On October 26, 2015, the Ankara Chief Prosecutor’s Office — a body wholly under the thumb of Turkey’s mercurial and increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — ruled that a government-appointed panel of trustees should take control over the Koza-İpek Group, a media group affiliated with U.S.-based Turkish Islamist figure Fethullah Gülen while prosecutors investigate Erdoğan’s charge that the Gülen’s network of educators, journalists, and businessmen represent a terrorist group.
I have been long critical of Gülen’s movement, and have questioned both their end goals and whether they are as tolerant as their rhetoric suggests; I am no supporter of the group. But the charges that they are a terrorist group are nonsensical and simply disagreeing with a group’s platform or positions is no reason to deny them the freedom to express themselves or enjoy the full protection of the law. By leveling such an accusation, Erdoğan has embraced a level of discourse that might be expected from an alcoholic and schizophrenic panhandling conspiracy theorist on a New York City street corner, not from a sitting president of a major NATO nation.
Like many dictators, he has tested the waters and concluded that he faced no diplomatic consequence for his war on dissidents, dissenters, and the press. After he seized Sabah, for example, transferring it to his son-in-law, he not only faced no consequence, but President Obama chose that paper to publish an op-ed, in effect blessing its seizure rather than treating it like the insult to free press that Sabah has become.
Unfortunately for Turkey, Erdoğan believes his bluster and confuses fevered imagination with reality. He rules by diktat. On October 28, against the backdrop of protests, security forces raided the media group’s headquarters and studios, shutting down Bugün TV and Kanaltürk TV mid-broadcast. While some journalists like The Guardian’s Cengiz Çandar have defended Erdoğan’s police state tactics and raids on fellow journalists, most journalists, diplomats, and civil society leaders have long recognized that Reporters Without Borders is correct to call Turkey the “world’s biggest prison for journalists.”
(To the credit of Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtaş, he subsequently visited the station to express support to the group which has not always been supportive of the Kurdish cause; had other Turkish officials and diplomats not been so cowardly in the face of Erdoğan’s abuses, Turkey might not have descended so far, so fast).
In the sheer and utter shamelessness of his action — Erdoğan acts as if Turkey is a banana republic or a tin pot, 1960s African dictatorship. It is not enough now to go after the press; Erdoğan has become so thin-skinned that he seeks to imprison children for tearing down a poster bearing his portrait. It seems imprisoning deaf-mutes on accusations of speaking against him were simply a warm-up act for Erdoğan.
Erdoğan should take care. Pushed too far with no outlets for permissible descent, he risks a violent blowback that could be worse than those periods of violence which Turkey has previously experienced. Erdoğan’s blind eye toward, if not outright support for, the Islamic State and his unabashed targeting of Kurds in both Syria and Turkey risk pushing Turkey back into a civil war that would make the 1980s and 1990s look mild. Indeed, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Turkish Army are already fighting. The only difference between now and three decades ago is that many in Western capitals privately cheer on the Kurds. They understand Erdoğan’s belligerence for what it is — a cynical ploy to deny Kurds their rightful place in parliament.
Turkish leftists and secularists likewise understand that they cannot seek solace in the law. The Gezi protests were a warning sign; the next explosion could be much larger. All that is missing is the spark, although Erdoğan could provide that at any moment.
Indeed, for all Erdoğan’s arrogance and bluster, there are signs that his inner-circle recognize that he might push too far and that they might need a Plan B. No charismatic Turkish leader’s political party other than Atatürk’s Republican Peoples Party (CHP) has survived the leader’s demise. Few Turks would shed tears if Erdoğan ended his days like Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes or former Turkish President Turgut Özal. Several Turkish officials confirm that Erdoğan’s businessman and multimillionaire son Bilal had moved to Italy with his family (and Turkish bodyguards) where he nominally will return to Ph.D. work at Johns Hopkins University-SAIS Bologna (which hopefully will not repeat mistakes made by the London School of Economics when it traded credibility for a dictatorship’s cash). When the man whom the Erdoğan reportedly trusted to manage and perhaps dispose of cash relocates to Europe, that’s not a vote of confidence in Turkey’s future; it’s a recognition that Turkey is at the breaking point.