Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's regime has arrested and abducted countless Muslims. He has apprehended them from across the world for allegedly being, or supporting, "terrorists" behind a 2016 coup attempt. "In Turkey, human rights lawyers are particularly targeted for their work representing human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations, victims of police violence and torture, and many people who simply express dissenting opinions," according to Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
"Racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and discrimination remain the main problem for the Turkish community in Europe," Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a press conference in Germany in 2021.
The statement was doubly ironic, as Erdogan's regime has arrested and abducted countless Muslims. He has apprehended them from across the world for allegedly being, or supporting, "terrorists" behind a 2016 coup attempt.
Nowhere else, however, can one find the countless crimes committed by the government of Turkey against its own Muslim citizens. The human rights of many citizens of Turkey who were born Muslim -- whether they became devout, secular, or ex-Muslim -- are continually and systematically being violated by the Turkish government.
"This virus [Islamophobia]," Erdogan said at the "A Fairer World Is Possible" conference organized by the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC) in New York City in 2021. "is spreading very quickly in countries that have been portrayed as cradles of democracy and freedom for years."
Yet, Erdogan's government persecutes millions of Turkish Muslims. Because of its tyrannical policies, many citizens have had to leave in recent years. In 2019 alone, 330,289 Turks emigrated, according to the government's official statistics body. The main opposition group, the Republican People's Party (CHP), in 2021, published a report claiming that "the government's authoritarianism, nepotism, incompetence and hostility to divergent lifestyles" are driving the youth out of the country.
Many of those who disagree with governmental policies but are not "lucky" enough to escape are in jail, have been dismissed from their places of employment, or are coerced into silence for fear of losing their jobs, freedoms or even lives. Those who speak out are under constant threat.
The U.S. State Department's "2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Turkey" details human rights violations by the Turkish government against its own citizens such as arbitrary deprivations of life and other unlawful or politically motivated killings, disappearances, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments, arbitrary arrests or detentions, denial of fair public trials, politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside the country, and arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence.
Many citizens of Turkey -- regardless of their religion -- who do not agree with official policies are targeted by the government. But as the Christian and Jewish communities of the country have almost been completely cast aside, such that there are almost no Christians or Jews left for the government to persecute, it now mostly goes after its Muslim citizens. A century ago, Christians made up 20% of Turkey's population; that figure is now just 0.1%. This collapse is a result of decades-long persecution against Christians, including the 1914-1923 Christian genocide.
Even though today the Christian and Jewish communities are on the verge of extinction in Turkey, they are still exposed to discrimination and suppression of free speech. Turkey's Press Advertisement Institution (BIK), the authorized state institution for the distribution of official advertisements to the newspapers throughout the country, did not, in 2020, provide any financial aid to the minority press. In addition, the BIK does not place ads in minority newspapers such as those of the Armenians, Jews, Greeks, and Assyrian (Syriac) Christians. That decision deprives these media outlets of a serious source of income, making it even harder for them financially to survive. According to a February 2022 report, the BIK has not held a meeting since February 17, 2021, keeping the problems of minority and other newspapers suspended. Why, then, when the Turkish government claims to fight "Islamophobia," does it discriminate against non-Muslims and find its president saying that "Islam is a religion of benevolence, morality, and mercy"?
Turkey's tradition of silencing critics has a decades-long history -- not just during Erdogan's regime. These human rights violations escalated even further in the wake of the 2016 coup attempt, which the government claims was carried out by U.S.-based Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, formerly a close ally of Erdogan. The Erdogan government now considers the Gülen community a "terrorist organization" responsible for the attempted coup.
The Turkish government's persecution targets not only the supposed or actual supporters of Gülen but almost everyone who does not support or vote for Erdogan. Any law-abiding citizens could find themselves accused of terrorism and lose their job or their freedom based just on the accusation.
Nurullah Koycu, for instance, a Turkish ex-Muslim and prominent atheist, is one of the outspoken critics of Islam and Erdogan being targeted by the government. The Atheist Alliance International reported in 2021 that Koycu was born into the Muslim religion and had studied theology. His studies made him question his religious beliefs and he abandoned all religious practices. Later, he became an activist to raise his voice against Muslim doctrines and to support of secularism in Turkey. Koycu has since faced several lawsuits for his criticism of Sunni Islamic doctrines and Turkey's president.
The articles of the Turkish Penal Code used against Koycu -- TCK [Turkish Penal Code]299/1, TCK 301/1, TCK 216/3, TCK 218/1, TCK 43/1, TCK 53 -- are often used to oppress critics in Turkey. Koycu finally sought asylum in Europe.
The laws in Turkey that are used to crush dissent and silence the opponents of the government are used against human rights lawyers as well. They are not exempt from arbitrary arrests based on "charges of terrorism." On February 14, human rights defender and lawyer Tarik Gunes was arrested and jailed.
Article 314 of the Turkish Penal Code and Article 7 of the Anti-Terror Law relating to leaders and members of armed organizations are being used to convict human rights defenders and sentence them to lengthy prison sentences, said Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, in June 2021.
"In Turkey, human rights lawyers are particularly targeted for their work representing human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations, victims of police violence and torture, and many people who simply express dissenting opinions.
