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Can Turkey remain afloat?

In the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, on 21 March 2017, young men hold a flag that says
In the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir, on 21 March 2017, young men hold a flag that says "NO", in reference to President Erdogan's bid to gain more power in the 16 April referendum

AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis

This statement was originally published on indexoncensorship.org on 31 March 2017.

By journalist Amberin Zaman

"I wear my Turkish and Muslim identity as easily a pair of well-worn jeans. I no longer worry that my writing will land me in trouble."

These were some of the heady feelings I shared with Yeni Safak, a highbrow pro-Islamic newspaper, in a 2005 interview. Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) had been in power for just three years. Overtly pious yet savvily flexible AKP used its big popular mandate to dismantle decades of army tutelage and embark on a giddying raft of reforms. Turkey, it seemed, was on a path to full-blooded democracy, shaming the European Union into opening talks for Turkish membership that same year.

It was a golden age. Erdogan became the first leader to publicly acknowledge that the country's long-suffering Kurds had been treated unfairly by the state. Bans on the Kurdish language were steadily eased while Kurdish rebel leaders sat opposite Turkish government officials to hammer out a deal for lasting peace.

The changes swept across the ethnic, religious and ideological divide. Using the word genocide which accurately captures the horrors that befell the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was no longer a criminal offence. In 2003, Turkey's long-suppressed yet vibrant LGBT community held its first ever gay pride march in Istanbul. In 2011, Zenne, a film about the first officially recorded gay honour killing in Turkey, swept five of the country's prestigious Antalya Golden Orange awards, including best film. That night as I snuggled in bed with my beloved friends and the film's co-directors, Caner Alper and Mehmet Binay, my heart soared. Albeit in fits and starts, my country was becoming a community of shared values, where citizens of all stripes and creeds could find a place for themselves, be respected, and treated equally before the law. And yes, a majority Muslim country that could prove to hundreds of millions of other Muslims living under thuggish regimes that yes, it is possible, that yes, they too can become us, this. Or so I believed.

Six years on it all seems like a distant dream.

Today, Yeni Safak, is nothing but a government propaganda sheet, spouting off obscene conspiracy theories about how everything from the failed July 2016 coup attempt, to the deadly New Year's Eve shooting spree at the Reina nightclub in Istanbul, were all engineered by the USA, and other dark forces bent on destroying Turkey.

Apparently I was among them. Turgay Guler, the managing editor of another pro-government title, Gunes, said I helped "plan" the Reina attack. He declared this to his 480 thousand plus Twitter followers unleashing a tidal wave of cyber threats which inundated my timeline for days. The tweet has not been removed. A Turkish prosecutor saw no harm in it and ignored my formal complaint, as has Twitter. Yet, well over a hundred of my colleagues, some of them dear, trusted friends, are languishing in jail for airing critical views of the government that are grounded in hard facts.

Peace with the Kurds is also on thin ice. A two and a half year-long ceasefire with the Kurdish rebels broke down in July 2015, soon after Mr Erdogan disowned a draft roadmap for peace that was initiated between his government and Kurdish leaders. The rebels recklessly threw coals on the fire by carrying the battle into towns and cities. Over 2,000 people, at least 300 of them are thought to be civilians, have died in the fighting since then.

Emboldened by the new spirit of openness Diyarbakir, the biggest and most vibrant city in the mainly Kurdish south-east region, had been striving to recreate its multi-cultural past. Udi Yervant, a renowned Armenian oud virtuoso, gave up his life in California to return. Today, Diyarbakir is a ghost of its former self. Large chunks of its historic centre, home to a glorious Armenian Orthodox church, and a cherished Ottoman mosque, were pulverised following months of bitter fighting between Kurdish rebel youths and Turkish security forces, who bloodily prevailed. Diyarbakir's co-mayors, a man and a woman, in keeping with the main Kurdish parties' emphasis on gender equality, are currently in prison on thinly-supported terror charges.

Tens of thousands of others have been sacked, jailed or both, on tenuous charges of involvement in the failed putsch. Fethullah Gulen, the Sunni cleric and a former ally of Erdogan, is accused of masterminding the coup. While there is little doubt that many of his associates were involved few believe they were acting alone.

Torture and arbitrary detentions are once again the norm. Not since the 1980 coup has Turkey been this divided, broken and grim. Should yes votes outnumber the nos in a critical referendum on formalising the vast powers Erdogan already exercises, Turkey's sharp turn towards authoritarianism can only accelerate. And in the opposite case a fresh cycle of revenge may be on the cards.

How did it come to this? Many say it is because Erdogan was never serious about democracy. His real goal all along was to supplant the generals' tutelage with his own. Others blame Turkey's perennially squabbling pro-secular opposition politicians.

Power crazed Gulen has caused incalculable harm as well. Then there is Europe which held out the hope of full membership only for the likes of Germany's Angela Merkel and the former French president, Nicholas Sarkozy to declare that it was all a farce. Turkey was too big, too Muslim and too poor. Either way, the rise of populism and xenophobic nationalism infecting Turkey is a global trend.

Many cast the April 16 referendum as a final chance to turn back the clock. But the odds are heavily stacked against the opposition. The referendum is being held under emergency rule. The government has virtually full control of the media. It is painting the vote as a choice between Erdogan and the abyss, between patriotism and treachery. Whatever the outcome, Turkey has entered uncharted waters. The big question now is how long it can remain afloat.

Turkey Uncensored is an Index on Censorship project to publish a series of articles from censored Turkish writers, artists and translators.

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