Who’s Afraid of President Erdogan?

Last month, Turkey held both Presidential and parliamentary elections. They were – according to Al-Jazeera – the 14th elections that the incumbent President Erdogan has taken part in and “he has won them all”. It is a truly remarkable record. In a region where many leaders rule based on the principles of a police state and refuse to submit themselves to a free vote amongst their people, Erdogan’s record becomes even more impressive.

And yet…if we read much of the Western coverage of the elections we were provided with a somewhat different picture. We know that much of the UK press is quite bigoted in its coverage of Muslim affairs. A few years ago, I wrote about how the Daily Telegraph had to publicly apologise to President Erdogan after it published an entirely baseless story alleging that  Erdogan had accepted $25 million from the Iranian government for his AK Party. Interestingly, Erdogan had received quite a bit of favourable coverage in the West soon after he and his AK Party came to power in 2002. This changed some years later – particularly after Erdogan publicly scolded the former Israeli premier, Shimon Peres, at Davos for his defence of Israel’s genocidal behaviour in Gaza. You can watch the video here.

But what about the Guardian? The Guardian is generally held by many Muslims to be rather more balanced in its coverage of the Muslim world. In the run up to the elections, the Guardian printed two articles by its foreign affairs columnist and assistant editor, Simon Tisdall. You can get a flavour of their contents by looking at how they were headlined: “Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: a dictator in all but name seeks complete control” and “Bully-boy Erdoğan is a threat to Turkey – and the world“.

Tisdall warned that “If he gets his way in Sunday’s polls, Erdoğan, a dictator in all but name, is likely to foment further instability in Syria and throughout the Middle East region.” Readers might raise their eyebrows that a journalist from the UK – a country which played such a key role in the illegal war against Iraq in 2003 which caused so much blood to be spilt and fomented no end of “instability” in the region in the years since – is not showing a bit more humility and a sense of introspection, but let’s carry on.

Tisdall then goes on to alert his readers about the following bit of crucial regional intelligence: “Prince Salman, the Saudi crown prince, says Turkey is part of a “triangle of evil” that includes Iran and Islamic extremists.” Yes, Prince Salman, that well known democrat belonging to the enlightened hand and head-chopping Saudi Royal family that is so well known for winning how many elections exactly? One wonders why on earth Tisdall thinks his readers would regard the words of the Prince as counting for anything. He then ended his column, just in case any readers had not got the message, by writing “Turkey’s voters have a duty to the world, not just to themselves. Kick him out.”

Alas, the people of Turkey voted rather differently.

It is right to carefully scrutinise those who hold executive power. Far too few Muslim leaders and their policies are subject to proper criticism in their countries. In many Muslim countries – including Turkey sadly –  insulting the leader is deemed to be a criminal offence. That is appalling. There desperately needs to be more freedom allowed in Muslim countries. It will be interesting to see how Turkey fares in this regard in the coming months and years. Will Turkey opt for strengthening the institutions of democracy and civil society or will it follow the sorry example of the Middle Eastern regimes? Time will tell.

Yet, behind much of the Western criticism of Turkey, one can’t help but sense that perhaps rather different agendas are at work. Just after President Erdogan’s victory in the elections, the US member of the House of Representatives, Adam Schiff, issued a tweet deriding Erdogan for  winning by “decimating the opposition through arrests, violence and squashing freedom of the press.” The same Schiff had earlier in June issued a press statement defending Israel after it killed over 60 unarmed Palestinians in cold blood. He said: “These terrorist attacks are outrageous and unacceptable, and Israel appropriately defended itself with airstrikes against militant targets in Gaza. I support Israel’s absolute right to self-defense, and condemn these terrorist attacks by Hamas.” Yes, Schiff’s response to the murder of 60 Palestinians and the deaths of, erm, no Israelis, was to condemn Hamas. That’s right – defend the strong occupying power and condemn the occupied.

Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s senior adviser, immediately fired back with this message telling Schiff “You need to shut up.”

Can you imagine a senior advisor to any of the Gulf states having the courage to respond like that to a US politician? And perhaps therein lies part of the reason of why President Erdogan and his AK Party continue to be so popular, not just in Turkey, but in much of the Muslim world.

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