"Turkey is violating some of the pillars of international human rights law – freedom of expression, freedom of association and the right to lawfully practice one's own profession – by repeatedly depriving human rights defenders and lawyers of their freedom."
Tens of thousands of citizens the government considers to be terrorists have faced criminal investigation and incarceration. The government announced in 2020 that it had opened legal proceedings against 597,783 individuals, detained 282,790 and arrested 94,975 for allegedly being behind the 2016 coup attempt. Meanwhile, torture and abuse targeting the government's perceived opponents have become widespread in prisons across Turkey.
The Council of Europe, in a statement published on February 19, 2020, said:
"[T]he Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović, calls on the Turkish authorities to restore judicial independence and stop the practice of targeting human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists and silencing them... The Commissioner is alarmed by the fact that the Turkish judiciary displays, especially in terrorism-related cases, unprecedented levels of disregard for even the most basic principles of law, such as presumption of innocence, no punishment without crime and non-retroactivity of offences, or not being judged for the same facts again."
Erdogan has also launched a purge that has seen tens of thousands of people suspended from their jobs for their alleged ties to terrorism or on other pretexts. According to the 2021 Activity Report by Turkey's Inquiry Commission on the State of Emergency Measures, 125,678 public officials have been dismissed from their jobs since 2016.
Turkey was the world's worst jailer of journalists for most of the 2010s.
Following the 2016 coup attempt, a total of 204 media outlets in Turkey were closed. The closure decision was later revoked for 25 of them. Among the 179 media outlets that were shut down are 53 newspapers, 37 radio stations, 34 television stations, 29 publishing houses, 20 magazines and 6 news agencies.
Many journalists have had to leave the country to escape imprisonment. As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) noted in 2021:
"Turkey's crackdown after a failed coup attempt in 2016 effectively eradicated the country's mainstream media and prompted many journalists to leave the profession. Turkey's prison count is also declining as the government allows more journalists out on parole to await trial or appeal outcomes."
Erdogan, meanwhile, claims there are no journalists behind bars: In 2017, he said:
"We told them to give us a list of journalists in prison. It [the list] includes everyone from murderers to child abusers. A list of 149 people came in. 144 of them are in jail due to terrorism and 4 due to ordinary crimes."
It appears that, according to the Turkish government, dissent is "terrorism." Anyone who does not support the government might be put in the category of so-called "traitors" or "terrorists" and punished by the government.
Even leaving Turkey might not mean freedom or safety for those who the Erdogan's government perceives to be its enemies. According to Freedom House:
"[T]he regime has pursued its perceived enemies in at least 31 different host countries spread across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The campaign is also notable for its heavy reliance on renditions, in which the government and its intelligence agency persuade the targeted states to hand over individuals without due process, or with a slight fig leaf of legality. Freedom House cataloged 58 of these renditions since 2014. No other perpetrator state was found to have conducted such a large number of renditions, from so many host countries, during the coverage period—and the documented total is almost certainly an undercount."
There is also the Turkish government's persecution of the Kurds for calling for their political or national rights. As of 2022, Turkey still refuses officially to recognize the Kurdish language or the right of Kurds to be educated in their mother tongue. Kurds who request the right to autonomy and self-determination are systematically oppressed. According to the data shared with Gatestone by the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP), following the 2014 local elections, 93 co-mayors, and deputy mayors were arrested, and trustees were appointed by the government to 95 municipalities that Kurdish mayors had democratically won. Following the 2019 elections, 38 co-mayors from the HDP were arrested and trustees were appointed to 48 HDP-run municipalities.
The number of detentions of HDP members by Turkish police has exceeded 16,000 since 2015. The total number of arrestees behind bars including those that HDP have not been able to reach is estimated to be over 4,000. The number of jailed HDP members includes six parliamentarians. In addition, 23 co-mayors from the pro-Kurdish Democratic Regions Party (DBP) are currently in jail.
On October 10, 2015, HDP supporters were victims of a massacre -- a double suicide bombing in Ankara at a "Labor, Peace and Democracy" rally: 103 people were murdered, and hundreds were wounded. The families who want to commemorate the victims have for years been exposed to attacks, barricades, and detentions by the police.
Deadly violence against Kurds continues. On June 17, 2021, for instance, Deniz Poyraz, a 38-year-old member of the HDP, was killed in the city of Izmir when a gunman entered the party's office and shot her dead.
So what exactly is "Islamophobia," according to the Turkish government? If it is "anti-Muslim hatred," as Erdogan defined it, then millions more Muslim Turks and Kurds are suffering at his own hands than they are in the West. Muslims enjoy far more human rights and liberties across the West than they do in Turkey.
Erdogan's government claims to fight against "acts of Islamophobia and discrimination against Muslims in different parts of the world" -- but not all Muslims -- only against Muslims whose political views are in line with those of the Turkish government. The citizens of Turkey who are perceived to be "enemies" or simply opponents of the government are targeted, abused, jailed or even killed. If they are suspended from their jobs, they are blacklisted by the government, so that it is almost impossible for them to find another job. They are thus put in a situation where they face hunger and poverty daily. Their lives and livelihoods are systematically destroyed. Is there any Western country that treats Muslims so cruelly and unlawfully?
Uzay Bulut, a Turkish journalist, is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Gatestone Institute.