October 18, 2018 | The Brief

How Conspiracies Sustain One-Man Rule in Turkey and Beyond

By exploiting Turkey’s long-held prejudices, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is able to maintain his grip on power, argues Aykan Erdemir
October 18, 2018 | The Brief

How Conspiracies Sustain One-Man Rule in Turkey and Beyond

By exploiting Turkey’s long-held prejudices, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is able to maintain his grip on power, argues Aykan Erdemir

A Turkish court on October 12 ended the two-year imprisonment of US Pastor Andrew Brunson, in a high-profile case that triggered the worst crisis between Ankara and Washington in decades. In August, the US took the unprecedented step of sanctioning Turkey’s ministers of interior and justice, holding them responsible for prosecuting Brunson on preposterous charges of espionage, coup-plotting, and terrorism. The pastor was one of the dozens of Western nationals held hostage as bargaining chips by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Brunson’s case, however, stands out as the epitome of how Erdogan sustains his one-man rule by exploiting Turkey’s long-held prejudices to create a toxic rally-round-the-flag effect.

Among the long list of accusations Brunson has faced, is the allegation that the US pastor conspired to create a Christian-Kurdish state in Turkey. A secret witness testified that a member of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whom Brunson had regularly invited to speak at church services, was known to have cut a cake each week “with a PKK flag with a cross on [it]”. This bizarre accusation made headlines in the Turkish media and received by a public already convinced of American-cum-missionary plots to slice up Turkey.

“The alleged scheme to establish a breakaway state of Christian Kurds is, of course, preposterous”

The alleged scheme to establish a breakaway state of Christian Kurds is, of course, preposterous. Turkey’s Kurds are not just concentrated in the southeast, but dispersed throughout the country, leading to proclamations that Istanbul is now “the largest Kurdish city in the world.” Despite mass hysteria about missionary activity targeting Turkey’s Kurds, there are only a handful of Kurdish converts to Christianity. In fact, Kurds happen to be among the most zealous of the country’s Muslims. It is, therefore, no coincidence that a significant number of Kurdish voters support Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP). Furthermore, conflict between religious and secular Kurds frequently turns violent.

So, how do Turkish courts, media, and Erdogan succeed in selling such absurd conspiracy theories? More important, how is it possible that even Erdogan’s staunch opponents, ranging from the nationalist right to hardline secularists on the left, fall for the allure of such ludicrous allegations, joining the Islamist strongman’s bandwagon? The answer lies in Erdogan’s ability to tap into, and fuel, already ingrained prejudices inculcated by schools, media, and popular culture, and drilled during Friday sermons, military service, and political rallies.

At the core of Turkey’s conspiratorial historiography – which inexplicably unites feuding Islamists and secularists, Turks and Kurds, and Sunnis and Alevis – lies the peculiar belief that Western machinations, particularly those carried out by missionaries through the “fifth column” of religious minorities, brought down the Ottoman Empire. American missionaries, especially Protestants, and more specifically those who proselytized Ottoman minorities, top the list of culprits (of course alongside and often in collusion with Jews).

In the secular Republic of Turkey, whose non-Muslim population has descended over the years to less than one percent, the myths of nefarious missionary activity have been redirected towards ethnic minorities, particularly the Kurds. The case of Pastor Brunson evokes the worst of these fears. One of the secret witnesses recalled in his testimony against Brunson that 600 clergymen took part in the US invasion of Iraq and set up scores of churches in Iraqi Kurdistan, surely proving America’s intentions to build a Christian Kurdistan.

This paranoia manages to unite Turkey’s deeply polarized politics and society. In December 2001, a year before Erdogan’s AKP ascended to power, Turkey’s staunchly secular National Security Council adopted a National Security Memorandum identifying missionary activities as a national security threat. Seventeen years later, Turkey’s Islamist-rooted government has adhered to the very same conspiracies of its secular archenemies in identifying Christian missionaries as a threat.

“[P]aranoia manages to unite Turkey’s deeply polarized politics and society”

There is a danger in dismissing these clearly absurd conspiracies as resonating with only a narrow constituency, when in fact they are among the few truisms uniting Turkey’s disparate factions. Those who mean to oppose Erdogan inadvertently empower the Turkish president by buying into and reproducing these conspiratorial theories for their own political purposes. Indeed, Turkey is a place the secular founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his antithesis Erdogan alike have been accused by their respective opponents for being crypto-Jews or otherwise non-Muslim.

Such cross-cutting prejudices and conspiracy theories offer Erdogan and his like a lifeline to divert voters’ attention away from failures in domestic and foreign policies. Brunson, for example, served the convenient role of a scapegoat for over two years, as Erdogan blamed a long list of Turkey’s woes, including the abortive coup, terror attacks, and economic crisis on the pastor, and by extension, the US. During Brunson’s imprisonment, opposition politicians not only failed to advocate for Brunson, but even reproduced some of the conspiracy theories.

This, unfortunately, is not unique to Turkey. Politics in the Middle East is often rife with conspiratorial language demonizing ethnic and religious minorities and their imagined patrons in the West. Unless pro-democracy forces in Turkey and the Middle East at large can overcome longstanding prejudices and break free from bigoted thinking, they will continue to play into the hands of regimes which thrive on conspiracies.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir.