Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown himself to be a hardline President who employs violence in order to advance his authoritarian vision for Turkey further toward an Islamic state.
Erdogan used a coup in which over 300 citizens were killed or injured as a reason to further consolidate presidential power, paving the way for Turkey’s government to be converted into a dictatorship in all but name.
Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric who was blamed by Erdogan for orchestrating the coup, is not alone in his assessment that the overthrow attempt was nothing more than a charade put on by Erdogan himself. The aim, according to Gülen and others: for Erdogan to convince the Turkish people to vote in favor of increased presidential power, which ultimately was the result of the coup.
Erdogan has used Gülen and his followers, known as Gülenists, as means to further polarize the country, emboldening Erdogan’s supporters to espouse favor for his political causes. Gülen led a movement called Hizmet, which emerged in 2013 after allegations of bribery and other forms of political corruption plagued the Erdogan administration. Those allegations would arise again in 2016, but by that time nearly all Gülenists and organized opposition factions had fled Turkey.
With his powers consolidated and vocal opponents such as Gülen exiled and unable to affect any significant change within Turkey’s political system, Erdogan has proceeded to enact his strong-armed tactics in transforming Turkey into the sort of authoritarian, dictator-led state which has come to define the Middle East. The nation that was once considered one of the most free, Westernized nations in the region is being forcefully driven backward in time as the world watches.
Erdogan has begun to indoctrinate school children once educated via secularized curriculums not dissimilar from the typical Western classroom. He has ordered that even schools in Turkey’s most ardent bastions of secularity incorporate education on Sunni Islam that will account for 20-30% of the school day. While many parents have ceased enrolling their children in the schools, such a change will be welcomed in parts of Turkey imbued with those more supportive of the move toward Islamization. Erdogan, even in the face of vocal opposition, has maintained that he is merely granting the wishes of his people:
‘The government says it is responding to demand, but parents and teachers from half a dozen affected schools around Istanbul say that the conversions are being pushed through in spite of communities’ wishes, and that pupils are being shuttled from distant parts of the city to fill classes at the new religious schools.’
True to the form of regressive Islamic nations such as Iran, Erdogan has now set his sights on controlling the media narrative. Specifically, Erdogan has led an effort to shutter many of Turkey’s satirical magazines and political cartoon publications. Criteria for being run out of business upon Erdogan’s command are broad.
They include merely depicting a prophet of a faith other than Islam:
‘The country’s oldest satire magazine, Girgir, shut down in February amid a controversy over a cartoon depiction of Moses, who is a prophet in Islam as in Judaism and Christianity.’ (WSJ)
You can bet that depicting the Islamic prophet is not a wise decision, either. Turkish publications can’t even depict the Turkish President in a slightly mocking way, as they are likely to face disassembly:
‘The well-known cartoon magazine Penguen, whose jowly caricatures of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have been a fixture at newsstands for years, closed this summer.’
It is the sort of silencing tactic used in the world’s many dictatorial nations, with free press and satire being replaced with ultra-serious, often bellicose propaganda that stifles the creativity of thought and freedom of ideas vital to any enlightened nation. Turkey, under Erdogan, is headed on a path reminiscent of nations such as Iran and Venezuela in terms of individual freedoms.
Making this process more alarming is the reality that political cartoons and other forms of satirical lampooning have served as more than just symbolic representations of Turkey’s secularism amidst a region crowded by medieval-minded Islamic states. The cartoons served as a tangible example of the freedoms that, despite growing anti-Western sentiment among many Turks, still existed in the nation. Cartoons, as insignificant as they may seem to Western nations with true freedom of the press, served as a reminder that Turkey still embraced modern Western values on some level.
Now, the cartoons, the artists who draw them, and the publications who display them on their pages are under attack. While secular Turks have been aware for a while, this attack serves as official notice that a fundamental change in the Turkish government’s views toward the West, and the personal freedoms it embraces, is commencing.
Particularly dangerous is the manner in which Erdogan has treated journalists who, even satirically, question his method of ruling:
‘In 2015, a Turkish court sentenced two cartoonists from Penguen to a year in prison for a front cover depicting Mr. Erdogan visiting the newly built presidential palace in Ankara. In the cartoon, Mr. Erdogan complains about the lack of pomp and ceremony. “We could have at least sacrificed a journalist,” he says.’
Even regular, non-media affiliated citizens are not safe from the grasp of a government increasingly sensitive to criticism levied against it:
‘A court acquitted a Turkish doctor this year of denigrating Mr. Erdogan by sharing a triptych of photos that compared the president to Gollum, a scheming character from “The Lord of the Rings.” (The doctor’s legal team argued that Gollum wasn’t actually evil and that the comparison therefore wasn’t offensive.)’
These citizens were acquitted, but in a matter of years, it is quite likely that Erdogan’s increased powers will have rendered Turkey’s judicial system the equivalent of a kangaroo court. All indications are that this is his intent, and that the nation will support him, whether that takes some prodding by Erdogan or not.
But one thing is for certain: once satire and, specifically, cartoons lampooning government officials are eradicated from Turkey, the West can consider it a lost nation.