Turkish journalists hold a rally in Istanbul for the victims of the Paris attacks.

Photographer: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Why Turkey's Leaders Can't Say 'Je Suis Charlie'

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu made the trip to join the anti-terrorist march Sunday in Paris, whereas U.S. leaders did not. It was the right call for a man and country that have ambitions in both the Middle East and Europe. Yet the one thing Davutoglu couldn't join the marchers in saying was, "Je Suis Charlie."

That's because Turkey's government doesn't respect freedom of expression for cartoonists, or journalists more broadly, at home. Indeed when the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in 2005, Davutoglu's boss, then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, loudly condemned them for it. He insisted that free speech must have limitations -- and cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo clearly breached the lines he would like Europe to draw.

Erdogan prosecutes Turkish cartoonists for much less. As the New York Times recently wrote, Turkey's president is appealing the acquittal of cartoonist Musa Kart, whom Turkey's leader sued last year for mocking his suppression of corruption allegations against the government. This is nothing new.

In 2011, I wrote about how Erdogan was suing at least dozens and perhaps hundreds of people (there was no official count) for insulting him, including a lowly English language teacher who had made a collage with Erdogan's head on a dog (the leash was held by then-U.S. President George W. Bush), a standup comedian and a student street theater troupe. It would be funny, if the approach it signals weren't so repressive.

Reporters Without Borders has said it was "outraged" by the presence of Davutoglu, among others, at Sunday's march, because Turkey has such an appalling record on freedom of the press. Given how many Turkish journalists are languishing in jail, that's understandable.

It's also telling that the slaying of Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists has put Turkey's leaders in such a difficult position. They hate what Charlie Hebdo represents. The French cartoonists shared the same virulent secularism that the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, adopted to break with the Ottoman Empire. He took the French constitution as a model in neutralizing the political power of religion. Erdogan has fought such ardent secularists all his life, as has Davutoglu, and fighting them wins support from the Turkey's conservative majority.

And yet I still think Davutoglu was right to go to Paris. It is possible for him to be genuine in condemning terrorist attacks, but repressive of free speech. Governments, after all, determine the parameters of freedom of expression. Terrorists don't -- they kill for effect. As I have argued before, these terrorist attacks were not just about freedom of expression. And it's extreme to suggest anyone who disagreed with the cartoons can't also comment on the deaths.

France and its Muslim citizens are going to have to grapple with the issues of alienation and mass youth unemployment that have led to riots in the banlieues of Paris before, and set the backdrop for the inexcusable choices made by men such as Cherif and Said Kouachi. It would be nice to think the brutality of what happened at Charlie Hebdo, and the fact that a Muslim police officer was also killed in the attack, would prove healing.

Sunday's march could mark a beginning, but I suspect it won't help much. Once the immediate horror fades, the unity on display in Paris -- joining Muslims and non-Muslims in a common cause -- is likely to erode, too.

What's certain, though, is that Turkish immigrants in Europe will continue to have greater freedom to criticize their political leaders, and to satirize religion, than they would have at home. Turkey's leaders are so not Charlie. If they could, they would have put the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo behind bars.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net