Authoritarianism in Turkey: Past and Present

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Individuality, as a human trait, never found this region as its natural habitat — all its
inhabitants remain the subjects of the sovereign only.


Unlike countries in the West, Turkey has never experienced the Feudalism–Simple Commodity Production (Petty Commodity Production)–Capitalism sequence. It has the Ottoman Empire in its core. Feudalism never happened; literally. Consequently, the dynamics of feudalism that had not occurred in this region could not evolve into petty commodity production and subsequently, into capitalism. For this reason, individuality, as a human trait, never found this region as its natural habitat — all its inhabitants remain the subjects of the sovereign only.

The Republic of Turkey was formed as a military nation-state by soldiers who had won the war of independence. And nationalism, together with the Turkish language, was seen as the glue that holds this new nation-state together. For years, linguistic minorities were banned from using their native languages ​​in the public space. Just like the Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey had not given room to its citizens to exercise their free will.  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (MKA), who had been hailed as “commander in chief” or “founding father” was the sole decision-making authority. All reforms were made by the military administration — without consulting the will of the people, without any referendum — from above and by using force. Even the alphabet was changed this way, and today it is unlikely that any Turkish citizen will be able to directly comprehend a hundred-year-old document about their culture. In the Republic of Turkey, the individual is on the periphery, the state is in the centre. The saying “May my existence be a gift to Turkish existence”, which was sworn under oath twice a week in primary schools for years, explains this clearly. Even the private sector, the bourgeoisie, was established directly by the state in the early days of the Republic of Turkey.

There is “democracy” in Turkey’s constitution, but there was also a one-party regime during the first 13 years of the Republic. In the meantime, there were attempts by the administrators of the ruling party, to establish a second party like the Terakkiperver Cumhuriyet Firkasi/Progressive Republican Party and the Serbest Firka/Liberal Party. But, these newly formed parties were abolished as soon as it dawned on the government that these new parties could harm its absolute monopoly on power.

There was ‘Separation of Powers’ in the Constitution, but Atatürk decided everything. In order to erase Ottoman institutions and social practices and to prevent the opposition from disrupting the newly imposed social life, the “Takrir-i Sukun Law/Law on the Maintenance of Order” was enacted. The judicial system was under the purview of the state from the very beginning. For example, the Independence Courts, which ordered the first mass executions of the Republican era, were unlawfully established. The founders of the new state collectively destroyed the reputation of prominent Muslims. The latter they thought would pose a danger to them in these courts.

The new state banned and closed all sects and Islamic monasteries. And by establishing the Presidency of Religious Affairs, which should not have a place in a democratic country, it laid out the blueprint of how society should conduct its religious affairs. The Presidency of Religious Affairs, which is an institution with a large budget, still exists and continues to impose Islam as interpreted by the state. Taxes are collected by force from non-Muslims, non-believers and citizens who understand Islam differently.

Returning to the judicial system, it had long been a centre of military power, adhering to the founding father’s mentality, even after the transition to the multi-party era. The system was so statist that it was evident in advance the state would win in cases where the state and citizens were pitted against each other. Even if a citizen were the plaintiff, they were found guilty in the end. Although the laws, which were initially enacted to protect the status-quo, underwent a few changes over time, the judiciary retained its old custom. A notice board saying “Justice is the foundation of property” was displayed in all the courthouses until recently. As this statement indicates, the Turkish judiciary has always maintained class discrimination. Traditionally, the poor and the illiterate have had a little chance of winning in the courtroom. Compared to the rich, the poor are disproportionately paid less when it comes to compensation for damages of properties of equal value.

But the apple of the Republic of Turkey’s eye had always been the army. The army had always seen itself as “the main owner of the state”. It had staged coups and seized power every 20 years, executed elected politicians, arrested thousands of people, and carried out tortures. But for years, nothing the military did was discussed. The army had immunity. Those who criticised the Army in the slightest were tried in the Military Courts, although those on trial were civilians. Besides, divinity was attributed to the army since its establishment: it was called “Prophet’s Hearth”. In Turkey, where military service is compulsory for men, those who did not want to enlist themselves were punished severely. They had to do military service for an extended period, including imprisonment in military prisons.

