Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Turkey's Purge of Political Opponents Will Come Back to Haunt It*

Haaretz:  Despite a show of almost unprecedented unity at a recent rally – and newfound Turkish nationalism following July’s bloody coup attempt – the purges hark back to a bleak pattern in Turkey’s past.

Louis Fishman, August 9, 2016 


Will July 15, 2016 go down in history as the day Turkey tried to wipe the slate clean? 


Just three weeks after Turkey was shaken by a bloody coup attempt, the nation on Sunday came together in a mass show of unity. According to Turkish sources, at least 3 million people joined together in Istanbul's Yenikapi district to celebrate the nation's democracy and to remember the more than 250 people killed by the ruthless putschists. 

The massive rally will go down in history not merely due to the sheer numbers of citizens from different backgrounds who attended, but due to the fact that it managed to bring together warring parties, the ruling AKP government and its staunch adversary, the secular CHP, in addition to the smaller nationalist MHP. Seeing the CHPs Kemal Kilicdaroglu speaking at the same rally as the nation's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for many, was an unbelievable moment. 

This newfound unity has emerged as all parties in the parliament, including the mostly Kurdish leftist party, the HDP, which was not invited to the government rally, have come to a consensus that the U.S.-based, self-exiled religious leader Fetullah Gulen—who ordered his secret followers in the army to overthrow the democratically elected government—was behind the coup. 

This newfound unity, which is currently riding a wave of Turkish nationalism, also has many people asking if the days of extreme political and social polarization in the country might be a thing of the past, and whether this marks the dawn of a new day in Turkey. Certainly, the new hope we are seeing is a welcome change and a major step in the right direction. Unfortunately, at the same time, the mass purges that followed the failed coup attempt do not seem to be forging a new future for Turkey, but rather hark back to its much bleaker past. 

Since July 15, and since the subsequent three-month-long state of emergency was declared, the Turkish government has set out to eradicate Gulen followers from all civil and military sectors. Almost 15,000 have been detained, and the number of sacked workers is staggering: around 50,000. In addition, hundreds of university deans have been forced to resign and thousands of schools have been closed, along with universities affiliated with the Gulen movement. In addition, newspapers and radios have been shut down, and dozens of journalists have been arrested. If all this was not enough, reports have emerged of widespread torture of detainees.

There is no doubt that the government is responsible for protecting itself and its citizens from illegal organizations out to undermine it, which justifies some of the state's measures, but at the same time the net is being thrown wide and infringing on the rights of many individual citizens who had nothing whatsoever to do with the coup. 

The current purge follows a dangerous pattern that is well known in Turkey. From the first days of the Turkish Republic to the coups of 1960, 1971 and 1980, Turkey has found itself in vicious circle of purges and paybacks. One of the most recent followed the 1997 “post-modern” coup d’etat, which set out to cleanse the country of political Islam in the parliament and its influence within the ranks of the military and bureaucracy. As a result, politicians such as Erdogan, then Istanbul’s mayor, found themselves behind bars, together with Gulenists, who were also locked up or lost their employment. It was around this time, in 1999, that Gulen left Turkey in self exile. 

The AKP, which came to power in 2002, was founded as a direct response to the 1997 purge; it cemented a coalition of religious politicians, including Gulenists, and liberal ones, who challenged the military’s role in Turkish society. However, despite the overwhelming power of the AKP over the state’s institutions, the ruling party continued the tradition of “paybacks,” targeting those who they deemed responsible for the purge against them in 1997—the same ones believed to be responsible for crimes of the deep state—that become known as the Ergenekon trials. 

These trials led to the arrests of hundreds of high-ranking military personnel and civilians, including journalists, who were accused of plotting to overthrow the AKP government. In 2013, 275 suspects, including the former Chief of Staff, Ilker Basbug, were sentenced to long jail terms (many for life), in trials that lacked transparency and were built on fabricated evidence. In fact, even if there was a kernel of truth to some of the claims against those arrested, that truth was lost very quickly among the obvious injustices. 

