This is an article published in Labour Briefing
Turkey is a country in the throes of unrelenting upheaval. The country’s democratic institutions are being dismantled, and President Erdogan’s government is intent on replacing them with an authoritarian, illiberal order. In the meantime, terrorist attacks by Daesh (ISIS), the PKK and other organisations continue to claim the lives of innocent people, and deadly Turkish attacks on Kurdish communities in the south of the country go almost entirely unreported.
I made two visits to the area around Diyarbakir in autumn last year and learnt firsthand about the state's war on its own citizens in a region that identifies strongly as being Turkish Kurdistan.
The situation across Turkey should worry all of us, not just as humanitarians who are concerned with peace or the plight of innocent people, but also as citizens witnessing a global assault on democratic values. Until not so long ago, Turkey, was a key Western ally and a lynchpin for stability in the region, seemingly emerging from a chequered history of military coups and human rights violations and moving towards a promising secular, liberal future that might one day have succeeded in meeting the stringent conditions for EU membership. Now, however, its politics has turned towards nationalist populism, secularism has been rolled back, and democracy and the rule of law have been actively denigrated.
Despite the EU refugee deal brokered by Merkel the Turkish government has pivoted sharply towards Putin’s Russia. Erdogan has joined what seems to be a global arc of expanding nationalist anti-democratic illiberalism, stretching from Moscow to Ankara and Trump Tower via Marine le Pen’s Front National in Paris and Nigel Farage's anti-EU UKIP here in our dis-united kingdom. That seething nationalism has already pushed us to vote narrowly for Brexit, and developments in Turkey are a further warning sign that attitudes are hardening against progressive values.
Since the coup in July 2016, 41,000 people have been arrested in Turkey, including hundreds of journalists, academics, teachers and trade union members. More than 100,000 civil servants have been dismissed, including about 3,500 judges and prosecutors (the numbers keep increasing), with an equivalent number having been detained. I attended a meeting of the Kurdish teachers' union, Eğitim-Sen, in Diyarbakir where the traumatised families of detained and imprisoned educators spoke for hours about how the state was intimidating ordinary class-room teachers, depriving them of their jobs and income as a punishment for promoting their culture through language classes, for example, or for attending meetings. As we left the building we were filmed by plain-clothes' police in armoured vehicles, another act of bald intimidation.
Journalists, writers and artists are being detained and arrested in ever greater numbers, and civil society groups like the European Federation of Journalists are campaigning to raise awareness of the situation. Media organisations shut down even include a children's cartoon channel called Zarok TV.
On December 29th renowned Turkish writer Ahmed Sik was arrested for making ‘terrorist propaganda’. Other prominent writers and academics have also been arrested as they protest and attempt to defend freedom of speech, and the women's rights organisation KJA has been shut down along with JINHA, a women's media organisation. However, it did not stop the organisation of a defiant international women's conference in Diyarbakir with delegates from Germany, Spain, Serbia and Northern Ireland as well as myself and human rights lawyer Melanie Gingell from British organisation Peace in Kurdistan. As the Turkish police set up positions outside the conference venue we joined an inspiring dance of solidarity, holding hands with women journalists and politicians who fully expected to be imminently arrested.
Neither are the country’s parliamentarians immune from prosecution. 12 MPs from the pro-Kurdish social-democratic opposition party HDP were arrested in November. I was contacted by human rights organisations and the HDP, and asked if I would ‘sponsor’ one of the arrested MPs, and campaign for their release. Since then, I have been working to raise the case of Leyla Birlik in letters, in parliamentary speeches, at rallies, conferences and demonstrations in Brussels and the UK, and on social media. I tried to visit Leyla in prison, but I was denied access. Thankfully, I received word on January 5th that shehad been released but her fellow HDP MP Nursel Aydoğan was less fortunate, and was given a four year and eight month long sentence on January 13th, for alleged terrorism.
As the Turkish government purges its opposition and fans the flames of conflict with its own Kurdish citizens, it continues to exploit its relationship to Daesh, creating a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Turkey has signed up, along with Russia, to eliminate the group, but mostly uses the opportunity to attack Kurdish militants. Turkish borders with Iraq and Syria represent a lifeline for Daesh, and the Turkish government has not sealed them which means that weapons and women are openly traded. Meanwhile Turkish Kurds living in the border city of Nusaybin have paid a heavy price for their ethnic identity with whole neighbourhoods destroyed by Turkish military, cemeteries desecrated, young activists disappeared and grieving mothers literally trying to piece together the bodies of their offspring. I visited the area in October with a delegation of activists from the European Grassroots Anti-Racist Movement and I found the population in a state of trauma similar to that of Srebrenica.
Ordinary Turkish citizens are also paying a heavy price. 2016 was punctured by terrorist attacks throughout Turkey, with 45 killed at Istanbul airport in July, and 54 at a wedding in the southern city of Gaziantep in August. The shooting at Reina nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve, which killed 39 people, and the following attack in Izmir are mindless tragedies, demonstrating a relentless violence that seems set to continue..
Erdogan opened 2017 by attempting to extend his power by pushing a new constitution through Parliament. The jailed HDP MPs cannot participate, and the protest outside the parliament building against the proposal was broken up with tear gas. An earlier legislative proposal to pardon and free rapists who agreed to marry their child victims was seriously entertained by the ruling party until mass protests against such state-sponsored paedophilia forced a government u-turn, meanwhile the re-introduction of the death penalty remains a distinct possibility. All this is happening in a country where millions of Brits go on holiday, most unaware of the disintegration of democracy and the encroaching fascism of a cynical state that is rejecting Western values despite the love affair with money-making shopping malls, night clubs and beach resorts.
As we look on and observe what is happening in Turkey, we must stand with fellow democrats, brave activists, journalists and politicians and speak up for them at every opportunity. We must continue to try and make sense of the complexities of the region, and raise our voices and demand the release of those in prison, and also amplify the case of those who are not being heard in the mainstream media. We must constantly keep in mind that in the times we live in, we cannot take for granted the freedoms we enjoy, and we must understand that the collapse of democracy is a slippery slope. Around the world, those who cherish democracy and human rights must share a common fight. And we must remember that it is not the Turkish people who are the enemies of progressive values but an increasingly fascist state with a weak President who now resorts to ruling by means of fear rather than honest power-sharing.