April 20, 2015

Real motives behind pope bashing in Turkey

Abdullah Bozkurt

The fingerprints of a vitriolic and hateful narrative increasingly being adopted by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the firebrand political Islamist, and his brethren in the government are all over the strong reaction Turkey has displayed against Pope Francis, who described the 1915 mass killings of Armenians as the first genocide of the 20th century.

Instead of toning down the rhetoric and setting the record straight with a well-articulated response over what happened in World War I, Islamists in the government deliberately chose to go overboard, risking an unnecessary confrontation with a leader who represents the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics. Let's refresh our memory. The pope had already invoked the G-word before, which did not elicit such an angry response from Turkey. Perhaps this time the description went beyond the pope's personal feelings on the 1915 events and has become an official line of the Vatican. That still does not explain the vulgarity used in the official Turkish statements and remarks.

My sense is that the strong reaction is mostly related to the growing anti-Christian sentiment among political Islamists in Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) that is bent on inflaming religious fervor to consolidate conservative votes and mobilize core supporters ahead of the elections. This also fits perfectly into the pattern of stigmatizing behavior the AKP government has been displaying towards Christians, Jews and moderate Muslim communities in the country over the last few years.

When Erdoğan set the bar very high on belligerent posturing in responding to the pope, all others in the government fell in line, including EU Affairs Minister Volkan Bozkır, who is a former ambassador and should know better. In fact, the minister, in a bid to impress his political master, went too far by bringing up the nationality of Pope Francis and accusing the government of Argentina of welcoming the “leading executors of the Jewish Holocaust, Nazi torturers, with open arms” in the past. As if that were not enough to stir up a diplomatic crisis with Argentina that is totally uncalled for, he went on to add that the Argentineans had been brainwashed by powerful Armenians in their midst.

Erdoğan's own media ramped up the rhetoric with more derogatory and name-calling reports, with some even fabricating stories to pump up anti-pope and anti-Christian sentiment. The lead columnist for the Sabah daily, which is controlled by Erdoğan's family, claimed the Vatican may have received $25 billion -- two-and-a-half times Armenia's gross domestic product (GDP) -- from the Armenian diaspora living in the US in exchange for Pope Francis' description of the mass killings of Armenians under Ottoman rule at the end of World War I as “genocide.” He did not provide any proof for that claim. The Sabah daily is a notorious publication that often prints fabricated stories in order to support Erdoğan and vilify his opponents and critics. In all government-controlled or supported media outlets, anti-Christian messages with numerous biased stories were widely reported even before the pope uttered the G-word, proving that the campaign has little to do with Armenia.

Erdoğan's caretaker prime minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, did not miss the recently hyped euphoria of the pope-bashing that is mostly catering to the domestic political audience. In an unusual rebuke, Davutoğlu accused the pontiff of joining “plots” against his government and Turkey. “An axis of evil is being created against us. An axis whose entire motivation is to hinder the AKP is being formed,” the prime minister said. It is clear that the ruling AKP went to the extreme to scrape up votes in order to compensate for its losses in the mainstream. While doing so, however, the rulers of the nation are behaving like irresponsible fringe politicians. Perhaps that is what they are, and they simply were able to hide their true colors.

For one, these lines of strong narrative by Turkey's Islamist rulers not only defeat the very purpose of neutralizing the pope's genocide claims but also help amplify the pope's message further. It is completely counterproductive. It also risks a backlash from Catholic-majority countries, especially in Latin America where Turkey was hoping to cultivate stronger ties in the last decade. It clearly irritated Turkey's traditional allies in southern Europe like Italy, Spain and Portugal as well as others in Central and Eastern Europe.

This controversy exposed the real face of political Islamists in Turkey, which are nothing but a fanatic bunch of religious zealots. They use and abuse religion simply to advance their political goals while lining their pockets in the meantime. They do not believe in diversity, pluralism, religious freedom or tolerance among faiths. They deliberately unleashed anti-Christian and anti-Jewish sentiments that were lurking in the shadows in order to boost their popularity after the Islamist government was terribly shaken by corruption investigations that went public in December 2013 and incriminated Erdoğan and his family members.

The hateful narrative is not just limited to non-Muslims. Erdoğan targeted Fethullah Gülen, a prominent Turkish Islamic scholar who is an ardent supporter and lifetime advocate of intercultural and interfaith dialogue. Gülen, who was recently awarded the 2015 Gandhi King Ikeda Peace Award in recognition of his “life-long dedication to promoting peace and human rights” at Atlanta's Morehouse College, Martin Luther King, Jr.'s alma mater, is on the receiving end of a vitriolic hateful campaign by Erdoğan and other Islamists in his homeland. While he was recognized abroad with a distinguished award that was given before to Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and Rosa Parks, Gülen was vilified by Erdoğan.

