Behlül Özkan, currently Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations at Istanbul’s Marmara University, recently penned an op-ed for the NY Times about freedom of speech in Turkey.


In his article Özkan claims that,


And yet this time the response from his supporters was exceptionally chilling: A pro-Erdogan organized crime boss proclaimed, “We will take a shower in your blood,” while the office doors of some of the academics were ominously marked with red crosses.


However, he omitted the fact that the Rize Chief Prosecutor’s Office and the Ankara Head Prosecutor’s Office launched investigations into Sedat Peker, who is well-known in Turkey as a mafia figure and thug, because of his threats against the academicians. After these investigations were opened, Peker was summoned to the Anadolu Courthouse in Istanbul and gave a deposition to the prosecutor. Naturally, because Özkan chose to use Peker as an example while attacking the Turkish government, neglecting a detail that would weaken his argument may cause the reader to question his objectivity.


Later on in the same commentary Özkan writes that Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoğlu, “… set out on a trip to several European countries in order to encourage foreign investment in Turkey’s foundering economy.”


Actually, it is clear that Turkey’s economy is not ”foundering” as Özkan claims. The Turkish economy has been subject to constant criticism and fear mongering for the past decade. Despite the hysterical predictions of doom, and despite Fethullah Gülen’s efforts to create crises, the Turkish economy continues to grow. Last month, the World Bank announced that it expected the Turkish economy’s 2015 growth to come in at 4.2%, which meant an upward revision of a full percentage point. This is actually stunning news considering what the Turkish economy has been subjected to over the past year. Also, Turkey’s current account deficit is running at about four per cent of GDP, down from the ten per cent a few years ago. There is a problematic global economy and Turkey’s performance under these circumstances is a positive achievement.


Özkan continues his article with another omission of a fact. He claims that


”Many people fear that Ms. Merkel offered another compensation in exchange for help on the refugee issues: The European Union would tolerate Turkey’s human rights violations and its reckless handling of the Kurdish conflict.”


However, the Turkish government did not end the peace process last summer, which makes an assertion like “Turkey is reckless while handling the Kurdish conflict” extremely questionable. The PKK’s umbrella organization, the KCK, unilaterally ended the two-and-a-half-year-long ceasefire with the government on July 11, and threatened Turkey with further attacks. Since then, the PKK has carried out constant attacks against Turkish security forces, and even civilians.


The AK Party government has extended the human rights and freedoms of every citizen, regardless of ethnicity, but especially for Kurds. As you can find in my previous article, Kurds can run election campaigns and publicity in Kurdish, and Kurdish prisoners can speak Kurdish with their visitors. There is a 24-hour public television station broadcasting in Kurdish called TRT Kurdi. Universities now teach the Kurdish and Zaza languages. Toponyms in Kurdish areas of the country can be renamed (or returned to the original Kurdish names) in line with demands from the local residents. Kurds have access to social and religious services in Kurdish. Private schools can teach in Kurdish, and public schools can have Kurdish lessons. These changes were all made possible by the AK Party government. In order to find a conclusion to the war with the PKK, the Erdoğan-led AKP government even engaged in direct talks with Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader. So, Turkey deals with the Kurdish conflict as it should, in the frame of proper human rights.


Furthermore, it is obvious that ”The European Union” did not tolerate Turkey just because of refugee crisis. The EU regularly makes statements about Turkey’s freedom of speech being an issue for Turkey right now, because of the arrests of academics and journalists. For example, last week the EU condemned Turkey for the arrests of several academics and said that it is an extremely worrying situation, as Mr.Özkan also wrote. That doesn’t sound like ”toleration of a human rights violation.”


Additionally, Mr. Özkan tries to question President Erdogan’s legitimacy by maintaining that, “Like many Western governments, the Obama administration has distanced itself from Mr. Erdogan since his suppression of the Gezi Park protests of 2013.”


Yet, Turkey continues to have good relations with the vast majority of Western governments after 2013, such as France, Germany, England, and Canada. Turkey shares the same agenda with Germany on the Syrian refugee crisis. Turkey shares the same policy towards Syria with France. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, made his first visit abroad to Turkey and highlighted Canada’s good relations with Turkey. Britain supports Turkey’s European Union membership bid. So, in fact, “Western countries” continued to have good relations with Turkey after 2013.


Mr. Özkan also should remember the fact that Turkey is a NATO member and an ally of Europe and North America. The Obama Administration’s distance from Turkey, which occurred entirely while John Kerry has been Secretary of State, is not necessarily a side-effect of the Gezi Park Protests or Turkey’s human rights record. When the Turkish government decided to buy a Chinese air defense system in October 2013, the U.S. and NATO warned Turkey that the alliance would never integrate the Chinese system into its own air defense network. However, Turkey did not intend to depart from NATO’s defense infrastructure. The reason behind the decision, according to Turkish officials, was that China gave a better offer. Eventually, Turkey cancelled the contract with China for the $3.4 billion USD long-range defense missile system due to a desire to develop such a system using domestic resources.


The Chinese air defense system was a main reason that Turkey and the U.S. experienced heightened difficulties after the Gezi Park protests. Besides that, the Arab Spring and the Syrian crisis affected Turkey-U.S. relations. In the past year it has become clear that the Obama Administration preferred Iran as a strategic partner to the U.S.’ traditional regional allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey; the nuclear deal with Iran was only a public display of that preference. This alteration also has no relevance to Turkey’s Gezi Park protests or Erdogan’s domestic policies. Although Iran elected a moderate candidate, Hassan Rouhani, as president in 2013, the country has seen no significant improvements in human rights according to HRW. So this illustrates clearly that the U.S. does not determine its Middle East policies in line with specific states’ human rights records. Mr. Özkan steers his readers in the wrong direction.


Lastly, Özkan claims that “Mr. Erdogan seeks to eliminate all opposition and create a single-party regime.” The question to be asked is how? And the answer is really simple: through the elections that Mr. Erdogan won in the past fourteen years. Mr. Erdoğan “eliminates” the opposition and stays in power by getting the citizens’ votes, like in all democratic systems. Mr. Erdogan and the AKP, the party that he helped established in 2001, have handily won every election since 2002. He “eliminates” the opposition the same way that Barack Obama “eliminated” John McCain in 2008, or Mitt Romney in 2012. A free, fair, and open election is all he needs. It would be much better if Mr. Özkan and NYT would begin to embrace the truth. Otherwise, their observations on Turkey will continue to provide excellent material for jokes and face-palms.

Beybin Somuk
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