This month, the Turkish government removed three mayors from key majority-Kurdish provinces on vague allegations that they are supporters of the PKK, an outlawed Kurdish terrorist group.
This seemed to confirm Turkey’s deepening authoritarian trend under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But not so fast. What that narrative overlooks is the forceful pushback coming from different quarters of Turkish society. Since the mayors’ removal, there have been demonstrations in majority-Kurdish towns against the government’s decision. The government’s secular opponents, like the newly elected mayors of Istanbul and Izmir, have also spoken out against the move.
What sets Turkey apart from mainland China or Russia is that it is half-free, with a century-long tradition of political struggle for greater freedoms. This historic ebb and flow has been marked by periods of authoritarianism followed by openings. So I tell my friends in the West who have long given up on Turkey: This, too, will pass.
If you don’t believe me, look at the numbers. Like many authoritarian regimes, Turkey prefers to prosecute its dissidents on terrorism charges. Half a million people have been detained as terrorism suspects since the failed coup attempt of 2016. Still more are investigated for criticizing the government’s Kurdish policy or engaging in political activism. That includes academics, journalists and elected politicians such as the imprisoned Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas. This might seem like a drop in the bucket for a country of 82 million people. But it’s enough to show that millions disagree with the regime.
“It’s not important that there are few of us,” Esra Mungan, a professor of psychology at prestigious Bosphorus University, told me recently. “Our word has weight. I am determined to be that mosquito that keeps bothering the powers that be. I don’t plan to go anywhere else.”
Mungan is among the signatories of Academics for Peace, a 2016 petition calling for a return to peace talks with the PKK and condemning hard-line security policies in Kurdish areas. After her arrest in 2016, she received many offers of work in Europe or the United States. She has refused them all. “Hundreds of young people around me are full of hope. This is where I want to put all my knowledge.”
More than 2,000 academics signed the petition. Hundreds were dismissed from their universities; many had their passports confiscated. Around 790 are still facing trial. But their struggle for democracy goes on.
Over the past few weeks I’ve been seeking out Turkish liberals, academics and journalists who have served terms in prison. I expected to have a series of depressing interviews. Instead, I’ve experienced an uplifting tribute to the human spirit.
There is a clause in Turkey’s penal code, Article 7/2, that stipulates that “terrorism propaganda” is tantamount to membership in a terrorist organization. It sounds benign. In practice, however, it allows authorities to classify any speech or article as terrorism propaganda without proving any actual link to terrorism.
Murat Celikkan is one such “terrorist.” He is the co-chair of one of Turkey’s leading human rights organizations, Hafiza Merkezi (Memory Center). The center’s work focuses on disappearances, mostly from the 1990s, but it has also been involved in drafting human rights legislation during Turkey’s European Union accession process. In 2016, Celikkan was among a group of liberals supporting the pro-Kurdish Ozgur Gundem newspaper against government pressure by volunteering to serve as an editor in chief for a day.
That act of kindness landed him in prison in 2017. He spent his months in jail teaching English to fellow inmates, who were mostly young Kurds jailed for social media posts. “The arbitrary nature of what is going on ... terrorizes people,” he told me. After his release, Murat was invigorated; he returned to work with renewed zeal. His new book, a human rights walking tour of Istanbul, has just come out — and it is a marvelous resource for anyone visiting Istanbul.
Tuna Altinel, who works as a math professor in France, also signed the peace petition. Last April, his passport was confiscated when he came to Turkey to visit his girlfriend. He, too, landed in jail. Altinel was accused of being a “terrorist” because he spoke at a Kurdish-French solidarity event in Lyon that was broadcast live on Facebook. He spent his time in jail teaching an accelerated French course (six hours a day) to his eager cellmates, mostly young Kurds in their 30s serving time for social media protests.
I met him a month after his release. “My own experience in jail was short and positive. I was on the lucky end of an injustice. I met very bright kids inside. If Turkey was a just place, they would not be in jail. I will continue to fight for that. I owe them — and I owe this country.”
For Altinel and other academics, Turkey’s prisons are a revolving door. There is enough international attention that the authorities end up releasing high-profile names after a few months. But thousands of students, journalists and ordinary citizens are still languishing in jail for “insulting the president” or alleged “terrorism propaganda” — even though they have never advocated violence and have no apparent connections with terrorist organizations.
This is not sustainable. Sooner or later, the Turkish government will have to ease up. Erdogan needs to understand that filling Turkey’s prisons with students and academics will neither prolong his tenure nor make Turkey prosperous and safe.
Only democracy can do that.
PUKmedia / Asli Aydintasbas - The Washington Post