The motive behind the attacks on Gülen lies in Erdoğan's calculated game to set this well-respected and aging Muslim scholar up as a scapegoat to shift the blame and divert public focus away from the legal troubles the president and his Islamist associates have found themselves in. Gülen's critical stand against corruption and his refusal to be cowed into silence against the dangers of polarization in Turkey prompted Erdoğan to openly take a hostile position against the Hizmet movement, inspired by Gülen.

In public rallies leading up to the municipal and presidential elections in 2014, Erdoğan slammed Gülen for having met with Pope John Paul II in 1998 and called Gülen a "false prophet,” a "traitor," a "virus" and "hashashin" -- a member of a medieval group that spread political influence through assassinations -- among other slanderous terms. Pope John Paul II, who had spent considerable effort in promoting dialogue and understanding among religions, was also vilified in the pro-Erdoğan media.

What is more, with a series of anti-democratic bills Erdoğan had pushed through from the rubberstamping Parliament, he reined in the independent judiciary and helped murderers of Christians go scot-free. Not only has the AKP government allowed violence against Christians by not prosecuting the real perpetrators behind the murders, they have also rewarded officials who were negligent in these murder plots, creating a pervasive feeling of impunity among government employees.

For example, only the hired killer identified as Yasin Hayal in the murder of Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink in 2007 was caught, though the people who masterminded this hit could not be found. The government promoted Engin Dinç, who headed the intelligence unit in Trabzon from where the hitman was dispatched, to a senior position as the chief of the National Police Department's intelligence unit. Dinç had never presented intelligence reports that warned that a possible attack by Hayal would target Dink. In the meantime, the law enforcement officials who investigated the real killers were made into scapegoats and unjustly jailed.

Three Christians, including German national Tilmann Ekkehart Geske, who operated the Zirve Publishing House, which prints Bibles and other Christian literature in the southeastern city of Malatya, were brutally murdered in 2007. All the suspects except for one were released pending trial in 2014 after the prosecutors and judges involved in the case were abruptly removed by government-controlled judicial council the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK). Catholic Priest Andrea Santoro, who served at the Santa Maria Church in Trabzon, was killed by a gunshot on Feb. 5, 2006. At the time, 16-year-old suspect Oguzhan Akdin was captured and received an 18-year prison sentence. As in the Dink case, the real perpetrators were never found.

Shamefully, the Friday sermons drafted by the government's top religious body, the Religious Affairs Directorate, have also been used to disseminate this hate speech through an official network that controls 150,000 staff in more than 80,000 mosques across the country. Political Islamists also used the vast public educational system to preach their exclusionary ideological narrative at the expense of moderate Muslims and non-Muslim communities. Calls for reform in education to combat anti-Christian sentiment fell on deaf ears.

Moreover, Ankara's overreaction to the Vatican for mostly domestic political concerns has put another dent into Turkey's already troubled ties with the European Union, whose parliament also approved a resolution calling on Turkey to recognize the Armenian genocide. Just like in the Vatican case, Turkey's Islamists also rushed to portray the EU as Christian in order to save themselves from an embarrassing diplomatic failure that came on the heels of increasingly isolated and insulated Turkey. The misleading image that the West in general and the EU in particular is a cluster of nations that are all Christian has been deliberately fed to the conservative base by Islamists and their cronies. That campaign prompted Erdoğan to say time and again that Turkey no longer cares about the EU. That is hardly surprising. In a videotaped address dated March 1990 and available on YouTube, Erdoğan was heard slamming the EU and describing it as a “community of Christian Catholic countries.”

Behind all these efforts lies the worry that Islamists are slowly but surely losing their grip on power. Erdoğan, Davutoğlu and others in the government are very much concerned that they will be held accountable for what they have inflicted on this nation with their shortsighted and ideologically motivated policies. In order to sustain their rule, Islamists believe the nation must be deeply polarized along religious and sectarian lines, and that is what they have been doing in the last few years.

The conclusion is that political Islamists cannot heed the concerns of many in Turkey who call for common sense and wisdom. They also do not pay attention to what the EU, the Council of Europe or NATO, for that matter, say or advise. That is because Islamist Erdoğan needs the iron grip on power without much accountability while his associates in government have been brutally cracking down on the rule of law, rights and freedoms. In other words, they are in panic mode and have lost the ability to listen to the reasonable voices that are being offered from within Turkey and abroad.

Published on Today's Zaman, 20 April 2015, Monday