The human rights balance sheet of the Gezi Park protests is appalling. Four people were killed and 7,822 were wounded. Eleven people lost their eyesight when the capsules of gas projectiles hit their eyes. Six people are fighting for their lives in intensive care. Tens of thousands of people who participated in the protests inhaled the gas fired by the police. Thousands were detained. According to the testimonies of human right organizations and protesters, extreme police brutality was rampant during that detention.
It is not an exaggeration to say that in the last two weeks, Turkey abruptly reverted to the 1990s. Of course, a full comparison with the 1990s, when villages were set on fire and people were executed in the streets, is not possible. But a similarity exists in terms of mass violations of human rights. Turkey is once again on the radar of the international community as a country with widespread, systematic human rights violations. The warnings on human rights issued one after the other by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the European Parliament and various EU member countries and the UN Commissioner for Human Rights were the first indicators that Turkey was reverting to its 1990s status on human rights and democracy.
Human rights organizations in Turkey are interpreting the government’s reactions to the Gezi Park protests as the creeping in of a yet unnamed emergency status regime. It is known that human rights organizations, which say Turkey’s domestic legal recourses are not geared to deal with police brutality and torture, are getting ready to the take cases directly to the European Human Rights Court.
The deteriorating human rights record and the image of a police state that emerged with recent events and the government’s efforts to portray all these developments as a product of an international conspiracy against it are distinct signs of a rapid and encompassing relapse.
As Turkey’s democracy and human rights standards are thus regressing, we note that the narratives of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are embracing the traditions of the Islamic National View they inherited.
One of the most interesting developments of recent times has been the resurfacing of some adjectives we had forgotten. The label “mujahid,” which had almost become a trademark in the 1980s and 1990s for the legendary leader of the National View, Necmettin Erbakan, suddenly re-emerged in the rallies Erdogan organized after the Gezi Park protests.
Although mujahid also means jihadist, it would be a mistake to attribute to mujahid the same meaning used by radical Islamic groups of the Middle East.
In Turkey, although used in a more loose and ambiguous sense, it is still one of the unchanging symbols of Islamic traditions. Those who call Erdogan mujahid no doubt were alluding to his party’s roots based on the National View.
Erdogan is aiming at consolidating the support of the conservative and religious masses with his use of religious symbols and narratives. Perhaps such narratives should also be perceived as signals of reverting to National View traditions.
One of the clearest and most striking signals of going back to tradition was in a speech in April by the AKP chairman of Istanbul province, Aziz Babuscu. One of the most influential figures in the AKP, Babuscu defines the future vision of the AKP in words that makes one think:
“Those who were stakeholders with us one way or the other in our 10 years of rule, will not be stakeholders in the next 10 years. In the past 10 years there were those who shared our efforts to cleanse the ranks and to define freedom, law and justice. Let’s say, although they did not fully agree with us, some of those liberal segments were stakeholders with us in that process. But the future is the era of building. This era will not be as they want. Therefore those stakeholders will not be with us. Those who were with us this or that way yesterday, tomorrow will join ranks with forces that will oppose us because the Turkey that will be built and developed will not be the future they will accept. That is why our task is a lot harder.”
Although it is not clear from Babuscu’s words exactly what they will be building, it is clear that this won’t be a Turkey, a member of the European Union, governed by liberal democracy.
It is no secret that the reason why AKP increased its shares of votes in every election and got 50% of the total in the last election was its leaving behind its Islamic roots and assuming the identity of a centrist party.
It would not be a prophecy to predict that moving away from the center will lose votes for the AKP. It was, therefore, not a surprise to see that according to a poll Metropoll conducted in June, AKP’s numbers are about 35.3%. After deducting the undecided voters, this poll is estimating at least a 10% decline in AKP support.
Erdogan constantly asks for polls on a variety of subjects. It is unthinkable that he is not aware of his party’s serious loss of voter support. This makes the persistence of his rough style and polarizing declarations hard to understand.
Despite all the damage suffered by democracy and Turkey’s rapid loss of prestige in the international arena, Erdogan still sticks to his defensive style and to his accusations constantly blaming others.
Is Erdogan’s mujahid identity overtaking all his other concerns? This may well be the question that will be most asked in days to come.
Orhan Kemal Cengiz is a human rights lawyer, columnist and former president of the Human Rights Agenda Association, a Turkish NGO that works on human-rights issues ranging from the prevention of torture to the rights of the mentally disabled. Since 2002, Cengiz has been the lawyer for the Alliance of Turkish Protestant Churches.