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July 02, 2012, Monday

Pieces of a jigsaw

Piecing together a coherent picture of Turkey is increasingly difficult. If the country were a jigsaw puzzle, you’d find that many of its constituent parts don’t fit into a neat whole.

In fact, you may even wonder if the manufacturer had erroneously mixed the content of two boxes.

Some parts easily coalesce to paint the sunny picture of an increasingly wealthy and self-confident country. This is the side of Turkey that attracts foreign investors and brings millions of tourists flocking every year to enjoy this country’s stunning natural beauty, its famed hospitality and its rich historical heritage.

But then, there are also the many jagged pieces that simply won’t slot into the positive image that the authorities try to project. In fact, put together, they make a much darker tableau.

For a start, the sheer number of people arrested on terrorism charges would suggest that, far from being a peaceful holiday destination, this country is in fact rather unstable. How else can one explain that Turkey accounts for a third -- a third! -- of some 35,000 arrests on terrorism charges conducted worldwide in the decade that followed the 9/11 attacks, a ratio that places this country well ahead of nations like China in terms of such arrests.

Reporters Without Borders also puts Turkey among the five nations -- together with Iran, Eritrea, China and Syria -- with the highest number of journalists behind bars, close to 100 at the latest count. The Initiative for Solidarity with Arrested Students (TÖDI) has just compiled a list of 771 students who are in detention, in many cases for alleged crimes that would be considered well within the boundaries of free expression in most countries.

Anyone living in Turkey is of course aware that the country does face challenges, and that clashes between Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants and security forces are often lethal. Turkey is also seeking to prosecute perpetrators of past abuses. But these investigations have ballooned into unwieldy judicial procedures that involve so many suspects that their credibility has been undermined.

This week also sees the start of the trial of some 200 people charged with membership of the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK). Among them are Büşra Ersanlı, an internationally respected academic and peace activist, who has been held in pre-trial detention since October 2011 and faces up to 38.5 years of imprisonment, as well as publisher Ragıp Zarakoğlu, who also spent several months in pre-trial detention before being freed pending trial in March.

I use a jigsaw metaphor to describe the mismatch between the various faces that Turkey presents to the world, but this unfortunate state of affairs is not just a matter of image. What is at stake is not so much Turkey’s reputation abroad, but the cohesion of its society.

While leading politicians, subscribing to a time-honoured tradition, never miss an opportunity to claim that foreign powers are seeking to curb Turkey’s influence, they appear oblivious to the destructive impact of their uncompromising approach to dissent.

Take the students, for instance: Gaining a place at university is an extremely competitive process in Turkey. To pass the entrance exam, students jump through many hoops, while their parents invest heavily in private tutoring. When you consider that, according to TÖDI, aside from several hundreds of students arrested, 3120 faced disciplinary action in 2011 and 2110 were suspended from university that year (the numbers were even higher the year before), it is hard to escape the conclusion that Turkey is not only causing deep trauma to the individuals concerned, their families and their friends, but is also shooting itself in the foot by clipping the wings of some of its highest achievers.

In some cases, joining a women’s rights demonstration on March 8 or unfurling a banner demanding free education has been seen by prosecutors as sufficient evidence of membership of a terrorist group. Are these students’ views always reasonable? Perhaps not. But they don’t have to be, as long as they are expressed peacefully.

That they do have strong opinions could also be seen, more positively, as proof that these students have developed the critical thinking that international educational surveys suggest many of their peers in other nations lack, a crucial skill that should also allow them to make a useful contribution to the economic and social development of their country. Sadly, political leaders, and indeed members of the judiciary, would prefer more compliant youngsters who bow to the status quo.

Will Turkey be able to bring its various parts together to create a more inclusive and tolerant society? We have to hope so. For the time being, its fractured image shows a country in rapid transformation, but one in which democratization lags far behind economic development.

Previous articles of the columnist