Turkey's Tyrant in the Making

If democracy and political Islam can't coexist and thrive in Ankara, is there no hope for the rest of the Middle East?

There is no denying Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's talent as a politician, or the considerable popular support he enjoys. But under this charismatic leader, Turkey is embarking on a dangerous experiment of undermining basic rights and the rule of law as constraints on majoritarian rule. As I saw on a recent visit to Turkey to meet with senior officials, a major corruption scandal has triggered Erdogan's worst autocratic reflexes, undermining the foundation of Turkey's democracy.

To give credit where due, Erdogan, during the 11-year rule of his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), can boast of a booming economy and enormous political progress. The atrocity-ridden repression of a Kurdish insurgency has wound down, with talks under way to end the conflict and with growing respect for the cultural rights of the country's large Kurdish minority. Religious freedom for the Sunni majority has been enhanced: Bans on women wearing headscarves in public-service jobs and universities have been removed without imposing the religious puritanism of harsher forms of Islamic rule. Systematic torture in police custody has ended, though the police's use of excessive force remains a problem. Turkey is also being impressively generous to the estimated 700,000 refugees from the horrible atrocities being committed next door in Syria.

For several years, Turkey's hope of entering the European Union encouraged reform. But the opposition of some key EU states, articulated most clearly by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, undermined Turkey's accession hopes. The dashing of EU prospects slowed reform and contributed to some reversals, but it is only in the last year or so that Erdogan has begun to take major steps backward on basic rights.

The most obvious manifestation of Turkey's eroding freedoms occurred a year ago, during the so-called Gezi Park protests. Erdogan took these demonstrations, which were launched to oppose his plan to build a shopping center at the site of one of central Istanbul's last parks, as a personal affront. He saw them as a revolt by an urban elite, allegedly part of an international conspiracy, to topple the pious conservative majority from the Anatolian heartland that he had brought into the halls of government. Police responded to the sit-ins by violently dispersing them with water cannons and tear gas. The scenes were repeated as the demonstrations grew and spread to other cities. In many cases, police fired tear-gas canisters at demonstrators' heads, seriously injuring scores and killing several.

Erdogan has cracked down on not only protesters in the streets but also investigators within Turkey's state institutions. In December, prosecutors produced evidence of corruption in Erdogan's government. Four ministers resigned, and, most damaging, an audiotape was leaked in which Erdogan apparently tells his son, on the morning that the corruption scandal broke, to remove large amounts of cash from their home and conceal it with relatives and associates. Erdogan has said vaguely that the recording, along with other incriminating leaked tapes, are "fake," a "montage," and part of a nebulous conspiracy to overthrow him, but he has failed to produce evidence to substantiate these claims.

Erdogan's response to the corruption investigation shows both the extent of his power and his disregard for the basic safeguards of a democratic society. Turkey's mainstream media is largely owned by conglomerates that are vulnerable to economic retaliation and political pressure -- and therefore are all too ready to dismiss journalists and columnists who criticize Erdogan. Several tapes suggest that, in some instances, journalists have been fired after the direct intervention of Erdogan himself, while others have been prosecuted for criminal defamation following complaints from Erdogan and his allies. Almost none of the mainstream media headlined the bombshell revelation of the father-son conversation to hide huge sums of cash, at most alluding to it tangentially.

As a result, Turks took to social media to learn about the leaks. The tapes were posted on YouTube and disseminated via Twitter, where critics of the government wrote freely about the corruption allegations. Erdogan's response was to shut down access to both sites, only reluctantly reopening Twitter access after the Constitutional Court ordered it -- and after his party had convincingly won pivotal local elections in March. YouTube remains officially blocked in Turkey.

Meanwhile, the AKP-dominated parliament adopted a new intelligence law that criminalizes not only the leaking of secret official information but also its publication, punishable by a prison term of up to nine years. That would be comparable to the United States prosecuting not only Edward Snowden for leaking intelligence documents, but also the journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for writing about his revelations. The law also gives the intelligence services unfettered access without a court order to ordinary people's private data, while immunizing from prosecution any intelligence agent acting in the course of his official duties.

As for the investigation into his government's corruption, Erdogan quickly intervened to quash the probe. He ordered the reassignment of thousands of police officers and hundreds of judges and prosecutors, and the four prosecutors who started the corruption investigation are now themselves under investigation. New prosecutors, in turn, have begun to dismiss the corruption cases. At the same time, Erdogan's government adopted a law granting greater executive control over the body that administers the judiciary, which can affect the career prospects of judges and prosecutors.

Erdogan seems to see his considerable electoral support as justification for such moves. He may think the public is willing to overlook corruption -- but that assumes there has been a public airing of the corruption allegations, which Erdogan's censorship has been designed to thwart. It also assumes that a public vote can justify undermining basic rights by suppressing public protest, censoring the media, and interfering with judicial independence.

As Erdogan amplifies his complaints about an alleged plot to overthrow his government, he has accused his onetime ally, Fethullah Gulen, of being the ringleader. Gulen, a Sunni Muslim cleric who left Turkey over a decade ago for, of all places, rural Pennsylvania, where he has been based ever since, presides over a loyal, almost cult-like following, nurtured by a vast network of widely respected private schools in Turkey and across the globe. The network is known in Turkey for identifying talented people and encouraging them to become judges, prosecutors, and police, leading to its alleged domination of law enforcement institutions. Until recently, it proceeded without AKP objection.

As AKP allies, the Gulenists undoubtedly played a leadership role in the prosecution and media coverage of two mass trials of senior military officials that cemented civilian control of the military. Known as the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer trials, each charged hundreds of military officials, along with their alleged civilian allies, with plotting to overthrow the government. The trials were replete with due process problems and allegedly concocted evidence. Hundreds were convicted.

However, in recent years, the cracks in the alliance between the Gulenists and the AKP grew wider and wider. Some Gulenists were upset with Erdogan's negotiations with the rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Gulenist prosecutors, after all, had overseen the mass arrests and trials of thousands of pro-PKK Kurdish activists, lawyers, and journalists. In 2012, these prosecutors even moved to investigate Erdogan's envoy to the PKK for alleged treason and collaborating with terrorists.

Erdogan, in turn, first moved against one of the Gulenists' greatest sources of influence and revenue by proposing to close down Turkey's private supplementary and preparatory schools, of which the Gulenists control a significant proportion. He then accused the Gulenists of orchestrating the corruption investigations and leaks, portraying the Gulenists as a dark force running a "parallel state" with international collaboration in a conspiracy against him. He has vowed to seek Gulen's extradition from the United States, though it is unclear on what charges, and the likelihood of success is remote.

Erdogan is assessing his political options. While his efforts to pass constitutional reforms that would usher in a fully empowered presidential system have faltered, he is still likely to run for president. Although the office remains a largely ceremonial position, it will grow in stature when the president is elected by popular referendum for the first time in August. The word on the street is that Erdogan would like to be president through 2023, when Turkey celebrates its centenary as a modern nation following the demise of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan would presumably handpick his successor as prime minister. President Abdullah Gul, also a founder of the AKP, has rejected suggestions that he could become premier, nixing the possibility of a maneuver similar to the swapping of leadership positions perfected by Russia's Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.

I met in April with Gul, along with another possible prime ministerial successor, AKP Deputy Chairman Numan Kurtulmus. Both listened carefully to my concerns about Erdogan's authoritarian drift and neither seemed surprised to hear them, but his power as AKP leader means they must tread carefully. Other leading figures in government have mostly remained silent for the same reason.

As Turkey contemplates its political future, far more is at stake than the fate of a controversial politician. Like other long-serving leaders, Erdogan has acquired a growing number of opponents. A committed democratic leader would bow to that reality, recognizing that a nation's democracy is more important than his individual political fate. Moreover, a leader with foresight would recognize that undermining democratic institutions sets precedents that endanger himself and his followers when, inevitably, they find themselves outside the corridors of power.

But Erdogan seems to be dangerously conflating his own political future with his country's best interest. For much of the past decade, the two coincided, but as street protests and official corruption plague him, Erdogan's growing autocracy has replaced the military as the greatest threat to Turkey's prospects as a rights-respecting democracy.

The stakes extend well beyond Turkey. Until recently, Erdogan's blend of democracy and political Islam stood as a rebuke to those who claim the two cannot coexist. From the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa, Turkey could be a beacon of democratic hope. And while Turkey's EU accession hopes now seem remote, the prospect of a Muslim, democratic, and economically ascendant Turkey might have helped Europe address its own growing diversity, while offering a bridgehead to tumultuous but important nations to the east.

