By Abdullah Bozkurt
July 06, 2015
The assaults on Korean tourists and a Uighur chef, who were mistaken for Chinese people, in Istanbul last week have shown the extent of damage dealt to this moderate nation of Turks by the Islamist rulers, who provide political clout to hate crimes and xenophobia in order to sustain their waning power in the government.
The Islamists not only deliberately promote intolerant behaviour that runs on a political Islamist ideology by marginalizing a large swath of social, religious and ethnic groups within Turkey but also capitalize on festering resentment and anti-Western, anti-Semitic and anti-Asian sentiments that disrupt social harmony and threaten the future of Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his associates in the government have all adopted a viscerally xenophobic discourse in their public remarks, scapegoating their home-grown problems to other nations, often in a conspiracy-driven approach to distract especially alienated young Turks from pressing domestic problems.
Last week, Asians living in or visiting Turkey received the bitter taste of this hateful narrative invoked by the Islamist politicians, who wanted to exploit the plight of Muslim Uighurs in China's western region of Xinjiang in order to score domestic political points with the public and help shore up support for their ailing government. Last year, both Bangladesh and Thailand were publicly targeted by Erdoğan during the polarized election campaign period when both countries featured in pro-Islamist media over the trial of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders in the former and the reported mistreatment of the Malay Muslim minority in the latter.
With the exception of the special case of the Muslim Uighurs, who share cultural links with Turks and maintain a diaspora in Turkey, anti-Asian sentiment is a relatively recent phenomenon in Turkish politics. It has still not reached the level of extremist attitude often displayed toward Westerners and non-Muslims in Turkey but will catch up with them soon if the Islamists' power is not checked. Even anti-American sentiment was filled with new vigor under the Islamists when they recently aligned themselves with ultra-leftist groups in order to crack down on moderate Muslim groups.
A group called the Turkish Youth Union (TGB) attacked and roughed up three US sailors who were on shore leave in civilian clothes in Istanbul in November 2014. They were sprayed with red paint and sacks were placed over their heads. The TGB is affiliated with the ultranationalist Homeland Party (VP), whose leader Doğu Perinçek made an alliance with Erdoğan in the aftermath of the corruption scandals that implicated then-Prime Minister and current President Erdoğan and some of his family members. Islamists and ultranationalist groups now work hand-in-hand to reinforce xenophobic feelings so that they can ride out the political and legal challenges coming their way.
The rising tide of xenophobia and intolerance under the Islamist rulers has also generated a new anti-Arab sentiment, with Erdoğan and his associates openly targeting Egypt and several Gulf monarchies over their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who ousted Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi in 2013, is public enemy number one in the eyes of the Islamists because Erdoğan simply cannot do without a daily dosage of Sisi-bashing in his public remarks. Emirati rulers come second in the line-up of the usual suspects' list Erdoğan has come up with. Taking the cue from his political master, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu blames the negative press coverage of Turkey in Arab media on the United Arab Emirates and even publicly blamed the Abu Dhabi government for the loss of Turkey's UN Security Council bid.
By and large, the Islamists have legitimized discriminatory behavior and condoned hate speech in order to stifle freedom of expression and the press in Turkey. They have targeted moderate voices in the country, with the Gülen movement -- which is the largest civic group in Turkey and is inspired by Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen -- getting the brunt of the unrelenting attacks. Gülen -- who leads a peace-driven and volunteer-based movement called Hizmet that campaigns for science education, moderation and interfaith dialogue as the ultimate panacea to religious terrorism -- has been vilified by Erdoğan and his goons in an unprecedented smear campaign that aims to defame and discredit this well-respected Muslim scholar.
The goal is to nullify Gülen's tolerant message and amplify political Islamists' hateful utterances. In addition to Gülen, millions of Alevis also suffer from insulting and aggressive language employed by the Islamist rulers, as do Kurds and other vulnerable groups who were portrayed in pro-Islamist media as villains for simply expressing legitimate grievances in rights and freedoms. Last month's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices that were presented by US Secretary of State John Kerry made a good snapshot of rights violations in Turkey in 2014 in that respect. The report tells the tale in a frank and accurate manner.
No doubt Turkey has reached a critical juncture where this rather disturbing picture in xenophobia and intolerance may be institutionalized under the Islamists' rule. The June 7 national election dealt a big blow to the popularity of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was founded by chief Islamist Erdoğan. The AKP lost its majority in Parliament and hence the ability to govern alone. It has to share power with one of the opposition parties. Yet, Erdoğan signals that he has no intention of doing so as he pushes for snap elections to regain his lost power so that he can continue his xenophobic Islamist projects.
As long as the Islamists have a place in the government, the harm caused by their policies of social exclusion and the deprivation of rights based on hate and intolerance will persist. The track record of the AKP should be a big source of concern for rights defenders simply because the Islamists have already destroyed to a great extent some of the measures on legal, social and cultural fronts that were instilled to combat xenophobic behaviour. The Islamists' intolerance toward other social, religious and ethnic groups as well as foreigners is being projected onto a larger audience, with government-subsidized education and media abused to generate hostility for diversity and pluralism.
In other words, the political Islamists have done everything to reverse recommended measures to combat xenophobia and hatred. They disrupted dialogue with civil society groups, adopted an exclusionary approach in the executive and legislative branches and cracked down on civic groups that are deemed not supportive of the Islamist ideology. The legal framework for combating intolerance remained only in the books as rule of law was suspended to hush up damaging investigations into shipments of arms that implicated the Islamist government. Hate speech and racist remarks by officials have gone unpunished and in fact in some cases were rewarded if it served to batter government critics and opponents.
The AKP government set up an army of trolls on social media, financed by taxpayers' money, to run defamation and libel against critics, while pro-Islamist and government-subsidized media were given free rein to attack vulnerable groups with a campaign of slander. The Ministry of Education was turned into a tool in the hands of the Islamists to thwart intercultural and interfaith dialogue, while policies were devised to breed a new generation of young Islamists. The management of public schools was staffed with Islamist partisans who downplay the importance of hate-awareness programs and rather engage in political activism on behalf of the Islamists.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this terrible saga that keeps unfolding right before our eyes is the politicized judiciary, which abuses the criminal justice system to punish critics, dissenters and opponents of the Islamists' government. Many opponents have been charged or sentenced on trumped-up charges by loyalist prosecutors and judges who pay lip service to the rights and freedoms protected by the Constitution. The law enforcement agencies are not doing their job in monitoring discriminatory acts but are instead busy cracking down on the opposition.
On the current path, anti-foreign sentiment in Turkey is set to grow further. Today it is the turn of Asian tourists to be attacked, with the behaviour sanctioned by government-promoted xenophobic policies. Yesterday it was Westerners in general and Americans in particular. Tomorrow it will be Africans if Erdoğan keeps meddling in the affairs of African countries by trying to export his domestic feud with the Gülen movement and asking host governments to shut down some of the best-achieving schools on the African continent. There is no telling how much damage the Islamists have inflicted on our great nation by discriminatory and exclusionary policies that already threaten social peace, political stability and economic viability.
The international and regional organizations of which Turkey is a member have started to take notice of the growing shortcomings Ankara has in fulfilling its obligations arising from conventions and agreements on rights. The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the UN Human Rights Council has clearly put Turkey on notice in that respect, while the Council of Europe (CoE) and its branches have begun issuing more critical reports registering violations Turkey committed in fundamental rights, the rule of law and democracy.