In 1989, after the first conscientious objection was declared in Turkey, conscientious objectors were not exempt from military service; on the contrary, they were imprisoned for a long time in military prisons and were subjected to severe torture. Many people were tried and imprisoned under a law that attempts “To Disincline People from criticising Military Service”. I, myself, have been tried many times, too. Anything that criticised the military and its militarism was considered a crime.

The Republic of Turkey could be considered independent when it was founded. In its early days, it was even interested in the structure of the newly established USSR for a while. But when it came to USSR’s territorial claims, Turkey was positioned on the US side of the Cold War and managed mostly like a US satellite. Two years after its establishment, it became a member of NATO.

The first victims of the Republic of Turkey were devout Muslim intellectuals, but after its alignment with the United States, communism became its official enemy as well. States have to show an enemy as a security issue to legitimise their military budgets in the eyes of their citizens. In Turkey, a witch hunt against Turkish communists, and leftists in general, had been carried on for years. They had been imprisoned for a long time, tortured, killed by military and paramilitary forces. Nazim Hikmet, who is considered one of the most distinguished poets of Turkish poetry, was imprisoned for a long time and died in exile in the USRR. Yilmaz Guney, the first internationally renowned film director of Turkish cinema, died in exile after a lengthy prison term. Sabahattin Ali, one of the most influential novelists of Turkish literature, was even more unlucky. He was killed by the paramilitary forces after a long imprisonment, and the perpetrators of his death remained unknown for a long time. The situation is no different today. Pinar Selek, a sociologist and writer who was hounded for 20 years and awarded a hefty prison sentence, still lives in exile in France after she was imprisoned for a long time and tortured. International award-winning novelist Asli Erdogan and journalist Can Dundar are still in exile in Germany —both of them have been convicted with a life sentence. These are just a few examples; the original figure is in the thousands.

I use “Turkish” before them because many concepts such as communism, leftism in Turkey are perceived quite differently, as in Asian countries, compared to the West. For example, Turkish communists and leftists harboured sympathy for Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and the army for a long time, thus going against the grain. They even supported the 1960 military coup because it overthrew the US-sided conservative government. This continued until the 1980 Military Coup when they suffered a massacre. The military junta arrested 650,000 citizens and demanded the execution of 7000 of them. Besides, 17, 00,000 people were blacklisted, and 14,000 people were stripped of citizenship. The putschist soldiers changed the Constitution and ratified immunity for themselves, and the slightest criticism against the army and the coup was considered a serious crime under the new laws.

Turkey was one of the founding states of the United Nations and also one of the first signatories of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But it remained on paper for years. Turkey signed the Council of Europe’s European Convention on Human Rights in 1954, but it remained on the paper as well.

The soldiers, who seized state power in a military coup in 1961, had a new Constitution prepared to replace the 1924 Constitution, which had been revised in 1937. This new Constitution was accepted in a referendum. Article 2 of this Constitution defined Turkey as a “democratic, secular state based on human rights”. This Constitution allowed individual freedom and pluralism for the first time in Turkey’s history. But of course, everything was within the scope of state regulation and nothing could go against the greater “public interest”. After the 1980 military coup, the soldiers, who seized power, had a new Constitution prepared in 1982, and this Constitution was also accepted in a referendum. The 1982 Constitution abolished all freedom, including press freedom. The state became the absolute sovereign, and soldiers who orchestrated the coup were granted indemnity. Civil rights were mentioned in three sections, but together with these rights, the duties of the citizens were also specified. And these duties placed severe restrictions on rights.

As I mentioned, Turkish nationalism was a decisive factor in Turkey. For this reason, a policy was undertaken to force non-Muslim ethnic minorities to migrate and to commence Turkification of the Muslim ethnic groups (Kurds, Zazas, Laz, Cherkesses, Bosnians, etc.). The ultimate aim was to homogenise the entire population. The state policy of Turkification of wealth and capital forced the non-Muslim community to leave their wealth and migrate from Anatolia to Istanbul. In 1942, the “Wealth Tax and National Protection” law was passed. Those who could not pay the hefty tax imposed under this law — an extra burden for the non-Muslim community — were deported to labour camps. This law also served to blacklist the non-Muslim population. In 1955, in the events are known as the “6-7 September Incidents”, workplaces belonging to non-Muslims were pillaged and plundered, and those captured were lynched during the raids launched by paramilitary forces. Before that deportation of the Armenians under state policies and the exchange of the Greek community under an agreement with Greece took place. The Armenian population, which was once approximately 7 million, is around 40,000 today. More than 300,000 Greeks had to leave Turkey because of the “Greek Exile” Law enacted in 1964; only 4,000 of them remain today. There are two separate groups of the Jewish population in Turkey: Ashkenazi and Sephardic. Even though they were also the victims of Turkification of wealth and capital, they migrated in fewer numbers when compared to Greeks and Armenians. After the Jews who immigrated to Europe and Israel, their current population is 23 thousand today. There is widespread anti-Semitism in Turkey.

The Armenian Genocide by Turks and Kurds was carried out during the Ottoman era. But massacres originating from religious, sectarian and racial hatred and guided by paramilitary forces, had been carried out cyclically in Turkey throughout its history. In the Dersim Massacre of 1937, with the aim of absolute domination and homogenisation of the population, the state carried out military strikes on Kurds and Zaza Alevis in Dersim (today’s Tunceli) and the surrounding provinces. 13,160 Alevis were killed; a further 12000 were subjected to forced migration. Another strange practice during this period was the assimilation of the Alevi girls in the region by handing them out to Turkish military families for adoption. In the 1938 Zeyni Pass massacre, 95 Alevis were executed by gunfire. 120 Alevis were killed in the 1978 Maras massacre; killings of Alevis and burning their homes and workplaces also took place simultaneously. In the same year, more than 100 Alevis were injured, 8 died, and 1000 workplaces belonging to Alevis were burned in the Malatya Massacre. The number of Alevis killed in the Gazi District Massacre in 1995 was 22. In the 1993 Sivas Massacre, the figure stood at 35.

The state has never acknowledged its role in the Alevi massacres, but the complicity of its paramilitary forces has been documented over time. The voice recordings of Ismet Inonu, the prime minister at that period, who ordered the 1937 Dersim massacre, were leaked to the public. One of the most integral actors in these massacres is the judiciary. The judiciary had always delayed case hearings and tried to dismiss them without meting out any verdict.

Turkey’s first non-profit human rights organisation, Human Rights Association (IHD) could only be established in 1986. The directors and members of the association were subjected to heavy pressure for a long time, and they were frequently detained and arrested. IHD played a crucial role in uncovering and tracking human rights violations in Turkey, presenting these to raise social awareness, and publicising these internationally. However, its findings were often censored domestically. Later, different non-profit human rights associations were also established. And still, these associations work under severe pressure as their activities often conflict with government policies.

‘Extrajudicial killing’ has remained the most effective of the usual methods to eliminate the tapering dissidents since Turkey’s establishment as a state. It was later revealed that some of these murders were committed directly by the state’s National Intelligence, Army and Police forces. Still, more often these murders were committed by the paramilitary forces. For a long time, the victims of paramilitary forces were renowned leftist intellectuals, albeit of the Turkish variant; such killings also served the purpose of intimidating the society.

The number of unsolved murders increased after the 1980 coup. This time, many renowned and less-known leftists and communists from all factions fell victim to unknown assailants. The highest peak of the murder rate coincided with Turkey’s first female Prime Minister, Tansu Ciller. During her term in the ’90s, the victims were Kurds: Kurdish writers, businessmen, as well as ordinary Kurds systematically fell victim to unsolved murders. This time, the perpetrators of the unsolved murders were usually the Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terrorism Unit and its paramilitary forces. During this period, the dead bodies of those killed were destroyed en masse in acid wells, some evidence of these acts were documented years later. The judiciary tried to cover up these murders, some of which are still in trial. Many cases have been timed out.

A crime against humanity that went parallel with these unsolved murders was the enforced disappearances of people. Leftists and communists were the victims after the 80’s military coup. After the ’90s coup, Kurds were the primary victims. Moreover, there were many children among them. Turkey is refusing to sign the UN Convention against Enforced Disappearances. Thus, unlike the countries of South America and North Africa that signed this convention, the fate of the victims of enforced disappearance in Turkey could not be learnt even after years. The shield of “state secrecy” prevents the lawsuits from reaching any verdict.

After the collapse of the Eastern Block in 1991, the West identified “Islam” as the enemy. There was no way for this to work for Turkey, where “Muslim” was written on the identity cards of 99 per cent of the population. So, Turkey has created a two-headed enemy: terrorism is equated with the Kurds, and reactionism is identified with fundamentalist Muslims.

