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Turkey at crossroads

Turkey is one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and the people are renowned for their hospitability. The nation itself was built on the founding principles of democracy, justice and peace. In 1920, the father of the Republic of Turkey, Kemal Mustafa Ataturk, brought about sweeping political, legal and social reforms with the aim of creating an equal society. He imposed secularism in the country, and believed in the power of a free and liberal education for all. Ataturk’s portrait and statue can still be seen everywhere, and yet his core ideology is currently under threat.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the current president, founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2001 and the Turkish prime minister between 2003 and 2014. His rise to presidency was not without criticism or controversy. Previously the role had been a predominantly ceremonial position that was decided by members of the parliament. Changes to the legislation were made, a national referendum held, and in 2014, Erdogan was elected president by the Turkish public with more power than ever before. His followers believe that Erdogan’s party have helped to stabilise the economy and that the government is now more aligned with their Islamic beliefs. Back in 2013, Erdogan was faced with a corruption scandal, based on a ‘gas for gold scheme’. A number of key people in the Turkish elite were embroiled in the scandal, including Erdogan’s sons. Audio recordings, which have been heavily disputed by the Turkish government, were released. In which, Erdogan is reportedly heard instructing his son to hide significant amounts of money. Erdogan blamed the scandal on the Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen, vowing revenge on the Hizmet movement. Encompassing banks, media sources, businesses and schools, the Hizmet movement, meaning service, was once thought to include some of the most powerful men and women in the country. Gulen had been aligned with the AKP, and the two men had previously been allies, even working together to address the civil law concerning religious freedoms. A movement that was celebrated by female teachers in Hizmet schools up and down the country, who, on that day, praised Erdogan for allowing them to wear their headscarves in public and express their religious identity. Little were they to know what was to come.

Flag of Turkey

After 2013, the government grew increasingly more committed to bringing about the downfall of the Hizmet movement. Implementing a number of new laws to make business more difficult, observing schools and educational facilities with greater scrutiny and shaping public attitudes towards Gulenists. The increasing censorship of the media allowed them to control public opinion, increasing support for their actions. Turkey has more members of the press in prison than any other country, and they are committed to censoring the internet and what websites the Turkish people can access, with Wiki, Twitter and Facebook being banned on several occasions. This change in public perceptions towards Gulenists, and the power over society that they are perceived to have, was particularly apparent during a sexual assault case in Istanbul, in which, a woman was sexually assaulted by one of the bus employees while sleeping. The chairman of the Metro Turizm board blamed the incident on the ‘parallel scum’, suggesting that Gulen and the Hizmet movement had ultimately orchestrated this seemingly unrelated although shocking incident. The chairman, Galip Öztürk, only retracted his statement when the perpetrator admitted the crime, stating that ‘I was tempted, so I did it’. On the eve of 15th July, Turkey experienced a supposed attempted military coup, which the Government believed was the responsibility of Fethullah Gulen. Since then, the Hizmet movement has been reclassified as FETO, or the Gulenists Terror Organisation, and people associated with it are now considered to be enemies of the Turkish state. Businesses and schools have been closed down and over 40, 000 individuals have been imprisoned. There have been some allegations of police brutality, poor conditions and little communication being allowed with their legal representation. Human Rights Monitoring Groups state that these people are being kept in brutal, oppressive conditions, with little hope of release.

Istanbul at night

These purges can only be considered as being a direct violation of the human rights of these people. Teachers who have been in the profession all of their working lives are no longer allowed to teach, or study, or work somewhere else, or even leave the country to find better opportunities elsewhere. Instead, they are trapped. Waiting for the day that the police will come, and accuse them of terrorism. Individuals who have done nothing wrong, and have in no way been actively involved in the coup or in undermining the government, are ultimately being persecuted. Erdogan wants to believe that anyone ever associated with the Hizmet movement is thus automatically a terrorist yet the majority of those who have been persecuted led quiet, respectable religiously conservative lives and were not involved in any of the chaos that ensued. But what can be done? Turkey is the gateway country between the East and the West and millions of refugees travel through the country to escape war and conflict in their own countries. With European funding, Turkey is currently responsible for a vast majority of these refugees and Europe does not want Erdogan to renege on their agreement. By questioning Erdogan and the current state of affairs, Europe would then have to consider the fact that Erdogan would no longer assist in the detainment and repatriation of thousands of Syrian and Middle Eastern migrants running away from the war, and that is not something that they are prepared to deal with. Instead, the fundamental violation of thousands of people’s inherent human rights will continue to go unnoticed by Western media.