Is Turkey a modern democracy?


Turkey claims to be a modern democracy, with ambitions to join the European Union.  But is Turkey really that democratic, or that modern?  I wonder if any country is anything like nice to live in when it has laws that criminalize insulting historical figures or religions, especially when the “insult” is portrayed for satire – or even just a joke.

Look, for instance, at the recent case where the Turkish radio and television watchdog RTUK has fined TV channel CNBC-e 52,951 lira (£18,600) for airing an episode of The Simpsons, whose scenes included God taking orders from Satan (the devil tells God to make him some coffee) – apparently this silly joke is insulting religious beliefs.  Also, last week the Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdoğan attacked a hit soap opera about the Ottoman Empire’s longest-reigning Sultan, while RTUK has warned the show’s makers about “insulting a historical figure”.  And insulting Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, is a heinous crime that can get you seven years imprisonmentMustafa Akyol, Turkish himself, writes that Turkey is “one of the world’s last remaining regimes based on a cult of personality. It is outdone only by North Korea”.  He says it is impossible to write anything about Ataturk that represents him as a normal human being with normal frailties without risking prosecution for “insulting” the guy.  Turkish law 5816 criminalises “insulting the legacy of Ataturk”.

And then there’s the Armenian genocide (this’ll get me extradited to Turkey for sure!).  During and after World War 1, the Ottoman government carried out a systematic extermination of its minority Armenian subjects from their historic homeland in the territory constituting the present-day country of Turkey.  Able-bodied Armenian men were either murdered immediately or killed slowly through means of forced labour; women, children, the elderly and the infirm were dealt with by deportation and death marches to the Syrian desert.  There were also extermination camps established, near Turkey’s moderm Iraqi and Syrian borders.  The term “genocide” was coined to describe these events; it’s thought to be the first historical example of a deliberate policy to exterminate a single people.

Modern day Turkey denies that the Armenian genocide ever took place – there might have been a few unfortunate incidents down to over-zealous soldiers or officials, but there was no policy of genocide.  Honest.  Turkey has some really weak arguments on this.  For instance (from Wikipedia):

“Turkish governmental sources have asserted that the historically demonstrated ‘tolerance of Turkish people’ itself renders the Armenian Genocide an impossibility. One military document leverages 11th century history to cast doubt on the Armenian Genocide: ‘It was the Seljuq Turks who saved the Armenians that came under the Turkish domination in 1071 from the Byzantine persecution and granted them the right to live as a man should’.”

In other words, Turks saved the Armenians from Byzantine persecution in 1071 so there’s no way they would have changed their minds and tried to wipe the Armenians from the face of the earth a thousand years later.  Yeah, real compelling evidence.

Anyway, suggesting that the Turks carried out genocidal policies is, surprise surprise, considered as “insulting Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish government institutions”, a crime under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code.  And this isn’t some archaic law that the government just haven’t got round to repealing yet – this law was passed in 2005!

It would seem that Turkey is getting more authoritarian by the day.  And this is a country that would claim to be a modern democracy?  The Turkish government needs to look at the statute books and do away with some of its ridiculous laws if it wants to be seen abroad as anything other than a petty, ridiculous “democratic” dictatorship. Oh, and it needs to stop persecuting the Kurds – an exclusive club whose other members are Iran and Iraq is a club you do not want to join.

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One Response to Is Turkey a modern democracy?

  1. Martin X says:

    Since writing this piece, I’ve been wondering: will Turkey try to extradite me for the myriad crimes I’ve undoubtedly committed here? Can they fast-track me with an International Arrest Warrant? I like to think that wouldn’t happen… but we don’t live in a sane world. I’m packing a toothbrush, just in case… 😉

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