Turkey’s slide into authoritarianism is a worrisome sign of what’s to come
Turkey’s sad slide away from freedom is not just a tragedy for that country. It’s a warning that democracy is fragile and can be quickly undermined if a society loses the will to fight for it.
Authoritarianism is on the march in many parts of the world. In Turkey, hailed only a few years ago as the great hope for a forward-looking Muslim democracy, the government is rushing ever faster toward paranoia and one-man rule.
The latest sign is a new clampdown on what remains of the country’s once-flourishing free press. In the past few weeks Turkish authorities have shut down 15 Kurdish news outlets and scores of other news organizations. They’ve imprisoned 120 journalists and arrested most of the senior staff of the country’s sole remaining independent daily, Cumhuriyet (Republic). Turkey is now the world’s biggest jailer of journalists, edging out China, according to an authoritative survey.
It’s all part of the broad crackdown that followed the failed coup attempt in July against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. More than 100,000 soldiers, police, teachers, judges, civil servants and others have been detained, arrested or jailed in a sweeping purge that goes far beyond any reasonable reaction to the botched coup.
The result is a country rapidly tossing aside the robust democratic culture it had developed painfully over many decades, marked by periodic episodes of military rule. Turkey was flourishing on all fronts – economic, political and cultural. It was setting an example for the entire Middle East.
Now, Erdogan is using a popular backlash against the coup plotters to crack down on enemies of all types, real and imagined. Some may indeed be linked to the mysterious exiled Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of inspiring the coup attempt. Most are simply critics of the president, or seen as insufficiently loyal, and have now been silenced.
Asli Aydintasbas, a columnist for Cumhuriyet, writes that the story of Turkey “is fast becoming a heartbreaking saga of a budding Muslim democracy tossing out a historic chance at progress.”
Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel prize-winning Turkish writer, puts it even more strongly. He wrote in September that “freedom of thought no longer exists. We are distancing ourselves at high speed from a state of law and heading towards a regime of terror.”
Turkey, though still a NATO member, has also turned away from the West. Once an eager applicant for membership in the European Union, it’s now cozying up to Vladimir Putin’s Russia and cooperating with Moscow in Syria. And it has lashed out against the United States, furious that Washington won’t extradite Gulen from his retreat in Pennsylvania.
The U.S. once put pressure on Erdogan to restrain his authoritarian tendencies. A Trump administration won’t give a fig about that. And it may well be quite prepared to see Turkey emerge as a member of the club of newly confident authoritarians, contemptuous of “decadent democracies” in the manner of past dictators.
In that sense, Turkey’s sad slide away from freedom is not just a tragedy for that country. It’s a warning that democracy is fragile and can be quickly undermined if a society loses the will to fight for it. And it’s an ominous harbinger of the new and more sinister world emerging in the age of Trump.