Critics become terrorists in Erdoğan’s Turkey

From activists to academics, and protesters to politicians people in Turkey are left with the choice to accept a straitjacket of political conformism or risk being excluded from the social, cultural and political arenas altogether. Or worse.

Photo by Uygar Önder Simsek / MOKU

Speaking to a group of lawyers in Ankara on April 5, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made the controversial suggestion that Turkey should consider stripping citizenship of what he termed “supporters of terrorism”. In his speech, broadcast live on television, the Turkish president stated that: “We need to be decisive to take all the necessary measures including stripping of citizenship for terror organization supporters.”

“This state has nothing to discuss with terrorists. That business is over,” he added.

Erdoğan’s remarks come at a time when scores of security personnel and militants have been killed in the past months during clashes between militant youth and security forces, and hundreds of civilians have already lost their lives, many as a result of indiscriminate shelling of popular neighborhoods by the Turkish armed forces.

The violent conflict between the Turkish state and radical elements of the Kurdish freedom movement shows no signs of abating. The president’s controversial proposition is but the latest in a series of proposals aimed at quelling all forms of opposition to the government’s increasingly violent conduct.

Disturbing trends

In the wake of the deadly car bomb attack in Ankara on March 13 that cost the lives of 37 people and was claimed by a radical breakaway group of the PKK, Erdoğan suggested to widen the (already broad) definition of terrorism so as to include “not only the person who pulls the trigger, but [also] those who made that possible”.

“Their titles as an MP, an academic, an author, a journalist do not change the fact that they are actually terrorists,” Erdoğan proclaimed a day after the attack, paving the way for yet another government-led offensive on freedom of speech in Turkey.

Soon after, three academics who had publicly spoken out in favor of peace and who were among the more than 1,000 signatories to a petition that called for peace in the country’s east were arrested on charges of making “terror propaganda”. Despite an international campaign that calls for their release they remain behind bars.

Both the president’s remarks and their immediate effect are indicative of a disturbing trend in Turkey. They illustrate the president’s increasing personal control over the judicial system that suggests a move away from the “rule of law” and towards a “rule of man”, and how any form of opposition to the government and its policies is actively being criminalized.

After Erdoğan’s suggestion to strip “supporters of terrorism” of their citizenship, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a statement denying the government was working on this topic, adding that it was not even “being debated”. The next day, however, Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag brazenly bypassed his superior, ignoring Davutoğlu’s remarks and stating that since “Erdoğan envisages a new rule [for stripping citizenship], of course we will begin work on this”.

Current power relations inside the Turkish political arena couldn’t have been illustrated more clearly. The president’s words are considered law, and if his ideas are not in line with the current legal system, it is the law that ought to be changed, rather than his ideas. Despite the president’s role being largely a symbolic one, his political influence currently outweighs that of the prime minister who is the actual head of the government.

And its not just in the political arena where Erdoğan flexes his muscles; he also makes regular entries into the daily lives of many Turkish citizens. He makes suggestions what to wear, what to think, what to believe, how to behave, how many children one should have and which party one should vote for.

Another way he enters the lives of the people is by personally suing individuals who in one way or another have “insulted” him. In the eighteen months since Erdoğan became president almost 2,000 legal cases have been opened against people for insulting the president.

Civilian deaths as “terrorists”

The criminalization of legitimate forms of critique – whether it be satire, street protest or voicing opposition to government policies one disagrees with – is a worrying indication of the increasing erosion of social and political checks and balances that is currently underway in Turkey. The trend is clearly towards an increasingly authoritarian system where the president pulls the strings and each and everyone who opposes him is marginalized, criminalized, and eventually prosecuted.

This trend not only constitutes a threat to the state of democracy in Turkey, but also, more seriously, to the lives and wellbeing of all those people that dare to speak up or act against the interest of the government.

This threat is very real, as the many journalists, academics, parliamentarians who have been targeted over the past months can attest to. But whereas these people risk prosecution and imprisonment, for many ordinary people living in the predominantly Kurdish regions in the east of the country the struggle has literally become one of life or death.

The upsurge in violence between Kurdish militants and Turkish armed forces has left hundreds dead, thousands injured and hundreds of thousands of people displaced ever since the ceasefire between the two parties broke down in the late July.

Local youths erecting barricades and municipalities declaring their autonomy from the state have led the government to declare a series of round-the-clock curfews in a number of Kurdish towns in the country’s southeast. These curfews – “military sieges” would be a more appropriate term – have left entire neighborhoods demolished, houses and buildings destroyed by the military’s indiscriminate shelling, and hundreds of civilians killed.

Indisputable evidence has been collected by both local and international organizations of misconduct by the Turkish army, accusing it of willfully targeting civilians. Nonetheless, official reports and pro-government media often fail to mention any civilian deaths. Each civilian casualty is labeled as a terrorist, thus designating them a legitimate target – regardless of the fact that minors, elderly and even pregnant women are numbered among the dead.

A last chance for peace

The designating of civilian casualties of state violence as terrorists; the attempts at expanding the definition of what constitutes terrorism; and the suggestion to strip both “terrorists” and their “supporters” – who, according to Erdoğan, are nothing short of terrorists themselves – have created a climate in which slowly but surely all legal means of opposing the government are eliminated.

From activists to academics, and protesters to politicians people are left with the choice to accept a straitjacket of political conformism or risk being excluded from the social, cultural and political arenas altogether. Or worse.

Just one day before suggesting to strip terrorists of their citizenship, Erdoğan ruled the possibility for renewed negotiations with the PKK. “We will continue to fight until the last weapon is silenced,” he said defiantly, blaming the PKK for ending the peace process.

The president’s vow to continue the war until the bitter end, combined with efforts to strip a number of HDP politicians – a leftist democratic party with its roots in the Kurdish freedom movement – of their immunity and to prosecute them for “supporting terrorism” is a de facto declaration of war against millions of Kurds in Turkey that have been denied their rights as citizens and have lacked proper political representation for so long.

Decades of war have proven that a military solution to the conflict is practically impossible. There is still a chance to turn back to the negotiation table and find a peaceful solution before it’s too late. However, as long as every opponent to the government continues to be classified as a terrorist, before long they may in fact start to act like one.


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