A Mercedes affair

A Mercedes affair

Turkey is full of political controversies, and not all of them are really significant. The recent controversy over a luxury Mercedes car bought for the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs (“Diyanet” in Turkish) was arguably significant, though. 

Not because of the car, nor because of the Diyanet, rather because of what it exposed regarding the political mentality in power.

First, let me note a few facts. I am not an “enemy” of the Diyanet, as some pro-government propagandists assume about anyone who dares to say anything critical. In fact, I believe such a state-sponsored religion ministry should not exist at all in a secular state, and thus the ideal would be to abolish the Diyanet. Yet still, it has existed since the beginning of the Turkish Republic, and its influence has been more positive than negative. In many ways, the Diyanet promotes a “moderate” understanding of Islam, especially when compared to the rigid and radical alternatives out there, such as Salafism. That is also why the Diyanet’s growing influence in the Balkans, Western Europe and elsewhere should be seen as good news. (For a good analysis of the Diyanet’s outreach, see the recent article by journalist David Lapeska in Foreign Affairs titled, “Turkey Casts the Diyanet.”)

The head of the Diyanet, Dr. Mehmet Görmez, is also a commendable figure in many ways. He led the reformist “hadith project” in the early 2000s, and has taken some progressive and principled stances on various social or political issues over the years.

That is why, perhaps, Dr. Görmez neither needed nor wanted the “Mercedes affair” he found himself embroiled in in the past month. It all began when the media discovered that the Diyanet bought a cutting-edge Mercedes limousine for its president. This was heavily criticized, especially at a time when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, and especially President Tayyip Erdoğan, are blamed for corruption, nepotism and an extravagant usage of public resources. Feeling uneasy at being a part of this image, Dr. Görmez declared about two weeks ago that he ordered the car, which he had never used, to be returned. The point, he said, was to “make an example.”

This was a good example, in my view, showing that public criticism can encourage public officials to act in more modest ways. Yet, apparently, it was a bad example for someone else: President Tayyip Erdoğan. First, in a public rally, he criticized Dr. Görmez for giving the car back. “If I knew, I would not have let him give the car back,” Erdoğan said. The reason, he said, was that “the head of the Diyanet deserved even a more luxury car.”

Then, two days ago, Erdoğan announced his solution: Dr. Görmez had been given an even more impressive Mercedes – this time an armored one. The “example,” in other words, were turned upside down: High offices deserved lavish cars, and we should all get that right.

In my view, this incident underlined two important facts about President Erdoğan. 

First, he seems to believe the higher one’s office is, the more luxury he deserves. (As a case in point, see his new Presidential Palace, one of the most lavish in the world.) Second, he sees public criticism as something not to be listened to but disregarded. In fact, his response to criticism is often to do the exact opposite. Otherwise, he believes that he and his team would be “bowing down” to the evil powers out there. 
And when anybody in his administration goes against these two points, Erdoğan corrects them. For he does not like “bad examples,” as that could suggest that people in office can be modest, humble and self-correcting human beings.