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Advocates of Silenced Turkey: Hope for the Oppressed and the Silenced

Erdogan’s long arms are everywhere and is threatening all dissidents no matter if they live out of Turkey or not. When I was working as an educationalist in Pakistan, Erdogan coerced the Government of Pakistan in November 2016 to seize a network of private schools where Turkish teachers sympathetic with the Hizmet Movement worked and deport the Turkish educators within three days as he was also on an official visit to the same country. Due to a host of reasons which may occupy yet another article or even a voluminous book, Pakistani authorities cooperated with the Erdogan regime to take action against a small group of people who were affiliated with the Hizmet Movement.

In the months that followed, a clandestine squad most probably linked to the national intelligence agencies in Pakistan abducted a Turkish educator friend of mine along with his wife and two teenaged daughters from their home in suburban Lahore in a repulsive manner by blindfolding and hooding them as if they were bloody criminals. The educator parents and their children, who had done nothing but serving education in Pakistan for more a decade, were kept as hostages for 18 days at an undisclosed location until we heard from the Turkish partisan media about their illegitimate deportation to Turkey while the Pakistani officials kept on swearing before the competent high courts of their country that they had no information about the whereabouts of the family. This was how the lives of the Turkish educators including myself were upturned in Pakistan as we lost ‘everything’ and were rendered refugees overnight.

As the branches of Erdogan’s long arms in Pakistan, the Turkish Embassy in Islamabad, Maarif Foundation, TIKA, Yunus Emre Institute, Anadolu News Agency, and smaller other partisan groups from Turkey prepared and tilled the ground for these terrible consequences as accompanied by their local collaborators. Did it only happen in Pakistan? No, it happened in the same way in tens of other weaker countries mostly in Africa and Asia including Senegal, Niger, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, and Chad.  

Originated in Turkey in the late 1960s as a faith-inspired movement, the Hizmet Movement has grown in time to become a transnational civil movement with forte in education and prominence in social, cultural, business, intercultural and interreligious dialogue, media, charity and humanitarian services worldwide. Yet, it had almost no institutions for regional or global human rights advocacy. Just as it goes in a Turkish saying in translation, “Only those who had fallen from a roof earlier could sympathize with the agony of the newly-fallen”, the participants and the institutions of the Hizmet Movement – who have been subjected to disproportionate oppression by the current regime – gradually learnt how to defend their own rights and especially the rights of the oppressed and the silenced.

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Having been targeted by the Erdogan regime in Pakistan, I started looking ways of defending my right along with my friends’. Not surprisingly, a group of Hizmet participants in the United States had established a human rights association named Advocates of Silenced Turkey (AST) with a substantial number of volunteers. As oppressed and silenced by the repercussions of the Erdogan regime’s influence on Pakistan, I welcomed this development wholeheartedly and joined it immediately. Since 2018, I have attended at every opportunity to several international projects, advocacy programs, and fundraising events organized by the AST.

The more I was involved in the events held by the AST, the more I had the chance to interact with the office holders who steered the organization. Ms. Hafza Girdap, Executive Director of the AST and Mr. Murat Kaval, President of the AST were just a few of many I met. This organization registered a tremendous progress in the human rights advocacy campaigns within a very short time and turned the limelight on the most intricate human rights issues in and from Turkey for the attention of the global public opinion.

In the wake of the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the Erdogan regime has turned Turkey into an open-air prison for the dissidents where every naysay was silenced, every recusant institution including schools, universities, hospitals, socio-cultural and business associations, and media outlets were shuttered, the assets of businesspeople and ordinary folk who resisted succumbing to the partisanship were seized. Never in the history of the modern Republic of Turkey, even during 1940s with the Wealth Tax, such an expansive plunder drive was committed; yet, just as the political manifesto of Erdogan’s ruling and ruining party states, “Others think, the AKP delivers” the Erdogan regime accomplished this. Given the 2019 World Bank official data mentioning Turkey’s GDP as 754.41 billion US dollars and Pakistan’s as 278.22 billion US dollars, the total amount of the seized assets from the participants and institutions of the Hizmet Movement for the last 5 years is approximately $32 billion and it most likely exceeds $50 billion with the seized assets of other groups sympathetic with the Movement.  

While the oppression raged relentlessly in Turkey and even seeped across borders, something had to be urgently done in seeking solutions and attracting the attention of the global public opinion to Turkey to make them aware of all hideous practices of the Erdogan regime.  Advocates of Silenced Turkey was established with this motivation and successfully executed numerous projects especially in the United States. The organization organized another resounding project just a week ago in New York with an incredibly successful implementation at the right place and at the right time, turning the spotlights on the organization: It was a visual billboard advertisement flashing the message “Stop Erdogan” on a 450 square-meter screen near the Times Square. When this ad became viral in the social media, the Erdogan regime panicked and mobilized their all means in the US for scuttling the AST campaign. 

