Turkey’s authoritarian drift is foreclosing any open debate

Erdogan’s plan has picked up speed after last year’s abortive coup attempt.

2017/07/02 Issue: 113 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly
Tom Regan

When a country moves from being an open, democratic soci­ety to more authoritarian and less democratic, it is often small, seemingly unimportant shifts in the culture that signal trouble ahead.

In Turkey’s case, there have been more than enough large shifts that signal this movement towards authoritarianism. The mass arrest of intellectuals, members of the judiciary and military and journal­ists, a purge in the civil service and educational institutions of anyone opposed to the govern­ment for any reason, a crackdown on free speech and a more antago­nistic stance towards anyone who criticises these anti-democratic measures on the international stage — have all been seen in Turk­ish society in the past few years under the increasingly authoritar­ian leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

This movement towards a more conservative, closed society is also happening in smaller ways.

Alpaslan Durmus, head of the Turkish Education Ministry’s cur­riculum board, announced that the theory of evolution was one of the “controversial” subjects that would be removed from the country’s Grade 9 curriculum. Dur­mus basically said that the issue was too complicated for 14- and 15-year-olds to understand, a com­ment that betrays a patronising and belittling attitude towards just how much young people can learn in the highly technological world of the 21st century.

There is far more to this move, however, than concerns about how much hard stuff young Turkish minds can grasp. In his increasing­ly religiously conservative style of leadership, Erdogan has turned the country’s education system into another battleground between him and his opponents. He has spoken repeatedly of raising “pious gen­erations,” a comment that seems more at home in a heavily religious country such as Saudi Arabia than in the more secular Turkey.

In and of itself, the decision to delay the teaching of evolution is not an earth-shattering develop­ment. A 2011 Ipsos poll indicated about 60% of Turkish respondents said they consider themselves creationists. Even in a Western country such as the United States, 41% of Americans polled said they consider themselves creationists.

The difference, however, is in the opposition’s ability to argue against these ideas. In the United States, for instance, scientists have long been able to use the courts to quash attempts by creationists to force-feed students in public schools their ideas. In Turkey, at a time when criticising the govern­ment in any form can get you dis­missed from your job or arrested, it’s not hard to envision that scientists will be reticent to argue against this development.

As daunting as the anti-evolu­tion stance of everyone’s gov­ernment may be, there was yet another subtle sign of Turkey’s movement towards a more reli­giously conservative society. Along with the elimination of teaching evolution, it’s likely the new cur­riculum will reduce the amount of time spent studying secularism and the founding father of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

In the long run, this will have a much more profound effect on Turkish society and culture than the teaching of evolution. In the past few years, there has been a gradual unveiling of Erdogan’s master plan to move Turkey farther from its secular past and towards a much more conservative religious future, a plan that picked up speed after last year’s abortive coup attempt. His comments about the place of women in Turkish so­ciety, the way his government has elevated religious viewpoints to the forefront, even his comments above about “pious” generations show in what direction he wants to lead Turkey in the 21st century.

If Turkey were a truly open society in which ideas such as this could be debated in the media and public gatherings, these changes would not seem so ominous. How­ever, in the Turkey of 2017, open debate is not possible, nor even advisable, for any individual who doesn’t want to end up in a Turkish jail.

Tom Regan, a columnist at factsandopinion.com, previously worked for the Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, the Boston Globe and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He is the former executive director of the Online News Association and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1992.

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