President Erdoğan and the French riot police
Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan made a smart and sarcastic comment the other day on the ongoing clashes in France between political protesters and the police. “I am concerned and worried about the incidents happening in Paris right now,” he said. “I condemn the violence of the French police against people who use their right to protest.”
Why was there sarcasm here? Because Erdoğan was alluding to the criticism his own police received from Western governments, especially during the Gezi Park protests of June 2013. Back then, Turkish police were also accused of using disproportionate violence against political protesters and Europeans often voiced their “concerns.”
Naturally, Erdoğan’s supporters loved this sarcastic turnaround. It also further convinced them that all Western criticism of their “New Turkey” is unabashedly hypocritical. The only real problem with the “New Turkey,” they once again concluded, is that it does not bow down to the evil schemes of the imperialists.
What to say about all this? Well, admittedly, Erdoğan indeed had point when he referred to police heavy-handedness in France: This is a matter not just in Turkey, but also in most liberal democracies. American police can also be brutal and cruel, as we have seen in various episodes that sparked the “Black Lives Matter” campaign. European police can be nasty as well, as we have seen in recent beatings in France.
Indeed, I pointed to this fact in this very column almost three years ago, in a piece dated July 27, 2013, quoting former U.S. ambassador to Ankara James F. Jeffrey. He had rightly written then: “In fact, certain aspects of the [Turkish] 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.”
In the same piece, however, I also noted: “If the Turkish government made a mistake that really is unmatched in the West (or, say, Brazil), it was its indulgence in conspiracy theories that misinterpreted the Gezi Park protests as a foreign plot against Turkey.”
This idea of a “foreign plot” was no simple matter. Since the Gezi Park protests, it has become the dominant theme in official and semi-official (“media”) propaganda. This narrative demonizes not just street protesters, but also anyone who dares to defy the increasingly intimidating rule of Erdoğan. Alas, even former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was recently accused by hardcore Erdoğanists of being the latest collaborator of the “Western conspiracy” against the president.
So if there is something that makes the current regime in Turkey categorically different from the liberal democracies of the world, it is not police brutality, which indeed happens virtually everywhere. Rather, it is the depiction of all opposition forces in society as the pawns of a nefarious international conspiracy against the nation. As a result, “the nation” is reduced to the supporters of the great leader, while his opponents become the “enemy within.”
This propaganda does not just remain propaganda. It has real consequences. Companies that are defined as part of the “enemy within” can face unexpected challenges, such as extra-motivated tax inspectors at their door. The newspapers that are also defined as the “enemy within” can be confiscated. What’s more, from the bureaucracy to the universities, “patriots” can be promoted at the expense of the “traitors,” the latter being simply citizens with the “wrong” ideology.
So I would humbly call on President Erdoğan and his advisors to look not just at how the French police act, but also how the French president speaks. In the face of all the anger, Hollande has simply defended his reform package, only adding: “This is not the time to put the French economy in difficulty.” Unless I have missed it, he has not condemned the “traitors” within the nation or vowed to teach them a heavy lesson.