Istar Gözaydin, academic and social activist. On the morning of December 20, Prof. Dr. Istar Gözaydın, a public intellectual and leading scholar on state-religion relations in Turkey, was detained on charges of being a member of a terrorist organization. There was no reason to believe the accusations or any legal evidence to ground them. She was just another voice, silenced in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in July 15. Not only for the established opposition, but for anyone who voices criticism of Erdogan´s leadership these days, it is just a matter of time before they suffer a similar fate.
Who is this lady?
Gözaydın is a prominent advocate of human rights both through her academic research and as a social activist. Those who know her public reputation often think of her as a liberal, but those who get to know her in person cannot miss her inflexible commitment to rights and freedoms and her determination to protect them. Having worked as a social scientist at various universities in Turkey (Istanbul Technical, Dogus and Gediz among them) she had connections with various groups in the country yet always avoided any form of engagement that could be described as membership. Despite maintaining a critical distance for academic purposes she never hesitated when it came to speaking up for the underprivileged, regardless of their ethnic, religious or other orientation.
Violence has always been her red line. “If we are not going to stand up against capital punishment and any other kind of violence“, she had said in an interview shortly before her arrest, “what is it that we do stand for in life then, as people and academics of this country?” Istar Gözaydin was fired from her post at the University during the crackdown that followed the failed coup in July and was banned from leaving the country on September 23. Like every other critical public figure, she was afraid, but she just couldn’t justify remaining silent in the face of systematic violations of law. Therefore, she continued to use the democratic platforms available to speak out.
She offered a moderate yet convincing criticism of the post-coup crackdown. She was neither a Kurdish politician nor a Gülen activist, yet she spoke to everyone who valued freedom. Then her time came; the judicial arm of the Erdogan leadership decided to make an example out of her: even the most moderate critics would not be tolerated. This was the highly politicised atmosphere in which she was arrested: yet, her lawyer says, she has no regrets.
What happened in Turkey?
Turkey has never been an easy country to understand but the failed coup attempt on July 15 of 2016 has made it all much more complicated. It was not the first time the Turkish military (or rather the junta within it) has attempted a coup but this latest bid was a curious one. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the presidential and primary target of the coup came up with contradictory statements on when and how he learned about the coup. Extreme disorganization on the military side and a surprising level of calm readiness on the part of the civilians, make it less-than-convincing that a wholesale coup was attempted of which the government knew nothing in advance. The single most obvious beneficiary of the coup was Mr. Erdogan himself who officially described the coup as “a gift from God”. Various members of the AKP government have publicly declared that the coup enabled them to do things they could not otherwise have done, that is to say, in democratic settings.
The huge crackdown after the coup accelerated the ever-increasing authoritarianism of the Erdogan government and further distanced Turkey from its democratic allies. More than one hundred thousand civil servants were fired, tens of thousands of people most of whom are teachers, doctors, engineers and bureaucrats were arrested, thousands of NGOs and hundreds of media organs were shut down. The rest are waiting for their time to come. An interesting way to celebrate the victory of democracy. At this point one can´t help but ask; what worse could have ensued should the coup have been successful? The allegations by the government were that the coup was executed by followers of the Gülen Movement in the army in cooperation with the western powers most intent on destabilizing Turkey; evidence has not been forthcoming. The parliamentary committee after the coup questioned everyone except for three key persons; the chief intelligence officer, the chief of general staff and Mr. Erdogan himself. Again, a rather interesting way to seek the truth.
A country turning into a kaleidoscope
“In Turkey, we are dramatically putting behind bars all those who struggle for freedom of expression and criticize the government even slightly,“ said Orhan Pamuk, the first Nobel prize laureate from Turkey, in an open letter that warned that post-coup Turkey was “sliding into a regime of terror”. Indeed countless leading liberals, leftists, Kurds, Gülenists and even critical conservatives were locked up while those critics who remained at large were rendered voiceless by the harsh witch-hunt that has also swept through social media.
Even prior to the coup, politics in Turkey had already become a one-man-show for all intents and purposes. In the wake of the coup, it started turning into a kaleidoscope in which you only see the same image and hear the same voice wherever you go. The extremity with which Mr. Erdogan has embodied power within his own person is a text-book-example of the state of emergency which transcends the rule of law. All the current efforts of the president’s apparatchiks revolve around creating a new regime in Turkey that institutionalizes ongoing (de facto) one-man-rule. Since Erdogan´s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lacks a qualified majority in the Parliament (2/3 of all seats), he can´t get the new Constitution endorsed in the Parliament. Therefore the AKP persuaded the Nationalist Movement (MHP) to come on side and create a Turco-Islamist bloc. Still, the bloc can only take the matter to a referendum likely to take place under the state of emergency. A historic change will be made at a time of the strictest media control and with very limited access to information that will say anything critical about the AKP government.
The numbers support this argument. A recent survey taken by ANAR, a Turkish research company, indicated that 36% of the population has no idea about the content of the proposed amendment while 28 % claim to have learned very little about it. This should strike no one as surprising given the heavyhanded control on the media in a country which takes the lead for jailing journalists. The amendments, which are being pushed vigorously by the AKP leadership, aim to lodge unprecedented powers in the person of Mr. Erdogan. Deniz Baykal, a senior politician and former leader of the main opposition party claims that should the referendum secure these changes, they will make Erdogan more powerful and less accountable than Bashar Assad of Syria. For example he will be entitled to make statutory decrees on his own which will by-pass the parliament, rendering his rule near-absolute. It has been reported that even AKP MPs have little information on what they are voting for.
Turkey has recently been going through an unprecedented process of recrimination against whoever might qualify as the opposition. The collective identities that don’t fit into AKP’s unspoken yet implemented definition of acceptable citizenship; Kurds, Alevis, liberals, seculars, socialists, social democrats and most heatedly Gülenists known for their moderation, are the targets of this systematic and accelerating tide of recrimination. More than one thousand educational institutions and NGOs of Gülenists have been shut down alongside seventeen universities by the AKP because of their alleged involvement in the coup attempt, without any court decision.
The leader, many parliamentary members and elected mayors of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democracy Party (HPD) were in turn arrested for their alleged link to PKK terrorism. Some leading figures in the Erdogan leadership took this wave of denunciation to a new level by calling the main opposition a terrorist organisation, under conditions of a generous impunity of course. In these circumstances, anti-western and pro-Russian Euroasianists, who are well organized in the Turkish military and intelligence, make up the only allies of the AKP in a marriage of convenience. They have two things in common; an appetite for authoritarianism and hostility against the west. In the near future, regardless of the referendum results, Turkey can only suffer from the divisions that the Erdogan leadership has inflicted on its society.