Turkey is following footsteps of Russia and China in policing diaspora

Erdogan's purge is a threat to Turks living abroad and, more dangerously, to the rule of law everywhere.
Sunday 18/02/2018
Anti-Erdogan protesters, one holding a banner reading Truth and Justice, demonstrate in Paris, on January 5. (AP)
Challenging government policies. Anti-Erdogan protesters demonstrate in Paris, on January 5. (AP)

Transnational repression is increasingly woven into the fabric of the international order. The globalisation of travel and finance and the spread of instantaneous communication, notably through social media, benefit civil society and woven links that encourage broad dialogue across borders.

What is less often commented on is that countries have been handed useful and cheaper ways of pursuing dissidents, exiles and citizens wherever they may be. International law enforcement mechanisms and the collaboration between security services have given countries powerful weapons to monitor citizens.

The activities of Russia and China in this area are well understood but it is less often noticed that Turkey has increasingly sought to monitor and harass its citizens living in Europe, especially when they actively oppose the policies of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Last October, in a speech to his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan referred to a “traitors’ front.” This is not just rhetoric and the fallout of such an aggressive stance towards his opponents is becoming clearer with every month that passes.

The speed and aggressive nature of the efforts after the coup attempt in 2016 to rid Turkey’s domestic institutions of anyone associated with Fethullah Gulen, the cleric who lives in the United States and is blamed by Erdogan for being behind the attempted coup, was breathtaking. It underlines how transnational repression as practised by Turkey can demolish the hope that globalisation of the liberal order will ever result in democratic consolidation.

Since the 1970s, Gulen had promoted a form of modernising, nationalist Islam that fit the doctrine of “Turkish-Islamic synthesis” that flourished after the 1980 coup. It was used by the military junta and successive Turkish governments to promote the idea of Islamic identity as a major plank of Turkish nationalism and beat back what some saw as the threat of a leftist revolution.

Since 2012, Turkey’s — and the AKP’s — soft power depended very much on the Gulen movement’s capacity to serve as a proxy in the spheres of education and media. The alignment between Gulen and the state during the country’s drive to liberalise its economy facilitated Turkey’s projection of soft power in the Balkans and Central Asia.

Helped by historical links with both regions, Turkey used investment and cultural and educational ties to open new markets and build a “golden generation” of local elites. Turkish nationalism took a back seat and the Gulen schools spearheaded the educational links and presented Turkey as an adaptable and open-minded country.

The AKP was presented as a big tent that accepted pious conservative businessmen, liberals and minorities tired of nationalistic military interventions. The AKP projected a vision of Turkey as a modern, capitalist and Islamic model for the Middle East at a time when the West was desperate to find and anoint a country that could offer a plausible model of democratic, economically liberal and conservative Islam. In other words, to reconcile Islam and democracy.

The fallout of the alleged role Gulen played in the July 2016 attempted coup destroyed efforts at projecting Turkey’s soft power over the previous three decades.

Erdogan’s attempts to get Gulen extradited to Turkey have fallen on deaf ears. His vast purge of the military, the judiciary, the police, the media and the universities, which involves many people who hail from the left or are of Kurdish origin, destroyed the image of Turkey as a modern country so painstakingly built up by Gulen.

In the Arab world, Turkey’s neo-Ottoman pretentions have made it the butt of ridicule. By backing the Muslim Brotherhood, Erdogan destroyed any credit he might have won in Egypt, Tunisia and the broader Middle East. In Syria, his calls for the ousting of President Bashar Assad and murky relations with the Islamic State (ISIS) brought him into conflict with his Western allies, Russia, Syria and Saudi Arabia.

Turkish intervention in January in northern Syria raised the unnerving prospect of a direct confrontation between two NATO allies. The initial aim of seizing control of the Afrin enclave held by Syrian Kurdish militia the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, an entity deemed a terrorist organisation by both Turkey and the United States, has been extended to Manbij and Rojava.

In the former, Russia has influence; in the latter the United States has 2,000 military personnel that equip and train the YPG for the fight against ISIS. Is Turkey ready to challenge the United States militarily in Syria?

How Turkey and the United States read each other’s intentions is crucial. One can only note that the traditional institutional ties, not least military, that underpinned the relations between the two countries have weakened, as have traditional foreign policy establishments in Ankara and Washington.

Turkish domestic politics will be affected not just by Erdogan’s aggressive military tactics in Syria but by the effects of the global purge he has decreed on Turkish communities abroad, most of which are not made up of exiles.

Given the size of that diaspora and the weakened state of democratic institutions in Turkey, Erdogan’s capacity to limit that population’s freedom of speech and rights of free association outside the borders of Turkey will determine whether democratic alternatives to authoritarian rule emerge at home.

Turkey is following in the footsteps of China and Russia as its behaviour helps turn the international order into a system of countries mutually committed to policing each other’s populations abroad. Erdogan, like his Russian and Chinese counterparts, is initiating a purge that represents a threat to those Turks living abroad and, more dangerously, to the rule of law everywhere.

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