This leads us to today, and the current purge against the Gulenists, which is an acceleration of a slow-burn purge that began over two years ago after a falling out between Gulenists and Erdogan’s AKP. In 2014, a group of Gulenists occupying key positions in the judiciary challenged the government head on with the December 17, 2014 indictments of AKP members for massive corruption, leading all the way to Erdogan’s family; for him, this was nothing short of a staged coup. Following this, Erdogan distanced himself from the Ergenekon trials, claiming that the Gulenists had duped him into believing that the convicts were indeed guilty of their crimes. Within a year, after a new trial, most of the convicted members of Ergenekon had been freed through the well-known revolving door of Turkish prisons (gaining Erdogan hefty political leverage among some of those released). 

Using the Ergenekon trials as a vantage point, it is much easier to understand today’s purges. In fact, it is no surprise which journalists have been arrested: those affiliated with the Gulen movement, or others who used Gulen media outlets to voice their staunch opposition to Erdogan. It is also unsurprising that many people who often staunchly oppose Erdogan’s rule remain silent in the face of the current purges, under the pretext: When our colleagues were being arrested during the Ergenekon trials, where were those writing for Gulen’s media outlets who justified the arrests of innocent journalists? The same holds true for academics. Where much noise has been made over leftist academics imprisoned recently for signing a pro-peace petition, a relative silence reigns over the arrest of academics for Gulenist affiliations. 

Unfortunately, just as with the Ergenekon trials, the recent foiled coup attempt also seems to lack a clear narrative. It is unlikely that Gulenists in the army acted alone, however, in the name of unity, and to “get” the Gulenists once and for all, it seems that all the major political parties, government and opposition alike, are glossing over this. 

Like past purges, it is unlikely that the rule of law will be upheld, and it is safe to say that many innocent people have already become victims of Turkey’s vicious historical circle. As with the Ergenekon trials, it will be almost impossible to keep track of those detained, arrested or put on trial. What we are seeing is a high-octane settling of accounts with the Gulen movement that has managed to anathematize more opponents than it can handle. 

Turkey’s payback-purge pattern, especially in its current and extreme form, will not solve the country’s greater problems; it will not bring justice to those killed fighting for democracy, and it certainly does not bode well for Turkey over the long run. Rather, it only shows Turkey regressing to past behaviors—and just as previous mass purges have only come back to haunt the country, so will these. 

If Turkey wants to take the high road and show that July 15 is indeed a new beginning for the country, it can do so only by making sure everyone who is responsible for this heinous crime is convicted to the fullest extent, and that innocent people, regardless of their affiliation with the Gulen movement, be afforded legal recourse and self-dignity. This also pertains to those liberals who opted to use Gulen media outlets to attack the government, and who, like those mentioned above, have nothing to do with the disgusting July 15 attack staged against Turkey.

*This article appeared in Haaretz on August 9, 2016. Click here for the link

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Why We'll Never Get a Full Accounting of Turkey's Failed Coup*

Haaretz: It was a wild, confusing night of gunfire, unscheduled calls to prayer and sonic booms in Istanbul. But with an nontransparent government, a media that's state controlled or under pressure, and wide-scale purges, Erdogan's narrative will be hard to challenge.