But with Erdogan's deepening authoritarian streak, these visions of Turkish leadership seem sadly outdated. For the benefit of the people of Turkey and for those in the region who still look to it with hope, Erdogan urgently needs to recommit himself to human rights and the rule of law.

Photo by ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Preventing the Next Genocide

Burma's Rohingya minority could fall victim to full-scale genocide if the international community doesn't intervene.

In conflicts that have potential to produce the worst of human atrocities, states and international actors must take action to identify the precursors of mass killing and stop it from ever happening. That's precisely what is needed now in western Burma, where the Rohingya minority faces attacks so violent that state crime experts fear a full-on genocide is in the making. The Muslim minority, numbering around 1 million, shares the state with Rakhine Buddhists, who consider them to be illegal Bengali immigrants. The Burmese government, which shares this view, denies them citizenship as well as limiting their access to education and healthcare. Organized mob violence in late March, which wrecked the entire aid infrastructure serving 140,000 displaced Rohingya, was only the latest in a series of incidents in recent months that qualify as one of five commonly accepted indicators of a genocide.

The Burmese government's apparent reluctance to intervene in the situation -- it took the state three weeks and persistent warnings to allow some aid groups to return -- should be of pressing international concern. It signals a disregard for the lives of hundreds of thousands of people that can only be influenced by strong global condemnation.

The violence of late March was clearly planned, as were the resultant effects: The mobs effectively cut off access to life-saving medicine, destroyed warehouses storing food donations, and dismantled boats and vehicles used to transport those donations to Rohingya camps. The attackers clearly intended to sever the assistance on which displaced Rohingya rely. In the aftermath, aid workers have reported dozens of preventable deaths just three weeks after the attack, showing that victims of persecution can be made to suffer as effectively by indirect assaults on the support systems as by direct physical attack. (The photo above shows an injured Rohingya woman whose doctor is unable to help her due to a lack of medicine and medical equipment.)

For the Rohingya, deprivation of food and aid, rendered more powerful by isolation, has received little domestic sympathy. But this attack marks the start of a dangerous process: Those Rakhine complicit in the violence have signaled that Rohingya aren't worthy of the essential support mechanisms that a highly vulnerable population requires for its survival. The significance of this dehumanization process isn't just known to academics and political leaders -- it is felt by all involved, on both sides. And it is one stop on the path, short or long, to genocide.

In April, the government, with funding from the United Nations, carried out Burma's first census in more than 20 years. But the project was marred by reports that the census enumerators required Rohingya to identify as Bengali, or otherwise would not count them at all. Both options entailed denial of the ethnic group's existence.

The campaign of vilification is nothing new. Two major pogroms were carried out in 1978 and 1992, each time pushing more than 200,000 Burmese Muslims into Bangladesh. Dhaka has refused to register the vast majority as refugees and therefore provide them with assistance, fearful that doing so would act as a pull factor for those in Rakhine State now denied basic human rights. Thus, those Rohingya who have fled Burma since the first major wave of violence in June 2012 have largely done so by boat, with hundreds drowning. Local media, politicians, and Buddhist monks have been active in circulating vitriolic rhetoric to dehumanize the group. Burma's former consul general in Hong Kong, Ye Myint Aung, referred to the minority in 2009 as "ugly as ogres," while a headline in the popular domestic Weekly Eleven in June 2012 described Rohingya as "prowling around" outside the Rakhine capital of Sittwe. The inference is clear: When an Associated Press journalist last year requested that her government minder arrange an interview with Rohingya, the minder asked why she wanted to meet with "dogs."

The dehumanization process changes the mind of the perpetrators of genocide. The Rakhine may not know that they are at deploying a common tactic that often precedes, and helps normalize, mass killing: the depiction of minority groups as animals. We saw this in Rwanda, when the Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines station repeatedly called on Hutus to "exterminate the cockroaches," and we are seeing signs of it now in Burma. Dehumanization allows humans to overcome their normal revulsion towards murder. As Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, who escaped the noose at Nuremberg, commented on historic incidences of mass killing: "In such periods there are always only a very few who do not succumb [to complicity in genocidal crimes]. But when it is all over, everyone, horrified, asks 'For heaven's sake, how could I?'" The Burmese state has had decades to "rationalize" violence against Rohingya. An editorial in the November 2012 issue of the influential Rakhine Nationalities Development Party's magazine, the Progress, commented on the violence between Rohingya and Rakhine communities: "In order for a country's survival ... crimes against humanity or inhuman acts may justifiably be committed as with Hitler and the Holocaust.... We will go down in history as cowards if we pass on these issues [Rohingya] to the next generation without getting it over and done with."

