A Nuremberg Rally in Istanbul?

A Nuremberg Rally in Istanbul?

Last Wednesday, The Times ran a full-page open letter to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Signatories included Hollywood celebrities such as Sean Penn and Ben Kingsley, along with various famed directors, artists and writers. Their focus was the way the Turkish government responded to the Gezi Park protests of last June, and their tone was very, very critical.

I have been quite critical of the way Erdoğan and his team handled the whole Gezi Park affair, as well, so I did not have a problem with the signatories’ contempt with “the heavy-handed clamp down of [the] police.” But I did have a problem when they told Erdoğan:

“Only days after clearing Taksim Square and Gezi Park relying on untold brute force, you held a meeting in Istanbul, reminiscent of the Nuremberg Rally, with total disregard for the five dead whose only crime was to oppose your dictatorial rule.”

This was a clear reference to Nazi Germany. Yet, in fact, it was an example of what philosopher Leo Strauss defined as “Reductio ad Hitlerum”: condemning an opponent by falsely reducing him to yet another Hitler. It was a false analogy, because while Erdoğan deserves a lot of criticism for his growingly authoritarian style of governance, no one in his right mind can say that he has established a totalitarian and genocidal regime in Turkey. In fact, his reforms in the past decade have helped save Turkey from a much darker past.

If you think I am day-dreaming, or deviously Erdoğan-promoting, just look at what James F. Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Ankara, said recently about the Gezi Park protests:

“Despite the many valid criticisms leveled at Turkey recently, one should not forget that it is a democratic state. In fact, certain aspects of the government’s response to the unrest are hardly different from that seen in Europe and the United States. Tear gas, riot police, and water cannons are commonplace at IMF and G-8 summits, while countries like Germany have a long tradition of meeting violent demonstrations with muscular police force. Excessive crackdowns are wrong wherever they occur, but Turkey is not alone in this regard.”

If the Turkish government made a mistake that really is unmatched in the West (or, say, Brazil), it was its indulgence in conspiracy theories which misinterpreted the Gezi Park protests as a foreign plot against Turkey. Admittedly, an otherwise sensible minister also added an anti-Semitic tone to this paranoia, by blaming the “Jewish diaspora.” But, as inexcusable as this propaganda is, it is also not limited to the current government and is indeed the shallow medium of Turkish politics. Whoever gets into trouble in this county (and in fact the whole region) puts the blame on conspiratorial imperialists, as Erdoğan’s secularist opponents have done in the past decade.

That is also why critiques from the West about Erdoğan and his party will help only when they sound fair rather than hostile. The latter tone only heightens the fear that there is an international conspiracy aiming at toppling Erdoğan’s elected rule and reinstating the old Kemalist guard. As far as I can see, the open letter in The Times, also with its praise of Atatürk’s “secular” (but neither liberal nor democratic) republic, only deepened those fears. A more evenhanded criticism would probably be more helpful.