A foreign journalist representing a reputable German newspaper is picked up and accused of supporting a terrorist organization. A German human-rights organizer is also detained on charges of supporting a yet-to-be-defined terrorist organization. Is this happening in North Korea? Iran? No—this is occurring in Turkey, where the arrests of Deniz Yucel, a Turkish-German dual national working for the German daily, Die Welt, and Peter Steudtner, a human-rights worker, have provoked an unprecedented crisis between Germany and Turkey that could soon roil relations with the rest of the European Union.
Ever since last July’s failed coup attempt, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the president of Turkey, has engaged in an orgy of arrests, dismissals, purges of judges, journalists, academics, public servants, and military officers. Some 150,000 people have been removed from state institutions or universities, often on the mere suspicion of being affiliated with the cleric Fethullah Gülen, a onetime ally of Erdogan who he accuses of plotting the coup; some 50,000 people have been arrested in connection with the failed coup, still awaiting their day in court a year later.
The purges are designed to rid the state of any opponents, real or imagined, and to replace them with cadres totally loyal to the leader, ready and willing to intimidate other Turks. People are arrested for the most mundane of reasons, from wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the word “Hero,” to any criticism of the president deemed offensive. Of course, what is offensive is in the eye of a single beholder—in this case, the Erdogan-dominated state apparatus.
The real victims of the purges are the thousands of Turks who have been detained for almost a year on what are, more often than not, spurious charges. Among the detained are the Altan brothers, Ahmet and Mehmet, one a renowned novelist and journalist, the other an economist and professor. One of the crimes they are accused of: sending subliminal messages on the eve of last year’s coup through a television program encouraging the overthrow of the government.
The Erdogan government’s efforts to blame foreigners for the coup attempt is a cynical effort to shore up support at home. Some 10 German or German-Turkish dual nationals are currently being detained by Turkey. Ankara most likely wants Berlin to extradite some Turkish generals purged after the coup attempt who have sought asylum in Germany.
But Germans are not the only ones being targeted. Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, found his life inexplicably upended when he was arrested in early October 2016, also for supposedly supporting a terrorist organization. He has been kept in jail since, and the pro-Erdogan Turkish press has had a field day conjuring up ludicrous stories about him. One such story: that Brunson is a CIA employee who helped the Gülen organization and the Kurdish insurgency. There is also Serkan Göle, a 37-year-old Turkish American NASA scientist who went to Turkey to visit family with his wife and two young sons, but was picked up by Turkish authorities on his way home. He has been in jail for a year. He, too, stands accused of being a CIA agent and, because he had a $1 bill in his possession—not unusual for someone who lives in America—a member of a terrorist organization. In his youth, he attended Gülen-linked schools, including one university where he benefitted from a Turkish state scholarship.
One particularly absurd case is that of Hamza Uluçay, a 37-year employee of the U.S. consulate in Adana, who was picked up on “terrorism” charges. He is a foreign service national, a local hire who helps U.S. diplomats arrange meetings and navigate the local political and social scene. I have known Hamza for 25 years—I first met him in the 1990s in Adana during a research trip. When I saw him last in March 2016, I joked with him that he ought to never retire because Consulate Adana, notwithstanding his American colleagues, could not function without him. These audacious charges amount to nothing less than sticking a thumb in America’s eye.
The Turkish leadership is playing hardball: It has gone after the Americans because the United States has yet to positively respond to Ankara’s request to extradite Gülen. Ankara has supplied reams of material that supposedly support the case for his extradition that the Justice Department has found to be inconclusive and well below the evidentiary threshold needed to take away someone’s green card. In addition, the Turkish government is seeking the release of Reza Zarrab from a detention center in Manhattan. Zarab is the Iranian-Turkish-Azeri owner of a *company that engaged in sanctions busting. Turkey’s international reputation has suffered immensely from all this. Only this week, Turkish judicial authorities withdrew their formal accusation lodged with Interpol against almost 700 German firms, including the giants Daimler and BASF, of colluding with terrorists. Turkish officials often accuse the Europeans, be they Dutch or Germans, of being Nazis. At a rally in March, Erdogan, angry at the Europeans’ refusal to allow Turkish politicians to campaign on their soil, said, “I thought Nazism was dead but I was wrong. … The West has shown its true face.” The Erdogan government has done a great deal of damage to Turkey’s relationship with Europe, and it will take a very long time for it to be mended.
This type of heavy-handed Pyongyangian behavior from a NATO member has backfired in Europe. Angela Merkel, the chancellor of Germany, is frustrated at the continuous detention of her citizens, and has made it clear to Ankara that it will pay a price—Germany, Turkey’s largest trading partner, is also home to 2.5 to 3 million Germans of Turkish descent. Uncharacteristically, it has announced a wide-ranging set of measures, including a travel warning to its citizens contemplating visiting Turkey. It has also called for a review of European Union aid contributions to Ankara—totaling some $650 million—to support the country’s Customs Union agreement with the EU, and of export credit guarantees for German companies investing in Turkey.
These measures will not change the current trajectory of Turkish politics, which seem set on a path to autocracy. If anything, the world ought not be surprised if it continues to detain and sentence foreigners as Iran does. Erdogan is intent on reshaping the Turkish system into one anchored by his personality. While he cannot completely jettison the legacy of Atatürk, the country’s founder, he is doing everything he can to expand his ideological influence at his expense. In order to succeed, however, he must quash rival narratives—hence his obsession with jailing academics, journalists, think tankers, and intellectuals.
The Turkish press, controlled almost entirely by Erdogan either directly or indirectly, engages daily in foreigner bashing. The targets are almost exclusively Western. On the eve of the 2016 coup attempt, many of my colleagues with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Middle East Program and I were gathered on Büyükada, an island near Istanbul, for a workshop on Iran. We were made the object of outlandish accusations of coup-plotting and (poor) execution. Accusing us was a convenient way of connecting the U.S. government to the failed coup, especially because I am a former U.S. official. In fact, recently, the Turks have even claimed that Pastor Brunson was on the island with us.
While the non-Turks had left Turkey by the time the “revelations” surfaced, our Turkish partners did not fare so well. Some lost their jobs, others their passports. It seems as if the island of Büyükada is cursed: recently, a number of human rights activists both Turkish and foreign, including Peter Stuedner, who made the unfortunate decision to gather on the same island, were arrested and remanded to custody by the anti-terrorism police on the grounds that they were engaged with terrorist organizations. Yet, during their court hearing, no such organization was mentioned.
Turkey is in for a hard period ahead. Not everyone agrees with Erdogan, but the fear factor and the government’s domination of the news cycle and of the daily narrative should not be underestimated. There are only two factors the government cannot completely control: economics and events in neighboring countries. Ultimately, what happens in these domains and a much-diminished decision-making apparatus in Ankara whose talents have been depleted by purges will determine whether Erdogan’s reign will endure.
*This piece originally misstated Zarrab’s profession and affiliation.