How Erdoğan Consolidates Power: the Weaponization of Turkish Media
and the Scapegoating of Minorities
(Aykan Erdemir, October 17, 2018)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Dr. Aykan Erdemir is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is a former member of the Turkish Parliament (2011-2015) who served in the EU-Turkey Joint Parliamentary Committee, EU Harmonization Committee, and the Ad Hoc Parliamentary Committee on the IT Sector and the Internet.
Dr. Erdemir is an outspoken defender of pluralism, minority rights, and religious freedoms in the Middle East. Dr. Erdemir has been at the forefront of the struggle against religious persecution, hate crimes, and hate speech in Turkey.
He is a founding member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief, and a drafter of and signatory to the Oslo Charter for Freedom of Religion or Belief (2014) as well as a signatory legislator to the London Declaration on Combating Antisemitism. On April 27, 2016, Dr. Erdemir was awarded the Stefanus Prize for Religious Freedom in recognition of his advocacy for minority rights and religious freedoms.
After completing his BA in International Relations at Bilkent University, Ankara, Dr. Erdemir received an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and PhD in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University, where his doctoral dissertation was entitled, “Incorporating Alevis: The Transformation of Governance and Faith-based Collective Action in Turkey.”
He also worked as a doctoral fellow at Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a research associate at the University of Oxford’s Center on Migration, Policy and Society. In March 2015, Dr. Erdemir was awarded a distinguished fellowship at the Oxford Centre for the Study of Law and Public Policy.
Dr. Erdemir has edited seven books, including Rethinking Global Migration: Practices, Policies, and Discourses in the European Neighbourhood (KORA) and Social Dynamics of Global Terrorism: Risk and Prevention Policies (IOS Press). He is co-author of the 2016 book Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces (Routledge).
His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Politico Europe, The Huffington Post, The National Interest, The Cipher Brief, Business Insider, Turkish Policy Quarterly, Hürriyet Daily News, Ahram Online, and The Times of Israel, and quoted in media including The Economist, Financial Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, The New York Times, USA Today, The Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, The Jerusalem Post, Time, and Foreign Policy.
Dr. Erdemir returned to the Westminster Institute in 2020 for a talk on Hagia Sophia: The Latest Target of Erdogan’s Supremacist Policies. For more on Turkey, see Ahmet S. Yayla’s Westminster talks on Turkey, the Coup and ISIS and How Turkey Sees Its Role in the World and What it Means for the U.S.
Robert R. Reilly:
Well, our speaker tonight is, as you know, Dr. Aykan Erdemir, and he’s a former member of the Turkish Parliament, having served from 2011 to 2015. He’s probably no longer there because he is very outspoken in terms of religious rights, minority rights for which he has been recognized internationally.
He is a founding member of the International Panel of Parliamentarians for Freedom of Religion or Belief. You’ve seen his introduction or his bio, so I’ll keep this brief, leaving him more time to speak.
Simply that after completing his BA in international relations at Bilkent University, Ankara, Dr. Erdemir received an MA in Middle Eastern Studies and a PhD in Anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University.
He’s edited seven books. He’s written countless articles in The Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, The Washington Post. I hope you all saw his piece in The Washington Post yesterday. If not, look at your email because Westminster sent it out to everyone.
He’s also co-author of the 2016 book Antagonistic Tolerance: Competitive Sharing of Religious Sites and Spaces. Today, he’ll be speaking on, “How Erdoğan Consolidates Power: the Weaponization of Turkish Media and the Scapegoating of Minorities.” Please join me in welcoming Dr. Erdemir.
Thank you for the kind introduction. I will try to, both as a formal politician and as a formal academic, I will try to keep my statements brief, which is a challenge given my formal hats, but I do want to make sure that we have time for Q&A. I simply want to get key points through and then see where that leads us in terms of discussing the state of rights and freedoms and more particularly minority rights and religious freedoms in today’s challenging world.
My talk will be in five sections and always short sections. The first part is just to explain to you how Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, came to control Turkey’s media and what that control looks like, feels like.[The] second part is how Erdoğan[‘s] mouthpiece media carries out smear campaigns and incitement, targeting religious minorities in Turkey. The third part is about the consequences of that.
I’ve always argued that incitement matters. It has consequences. I will try to show to you that media incitement has led to attacks against religious minorities in Turkey, that it has real-life consequences.
Then, in the fourth section, I will try to demonstrate through the case of Pastor Brunson, who is making headlines for at least the last two years but at least more recently for the last week to show how Pastor Brunson was smeared, framed in Turkish media, and thereby denied a fair trial.
And then, in conclusion I will, after a few overall remarks, I will try to end with a few, concrete policy recommendations because ultimately, the reason why we, in addition to commiserating about the state of global affairs, we- hopefully, we will have some response, policy-response, whether it’s at the state-level, whether it’s at the advocacy level, or at the individual level.
How Erdoğan Came to Control Turkey’s Media
So without further ado, let me start my first section. Very briefly, how Erdoğan came to control Turkey’s media. As of this spring, that is right before Turkey’s snap-elections, Erdoğan with his latest grab of independent media came to control 21 of the 29 newspapers, dailies, in Turkey, which gave him 90% of the national circulation.
Probably, that figure is now close to 95%, so imagine a Turkish citizen has 90-95% likelihood that he or she will be reading news from, not only pro-Erdoğan, but Erdoğan-mouthpiece media. This is either directly owned or controlled by him or his relatives and in-laws or through his cronies.
Second, using emergency decrees and under the pretext of combating terrorism, Erdoğan shuttered – just to give you one figure – 177 media outlets within five months in the aftermath of the aborted coup of 2016 in Turkey.
