Let’s All Agree Not To Visit Turkey

REUTERS/Murad Sezer

Gregg Roman Director, Middle East Forum
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To many Americans, a trip to Turkey has long seemed like a dream excursion. A NATO ally that sits at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, Turkey has offered an approachable window into exotic history and culture. And the flights are generally affordable, too.

But Turkey has changed in the past few years. The State Department hasn’t issued a travel warning yet, but if Americans think they’ll be safe there, they’re wrong.

One year ago today, Andrew Brunson was arrested.

Originally from North Carolina, Brunson had moved to Turkey more than two decades earlier. An evangelical Presbyterian clergyman, he served as the pastor of the İzmir Resurrection Church, located in the country’s third most populous city.

Brunson’s arrest shocked those who knew him. More shocking was the timing of the arrest and the charges leveled against him. Brunson was taken into custody in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt against the government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And Brunson was charged with “membership in an armed terrorist organization, gathering state secrets for espionage, attempting to overthrow the Turkish parliament and government and [attempting] to change the constitutional order.”

According to a bipartisan letter to Erdoğan signed by 78 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, the Turkish government repeatedly denied Brunson access to legal counsel and to American consular services, and they have failed to produce any evidence at all in support of the charges.

Then, late last month, the Turkish government’s motivation for holding him became clear. In a speech delivered to an Istanbul Police Academy, Erdoğan said that he’d return Brunson if the U.S. extradites one of his domestic political opponents, Fetullah Gülen, to Turkish soil. Brunson is being held for ransom.

Since Erdoğan’s government survived the July 2016 coup attempt, it has taken every opportunity to assign blame toward followers of an elderly U.S.-based cleric who once stood as a close ally of the president.

Gülen went into self-imposed exile in the late 1990s and ultimately settled in Northeast Pennsylvania. An Islamist cleric himself, Gülen’s Hizmet movement operates hundreds of secular co-ed schools, tutoring centers, hospital and relief agencies, including Harmony Public Schools, the largest charter school network in the state of Texas.

Gülen has repeatedly denied any involvement in the failed coup, and like in the Brunson case, no real evidence of his involvement exists.  Still, Erdoğan’s government continues to ramp up its pressure for Gülen’s extradition from the United States.

Erdoğan has used the coup to purge political adversaries. The government arrested more than 45,000 people and fired or suspended another 130,000 government workers. Just this spring, Erdoğan staged a referendum that granted him vast – and permanent – powers, potentially transforming democratic Turkey into an autocratic state.

These developments would be alarming in any nation with which the United States has relations, but in Turkey, it’s even more troubling. Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, but its recent actions have undermined the values of the alliance.

From silencing freedom of the press, to cozying up to the Russians and the Iranians on Syria while shutting down NGOs providing much needed relief to refugees, to buying oil from ISIS, restricting freedom across the board, and physically beating people on U.S. soil, Turkey isn’t playing a productive role in the world.

As if the offer to trade Brunson for Gülen wasn’t audacious enough, Erdoğan made a similar affront to Germany earlier this year, after five Turkish citizens wanted for involvement with the failed coup applied for asylum in the country. Turkey banned German parliamentarians from visiting NATO troops in Syria and detained a German human rights activist on charges similar to Brunson’s.

The Brunson case puts a fine point on what we already knew: Turkey no longer shares our values, and it certainly doesn’t belong in NATO anymore. Our leaders should begin a serious process of reevaluating whether we truly want to call the Turks U.S. allies. Likewise, we should continue to exert whatever pressure we can to ensure Pastor Brunson is returned to the U.S. unharmed, without capitulating to Ankara’s demands.

For all its appeal, Americans should forget about Turkey as a tourist destination. There are plenty of other countries to visit that won’t kidnap us and hold us ransom.