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December 17, 2012, Monday

Taraf shockwaves

For the journalists who face losing their jobs, whether or not Taraf survives the departure of Ahmet Altan and Yasemin Çongar may not be a moot point. For most of the paper’s readers, however, it is already clear that Taraf, the whistle blowing newspaper, is no more.

This dénouement does not come as a great surprise. Taraf, as its title indicates, was always an unabashedly activist newspaper, intent on tackling some of the taboos that have stood in the way of Turkey’s democratization for decades. Its journalists, fighting for a more open and liberal Turkey, had become increasingly vocal in their criticism of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had already made his displeasure evident with well-publicized lawsuits directed at the daily and its writers.

Symbolically, the end of Taraf as we knew it means more than just the collapse of an outspoken newspaper, crushed by political pressure. Hopes that the AK Party would revive its drive for reforms had been fading in recent years, and particularly since the elections of June 2011. The window of opportunity now seems to have slammed shut.

The timing of Taraf’s collapse is interesting because it coincides with the final stages of the Ergenekon trial. In the eyes of those whose priority was to get rid of high-level officers and other elements of the state that threatened the AK Party government’s survival, Taraf’s mission has been accomplished. In fact, the newspaper had outlived its usefulness since its vocal columnists were determined to hold the government to higher standards.

Just as expectations of more reforms failed to be fulfilled, so have the hopes that the Ergenekon investigation would mark a democratic turning point. Holding people to account for crimes they have committed is crucial, but due process needs to be respected. What matters even more for the future of this country is to understand the nature of the beast. The deep state has always been more than a group of rogue elements: It is a mentality, a top-down ideology that recognizes only one truth and seeks to impose it on the population. Over the decades, it has taken several incarnations.

The AK Party and its supporters chose to define Ergenekon by its arch-secular views, but the deep state mentality, entrenched more deeply and broadly, extends well beyond the group of suspects on trial in Silivri. Its ideology is also far more complex. To focus only on alleged coup plots of the past decade while ignoring other misdeeds directed at other parts of society won’t really strengthen Turkey’s democracy.

Yes, a militant form of secularism was a key aspect of the deep state understanding, but a secularism with a twist that only recognized Sunni Muslims -- though preferably non-practicing ones -- as full-fledged citizens. But this mentality also embraces a virulent form of nationalism, as yet unchallenged, which perceives segments of Turkish society as potential enemies and denies full citizenship rights to members of non-Muslim minorities and to Kurds.

To believe that this outlook is limited to supporters of the secular opposition is missing the point and preventing Turkey from moving forward. When a judge who found Hrant Dink guilty can be appointed the country’s first ombudsman, when a policeman indicted for torture is chosen to run the anti-terrorism unit or when the government fails to explain how 34 civilians were killed in Uludere, it is evident that Turkey’s democratic transformation has a long way to go. As for the long awaited new constitution, it is doubtful that the document that eventually emerges from the current political stalemate will offer the democratic guarantees that will make Turkey truly inclusive, multicultural and more tolerant.

Columnist Mehmet Altan, commenting on the Taraf debacle on CNN Türk, pointed out that intellectuals like his brother Ahmet Altan and his team can raise issues, but it is ultimately up to the people to take up the struggle for democratic standards. Taraf made an important contribution by pointing to some of Turkey’s shortcomings, past and present. Others will hopefully take up the baton.

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