Turkey has a rich and colorful history at the crossroads of several worlds. The geographical crossroads between Europe and Asia. The religious crossroads between first the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, and then between Christianity and Islam.
Cultural intermingling always permeated the capital city, first famous as Byzantium, then Constantinople, and finally Istanbul. The historic metropolis inhabits the shores of the Bosphorus, a strait marking the divide between Europe and Asia.
Turkey was the seat of the Islamic Caliphate and the Ottoman Empire until the Ottomans joined the Central Powers in World War I. After the “Great War,” as it was called before World War II changed everybody’s perspective, the Ottoman Empire was dismantled. The Allies, dividing the spoils, created fake nations like Iraq and left peoples like the Kurds without a nation.
Against all odds, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk led a military defense against the victorious Allies to save the Turkish homeland. He founded the modern Republic of Turkey as a secular state in 1923. A year later, Atatürk abolished the Caliphate and vested its powers in an elected Parliament. The Hagia Sophia, an architectural landmark of Istanbul, went from being the Imperial Mosque to an internationally renowned museum.
Turkey used to be the only majority Muslim nation that appeared to get the separation of mosque and state right. Now, under President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, there are rumblings of reestablishing the Caliphate. Erdo?an was last ridiculed in these pages for claiming the Taino people in the Caribbean discovered a Muslim before they discovered Columbus.
Sedef Kaba?, a talking head on Turkish television, noticed a corruption prosecution being dropped because it was getting too high in the government. She tweeted, “Never forget the name of this man. The prosecutor who decided on non-prosecution over the December 17 investigation is Hadi Saliho?lu.”
For this tweet, the English-only Turkish newspaper Zaman reported, the police raided her home, confiscated her computer, and she is now facing five years imprisonment for “threatening” Saliho?lu. Erdo?an himself made the news when he attacked a Turkish newspaper, Cumhuriyet, for reprinting some of the cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. This tongue lashing was delivered after Erdo?an’s government sent Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to the solidarity march in Paris, a bigger big shot than the United States sent to condemn the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
These challenges to both democracy and secularism come as Turkey strains the NATO alliance by refusing to aid the fight against the so-called Islamic State, which claims to have reestablished the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq.
Recep Tayyip Erdo?an is no Atatürk, but he was, in fact, elected. He has tried to censor Twitter, an effort that got him only a Twitterstorm of ridicule. He’s been an outspoken opponent of women’s equality. He still maintains that American Indians discovered Muslims before they discovered European Christians. The day will come when Erdo?an comes after Zaman.
Twenty years ago, the smart money expected Turkey to join the European Union as an economic powerhouse. Now it’s a serious question how long Turkey will remain in NATO. Atatürk must be turning in his grave as the secular democracy he founded falls from economic and political broker between worlds to just another comedic demonstration of what happens to censorship in the age of the Internet.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.