Freedom March in Paris? Erdogan Is Busy Curbing Freedom of Speech in Turkey

Journalists aren't being awarded press cards, newspapers are being checked for not offending Muslim sensibilities, and even a former Miss Turkey has run afoul.

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Erdogan walks between the honor guards wearing historic Turkish warriors costumes before a ceremony for his Palestinian counterpart Mahmoud Abbas, Ankara, Jan. 12, 2015.Credit: AP

You certainly can’t accuse Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of lacking originality. His colorful spectacle in honor of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas caused a stir in Turkey. Such an event had never taken place at Ankara’s new presidential palace, the White Palace that cost hundreds of millions of dollars. It never would have happened at the president’s previous residence.

Sixteen tall Turks donned traditional dress representing the 16 states of yore established by the Turkic peoples in Asia and Africa. Their heads were covered by helmets and face protectors, and with infinite seriousness this honor guard defended the steps at the palace’s entrance.

The look on Abbas’ face suggested he didn’t know whether to laugh or make a quick getaway, but the occasion was too important. It was designed to back the reconciliation between Hamas and Abbas’ Fatah and speed up the reconstruction of Gaza following Hamas’ summer war with Israel.

Abbas stuck around and Erdogan promised that from now on, every state reception would feature Turks in historical warrior dress. Sure enough, when Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev showed up, he received a similar welcome.

Social media, Erdogan’s nemesis, had a field day. On one Facebook page, someone suggested that warriors from J.R.R.Tolkien’s “The Fellowship of the Ring” serve as state representatives — this came after pictures had been posted of such characters wrapped in shrouds as martyrs before their deaths. Someone else suggested that the “Star Wars” heroes provide the official Turkish welcome.

But this revelry was short-lived. Turkey’s communications authority, which reports to the prime minister’s office, said it wouldn’t issue permanent press cards to 94 journalists including Ekrem Dumanli, the editor of the country’s most-read paper, Zaman. This happened despite the approval of the journalists’ association.

Journalists in Turkey receive two kinds of press cards, one temporary that can remain in force for 20 years, and one permanent that goes to journalists who have been working at least 10 years. The move constitutes further revenge by Erdogan against opposition journalists, especially those with ties to the educational network of Erdogan archenemy Fethullah Gulen, in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.

The Instagram method

The Je Suis Charlie march in Paris supporting freedom of the press and expression didn’t particularly impress Erdogan. Crushing freedom of expression in Turkey is a more important task.

Even a former Miss Turkey, Merve Buyuksarac, was summoned for questioning on suspicion she had insulted the Turkish president on her Instagram account. And the liberal paper Cumhuriyet came in for scrutiny by the police, who made sure newspapers in delivery trucks didn’t include cartoons offensive on religious grounds.

And even though Erdogan dispatched Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to the Paris march, it appeared all the attention on the murder of the Charlie Hebdo journalists and the Jews at Hyper Cacher wasn’t to the Turkish president’s liking.

“French citizens carry out such a massacre and Muslims pay the price,” Erdogan said, pointing a finger at the French intelligence services for not preventing the killings.

There’s a measure of truth in Erdogan’s criticism of French intelligence, but one might question whether someone like Erdogan, whose own intelligence services haven’t foiled assassinations and terror attacks, should be doing the lecturing.

Erodogan is keen to protect the reputation of Islam and Muslims, but there’s a huge difference between protecting Islam and portraying Turkey as the leader of the Muslim world. At a session in parliament with members of his ruling Justice and Development Party, Davutoglu explained:

“Those who wish to fan the flames against Islam wanted to see a display in Paris in which there was not one Muslim leader so they could tell their communities: ‘See, the Muslims are secretly supporting these attacks, so the Muslims as a group are part of the problem.’

“But through our presence we headed off such an accusation against our people who live in Europe and against 45 million Muslims who live on the Continent . We have sent a message to Muslims in Europe: ‘You are not alone. We are behind you.’”

Megalomania may not be a crime, but it would be interesting to know which Muslims the foreign ministers of Egypt, Bahrain and Algeria, who were also present at the march, represented. This appears to be a new strategy for Erdogan. He can’t boast about representing the Arab world because Turkey isn’t an Arab country, and its relations with most Arab states are unstable, so Erdogan has aspirations to lead the Muslim world.

But here too he’ll encounter rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. As Turkey’s constitution still defines the country as a secular state, what can make a leader of a secular state the leader of the Muslim world?

To Erdogan, defending Muslims can’t be separated from attacking Israel. After describing Operation Protective Edge as “state terror,” Erdogan expressed sarcastic surprise at the appearance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – whom he called an “Israeli terrorist” – at the Paris rally.

“Someone who fomented state terrorism with the death of 2,500 people in Gaza is now there waving at other world leaders and marching hand in hand with them,” Erdogan said. Davutoglu added a bit more venom when he compared Netanyahu to the French killers.

It’s hard not to compare Erdogan’s attack on Netanyahu and the slaughter and expulsion by the Turkish army against Turkey’s Kurd minority over the years. But that’s a demagogic comparison, one that can also be laid against the armies of the United States, Britain and France.

Erdogan’s grievance against Israel isn’t linked to events in France, and his hostility wasn’t born during Netanyahu’s term in office. The roots are in the Gaza war of the winter of 2008-09, when Turkey was denied a political say.

Netanyahu is right in saying that no leader supported him against Erdogan’s attack, but that’s settling a different account, and Netanyahu should probe his own contribution in turning backs on him.

What concerns Turks isn’t the turgid dialogue between Erdogan and Netanyahu. Five months after his election as president, Erdogan is increasing religion’s influence in the country; for example, he’s promoting a bill that would give new mothers more money and longer maternity leave, not to mention leave for their husbands.

He has demanded that Turkish women have at least three children and has supported an agreement between the country’s religious authorities and the Health Ministry under which religion would be promoted at hospitals. The idea is to “raise the morale of the ill.”

Maybe the Health Ministry will receive a larger budget in return; after all, the religious authorities receive around $2 billion more than the health budget, as well as the budgets of several small ministries put together. It’s hardly surprising that the head of the religious authorities can let himself drive a car costing $400,000, as reported by the Saudi newspaper Al-Hayat.

In this way, Erdogan closes a circle that began in 1924, when Kemal Ataturk founded the country’s religious authority as a way to subordinate religion to the state. Now, 90 years later, the state is being subordinated to religion.

A little south of Turkey, Israel is going through a similar process. Religion is becoming a symbol of national identity.

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