Turkish Citizens Raise Concerns About the Potential for Similar Repression Under Trump

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Analysis Human Rights

Turkish Citizens Raise Concerns About the Potential for Similar Repression Under Trump

Fariba Nawa

Pundits say that Turkish President Erdogan has some things in common with Donald Trump: a lack of concern for women and marginalized people; a massive ego; disdain for the press; and nationalistic rhetoric that appeals to millions.

A journalist whose news agency was recently shut down by the Turkish government was watching United States President-elect Donald Trump give his victory speech on TV in her home city of Istanbul. Suddenly, she had a flashback to 2002, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan, now the president of Turkey, made a similar speech.

Erdogan, who at that point had just won the position of prime minister, had promised to unite a divided nation and make Turkey great again.

“I felt Trump may be like Erdogan because they used similar words” of jingoistic nationalism to appeal to Turkish citizens, said the journalist from JINHA (Women’s News Agency), who declined to give her name because she doesn’t feel safe. Five of her female Kurdish colleagues were recently released from jail; the sixth remains there.

Both supporters and opponents of Erdogan who spoke with Rewire said they see similarities between the character and message of the Turkish leader and Trump’s. But while supporters of populist Erdogan praised Trump, his opponents—mainly consisting of intellectuals, academics, religious and ethnic minorities, and women—compared Erdogan’s dangerous actions, especially when it comes to the press and marginalized populations, to what might become Trump’s.

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Turkey is currently in a state of emergency after a failed July 15 coup to overthrow Erdogan. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has suspended, fired, or jailed tens of thousands of Turkish citizens in a post-coup purge. Just last week, 370 organizations, including women’s rights groups, were closed down under various charges levied by the government.

Most press outlets that aren’t government mouthpieces have been shut down, or their staff replaced with pro-government employees.

Sehnaz Kiymaz Bahceci, of Women for Women’s Human Rights in Istanbul, said the similarities between Erdogan and Trump are emblematic of a growing number of world leaders who espouse right-wing, conservative, populist politics. Their first victims, she said, are usually women.

“Women’s human rights and sexual and reproductive health … are at stake more than ever,” Bahceci said. “These political movements may differ from each other on many issues, but trying to control women’s rights, lives, and bodies become a common denominator in the end. And they learn and imitate each other when it comes to methods of controlling women’s lives,” Bahceci said, referring to world leaders.

Initially, Erdogan and his party fulfilled some of their promises to include marginalized communities like Kurds, women, and LGBTQ people in government and public life; beginning in 2003, they allowed one of the few Gay Pride parades in a Muslim country. But the same government has stopped the parade the last two years with tear gas and water cannons because the dates fell during the holy month of Ramadan.

Erdogan didn’t insult immigrants, Kurds, or women during his initial campaign. He even won the vote of many secularists who believed he could bolster Turkey’s choked economy. And he did at first, building infrastructure and tourism. The economy is suffering now because of terrorism attacks; tourism has tanked.

But Erdogan and the AKP gradually catered more to traditional attitudes invoking religion and family. The Ministry for Women and Family changed to Ministry of Family and Social Policy. Erdogan lifted the ban on head scarves in government institutions, including universities, which had been widely unpopular in many communities. Then, however, he publicly said women aren’t equal to men. In public speeches, he has continuously pushed a narrative of a “good” woman—a mother who only works part-time or not at all—to a “bad” woman who is cosmopolitan, educated, or single.

His party has tried and failed to make adultery a crime. Fewer government hospitals offer abortion—most require medical reasons to give the care, according to a recent report by the Kadir Has University. Private hospitals offer abortion, but the costs can be prohibitive for lower-income women.

After Donald Trump’s election in the United States, reports began to surface about increased numbers of hate crimes. Similarly, dozens of women interviewed by Rewire in Istanbul said the number of violent attacks and sexual harassment against them have increased, especially on public transportation. In September, a man attacked a nurse in Istanbul on a public bus because she was wearing shorts and revealing too much skin for him. Conservative, religious attitudes against abortion, LGBTQ people, and gender equality have become mainstream in cities and rural areas alike.

Trump has said he’s going to appoint justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade; effectively condoned sexual assault against women in a viral video from his past; and called Hillary Clinton a “nasty woman” in one of the presidential debates.

Nafisa Haji, a U.S. writer who has lived in Turkey for four years, noted that, like Erdogan, Trump’s strategy scapegoats marginalized people. “Both men are paternalistic and authoritarian—qualities that are always hostile to women and LGBTQ communities,” said Haji.

Though she said there’s a significant difference in that strategy: Erdogan has been drumming up fears, while she feels that Trump is tapping into deep sentiments of racism that already exist.

In addition, Turkish journalists said both Trump and Erdogan have enormous egos with little threshold for criticism. Trump tried to sue media outlets for criticizing him during his campaign and has vowed to limit press freedoms during his presidency.

By comparison, after a failed July 15 coup, Erdogan dropped hundreds of court cases he had previously filed against journalists who “insulted” him in the press. It was a short-lived goodwill measure before the storm of government-prompted media closures occurred.

Didem Tali, a freelance Turkish journalist in Istanbul, noted the parallels in Trump’s and Erdogan’s campaign rhetoric: namely, their appeals to voter emotions as anti-establishment figures.

“One of the most striking similarities between Trump and Erdogan is the way they appealed to millions of people by using the notion of nostalgia,” Tali said.

“Despite the very different histories of the two nations, Trump’s notorious slogan, ‘Make America great again’ has an unprecedented similarity to Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman policies, which glorified the culture, lifestyle, and the military successes of the Empire. Both leaders utilized a longing for a romanticized bygone era, which provides a feeling of comfort to many people in a world changing rapidly,” Tali said.

Erdogan was one of the first world leaders to congratulate Trump last week on his win and was quick to ask for extradition of Fethullah Gulen, a religious leader and businessman whom the Turkish government has accused of masterminding the coup. Gulen, who has denied involvement, lives in exile in Pennsylvania as a green-card holder.

It may be that the comparisons between the two politicians may be crude and rushed: Trump hasn’t began his job yet, while Erdogan manages to remain in power for a second decade. Erdogan hailed from humble roots and rose to politics first as mayor of Istanbul, where he delivered on his promises such as clean water and garbage pickup. Trump, by contrast, has no political experience.

Some political pundits in the United States have assumed Trump will err enough to cause his own impeachment, and hoped that U.S. institutions of checks and balances will not allow him to purge and detain the country’s citizens like Erdogan is doing in Turkey. Few pollsters and analysts, however, predicted Trump’s victory; protests continue against his shocking win on U.S. streets.

Turks who voted for Erdogan 12 years ago had hoped for a democratic president who allowed freedom of expression, made peace with Kurds, and improved Turkey’s human rights. But they feel like they’ve regressed. They can’t even share their names in a press interview out of fear of imprisonment.