Another figure: since he came to power, Erdoğan has imprisoned 535 journalists in Turkey, making Turkey the world’s top jailer of journalists not only in 2016 but in 2017. And add to that self-censorship, so if there are still independent outlets left, journalists fear for their [lives], for their safety, for their freedom. They don’t want to be harassed. They don’t want to be imprisoned. They don’t want to be fined.
Erdoğan takes all journalists with these ludicrous libel kind of cases to court and I think the take-home message of the first section is although we assume Iran, China, North Korea, you know, Venezuela, other authoritarian countries have the worst track record of media freedoms, and although we assume Turkey is a NATO member, [so it] should be doing better, the numbers tell a different story. Turkey is unfortunately at the very bottom of media freedoms in the world at least in 2016 and 2017, and unfortunately 2018 will not be any better.
Inciting Hatred and Targeting Minorities
Now, my second part: how smear campaigns and incitement targeting minorities take place in Erdoğan’s mouthpiece media. What kind of incitement am I talking about? I have picked for you some of the best-ofs or you might call them worst-ofs.
For example, pro-AKP Yeni Asır daily insisted after the coup, after the aborted coup, that the coup’s alleged mastermind, Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish-Sunni cleric who’s in self-imposed exile in the U.S. now, who Turkey wants to extradite, so they argue that he had a Jewish mother, an Armenian father, and was a member of the Catholic clerical hierarchy.
Now, to us this sounds like science fiction, but in Turkey it was just an opportunity to smear a number of religious communities. It’s like hitting three birds with one stone because the average Turkish reader after reading this would say that, ‘oh, the mastermind behind the coup. It’s not only that he is an evil man, but clearly he is Jewish, Armenian, Catholic just like they always are, you know? Religious minorities are always after us either abroad or as fifth columns among us.’
Takvim, another pro-government daily, published a fabricated, photoshopped Vatican passport to demonstrate – put in quotes – that Fethullah Gülen was in fact a Catholic cardinal, so they took a passport of a Catholic cardinal, just changed the photo and the name, and turned him into a Catholic cardinal.
Third, another daily, Akşam, pointed the finger this time to Turkey’s ecumenical patriarch, the Greek Orthodox patriarch, and slandered him for plotting the aborted coup. Guess with whom. With the CIA, echoing a letter, which we now know was fabricated by Russians and falsely attributed to a Russian Ambassador and then widely circulated on social media by Russian trolls. We know it was fake, but it doesn’t matter for Erdoğan’s loyal followers who read this media outlet. They thought it was CIA and the ecumenical patriarch, working together to plot the coup.
And then, another columnist at, again pro-government Star daily, claimed that coup plotters at the highest level were hiding. Guess where. It said in churches.
Religious Violence From Rhetoric to Reality
Now, I would argue – you know, we laugh at these, you know, really ludicrous accusations, smears, but it’s no laughing matter. Why? Because such smear campaigns, such direct or indirect incitement, has consequences. Again, especially when it comes to the safety and freedom of religious minorities in Turkey.
Just to show you how it played out, right after the coup, aborted coup, there were immediate attacks against churches in Trabzon, a Black Sea town, eastern Black Sea town city, and Malatya, a central Anatolian city, and these two cities were not random. They [were] picked because these were cities, which were scenes of lethal attacks against Christians only a decade ago. Again, days after the failed coup attempt, for example, mobs attacked the gates of Saint Maria Catholic Church in Trabzon with hammers, breaking the church windows.
An Alevi worship hall in Istanbul was attacked. Alevis are the largest non-Sunni Muslim minority in Turkey. And then, Alevi homes in Malatya were the next target. An Armenian high school in Istanbul was vandalized the next month and in the eastern Turkish province near the Syrian border of Gaziantep, Christian tourists were harassed by some of the locals.
Then, this past Friday- February- this past February, the Saint Maria Church in the Black Sea town of Trabzon was once again targeted. It shows there’s a culture of impunity, there can be repeat attacks, and this time with an incendiary device that damaged the church’s front door, a day ahead of the anniversary of the 2006 assassination of the church’s then-priest Andrea Santoro.
So I think they were sending a very clear message. On the anniversary of the murder of that priest, they were sending the message that they can do it again with impunity. And then, a month later in March, a lone gunman fired a shot through the same church’s window, thus perpetrating the fifth confirmed attack against the church since Father Santoro’s assassination.
Pastor Andrew Brunson’s Case
Now, I would like to focus on the case of American pastor Andrew Brunson because I think his case epitomizes some of the key challenges religious minorities have had in Turkey.
Just to give you the background, you know. You might wonder how is it that the Turkish government picked on, you know, Evangelical, Presbyterian pastor who has lived and served peacefully in Turkey for over 20 years despite being targeted by an Islamist attack earlier on.
You know, he chose not to leave Turkey after an attempt, an earlier attempt on his life, and he continued to live and serve in Izmir, so how- why would a government target such a person? And, part of it has to do with Turkey’s historiography, which is across the political spectrum.
There is, you know, in a deeply polarized society, there is firm belief that what brought down the Ottoman Empire was not its own failures, its corrupt leadership, its dysfunctional political system, its oppressive political structure.
They believe it was Western machinations. They believe it was scheming on the part of Jews and Christians. They believed it was first and foremost missionaries, more importantly American missionaries, and there’s almost a firm belief that it was Protestant missionaries through their outreach to what they believe [were] fifth columns, religious minorities in Turkey, so every time you put an American citizen, a Protestant and a missionary together in one sentence, it rings all of the alarm bells because it hits all the bigoted buttons, all of the prejudicial buttons of the Turkish citizen inculcated with all this hate over the years in schools, during military service, at workplaces, on state-run media, on pro-government media, in family circles, in coffee houses, so it becomes a truism of some sort.
