New Turkey, Old Challenges: From Fundamental Freedoms to Minority Ri

Fair Observer
Oct 4 2014

New Turkey, Old Challenges: From Fundamental Freedoms to Minority Rights

By Roberto Frifrini

urkey has a long path ahead before all of its citizens can enjoy the
full benefits of citizenship.

On August 10, Turkey directly elected its president for the first time
since the republic was founded in 1923. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the
former prime minister, won the election, which called 55 million
citizens to the ballot boxes. Gaining 51.79% of the vote, he
prevailed over his opponents: Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, former
secretary-general of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and
joint candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the
Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) among others; and Selahattin
DemirtaÃ…?, co-chair of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

On August 28, Erdogan took over the presidency from his predecessor,
Abdullah Gul, in an official ceremony held at the Cankaya presidential
palace in Ankara. Political tensions surrounded the oath ceremony, due
to the delayed publication of the election results ‘ although the
Supreme Board of Elections (YSK) declared the end of the counting
procedure on August 15. Usually, any regulation or amendment made to
the law is expected to be published the same day or the day after; in
case of official elections, the results should be distributed as soon
as the final counting is formally announced by the YSK. The delay has
been repeatedly denounced by the opposition as an open violation of
the Turkish constitution. The main points of criticism were based on
the acts and meetings held by then President-elect Erdogan during the
13-day delay, during which he also served as prime minister and
chairman of his party. During this transition period, Erdogan also
announced the designation of Ahmet Davutoglu, former foreign minister,
as the new chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and new
prime minister.

President Erdogan has consistently been a key player in Turkish
politics and the wider Middle East since the general elections of
2002. The 12th president of the republic is a charismatic figure
influenced by and promoting political Sunni Islam. In December 2013,
his leadership and the AKP’s reputation were blemished by a corruption
scandal that involved several people very close to the government, the
Gezi Park protests in summer 2013 and Erdogan’s harsh political
rhetoric toward his opponents, especially the Hizmet movement and its
leader, the Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen.

Admittedly, under Erdogan’s premiership, the country has achieved
several goals, including consolidating its role as a regional power
and global actor, as well as an economic powerhouse.

Partially thanks to Turkey’s candidacy for European Union (EU)
membership, civil liberties and human rights have improved and it
could easily be asserted that the last ten years represent the golden
age of modern Turkey. But at the same time, it is crucial to emphasize
Erdogan’s negative impact on the country’s human rights situation. Of
particular note are the 2011 general elections, in which the AKP won
327 seats out of 550 in the Grand National Assembly (TBMM), gaining
the right to lead a single-party government for another term, and the
Gezi Park protests.

Turkey has been ruled by a single-party authoritarian government,
creating tension among its citizens and threatening basic human

Gezi Park has been and still is seen as the turning point of the
current administration’s behavior and reputation at the domestic and
international level. After the Occupy Gezi clashes erupted in all
major Turkish cities and were suppressed by security forces with an
indiscriminate use of tear gas and water cannons ‘ a practice
condemned by all the national nongovernmental organizations (NGO), as
well the EU, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International ‘ the
governance style of Turkey’s leading party completely changed.

Gezi Protests: A Turning Point for Human Rights in Turkey

Since the protests, Turkey has been ruled by a single-party
authoritarian government, creating tension among its citizens and
threatening basic human rights. Moreover, the situation has worsened
in the wake of the 2013 bribery case. Over a 12-month period, Turkey
witnessed restrictions on media and Internet freedom, with a temporary
ban of Twitter and YouTube and an increase of attacks and legal
complaints against journalists, as extensively documented by Index on
Censorships and BIANET, a Turkish independent news site.

Furthermore, an interim report by the Organization for Security and
Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) openly denounced the lack of nonpartisan
journalism covering the recent ballots. Censorship has not only
affected the coverage of the presidential election. After the prime
minister called on the media to not report any news about the
abduction of Turkish diplomats and soldiers by the Islamic State in
Mosul, an Ankara court issued a prohibitive order on airing or
publishing any news related to the situation of the hostages. On June
17, the ban was imposed with immediate effect on all media executives
by Turkey’s Supreme Board of Radio and Television (RTUK).

Freedom of expression is just one of the civil society’s concerns
right now. On August 1, the Istanbul Convention, a legal milestone on
preventing and combating gender-based and domestic violence, came into
force. Turkey was the treaty’s first signatory in 2011, but the
situation of women in the country is still under threat.

Moreover, during the holidays marking the end of Ramadan, Deputy Prime
Minister Bülent Arınç expressed his concerns about the conduct that
women should observe in the public sphere, including calling on them
to not laugh in public. This could be misinterpreted as perpetuating
an anachronistic patriarchal order. The vision seems to be shared by
Erdogan as well. In one of his electoral rallies, he used violent
words indirectly targeting a prominent journalist, defining her as a
`shameless and militant woman’ who must know her place. Amberin Zaman,
a columnist for Taraf and The Economist, and her colleague, Ceyda
Karan from the Cumhuriyet Daily, have been the targets of a libelous
campaign on social media only for their professional observations on
the status of Turkish politics.

The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is on April 24, 2015.
The mass deportations and deaths suffered by the non-Muslim population
under the Ottoman Empire in 1915 will be commemorated worldwide.

Another very important topic that will affect the post-electoral
period and the upcoming political agenda are minority rights. Only
three minorities are recognized in Turkey: Armenians, Greeks and Jews.
According to Articles 37-44 of the Treaty of Lausanne, these
minorities enjoy rights from freedom of expression and religion to
education. Even nowadays, almost a century after the foundation of the
Turkish republic, there is no legal provision for other communities or
for non-Sunni Muslim groups. There has been a rise in the use of
discriminatory language to target opponents, which negatively affects
the daily life of the many Turks not considered members of official
minority groups. This racism, perpetuated by university textbooks and
election rallies, leaves an uncertain future for Turkey’s
non-protected minorities.

The Armenian Genocide and the Alevi Controversy

The 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide is on April 24, 2015.
The mass deportations and deaths suffered by the non-Muslim population
under the Ottoman Empire in 1915 will be commemorated worldwide. The
centenary will be the occasion to better understand Turkey’s treatment
of its citizens belonging to different ethnic groups. The remembrance
presents the threat of confrontation among Turks and citizens of
different ethnicities.

Unfortunately, since the assassination of Hrant Dink in 2007 ‘ a
famous Turkish-Armenian journalist and editor-in-chief of Agos, a
bilingual Turkish-Armenian weekly ‘ one can observe an escalation of
incendiary rhetoric toward the Armenian community. The fight over the
recognition of events in 1915 as a genocide even extends beyond
Turkey’s borders. For instance, it has evoked nationalism in Turkish
communities living abroad that are trying to counter the
commemorations in countries such as the United States, Australia and
Canada. Other minority communities will honor their dead as well and
openly confront Turkish denialism; for instance, there will be
commemorations of the Seyfo Genocide suffered by the Assyrian minority
under Ottoman rule.

Furthermore, according to a 2013 Agos report and later on confirmed by
the interior ministry, the `officially recognized’ minorities are
subjected to a race code classification by the education ministry as a
legacy of the Ottoman educational system. According to the report, the
code for Armenians is two, the Greek minority is classified with code
one and the Jewish minority is number three. This practice could
amount to illegal ethnicity-based data collection and profiling of
current and future generations.

Those who support a confrontation with Turkey’s past are being
subjected to discrimination and hate speech. For instance, movie
director Fatih Akın ‘ after an interview published with Agos about his
new movie The Cut, which alludes to the Armenian genocide ‘ has been
officially threatened alongside with Agos by the Turkic Pan-Turanist
Association’s Ã-tüken Journal. The association has openly declared its
intentions to fight any attempt to recognize the events of 1915 as

>From a political perspective, despite the words pronounced by
then-Prime Minister Erdogan on the eve of the 99th anniversary, in
which he offered his condolences toward Turkish citizens of Armenian
origin, attitudes to this minority have not changed. Labeling someone
as Armenian is still considered an insult by many conservative Turks.
Recently, Erdogan was invited by the Armenian president, Serzh
Sargsyan, to attend the Genocide commemoration ceremony next April in
Yerevan. At the time of writing, there was still no official reply
from the Turkish president or the government.

Muslim minorities, particularly the Alevis, are experiencing
significant discrimination as well. The Alevis, an heterogeneous and
heterodox Muslim community, represent the largest religious minority
in Turkey. They cannot freely practice their faith and their houses of
prayer, the Cemevis, are not officially recognized as places of
worship by the Directorate of Religious Affairs. The community has
suffered several massacres (Dersim, MaraÅ?, Çorum and SivaÅ?), and is
still one of the preferred targets of discrimination from a political
point of view.

The fight against ultranationalism and discrimination, alongside the
creation of a pluralistic environment supportive of human rights, is
the final task of the democratization process under Erdogan. Despite
several achievements of the AKP’s era ‘ from the ending of the
headscarf ban to the unofficial recognition of Alevis’ worship houses
‘ there is still a long path ahead for equal rights for all peoples in

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

From: A. Papazian

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