Turkish front pages stoke secularism debate- Turkey media roundup

The decades-old debate over secularism in Turkey was rehashed in Turkish newspapers throughout a week that also raised serious concerns over repression of dissent in the country.

Turkish pro-government daily Star’s front page on Monday carried a quote from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as its headline, assuring the European Union that Turkey had not given up its plans to gain accession to the union.

The president tends to reiterate this desire or otherwise bring up his country’s accession bid relatively frequently, and often as a way of criticising Europe for blocking Turkey’s entry. However, another series of arrests of activists later in the week would show that, if Erdoğan is at all sincere about his intention to join Europe, he has chosen a circuitous way to go about it.

The European Parliament froze negotiations in 2016 amid concerns about Turkey’s rule of law and repression of dissidents, and the latest arrests of academics show this problem is still very much alive in Turkey.

The secularist daily Cumhuriyet’s front page dealt with statements by the Turkish Ministry of Education opposing a Council of State ruling that the student oath of Turkey should be reinstated.

First introduced in 1933, the student oath had for decades been a cornerstone of secular values in education for Turkish schoolchildren for decades. It was revoked in 2013 in a reform package by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The Ministry of Education issued a statement against the Council of State’s ruling, saying the oath did not befit contemporary Turkey and had been “parroted” mindlessly by students – an “insult” to the student oath, according to Cumhuriyet’s headline.

This week marked another significant event in the protracted uncovering of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The Turkish government has slowly revealed details of the incident since Khashoggi disappeared after entering the consulate on October 2, and news reports have long stated that Turkish authorities had obtained a recording of the murder. A part of that tape was released on Monday, capturing headlines the next day.

The recording reportedly captured one of the Saudi operatives sent to kill Khashoggi phoning a contact and telling them to “tell their boss” the mission had been completed. Turkish media has speculated the “boss” in question is Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

Prominent place on front pages was also given to Erdoğan’s assertion that he had spoken with U.S. President Donald Trump while the pair were in Paris over the weekend and secured the promise that the White House will intervene on a sanctions-busting case involving the Turkish state-owned Halkbank and reduce the fine.

Observers have said it is unlikely that Trump’s administration will be able to exert any influence on the case, unfortunately for Erdoğan.

Left-wing daily BirGün’s front page reported on apparently shady goings on at the Finance Ministry, which prepared a report in February this year stating that its activities throughout 2017 had not been contrary to the public interest and using another report published by the Supreme Court of Public Accounts as evidence.

The problem being the court of accounts had not published any such report, and according to BirGün has demanded a correction from the ministry.

On Wednesday Turkey’s secularist newspapers, including Cumhuriyet, left-wing nationalist Aydınlık, and left-wing Sözcü reported with outrage on what Cumhuriyet called an “insult Atatürk competition,” referring to a wave of provocative incidents on the week of the anniversary of the Turkish Republic founder’s death.

On Saturday November 10, the 80th anniversary of Atatürk’s death, the head of Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet), Ali Erbaş, paid a visit to Kadir Mısıroğlu, a writer known for his strong resentment towards Atatürk and his reforms.

Other incidents throughout the week involved a woman in Islamic attire who hit a statue of Atatürk with an axe, and another man who climbed onto the shoulders of another Atatürk statue and perched there until forced down.

The latter two will likely be charged for insulting Atatürk, and writers at Cumhuriyet have called for Erbaş to be removed from his position.

The pro-government newspaper Star had an interesting take on the matter, blaming the incidents on “dark forces” seeking to polarise Turkish society. In fact, they were parts of a “systematic provocation” designed to play on the fault lines in Turkish society running between secularists and conservative Muslims, as were recent controversial statements about reciting the Muslim call to prayer in Turkish, rather than Arabic, as well as the cotroversy over the student oath.

On Thursday that oath returned to the front pages of Cumhuriyet and Aydınlık, with reports that the three Education Ministry bureaucrats who had prepared the “insulting” statement on the issue had been dismissed.

The pro-Erdoğan Islamist newspaper Yeni Akit, meanwhile, ran with a front-page defence of Diyanet President after his controversial visit to Mısıroğlu. The headline piece quoted an AKP spokesperson who called Erbaş a respected scholar and said the visit to the elderly author, who is facing health problems, had purely been a humanitarian one.

Yeni Akit topped off a week of polemics against Turkey’s secularists with a front page on Friday bluntly declaring that the “true provocateurs” are the Kemalist followers of Atatürk’s legacy.

The newspaper lined up a series of recent quotes by well-known secularist figures to prove its point, including the declaration by journalist Mine Kırıkkanat that she sees the Turkish Republic as a sacred figure to worship.

BirGün’s front page on Friday ran a story that would prove prophetic, focusing on the fear pervading Turkey’s academia that has led many to self-censorship.

The front-page story was based on research by an academic at Hacettepe University that found many scholars feared losing funding, being dismissed from their jobs or being added to a watch list due to their work.

The research already served as an uncomfortable counterpoint to the government’s recent focus on developing Turkish universities, including the promise of huge salaries to lure academics back to Turkey from overseas.

Events on Friday would further reinforce the oppressive atmosphere that drove many to leave the country in the first place, however. Thirteen scholars, journalists and activists were detained for their role in the nationwide Gezi Park protests that swept the nation in 2013. The government claims the protests were provoked by and spread across the country with encouragement from those detained, many of whom have links to prominent Turkish civil society organisations.