The Skeptics

Think Twice on Turkey: Erdogan's Purges Are a Warning to Washington

The abortive coup in Turkey and its aftermath are putting a severe strain on U.S.–Turkish relations. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan accused the United States and the West of complicity in the coup, a charge that he repeated last Tuesday. Unsurprisingly, given the vehemence of Erdoğan’s claims, anti-American sentiment in Turkey is rising.

What happens next will test a number of core principles that are at the heart of U.S. foreign policy, including respect for the rule of law and respect for human rights.

Erdoğan's authoritarian tendencies were on display before the coup. Tens of thousands of people had been purged from various government jobs since 2014, when Erdoğan turned against his onetime ally Fethullah Gülen. Since the failed coup on July 15–16, his government has sacked an estimated 66,000 more, including the heads of all universities in the country, a third of the employees in the Education Ministry, and over 2,700 members of the judiciary. The New York Times puts the scale of the crackdown in perspective here. Individuals are being persecuted on nothing more than on suspicion of some affiliation with Gülen or his movement, also known as Hizmet ("the Service") or Cemaat ("the Community.") A person might warrant suspicion for having once subscribed to a Gülenist newspaper or magazine, attended a Gülenist school or patronized a Gülenist bank. The latest victims of the purges include soccer referees.

Particularly troubling has been the assault on Turkish media. The Gülen-connected Daily Zaman, the country’s largest circulation newspaper, was taken over by the government in March. Since the coup, a number of television and radio stations have been shut down, as well as newspapers and magazines. Nearly one hundred journalists have been jailed. Public access to news websites is regularly blocked. Publishing houses have lost their licenses.

Last week, officials from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) deplored the crackdown and called on "Turkish authorities to reconsider these decisions and confirm their obligations to media freedom."

"'The simultaneous arrests of independent journalists and shutdowns of print and broadcast media strike a major blow against public debate and government accountability,'" explained UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Dunja Mijatović. Kaye continued:

"The attempted coup cannot justify such a broad attack against almost all voices, not just critical ones but analytic and journalistic,” Mr. Kaye said. “The widespread and abrupt nature of the measures, lacking even the basic elements of due process, is shocking and unprecedented in recent times in Turkey."

"The government’s purging of personnel and institutions of what it perceives as being dissenting and critical voices, solely on the basis of allegations of membership in the Gülen movement, clearly violates standards of international human rights law," he noted.

If the Turkish government is able to present credible evidence of Fethullah Gülen’s involvement in the attempted coup, the U.S. government might be obliged to hand him over. He has been in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999. But there are a number of mitigating circumstances, including the fact that Gülen is unlikely to receive a fair trial in Turkey.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the possibility that the coup was a genuine threat to a democratically elected government in Turkey. The country has experienced a number of successful coups, and several failed ones. The prospect of a “seven days in July” scenario playing out in Istanbul and Ankara is dismissed as the stuff of novels as far as the United States is concerned. It is not treated that way in Turkey, which partly explains the degree of support that Erdoğan has received, including from his former political foes, as well as members of the military not implicated in the coup.

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