Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Can An Unprecedented Act Of Non-Violent Protest Help Restore Turkish Democracy And Justice?

During the stale pageant commemorating the first anniversary of the failed coup attempt, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and his acolytes demonstrated once again their ability to turn reality on its head. George Orwell would be proud of this very, very cynical performance.

            He hailed the failure of the coup as a victory for Turkish ‘democracy’ and yet another  demonstration of Turkey’s ‘unity’ and indomitable will to resist all enemies – foreign and domestic.

            Even conceding that the followers of the cleric Fethullah Gülen – who now lives in the United States -- were behind the coup, one wonders how Erdoğan can talk about unity when his actions for the past 12 months have done nothing but widen the existing deep divisions in Turkey and destroy his already slim credibility abroad. He is furious that no foreign leader is willing to give him the credit he thinks he deserves for ‘saving democracy’ in Turkey. He fails to appreciate that replacing the democracy that existed in Turkey with one-man rule is not the best way to get the appreciation and applause he thinks he so richly deserves.

Under the state of emergency that has been in place since the coup attempt – and just extended for another three months -- thousands upon thousands of people have been fired and the jails have been filled with people accused of being part of a ‘terrorist’ organization. It’s important to understand that Erdoğan’s definition of ‘terrorist’ is wide indeed. The ever-widening list of ‘terrorist’ organization includes the followers of Gülen, the Kurdish guerrilla group PKK, the Kurds in Syria and Iraq who are effectively fighting ISIS, and many others. The list also includes all those such as Amnesty International and opposition politicians accused of ‘aiding’ terrorist groups.
President Erdoğan at the anti-coup rally
            Erdoğan’s claims of national unity were also shown to be hollow when at least half the voters rejected the controversial referendum giving him absolute, dictatorial power. His narrow victory, marred by serious claims of fraud, was much closer than he anticipated.

            Then there was the 250-mile march from Ankara to Istanbul led by the opposition leader Kemal Kɩlɩçdaroğlu and joined by thousands who marched under banners emblazoned simply with the word Justice. This unprecedented example of non-violent civil disobedience was in protest of the arrest of an MP from Kɩlɩçdaroğlu’s party who, as a journalist, had the temerity to publish a story with pictures about Turkey smuggling weapons to radical groups in Syria.

            The odd thing about the failed coup, as one European journalist said, is that it was more like a family feud than the traditional military coups that Turkey had become accustomed to. After all, Gülen and Erdoğan were Islamic soul mates for decades. Gülen’s followers had been infiltrating government agencies and the military for years, and Erdoğan did nothing to stop this when he came to power 15 years ago. In fact, according to Murat Yetkin – one of the few remaining respected journalists in Turkey -- the cooperation only grew stronger as the Foreign Ministry ordered diplomats abroad to give full assistance to Gülenist institutions and schools opened in remote corners of the world, think tanks in influential places like the U.S. and European capitals, and institutions in world-renowned universities.”

            When Erdoğan was warned that Gülen’s people were taking over the judiciary he said that was no problem because they ‘shared the same qibla’ – the same religion. In 2008 it was Gülenists (many of whom are now on the run or in jail themselves) in the judiciary who fabricated evidence against current and former army officers, journalists, academics and others who were thrown in jail on charges of trying to overthrow Erdoğan’s government. This so-called evidence was later shown to be merely a figment of someone’s imagination. Again, Erdoğan did nothing to stop this abuse of judiciary power.

            It was only in 2013 when the Gülenists began probing serious corruption charges against certain cabinet ministers and Erdoğan’s own family that relations between the two began to sour. Gülenists in the police released several deeply embarrassing tape recordings of the ministers and Erdoğan’s family discussing all the money they had amassed. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the final split came when Gülen opposed Erdoğan’s bumbling intervention in the Syrian civil war.Now, of course, the former close ties and cooperation are being swept under the rug as hapless AKP spokespeople are going around saying ‘Fetullah who? Never knew the guy’.
Kɩlɩçdaroğlu leading the Justice march from Ankara to Istanbul
            Erdoğan’s commemoration ceremonies rang hollow with the same stale rhetoric and the spontaneity of a Stalinist politburo address. Same old, same old. The real star of the summer political season was Kɩlɩçdaroğlu’s march, a truly spontaneous example of non-violent protest in Turkey. Many people equated it to Gandhi’s Salt March in India in 1930 in protest of the British tax on salt. Erdoğan was at times dismissive and then furious at his inability to stop this powerful demonstration of civil non-violent disobedience. How do you arrest a 69-year-old man marching 250 miles in the heat of the summer during the Holy Month of Ramadan carrying a one-word banner Justice? Many thousands joined this march that ended July 9 with a massive rally in Istanbul.

            It took another 18 years from Gandhi’s Salt March before India gained independence. We can only hope it doesn’t take that long for Turkey to regain real democracy and justice.