Opinion

Ruthless Turkish leader derails once bright future

By Gwynne Dyer, Special to Postmedia Network

"In Turkey, we are progressively putting behind bars all people who take the liberty of voicing even the slightest criticism of the government," wrote author Orhan Pamuk, Turkey's first Nobel Prize winner. "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" driven by "ferocious hatred."

Pamuk wrote those words in Istanbul, but they were not published in Turkey. He sent them to Italy's leading liberal daily Repubblica because no Turkish paper would dare publish them. Indeed, almost the entire senior editorial staff of Turkey's oldest mainstream daily, Cumhuriyet, was arrested last weekend, allegedly for supporting both Kurdish rebels and the Islamic secret society controlled by exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

This is rather like accusing the Wall Street Journal of supporting al-Qaida and the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Cumhuriyet always defended Turkey's secular constitution from those who dreamed of creating an Islamic state and condemned Kurdish separatists who resorted to violence.

But now its editorial staff is in jail, alongside 37,000 others, often on equally implausible charges, since the attempted coup last July. President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is exploiting the "state of emergency" to suppress all opposition to his rule. They are all accused of being either pro-Gulenist or pro-terrorist.

Erdogan's deputy prime minister, Nurettin Canikli, said in a recent interview with the BBC members of the group have "practically had their brains removed. They've been hypnotized. They're like robots. Each one of them is a potential threat."

Erdogan even blames the Gulenists for shooting down a Russian combat aircraft on the Syrian-Turkish border a year ago, although at the time he claimed it was done on his orders. He also forgets to mention he and Fethullah Gulen were once allies in the task of "Islamizing" Turkish public services.

Their objective was to ensure most jobs in the government's grant -- military officers, teachers, police, judges, the senior civil service -- were held by pious Muslims. This was a huge task, since for almost a century these jobs had been the preserve of secular Turks who thought religion had no business in politics.

The change was accomplished by giving Gulenist candidates the answers to entrance exams, by manipulating military and judicial appointments, or just by political power.

Eventually Gulen and Erdogan had a falling out -- probably over which of them controlled these deeply religious officials -- and Erdogan realized he had created a hostile force in his own government apparatus.

He showed as little foresight in his dealings with the Turkish Kurds. Earlier in his political career, Erdogan engineered a ceasefire with the PKK, the most violent Kurdish separatist group. But when he lost an election last year and needed to win back the Turkish ultra-nationalist vote, he did it by restarting the war against the Kurds.

So he has alienated a lot of people and he urgently needs to thin out the number of his enemies. The failed July coup gave Erdogan an excuse for taking extreme action against them, and even against other domestic opponents who have always played by the democratic rules. He has seized the opportunity with both hands.

It is ugly and sad, for 10 years ago Turkey seemed to be entering an era of stable democracy and growing prosperity. This tragedy was not bound to happen: one man's ruthless ambition has derailed an entire country's promising future. It's not clear when, or even if, it will get back on track.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London, England.