Analysis

Destroying Books and Jailing Dissidents: Erdogan's Cultural Purge Is in Full Swing

Since 2016, more than 300,000 books have reportedly been confiscated in Turkey, including textbooks banned for mentioning Pennsylvania, where Erdogan rival Fethullah Gulen is exiled

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Burhan Ozbilici/AP

The Turkish Council to Protect Minors from Harmful Publications knows no rest. Last week, it declared a book by Polish author Elisabeth Brami, “Declaration of the Rights of Boys and Girls,” as a bad influence on children, meaning that its sale would be banned in Turkey. The book, joins a long list of books that have been boycotted, banned or destroyed by the Turkish government for various reasons.

The reasons for banning books for children include fomenting terrorism, supporting the dissident exiled Turkish preacher Fethullah Gulen or because they are “harmful to morality,” which years ago doomed the sale of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 43Haaretz

>> Read more: Erdogan faces growing threat from within his own party | Analysis

In August the Turkish Education Ministry reported that since 2016, the year of the attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, more than 300,000 books have been confiscated and destroyed, including textbooks that include the word “Pennsylvania,” the state where Gulen lives, as well as books that even contain a hint of Gulen, down to his initials.

It’s not only people suspected of contact or support for Gulen who have been put in detention or prison or fired in their tens of thousands from their jobs in government and at universities, the courts, the media and even kindergartens. “The forces of the internal enemy,” as the Kurds in Turkey are known, suffer frequently for using their own language.

Eight Kurdish singers, members of two bands that appear at weddings, were arrested last week for singing in Kurdish. They are suspected of supporting the Kurdistan Workers Party, the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization. In Turkey it is still against the law to study the Kurdish language as part of the official curriculum. It can be studied in private schools, which are very expensive and only the wealthy can afford to send their children there.

Cultural cleansing

Nor has this cultural cleansing spared theater actors – not because of anti-government plays, which are banned in Turkey – but because of the actors’ activity on social media. One actor, Ersin Umut Guler, was sentenced to 21 months in prison over his social media posts between 2014 to 2017 that “insulted the president,” an offense under Turkish criminal law that has led to charges against some 12,500 internet and social media users. The harshest penalty for running afoul of this criminal prohibition was imposed in September on Burhan Borak, who was sentenced to 12 years and three months in prison for seven insulting posts – a year and nine months for each post.

But the destruction of books and prison sentences for insulting the Turkish president have long been pushed to the sidelines of the world’s attention. Human rights group do still continue to collect data and follow up on every Turkish government decision that harms freedom of expression. But at the top of their agenda are political prisoners, whose jailing still sparks some international criticism; and domestic violence, which claimed the lives of 347 women over the past nine months in Turkey. Finally there is anti-democratic legislation promoted by Erdogan.

The means by which Turkey can be pressured are disappearing, and even when Ankara has taken criticism, mainly from Europe, into account, Turkey has forcefully belittled it as “interference in its internal affairs.”

Two strong cards

Erdogan now holds two strong cards that keep criticism at bay and allow him to continue to distort the principles of law and democracy without concern. One card is his threat to allow a flood of Syrian refugees out of Turkey into Europe. Erdogan is demanding that the European Union make good on its commitment to pay Turkey six billion euros ($6.6 billion) so it can meet the challenge of accommodating some four million refugees.

Turkey followed through with action when thousands of Syrian refugees managed recently to go from Syria to Greece. The Greeks, terrified of a new wave of refugees, issued an urgent call upon the European Union, which last week sent senior officials to persuade Turkey to stick to the agreement and stop the anticipated flood.

The second card is the threat Erdogan made on Saturday to invade eastern Syria and take over areas east of the Euphrates River as a Turkish-controlled security zone. This card is aimed at the United States, which opposes any expansion of Turkish control further east, out of a justified fear that the purpose of such an invasion would be ethnic cleansing of Kurdish areas.

With the United States still arm-wrestling with Erdogan to protect its assets in Syria and with the European Union begging Turkey not to abandon the refugee agreement, human rights in Turkey have become a hostage of the strategic balance of power. There is now no superpower that can or will risk pressuring Erdogan on issues that do not constitute an existential or strategic threat. On the contrary.

Germany continues to invest in Turkey. Its MAN trucking manufacturer has announced its intention to open a new factory there at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. Tourism to Turkey has jumped by 15 percent, because tourists don’t really care who is sitting in Turkish jails. And Russia has declared that Turkey has the right to defend its security, a hint that it would not intervene if Turkey invaded eastern Syria.

Most importantly, Turkey’s streets are quiet. There are no demonstrations and no protests. Things are good in Turkey and woe to anyone who claims otherwise.