For the past 15 years, my wife Cheryl and I have worked non-stop, hustling all over the world. I dodged IEDs in war zones while she raised the kids. We took corporate jobs in the States and saved our money. We started and sold businesses. All with one goal in mind: To return to Turkey, where we’d been expats from 1999 through 2002.
We have never lived anywhere we felt more at home.
So there is no bigger supporter of the Turkish people than our new pan-European expat website Dispatches. In the months since our website went live, we’ve repeatedly urged our readers to visit Turkey and support the Turkish people despite the increasingly erratic and authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the back of our minds, we hoped for a miracle. That’s because our family has traveled the world, but we’ve yet to visit another country that compares in beauty and hospitality. In fact, we intended to start Dispatches Europe in Izmir. But one reality stopped us from investing there: Erdogan’s incessant efforts to transform secular Turkey into an Islamic dictatorship.
So it’s with incredible sorrow we now have to withdraw our recommendation. At least for the moment. We simply feel the situation is spiraling out of control after the 15 July coup. Americans can no longer fly directly to Turkey from the United States, and that’s wise. We wouldn’t put it past Erdogan to seize Americans – even American military personnel – and try to exchange them for Fethullah Gülen, the moderate imam who lives in Pennsylvania, and whom Erdogan blames for the coup attempt.
Erdogan has warned American officials in no uncertain terms there will be dire consequences if the Obama Administration refuses to extradite Gülen. As I write this, Turkish officials are pressuring Germany, which has a large Turkish emigre community, to suppress Gülen’s supporters.
Threatening NATO partners is not a hopeful sign Erdogan will moderate his behavior any time soon. There will be no miracle until the Turkish people vote out his Islamic AK Party and vote in the secular parties.
To be clear, we don’t take this step lightly. We understand this post ensures we’ll never be able to return to Turkey as long as Erdogan is in power. You cannot imagine our sadness at not being able to return. But if Turkey stays on its current course of drifting toward totalitarianism, then it will not be the amazingly resilient and free country we knew.
A word of friendly advice to our Turkish friends: Dictatorships never end well, especially in the Middle East.
In many ways, ISIS links back directly to strongmen such as Saddam Hussein and Moammar al-Qadhafi who ascended to power preaching nationalism. They eliminated their opponents, then ruled through cults of personality. They destroyed what had been modern countries. Sound familiar?
The Turkey we knew was the antithesis of a brutal Arab dictatorship. Modern Turkey is the creation of one man: pro-Western intellectual and army officer Mustafa Kemal, known as Ataturk, or “father of the Turks.” Ataturk’s motto was, “Peace at home; peace in the world.” His model for Turkey’s constitution was Switzerland, and he introduced universal suffrage and revolutionized the role of women.
By comparison, Erdogan called the coup “a gift from God,” because it opened the door to his “cleansing” Turkey of secular opponents. Even before the coup, Erdogan’s minions in the parliament were working to remove references in the constitution requiring government officials to follow Ataturk’s secular ideology. Since the coup, he’s arrested more than 35,000 people, including most of the military leadership. He’s gutted the judiciary and closed all military schools. He imprisons any journalist who dares criticize him. There’s even an arrest warrant out for soccer legend Hakan Sükür.
Erdogan’s agenda includes closing secular schools and replacing them with religious schools in an effort to raise a new generation of observant and pious youth. He long ago abolished freedom of speech and freedom of assembly for anyone other than his AK Party supporters.
Instead of fighting the Islamic Republic, Erdogan has chosen to intensify what is essentially a civil war with Turkey’s Kurdish minority, including jailing politicians and human rights advocates. This can only exacerbate the internecine fighting inside Turkey at a time when ISIS has launched attack after attack.
To his credit, Erdogan and the AK Party have improved the lives of ordinary Turkish citizens, with the economy booming since he was first elected prime minister in 2003. Before he ascended to the national stage, he was an efficient, effective and honest mayor of Istanbul.
A new survey shows Erdogan’s approval rating surged to about 68 percent from 47 percent in June after the July coup attempt, the highest ratings of his presidency. (Until that “gift from God,” his ratings had never topped 50 percent since becoming president in 2014 after terms as prime minister.) At the same time, many of the officials with whom he rose to power, including AK Party co-founder Abdullah Gul and even ultra-conservative former deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc, have expressed concerns about Erdogan’s authoritarian excesses.
Turkey remains a democracy, and clearly if elections were held today, Erdogan would win in a landslide. But Turkey is now a hollow democracy without the freedoms we in Western countries associate with rule of law.
Ultimately, there will be a price to pay as Erdogan alienates Europe and the United States. Before the coup, tourism declined after attacks in Istanbul and Ankara. Since the coup, the sector – which represents about 5 percent of GDP – has collapsed as European travel companies have steered tourists toward Spain and more stable countries. We can no longer recommend our readers visit Turkey.
We only wish our Turkish friends the best and extend the hope to them we can visit again someday soon.
Until then, our personal dream to return is on hold.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.