Erdogan’s Autocratic Rule, Terror-Ties Spark Criticism

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The Turkish government continues to cleanse the judiciary and security services of opponents as new questions about its links to terrorists arise.

The Islamist government of Turkey has been embroiled in a major political crisis since December 17 when dozens of allies of Prime Minister Erdogan were arrested on corruption charges. Erdogan responded by canning the prosecutors and police chiefs responsible. He blamed foreign governments and  a U.S.-based Turkish cleric named Fethullah Gulen.

In January, the Turkish government fired 96 judges and prosecutors and fired or reassigned 2,000 police officers and prosecutors, including 470 in the capital city of Ankara. Erdogan said that the actions were taken to stop a “coup” and “the judiciary should not go beyond its mission and mandate.”

New attention is also being given to Erdogan’s links to Islamist terrorists.

Erdogan is particularly close to the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) that was involved in the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010 where its operatives attacked Israeli soldiers boarding a vessel that tried to violate the blockade on the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The blockade’s purpose is to stop Hamas from arming, but Erdogan does not consider Hamas to be a terrorist group. The U.S. State department does list  Hamas as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.

The IHH is labeled a terrorist organization by Germany, the Netherlands and Israel. There is bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress for doing the same because of its extensive links to Hamas and Al-Qaeda.

On January 1, the Turkish police intercepted a truck allegedly owned by IHH that was shipping weapons to Syria. The involved police and counter-terrorism officers were reassigned and the prosecutor accused the Turkish government of obstruction for stopping a search of the truck.

On January 14, the Turkish security services arrested 23 suspected terrorists in raids on the IHH. A senior Al-Qaeda operative was among those detained. The Deputy Prime Minister immediately condemned the raids and sided with IHH over his own country’s authorities. Again, two police officers were fired, as were bodyguards for eight involved prosecutors.

Erdogan’s links to a Saudi terrorism-financier named Yasir al-Qadi are getting scrutinized by some Turkish commentators. The U.N. required that member states freeze his assets in 2001 because it was convinced of the evidence against him. As with the IHH, the Erdogan government says its friend is innocent.

The Turkish government also has an abysmal record on press freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists says that more journalists were imprisoned in Turkey than in any other country in the last two years. In addition, over 70 reporters lost their jobs after reporting on anti-government protests that erupted last summer.

“We need to underline that the Turkish press is no longer doing investigative reporting,” says Ertugrul Ozkok, who held the position of editor-in-chief of the Hurriyet newspaper for 20 years.

The upside of the Turkish government’s aggressive behavior is that Erdogan and his once-popular AKP Party, whose success was admired by Islamists globally, is now in deep political trouble. It has provided an opportunity for moderate Muslims to have their voices heard.

The Hurriyet Daily News, one of the most influential Turkish media outlets, carried a remarkable interview with the aforementioned former editor-in-chief, Erutgrul Ozkok.

He describes himself as having been a strong supporter of Erdogan and says he still agrees with him 70% of the time. Ozkok says Erdogan “betrayed us who thought he had changed” from his more radical past. He was unafraid to criticize Islamists and to disparage Erdogan for heading “towards fascism.” In the U.S., even using the word “Islamist” opens you up to scorn from powerful Muslim-American groups like CAIR.

Ozkok explained that Erdogan’s trouble should not be seen as a political battle limited to Turkey. He said this is just one theater in an ideological struggle across the Muslim world.

“[Either] outdated Islamists who cannot reconcile with democracy are going to prevail; or those democrats whose religion is Muslim will prevail,” he said.

Erdogan’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is an example of how he views democracy, the writer explains. To him, democracy is “only the ballot box.”

The fundamental problem with Erdogan is Islamism. The corruption, the support for terrorist groups, the secret deals with Iran, the crackdown on political opposition, the increasing hostility to the West —Islamism is a critical factor in all of it.

Ozkok is right. This isn’t about Turkish politics or the authoritarian impulses of one Middle Eastern leader. It is about an ideological struggle that many leaders still fail to recognize.


Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org