance, such as imposing sanctions or even verbally condemning such abhorrent actions but as the old saying goes, “birds of feather flock together,” as the president of the United States Donald J. Trump had called to congratulate him for his recent successful referendum. This seemed to encourage Erdoğan and only legitimize his actions.

Protestors shouting slogans along with signs reading “democracy time” and “Free press”

Later that April, Erdoğan had instated an internal block on all Wikipedia access using Turkey’s domestic internet filtering system. This censorship was due to the sites alleged “offensive content,” as a rebuttal the co-founder of Wikipedia Jimmy Wales had responded with a post on the social media platform Twitter, “Access to information is a fundamental human right. Turkish people, I will always stand with you and fight for this right.” Finally, on July 8th of 2018, Erdogan purged over 18,000 officials for alleged ties to the cleric Fethullah Gülen a U.S. based political adversary. This was done a night before he renewed his term as president of Turkey. 9000 of those removed were police officers including 5000 from the armed forces along with hundreds of academics.

Regional Ramifications ?

With Erdogan calling the shots, several regional and international policies have shifted due to direct actions by Erdoğan’s conservative and religious agenda. As the result of EU rejection, the bilateral trade between Turkey and China saw a significant increase from 1 billion a year, back in 2002 to over 27 billion a year in 2017. Erdoğan also stated that Turkey might lean towards joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a snub to the European Union. Continuing to burn bridges with Europe, he was cited threatening to send millions of refugees from Turkey to EU member states. Erdoğan stated “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses, so how will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal? Kill the refugees?” This shocking statement along with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe questioning whether the democratic institutions in Turkey are still around. This comes amid the recent Turkish developments including the suppression of freedom of the media and freedom of speech, the lack of the rule of law and the human rights violations related to anti-terrorism security operations.

Turkish Israeli relations have also worsened as a result of Erdoğan’s rhetoric accusing Israel of being “more barbaric than Hitler.” As well as conducting “state terrorism” and “genocide” against the Palestinian people. Yet the state of Turkey actively carries out military operations against ethnic Kurds. Moreover, Turkey is still heavily involved in the war in Syria, since 2015 Turkey has funded and supported the Army of Conquest, a Syrian rebel group that allegedly is linked to al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State known as Daesh in the Middle East. These groups at times put aside their differences to fight the Syrian government and allies of Al-Assad who stand in their way of spreading their respective ideologies. Turkey supports opposition to Assad and is involved to end Assad’s rule in Syria. This puts Ankara at odds with Iran and Russia who both support Assad in Syria. Currently the State of Turkey has created more enemies than allies, further destabilizing the region and solidifying their military presence in states like Syria and more recently Cyprus. In early 2017, Erdoğan said that the removal of troops from Northern Cyprus is “out of the question” and Turkey will be in Cyprus “forever.”

Turkish Future, Authoritarian Dictatorship or a Stable State?

At this rate the Turkish political structure lacks diversity, leading down a dark and dangerous road. The Turkish people along with the International community (United Nations) must intervene in retaliation to Erdoğan’s human rights violations and continued targeting of ethnic Kurdish people. The Armenian Genocide was not that long ago, and neither was the Holocaust, we mustn’t allow history to repeat itself. Turkey a longtime ally of NATO has become a rouge nation under the leadership of Erdoğan and abandoned all democratic initiatives. The continued suppression of any opposition and extreme censorship of the media and the freedom of speech is likened to that of China or Russia and offers no room for dissent. After all, Turkey received a score of 5.5 out of 7 on the scale of freedom with 1 being free and 7 being less free according to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House which “works to defend human rights and promote democratic change, with a focus on political rights and civil liberties.”

This creates a narrative that puts Turkey towards a direction that reminds us of the old Ottoman Empire and creates a more hostile atmosphere in the Middle East. Keeping in mind how fragile the Middle East already is, adding another authoritarian dictatorship to the mix would further complicate things, especially a capable state like Turkey, with one of the strongest militaries in the region and nuclear capabilities. Unless Erdoğan is removed from office he will come to rule for as long as he is able and act in his best interests. This spells damnation for the Turkish citizens especially those of Kurdish descent and offers a bleak future for Turkish democracy and any chance of an EU (European Union) membership, making Turkey a potential enemy of the western states and burning the carefully built bridges between crucial allies. In total, Erdoğan is the new sultan of Turkey whether the citizens like it or not.

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