The King of the Arab Street vs. the Pope

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is playing politics with the centennial of the Armenian genocide.

Pope Francis (R) is welcomed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) as he arrives for a meeting at the presidential palace in Ankara as part of a three day visit in Turkey on November 28, 2014. Pope Francis begins his first visit to Turkey today in a challenging trip aimed at building bridges with Islam and supporting the embattled Christian minorities of the Middle East. The pope will spend the first of three days in Turkey in the capital Ankara, notably holding a meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his newly-constructed and hugely controversial presidential palace. AFP PHOTO / FILIPPO MONTEFORTE (Photo credit should read FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images)

As the world commemorates the centennial of the Armenian genocide this week, Turkey’s government once again finds itself fighting an old, losing battle. According to Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, the recent spate of calls to recognize the genocide is the work of an “evil gang” bent on slandering the country’s honor.

The old members of this gang are well known to Turkey-watchers. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its supporters routinely refer to them as Islamophobes, the “interest rate lobby,” and “provocateurs” — in other words, anyone who might raise a critical question about Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now, Turkish leaders have added a new name to the list: Welcome to the haters’ party, Pope Francis.

Last week, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics described the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as “the first genocide of the 20th century.” The Turkish leadership went into a collective frenzy of denunciations: Ankara recalled its representative to the Holy See and demanded an explanation from the Vatican’s ambassador in Turkey.

Erdogan led the charge, lashing out at the pontiff as if he was a cheap pol. “We will not allow historical incidents to be taken out of their genuine context and be used as a tool to campaign against our country,” Erdogan said. “When politicians and clerics take on the work of historians, it is not the truth that comes out but rather, like today, nonsense. I condemn the pope and would like to warn him not to make similar mistakes again.”

Such comments are politically helpful to Erdogan and the AKP six weeks ahead of general elections. Steeped in a profound sense of mistrust of foreigners dating back to the end of World War I and the Greek-French-Italian effort to divide Anatolia, the Turkish electorate tends to respond well to uncompromising nationalism. Still, Erdogan’s reaction goes deeper than mere politicking: It reflects a leader whose sense of self-importance is matched only by his willingness to lash out and demean critics, and reinforces the fact that — almost a decade after receiving an invitation to join the European Union — Turkey looks less like a European democracy and more like a one-man Middle Eastern autocracy.

There was a time, not very long ago, when Erdogan seemed to be the first Turkish leader willing to grapple with the Armenian genocide. In 2014, he actually apologized for the deaths of Armenians, while stopping short of recognizing the genocide. And while critics have charged that the Turkish government’s consistent call for a “joint historical commission” to study the issue is little more than an artful dodge, it is not as disingenuous as it seems.

Under the AKP, there had also been a slow and cautious effort among some Turks to come to terms with the genocide. The government did not sponsor these low-key discussions, but it also did not interfere in them. It is true that Erdogan nixed the 2009 opening to Armenia that then-President Abdullah Gul engineered, but blocking the Ankara-Yerevan reconciliation had more to do with geopolitics than anything else.

This tentative willingness to broach the hard issues of the past, however, has disappeared. The reason is the high-stakes June election: Erdogan does not want to concede any ground to the rightist Nationalist Movement Party — with which the AKP shares a constituency. He hopes that voters will return enough of an AKP majority to the National Assembly for him to engineer a new constitution that will transform Turkey into a presidential system without having to resort to a national referendum. Such a system would concentrate all executive powers with the presidency — in other words, in Erdogan’s hands. In such a context, the Armenian genocide is likely too hot an issue to handle.

A presidential system, however, will only reinforce Erdogan’s egotism. Over the last few years, it has become clear that the Turkish leader believes that only he understands Turkish politics, that only he understands the economy, and that only he knows what is best for Turkey. Most importantly, Turkey’s president regards himself as a one-man vanguard of moralism and Muslim values. That’s why he has lectured Turkish parents about the evils of co-ed dormitories at universities, regularly weighed in on the role of women (spoiler: his views are not exactly progressive), and caused an uproar over reproductive rights.

Erdogan’s moral hectoring is not all bad. His deep sense of Muslim solidarity has led Turkey to undertake relief work in Somalia at a time when other countries wrote the country off. He has been consistent in his outrage over the humanitarian situation in Syria and has repeatedly slammed the Israelis for their excesses in the Gaza Strip. A skeptic may say that shaking one’s fist in anger at Israel is simply good politics for a man whose followers believe him to be the “King of the Arab Street,” but Ankara’s care for nearly 1.8 million Syrian refugees on Turkish soil should also shame other countries for not doing their share.

Still, Turkey’s president is inconsistent in how he directs his moral outrage. It was Erdogan who, in 2009, defended Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir, claiming there could be no genocide in Darfur because Muslims do not engage in genocide. His approach to Syria, which has seen foreign fighters use Turkey as a rear base, has certainly contributed to the cataclysmic humanitarian disaster there, and his position on the Gaza Strip is little more than grandstanding. Meanwhile, at home he has jailed journalists, periodically imposed restrictions on social media, and unleashed a brutal police force on his opponents.

None of these shortcomings register with Erdogan’s constituency, however, which accepts the idea that the president is doing battle against a “parallel state” intent on undermining Turkey’s prosperity and prestige. These nefarious forces include international bankers, Zionists, the CIA, followers of ally-turned-enemy Fethullah Gulen — and now Pope Francis.

Erdogan’s inability to brook criticism, his lashing out at opponents — real or imagined — and his seemingly permanent state of righteous indignation are part and parcel of his accumulation of power. Surrounded as he is by people who fear him and others who enable his paranoia, his outbursts like the one aimed at Pope Francis are commonplace. Rather than come to terms with the dark history of the genocide and actually lead, he and the rest of Turkey’s political class have chosen to lash out. With each shrill response, Erdogan further diminishes himself and Turkey.


Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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