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Foreign Policy's emotional and biased journalism on Turkey

by İhsan Yilmaz, Today's Zaman on . Posted in Columns

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On Jan. 11, 2012, Foreign Policy magazine published a piece titled "Behind the Bars in the Deep State" by Justin Vela.

The piece is neither objective nor accurate. It is one-sided and biased. It is also prejudicial against the Hizmet (Gülen) movement. It fails to give a balanced picture of Turkish politics and democracy and thus betrays its readers. Here are my specific reasons why:

The first sentence of the piece which is in much bigger font refers to Fethullah Gülen as a "shadowy mullah." Is "shadowy" an objective or unbiased adjective to use for Gülen? His personality and ideas are known by almost everyone in Turkey and he is always a part of discussions and debates in the public sphere, but he is still shadowy? I find this usage strange, to say the least. Then, what about the word "mullah"? Is it an objective term in Western media and its audience or does it bring to mind "mad mullahs" and all these anti-civilization archetypes? The piece also refers to him as an "Islamist," which I will discuss as well. But before that, let me ask what has happened since Aug. 13, 2008 when Foreign Policy together with Prospect magazine announced Gülen as the top public intellectual? I ask this since at that time FP referred to Gülen using objective adjectives, either as a cleric or an Islamic scholar, not with loaded terms such as Islamist or mullah. So let me ask again, what happened between Aug. 13, 2008 and Jan. 11, 2012? Why is this a huge change?

Let us look at the term "Islamist"; unfortunately, it in not a neutral academic term. When you refer to someone as Islamist, you most probably mean that he is a dodgy guy who wants to end democracy and establish a sort of dictatorship. Is there even a shred of evidence that would suggest that Gülen is against democracy? Has he established a political party so that he would be labeled Islamist? Or is he offering daily political solutions based on Islam? Voicing one's concerns in the public sphere, lobbying governments, etc. do not make one political. If you loosely define politics then everybody is a politician. Then who is a non-political person and just a member of civil society? If you claim that it simply refers to socially active and organized Muslims, then why do we need the term Islamist? If you empty the content of the term Islamist that refers to a post-19th century anti-Western modern phenomenon, then you need to call every practicing Muslim, including the Prophet (PBUH) an Islamist. What is more, there are hundreds of academic papers and books on Gülen and they concur that Gülen is not an Islamist. So why does FP deliberately use such a loaded term? Or is it ignorance?

'Thousands in detainment'

Vela also states that "in the past two years, thousands of citizens who have voiced criticism of the government have been detained." This is really unbelievable and inaccurate to say the least. FP wants its readers to believe that the Turkish government simply imprisons anyone who criticizes it. So how come all these opposition deputies, not only the current ones but former ones, in addition to many journalists, writers, intellectuals, artists, etc. who are also critics of the government are not in prison? Do they not criticize the government? Or is Vela claiming that those who are imprisoned criticize the government more effectively than the opposition deputies? Then who are those people? Is there one single piece of concrete evidence that their criticism made the government fearful of them? Before the Ergenekon case the Justice and Development Party (AKP) received 47 percent of the votes and in 2011 it received 50 percent. Why would it bother to imprison these suspects based on fake evidence just because it fears their criticism? It is on the contrary, those imprisoned suspects became more vocal after they were put behind bars. Several of them keep publishing anti-AKP books. More importantly, why does FP not give an honest and accurate picture of the Ergenekon terrorist organization case? The European Union states on every occasion that the case is an opportunity for the consolidation of Turkish democracy. Why does FP not mention that the majority of the suspects are not intellectuals or journalists, but men with weapons - either military officers or gang men? Why does FP never mention the concrete evidence found against the suspects, their fingerprints on weapons, their legally wiretapped conversations, the handwritten maps of buried weapons, several confessions even by full four-star generals and so on?

There may be some faults and mistakes in the indictments or in the judicial process that need to be criticized, but this can only be done by giving a complete and objective picture of the cases and a bigger picture of the fragile Turkish democracy that suffered heavy blows by coups in every decade. But FP readers are not informed on these very vital historical facts and background information. FP readers were not even informed that as late as April 27, 2007, the military threatened the government with a coup in order to prevent someone with a headscarved wife being elected as president. FP does not mention that Turkish democracy was so fragile because of the military thereat that opposition parties did not attend the presidential election in Parliament because of fear and prominent Republican People's Party (CHP) politicians, such as Onur Öymen, supporting the military against the AKP. Even some liberal columnists, such as Taha Akyol on CNN Türk, asked the AKP government to resign, instead of siding with the democratically elected government against the threatening generals.