Louis Fishman, July 17, 2017

On Friday night just after 10pm my cellphone started buzzing and the deluge of WhatsApp messages started. “Go home immediately!” After that: “Turkey is in the midst of a coup d’état!”
Rumors had already started taking off on Twitter that the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Istanbul's European and Asian sides had been blocked and that tanks had taken to the streets. Some of the reports seemed exaggerated: A coup was underway? Others reported that it was extreme measures taken to secure the city in the wake of fears of another possible terror attack. That same day there had already been a number of false alarms in a country already on edge after the ISIS attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport just weeks before, which left almost 50 people dead.
It took no time at all for the Twitter rumors to spread like wildfire. Reports were emerging from Ankara that jet fighters were racing through the sky nonstop. Something was happening, but a coup? Was this really possible?
About two hours later, it seemed Turkey had been brought back to 1980, when the army briefly overran the state television channel TRT, which has functioned in the last few years as a mouthpiece for the Turkish government. This time, after a brief hiatus, the TV anchor came back on air to read the official coup statement, announcing that the “Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security that have been damaged.”
This confirmation propelled residents of my Istanbul neighborhood out to get water and food, and for many others to line up at ATMs to withdraw money. For many in Turkey, this behavior was already hardwired as a coup survival instinct. Either citizens remembered first hand from the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 (and the “post-modern coup" of 1997 that played out differently), or — for the younger generation who hadn't themselves lived through a similar scenario — they remembered the lessons of stories endlessly retold by their parents' generation and, in any case, were receiving enough advice through SMSs and social media to know what to do.
While chatter was emerging of how the country could be ruled by a “Peace Council,” and who was behind the attempted overthrow of the government, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ( love him or hate him) quickly pulled the carpet from out under their feet, not disappointing his supporters for a second. Having left his vacation on Turkey’s southern coast he appeared on no less that ten television channels live via FaceTime. Back in the coup of 1980, Turkey only had one television station; channels have multiplied since then, including several 24-hour news channels and other that wear their support for Erdogan on their sleeve.
On air, Erdogan confirmed the coup attempt, and reiterated PM Binali Yildirim's words that the coup plotters would pay a heavy price. More importantly, Erdogan called on Turkish citizens to take to the streets, fill the squares, and make their way to the airport, where the army had rolled out its tanks. Within hours Erdogan himself landed there, once the masses had indeed forced the army to pull out: He was back in control. Erdogan supporters also heeded his call to take back the streets and challenged the army’s presence in different parts of the city.
From the moment the unrest started, Erdogan, Yildirim and other government ministers reassured their constituency, and the opposition, that they were in control, providing no room for any discussion of a possibility of a coup. At the same time, the coup plotters seemed unorganized and ill-prepared, unable to sustain control of state television. The coup participants' somewhat embarrassing takeover of the Dogan Media’s building, which brought CNN Turk’s live television broadcast to a halt, led to their arrest shortly after.  
Through the night in Istanbul we heard continuous gunfire mixed together with mosques that blared unscheduled prayers over their loudspeakers, anti-coup demonstrators shouting, and massive sonic booms, which many mistook for explosions.
However, if Istanbul was bad, Ankara was much worse: The live TV streams showed the parliament being bombed by a helicopter and fighter jets. Civilians protesting the army's presence were at times being shot at with live ammunition; in one sequence we could see a helicopter shooting at a crowd from the sky.  
I finally crashed out at 5:30 am, as sonic booms shook the house. I woke up a few hours later to the news that the soldiers controlling the Bosphorus Bridge had surrendered, and only vestigial clashes remained in Ankara.
The coup had failed, and it did so radically. However, it came at a high cost for Turkey. Its citizens have been left in a literal state of shock. Not only were anti-coup protesters protesters (defending the state’s democratically-elected government) shot by some soldiers, but some of the protesters lynched soldiers, leaving dead on both sides. For many Turkish citizens this is what they feared most: Turkish citizens fighting each other on the streets of its cities.  
Only 12 hours after the last coup plotter fired on the building from an F-16, Turkey's Parliament was the scene of a moment of hope. In a rare moment of unity, all the political parties joined together in solidarity against the attempted coup, all calling for democracy. Despite the fact that the general public played a major role in challenging the coup, suggesting the diminishing likelihood of such an upheaval in the future, the polarization in the Turkish state has only grown stronger.
Turkey’s government can certainly claim a major victory. Its supporters own the city squares where there were scenes of intense celebration. However the coup is also an object lesson for how unstable the country has become. Turkey has seen an immense amount of civil strife this year; the hundreds who died in this week’s failed coup attempt will be added to a very long list of people who have died in recent terrorist attack and political violence.
In a country where there is no accountability or transparency, where most of the domestic press is in the hands of the government, while other media outlets are under immense pressures to minimize the extent and critical tone of their reporting, it is highly unlikely that we will ever get the real picture of what happened before, during and after the coup-that-wasn't.
It's great news the coup did not succeed. What's more worrying is that the events, though shocking, fail to engender much surprise: During the last three years the country has been in constant crisis and following the attempted coup, and subsequent purge, it seems ripe for even more internal strife.
*This article appeared in Haaretz on July 17, 2016. Click here for the link

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Turkey must get its priorities straight and focus on ISIS*

Haaretz: The country is in a dire situation, and needs to get its act together and fight the real terrorists while holding talks with Kurds.


