Turkey: A Repressive Model for the Middle East?

December 19, 2011

One of the frustrations of talking about the Turkish Republic right now is that so much is going on, in so many different directions, that it can be hard to decide what issues to address.  In particular, the tremendous gap between its increasingly important role in the world seems inconsistent with increased repression at home and has made it tough for journalists to address both simultaneously.

Much of the talk is about Turkey’s new “soft power.”  Turkish culture is becoming more influential, with a booming economy and a dynamic film and television industry that has found a tremendous following among its neighbors in both the Balkans and the Middle East.  In the past few years it has become an important regional player and is widely seen as a potential model for democratic movements in the wider Middle East.

The Turkish government was a vocal critic of repression in Libya and Egypt and has been at the forefront of efforts to curb the on-going repression in Syria.  While its voice has been selective (Turkey supported Ahmadinejad during the Green Revolution in Iran in 2009 and has been notably reticent in its criticism of Bahrain this past year), it deserves credit for the support it has given to democratic forces this past year.

At the same time, Turkey’s own record looks increasingly grim.  There is growing state control over virtually every aspect of cultural production.  Don’t look for cigarettes or whisky at Rick’s Place in Casablanca.  They’ll have been air-brushed out.  Turkey has a dubious record of internet censorship which has been exacerbated by a new national system of internet filters.   Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that key words associated with Kurdish identity have been blocked, but apparently Darwinism also runs afoul of Turkish censors.  Must be all that talk of “mating.”

This latest example also highlights the increasing control that the Turkish government has been asserting over once independent scientific institutions.   Increasing state control is made more disturbing because of past incidents in which governmental meddling seemed to target basic principles of scientific independence.

Most striking, of course, are the arrests.  According to the International Press Institute Turkey is the world leader in imprisoning journalists.  Moreover, as we have detailed in previous blogs, Turkey, in the name of fighting terrorism, is engaging in mass arrests (numbering in the thousands), which seem aimed at stifling the capacity of its Kurdish population to express their political goals and concerns.  The vast majority of those arrested are accused of no violence and most are held in pre-trial detention which can last months or years.  Turkey is becoming an “illiberal democracy,” with free elections accompanied by a highly constrained capacity for debate and criticism.

In a beautifully argued piece in The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ayça Çubukçu highlights this wide gap between Turkey’s international image and its domestic reality, calling her country “the ‘progressive’ land of repression.  In concluding, she writes:

At this historical moment, when daring political energies and creative imaginations are at work worldwide – from Tahrir to Taksim Square, from Damascus to Diyarbakir – we can demand much more than the example officially offered by Turkey. To do otherwise would risk betraying not only the future of democratic politics in Turkey and beyond, but all those who have already paid dearly for that future through the imprisonments, deaths, wounds and disappearances they have endured, even welcomed, during long periods of military rule and parliamentary politics alike.

It is time, in other words, for Turkey to practice what it preaches.

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