Last Friday, Turkish riot police used tear gas and water cannon on protesters gathered in front of the Zaman media building in Istanbul. The day before, authorities staged a raid on the building – home to the Zaman newspaper that has an estimated circulation of 650,000 and had adopted a critical position of the Turkish government. The paper is now under Ankara’s control and its editorial policy now supports the government.
The raid is part of a larger attack on businesses connected to Fethullah Gulen, a cleric living in self-imposed exile in the United States and seen as an arch-rival to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For the past two years, allies of Mr Gulen in Turkey have released a steady stream of information and made substantial allegations that have tarnished Mr Erdogan and his AKP party in the hope of preventing the president from consolidating power. This internal feud has burnt as Turkey faces serious challenges from renewed war with the Kurds to the rise of ISIL.
As Turkish security forces were firing rubber bullets at protesters in front of the Zaman building, prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu was preparing for a critical summit with European Union leaders in Brussels on the refugee crisis. Fearful of its hold on power, Turkey’s leadership is using the chaos of Syria and the refugee crisis as a diversion and continuing to silence opposition voices in politics and in the media at home.
The situation bodes ill for Turkey’s future. Since the anti-government Gezi Park protests in 2013 and the breakdown in peace talks with the Kurds, internal division in Turkey has widened. By renewing attacks on the Gulen movement via a crackdown on the press, Mr Erdogan is fanning the flames of division. This is worrying because of Turkey’s present external challenges. The country has an extraordinarily important role in the Syria conflict, the fight against ISIL and the overall economic health of the Middle East. This is not to absolve the followers of Mr Gulen from any wrongdoing. Far from it. The region and the world needs a unified and strong Turkey at this pivotal moment. We appear to be getting the opposite.