The FP piece then frames Ahmet Şik's case. I use the academic term framing deliberately as FP does not give a full account of freedom of speech in Turkey, but by only framing one or two cases wants its readers to believe that every critic of the government or the Hizmet movement is sent to jail.

There are many problems in Turkey with regards to freedom of speech, free journalism, judicial processes, judges' inclination to side with the state against liberties and rights, their habit of imprisoning suspects, long detention periods (on this see the most recent Fair Trials International [FTI] report on EU countries' terrible record) and so on. We also criticize these issues and keep asking the government to modify legislation in line with the EU acquis. However, the full picture also tells us that Turkey has become more democratized under the AKP rule during the last 10 years despite a few mistakes and its recent Euro-fatigue for which not only the AKP but also the increasingly right-wing EU under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel should be blamed.

A 'high profile detainee'

Vela refers to Şik as "one of the country's most high-profile detainees," but fails to add that he has became high profile after he was detained. I have been reading papers for about three decades, but I only heard his name after he was prosecuted. At the time of prosecution he was unemployed and as far as the public was concerned he was an unknown quantity. There are several more high-profile critics of the Hizmet movement, such as Mehmet Şevket Eygi who keeps writing that the movement signed a secret agreement with the Vatican to Christianize Turkey or Sheikh Haydar Baş in whose media outlets Gülen is portrayed as a secret cardinal of the pope. Or Emin Çölaşan who wrote that Gülen does not know Arabic but murmurs some meaningless words and his "idiot" listeners think that he knows Arabic. Newspapers such as Cumhuriyet, Sözcü, Milli Gazete, Yeni Çağ, Yeni Mesaj, etc. are filled with anti-Gülen insults and nothing happens to them. There are several columnists in the Doğan media group who constantly criticize either the Hizmet movement or AKP and they continue to write these things. Bookshops' windows are full of anti-Gülen books that claim that he is either a CIA agent or a secret Khomeini, etc. Some of these books claim that Gülen has an army that is the police force. As a matter of fact, Şik's book is based on these widely available books and actually Şik's book does not contain anything new. Several rival police factions within the police have always blamed each other for being followers of Gülen. These allegations are documented in official reports but sides could not prove anything. Several books have been published on these reports. For instance, Sözcü columnist Saygi Öztürk's book is more comprehensive than Şik's book. Nothing happened to Saygi Öztürk and on the contrary he appeared on a debate program on the movement's Samanyolu TV. Why would the movement that operates in about 140 countries target an unknown, uninfluential and unemployed journalist just because of a book that contains nothing new and harm its international reputation?

Vela writes that Gülen's followers "have established themselves in top positions within Turkey's bureaucracy, police force, and judiciary." Yet, it does not say that this is just an allegation. Moreover, there are millions of people in Turkey who like and respect Gülen. Should they not work in the state? Are they not full and equal citizens? You may ask why even one of them does not openly say they like Gülen. Then you need to tell your readers that in this country bureaucratic oligarchy is still trying to eliminate practicing Muslims from the state. Former President Ahmet Necdet Sezer used to get help from doormen to learn if a candidate's wife covered her head. It is not a myth that state officials would go and check the garbage of candidates to see if they drank alcoholic beverages. If they could NOT find beer or wine bottles, that was a bad sign. Yes we now have the AKP government but what will happen next as the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and CHP keep talking about revenge? In short, the oligarchy oppresses people so they prefer to hide their religious, ethnic and lingual identity, then turns back and blames them, claiming that "if you are hiding something, then you must be a bad guy." Why does FP not question why, in a country where about 30-40 percent of people say their prayers, there is not even one military officer who could say their daily prayers? Why does it not inform their readers about Professor İskender Pala's book "Between Two Coups," his personal life story on how he was oppressed in the military after he was "caught" praying in his office and eventually evicted without trial and without any pension rights. There are thousands like him.

The FP piece claims that because of the movement Turkey is becoming a less free country but neither mentions nor explains the following "dilemma": If the movement hates freedoms, liberties and criticism why it is still the biggest champion of the EU process, transparency and accountability of the state and a new democratic constitution?

If FP is honestly curious about liberties and freedoms in Turkey and wants to do accurate reporting then why does it not ask the opinions of liberal democrats, such as Cengiz Çandar, Mehmet Ali Birand, Hasan Cemal, Taha Akyol, etc., and also Armenian intellectuals, such as Etyen Mahçupyan and Markar Esayan who criticize the government whenever they see a need and are not participants of the movement or the Ergenekon cases.