Erdogan opponents fear historic vote threatens liberty, secularism

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Citizens of Turkey vote next month in a referendum that could grant President Recep Tayyip Erdogan controversial new powers.

Erdogan’s push led to a showdown this week with Dutch leaders who had denied permission to two of Turkey’s government ministers to rally support among expatriate Turks who live in Holland.

And this comes amid an ongoing purge of tens of thousands of Turkey’s own government employees, as special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from Istanbul.

MALCOLM BRABANT: “We won’t shut up, we’re not afraid, we will not obey,” they chant.

Turkey’s new outcasts are daring to protest, despite being labeled as enemies of the state in the great purge following last July’s failed coup attempt. Tens of thousands of teachers, academics, judges, police officers and civil servants have been dismissed from their jobs and stripped of their passports.

Derya Keskin, an assistant university professor, was purged last September after she signed a petition calling for peace in Turkey.

DERYA KESKIN, University Professor: We can make a comparison between the McCarthy era and Turkey right now. But this is, I think, worse. There are similarities, I’m sure, but this is worse. It’s just a pretext to get rid of all lefty people, all Democrats, even liberals. It is expanding to liberals, actually.

MALCOLM BRABANT: The blanket allegation made by the government is that the purged are followers of this man, Fethullah Gulen. A supposedly moderate Muslim preacher, Gulen is a former ally of President Erdogan who runs Islamist schools and has a fervent following.

The government alleges he runs a terrorist organization called FETO. It accuses him of orchestrating the coup attempt and is demanding that the U.S. extradites him from exile in Pennsylvania.

Are you a Gulenist? Are you a terrorist?

DERYA KESKIN: I’m not a Gulenist. I’m not a terrorist. I’m against all kinds of violence. I condemn every kind of violence. That’s why I signed the peace petition.

AHMET KASIM HAN, Political Scientist: During the McCarthy era and during the Stalin era, the historical circumstances were totally different.

MALCOLM BRABANT: Political scientist Ahmet Kasim Han says Turks traditionally favor stability over liberty, and suggests there is some merit in the government’s depiction of Fethullah Gulen as a dark force trying to destabilize Turkey.

AHMET KASIM HAN: In Turkey, there is an issue which is very hard for the Western mind to grasp. Turkey has really gone through a very aberrant coup attempt, which has unfolded a series of events that has even made the most informed Turk surprised to the level of infiltration of the Gulenist movement to the state.

MALCOLM BRABANT: If politics is a source of division in Turkey, then so is religion. Almost all of the roughly 80 million Turks are Muslims. But opinion polls suggest around half the population opposes the growing Islamization of the country under President Erdogan.

Since 2002, when he became the dominant figure in Turkish politics, the state has built an estimated 17,000 mosques. This small, traditional mosque will soon be dwarfed by minarets of a new Islamic landmark slated for Taksim Square in the secular heart of Istanbul.

Hasan Kara is the chief imam of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s blue mosque.

HASAN KARA, Chief Imam, Sultanahmet (through interpreter): Because Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a Muslim, a man of character and brave who speaks out fearlessly, the public have taken to him as a man of the people and view him as an idol and role model.

MALCOLM BRABANT: What worries tens of millions of Turks is that the vision of Kemal Ataturk, the father of the modern nation, is more seriously under threat than ever before.

Ataturk revolutionized Turkey in the 1920s by realigning it away from the Eastern world towards the West, and enshrining secularism in the Constitution.

Ataturk’s legacy was at the heart of this campaign meeting to fight against the growing trend in Turkish education whereby state schools are transformed into overtly religious institutions, and creationism is promoted over evolution.

Aysel Celikel heads the Society for the Promotion of Contemporary Life.

AYSEL CELIKEL, Society for the Promotion of Contemporary Life (through interpreter): This situation is, of course, worrying us, because the political powers have said they want to raise a religious generation. With all these prayer rooms and small mosques opening up at schools with the kind of education they’re offering, they are really pumping this idea of a religious generation.

MALCOLM BRABANT: This is Fatih, a traditionally conservative district of Istanbul, where the majority of women cover their heads. We have come to meet Ihsan Eliacik, a renowned Muslim theologian and writer.

He worries that the Turkish leader might not be able to control more radical Islamists within the country. He’s concerned about homegrown extremists, as well as Islamic State militants, who, earlier in the Syria conflict, enjoyed fairly free movement in Turkey.

IHSAN ELIACIK, Muslim Theologian (through interpreter): There might be a danger of conflict, because, with the ruling party, Islamic extremists became too powerful. The ruling party unwittingly helped them flourish. And especially because of the Syrian conflict, they grew stronger. They got ahold of weapons and they got organized. They thrived. So it will take time to eliminate them and to neutralize them.

MALCOLM BRABANT: President Erdogan inspires adulation and disdain in fairly equal measure. He argues that changing the constitution will help make government more efficient.

RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN, Turkish President (through interpreter): Turkey has come to a crossroads on changing the system of government. The process has started.

MALCOLM BRABANT: President Erdogan’s popularity and policies are about to be put to the test in a referendum to decide whether Turkey should have a United States-style presidency, but without the checks and balances.

If Erdogan wins, he will have much more power, he will be able to get rid of the prime minister, and the role of Parliament will be much reduced. His opponents fear that victory will mean that an already authoritarian leader will become a fully fledged dictator.

The changes could enable Erdogan to stay in office until 2029. This pro-government rally was addressed by the prime minister, who was effectively campaigning for the president to make him redundant.

BINALI YILDIRIM, Turkish Prime Minister (through interpreter): These reforms are a historic opportunity for our country. With a strong presidency, military authority, military coups and elite groups will be history. Nobody will try to interfere in the business of people and politicians elected by people.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I am here for the unity of our country and for sake of our youth’s future.

MALCOLM BRABANT: “We don’t want to be in chains. We won’t allow anyone to lord over us,” cry the no campaigners.

President Erdogan’s opponents fear that his victory on April the 16th will accelerate Turkey towards becoming a theocracy, or religious state, like Iran. That’s why Turkey’s NATO partners will be watching this historic vote with keen interest.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Malcolm Brabant in Istanbul.

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