Skip to main content

Twitter ban is the least of Turkey's woes

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
March 24, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Turkey once gave people hope for the future of democracy in Islamic nations
  • He says voters have repeatedly backed prime minister Erdogan's path for Turkey
  • After corruption scandal and criticism, Erdogan sought to shut off Twitter
  • Frum: U.S., allies can no longer count on Turkey as a stable force in a crucial region

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- You've probably heard that the Turkish government's attempt to ban Twitter quickly collapsed into farce.

From USA Today:

"More than 2.5 million tweets -- or over 17,000 per minute -- were reportedly posted (from Turkey) in the first 24 hours after the ban, according to several media reports.

David Frum
David Frum

HootSuite, a Vancouver, Canada-based startup that measures and analyzes Twitter marketing campaigns, said in a corporate blog post that its traffic from Turkey tripled in the first day after the ban.

So ... all is good, right?

Not right.

Turkey is a NATO ally, a candidate for membership in the European Union, a front-line state facing Iran, Syria and Russia -- and it is heading seriously in the wrong direction. A lot of people have invested a lot of time and effort denying that unwelcome news. It can be denied no longer.

Turkey's Twitter-banning prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, came to power after a big election win in 2002. Erdogan's party was staunchly Islamic, yet seemingly committed to electoral democracy. Its victory was hailed by many as a hopeful sign for the post-9/11 world.

Europe had Christian Democratic parties; why couldn't Turkey have a Muslim Democratic party? Indeed, Erdogan-style Muslim Democracy seemed a decade ago the striking alternative to radical Islamism, a political alternative that would integrate religion into politics while preserving individual freedom and democratic decision-making.

Erdogan and his Islamic regime lifted restrictions on the wearing of hijab in public buildings. He abolished the daily pledge of allegiance to a secular Turkey required in all Turkish schools since 1933. He downgraded the longstanding Turkish relationship with Israel and mused instead about a "neo-Ottoman" role for Turkey at the head of the Middle East's Muslim nations. He and his party passed restrictions on the sale and promotion of alcohol and boldly disavowed the equality of the sexes.

At the same time, the Erdogan government did initiate important economic liberation of Turkey's traditionally state-led economy. He made concessions to ethnic and religious minorities. It seemed imaginable that Erdogan's reactionary religious message could somehow be fused with modern economics and tolerance. President Barack Obama certainly imagined so: In a 2012 interview with CNN's Fareed Zakaria, the President cited Prime Minister Erdogan as one of the five foreign leaders with whom he'd forged his closest "bonds of trust".

Yet from the start, Erdogan's Islamic democracy had a strongly authoritarian whiff to it. Through the Erdogan years, Turkey has led the world in the number of journalists jailed, ahead of both China and Iran. Erdogan's government banned YouTube for two years beginning in 2007, purged and jailed hundreds of politically uncongenial military officers and reshaped both police and the judiciary.

Turkish voters overlooked and forgave these infringements. They elected and twice re-elected Erdogan. Turkey achieved genuine economic progress during his rule. Ordinary Turks believed that their blunt, traditionalist prime minister cherished their interests in a way his more cosmopolitan predecessors did not.

Then came the swirl of corruption rumors, corruption on a massive multi-billion dollar scale. Police fired tear gas and water cannon at people protesting the death of a 15-year-old boy who died in demonstrations against development of Gezi Park in central Istanbul.

Audio was posted to social media that purported to reveal the prime minister in plots with his son to collect and conceal tens of millions of Euros in illegal cash. (Erdogan has claimed that a corruption investigation that entangled four of his former cabinet ministers is a "coup plot" and that some of the recordings are "immorally edited material".)

Erdogan has responded with more censorship and more controls, culminating in the Twitter ban. That ban failed -- yet the underlying problem remains: the country that was once the West's most reliable partner in the Islamic world is not so reliable any more. Turkey defies embargoes to trade with Iran. Turkish foreign policy has sought to build relationships with everyone and anyone except Turkey's traditional Western partners: with Syria, China, Russia, anyone.

With Russia's seizure of Crimea, the once-exotic and once-remote Black Sea region has suddenly emerged as a central global zone of conflict. Time was when the United States and the Western world could count on a steady, responsible and democratizing ally on the south shore of that sea. No more. The Twitter ban has collapsed. All the bad impulses that imposed that Twitter ban remain in place -- and will remain so long as Erdogan remains in office.

The promise of an Islamic version of Christian Democracy has proved a big lie. Instead, the country that was once the most stable, reliable and democratic state in the Islamic world seems now to have cast itself as the region's saddest backward-slider -- with its ever more authoritarian leader playing the role of an Islamic Vladimir Putin, or maybe Eva Peron.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 1625 GMT (0025 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
August 31, 2014 -- Updated 0423 GMT (1223 HKT)
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1611 GMT (0011 HKT)
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1724 GMT (0124 HKT)
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 0106 GMT (0906 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
September 1, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1434 GMT (2234 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 30, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1849 GMT (0249 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT