Tue, Sep 20, 2016 - Page 9 News List

Turkey’s changing freedom deficit

Alleged sympathizers of the government’s perceived enemies are summarily fired from their jobs, if not also imprisoned

By Timur Kuran

Illustration: Yusha

Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002 on the promise that it would give pious Muslims religious freedom. Fourteen years later, “freedom” is the last thing the AKP has delivered.

Today, even AKP supporters need to measure their words carefully, lest they be perceived as criticizing the government or siding with its enemies. This imperative has intensified since the failed coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government on July 15. Now, destroying any evidence of association with the AKP’s foes — especially Fethullah Gulen, the reclusive Pennsylvania-based imam whom the government accuses of masterminding the putsch — is a matter of self-preservation.

Erdogan’s government is by no means the first to compel Turkish citizens to hide their preferences and beliefs. Under the secular governments that ruled Turkey from the 1920s to 1950, and to some extent until 2002, pious Turks seeking advancement in government, the military, and even commerce had to downplay their religiosity and avoid signaling approval of political Islam.

The leaders of the three Islamist parties that preceded the AKP resented the barriers to religious expression. They held that French-style secularism had perverted Turkish culture. Though careful not to challenge the Constitution openly, from 1971 to 2001, they were successively banned as threats to secularism. In 1999, Erdogan himself was jailed for reciting a poem deemed an incitement to sectarian violence. In the same year, Gulen, under investigation for advocating an Islamic state, moved to the US.

As fellow opponents of secular governance, Gulen’s Hizmet (“Service”) movement and the AKP were natural allies. Indeed, they spent a decade working together to undermine Turkey’s secular institutions. After a constitutional referendum in 2010 terminated the staunchly secular military’s guardianship of the republic, they saw a historic opportunity for overhauling Turkey’s institutions, though there was some disagreement — and, indeed, tension — over how that should occur.

Erdogan, who was then prime minister, began to transform Turkish society according to his own conservative interpretation of Islam. Religious education was intensified. Alcohol restrictions were tightened. Women were instructed to have at least three children and, later, not to laugh loudly in public.

What news media the AKP did not buy off were subdued through threats of punitive taxation and jail time for uncooperative journalists. Secular Turks, once the politically dominant vanguards of modernity, were characterized as lacking in morality, decency and even Turkishness.

However, devout Muslims were not free from fear, either, not least because of the ensuing power struggle between the Erdogan and Gulen camps. Though Gulen’s supporters initially shared the privileges of power under AKP rule, including preferential treatment in government hiring and contracts, tensions came to a head in 2013, when Gulenists tried to implicate Erdogan in a corruption probe. Erdogan responded by initiating a purge of suspected Gulenists from state institutions.

With two academics having already revealed that several sensational legal cases against the old secular establishment rested on fabricated evidence, AKP officials began to blame Gulen for all judicial improprieties. While there was no doubt that the AKP knew that the victims of the lawsuits, including hundreds of generals, were framed, few Turks said a word, for fear of being labeled part of Gulen’s “parallel state.”

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