The American Press' Apologia of Turkish Military Rule

by P. D. Spyropoulos*

Few newspapers are more representative of America's mainstream press than The New York Times. While intermittently criticizing Turkey for its domestic human rights epidemic, most articles in the Times concerning Turkey parrot our foreign policy establishment's dogma that Turkey deserves our support because it is a good friend in a rough neighborhood and the world's only firmly established secular Muslim democracy.

International criticism of Turkey's increasingly hawkish posture towards its neighbors is hardly, if ever, validated and, like editorial clockwork, readers can rely on the inevitability of two "spins" when dealing with Turkey's domestic human rights problems. Either the Turkish state's transgressions are denied, ignored or minimized -- as with the Times' unwillingness to acknowledge that the Armenian "massacres" were in fact our century's first premeditated genocide -- or they are excused or justified. In his book review of Nicole and Hugh Pope's A History of Modern Turkey ("After the Ottoman Empire", NY Times Book Review Section, p. 8, January 17, 1999), Robert Kaplan has taken the latter tack.

Kaplan's book review is illustrative of the mainstream press' apologia of Turkish military rule, and so can serve as a valuable window into the ethos of denial that by and large characterizes our information establishment's perception of the Turkish state.

Kaplan makes the startling assertion that Turkey's "military coup of 1980 was both necessary and a long time coming. In fact, had General Evren not acted, he would, by any rational standard, have been guilty of irresponsibility", citing "short-lived minority coalitions" and violence between militants in support of his argument.

Kaplan concludes by arguing in favor of continuing military rule because "Turkish governments remain unstable and party leaders are as irresponsible as ever". One wonders whether he would encourage the same form of government for another Mideast state enduring perennial internal violence between extremists and ethnic groups (including a recent assassination of a prime minister) and destabilizing unrest from a fifth of its disenfranchised inhabitants. Or, perhaps more on point than the Israeli example, whether Kaplan would have made the same argument when a group of colonels thrust what is now the most democratic nation in the Balkan and Mideast region into the darkness of military dictatorship for seven years.

One would not think so -- at least not from a reading of his book, Balkan Ghosts. After describing Greece's dire economic straits and likening its political situation prior to the colonels' 1967 coup as "a carnival of vendetta and irresponsibility", Kaplan nevertheless condemns the dictatorship and brands Greece's colonels as "grudge-bearing bumpkins from remote villages".

Yet Kaplan now finds himself celebrating that Turkey's "fluid hybrid regime -- whereby the military and a democratically elected Parliament patrol each other -- will probably outlast both the suffocating dictatorships of neighboring Arab states and the paper democracies of Russia and the developing world."

The reality is that Turkey is farther from becoming a democracy today than it ever has been, in large part because of the very ratification of Turkey's militaristic and authoritarian tradition that Kaplan et al. have espoused.

Kaplan juxtaposes the Turkish military's purported willingness to compromise on Cyprus after its 1974 invasion of that island-nation (and after the ethnic cleansing of 200,000 of Cyprus' indigenous inhabitants) with the Turkish government's extreme nationalism as a further apologia to Turkish military rule.

Kaplan conveniently overlooks the fact that, while many of Turkey's industrialists and other civilian leaders are now privately calling for political reform and a softer Cyprus policy, it is Turkey's controlling military establishment that has remained intransigent in the face of substantial concessions by the Cypriot Government. The enormous military imbalance in Turkey's favor, accompanied by the West's acquiescence to renewed threats of Turkish military strikes, has forced the Cypriots to propose a number of peace initiatives, including offers to demilitarize the entire island, to institute no-fly zones for military aircraft and, most recently, not to deploy defensive anti-aircraft missiles and unilaterally suspend new weapons purchases. Feeling dangerously empowered by its upgraded alliance with Israel and by increased U.S. support, it is Turkey's military leadership that has shunned all compromise on Cyprus.

While discussing the successes and failures of Adnan Menderes' prime ministership during the 1950s, Kaplan neglects to mention one of Menderes' darkest accomplishments. In what has been called the Greek Kristallnacht, the Menderes government engineered a series of pogroms against the 100,000 Greeks remaining in Istanbul during which scores of Greek Orthodox Christians were lynched, raped and killed, and hundreds of their churches and properties were destroyed. The mass exodus that followed has left less that 2,000 Constantinopolean Greeks today, and Turkey's indigenous Hellenic population, a cosmopolitan and vibrant community that inhabited Asia Minor for millennia, was snuffed out forever. On November 26, 1979, The New York Times wrote: "[a]ccording to the most recent statistics, the Christian population in Turkey has diminished from 4,500,000 at the beginning of this century to just about 150,000. Of those, the Greeks are no more than 7,000. Yet, in 1923 they were as many as 1.2 million".

