Erdogan’s Turkey preaches democracy, fairness and justice while it remains steeped in anachronistic authoritarianism.
The age of the great Ottoman sultans may have long passed, but the harbinger of a looming war between of the cross and the crescent – Recep Tayyip Erdogan – still lives in it. In Erdogan’s Turkey, anyone who criticizes the sultan ends up in jail.
A few weeks ago, Erdogan pardoned two children on trial for insulting him. Erdogan’s Turkey shuts down free speech, the press, the Internet and offensive Wikipedia articles, and imprisons decent and progressive Turks for daring to think outside the state-sanctioned narrative
Erdogan’s Turkey preaches democracy, fairness and justice while it remains steeped in anachronistic authoritarianism. His Turkey is one in which chauvinistic men still own women, and laws that allow rapists to marry their underage victims are seriously entertained in public discourse. His Turkey is easily offended but constantly offending. And the offender par excellence is the sultan himself.
Historically, Erdogan’s insults have been confined to the Mediterranean – his usual targets being Israel, the mainland Greeks or the Greek Cypriots – whom he continues to torment with the prospect of a permanent military occupation of Cyprus. Last March he ventured beyond the Mediterranean, offending Australians and New Zealanders by telling them that those who insult Islam would be sent home in coffins, just “like their grandfathers” at Gallipoli.
He went even further, repeatedly showing the Christchurch massacre video to crowds during his election campaign, as proof of an Islam under attack by a decadent, spiteful and “Islamophobic” West; a West that insists on unfairly painting Turkey as a villain responsible for monstrous crimes and human rights violations.
Like all hyper-nationalists, Erdogan is convinced about Turkey’s historical mission and “specialness” that cannot be tarnished by the gross lies which he vehemently denies. These include the denial of the Armenian and Pontian Greek genocides of the early 20th century despite copious and irrefutable, hard evidence: the persecution of Turkey’s Kurds; the invasion, continued occupation and ethnic cleansing of one third of the Republic of Cyprus since 1974; and more recently, the invasion of Syria under the guise of another “peace mission.”
Erdogan also views himself as the resurrector of the Ottoman Empire and avenger of its humiliating partitioning early in the last century. His speeches are almost invariably charged with invocations of these injustices and of a glorious past blended in with subtle insults towards his detractors
While on the campaign trail in Izmir last year, he celebrated the pushing of “the infidels” into the sea – an allusion to the disastrous 1922 Greek campaign in Turkey that resulted in the ethnic cleansing of thousands of Anatolia’s Christian population and the violent displacement of 1.5 million Greeks from their ancestral lands.
All of this while simultaneously declaring Turkey a beacon of democracy and peace in the region; a sober mediator who respects human rights and international law. The Europeans have never been convinced, often describing him as a dictator. Netanyahu has called him a “joke,” while Trump has described him as a “strong man” and a “hell of a leader.”
Erdogan’s erratic temperament and expectation that the universe should kowtow before him may not have endeared him to many, but it doesn’t seem to have made him any obvious enemies either. He still behaves with impunity, and insults whomever he pleases.
His recent belligerence in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has included threats to re-invade the Republic of Cyprus if Greek Cypriots do not behave, has yet again demonstrated that Erdogan is bent on ultimately asserting Turkey’s position in the region by force. He has pretty much given up on the European dream, and Europe seems to be over his endless threats and aggrandizing.
Last year, the European Parliament announced it would be suspending Turkish accession talks because of Turkey’s widespread human rights violations and the rule of law. In November, EU foreign ministers also agreed to impose sanctions on Turkey because of its continued illegal drilling in Cyprus’s territorial waters. So far, these actions do not seem to have dented his resolve.
Part of Erdogan’s arrogance lies in the fact that Europe desperately needs him as a buffer against the endless influx of refugees and immigrants from the Middle East. Each time the Europeans dare to admonish him, he puts them right back into their place by threatening to flood the continent with former ISIS fighters or refugees, of which Turkey has four million.
The US, on the other hand, has so far also demonstrated that it is unlikely to do anything that would risk it losing a vital ally in the region. Russia’s stance is more unpredictable but for the time being, it appears to be hedging its bets, delighted with all the chaos in NATO.
Everything else aside, Erdogan is a shrewd politician who knows that no matter how many accusations are leveled at his country or how many times he is called a “dictator,” Turkey remains the most significant force in the Eastern Mediterranean.
While he flouts international law by continuing the illegal occupation of countries, illegally invading other ones and bullying his way into exclusive economic zones of other countries, the credibility of the UN, the EU and the US is quickly diminishing. If the organizations set up to safeguard human rights and international law are incapable or unwilling to do what they were set up to do, then to whom do we turn for justice?
By: Dimitri GONIS
The writer is a lecturer in the Department of Languages and Linguistics of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.