During my many years in Turkey I have witnessed countless instances of weird conspiracy theories, national paranoia, and distrust of any and all foreigners. But an incident reported recently in The Daily Telegraph of London has to take first prize.
Residents of a village in eastern Turkey thought that a kestrel – a fairly large bird of prey – soaring back and forth over their village could be an Israeli spy. Apparently they caught the bird and found that it was wearing a metal band stamped with the words ‘24311 Tel Avivunia Israel.’ The dreaded word Israel was all it took to drive the local spy-catchers into high gear.
The offending bird was frog-marched off to a local hospital where it was promptly registered as an ‘Israeli spy.’ I am not making this up. It was only after intensive medical examination – including X-rays – that the bird was identified as, well, just a bird. There were no microchips or other devices that might transmit vital information about an extremely barren part of Turkey back to the hated Mossad. All in all, I suppose the bird was lucky it wasn’t slapped into an orange jump suit complete with ear muffs and shipped off to Guantanamo.
I was reminded of my own experience in another small eastern Turkish town many years ago where I was working as a teacher. Because I was foreign, because I spoke a little Turkish, and because I sometimes went to the capital Ankara the locals were convinced I was a foreign agent. The only question was who I was working for – the CIA, the Israeli Mossad, the Russian KGB, or the British MI 6. Every denial on my part only reinforced their conviction. “He would deny it, wouldn’t he?” Finally, a fellow teacher put the issue to rest one evening in the local coffee house. “What in the name of Allah,” he asked “is in this small town that is worth spying on? How many goats you have, Ahmet? Where you hide your tools, Orhan? Is America so rich that it can afford to send people to every small town in the world to find out useless information?” The others had to nod their heads in reluctant agreement, somewhat annoyed that their evening’s entertainment had been taken away.
All of this would be merely humorous if it didn’t reflect the attitude of senior members of the Turkish government today. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan and certain members of the cabinet have been acting ever more erratically while ranting and raving about foreign and domestic conspiracies ever since large scale protests broke out in May. First it was the perfidious, and always useful, foreign agents, who were stirring up trouble. Then it was agents from the opposition political parties. When the stock market and the local currency began to slide then the well known – to the prime minister at least – interest rate lobby – was hard at work undermining the Turkish economy. One cabinet minister pulled out the always useful Jewish conspiracy to explain the economy’s problems. These activities are all part of the larger conspiracy, you see, organized by people who want to slow down Turkey’s growth.
Since taking office more than 10 years ago the prime minister has travelled the world. Unfortunately, he seems to have learned very little on his travels. His guiding principles seem to be the same ones he developed growing up in one of Istanbul’s notoriously tough neighbourhoods – never take a back step, absolutely never apologize, intimidate your opponents by yelling loudly and fiercely. Compromise is not a word he recognizes. He also learned that you never lose votes in Turkey by blaming foreigners for the country’s problems. There was the famous case after the devastating earthquake in 1999 when the nationalist health minister refused to accept foreign blood donations that could dilute ‘pure’ Turkish blood.
The prime minister was furious about an open letter recently published in The Times of London that sharply criticized his violent words and crude police behaviour during recent protests. The letter was signed by luminaries including Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, Ben Kingsley, the historian David Starkey, and many others. A more rational politician would have shrugged this off and accepted the criticism as the price of being in office. Not Tayyip Erdoğan. He went off the handle accusing dark forces for being behind the letter. Demonstrating his complete ignorance of the concept of freedom of speech he threatened to sue the newspaper. One hopes that cooler heads in Turkey can prevent him from making a complete fool of himself on the international stage.
No one is exempt from the paranoia of the witch hunt against anyone thought to be supporting the protests against him. Doctors, teachers, foreign and domestic journalists, economists, leading Turkish companies, and professional organizations have all been targeted as agents of those who want to undermine Turkey. Even Turkey’s largest company, the Koç Group is not exempt from his fury. Not only is prime minister annoyed at Koç University but he is furious that the group’s Divan Hotel offered shelter to people running away from police tear gas during the demonstrations. Therefore, it came as no great surprise when the group’s refinery Tüpraş was subjected to a surprise tax audit. Only fanatical Erdoğan supporters believe this is a coincidence. And the prime minister wonders why very few people are rushing to invest in Turkey.
|Is Turkey's Largest Refiner On The Lengthening 'Enemies' List|
Can anyone within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) curb this brutal and damaging abuse of power? Can President Abdüllah Gül curb the prime minister’s behaviour before it undoes everything the AKP has accomplished? Or, more properly, does he want to curb this behaviour? When you take on Tayyip Erdogan you better be ready for a bare knuckle battle. The answer will go a long way to determining Turkey’s near-term future.