In keeping with the Times' enforced silence on the plight of Turkey's indigenous Christian communities, present-day human rights abuses are also ignored. The mostly elderly Greek Orthodox who have remained in Istanbul live in fear and are subjected to threats and hate crimes. Christian cemeteries have been desecrated; their bones dug up, scattered, and fed to dogs. The latest such attack, one of three within the past few years, occurred at the Kurtulus cemetery in Istanbul on July 26th.

Turkey's few remaining Greeks face restrictions in their freedom of congregation, speech, choice of religious leaders, and practice of their religion. In an attempt to further asphyxiate the continuity of the Christian Orthodox church, the Turkish government has closed Halki, the Patriarchate's only seminary, despite harsh international criticism.

During the past five years the Patriarchate in Istanbul, the ecumenical seat of Orthodox Christianity, has been the target of three bomb attacks. The latest explosion occurred in December 1997, critically wounding a deacon. Only after a world-wide, grassroots e-mail protest against the NY Times was launched by Greek Orthodox Christians, and only after a Greek Orthodox shrine was torched and its sexton found bound, gagged and murdered -- his corpse shoved down a well -- did the Times grudgingly publish its only contemporary article on the plight of Istanbul's Greeks. More recently, in October 1999 an Islamic fundamentalist group claimed responsibility for a bomb that exploded in Istanbul's Greek school for girls, the Zographeio Lyceum.

Kaplan also omits mention of the estimated one to three million Kurds that have been displaced by Turkey's brutal scorched earth policy in its effort to crush Kurdish separatists. More than simply a campaign to prevent Kurdish secession, many believe that the military's destruction of over 3,000 Kurdish villages and the killing of thousands of Kurds is part and parcel of a campaign to silence, assimilate or extinguish Turkey's Kurdish minority, which comprises 20% of its population, by depopulating the Kurds en masse from their ancestral homeland -- just as the Turkish state had succeeded in doing with its Armenian, Greek, Assyrian and other Christian minorities.

Turkey is no kinder to its own citizens who dare to voice their disagreement with key government policies. Dissidents, journalists and intellectuals are routinely imprisoned and subjected to torture for their views. The International Pen: Writers in Prison Committee Case List disclosed that Turkey had more writers in jail than any other country. In March of 1996, The New York Times cited Turkey as the country leading the world in imprisoned journalists ahead of China and Syria, and Amnesty International called Turkey "one of the world's most dangerous countries in which to pursue a career in journalism."

The case of Metin Goktepe, a young Turkish reporter who was beaten to death by police in 1996, became a rallying point for European pressure on Turkey to reform its violent censorship of journalists. Yet in March, the Committee to Protect Journalists maintained that "for the fifth consecutive year, Turkey held more journalists in prison than any other country." Likewise, a May 1999 report from Reporters sans Frontieres called upon the Council of Europe to investigate and condemn Turkey for its imprisonment, torture, beatings and assaults of more than 70 journalists since 1998.

Even Western journalists are censored, yet little mention is made in the press. New York Times Istanbul bureau chief Stephen Kinzer had his office ransacked by Turkish secret police and was detained and assaulted while on assignment in southeast Turkey. On June 10th Turkish courts began the criminal prosecution of Andrew Finkel -- an American citizen and correspondent for Time, CNN and The Times of London -- for having used the phrase "army of occupation" in an article. Remarkably, Finkel -- who has lived in Turkey for 10 years and who writes for one of Turkey's largest newspapers, Sabah -- actually argued that government forces in Turkish Kurdistan were not an army of occupation, but is nevertheless facing a six year maximum prison sentence for having used the forbidden language.

When fellow journalist Maureen Freely tried to publicize the Turkish government's Midnight Express-like prosecution of this U.S. reporter, she found an unwillingness on the part of the press to cover Finkel's story, leading him to remark: "If this can happen to me, what can they do to Kurds with no foreign connections?"

According to a November 11, 1998 report in the Turkish Daily Milliyet, 78 trillion Turkish liras were allocated to Turkey's secret police, the notorious National Intelligence Service (also known as "MIT"), for the 1999 budget. This was more than what was allocated for the Ministries of Transportation, Forestry, Industry and Energy combined.