How Erdoğan’s State Media Smeared Pastor Brunson
Now, let’s focus on how Erdoğan’s pro-government media contributed to, how it fueled, some of these smears, prejudices against Pastor Brunson. Following his detention in Turkey, and he spent two years in prison in Turkey, again, pro-government Takvim daily claimed that – please don’t laugh – the pastor would have become the next director of the CIA had he been successful in helping to coordinate the attempted coup against Erdoğan.
Then, September 2017, in a story titled “The Pastor’s Bomb” – this was on the front-page of a pro-Erdoğan daily, you know, at the very top [of] Takvim daily – they similarly accused the CIA of masterminding the bomb attack against a shuttle bus, carrying guards of the prison where Pastor Brunson was held, calling Brunson a CIA agent once again and dubbing the attack, quote, “a message from the CIA to the Turkish government,” so they were basically implying that Pastor Brunson was behind the bombing and the Pastor was lucky because this never ended up in his indictment.
You know, there was a 62-page indictment, which I published about in the World Magazine, what’s called- the title of my piece is “The Brunson Farce” because the indictment itself is a farcical indictment: 62 pages, not a single, concrete piece of evidence, based on secret witness testimony, and, for example, some of the evidence presented against the pastor is the video of a Middle Eastern dish sent to him, which they claim ties him to a terrorist organization, the color of a scarf worn by a young man who happened to be standing behind the pastor in a photo sent to the pastor because the scarf was red, green, and yellow. They said these are the Kurdish colors, hence, the pastor must be a member of the designated terrorist organization PKK, so this is the kind of evidence brought against the pastor.
And then, again, December 2017, another pro-AKP [daily], Yeni Asır, there was a story where a pro-FETÖ, this is the Fethullahist terrorist organization, Turkey designated the network of Fethullah Gülen, the Sunni cleric who’s now in self-imposed exile in the U.S., FETÖ, that’s the term used, so it says FETÖ’s pastor turns out to be a fake, and they asserted that Brunson first, was not a real pastor, that his documents were fake, that he operated as a spy, and that he funded PKK sympathizers in the United States, that he received monthly payments from a U.S.-based foundation linked to FETÖ, and that he praised Fethullah Gülen in his sermons in Izmir. So again, science fiction.
Furthermore, Turkey’s state-run media, you know, this is media funded by Turkish taxpayers, has also been culpable in fueling hate speech against religious minorities, creating a toxic environment, which effected not only Pastor Brunson and his case, but all other religious minorities, and the drama – this was one of the most popular dramas historically, ever in Turkey – called The Last Emperor.
You can actually find it on YouTube, but I wouldn’t recommend to, you know, help them earn yet another click and therefore revenue from it. In Turkish it’s called Payitaht: Abdülhamid and it’s a quote unquote ‘historical drama’ about one of Erdoğan’s most popular sultans, Abdülhamid II, known as the sultan who kind of institutionalized pan-Islamism to a greater extent and hence, [is] revered by Turkey’s Islamists today and the drama pins all the blame for the downfall of the Ottoman Empire on Christians, Jews, and the fifth columns, that is religious minorities in Turkey.
And, again, just to show to you how it leads to real life- it has real life consequences, what I did was after each episode was aired, we checked social media to see what kind of impact it has on Turkish viewers. I’ll just give you two examples. One twitter user after watching this state-funded drama, vowed to turn the territory between [the] Euphrates and [the] Nile Rivers into Jewish graveyards. Another twitter user after watching the drama said, quote, “The more I watch The Last Emperor, the more my enmity to Jews increases. You infidels. You filthy creatures.”
Real World Consequences
Now, often scholars, policymakers, analysts, we try to make the connection between incitement and, you know, and real life consequences, but here we have concrete examples. As Turkish citizens confess on social media that watching the drama, watching a state-funded drama on [a] state-run TV station, has this effect, has the effect that they now want to kill Jews, kill Christians, commit massacres, turn an entire Middle Eastern geography into graveyards.
Now, what are some of the take-home messages from this worrying picture? And I’m not talking about the Islamic State. You know, I’m not talking about [an] Al Qaeda-run country. I’m not talking about a Taliban-run parts of Afghanistan. I’m talking about a NATO ally, Turkey.
First, clearly Erdoğan’s media empire and his weaponization of the media has allowed him to dismantle Turkey’s democratic, secular order and institute his one-man regime, authoritarian regime, so that was the first step. Media helps authoritarian Islamist leaders consolidate power at home, but it doesn’t end there.
Challenging the Western-Led Liberal Order
The second, I think, result is that having secured near total control at home, a strongman like Erdoğan then refocuses his attention on challenging the Western-led liberal order, what he has earlier in his career called as the Judeo-Christian civilization, what he has, again, earlier called as an immoral kind of value system and he not only sees this as a threat to his own regime at home, but he also would like to challenge it globally, including and maybe beginning first with the diaspora.
Erdoğan has a lot of outreach attempts to [the] Turkish diaspora in the West, particularly in the European Union, but then at the same time he has designs much larger than that and we have seen under Erdoğan’s rule Turkey emerging as a key funder of different types of radicals.
In fact, during the Syrian civil war, to bring about a quick regime change in Syria, we have seen numerous instances of Turkey turning a blind eye to jihadists crossing through Turkey, but not only that, we have seen Erdoğan’s Turkey providing logistical support, arms, ammunition, and finances to jihadists as well.
And, a prediction about what the future might bring: does Turkey, though nominally a NATO ally, must be understood to have weaponized its media in much the same way as Erdoğan’s fellow autocrats have done so in Iran and in Russia as a tool of domestic intimidation, as well as international influence, and let me end with a couple of policy recommendations.
How to Help Independent Journalism in Turkey
Now that Erdoğan has destroyed Turkey’s independent media, now it’s almost impossible for Turkey’s pro-secular, pro-rights and religious freedoms, pro-West, pro-NATO, intellectuals, academics, [and] journalists to make their voices heard, what can we do to help them?
