Last week I conducted a panel discussion about Turkey under the leadership of Erdogan. The day before the event, we were alerted that several of Erdogan’s stooges will await us to disrupt the event, and we feared that violence may erupt. Earlier in the morning, NYU received a letter from one of the Turkish dictator’s hawkish activists, warning that NYU should not hold such an event. We ended up hiring security guards to ensure our safety, right here in New York, from Turkish thugs operating at the behest of a despot who is leading his blind followers like sheep.
What’s outrageous about this episode is that we here in the US, where freedom of speech and assembly are guaranteed by the constitution, are threatened by Turkish citizens who were given the privilege to live in our country. They are now bullying us not to engage in a discussion, fearing that it may turn out to be critical of Erdogan.
My panel consisted of three speakers: Professor Ahmet Yayla, Arbana Xharra, and Dr. Y. Alp Aslandogan. Yayla was a 20-year veteran of the counterterrorism and operations department in the Turkish National Police and served as the chief of counterterrorism in Sanliurfa, Turkey. He spoke with some painful details about his personal encounters with top Turkish officials, who instructed him to allow volunteers to freely cross the Turkish border to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
He witnessed firsthand how the Turkish government was clandestinely buying oil from ISIS, and how bribes from the proceeds changed hands to reach top Turkish officials. He recounted the arbitrary detention of anyone who was suspected of being politically active against Erdogan and the AK Party, and spoke about how more than 200 journalists were rounded up and imprisoned, and tens of thousands from academia, business, military, and judiciary were falsely charged with conspiracy against the state.
He was fired from his position because he objected to the government’s deliberate policy of allowing volunteers to join ISIS, and was warned not to ever disclose what he had witnessed. He left Turkey for the US and was asked to testify before Congress about his personal experiences. Once the Turks learned about his testimony, his son in Turkey was arrested and spent one year in jail without any charges. After his release, he escaped to Europe and can never set foot in Turkey again.
Arbana Xharra is an investigative journalist from Kosovo. She wrote extensively on religious extremism and Erdogan’s Islamic agenda in the Balkans. She was physically attacked because of her critical reporting and was hospitalized. In 2015, she received the International Women of Courage Award from the US State Department. Her account of what Erdogan is doing in the Balkans surprised many who could not believe Erdogan’s extensive efforts to lure these states into his orbit.
She detailed Erdogan’s investment in building mosques in the Balkans, which were designed expressly for spreading Sunni Islam, and his appointment of Turkish imams to ensure that the teaching of Islam is orchestrated to influence the young and impressionable. She revealed how Erdogan manipulates Balkans leaders and how he selectively invests in these countries to increase his influence by using Islam as a tool.
TIKA and Diyanet, she said, are Erdogan’s main vehicles in the Balkans, where they built hundreds of religious institutions. Moreover, Erdogan made certain that critical assets—airports, infrastructure, mines, energy distribution—are financed and largely managed by Turkey.
She described how Erdogan’s secret service kidnaped early this year six Turkish nationals in Kosovo, suspected of having links to Gülen, and threw them in Turkish jail. Diyanet, though officially involved in promoting Erdogan’s Islamic agenda, she said, also serves to spy on Turkish citizens who escaped from Turkey and Kosovar nationals who voice any opposition to Erdogan’s meddling in Kosovo’s internal affairs.
Dr. Aslandogan is a Turkish native who also escaped from Turkey, fearing arrest for his association with the Gülen organization. He is the Executive Director of the Alliance for Shared Values (AFSV), which promotes bringing together citizens of diverse backgrounds around shared values of humanity.
Dr. Aslandogan explained how Erdogan initially embraced democracy and embarked on impressive socio-political and economic reforms, making him the most respected and admired Turkish leader in and outside Turkey since Atatürk. But for Erdogan, democracy is like “a bus, from which you get off once you reach your destination.”
From the onset, Dr. Aslandogan explained, Erdogan’s focus on economic development provided him with a strong popular base on which he could count for political support, which allowed him to orchestrate the failed July 2016 military coup in order to purge any and all of his political opponents.
Aslandogan, however, remains optimistic that democracy may still return to Turkey, provided that four prerequisites are met: new leaders committed to freedom and democracy, focusing on education and offering a more liberal curriculum, developing civil society and concentrating on the building of democratic institutions, and finally, seeking Western engagement and further expanding cultural ties.
Sadly, Dr. Aslandogan added that restoring democracy under Erdogan’s leadership is not possible because Erdogan has not only gone too far in promoting his Islamic agenda, but also, he will not relinquish his absolute power voluntarily now that he has secured it through constitutional amendments.
My panelists were not storytellers; they were eyewitnesses to the brutality and corruption of a dictator who betrayed his own people. None of them can go back to Turkey, fearing immediate arrest, charges of phony crimes against the state, facing a kangaroo court, and being sentenced for years in prison. An audience member spoke to this, stating with tears in her eyes that her husband, a Turkish military member who trained with NATO, was arrested without cause and is still languishing in jail.
The question is why Western officials ignore Erdogan’s ruthlessness, and why they treat him with such diplomatic deference. They cite three reasons: Turkey is a NATO member, a strategic ally, and a bridge between East and West and a regional power.
An important NATO member should not cozy up to the West’s staunchest enemy—Russia—from whom he is buying the S-400 air defense system, which is not only incompatible with the West’s air defense but could also compromise the US’ sensitive technology when deployed as an integral part of NATO defenses.
A strategic ally does not allow volunteers to cross its border freely to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and does not buy oil with cash, allowing ISIS to buy weapons on the black market. A strategic ally does not fight a US ally—the Syrian Kurds—and it does not collude with Russia and Iran to exclude the US from having a say about Syria’s future.
As a bridge between East and West, Turkey has and continues to be more of a problem than an asset. It has threatened to flood West European countries with Syrian refugees if they don’t meet its demands. As the hub of oil and gas, it supplies Europe much of its energy needs from the Middle East through a network of pipelines on Turkish territory. This makes the EU vulnerable as they fear he could disrupt the flow at any time. And as a regional power, Erdogan fomented foreign problems instead of playing a constructive and stabilizing force.
The question is, for how much longer will the West put up with a despot who continues to commit gross human rights violations without even public condemnation? For how much longer will the West sacrifice its moral values only to accommodate a tyrant?
How can we tolerate a foreign autocrat who dispatches his thugs to our country and challenges our right to free speech and assembly? We still remember how last May Erdogan’s security detail violently attacked a small peaceful demonstration protesting his cruel treatment of his own people—in Washington, DC.
It is about time that the US and the EU demand that he ceases his purges against his own people, end his blatant support of Muslim extremists, stop his meddling in the internal affairs of other countries, halt fighting the Syrian Kurds, cancel its weapons deal with Russia, and stop colluding with Iran, which undermine the US’ allies in the region.
The US and the EU must realize that Erdogan is not an ally; he is an adversary and must be treated as such.
Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.