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MASKING QUESTIONS: A supporter of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wears a mask depicting Erdogan and waves a Turkish flag during a rally in Istanbul.
Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images
MASKING QUESTIONS: A supporter of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan wears a mask depicting Erdogan and waves a Turkish flag during a rally in Istanbul.

Turkey's U-turn

Turkey | Growing authoritarianism and Islamism in Turkey put pressure on religious minorities

Issue: "What price conscience?," April 19, 2014

Jerry Mattix remembers well his three friends who worked at a Christian publishing company in Malatya, Turkey: Uger Yuksel was baptized at his church in southeastern Turkey, and Necati Aydin often came to speak. The four of them worked together to coordinate events for youth in their area.

On April 18, 2007, his friends were brutally murdered at the Zivre Publishing House by a group of men feigning interest in Christianity in a tragedy that shocked the nation. “Frankly, it was a terrifying experience going up to Malatya to bury Tilmann [Geske] just days after he was killed by the people there. However, it was a uniquely rewarding experience in that it gave us new insight into the meaning of martyrdom and Christianity in general.”

Fast-forward nearly seven years: The trial drags on, and the courts released the five murder suspects on March 7, courtesy of a new judicial package passed by the Turkish Parliament on Feb. 2. The new law reduces the amount of time suspects waiting for a verdict can spend in prison from 10 years to five years.

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Susanne Geske, the widow of German victim Tilmann Geske, said that she and her three teenage children, who still live in the eastern town of Malatya, would “act like normal people” if they met one of the men at the mall or somewhere in town since they have forgiven the killers. But the dysfunctional legal system is troubling to her. “The system is just hopeless,” Geske told me.

The ongoing “Malatya massacre” trial (as it has been dubbed in the Turkish press) underscores a deeper current in Turkey: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scrambling to tighten control over a country he feels is leaning westward. In the wake of a corruption scandal he blames on a cleric living in the United States and deadly summer protests against his government, Erdogan prepared for a series of crucial elections by banning Twitter and threatening further restrictions on social media he says promote “all kinds of lies.” The Islamist leader said he “cannot understand how sensible people still defend Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.”

Erdogan claimed victory for his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the March 30 local elections, and the results may embolden the prime minister to run in the August presidential election (see "No more Turkish delight"). His term as prime minister is up in 2015, and after 11 years in power, Erdogan shows no signs of relinquishing control over this crucial country that links East and West.

IF ERDOGAN WOULD HAVE DONE THE MATH, he might have predicted the backlash from Turks when he denied them access to their Twitter accounts on March 21. Turkey ranks among the 10 top Twitter nations with 12 million users, and Turkish hashtags frequently appear in worldwide trends. Twitter users were quick to find a way around the ban, painting buildings and walls with instructions on how to change settings.

In an ironic twist, President Abdullah Gul tweeted his disapproval of the ban, highlighting the growing rift between the two former allies. “This is of course an unpleasant situation for such a developed country as Turkey, which has weight in the region and which is negotiating with the European Union,” Gul said during a press conference.

When the futility of the ban became apparent, Erdogan shut down Google Domain Name System—the most popular method to circumvent the Twitter restrictions—but Turks continue to dig for new ways to access their accounts. Ankara claimed the ban was in place to prevent the circulation of scandalous audio recordings allegedly of Erdogan’s inner circle.

The recordings could implicate Erdogan, his son, and members of his government for wiretapping and money laundering if proven authentic. Erdogan says they are fakes that were planted by Fethullah Gulen, a U.S.-based Islamic cleric and ally-turned-enemy (See “Turkey’s inside man,” July 27, 2013). In an election-night speech, the prime minister threatened to hunt down Gulen supporters who have infiltrated the police and judiciary in Turkey. Gulen is behind a global network of charter schools (including 135 in the United States) and lives in seclusion in Pennsylvania.

Less than a week after the Twitter ban, the government blocked YouTube in response to a leaked conversation between high-level government officials discussing the possibility of provoking war with Syria.

Social media was also instrumental in coordinating widespread protests last summer that were launched when the government fired tear gas at protestors trying to save Gezi Park in Istanbul. The brutality sparked nation-wide anti-government protests that claimed eight lives and resulted in thousands of injuries.

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