First, it is really imperative, I think it’s a moral imperative, for us to reach out to both independent media outlets as well as critical- [the] remaining, few, critical journalists, to offer them moral support, material support, provide them, help them gain visibility and legitimacy, help their voice be heard in Turkey as well as around the world.
And a second strategy could be, given how suffocating it is for journalists and media outlets it is in Turkey, also work with the Turkish diaspora because increasingly, Turkey’s pro-secular, pro-democratic, pro-NATO voices are either in self-imposed exile abroad, especially in the West, or in Erdoğan-imposed exile, and there are numerous academics, journalists, public intellectuals who would love to do something to advocate for rights and freedoms in Turkey, for separation of mosque and state in Turkey, for enshrining religious freedoms and minority rights in Turkey, but simply they do not have the means, the outlets, the institutions.
I think it’s – again, it’s imperative that we work with diaspora communities to see what- how we can work with them as they continue the good fight in the EU, in the U.S., in Canada, in Australia, you know, where they can still enjoy their First Amendment rights, where they can still enjoy freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression.
Let me end here without taking any more time, but I would be happy to take your questions, comments, criticism.
You- back up to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, very quickly. Isn’t it bad to say that there’s a certain kind of Western, maybe Calvinist, maybe liberal push to get rid of the Ottoman Empire? It collapsed from within.
Yeah, as with most empires, you know, there are domestic, internal and external factors, leading to their collapse and picking, prioritizing just one explanation, reducing it down to one explanation, can conveniently serve to, let’s say, exonerate the corruption, the shortsightedness, and incompetence of the political elite.
We are seeing it today as well. For example, Turkey is going through one of the worst economic crises in its history and Erdoğan has put the blame on the U.S., on Pastor Brunson. He has said that there is an economic war waged by the U.S. and so he wants to hear none of his own corruption, greed, mismanagement, destructive policies. Is it true that the Ottomans, in addition to mismanagement at home, had adversities? Sure. Just like the Austro-Hungarian Empire had, just like the British Empire had, just like the European Union today has, or the United States has, but if the United States or the European Union now only puts the entire blame on Russia or China, they would be wrong, right? Because there are clearly shortcomings from within and I think the Western political tradition is quite unique in its emphasis on criticism, on its emphasis on- through freedom of expression, on ability to, you know, say mea culpa, you know, we have done wrong and we are responsible.
I think it’s first and foremost being adult about something, you know? Taking responsibility for our shortcomings, for our mistakes, but unfortunately, the historiography I have talked about is one of whitewashing. I’m not against- I’m not advocating disregarding all external factors. I’m simply saying let’s, you know, hold a mirror to our shortcomings as former subjects of the Ottoman Empire and as current citizens of the Turkish Republic.
I would like to go back to more recent history, quite simply, Mr. Khashoggi’s case. The more we learn about him, the more we understand that he was not a democracy-loving, pro-Western journalist, that he was [unintelligible] Saudi government and the [unintelligible] jihadi groups. Do you think that Turkey and Qatar on one side and Saudi Arabia and Egypt vie for leadership in the Sunni world? Could it be that the whole story with that Khashoggi – we don’t know what happened to him but all that we know about him is presented by Turkish government – could it be a plot to get [the] United States involved on [the] side of Turkey against Saudi Arabia?
Now, there’s still some fog of war concerning the Khashoggi case. My guess at this point is that he was murdered by the Saudi team, whether intentionally or unintentionally I think time will tell, and the fact that he might have had some shortcomings as a journalist or in his politics, of course does not, you know, legitimize his brutal murder and it is true that the Turkish- Turkey’s pro-government media has extremely little credibility when it comes to these leaks because ultimately, it is, to say the least, hypocritical for Erdoğan to be the kind of bearer of media freedoms in the Khashoggi case. You know, he after having jailed 535 journalists in his career, you know, hitting rock bottom when it comes to media freedoms. You know, now, through the very same outlets that I just presented to you, that is egregiously targeted, smeared people, incited against religious minorities. Now they are defending the rights of this one journalist. Certainly, he deserves to be defended. His rights deserve to be defended, but not by this kind of government mouthpiece, incitement outlets.
Now, my different take on the Khashoggi case could be this. You might have realized that Erdoğan himself and his inner circle have been quite silent. They were very balanced, very reserved, so they drip-fed pro-government media, increased pressure gradually, I believe, to extract concessions from Saudi Arabia. It’s not in Erdoğan’s interest to defend media freedoms or the sanctity of life. I think it’s in his interest to extract some economic gains from Saudi Arabia at that- during a time of an economic downturn to extract concessions concerning the Saudi blockade of Qatar, potentially to extract some other diplomatic concessions, concerning this, you know, battle between Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the UAE and, you know, Qatar, Turkey, Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood, so there is more to this story than meets the eye and unfortunately, when we see what’s behind- what’s being discussed behind closed doors, it’s not about, you know, the sanctity of life. It’s not about media freedoms. It’s not about democracy. It’s about, you know- It’s like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and, you know, it’s like a carpet sale.
Do you think that the EU, which you alluded to, in somehow- in the Turkey- to the situation with Turkey is now by against or rejecting having Turkish organizations in the EU? This is [unintelligible] even before Erdoğan. And this [unintelligible] created the tit-for-tat [unintelligible] you do one thing, we do one thing back. [unintelligible] our identity, our [unintelligible] and there again, Erdoğan, I’m sure he used this to his advantage by saying that we have our own religious identity and we- They are refusing us and we don’t want them back and I- use this- He used this [unintelligible] situation to his advantage. Do you think that the EU is also responsible for what Turkey is now [unintelligible] Erdoğan consolidating all this power?
Very important question that hits close to home in my heart. First, I have to confess one of my biases, that is I’m a Euro-federalist, a dying breed. I do believe in the widening and deepening of the European Union, but I know this is the wrong time to advocate such views. I was a member of Turkey’s European Union integration committee. I was a member of the Turkey-EU Parliamentary committee. I’ve done a lot of work with my European Union colleagues and [I] still believe that’s the future. I still believe we have to incorporate the western Balkans. We have to incorporate Turkey. We have to move east because any country left out will be easy prey for the adversities in the east. No need to name them. Now, I argue it takes two to tango and this was a horrible dance between Turkey and the EU because there were none to begin with, you know? There were no good faith patterns in this relationship.
Turkey, first and foremost, failed its homework because European Union membership is about getting things right. It’s called the Copenhagen criteria. This is the minimum standards needed – human rights, democracy, rule of law, due process – the minimum standards needed for a country to be a member of the European Union.
Now, has Turkey done its homework? No, unfortunately not. It was from the- you know, in the process, very slow, and not necessarily in good faith. Has the EU fulfilled its obligations of working with, negotiating with Turkey in good faith? No, and I’ve seen this with my own eyes in the Turkey-EU Joint Parliamentary Committee. Quite a number of our European Union colleagues were simply there to derail the talks. They were looking for either excuses to block this process- and of course Turkey was giving them a lot of ammo by not doing its part of the work, and I’ve always argued it takes visionaries on both sides.
Now, there might be skeptics here among the audience thinking, look at Turkey today, ‘What makes you think that Turkey could be an eligible member or would be a good partner to the European Union, would be- would strengthen the union?’ For that, let me take you back to [the] 1940s to one of my favorite quotes. In the early days of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, not the European Union, this is the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, you know, this is, you know, post-war Europe, still traumatized, still in the ruins, and when they were trying to put together, not only a new Europe, but also a new regime, a new system of rights and freedoms, you know, coming out of the horrors of the war.
One of the key instruments was of course, the Council of Europe and its parliamentary assembly and I have a journalist colleague who went into the archives and found the audio recordings of some of the earliest debates there and there was a Turkish parliamentarian, Kasım Gülek, Secretary General of Turkey’s pro-secular Republican Peoples Party, CHP, who had this historical talk there and he said, “We,” underlined, “We, as Europeans can build a United States of Europe.” And he said, “I know there’s history, prejudice,” you know, old debate of the past, “but we can and we should,” so there was a moment in [the] late 1940s when Turkish parliamentarians as well as European parliamentarians saw Turkey and Europe as one. They imagined a future union in Europe. This is before the European Union. This is before the European Economic Community. This is before the European Coal and Steel Community that led to the Union, so there was a moment, maybe because of the war, that people could be visionaries. People could think beyond short term interests. Are we there today? No. I think we are really very distant from there.
Most politicians don’t have [the] appetite to think of such, let’s say, larger projects, such transcendental projects. We are very- I sometimes make fun of our fellow lawmakers as pothole politicians. We are very interested in our neighborhood and the potholes, but we’re not interested in the grand questions about values, peace, you know, coexistence, foreign policies, security policy, and I always remind people that there’s a reason why one of the seats of the European Parliament as well as the Council of Europe as well as the European Court of Human Rights happen to be in Strasbourg. In Strasbourg, there is a monument, a statue, and that statue has a mother from Strasbourg with two sons dead in her arms. One fought in the French Army. The other fought in the German Army. And I think that is the historical heritage. We have to remember, re-remember, because ultimately, when you do the math, most politicians we have today have not had that experience or it’s- that’s no excuse, or they’re not bothered to read or reflect on that experience, so I think that’s our shortcoming and that’s what we need when it comes to the European Union as well. Yes?
Well, following up on that I’ll [unintelligible] your European federalism. I’m also a European federalist.
Ah, there are two of us.
And on the Atlantic Union-
Yeah, same here.
So… however, I must differ on Turkey being in the European Union and I would argue the Copenhagen criteria contributed in the opposite way to Turkish Islamism because they said civilian control over the military, one of the main things, also NATO said this and Erdoğan played that part perfectly. In reality, in the Turkish political culture, it seems to me the military were the one real check and balance that preserved the republic and the [unintelligible] Western cultural criteria to Turkey damaged democracy, so you might want to deal with that argument. But constructively, what do you think of putting Turkey on a kind of probation in its NATO membership, meaning it’s still there, we still have mutual defense obligations, but we pay a lot less attention to Turkey in reaching decisions with NATO. We’d make some decisions though for [unintelligible] ridiculous and we reduce our intelligence and other forms of exposure to this regime.
Yes, two very important and challenging questions. Let me begin with the first one. Indeed, the European Union, integration process, which should have converged Turkey’s laws, and regulations, and practices with acquis communitaire, with European Union practices and laws and regulations were to the contrary. That’s a fact, meaning European Union reform in Turkey undermined democracy, rule of law, due process, and gave Erdoğan one-man power.
Now, sure, was there naïveté on the part of some of our European Union colleagues? Yes, they didn’t see what was happening. They knew Turkey needed to develop a democratic understanding of checks and balances, separation of powers, rule of law, but what they didn’t realize, going back to your comment about [the] Turkish military, some of the imperfect institutions in Turkey and I will not defend them, you know, the Turkish military, Turkish judiciary, they were imperfect, sources of many injustices, but at the same time they were part of Turkey’s imperfect polyarchy. They were counterweights. I will never defend such counterweights, but at the same time I will never be naive enough to say these are imperfect institutions, let’s get rid of them altogether, and hope that then Erdoğan will gradually build checks and balances. That’s not how politics works.
You know, if you want to remove some of the existing balancing forces in a very complex polity, you better go piecemeal. You better first build institutions to check and balance the abuses of Islamists, despots, you know, one-man rulers, and that’s where they failed. To give you a concrete example, you know, maybe this is just too abstract. In September 2010, you know, this is my first real act in politics as an academic and I was campaigning for the referendum, the upcoming referendum, and this was Erdoğan’s one big steal, you know, together with his then-ally, Fethullah Gülen. Now, Gülen is his archenemy. In 2010, best friends, allies. And they had one goal, winning the referendum. What was the referendum about? It was a long list of issues and the European Union said brilliant! Women’s rights, children’s rights, disability rights. They said it looks perfect, so they endorsed it and I was busy trying to explain to my well-meaning but naive European Union friends, there’s only one purpose for this referendum and that is to give the entire control of the judiciary to Erdoğan and his ally, Gülen. And I said all the other articles, they’re fillers. They don’t mean a thing.
And guess what happened? This is exactly what happened. Now, my European Union colleagues come back to me and say, you know what, I think you were right. We were wrong. And I said it doesn’t matter. It’s too late because Erdoğan and Gülen got control of the judiciary, you know, the constitutional court, the higher court, all the regular courts. He basically destroyed all other institutions too because if you control the judiciary in its entirety, you can basically do whatever you want.
So, yes, the European Union has taken a number of mistaken steps and instead of being a force for good, facilitated Erdoğan’s rise to power. What’s the take home message? I will say it doesn’t matter how well-meaning we are. It doesn’t matter how well sounding our policy positions are. What really matters in politics is the consequences, the consequences of our actions. This is what I call a politics of accountability, but the real accountability. I think in our contemporary politics around the world, we have replaced accountability based on consequences with intentions and ‘good speak’, you know, if you say it right and if we have good intentions, that’s all that matters.
I’m sorry, that’s not- that’s not what politics is all about. Politics is whether you leave behind a genocide, whether you leave behind a destruction of a 2,000 years old faith and its traditions, whether- you know these are all irreparable damages, you know, there’s no way to bring back and maybe Turkish democracy is one of those victims, meaning maybe it will be extremely difficult to undo this honest mistake.
Coming to the NATO question, which is very important. Now, first a reminder. You know, NATO is, to a greater extent, a Cold War institution, a Cold War tool, and it’s not only a military alliance, it’s a political alliance where values should be important. And during the Cold War, to be frank, I think it didn’t occur to us that one of the members could be turned, could be a rogue member. It was unthinkable, so guess how NATO takes its decisions. Through unanimity, so if you have a member that’s not behaving as an ally, which is a rogue or wayward ally, guess what it takes to deal with that member. You need that member’s approval. Yeah, we can discuss it later. I would argue for that- There is some discussion in Washington about can we kick Turkey out of NATO? I would argue no, only with Turkey’s approval or vote for that decision.
Now, are there other ways to help members come back into the fold? Are there ways to shame, sanction, you know, what I call engage in a principled way with rogue allies? Certainly, yes. I’ve always argued in all my politics that clear and sizable incentives and disincentives [work], especially when dealing with Erdoğan. If you’re not coming to a meeting with Erdoğan with a huge stick and a huge carrot, don’t bother, but if you just come with a huge carrot, that’s called appeasement. Good luck. He will be a bully. You will bring out the worst in him. If you just come with a huge stick, you’ll remind him of his father, his abusive father, which he turned into. [It] won’t work. But if you- He’s a businessperson, a bazaari, like the Iranians call bazaaris, so if you come with a big stick and a big carrot, he might be open for business.
Just a- you’re absolutely right, to kick Turkey out requires unanimity because it’s a treaty amendment.
However, daily decisions of NATO, the Council sets its own procedures, there’s nothing in the treaty that requires unanimity, and it was the main author of the treaty, Theodore Achilles, who explained that to me. Everything we’re told about that is legally mistaken. For NATO to change that rule would be a major change, but it could be done.
Yes, thank you very much. [I] just wanted to follow up on something you brought up and that is the relationship between Erdoğan and the ecumenical patriarch. In light of what took place last week and the general relations between Turkey and Russia. Does the Turkish state have any influence over the operations of the ecumenical patriarch and could Erdoğan try to curry additional favor with Putin by putting pressure in light of the split that occurred last week?
Great question. [That was] something I watched very closely and now I’m working on a long form piece, which, hopefully, will come out in the Providence Magazine next week. No promises but [I’m] working on it. And here’s the deal. It’s really a very complex case because- for example, a colleague just asked me, who doesn’t follow this very closely, he said, you know, ecumenical patriarch works with Ankara, right? Because that’s the assumption, you know, the seat is in Istanbul, so if you’re not following things closely, you might assume the patriarch is under Ankara’s influence.
There is- although the seat of the patriarchate is in Istanbul, it’s almost like he’s besieged. And it’s almost like the country where he’s based is working against him. And it was no coincidence that Turkey’s pro-government media not only echoed, but disseminated, a Russian fabrication that would not only undermine the patriarchate’s authority but would put Turkey’s Greek Orthodox at risk of reprisal attacks by printing this, what I see as extremely irresponsible slander.
Now, I would argue it’s not just because of Erdoğan’s own, you know, Islamist and bigoted worldview. I would argue there is an element of the Putin- Erdoğan alliance at work there and therefore, it’s no coincidence that the source is Russian. I’ve heard from Russians themselves that they see the growing influence of the ecumenical patriarch in the former Iron Curtain countries as accompanying NATO’s influence, so in some of the Russian thinking today, there is the conflation of NATO expansion with the patriarchate’s expansion and what happened in Ukraine, you know, the ecumenical patriarch’s recognition of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian church, was immediately met with a threat by Moscow, by the Russian Orthodox patriarch, and they actually delivered. I think two to three days after they made the threat, they went forward, separated from Istanbul, which some argue is the biggest schism in a thousand years, but it’s not just about Turkey, Ukraine, Russia.
You know, some of that tension – for those who are following Orthodox affairs in the United States – some of that tension is also played within the Orthodox community here and you can imagine that this- what happens in the United States within the Orthodox community will have major repercussions back in Istanbul as well because ultimately, the issue is the ecumenical patriarch exists in an extremely hostile setting, you know, challenges from Russia and challenges from the Turkish state and the public, has only a couple of thousand members of his church in Turkey, most of whom are 70-plus, lost most of the property, targeted in the media, and needs the Turkish state’s benevolence to simply sustain the faith and its institutions because ultimately, you know, the ecumenical patriarch by law needs to be a Turkish citizen and that requires, given there is no future to the Greek Orthodox community in Turkey, that requires the Turkish state’s benevolence in granting Turkish citizenship to the Greek Orthodox hierarchy of today and future because they will almost always will come from other countries and given the seminary, the Halki seminary, has been closed in Turkey, there is no training going on.
There is no theological training going on, so this is the surest way to kill a faith, right? This is the surest way to destroy a church, a patriarchate, and this I believe is the more sinister undertone to Erdoğan’s religious affairs. It’s- It’s a- I have given many talks against tolerance. I’m known to be an outspoken kind of adversary of tolerance because I believe it is an insincere, hierarchical imposition of kind of ruler and subject relations.
Erdoğan’s entire worldview is about tolerance, the Ottoman tolerance towards minorities, and benevolence, two terms I hate. Why? Because I believe in rights, religious freedoms, fundamental rights, inalienable human rights. Who is Erdoğan to grant the ecumenical patriarchate the right to exist? Who is he that he finds himself the power to be benevolent to allow them to continue this year but maybe not next year. In fact, they put all of Turkey’s religious minorities on the spot just over the summer by forcing them to sign a declaration and all of the religious minority leaders in Turkey had to sign it. You know why. They said we are free and we have no problems with religious freedoms in Turkey. To me that was a concrete proof, evidence that things were not right because in a country where there are religious freedoms, religious leaders do not feel the pressure to sign such a declaration. Let me end there. Yes?
I forgot what I was going to ask you because I was so charged up by what you were just saying. Thank you for that. I remember very well the Malatya case of the three men who were murdered in the Christian bookstore. That was before Erdoğan’s time?
No, during his time.
But it’s a complex story because just one sentence commentary there. It might have been carried out by ultranationalists to put the blame on the Islamists. Its- But everything blends into one another. I don’t want to sound too conspiratorial but it’s Islamists and ultranationalists once again coming together around the issue of, you know-
Okay, I was going to ask you if it was media incitement that was part behind that.
That too. Hopefully, shortly I will have another op-ed on- I just wrote a piece on the conspiracy theories that unite all Turkish citizens; Kurds and Turks, Alevis and Sunnis, Left and Right, secular and religious, and that was one of the examples I give. For example, in 2001, this was one year before Erdoğan came to power. Back then Erdoğan’s staunchest adversary, the ultra-secular National Security Council dominated by the military, they issued a new, national security memorandum, like a new strategy, and guess what they identified as a key threat? Missionaries, Christian missionaries, so this is Turkey’s seculars – that’s why I’m always skeptical about the military too – so Turkey’s seculars – quote unquote – secular military, thought Christian missionaries were a key threat. By the way, we’re talking about a country where probably there are a handful of converts.
And then, again, it pains me, that one of the deputy chairs of a center-left secular party, the Democratic Left Party, Russian Acevit, who herself studied at an American school established by missionaries during the Ottoman times, she also said the same thing during the 2000s. She said, “I’m very concerned about the missionary threat in Turkey,” and I was like, “What threat?”
Now, so what lead to Malatya is all of that, you know, years and decades of prejudice, incitement in the media, singling out in a kind of- in a National Security Council meeting, and decisions, and minutes, a[n] ultranationalist, conspiratorial gangs, what some Turks refer to as deep-state, as well as Islamists, and I think this is the most difficult thing to grasp about Turkey, meaning it’s not just one- It’s like a movie where there’s not just one bad guy. Everyone is, at least from this point of view, a monster, meaning everyone joins in the slaughter symbolically or physically. Now, if you confront them, they’ll deny it. They’ll say of course, many of these people who have made statements against the missionaries, they’ll- they’ll violently- they’ll say this is horrible, this is barbarism, but they’ll never reflect on it. They’ll never think how they might have paved the way, how they might have reproduced those very prejudices, so this is, you know, that’s, let’s say, reflexivity, is the most difficult because it requires admitting to one self that I’m not the wonderful person that I believe that I am. I am, in fact, one of the monsters and that’s very difficult.
I just wanted to ask you how is Erdoğan vulnerable? [It] seems like the American sanctions had a disproportionate effect on the economy and I understand part of that was attributable to the fragile nature of the banking system and the manipulation of the- of the interest rate and the internal structure, but there must be ways that we can influence, as you said, what would be the big carrots and the big sticks? And just a passing comment; there’s no way Turkey’s going to get thrown out of NATO by any internal- out of any internal organization of NATO because in order to remove a member that would require most- in most cases national legislature[s] from the various parties of the treaty.
Now, going back to the Erdoğan question. I’ve always warned against appeasement. That’s the worst way to engage Erdoğan and we increasingly see that. Part of it is pragmatism on the part of the West. For example, the European Union, the main concern for now happens to be the Syrian refugee flow, which means Erdoğan can always get a carte blanche, meaning, you know, he will hold you hostage, literally, by holding some European nationals in prison, but more importantly through the trump card of refugees. He has repeatedly said that- When he got angry at the European Union, he said that, “I will bus the refugees to the European Union border, to the Bulgarian and Greek border,” which shows that despite his self-righteous rhetoric, which he repeats all the time. He says we host 3.5-4 million Syrian refugees. We have spent so many, so many billions. We’re wonderful. What about the West? They’re horrible. They’re corrupt. They’re morally bankrupt. And the next day he will say I will bus those refugees to the European Union, as if they are like things to be, like cattle, to be driven around.
Now, first of all, I would argue if you enter into such morally dubious agreements with Erdoğan, you’ll always get the short end of the stick, so do not appease, do not engage at that, what I would consider, at that immoral, unprincipled level. He is extremely vulnerable economically. I think that’s where the big sticks and carrots should work.[The] Turkish economy is bankrupt. It’s on life support. 2019, mark my words, will be stagflation with double-digit inflation, which is already here, as well as a contraction, and Erdoğan, although he doesn’t want to hear of the IMF, will need the world history’s largest IMF bailout, $100-150 billion dollars next year, and there are two ways to do the bailout. They always come with strings attached. You can keep it very narrow and technical, just about the basics of the economy, you know, independent central bank, independent statistical institute, semiautonomous regulatory agencies, and a few structural reform issues, and full-stop or you can use the opportunity to say the reason the Turkish economy is bankrupt is because there is no separation of powers, there is no rule of law, there’s no due process, there’s no attorney-client privilege, there is no media freedoms, there is no religious freedoms, and you bring that- what sounds mostly political, but which also happens to be economic, issues into this agreement.
And, of course, if you just bring the $150 billion dollars, the biggest carrot we have ever seen, as part of the IMFG and World Bank handouts, it doesn’t work. You know, there has to be sticks. There has to be the- the threats of sanctions, not just the threats of sanctions but also the imposition and implementation of sanctions. You know, every time one sees egregious illicit finance activity, sanctions evasion- For example, now Turkey, Venezuela, Iran, Russia work very closely to develop crypto currency, to develop illicit finance networks, to find ways to evade U.S. and U.N. sanctions. If you give Erdoğan a free pass for his transgressions, guess what? He’ll come back with a vengeance. He’ll do more, you know.
Guess – for those of you haven’t watched the first round of Iran sanctions – who helped Iran evade sanctions the last time around? NATO ally Turkey. Through which institution? Halkbank. What kind of bank is that? Turkey’s second largest public lender. It’s a state-run and owned bank. Who gave the green light? Erdoğan. So the reason the first round of sanctions failed – on the verge of being successful – was because Erdoğan-run, NATO ally Turkey played a key role in undermining global attempts at sanctioning a state-sponsor of terrorism.
Now, what was really shocking, at court hearings of the Southern District of New York, is that when the ringleader of the sanctions-evasion network, a Turkish Iranian named Reza Zarrab, approached the Chinese, offering them, ‘hey we can help you evade U.S. sanctions’, the Chinese said no. They didn’t want to risk it. They were prudent, so that’s the challenge. The Chinese, who we in the West see as an adversary, takes a look at the sanctions regime and to a large extent wants to play by maybe not because of values but just out of deterrence, but then a NATO ally facilitates sanctions- Iran-sanctions evasion through its own institutions. Not only that, at least four ministers were on the payroll of this sanctions-evader, this evader, ringleader, so can you imagine? A NATO ally had a number of ministers on Iran’s payroll, so I think- I’ll say no more but that should give us an idea of how to deal with Erdoğan and what happens if we fail to deal properly. It gets very dark but would make a great movie.
Many Turks fool themselves into saying, into believing that ‘oh, the Ottoman Empire was such a wonderful empire. All our former subject peoples miss the empire. Given their current problems, they all want to return to Ottoman rule.’ No. What I can tell you from my travels in the Balkans, in the Middle East, that’s not the case.
Although it’s also true that some of Turkey’s clients, these are people on Turkish payroll, on Turkish media payroll, government payroll, aid recipients- Will they toll the line? Yes, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. When there are Turkish delegations in town with suitcases full of cash, people will tell you what you want to hear. They’ll get that suitcase and that’s the end of the story, but what really matters is what they’ll tell you, you know, informally, and as an anthropologist, in my- in all my official visits to these countries, I’ve always afterwards sat with our local hosts and what I can tell with you is from their point of view it’s crazy, like they can’t even get it. They’re like they can’t even imagine how and why Turks could have this misunderstanding. They want to hear nothing of this, especially because they probably have a family member, a grandfather or a great-grandfather, who suffered, who was executed, who was tried in fighting the Ottoman overlords and let me end with this to end on a positive kind of anecdote that will put a positive smile on your face.
You know, I was talking to a Latin American economist, an El Turko – I don’t know if you know the term. In Latin America, many of the descendants of former Ottoman subjects are referred to as El Turko and almost always they’re not Turks, and almost always they’re Arabs, Christian Arabs, Muslim Arabs, but Arabs who escaped the Ottomans. Many of them were Arab nationals and they didn’t want to be ruled by the Ottomans. The ones who survived, they ended up in Latin America, so this economist was also one of those and when I heard about his family background, Arab Christian, I said, “Oh, was your grandfather or great-grandfather one of those who suffered at the Turkish Sultan’s hand?”
He said, “You’re the first Turk of my well-educated, PhD-holding colleagues who said that because all my other colleagues tell me that, ‘Oh, how wonderful it was for you as well in the Ottoman Empire’.” And he said, “I really don’t get it, how all these smart, Turkish academic colleagues know nothing about history and they imagine like a 19th century and early 20th century where it was paradise for the subject peoples of the Ottoman Empire, so today I would argue Erdoğan imagines himself as the Sultan, possibly, maybe as the Caliph as well, but the reality on the ground is very different than the reality, not only Erdoğan believes in, but most of my fellow Turkish citizens mistakenly come to hold.
Robert R. Reilly:
Thank you very much.
For more on Armenia, see Svante Cornell’s lecture on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Crisis.