Respect cannot be earned with a stick

Respect cannot be earned with a stick

The arrest of a 16-year-old teenager for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan makes one wonder if those who are trying to protect Erdoğan in this way are aware of the damage they are actually doing to his image and to Turkey’s reputation.

The young boy, known only by his initials of M.E.A., was arrested for a speech he delivered during a ceremony in Konya organized by a group of secularist youth. The ceremony was commemorating the memory of Mustafa Fehmi Kübilay, a 24-year-old lieutenant who was killed and beheaded on Dec. 23, 1930, by a crowd of rabid religious fundamentalists in the town of Menemen.

The boy’s remark about corruption in Turkey today, and reference to Erdoğan in this context, was deemed by a local judge to be sufficient reason to have him put in prison. Needless to say, the judge got support for his action from the highest echelons of the government. Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu defended the arrest, arguing that respect has to be shown to the president by everyone, no matter who they are.

The chances are that if the boy had been ignored by the authorities, his speech would have gone uncovered, expect perhaps by the local press. His arrest, however, made him an overnight hero for Turks opposed to Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP). It also put Turkey in the international limelight again and bolstered the country’s image as an increasingly intolerant and anti-democratic country under Erdoğan and the AKP.

The story even got coverage in the Jamaica Observer thousands of miles away. Accusations about the state of free speech, freedom of the press, and the independence of the judiciary in Turkey were revived once again with Erdoğan being likened to Vladimir Putin or Alexander Lukashenko.

AKP circles were also quick to drag out hackneyed allegations about an international conspiracy which they claim is out to blacken Turkey’s good name. The pressure resulting from the negative light the incident shed on Turkey was, nevertheless, too much for the authorities and M.E.A was released after spending two days in prison, although he still faces a trial.

Erdoğan is clearly the most controversial president Turkey has ever had. On the one hand, there are those who adore him with a religious fervor which amounts to worshiping him. The number of those who feel this way is not negligible, given the 52 percent of the votes Erdoğan received in August presidential elections.

On the other hands, there are those who dislike him with, to put it mildly, a similarly religious fervor, and the number of those who think like this is not negligible either, given the nearly 50 percent that did not vote for him. Erdoğan, who as president is meant to be above politics and represent the nation as a whole, has done little to bridge the gap between those who like him and those that don’t.

To the contrary, he insists on demonstrating that he is not the president of the republic but only of those who voted for him. He has no sympathy for the rest. He is, however, at the beginning of his tenure and has to be prepared for much more criticism and vilification from quarters that are opposed to his political plans for Turkey.

This is normal in a democracy whether he and his supporters like it or not. In the meantime, it is clear that his international reputation is not going to get any better under these conditions. Ironically, he has less support in the world today than Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who he is trying desperately, albeit futilely, to see delegitimized internationally.

Those who bring out a stick in an effort to protect Erdoğan’s reputation, on the other hand, are obviously unaware that they are doing just the opposite. They have to learn that only fear and revulsion comes with a stick, not respect. As for sending a 16-year-old kid to prison for a political statement, that is simply Dickensian in this day and age for a country that claims to be a democracy.