A report leaked last year by the prime minister's office to discredit his predecessor had revealed that the government had spent $50 million financing a campaign to terrorize its own citizens. This shadow government of right-wing extremists and underworld assassins perpetrated thousands of murders, kidnappings and bombings of dissidents, Islamic leaders, Kurds, businessmen, journalists and opposition leaders over the past ten years. According to the Associated Press, the investigation concluded that "Turkish death squads carried out many of Turkey's 14,000 unsolved murders".

As a frame of reference, this figure may be compared to the human devastation wrought by one of the most notorious regimes of the post-Vietnam War era, that of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. During his 17-year rule, it is estimated that 3,000 Chilean dissidents and opponents were killed. From the 1980's to the present, the Turkish state has admitted to claiming almost five times as many victims. This does not include the more than 35,000 deaths resulting from the war waged by Turkey against its Kurdish insurgents. The vast majority of these are Kurdish fatalities caused by government security forces, and Human Rights Watch attributes nearly six times as many civilian casualties to government forces than to Kurdish separatists.

After the appointment of Sonmez Koksal as Turkey's ambassador to France, numerous human rights groups, including France Libertes and the International Federation of Human Rights, launched a protest in opposition. Danielle Mitterrand, widow of French President Francois Mitterrand, told a news conference that Koksal, as head of MIT between 1993 and 1997, was "guilty of the death of thousands of innocent Kurdish intellectuals, lawyers, writers, journalists and union leaders" and that "the presence of this ambassador in our country is an insult."

According to Human Rights Watch, "police continue to shoot and kill peaceful demonstrators" and there is "massive continuing abuse of human rights in Turkey." Yet Europeans have been far more aware of, and far more sensitized to, Turkey's human rights epidemic than Americans. As sadly demonstrated by Kaplan's review, this is due in large part to our media's failure to report on these issues independently of our government's pro-Turkish foreign policy agenda, and also due to advocacy by prominent Jewish-American organizations (such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress), journalists, lobby groups and public relations firms in the wake of Turkey's recently upgraded alliance with Israel.

In a landmark case, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ordered the Turkish government to pay $640,000 in compensation to Greek Cypriot Titina Loizidou for the loss of her property seized during Turkey's 1974 invasion and continuing occupation of Cyprus. While no member of the 40-nation Council of Europe had previously failed to comply with a compensation order from its human rights court, Turkey has refused to comply, constituting a breach that could lead to Turkey's expulsion from the Council.

Over the last two years, the European Court of Human Rights has condemned Turkey in numerous cases relating to human rights violations of its Kurdish minority. In June, the Council of Europe criticized Turkey for serious and repeated human rights violations by its security forces against Kurds. It was the first time that the Council's governing committee of foreign ministers had criticized one of the organization's member nations, calling upon Turkey to put an end to torture, destruction of property, illegal killings and disappearances.

Last November, news that Italy refused to hand over Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan to Turkey -- due to the Italian constitution's ban on extraditing individuals to countries that would likely impose a death sentence -- resulted in what can best be characterized as a national frenzy, leaving many to remark that Turkey was reacting far more like a militant Mideast backwater than a NATO ally.

As a result of Italy's decision, Turks commenced a startling assault against Italian interests. This included the boycotting of Italian goods, the revocation of multimillion-dollar contracts by businesses and by the Turkish government, and the burning and trampling of Italian flags and products during demonstrations which included up to 130,000 people. The government even blacked out Italian television. Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz warned Italy that it was risking Turkey's "eternal enmity" and threatened that Italy's "mistake[s] will certainly have a very high price." Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini denounced the anti-Italian frenzy as "an aggression against all of Europe."

When Ocalan was finally captured in Kenya with the help of US and Israeli intelligence agencies, a show trial of Ocalan ensued and on June 29th Turkish courts passed a death sentence in the face of strong international criticism.

The Turkish government's close ties with its underworld have also led Turkey to become one of the world's most prolific drug-trafficking states. Turkish traffickers have been exporting vast quantities of drugs, principally to its Western European allies, supplying for example up to 90% of Great Britain's heroin and prompting commentators to call Turkey "the Colombia of the Middle East". What transforms Turkey's drug trafficking from an international crime problem to an arm of Turkish foreign policy is that it has tainted the highest levels of government. A judge in Germany found "close connections of Turkish heroin dealers to the Turkish government" and reported to the German Parliament "incriminating findings" against Turkey's former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller, linking her husband to two drug gangs. An exposť in a London newspaper, The Observer, maintained that Britain's heroin trade was "supplied by a small group of Turkish gangs with links to some of their country's most powerful politicians," and concluded "that drug related corruption reached right to the top of Turkey's political elite."

