Analysis: The Sick Man on the Bosporus

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By Muriel Mirak-Weissbach – Special to the Mirror-Spectator

BERLIN — In the late 19th century, the cliché phrase making the rounds of the imperial palaces in Europe, was that the Ottoman Empire, a creature in which they all had their vested interests, was the sick man of Europe. The means the Great Powers devised to cure the problem led to world war, in the course of which they divvied up the dismantled empire, carving out new puppet states on the geopolitical map. Not a few of our contemporary political analysts trace the origins of the current wars and crises ripping through the region back to that catastrophic conflict a century ago. Today leading figures in European democracies are beginning to wonder if there might be a new form of illness manifesting itself, this time in modern-day Turkey. This time the threats of conflict are emanating from the palace of the would-be new sultan.

Referendum for Dictatorship  

The ostensible casus belli in the escalating conflict between Turkey and Europe, especially Germany, is the April 16 referendum on the introduction of a presidential system which would grant the Turkish president powers so vast as to eliminate checks and balances on the part of other institutions like the judiciary and parliament. In what is shaping up as a tight race, the ruling AKP seeks to win over Turkish citizens living abroad for a “yes” vote and therefore demands the right for its politicians, be they government representatives or party officials or not, to campaign freely in Germany, the Netherlands, France and other countries with a Turkish community. The AKP has cheerfully ignored the fact that such campaigning abroad is in flagrant violation of Article 94/A of Turkish electoral law.

It has been more difficult for Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party to ignore the laws of the countries which would host such campaign rallies. The rallies in the Netherlands and Germany have met resistance, either due to concerns for public safety, or to Turkish non-compliance with formal and logistical conditions for room rentals, etc. The deeper reasons are political. This year is election year in several countries, most recently in the Netherlands, and rightwing populists, like Geert Wilders, have been fueling anti-Islamic hatred and fears in their bid for votes. The concern is that fiery nationalist speeches by Turkish campaigners could provoke violent responses in the streets, and drive panicked voters to support the anti-Muslim populists at the polls.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte won the Dutch elections on March 15, in part thanks to his resolute stand against planned campaign appearances by Turkish politicians. First, Dutch authorities refused to grant landing rights to the plane carrying Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu, then Family Minister Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, who tried to enter Rotterdam by car, had her convoy turned back. The Turkish response to these rebuffs was violent, at least on the verbal plane. During an election rally in Antalya, Foreign Minister Çavusoglu said after the election results had been made known, that there was no difference between the social democrats, Rutte, and the “fascist” populist Wilders: “They are all the same.” The Netherlands was “the capital of fascism,” in his view, and he vowed that “there will be repercussions” for his having been prevented from speaking. Erdogan went so far as to accuse the Dutch of genocide, charging that they had massacred 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995. (In point of fact, it was the Bosnian Serbs who did the killing of the Muslim men and boys, and the Dutch contingent of UNPROFOR soldiers who failed to prevent the slaughter.) Erdogan’s government then announced political sanctions against the Netherlands.

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In Germany, the Turkish community is the largest in Europe, with 1.4 million eligible voters, enough to decide the outcome of the referendum. In response to refusals on the part of local and state authorities to allow Turkish politicians to campaign, Erdogan and other leading figures have wielded the “fascist” epithet, and have charged Germany with protecting terrorists. Erdogan first accused the Germans of using Nazi methods, then attacked Chancellor Angela Merkel personally; on March 19 at a meeting of an Islamic organization in Istanbul, he used the familiar “Du” form to say, “You [Merkel] are using Nazi methods. Against whom? Against my Turkish brothers in Germany and the ministers.” He said he ‘thanked God” that German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel had been apprehended, formally placed under arrest and sent to prison. The journalist who writes for “Die Welt” is a “terrorist agent,” Erdogan said, and would have to answer to the “independent” Turkish judiciary. According to a report in the tabloid Bild Zeitung, Erdogan also said, referring apparently to the Europeans, “If they could, they would build gas chambers again.”

And Berlin’s Reaction?

Chancellor Merkel is known for her rationality, and her ability to keep cool under exasperating circumstances. During her recent Washington visit, she lived up to this reputation. In the case of Erdogan, she has labored to maintain a rational attitude, resolutely rejecting all slanders he has levelled against Europe, Germany and her personally. To Ankara’s repeated accusations that the Dutch were “fascists,” she pointed out the cruel irony that it was the Dutch who suffered immensely under Nazi occupation, and pledged her total solidarity with the Rutte government. As for “Nazi methods” in the Federal Republic of Germany, she has said it is almost impossible to reply seriously to such outrages. Her spokesman Stephan Seibert dubbed the name-calling “recognizably out of this world,” (or, to put it more colloquially, “off the wall”). Seibert added that the Chancellor did not have any intention of “participating in a competition of insults.” On March 20, after the umpteenth instance of Nazi-baiting, Merkel put her foot down, reiterating that “the Nazi comparisons from Turkey must stop…. No ifs or buts.” Such comments, she said, “break every taboo, without consideration for the suffering of those who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis.” She said a verbal note from her foreign ministry had been delivered to Ankara in which the German government “reserved the right to take all necessary measures,” including reconsideration of certain approvals. The “approvals” refer to campaign appearances by politicians and also – most importantly – to facilities to allow Turkish citizens to cast their votes in the referendum, in polling places set up for them in Germany.

Erdogan and company have also blamed the Germans and Merkel personally for “supporting terrorists,” and by this they mean associates of the Gülen movement. In an interview to “Spiegel”, the head of the BND (German Federal Intelligence Service) Bruno Kahl had questioned the credibility of Turkish assertions that the Gülen movement were the driving force behind the failed coup attempt last year. Defense Minister Fikri Isik, according to “Anadolu” press agency, said this raised the question, “whether the German secret services are not behind the coup.”

Several German political figures have addressed the singular behavior of a national leader such as Erdogan. Newly elected SPD chairman and Chancellor candidate in the upcoming elections Martin Schulz remarked on national television March 19, “That a head of state of a friendly country should insult the head of the government of this country is a piece of impudence.” Someone has to tell Erdogan at some point, he said, that he “cannot trample on all practices of international diplomacy.” But, “that is what he does however.” And such behavior “is not worthy of a head of state,” he said, adding that Turkey was becoming increasingly authoritarian. 

What Honor?

Among those who have earnestly sought to understand the bizarre behavior of Ankara’s political elite, Michael Martens of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” has pointed to the misplaced notion of “honor” that several high-ranking representatives have displayed in their objections to being denied campaigning rights abroad. When Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag swears they will “not allow anyone to injure the honor of the Turkish nation and the Turkish state,” or his colleague in the foreign ministry characterizes the Dutch position as “an affront to the honor of the Turks,” Martens says that, to the ears of someone from northwestern Europe, this has a distant ring to it, as if coming from the days of Emperor Wilhelm. Such notions of honor may also be found in southern European countries, Spain, Italy and Greece, for example, but Martens sees this more extreme form as a relic from the heritage of Ataturk — with an Islamic touch. The state, as Martens summarizes the notion, should control everything, and if it does not, it should then rally the people around a strong leader, who defends the honor of the nation against the perceived enemies. His FAZ colleague, Rainer Hermann, a senior journalist and long-term Turkey expert, has identified authoritarian trends in other aspects of behavior among these politicians, including in hand gestures. For instance, Erdogan has been observed raising his right hand, with the four fingers upward and the thumb across the palm — this is apparently a gesture imported from Egypt, where it was used to signal opposition to Al Sisi, before becoming a standard symbol of the Muslim Brotherhood. Other leaders have been using gestures associated with the nationalist Grey Wolves.

Aside from the folkloristic flavor of such details, they serve to underline the trend towards extreme nationalism, which coheres with the aggressive name-calling directed at Merkel and Europe.

More than Metaphor?

The gutter level to which Ankara has dragged down political discourse is without precedent in the recent period. One is unsure whether to merely chalk up such talk to bad taste, ill manners or the like, or to read more sinister intent into the words. What should one make, for example, of the remarks made by Foreign Minister Cavusoglu about the Dutch political players, both populists and not? “They have the same mentality,” he said. “And this mentality will soon lead Europe to the abyss. Soon religious wars could and will break out in Europe.” Is this a threat or a promise? Or should one read the latest directives by Erdogan to Turks living in what he considers “fascist” Europe as sarcastic banter or serious marching orders? Speaking at a rally on March 17, he called out to Turks in Europe: “Don’t have three children, have five,” he said, “because you are the future of Europe.” This would be “the best answer that you could give to the impertinence, animosity and injustice that they are dealing you.” Does he really envision a future Europe dominated by Turks? If so, this would play into the hands of the Islamophobic populists like Wilder, Marine Le Pen and the Alternative for Germany party. Is that the intent?

Or did the CDU deputy chairwoman Julia Klöckner get it right when she asked simply, “Has Mr. Erdogan lost his senses?” Perhaps the man on the Bosporus is not well. Perhaps he is sick. Or maybe, she suggested, “Mr. Erdogan simply needs a comprehensive seminar in history, manners and understanding among peoples.” Not a bad idea; that history lesson might begin with the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

(The author can be reached at mirak.weissbach@googlemail.com.)