Louis Fishman, July 1, 2016


Tuesday night seemed like just another Istanbul summer evening as people hurried home after work to make it to the late evening Ramadan Iftar, leaving the city's famous traffic all but a myth. However, later on in the night people came out to stroll and enjoy the cool air. 
I was on the Asian side of Kadikoy enjoying the atmosphere. It seemed like the old days in Istanbul, as if the country had no problems: Lovers sitting on the shore, families eating ice cream and young people just hanging out.
However, this serene feeling was shattered once the news started to spread about a suicide attack that had just taken place at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. The trip back home to the European side in the minibus was eerie, with everyone sitting quietly. Finally, one person broke the silence and asked the driver to turn on the radio; silence continued as we listened in shock. 
Tuesday’s is but another in a long list of attacks that have occurred since last June, when an HDP (the mostly Kurdish leftist party) rally was hit by an ISIS sympathizer just days before the election, killing five and injuring hundreds.
In the following months, ISIS set off more blasts targeting both HDP members and other leftist groups: 33 were killed in Suruc last July, and 109 were killed at an Ankara rally in October. 
In the meantime, Ankara also saw two major bombings set off by TAK, an offshoot of the outlawed PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party). Since last summer, the Turkish government has once again become entrenched in all-out war with the group in the southeastern regions of the country. The TAK bombings in Ankara in February and March added 66 more civilians and security forces to the list. 
Lastly, ISIS struck in Istanbul, killing 13 German tourists in January and a group of four Israeli tourists in March. In fact, one Turkish online newspaper, Diken, has recorded a total of 15 bombings (including Tuesday’s attack) in the last 12 months, leaving 290 civilians dead and over 1,500 wounded.  
The year of violence has left Turkish citizens on edge. Tuesday’s bombings only reinforced the feeling that attacks can happen at any time and in any place. It also showed that ISIS, which is currently the main suspect, has become much more sophisticated, increasing fears of when and where it will attack next.
The Kurdish TAK, which could also attack at any moment, only adds to the growing atmosphere of terror.    
Further, Tuesday’s attack once again sent out a strong message to tourists to stay away from Turkey, which dampened the glimmer of hope that – following Turkey’s reconciliation with Israel and its apology to Russia for shooting down its military jet last November – quick and much-needed relief could be brought to a sector that is set to lose $15 billion this year alone (fortunately, following Erdogan’s conversation with Putin, the Russian president has lifted sanctions on tourism).
By hitting its airport, ISIS also struck at Turkey’s pride, damaging Istanbul's status as a major international hub due to Turkish Air. In fact, even when tourism dropped in Turkey due to fears of terrorism, many travelers continued to choose Turkish airlines.
However, Turkey’s problems do not start or stop with terror. Once placed within the current political state of instability, a much more volatile picture emerges. In fact, in addition to the 290 civilians killed (including foreigners) in terrorist attacks since June 2015, over 500 members of the security forces have been killed fighting the PKK. And, according to the Turkish government, at least 7,500 PKK insurgents (also Turkish citizens) have been killed as well. The deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire also reaches the hundreds, according to opposition parties.
In other words, Turkey is a state that is being torn apart at the seams and the numbers of dead when considered in total is simply astonishing. 
The Turkish government needs to reassess its domestic policy, like it did with Israel and Russia in terms of its foreign policy, and see where it is possible to create an atmosphere of dialogue in order to take on ISIS and TAK. The more it continues to deem human rights activists dangerous, like Reporters Without Borders, Erol Onderoglu, author Ahmet Nesin, and the Head of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Sebnem Korur Financi, who were arrested earlier this month for spreading “terrorist propaganda,” the more it will continue on a path of instability.
This includes its treatment of opponents as terrorists, such as journalists and academics tried on terror charges, affiliates of the Gulen Movement (now declared a terrorist organization), or the HDP MPs who could face prison terms now that their parliamentary immunity has been lifted.
In fact, it has become clear as day that the United States and Europe are hesitant to move forward building coalitions with Turkey to fight terror as long as there are fears its opponents are being unfairly tried. 
Turkey is in a dire situation. If it doesn't get its act together, set its priorities straight and fight the real terrorists, while reigniting peace talks to reach a just solution to the Kurdish question (or at least work to ease the tension), it seems it will be doomed to continue to see more unrest. Within this greater polarization, the ground could become even more fertile for terrorism to wreak more havoc and chaos among its citizens.
This article appeared in Haaretz on July 1, 2016. Click here for the link