The rapid decline of civil liberties in Turkey continue this month under the expanding control of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his coalition of Islamic parties. The latest sign came with the arrest of Mehmet Emin Altunses, 16, who allegedly committed the crime of “insulting” Erdogan. That is what free speech has become in Turkey. It is a crime to write or say things insulting about Erdogan who is viewed around the world as a menacing clown destroying secularism and civil liberties in Turkey. Despite such moments as Erdogan’s calling people who use birth control “traitors” and saying Muslims discovered America, you are not allowed to be disrespectful or insulting in discussing Erdogan.
A court finally released the 16-year-old after repeated efforts of his family. He faces up to four years in prison if convicted.
Altunses had delivered a speech on Wednesday in Konya where he accused Erdogan and the ruling party of corruption. He described Erdogan as the “chief of theft, bribery and corruption.” Konya is a stronghold of the ruling Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, with Erdogan, is pushing for the insertion of Islamic rules on every level of the government — once a bastion of secularism in the Muslim world.
Now in most governments, the political leaders would immediately express shame and regret at the arrest of a boy for speaking out against his government. However, this is at the Erdogan government which is increasingly demanding obedience from citizens and compliance with Islamic dictates. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (right) supported the arrest of the boy, saying: “Everyone must respect the office of president whoever he is.” That is, respect the leader as opposed to the principle of free speech. For Davultoglu, the free speech concerns are not even worth mentioning.
Notably, this is the same country that was working with the Obama Administration to create an international blasphemy standard. Fortunately, the efforts to create such a standard under former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton largely failed but the change in U.S. position in favor of such a standard is still be cited by advocates seeking to curtail free speech.
Turkey has long been one of my favorite places on Earth and I have long hoped that the country’s secular traditions would offer a lasting alternative to the Islamic and sharia-based systems in Muslims countries. I know many secular Muslims in Turkey and there continue to be brave individuals, like this teenager, who have risen to challenge the Erdogan government. It is telling that the first right that authoritarian governments attack remains free speech. Yet, that right is under attack even in the West. We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen comedians targets with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here).
Those resisting Erdogan’s effort to curtail free speech and freedom of religion are on the front lines of this struggle.