Turkey’s new normal

Turkey’s new normal

The mail in my inbox had the subject line: Turkish Press’s New Normal. My good friend and fellow columnist Robert Ellis wrote: “Five years ago I jokingly remarked to you in Strasbourg: ‘Cheer up. In the good old days they murdered journalists. Now they just imprison them.’ I was wrong.” 

I was not wrong when I shared my concerns with a diplomat friend only two weeks ago that “I will be surprised if [Hürriyet columnist Ahmet] Hakan is NOT attacked by some thugs linked to the Justice and Development Party [AKP] or its ideology.”

In theory, the attack may be “shocking” - just like every attack on a journalist. It is, however, not so shocking in a country where the dominant state ideology and the largest number of voters feature various degrees of militant political Islam. Fortunately, not all ways to practice Islamism are violent. 

Just the other day, Turkey’s most popular televangelist was responding to viewers’ queries on whether it was permissible for Muslims to perform their ablutions using the water recently found on Mars. That, too, is absolutely normal in a country where the president prides himself on raising the number of imam-hatip religious school students to 1.2 million. Over one million imams for around 80,000 mosques… It is the same absurd thought that Turkey would be a decent place to live if it had 20 million imam graduates, not 1.2 million. 

Mr. Erdoğan can be a passionate Islamist and a cunning politician, a wizard of power. But sometimes he speaks with the naivety of a child. Take this, for instance: “Russia does not border Syria. Why is it so interested in Syria? I want to understand this. I will ask them [Russians] to review this.”

Your columnist wants to understand why Mr. Erdogan wants the United States, Britain, Germany and France “to be so interested in Syria,” despite the fact that none of these countries border Syria. Turkey does not border the Palestinian territories. Your columnist wants to understand why Turkey is so interested in Palestine. Do countries have to have a “religious bond” in order to have the right to be interested in countries with which they have no borders?

Someone should remind Mr. Erdoğan of the cable that a former American ambassador sent to Washington several years ago, describing Turkey as possessing “Rolls Royce ambitions, but Rover resources.” Countries do not have strong political clout just because their politicians say they do. Mr. Erdoğan will not understand that the only deterrence he could have against the Russians is to threaten them with laughter spasms that may be caused by rhetoric, including his vow to “ask them to review this [Russian policy on Syria].”

The person to remind Mr. Erdoğan of the U.S. cable cannot be Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who believes that Turkey really possesses a Rolls Royce’s resources. The prime minister has first-class proof of Turkey’s global influence.

We must show this, he told journalists, to those who claim that Turkey is becoming isolated. What is “this”? It is the fact that Mr. Davutoğlu co-chaired, with the president of Senegal, a United Nations panel on development. Very impressive. But Mr. Davutoğlu does not understand one simple thing: The leaders of countries with genuine international power do not need to remind the world of that power half a dozen times a day, prompting shy, private smiles. 

All the same, Mr. Davutoğlu must be happy to have learned from a prominent Muslim theologian that Martian water can be used to perform ablutions. Otherwise, how would the Turkish astronauts on a mission to Mars be able to achieve their goal? Now that the big problem of ablutions has been resolved we can start work on the minor issue of sending our astronauts to Mars.    

Shimon Peres, the former president of Israel, had a perfectly legitimate point when he told your columnist in 2006 that: “When holiness begins, reason ends.”