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Turkey Shifts Toward Autocracy

I’ve now spent almost a decade writing about the transformation in Turkey. A decade ago, Turkey was a Western-leaning democracy, however flawed, with a largely free even if cantankerous press. Now, Turkey leans firmly toward the Arab world and China, has a prime minister who seems a blend of Vladimir Putin and an Ottoman Sultan, and has not only cracked down on press freedom, but now also seems to be penalizing “thought crime.”

Two-and-a-half years ago, for example, Turkish police raided the home and office of Ahmet Şık in order to confiscate his unpublished manuscript in which he demonstrated penetration of the Turkish security forces by the followers of controversial Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Now, a Turkish writer is to be prosecuted for making a word play on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s middle name:

[Emrah] Serbes had made a pun in a TV show by changing the prime minister’s middle name “Tayyip” to “Tazyik,” a word meaning pressurized water in reference to the police’s excessive use of water cannons and tear gas against protesters during the most recent May Day.

Serbes could serve up to 12 years in prison.

It gets worse: Earlier this year, Turkey was rocked by protests against the destruction of one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul. The protests shook Erdoğan, who is unaccustomed to public criticism. Indeed, at a recent rally in Adana, photographers spotted gas masks under the chairs of Erdoğan and his wife, just in case. Well, now even thinking about protesting is a crime in Turkey. The Justice and Interior Ministry, both controlled by Erdoğan’s political party, has issued new regulations authorizing without any judicial action the detention for up to one day of anyone at “risk of conducting a protest.”

The lesson learned? Both Bush and Obama let Turkey slip away with a series of ambassadors more prone to sycophancy than hard talk and with political correctness blunting observation of Erdoğan’s Islamist agenda. In the short run, however, I guess the lesson learned is simply not to think bad thoughts about the Tazyik-in-chief next time anyone should pass through Istanbul.