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Turkey’s Changing Freedom Deficit

DURHAM – Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) rose to power in 2002 on the promise that it would give pious Muslims religious freedom. Fourteen years later, “freedom” is the last thing the AKP has delivered.

Today, even AKP supporters need to measure their words carefully, lest they be perceived as criticizing the government or siding with its enemies. This imperative has intensified since the failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government on July 15. Now, destroying any evidence of association with the AKP’s foes – especially Fethullah Gülen, the reclusive Pennsylvania-based imam whom the government accuses of masterminding the putsch – is a matter of self-preservation.

Erdoğan’s government is by no means the first to compel Turkish citizens to hide their preferences and beliefs. Under the secular governments that ruled Turkey from the 1920s to 1950, and to some extent until 2002, pious Turks seeking advancement in government, the military, and even commerce had to downplay their religiosity and avoid signaling approval of political Islam.

The leaders of the three Islamist parties that preceded the AKP resented the barriers to religious expression. They held that French-style secularism had perverted Turkish culture. Though careful not to challenge the constitution openly, from 1971 to 2001, they were successively banned as threats to secularism. In 1999, Erdoğan himself was jailed for reciting a poem deemed an incitement to sectarian violence. In the same year, Gülen, under investigation for advocating an Islamic state, moved to the United States.