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Turkey is not a free country

In Turkey, the absence of freedom pertaining to thought, expression in written and verbal forms, belief, opinion, and the freedom to engage in criticism is evident. It is important to emphasize that this pertains not to mere partial limitations on these constitutional liberties, but rather to the complete and comprehensive “suppression of thought” which characterizes the existing state.

In light of this, the recent incident involving Merdan Yanardağ should be interpreted within this context. It is worth acknowledging that a government may not necessarily align with Yanardağ’s ideas, as unanimity of thought is rarely achievable within any social group. Differences naturally emerge wherever human beings exist, underscoring why pluralistic political systems tend to foster greater satisfaction among individuals. Divergent perspectives and interpretations of events are intrinsic to human nature. Democracy and pluralism have arisen precisely due to this reality.

The concepts of thought, opinion, the expression of thoughts and opinions, and the freedom of belief or disbelief indicate the presence of these inherent individual differences at a fundamental level. Although it is possible to suppress and silence such divergences, people will persist in thinking differently and maintaining disparate beliefs. One of the fundamental qualities of being human lies in our unique identities. Without the freedom to exercise thought, opinion, and belief, we are unable to fully manifest the aspects of our identities that emerge from these differences.

The inability to freely express and live out one’s identity tends to lead to discontentment. Thus, our differences represent valuable assets, as we endeavor to safeguard our distinctive qualities that make us distinct individuals. Those who can achieve this, who can maintain their individuality, resist the dominant and influential power of collectivism, and deviate from societal pressures, are commonly referred to as individuals of character, regardless of the society in question.

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Turkey has grappled with ensuring fundamental freedoms and liberties for the past 250 years. This journey, initiated during the Ottoman Empire, became one of the principal factors contributing to the state’s decline subsequent to its failures. Similar to how trapped air heats up when pressure increases, the suppression of society adversely affects sociological, political, and economic equilibrium, generating a divisive rather than unifying dynamic.

Authoritarianism does not foster cohesion; on the contrary, it fragments society with a centrifugal force, undermining the foundations of belonging. Paradoxically, in reverse, systems that tolerate differences are more cohesive, as they become more resilient. The Republic of Turkey has been equipped with an official ideology since its establishment, with the state endeavoring to inculcate this ideology upon its citizens. Children, young people, and adults were subjected to the imposition of this official ideology. However, understandably, a portion of society failed to identify with this indoctrinated ideology. Various segments, including Islamists, communists, liberals, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks, and Alevis, rejected the ideology and worldview imposed by the state.

The state marginalized individuals who harbored different thoughts through educational policies, compulsory military service, mechanisms related to employment and economic distribution, as well as through the police, the military, and the bureaucracy. The constitutional provisions safeguarding universal human rights and freedoms were frequently left unimplemented.

Throughout history, Turkey has consistently targeted different individuals for these reasons. People have found themselves at odds with their own state. Astonishingly, those who finance the state through their taxes have suffered oppression at the hands of the very institutions funded by their contributions.

This oppression and persecution were often carried out through the promotion of patriotism, Turkism, and fear-mongering with external threats. Leftists, rightists, Islamists, Grey Wolves, Communists, homosexuals, LGBTQ+ individuals, the Gülen Movement, the Kurdish political movement, individuals affected by statutory decrees, victims of the law number 1402, Alevis, Christians – the victims may have changed, but the mentality and persecution have remained constant.

This pervasive characteristic of the state is well-known to those familiar with Turkey’s recent history, whether through study or personal experience. However, it is important to note that this situation has experienced periodic fluctuations, and Turkey’s progress toward becoming a fully-fledged rule of law can be assessed by examining the extent to which these fundamental freedoms are guaranteed and implemented.

Turkey’s relatively freest period occurred during its pursuit of EU standards and fulfillment of the Copenhagen Criteria between 1999 and 2010. However, this trajectory suffered a severe setback in 2013 with the Gezi Park protests and the December 17 corruption investigations, leading to a significant decline in terms of human rights. The confiscation of newspapers, closure of TV channels, crackdowns on news agencies, and the imposition of restrictions on universities marked the beginning of a new era. These actions were followed by widespread surveillance, arrests, and detentions.

The meticulously orchestrated coup attempts on July 15, 2016, enabled those in power to seize control of the state and establish their regime. From the outset, conscientious individuals have voiced their concerns through writings and speeches, but their pleas have largely been ignored. Grave violations of human rights have worsened, become more pervasive, and assumed a systematic nature. Not only have fundamental freedoms been systematically violated in Turkey, but the constitution that is meant to guarantee them has also been suspended.

Each journalist, intellectual, academic, artist, politician, activist, and ordinary citizen subjected to imprisonment further solidifies this system. Every arrest or detention further dims the light, intensifies the darkness, restricts freedoms, and emboldens those responsible for such actions. Meanwhile, society has largely observed these events through the lens of their own affiliations or neighborhoods.

People have often failed to react to the injustices and human rights abuses suffered by those who differ from themselves, adopting an attitude of “as long as it doesn’t affect me, let the snake live.” Consequently, the state apparatus exploiting this weakness has expanded the scope of oppression.

It is worth noting that I am not delving into the specifics of what Merdan Yanardağ said or did not say, as it is irrelevant to the central topic. Freedom of thought, opinion, and belief protect all forms of ideas, opinions, and beliefs, even the most extreme, provocative, and divergent ones. A country that imposes restrictions on the expression of people’s thoughts, opinions, and beliefs cannot be considered truly free.

Everyone aspires to leave such a country and attain freedom, for our inherent nature embraces diversity. The right to be different is an inherent part of our nature, regardless of whether we exercise that right. Restricting it serves as a source of unhappiness. Free countries uphold freedom of thought, opinion, and belief, and these characteristics foster greater social cohesion.

Yanardağ’s arrest should not be viewed as an isolated incident. For those unaware of the extent of thought crimes, a quick internet search will reveal the tragedies endured by individuals from various groups who languish in prisons based on fabricated justifications. It is imperative to acknowledge that Turkey is not a country that upholds freedom.

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Dr. Mehmet Efe Caman is a Scholar of Politics at Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN). Dr. Caman’s main research focuses on Democracy, democratization and human rights, Turkish politics, the Middle East, Eurasian politics and post-Soviet regions, the European Union. He has published a monograph on Turkish foreign policy, numerous book chapters and scholarly articles in English, German and Turkish about topics related to his research areas.


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