KEMAL GURUZ

Why young Turks are protesting their government

 
 
A protester is hit with a stream from a water cannon during clashes with riot police in Istanbul.
A protester is hit with a stream from a water cannon during clashes with riot police in Istanbul.
GURCAN OZTURK / AFP/GETTY IMAGES

trubin@phillynews.com

If you want to understand why tens of thousands of young urban Turks have been demonstrating against their government, you need look no further than the tragic plight of Kemal Guruz.

Guruz, one of Turkey’s most distinguished academic reformers and the onetime head of Turkey’s Higher Education Council (known as YOK), has been held without charges in a maximum-security prison for almost a year.

An indictment against him was finally issued a couple of weeks ago, but the details have not been made public or revealed to him or his family. The case is supposedly related to a long-running investigation launched by the “moderate” Islamic government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan into events that led to the resignation of a more hard-line Islamist government in 1997.

Guruz, an outspoken advocate of Turkey’s secular traditions, says he had no links whatsoever to the 1997 events — which Erdogan’s followers regard as a “soft” coup — and no credible evidence to the contrary has been presented. Rather, Turkish human-rights activists believe Guruz’s arrest is part of a systematic effort by Erdogan’s AKP party to intimidate academics, journalists and others who oppose its efforts to Islamacize society.

The dragnet arrests that ensnared Guruz reflect the same arrogance of power that was on display last week when the government responded brutally to peaceful environmental protests against the destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park. That arrogance transformed a small demonstration into nationwide protests by middle-class, (mostly) secular youth against government intimidation of those with different views.

Erdogan has racked up solid domestic achievements — notably, economic growth that has expanded the middle class. But the crackdown in Gezi Park triggered an explosion of pent-up outrage over the AKP’s crony capitalism and coercive measures, such as banning alcohol in public places after 10 p.m. and intimidating the press.

Turkish media have been so cowed that the leading TV channels failed to cover the massive demonstrations. When social media tried to pick up the slack, Erdogan denounced Twitter as “the worst menace to society,” and 34 cyberactivists were arrested. Reporters Without Borders has ranked Turkey 154th out of 179 countries on its press freedom index, just below Russia.

Indeed, there is a strong whiff of Putinism in Erdogan’s disdain for civil society, and his hopes to change Turkey’s constitution to enable himself to become president and solidify power. The prime minister appears to think that, after winning 50 percent of the votes in 2011, he needn’t listen to anyone who didn’t choose him. But his backers included many liberals who will not vote for him again.

So anyone (see: President Obama) who views Erdogan’s Turkey as the model that Arab states should follow should reconsider. Indeed, long before the Gezi Park protests, the AKP’s democracy deficit was laid bare by the arrests of Guruz and many others like him.

I visited Guruz in Ankara in October 2010 and found this erudite, patriotic man bewildered at the allegations leveled against him. At that time he had just been called in for questioning on claims that he was part of a bizarre conspiracy called Ergenekon (the name of a mythical Turkish valley), in which a shadowy network of military officers allegedly plotted to overthrow Erdogan’s government just after he came to power.

These accusations provided an excuse for a religiously oriented government to arrest a wide swath of intellectuals, university presidents, women’s rights advocates, journalists and writers who were critics of AKP policies. Many of them were advocates for maintaining a secular, or at least tolerant, Turkey, and have languished in prison for years without trial.

“They charged me with being a member of a secret terrorist organization, which I never heard of before, including some guys I’ve been opposed to,” Guruz told me. “This is like a nightmare.” The nightmare was destined to get much worse.

In June 2012, while on a cruise, Guruz received word that he was wanted for questioning about his alleged involvement with the Turkish military in the 1997 “coup.” He immediately returned to Ankara to deny the allegations, but was arrested and put in a maximum-security prison. He has been held without trial as a flight risk — even though he had voluntarily returned from abroad.

Guruz believes the government’s real grievances against him revolve around steps he took as head of YOK that were legal but anathema to Islamist officials: enforcing constitutional policy on banning girls in head scarves from university campuses, and helping design a new university admissions policy (without any military input) that was disliked by officials from Muslim schools.

This stellar educator, highly respected in the West, faces a possible life sentence in solitary confinement. His trial may be held soon; a judge could dismiss the paper-thin case, but the government may not want to lose face.

As thousands of young people continue to demonstrate against the government, the outcome of Guruz’s case will symbolize the direction this Turkish government intends to take.

There are two options: On the one hand, Erdogan takes a hard line, dismissing the demonstrators as terrorists. He still says Gezi Park will be razed and a mosque built nearby. On the other hand, President Abdullah Gul, also an AKP leader, insists all Turkish views (secular or religious) should be freely expressed and considered by the government.

If Gul’s outlook prevails, the demonstrations will likely cool and the politicized charges against Guruz should be dropped soon. If Guruz is convicted, it will signal to Turkey’s citizens and allies that its democracy faces very rough times.

©2013 The Philadelphia Inquirer

Read more Other Views stories from the Miami Herald

  • EARLY LEARNING

    The imperative is to educate our children

    When the two of us were graduated from high school, nobody seemed to be worrying about China or Brazil or India competing with us as an economy or in education. We took for granted that we were the best in the world in education and the economy and had no reason to believe that would ever change. Everyone seemed to be able to get a job — and to do so with not much more than the bare basics of education.

  • AUTISM

    Learning alongside my daughter, Bela

    My daughter, Bela, who has autism, doesn’t go anywhere without a pair of socks, which is odd because she never wears socks. Rather she carries them around as if they were dolls.

  • GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ

    His words dazzled the world

    Gabriel García Márquez has left us. His was also a death foretold, but no less shocking, because we resist saying farewell to our heroes. And García Márquez, the immense writer, was a superhero of literature.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category