Turkey: The Powerful And The Paranoid
By Jess HillMarch 27, 2012
Turkey is powerful, prosperous and stable. So why is it locking up so many of its intellectuals?
Turkey: booming economy, regional peacemaker, thriving democracy — a model for fledgling Arab democracies.
A familiar line, and one that makes many Turkish intellectuals bristle. "We are sick to death of people saying we are a model," one Istanbul-based journalist told me. "It's a lie."
Nobody denies Turkey's success at an economic level — and most welcome it. But liberal intellectuals are furious that at a time of such prosperity, Turkey is at war with free speech.
They have good reason to be angry: for the past three years, the state has been locking them up at an alarming rate.According to Ece Temelkuran, a journalist and political commentator, an estimated 3,500 Turkish and Kurdish politicians, professors and publishers are in prison for "terror-related" crimes, and Turkey has more journalists in prison — almost 100 — than any other nation.
These arrests all have been made under Turkey's tough new terror laws, introduced in 2006. In the year before they were introduced, Turkey made 273 terror-related arrests. In 2009, there made 6,345.
These capricious new terror laws mean people can be charged with terrorism for "crimes" as innocuous as researching a "controversial" topic, signing a petition or wearing a keffiyeh (the black-and-white headscarf associated with Palestinians and Kurds).
These crimes might look innocuous, says the government, but terrorists in Turkey are cunning. They don't just attack the state with guns - they fight with paintbrushes and pens. "Terror is a multifaceted phenomenon that includes psychology and art," said Turkey's interior minister, Idris Naim Sahin, last December. "Sometimes it is on canvas, sometimes in a poem, in daily articles, or even jokes. We know that terrorist cells might include a university chair, an association or a NGO."
Such paranoia bewilders Dr Mehmet Karli, a lecturer at Galatasaray University's law faculty in Istanbul. "For the first time in a long time, there is a hegemony in the system," he says, as we chat during his lunch hour on campus. "The [governing] AK Party controls the army, the judiciary, the police — controls everything! What is the point of having all these repressive policies?"
The military, which has overthrown four governments since the 1960s, has now been brought under the control of the Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Despite this, Erdogan is still doggedly pursuing what he regards as threats to his primacy - namely hardline secular nationalists and the Kurds. Journalists, academics and publishers are being jailed simply for writing about them.
As Karli explains, an article in Turkey's Anti-Terror Law dictates that anyone researching or writing about subjects even vaguely connected to terrorism can be charged with supporting or being a member of a terrorist organisation. Once arrested, they can then be detained for up to three years without trial. "They first detain you, and then they start writing the indictment," says Karli. "That's the way it goes in Turkey."
Once a person has been targeted, says Karli, they know the judiciary won't help them — no matter how weak the charge is. "The AK Party has lost the notion of the separation of powers," says Karli's colleague, Eren Paydaş. "The state now consists of one thing — the AK Party. It isn't accountable to any institution or civil norm. That's why Erdogan thinks he can act so arbitrarily."
Inside Turkey, Erdogan has been widely criticised for replacing secular officials with judges and prosecutors friendly to the party. But Karli says that criticism has had little effect. "I think the word for them is hubris," he says. "They think nobody can touch them."
NESRIN UÇARLAR'S APARTMENT is at the top of one of Istanbul's many steep hills, just a few minutes' walk from several of its universities. If you look out her living-room window, past the local Persian cats lounging in her courtyard and through dense rows of apartment blocks, you can glimpse the Bosphorus.
Uçarlar has been researching Kurdish issues for most of her academic career. Recently she has spent most Fridays at the Bakirköy Women's Prison, visiting her friend and colleague, Professor Büşra Ersanli.
Ersanli, a highly respected academic from Istanbul's Marmara University, is a member of the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), a political group with seats in the Turkish parliament. She was jailed in October for alleged connections to the Union of Kurdish Communities (KCK), said to have its roots in the banned separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). In a recent interview, Professor Ersanli said she didn't even know what the KCK was.
From 2009, a government campaign in 2009 has used anti-terror laws to arrest thousands of Kurds and Kurdish sympathisers in what it calls its "KCK operations". Many of those arrested, like Professor Ersanli, have been in jail for months without trial.
At a recent panel at Bogazici University titled Fear, Control and Punishment, Turkish attorney Deniz Gedik said the terror laws were so broad that people didn't even know what a crime was anymore. "In the old days it was not a crime to put up posters in public. Nowadays those who put up posters are listed by the police and later interrogated," he said. "The AKP government has been using the legal system as its punitive body, and terrorism as a tool for marginalization."
Ersanli has spent the last five months in "pre-trial detention", passing the time by teaching her fellow inmates political science. On March 19, the prosecutor finally indicted her: Ersanli now faces between 15 and 22.5 years in jail for "leading an illegal organization".
