By Theo Theophanous
THE question sitting uncomfortably with Turkish Cypriots in Australia is whether the newly emboldened Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will annex northern Cyprus.
I was recently on the Turkish side of the divided island where the failed military coup in Turkey was big news in the old city of Famagusta, a stone’s throw from the contested area of Varosha, a ghost city where hotels and homes have remained uninhabited for 42 years.
My Turkish Cypriot Australian hosts were nervous about the possible local consequences of the events in Turkey. For the first time in modern Turkish history, the mosques were used for political purposes. The loudspeakers atop the minarets, normally used for calls to prayer, were blasting out messages from Erdogan to his supporters.
This politicisation of religion is new in Turkey and completely alien to the Turkish Cypriots. It makes our Turkish Cypriot friends feel very uneasy. The restaurant we met in has many young and older Turks who are socialising, with alcohol flowing freely and not a single female wearing any kind of Islamic head gear.
That is Turkish Cypriot culture, where Islam is practised quietly and does not dictate how people live their lives. It is why Turkish Cypriots have so readily integrated into Australian society.
But for how long will an increasingly traditionalist, Islam-oriented Turkey tolerate this liberal Turkish outpost in the Mediterranean? It’s an outpost which has a standing Turkish army of several thousand and where Australia still has a police contingent on the green line dividing the Turkish and Greek sectors.
Following the failed coup, Erdogan is methodically consolidating his control of the army, the judiciary, press, police and even the education system. This purge in the name of “democracy” is even extending to bringing back the death penalty to silence opponents.
The bedrock of Erdogan’s support for such actions rests in the continuing Islamisation of Turkey.
How long then before he looks to remove all pockets of liberal resistance, not just in Turkey but in Turkey’s sphere of influence? How long before he looks at northern Cyprus and concludes that he has an opportunity to annex it as Putin annexed Crimea?
The justification is simple: the talks between Greek and Turkish Cypriots have dragged on and left Turkish Cypriots isolated from and unrecognised by the international community.
Erdogan, drawing on Putin’s Crimean example, may be tempted to engineer a referendum in northern Cyprus to see if its inhabitants will join Turkey, to resolve their isolation through annexation. It’s not as though he would not win such a referendum. Half of the original Turkish Cypriot population have emigrated and been replaced by mainly Anatolian Turks, from whom Erdogan draws significant support. Support for annexation would be assured.
Any attempt at pressure from the European Union, the US or Australia to prevent annexation would be flicked aside. Erdogan knows his recent actions have set back any prospect of Turkey joining the EU. Perhaps, that is what he wants. It certainly means any leverage the EU may have had over Turkey on Cyprus is gone. The US, reliant as it is on Turkish bases for their attacks on IS, is unlikely to offer much argument.
These are dangerous times. The advent of “democratically elected” authoritarian leaders should worry us all. Putin and Erdogan claim to be democratically elected and then demolish real democracy, which is characterised by a free press, an independent judiciary, impartial policing, the rule of law, a liberal education, free speech and a proper parliamentary system of accountability.
Those things are fundamental to our democracy but to Putin and Erdogan, they are inconveniences. As Erdogan has said: “Democracy is like a train: you ride it until it takes you where you want to go, and then you get off.”
Before this train completely stops, as a matter of urgency, Greek and Turkish Cypriots should accelerate their talks to reach a settlement to unify Cyprus. To not do so is not only to let down their peoples in Cyprus and around the world but to ignore the deeply liberal, democratic and secular traditions present in Christian Greek Cypriots and Islamic Turkish Cypriots.
Australian Muslim commentator Waleed Aly has spoken of his fears but those fears pale against the persecution of free-thinking people of the Islamic faith in places such as Turkey and northern Cyprus.
If Erdogan does follow Putin’s example and annexes northern Cyprus, another beacon of secular liberal democracy existing alongside Islam would be extinguished. Greek and Turkish Cypriots in Cyprus and in Australia — indeed, all of us — would be diminished.
Theo Theophanous is an Australian of Greek Cypriot background and a former state government minister