Yet European countries that are being ravaged by the drug epidemic that Turkish government officials and traffickers have been profiting from are fighting back. Turkish banks suspected of drug laundering are being investigated and many have been shut down -- most recently in England and Holland. While estimates maintain that roughly four to six tons of drugs come to Europe via Turkey, the U.S.'s current administration has omitted Turkey from its "major drug trafficking nations" list as a result of political considerations.

Finally, Kaplan imagines that Turkey's "Islamic movement [is] tempered by experience in parliamentary politics and by the country's growing sophistication". The reality is that the Turkish state's severe repression of practicing Muslims is both empowering and radicalizing the nation's Islamic movement. Rather than serving as a secular example for other Islamic states to emulate, America's Turkish policy is achieving the opposite effect.

Not only does the Turkish model hold little ideological and political currency with other Muslim states, but it is no foreign policy secret that, when looking at Turkey, Muslims see a paper democracy ruled by a repressive and corrupt militocracy sponsored by Western powers. Our support of Turkey has actually achieved the opposite of our stated foreign policy objectives in the region by undermining the West's credibility with Muslims and providing Islamic fundamentalists with one of their best arguments against westernization and secularization.

Turkey not only has among the worst human rights records on earth, according to monitoring organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, but could easily win the distinction of having been Europe's and the Middle East's worst transnational aggressor of the decade. In addition to Turkey's continuing occupation of close to 40% of Cyprus, within the past five years Turkish troops have violated Greek, Iraqi and Iranian territory, and have threatened military strikes against Greece, Cyprus and Syria. In addition, Turkish fighter jets violate the airspace of Greece, Cyprus and Armenia almost on a routine basis.

Sabahattin Cakmakoglu, Turkey's new Defense Minister from the recently elected ultra-rightwing Nationalist Action Party (MHP), declared that Greek territory disputed by Turkey belonged to Turkey, arguing that "territories, islands and islets that belonged to the Ottoman Empire and were lost during war when later countries emerged, and which are not named in post-war agreements, should belong to their original owner."

Turkey's blockade of its former genocide victims resulted in thousands of deaths in neighboring Armenia; a nation reeling from the devastating effects of its war with the Azeris.

The prime minister's office recently revealed that in 1995 Turkey launched a failed coup to overthrow Azerbaijan's government, trying to use force to project Turkey's influence into Central Asia when it became apparent that Turkey was unable to do so through economic, political and diplomatic means. In June of 1999, several Turkish nationals believed to be acting for the Turkish government made an unsuccessful attempt on the life of Uzbekistan's president.

For Muslim states at the crossroads of their political evolution, Turkey has validated fundamentalist claims of U.S. hypocrisy and doublespeak about human rights and international aggression. Muslims of all ideological shades, whether democrats, fundamentalists or leftists, more often than not perceive Turkey as an international pariah where rampant corruption, ethnic cleansing, assassination, torture and the silencing of dissidents are part and parcel of the ruling elite's modus operandi. Many Muslims also view the Turkish example not as a secular one to aspire to but as another form of Western "colonialism" into the Middle East.

Championing what is in effect the longest-lived military regime of the 20th century -- one that started with Turkey's first dictator, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and which continues today by a handful of generals in the form of Turkey's National Security Council -- Kaplan's argument, that authoritarian rule is good for a people who cannot rule themselves, has been used this century to justify a procession of enormous tragedies, from British colonialism and its aftermath to European fascism and South American totalitarianism.

The consequences of championing the militaristic nationalism that Turkish political ideology is founded upon can be seen when looking at the results of Turkey's most recent elections. Three months and a day after Kaplan's book review was published in The New York Times, the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) (a group characterized as "ultra rightwing" by the conservative British paper, The Financial Times) more than doubled its votes in parliamentary elections and emerged as the second-largest party in Turkey. A picture now hangs in MHP's headquarters with the slogan "Those who lift a hand against the Turk will die like dogs."

MHP was founded in the 1960s by Alparslan Turkes, an army colonel who, according to Christopher Hitchens in his book Hostage to History, "got into trouble during the second world war for his pro-Nazi activities". The Gray Wolves, MHP's paramilitary arm, is known throughout Europe as one of the largest and most violent terrorist organizations in the world.