No doubt, the Erdogan regime has been in sheer panic after the election of the Biden administration in the US. Especially during the last five years, the US-Turkey relations have not been much conducive for progress because of Erdogan’s immature and wrong policies at home, in the region, and the World. Due to the reasons known to him and a bunch of others, the Erdogan regime turned its back to the NATO by dismissing all Turkish Armed Forces top brass affiliated with the NATO, getting closer to Russia as trying to thank Putin for consolidating an iron fist on Turkey and purchasing S-400 batteries from Russia, notwithstanding the warnings issued by the US and NATO officials, but only for consolidating his own rule over the country with fear and violation of the basic citizenship rights of millions in Turkey. After the administration change in the US, Erdogan hit the wall and felt the real impact of having lost the happy-go-lucky carte blanches from Trump himself and has so far made history in Turkey by having not been able to have an official phone conversation with a new US president after his rise to the office.

When I read the book titled “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror” jointly authored by American journalist Michael Weiss and Syrian analyst Hassan Hassan, a part affected me indelibly. The authors wrote that when they talked to a Syrian official about the Syrian and the US relations just before the civil war began, he told them that the relations were not really promising but the Syrian officials had the privilege to call the US departments and hold discussions with them. The Syrians used to think that it did not matter what they talked but it mattered if there was someone on the other side and answered their phone calls. The Syrian official also added that the openness of this channel of communication used to relax them, thinking that the US was still not fully against the incumbent Syrian administration. These days, a similar episode applies to Turkey. Yes, the Turkish officials could still talk to the US Embassy officials in Turkey and some officials in the Washington D.C. but they have an acute problem of reaching to the President of the United States of America. It had started similarly in Syria before they lost contact altogether.

The ad campaign by the AST took place during this sensitive time of the Erdogan regime where they even had difficulty of contacting President Biden via teleconference. That’s why, they panicked a lot, fearing that the walls of fear built by their government would crumble and fall at any time. As partisan as they can get, the President’s Office for Communications unleashed a ridiculous campaign of “Love Erdogan” LCD billboards at home and abroad as a reaction to the AST’s ad campaign. No one knows for sure if there is anyone who would care the Erdogan regime’s “Love Erdogan” ad campaign which reminds me of ‘Love Me’ imprint on a baby’s bib. And yes, here comes another Turkish saying in translation: “You cannot coerce one to admire another’s beauty.” In the West they say, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink.”

As Turkish foreign missions join in the effort with state departments across Turkey using taxpayers’ money on propaganda tools for the Erdogan regime, a small group of Anatolian News Agency (AA) reporters accosted Mr. Murat Kaval, the General Coordinator of the AST, in front of his house and harassed him with repetitive questions in the guise of journalism. When Mr. Murat prudently recorded the harassment episode as it unfurled, he even recognized the microphone-toting ‘reporter’ from one of the programs he had jointly participated and addressed him by his name, leading to panic in the pack. Even the Covid-19 masks on their faces could not save the ‘reporters’ from being unmasked, so they fled from the scene. When Mr. Murat Kaval had ‘unmasked’ the microphone-toting reporter, he had also turned to the cameraman and asked his name. It was funny to see how, in the spur of the moment, the cameraman pointed at his ID on his neck and kept on recording as Mr. Kaval zoomed on the name with his mobile phone camera. It was yet another pretty normal day in the lives of a bunch of supporters of the Erdogan regime. Such people blindly support Erdogan for the worldly gains but fear also from being apprehended. What a pity!

Was it something new in the US?  No. When Erdogan visited Washington DC in 2017, he ordered

his security detail to beat the protestors in front of the Turkish Embassy and watch his security guards from afar while they landed blows on people there. Meanwhile, there are many people who live in the US but fear from the threat of the Erdogan regime; and so their fast of silence continues.

Stop Erdogan ad was a breakpoint for dealing a strong impact on Erdogan’s regime that feeds on fear and intimidation. It seems the regime will be cornered more and more with similar other human rights campaigns across the world in the near future. Organizing and executing many human rights activities all around the world simultaneously, the participants of the Hizmet Movement have displayed that they not only raise their voices against the injustices meted out to the Hizmet volunteers in Turkey and abroad, but also against the oppression and tyranny suffered in other parts of the world. A couple of days before, the AST organized a series of peaceful protests in more than 40 cities across the US simultaneously. It was a great success for the organization by organizing so large and coordinated activities within a short period of time which I believe is a challenge for many established human rights organizations elsewhere too.

AST has been a beacon of hope for the oppressed and the silenced people, remind all that Turkey does not mean Erdogan only and that Turkey must be freed from this freak regime. Volunteers of the AST and the Hizmet Movement love their home country not in mere words but in essence. Borrowing from Erdogan’s phrasebook with a minor change, they seem to say: “There’s more about Turkey than Erdogan only.”

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Engin Yigit is a Politurco columnist, activist, and author. Follow him at @enginyigtt.

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