Before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in Washington Tuesday evening, the U.S. and Turkish press exchanged a number of accusations bound to make his visit awkward. The American media warned of Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism, citing his attacks on critical journalists, academics and parliamentarians. Turkish media claimed that these domestic critics were terrorists engaged in a American-backed coup plot against Erdogan.
The accusations are not unrelated. In recent years, the Turkish government has used widespread fears over coups and terrorism to justify ever more brazen efforts to silence legitimate opposition. To do so, it has widened the definition of both terms, to the point where government rhetoric increasingly depends on the threat of coups without soldiers and terrorists without guns.
Erdogan is hardly unique among aspiring authoritarians in seeing elaborate foreign and domestic conspiracies as justification for undemocratic actions. But by weaving together fact and fantasy, by drawing on Turkey’s long history of coups and its very real terrorist threat, he has won widespread popular support for his authoritarian measures.
Turkey, of course, has had more than enough coups. After the first one, in 1960, the military tried and hanged the deposed prime minister. Claiming him as a democratic martyr, Erdogan and his followers have argued that this is the fate that will befall them if their opponents return to power. More recently, in 1997, the military toppled an Islamist government in a “postmodern coup,” bringing together secular bureaucrats, journalists and civil society organizations in a coordinated movement that, backed by the threat of force, pressured the prime minister to resign. It was a coup and a PR campaign at the same time, though no less undemocratic for being both.
Where many Turkish secularists once claimed that coups, while regrettable, were necessary to keep their country from slipping back into an era of religious backwardness, many of Erdogan’s supporters now claim that restrictions on free speech are necessary to keep their country from slipping back into an era of military authoritarianism. But the specter of a post-modern coup is a particularly dangerous one for free expression. The idea that a coup will involve civilian conspirators using anti-government propaganda to build public support makes it all too easy to conflate coups with criticism. In the past several months, the government closed one of Turkey’s leading opposition papers and arrested the editor of another, claiming both were working to lay the groundwork for a military intervention.
Perversely, as the government’s increasingly authoritarian behavior drives increasingly vitriolic criticism at home and abroad, this provides additional evidence for Erdogan’s claim that his opponents are conspiring against him. And, of course, it makes it easier to present Western criticism of his undemocratic behavior as nothing more than proof that foreign governments are in on the plot as well.
At the same time, the very real terror threat Turkey faces has proven equally conducive to criminalizing opposition, especially when Erdogan can invoke and invent undemocratic aspects of Western anti-terror laws as justification. Since this past summer, Turkey has been engaged in a war with Kurdish militants who have killed dozens of civilians in a series of car bombings in Ankara. With fear understandably high, Erdogan has called for the arrest of those who use their pens to promote terror, including those who blame his government for the resurgence of the conflict or object to his handling of it.
To justify measures like arresting academics for signing a peace petition, Erdogan has repeatedly argued that Western governments behave no differently. When Vice President Biden visited Turkey in January, for example, pro-government papers ran with the (needless to say fabricated) story that Biden had overseen a purge of 75 academics who claimed 9/11 was an inside job. In other cases, though, the Turkish press is unfortunately on safer ground. The shocking free speech hypocrisy France displayed by arresting those who praised the Charlie Hebdo attacks on Twitter has been a favorite talking point as well.
Given the Turkish government’s justifications for curbing free speech, what can the United States do to promote it? Continue to both articulate and live up to our own high standards of free expression certainly, and hope that our European allies do the same. More concretely, though, the U.S. government can take advantage of opportunities for criticism that resist the AKP’s conspiratorial narrative instead of playing into it. When American leaders are standing next to their Turkish counterparts on the podium, for example, their criticism carries a unique weight — which is presumably why Turkey’s prime minister hastily cancelled a joint press conference planned with Biden in January. Conversely, inaction can also speak louder than words. Erdogan’s eagerness to meet with President Obama during his visit here offers a reminder that refusing these meetings sends a powerful message, one that, in its silence, is difficult to spin.