Fethullah Gulen: Turkey’s Eroding Democracy

 Hizmet supporters in Istanbul protesting the government’s harassment of journalists.   Credit Sedat Suna/European Pressphoto Agency
Hizmet supporters in Istanbul protesting the government’s harassment of journalists.
Credit Sedat Suna/European Pressphoto Agency

By Fethullah Gulen

SAYLORSBURG, Pa. — It is deeply disappointing to see what has become of Turkey in the last few years. Not long ago, it was the envy of Muslim-majority countries: a viable candidate for the European Union on its path to becoming a functioning democracy that upholds universal human rights, gender equality, the rule of law and the rights of Kurdish and non-Muslim citizens. This historic opportunity now appears to have been squandered as Turkey’s ruling party, known as the A.K.P., reverses that progress and clamps down on civil society, media, the judiciary and free enterprise.

Turkey’s current leaders seem to claim an absolute mandate by virtue of winning elections. But victory doesn’t grant them permission to ignore the Constitution or suppress dissent, especially when election victories are built on crony capitalism and media subservience. The A.K.P.’s leaders now depict every democratic criticism of them as an attack on the state. By viewing every critical voice as an enemy — or worse, a traitor — they are leading the country toward totalitarianism.

The latest victims of the clampdown are the staff, executives and editors of independent media organizations who were detained and are now facing charges made possible by recent changes to the laws and the court system. The director of one of the most popular TV channels, arrested in December, is still behind bars. Public officials investigating corruption charges have also been purged and jailed for simply doing their jobs. An independent judiciary, a functioning civil society and media are checks and balances against government transgressions. Such harassment sends the message that whoever stands in the way of the ruling party’s agenda will be targeted by slander, sanctions and even trumped-up charges.

Turkey’s rulers have not only alienated the West, they are also now losing credibility in the Middle East. Turkey’s ability to assert positive influence in the region depends not only on its economy but also on the health of its own democracy.

The core tenets of a functioning democracy — the rule of law, respect for individual freedoms — are also the most basic of Islamic values bestowed upon us by God. No political or religious leader has the authority to take them away. It is disheartening to see religious scholars provide theological justification for the ruling party’s oppression and corruption or simply stay silent. Those who use the language and symbols of religious observance but violate the core principles of their religion do not deserve such loyalty from religious scholars.

Speaking against oppression is a democratic right, a civic duty and for believers, a religious obligation. The Quran makes clear that people should not remain silent in the face of injustice: “O you who believe! Be upholders and standard-bearers of justice, bearing witness to the truth for God’s sake, even though it be against your own selves, or parents or kindred.”

For the past 50 years, I have been fortunate to take part in a civil society movement, sometimes referred to as Hizmet, whose participants and supporters include millions of Turkish citizens. These citizens have committed themselves to interfaith dialogue, community service, relief efforts and making life-changing education accessible. They have established more than 1,000 modern secular schools, tutoring centers, colleges, hospitals and relief organizations in over 150 countries. They are teachers, journalists, businessmen and ordinary citizens.

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Brave New Turkey

Gobierno de Chile [CC BY 3.0 cl (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/cl/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey Gobierno de Chile [CC BY 3.0 cl], via Wikimedia Commons

By Andrew Finkel in The New York Times

ISTANBUL — Freedom House, the democracy watchdog, earlier this year downgraded the Turkish press from being “partly free” to “not free.” Now it may have to create a new category: “not free at all.”

On Sunday, Dec. 14, Turkish police raided the headquarters of Zaman, the country’s most widely circulated daily, and a major television station, taking into custody at least 24 people, including the paper’s editor-in-chief and the station’s director. (The editor has since been released.) They were detained on suspicions of “establishing a terrorist group.” But the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the raids smacked “of political vengeance.”

A decade ago Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, was the most likely candidate to lead the Islamic world. He had managed to keep Turkey out of the 2003 Iraq War, was grooming it for membership in the European Union, and was getting on with economic reform. Ordinary Turks were feeling prosperous, proud and hopeful. So why is the Turkish government now going off the rails when it has been perfectly popular doing the right things?

Today Mr. Erdogan is the president, and his style is in-your-face confrontational. He is revered by enough people to get his party re-elected, but many others loathe him (remember the protests in Gezi Park?), and some of his eccentricities have made him a favorite of headline writers. Like a potentate of some Sacha Baron Cohen parody, he has had a presidential palace with over a thousand rooms built for himself. No one knows how much it cost: The government agency responsible for the construction says the sum is a state secret because its disclosure would damage the economy.

Read more at The New York Times