Turkey's forgotten war.

Photographer: ILYAS AKENGIN/AFP/Getty Images

No, Turkey, Pesky Professors Aren't Terrorists

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.
Read More.
a | A

Ankara, the Turkish capital, has been hit by a terrorist attack for the third time in five months, with Sunday's suicide bombing adding a further 37 to the city's gruesome running toll of more than 200 dead. So it's no surprise that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is demanding wider counter-terrorist powers to deal with the threat. That, however, is precisely what Turkey does not need.

Erdogan says Turkey's legal definition of a terrorist needs to be widened to include those he considers accomplices. He is clear about whom he has in mind: "Their titles as an MP, an academic, an author, a journalist do not change the fact they are actually terrorists."

QuickTake Turkey's Continental Divide

All countries struck by terror campaigns struggle to get the balance right between security and civil liberties. Most get it wrong. What's more, Turkey is the target of multiple terrorist organizations simultaneously, including Islamic State and the Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK. So it deserves a lot of slack. But although the terrorist challenge that Erdogan and his country face is real, the threat to the country's democratic institutions and freedoms is greater still.

Indeed, with criticism growing within Turkey of the government's failure to prevent attacks, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Erdogan is trying to deflect blame onto his critics and away from the security services and his flawed Kurdish and Syrian policies.

Already, the nation's security forces enjoy extraordinarily wide powers. Already, the definition of terrorism is far too broad, allowing the government to apply draconian laws to political opponents, from military brass convicted on fabricated evidence of forming a terrorist conspiracy to adherents of the Fetullah Gulen faith group now being purged from government institutions.

Adding scholars to the list of potential terrorists is particularly worrying. In January, more than 1,400 academics in Turkey and abroad signed a petition condemning what they saw as the government's misguided war on Kurds. Erdogan was vocal in denouncing the signatories as "dark people," and some have since been hounded out of their jobs or investigated on allegations of engaging in terrorist propaganda. The power to slap these people in jail as terrorist accomplices would create an even greater travesty of justice.

When it comes to the media, Turkey already enjoys the dubious distinction of having one of the world's highest incarceration rates for journalists, many of them ethnic Kurds charged as terrorists because of the words they printed.

Erdogan won't be able to eradicate terror by creating a police state. Indeed, doing so is more likely to increase the number of attacks, at least by the PKK, which Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has said was probably responsible for Sunday's suicide bombing at an Ankara bus stop. Nothing recruits new fighters to the PKK more effectively than the state of war the government has declared in Kurdish populated cities of eastern Turkey. To end Kurdish terror, Turkey must end the war.

Far from returning to the peace process he abandoned last year, however, Erdogan has been the PKK's willing partner in reigniting and escalating the country's Kurdish conflict. The insurgent group is now just as dismissive of reviving negotiations.

All governments seem to exhaust a policy of force to defeat terrorist movements before switching to negotiation. Just think of the U.K.'s use of mass internment and special tribunals to sweep up the Irish Republican Army in the 1970s; the result was a dramatic increase in IRA recruitment and funding, and a 20-year terror campaign. 

Turkey's Kurdish conflict is already more than three decades old. So there is no reason for Erdogan to repeat the mistakes of his predecessors, let alone those of the British in Northern Ireland. He faces a difficult problem. The PKK certainly is, once again, acting as a terrorist organization, and the potential for a metastasizing conflict has without doubt multiplied as a result of the war in Syria. None of this, however, can be resolved by prosecuting legislators, professors and journalists as terrorists.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net