Her friend and colleague, Nesrin Uçarlar, says Ersanli's arrest was a wake-up call for Turkish academics. More than 400 academics from 50 universities, in Turkey and abroad, formed the GIT Initiative, which is raising awareness of academics who are punished for their research. "These injustices are not new, and they will not be the last ones," she says. Since the 1970s, academics studying Kurdish issues have been considered dangerous.
To people unfamiliar with Turkish politics, it may sound shocking that with more than 10 million Kurds in Turkey, official Turkish policy says they don't exist. "The constitution of the Turkish Republic says there is only one nation, one language, one culture," she says. "But for decades, academics have been saying 'No, Kurdish people are different from Turkish people — they have a different language, they have a different culture, and they want to rule themselves'," says Ucarlar.
Uçarlar never has been imprisoned for studying Kurdish issues, but her academic career has been severely hampered. In 2008, upon completing a PhD thesis on Kurdish linguistic rights in Turkey, she was declined a diploma by the institute she was studying at, which accused her instead of breaching the constitution and "inventing a minority".
In this way, she says, the problem is not just Erdogan and the government, but rather the way this nationalist ideology has infiltrated the academic institutions themselves. "The problem in my case was the head of the institute. He was obsessive about defending the state. He was told the Kurdish issue is dangerous, that Kurdish people are used by external forces to divide Turkey — all these stories. He considers himself one of the guardians of the state."
Uçarlar has just been dismissed from a university she's been working at for 11 years because of a study she did on Kurdish mother-tongue education in Turkey. If she could get another posting, I ask, would she study Kurdish issues again? She nods. "They cannot understand this. If you want to study Kurdish issues from the beginning, you know that it is a controversial issue. You were born in Turkey! But when you start to study it, nobody or nothing can change your mind. These injustices just encourage you to go further."
Despite the growing sense of tension within the academic community, Uçarlar is optimistic. "I still don't think Erdogan is becoming anti-democratic," she insists. "They've done something we could not imagine a decade ago. But AK Party should go further. Now we are asking, 'What kind of democracy are you talking about?'"
FOR DECADES, TURKEY'S LEADERS HAVE dealt with the Kurdish issue largely by pursuing a harsh program of assimilation. The Kurds, most of whom live in the country's southeast, have resisted fiercely - a savage civil war between the PKK and the Turkish army in the 1980s and 90s killed more than 37,000 people. "The 1990s were the years of civil war - nobody dared to say one word about the Kurdish issue," says Karli.
But after Erdogan came to power in 2003, it began to look as if the Kurdish issue might finally be resolved. Erdogan's government was doggedly pursuing membership in the European Union, and the parliament was passing bold domestic reforms. Then in 2005, Prime Minister Erdogan made a historic visit to Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's Kurdish southeast, and said, "The Kurdish issue does not belong to a part of our nation but to us all. It is also my problem.... We are ready to listen to anyone who has something to say, and ready to consult anyone who has a sense of justice."
Dr Karli says academics and writers then began to breathe a little easier. "We got a shortly gained sense of freedom," he says. "We thought we had started going down a good way."
In the years since, however, the EU process has stalled. Turkey's membership bid is being blocked by a handful of countries, led by Turkey's old enemy, the Republic of Cyprus. Karli says that as a result, Turkey is slipping back into old, repressive habits. "We're starting to lose hope again."
Ziya Meral, a London-based Turkish analyst, says the link between the stalled EU talks and Turkey's curbs on freedom do not necessarily go hand-in-hand. He believes Turkey, now regarded as a model government for the Muslim world, has a new, self-imposed pressure on itself to behave justly.
However, where the Kurdish issue is concerned, he believes Erdogan is on a slippery slope. "Clearly, they are retreating back into a Turkish security understanding of the problem," he says. Just this month, the government banned celebrations of Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, and confronted Kurds in Diyarbakir with riot police, water cannons and tear gas. "I think the arrests of Kurdish activists and the ongoing military response is taking us back to a play we have seen the end of already," says Meral.
AT GALATASARAY UNIVERSITY'S WATERFRONT campus, three female students join our table. They, together with Dr Mehmet Karli and his colleagues, are members of TODI, a group that defends students wrongly accused of terrorism. "We can't defend all of them," says Karli, who estimates that about 500 students are in prison on terror charges.
Derya Er, 21, says she's afraid that so long as the Kurdish issue stays unresolved, nationalism in the country will just increase - and the counter-terror crackdowns will get worse. "The more we talk about these issues without solving them, the more people develop those reactionary, defensive attitudes," she says.
But Muge Altinoklu, 24, believes this may be just what is needed to inspire her generation to stand up. "Perhaps as this nationalism increases, more and more people will be affected directly, and hence more people will understand what is taking place," she says. "That might take us to a common understanding, a common sorrow, and we may try to change things together.
"But for such a result," she says, "it seems that many people will suffer."