Patrick B. McGuigan, editor
OKLAHOMA CITY – Mahir Zeynelov, an independent journalist from Turkey, was arrested and then deported from his native land last year. His reporting and commentary got him cross-ways with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the strongman president of his homeland. Zeynelov’s recent visit to Oklahoma occasions this distillation – a mere sketch – of the complexities of contemporary Turkish troubles.
Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). With a constitution that guarantees a wide range of liberties and assumes democratic governance, the nation had long been a comparative island of stability in the “Middle East” — as the region that includes many Muslim-majority countries as well as Israel is frequently deemed in many of the world’s newspapers and history books.
Over recent years, increasing turmoil has embroiled Turkey. Relations with the United States have been less friendly and not nearly as cordial as times past. Under President Erdogan, Turkey has only reluctantly joined European and American efforts to end the carnage in Syria, and to oppose the rise of ISIS and other variants of terrorist groups that operate proclaiming allegiance to Islam.
President Erdogan’s government had grown increasingly intolerant and oppressive, even before last year’s unsuccessful attempted coup d’etat (by elements of the Turkish military). After the coup failure, Erdogan immediately blamed an exiled Imam, Fethullah Gülen, and his followers for the nationwide uprising.
What followed was unprecedented suppression of journalistic and other freedoms guaranteed under the Turkish constitution. Some analysts have speculated the coup itself might have been a sham, aiming to give Erdogan an excuse to accelerate his crushing of dissent.
In dramatic (and critics say, unconstitutional) steps, Erdogan ordered the closure of 131 news media outlets, including 16 television channels, 23 radio stations, 45 newspapers, 15 magazines, and 29 publishing houses.
Thousands of government employees were arrested, and nearly four dozen journalists were detained. In reports filed at the time of those arrests, Zeynelov posted on the Internet a couple dozen photographs of colleagues as they were taken away by Erdogan’s police. The persons in those photographs represented the full range of Turkish society – some “secular” looking and others quite traditional in attire, including women wearing the hijab.
As for the once-fast friends, divisions between Erodogan and Gülen intensified over the past decade. Erdogan immediately blamed Gülen for the attempted overthrow of his government, and went so far as to demand his expulsion from the United States (he now lives in rural Pennsylvania) and his forced return to Turkey.
News organizations around the world have for months reported on a “bromance” between Presidents Erdogan and Trump.
In a rare confluence of concern, critical reflections about Erdogan have come both from staunch political conservatives and from pillars of the political Left, including one analysis which last month designated a Trump-Erdogan linkage as “a match made in hell.”
The recent speculation increased after Erdogan hailed Trump for rhetorically slapping down U.S. journalists who have questions many of the steps he took during the transition and in the early weeks of his presidency.
The internal oppression of Erdogan’s critics has steadily deepened and now seems permanent.
Early this month the Turkish parliament, controlled by the president’s close allies, extended the state of emergency enacted last summer. The recent affirmation of curbs on traditional liberties came, the government said, in response to the New Year’s Eve attack on an Istanbul nightclub. The terrorists of ISIS took credit for the resulting deaths and destruction.
A reporter for World Magazine (a Christian-run publication) recently wrote, “Western leaders, initially supportive of Erdogan as the country’s democratically elected leader, became suspicious: The list of those arrested appeared prepared before unrest, charged Austria’s European Commission member Johannes Hahn. Had the whole coup been staged by Erdogan to consolidate his grip on power?”
Reporter Mindy Belz, in the World Magazine story, said European and some American leaders now worry that Erdogan seems to be taking his nation, if not already there, “toward the ranks of despotic Islamic regimes.” Further, “Besides jailing alleged opponents, Erdogan’s government is freezing bank accounts and confiscating property.”
Belz also reported on the rising difficulties not only for Muslim citizens who disagree with Erdogan’s governance, but increasingly difficult circumstances for Christians. Such concerns are captured in this sentence from her story: “Christians in general, and Protestants in particular, are really at the top of the government’s list of targets.”
In an interview with CapitolBeatOK, Zeynelov said when it comes to Erdogan he “not sure if there’s anything positive to say about him. His lack of respect for human rights and his disrespect for the values in the Turkish constitution are well-known. He uses populist rhetoric to exploit the fault lines in our society. He is tapping into religious sensitivities. That helps him with his political base but does nothing for our country.”
He is concerned that new U.S. President Donald Trump “might be deferential toward Erdogan, thinking of his relationship with him in a business-like way. He may turn a blind eye toward Erdogan’s behavior because Turkey has been a U.S. ally. But Erdogan does not respect democracy, the values of America.”
He observed, “Turkey was the only NATO member that did NOT join sanctions on Russia after that nation’s behavior in the Balkans. For years, Turkey dragged its feet concerning Syria. The U.S. faces many problems, including the fact that some of [Syrian dictator Bashar ‘Al-Assad’s] opponents are considered, by Turkey, as terrorist organizations. The U.S. works very hard to keep Turkey on board. Now that’s falling apart.”
The situation is, to put it mildly, complicated.
Asked by this reporter to discuss ways for the U.S. to oppose terrorism conducted in the name of Islam, without doing harm to peaceful believers, Zeynelov reflected, “That’s very challenging. It is important to understand, as a recognition, that 99 percent of Muslim people do not adhere to and are not attracted by the terror done in the name of Islam. There are 20 or 30 or 50,000 ISIS fighters. There are perhaps that many who are sympathetic to ISIS.
“The recent ban on travel and immigration is being used to tell sympathizers ‘you see, these guys hate you.’ I don’t say this to be PC. I simply point out that ISIS will, and has, exploited some of what is going on. I will say that the caliphate ISIS has is very dangerous. ISIS needs to be destroyed or it will continue to menace all of us, including Muslims.”
Zeynelov’s visit to Oklahoma City was coordinated by the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and Raindrop Turkish House, a place where Muslims and non-Muslims often gather to share time, eat and discuss issues of the day. The two groups sponsor both cultural and civic events on a regular basis around the capital city area.