Commentary Magazine


Erdogan Unhinged

The German government’s publicly expressed discomfort with a visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan–Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian, anti-Semitic premier–will be familiar to those who have covered Erdogan’s career or followed his exploits. Germany has no issue with Erdogan’s visit per se as much as they don’t like the idea of him giving an address to the country’s Turkish diaspora.

Turkey is a NATO member and, if you ask European Union officials on the record, a perennial candidate for eventual EU membership (though an obviously unrealistic one). So why is a European country eschewing the standard multiculti fare and worrying aloud about the Islamist leader’s speech? Because Erdogan is a loose cannon, whose public profile has always had to be managed carefully by party leaders lest the world hear a set of Erdogan Unplugged and come to the conclusion that the Turkish leader is a raving maniac.

The rise of social media–which Erdogan has tried to ban–and the spread of public protest movements to Turkey have tested Erdogan and his party. They have begun to come unglued. The latest test of Turkish leadership was the awful tragedy of the mine explosion in the Turkish city of Soma on May 13. Our Michael Rubin explained that the disaster–or, rather, its aftermath–encapsulated a couple of the major problems of Erdogan’s rule, most notably incompetence and blame-shifting.

After a government official was caught on camera beating a defenseless protester, tragedy descended into farce, as the Telegraph reports today:

A Turkish prime ministerial aide who rose to international attention after being photographed kicking a prone demonstrator has been given sick leave after suffering injuries to the same leg he used to carry out the attack.

Images of Yusef Yerkel assaulting the protester on the streets of Soma on May 14 a day after a mining disaster that killed 301 people quickly went viral after they were posted on the internet.

They also became emblematic of a perceived insensitivity to the tragedy on the part of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister and Mr Yerkel’s boss, who was visiting Soma when the incident occurred.

That’s quite the generous workers’ comp plan on offer in Erdogan’s government. But the spectacle spread, perhaps inevitably, when the prime minister himself was confronted by protesters:

“Why are you running away, Israeli spawn?” Recep Tayyip Erdogan is heard yelling at a protester in video footage circulated by the opposition Sozcu newspaper, using an expression considered a curse in Turkish.

That sentence is key to understanding the rot of Erdogan’s world. To be called an Israeli is apparently by definition supposed to be an insult in Turkey. The tensions between Turkey and Israel have much to do with geopolitics but enough to do with Erdogan’s Islamism to shine a spotlight on anti-Semitism in that country, and the way Erdogan is happy to express it and fan it when he feels threatened.

Falling back on anti-Semitism and specifically claims of Jewish disloyalty (hence a Turk being called “Israeli spawn”) is old hat for the region’s autocrats when they need to distract the public from their own corruption. It’s an especially important tool for Erdogan because he’d like to extend his influence throughout the Middle East but would be something of an outsider to the region’s Arabs. Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel incitement are seen by thugs like Erdogan to be unifying themes, and reveal the absurdity of Western leaders like Barack Obama “anchoring” regional policy in a petty aspiring tyrant like Erdogan.

Such incitement is often dismissed as mere rhetoric, but aside from the actual danger to Israel–such as embracing and funding Hamas, for example–the toll such hate takes on Jews in Turkey should not be overlooked. In a post at Hurriyet Daily News, Haymi Behar explains “what it is to be born as ‘Israeli spawn’ in Turkey.” Here’s a sample:

It means your favorite team Fenerbahçe playing against Maccabee Tel Aviv – which you only know by name – and your classmates who go to matches with asking you: “Are you supporting ‘us’ or ‘them?’”

It means internalizing Anne Frank’s Diary as you grow up.

It means being a part of a mere 13 million tribe in a sea of 7 billion in the world, and being a small sample of the 17,000 “spawn brothers” in Turkey.

It means trying to figure out why you are being held personally responsible Jesus’ crucifixion and the killing of Sultan Fatih the Conqueror, even though Jews only make up 0.2 percent of the world’s population.

It means having the ability to have all the answers ready, waiting in your mind, to respond anytime in your life to all these colossal historic questions.

It means trying to create a happy life for yourself while baring the burden of your ancestors having been enslaved, expelled constantly, despised and being the victims of the most massive industrially planned genocide ever committed.

It means keeping in your mind the question, “How did we manage to be the leading actors of so many conspiracy theories with such a small population?”

It means getting used to hearing hate speech and discrimination any God given day.

This is what can be revealed to the world when Erdogan speaks his mind, and it’s why the German government was holding its breath–because putting faith in Erdogan’s better judgment is like putting faith in any number of comforting, but nonexistent, entities.

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