Racist talk is part of racist action. In January, the U.N. reported that a massacre of 40 Rohingya men, women, and children in the northern Rakhine state town of Maungdaw was carried out by Buddhist mobs, assisted by Burmese security forces. The government repeatedly denied the massacre and has sought to take punitive action against witnesses. When the French medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) went public about its treatment of 22 survivors, the government took immediate action and expelled the NGO from the state. This has had long-term repercussions: MSF, the largest provider of healthcare to displaced Rohingya, was not among the NGOs allowed to return to Rakhine state at the end of April. The group was the lead provider of medical care in Rakhine State, with a patient count of around 700,000. It estimated that in the three weeks after its expulsion, 25,000 consultations were not carried out. The effects of this loss of healthcare were acutely compounded by the destruction of food stocks in late March. Signs of starvation are clear.

Rohingya in and around Sittwe are confined to camps and barricaded ghettos, surrounded by a population that, spurred on by influential politicians and monks, has been vocal about its wish to maintain these segregationist measures -- if not to force the Rohingya out of the country altogether. Even President Thein Sein in July 2012 has unsuccessfully asked for U.N. help in resettling the entire Rohingya population abroad.

The situation has been allowed to fester -- and actively encouraged -- for too long. What were once horrible but sporadic bursts of violence have become sustained and deeply sinister. The government has done little to help and much to harm the conditions in Rakhine state. It has rendered the Rohingya stateless, impeded aid, failed to punish perpetrators of violence and hate-speech, and thereby created an environment that allows violence to flourish. But all the while, it maintains the pretense that the mobs are operating on their own whim, and that the violence is purely communal. The tactic is familiar to state crime scholars: Policies are devised by leaders at the top, and delivered by those on the ground, with the puppeteer's strings rarely visible. Now tensions are at a point where even small disputes are erupting into mass violence, with attacks on Rohingya occurring because of who they are, and not what they have done. All leaders in Burma must know that this is the mental state that enables genocide. And they also must know that once the genocidal mindset is free to act, it is rarely possible to stop, save by another greater force.

Sadly, however, Burma's leaders, across the spectrum, have remained silent. In a BBC interview last year, Aung San Suu Kyi commented that "Muslim power is very great" around the world, and referred to the "many moderate Muslims in Burma who have been well integrated into our society." This suggests that she, too, considers Muslims a foreign presence. Despite her substantial leverage, the Nobel Laureate has not given voiced opposition to the violence. She is playing the long game, and risks losing support from voters if they believe she is attempting to heal the rifts between Muslims and Buddhists. The international community, meanwhile, is all talk. Though the United Nations was the first to cite the involvement of national security forces in the Maungdaw massacre in January, it has yet to sanction Burma in any way. It maintains its invitation to Burma to send troops around the world as U.N. peacekeepers, a questionable move to begin with, given the ongoing conflict in the northern and eastern borderlands.

Next year marks the 20-year anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. That genocide was forecast from within the United Nations by the non-aligned group leader Diego Arria, who forced his way into Srebrenica. There he discovered that the international community had misrepresented the seriousness of the situation there, laying bare its unwillingness or inability to act. In 1993, he spoke of a slow-motion genocide. Two years later, the state's army killed over 8,000 men and boys in the course of two days. The international community avoids telling the truth of what happened for fear of having to bow its head in shame at its failure to prevent what had been foreseen. Will this be the lot of today's United Nations? Are thousands of unknowing Rohingya doomed to join the 8,000 souls of Srebrenica as forgettable victims of international indifference?

All Burma's politicians must put electioneering aside to finally address the criminal killing of a significant section of Burma's population. To do nothing -- to fail to join hands on this issue and remedy those minds that are already turning to violence -- would be to risk complicity in the world's worst crime.

Andre Malerba/Getty Images