Through the use of death squads, kidnappings, bombings and other violent methods, the Gray Wolves are credited for having killed thousands of leftists, Kurds, journalists, professors and other dissidents who opposed their racially-inspired nationalist vision. This vision was chillingly revealed in an MHP pamphlet distributed to Turkish workers in Germany: "Those who have destroyed [the Ottoman Empire] were Greek-Armenian-Jewish converts, Kurds, Circassians, Bosnians, and Albanians. As a Turk, how much longer will you tolerate these dirty minorities? . . . throw out the Armenian, throw out and kill the Kurd, purge from your midst the enemy of all Turkdom."

In 1996, Former Prime Minister Tansu Ciller shipped in hundreds of Grey Wolf extremists into Cyprus to oppose peaceful demonstrations against Turkey's occupation of the island. As a result, numerous demonstrators were shot and beaten by Turkish occupation forces. Only minutes after the funeral of a Greek Cypriot demonstrator who had been beaten to death, a second unarmed demonstrator was fired at repeatedly as he started to climb up a flagpole towards a Turkish flag, and fell dead in front of a crowd of journalists and UN peacekeeping troops (videotapes of the killings can be seen at www.hri.org/Cyprus/Cyprus_Problem/bikers). Despite international and even U.S. condemnation, Ciller defended the actions of the occupation troops and threatened that "nobody lays a finger on the [Turkish] flag. If anyone dares do that, we'll break their hands".

While the Nationalist Action Party toned down its image for public consumption after Turkes died in 1997, a strategy that apparently proved successful given MHP's electoral victory, commentators have indicated that its extremist rhetoric regarding the Kurds and EU-member Greece demonstrates that its most troubling objectives continue to dominate its policies.

Given these sordid truths, truths that have by and large been excluded from mainstream media reports here in the U.S., Robert Kaplan and other influential media professionals' celebration of authoritarian military rule and expansionist foreign agendas at the expense of maturing democracies in Greece, Armenia and Cyprus should be cause for genuine alarm.

As humanity stands on the threshold of a millennium that can hold the promise of an enlightened world peace, what should be an obsolete argument is even more dangerous today than it ever has been given the advanced technologies governments now possess for military objectives, for the surveillance and control of their citizenry, and for the manipulation of ideology.

The same deeply-ingrained ethic of reflexive denial that has led Turkish apologists to deny past and present horrors -- from the Armenian Genocide earlier this century to the repression of its Kurdish minority today -- pervades every aspect of Turkey's self-evaluation and continues to stunt its moral and political growth. While Turkey's militocracy seems convenient for State Department, Israeli and some European foreign policy agendas, it not only foments the destabilization of the entire region and perpetuates the continuing repression of Turkey's minorities and dissidents, but traps the Turks themselves, beguiled by the reverie of an imperialist Ottoman dream, in a backwards and anachronistic holding pattern. This while much of the Balkans, Russia and Eastern Europe continue the painful process of democracy-building and of peaceful integration with their neighbors into larger, mutually beneficial regional economies.

As a well-traveled journalist who has witnessed firsthand the enormous scale of suffering that has resulted from instability in many developing nations, Robert Kaplan questioned both the efficacy and desirability of democracy in a December 1997 Atlantic Monthly article he authored entitled "Was Democracy Just A Moment?". Yet what Robert Kaplan and other apologists of authoritarian rule have apparently failed to learn from the costly lessons thrust upon the West this century is that democracy and self-rule initially come with a high price. This is a lesson that is as true today in places like Angola, Indonesia and Turkey as it was during the previous century in our own country, when Americans paid dearly for their democratic ideals by fighting a bloody conflict that took more American lives than any other. It is a costly lesson that journalists, politicians and other power-brokers encountering troubled, developing nations should be mindful of when finding themselves ready to throw in the towel and make a mephistophelean trade for the even costlier quick-fix of authoritarian rule.

* P. D. Spyropoulos is the Executive Director of the American Hellenic Media Project (AHMP, www.ahmp.org), a non-profit think-tank created to address bias in the media and encourage independent, ethical and responsible journalism. Commentaries. letters and opinion-editorials by AHMP have been published in The Baltimore Sun, Billboard, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, The Christian Science Monitor, The Daily Republican, The Daily Telegraph, The Dallas Morning News, The Economist, El Nuevo Herald (Miami), The Financial Times, Forbes Global, The Fresno Bee, The Irish Times, The Knoxville News-Sentinel, The Miami Herald, The National Review, New York Newsday, The New York Post, The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine, The Orlando Sentinel, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, The Plain Dealer, The South China Morning Post, The St. Petersburg-Times (Fla.), The Star-Ledger (NJ), The Tampa Tribune, The Toronto Sun, USA Today, The Village Voice, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and World Press Review.

Posted: January 14, 2000

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