The improvement of human rights in Turkey, at least on paper and through the law, would take place in tandem with Turkey’s accession to the European Union. It applied for full membership in 1987. In 2004 the European Union approved the decision to start Turkey’s accession negotiations.

Other than economic and foreign affairs, the European Union also imposed conditions for democratisation and human rights on Turkey. This process started in 2002 when all the 14 provisions of the European Union Harmonization Laws were accepted at Turkey’s Grand National Assembly. The Constitution was reformed, and laws changed on issues that directly concern human rights. These changes address the freedom of thought and expression, the right to form an association, the right to a fair trial, freedom of the press, gender equality, children’s rights, detention period, and the death penalty.

European Union Harmonization Laws, most of which were passed during the period of Justice and Development Party which is still in power, legally brought significant human rights gains to Turkey. But the Judiciary’s old inclinations prevented these laws from being implemented fully. Likewise, the failure to make regulations under the new legislation also created an obstacle to the full implementation of these laws.

The Justice and Development Party’s conflict of interests with the Fetullah Gulen Community, with which it had joined forces when it had come to power, and this coalition’s domination in many institutions, especially the Judiciary and the Army, caused many human rights violations. These violations were disguised under cover of law. The last major breach in human rights occurred after the failed military coup attempt by the Fetullah Gulen organisation. With the state of emergency that followed the coup attempt, the authority of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to issue “Decree Laws” manifested itself in the elimination of all opposing forces.

Many newspapers, televisions, magazines were closed, journalists, writers and academics were arrested, vast numbers of public servants were fired. After Turkey’s transition to Presidential System under the 2017 Constitutional referendum and the system’s enforcement in 2018, “Legislative” and “Executive” power were vested to Erdogan. With the indirect inclusion of the “Judiciary” through appointment, the “Separation of Powers” disappeared altogether. And as it was in Turkey’s early periods, Erdogan became the dictator that was Atatürk. The State got more authoritarian, the media turned into a single voice; many elected mayors were dismissed, and trustees were appointed in their places. Opposing views were no longer tolerated; the detentions and arrests reached astronomical levels. Today, Turkey has one of the highest journalist-incarceration rates in the world.

Erdogan’s longtime motto is “One Nation, One Flag, One Country, One State” which sums up his longing to homogenise the entire population with zero opposition. For example, after Wikipedia published some documents on the assets of Erdogan and his family, it remained inaccessible for a long time in Turkey.
Many people were sued, detained and arrested for their comments on social media. The latest ‘Social Media Regulation’ law gave the government the right to censor its anonymous opposition on the internet. The government’s new targets are Women’s Rights groups and LGBTQ groups. LGBTQ prides have been banned for quite some time, and Erdogan has often targeted the LGBTQ community, calling it “contrary to our religion and tradition” or even “deviant”. The defence he uses on this issue is what “the nation wants”, whereas this discourse goes against democracy altogether.

Turkey has one of the highest domestic murder rates in the world. Even though Turkey signed the Istanbul Convention in 2011 and put it into force in 2014, the terms of the convention are not fully functioning as the necessary regulations are still not enacted. The Istanbul Convention is a Council of Europe Convention to prevent violence against women and domestic violence. Erdogan claims that because this contract which he signed, stipulates the “change of gender roles and stereotypes” to avoid the normalisation of violence against women, it harms the traditional family structure and goes against what he says “the nation wants”. He is also uncomfortable with the articles “tradition, custom, religion, or honour grounds cannot be an excuse for any act of violence” and “raising awareness about different types of violence and their traumatic characteristics” — which he believes defend the ‘deviant’ LGBTQ community.

But the authoritarian regime is not the only obstacle for human rights in Turkey; an equally formidable barrier is the “identity politics” that took root in Turkey long ago. ‘Identity politics’ both makes it impossible to fight the authoritarian regime and its human rights violations, and often itself is the source of violations. Each identity group focuses on its own victimisation, sees other victimisations that are the projections of its own, as secondary, or ignores them totally. The result is alienation between different identity groups that the status-quo exploits to deny all these groups their fundamental human rights.


Mehmet Atak is a stage actor, director, and human rights activist. He has worked in theatres and movies in several countries, including Turkey, USA, Greece, Italy, and Germany. For his human rights work, he has received awards in Turkey. He has worked on international campaigns such as the Chelsea Manning campaign and also on anti-militarism campaigns.

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