Erdogan’s war on talent and future of Turkish state

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's poster hangs over a cultural center in Istanbul's Taksim Square.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's poster hangs over a cultural center in Istanbul's Taksim Square.

“100,000 people have been fired from their jobs in Turkey. Turkey is not a safe country. There is a lot of turmoil there," said a note that was taken from a Turkish doctor by the police.

The doctor, who was fired and her license revoked in Turkey's massive post-coup crackdown, was fleeing Turkey on a boat to Greece. Because she did not speak English, she kept a note in her purse to show to Greek authorities that she is seeking refuge. The Greek-Turkish border had long been a transit route for Syrian refugees as well as migrants from impoverished countries such as Somalia and Afghanistan. Today, these boats are filled with Turkish professors and dissident journalists, who are fleeing for their lives as the clampdown on critics widens.

It may seem a hasty analogy, but it is no less dissimilar in character and nature between Turkey’s massive purges and other similar historical cases. Nazi cleansing of political enemies and ethnic minorities in 1930-40s, or Stalin’s great terror in 1936-38, or Islamist purge of secular and leftist rivals in the aftermath of 1979 revolution in Iran have striking resemblance with Turkey's ongoing purge.

In the first one, it might not cause so much menace or harm for the industrially developed Germany, which, in Frankfurt School philosophers Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s words, epitomized the great promise of European Enlightenment: a rationally and scientifically advanced society. But in other cases, purges left a debilitating impact on state apparatus in the Soviet Union, Iran and today’s Turkey.

With the rise of fascism in Germany, the Nazi leadership had undertaken nationwide policies for societal and racial purification and launched massive purges within the state to cleanse Jewish public servants. Genius generation of the era, be it in literature, art, political science or any field, failed to evade earth-scorching policies which then morphed to a cataclysmic genocide that saw millions of people killed.

What appears as the striking is the fact that the Nazis systematically targeted the talented people of all political stripes and convictions when it regarded them foes of its political regime. As Ian Kershaw eloquently demonstrated in his biography about Adolf Hitler, Communists were placed in concentration camps in hundreds of thousands in 1933 right after Nazis came to power. Roma people, gypsies, and Jewish Germans had then become next targets en masse. Step by step, the authoritarian policies extended to include other groups and ethnic minorities, and Jewish people emerged as the most suffering group that were subjected to Holocaust.

The anti-Semitic zeal of the Nazis was so ferocious that they never thought twice before targeting the most talented people, doctors, musicians, scientists, architects, who otherwise might well contribute to the society.

The similar political warfare and crackdown on the skilled people could be discerned in Stalinist purges and terror that targeted the party's elites, prominent artists, cultural figures and respected members of the scientific community. Stalin's great terror also decimated experienced generals and officers of the Soviet army right before the Second World War in late 1930s. Stalin’s own paranoia even led him to launch a global manhunt for his arch-foe, Leon Trotsky, one of the three leading pillars of the Soviet Revolution, and orchestrated political murder of Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. Writers, artists, and other elites were never felt comfortable and secure under the scrutinizing gaze of the omnipresent Big Brother, a central theme of George Orwell’s groundbreaking novel 1984, which offered a bleak assessment about dark sides of a totalitarian state and society.

The death of Stalin in 1953 unleashed a sense of relief among party elites as his successor Khrushchev vowed to stop political murders and pledged to establish trust and peace. Even during that period Soviet scientists continued to flee the country. To the embarrassment and dismay of Soviets, athletes used Olympic Games as an opportunity to seek asylum at hosting country or elsewhere, while Berlin Wall, a symbol of a divided Germany and indeed Europe, failed to stop determinant East Germans to escape to the West, a land of prosperity and freedom as was seen at the time.

Iran also went down that perilous road. Before the Iraq-Iran war, mass purge in the Iranian army -- then US ally and one of the region's strongest -- sharply reduced the number of experienced generals. That purge is believed to be a factor that led Saddam Hussain into the war against Iran.

And the war gave religious rules needed excuse and tools to solidify the new regime, to suppress potential critics and to restructure the entire state in their own image and vision. Iran has now considerable diaspora in the U.S., most of whom fled the country's Islamist theocratic regime after 1979 revolution. It was quite clear to seculars and leftists that they would be forced correct themselves to the needs of the new regime if they intended to stay. Some stayed, some not.

Turkey is on a similar path now. More than 100,000 public officials have been purged. At least 70,000 have been detained and 32,000 arrested since July 15 abortive coup. What pushed doctors, white-collar workers in any society, to risk their lives on a perilous journey through a river monitored by heavily armed soldiers on both sides of the Turkish-Greek border merits attention.

So reckless the government crackdown following the coup was that it has shut down 35 hospitals, 15 universities, 1,043 private schools and high schools, 1,229 associations and foundations, 19 unions over affiliation with a movement inspired by US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. When the decision about the shutdown of hospitals, including an Armenian hospital, came out, many people were left wondering to figure out the rationale behind it. Why hospitals? The question, along with dozens of others, has gone unanswered. But it explicates about the roots of irrational approach embedded in government policies targeting institutions linked with critics. Even doctors cannot escape the wrath of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. So hapless with the dismal conditions of academic world, there were even reports of university professors trying their bid on dinghy boats along with refugees toward Greek islands.

The purge was in the making well before the attempted coup, but took a massive shape, unprecedented in entire history of the Turkish Republic. The scale and nature of post-coup purge gives legitimate suspicion for critics that President Erdogan is not solely after coup plotters, but for anyone he deems non-loyalist. As the coup plot was falling apart, Erdogan described the putsch as a "gift from God" to cleanse the army. What followed since then proved one more time that Erdogan is a man of his word when he deals with political enemies and opponents.

The nature of the Turkey purge deserves scrutiny here. Under the pretext of going after Gulenists, Erdogan’s sworn arch-enemy, the government has fired public servants and academics of all political creeds. The Turkish authorities dismissed scientists, academics, doctors, personnel of Agriculture Ministry, employees of local administrations, governors, mayors, police, judges, prosecutors, army officers, financial experts, vets, teachers in a mass purge that affected all public institutions. It fired significant portion of Air Force pilots that now it faces a shortage of experienced pilots to fly its jets if Ankara goes to war with a country. Almost half of generals and admirals were dismissed from the military, 3,500 judges and prosecutors sacked, nearly 50,000 teachers lost their jobs and more than 20,000 police officers, 30 governors, and tens of thousands of others fired or suspended.

And significant numbers of them are now in jail. The government has even emptied 38,000 convicted inmates to create space for post-coup arrests.

The surreal nature of the tragedy that currently plays out in Turkey seems to vindicate the nightmarish utopia eloquently depicted in Orwell’s 1984, a book cited in any political article or essay that tackles with totalitarianism during the twentieth century. Though different in extent and degree it may be, the similarities are no less striking and more shocking given the conditions. The social fear and mistrust, the nation-wide witch-hunt poisoned relations between people, public servants, between superiors and inferiors. It left a deeply fractured army and the police department. Party loyalty replaced with merit, and promotion depends on the will to prove how much someone is loyal to the president. In a country where downloading a smartphone app may land some in jail, as already happened in thousands of cases, nobody feels safe and secure.

While no time-frame could be set to predict how this purge saga will end in Turkey, one thing is for sure: Once the dust settles, devastating consequences of purge will become clear and for worse.

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