How a German comedian saved the Turkish president

Far from making Recep Tayyip Erdogan look bad, the Turkish president has used this incident as a way to outmaneuver Europe, writes Alexander Christie-Miller

Illustration by Pep Montserrat for The National
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These days, it’s not often you see Turkey’s main opposition party rush to the defence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but that’s what happened this week amid the furore caused by a scandalous poem about the Turkish president.

“No one can insult our statesmen, on this we’re of one opinion,” said Republican People’s Party (CHP) deputy head Erdal Aksünger at a press conference on Monday. “At the end of the day, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the president of this country, just as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was the president of this country.”

The rare show of solidarity was prompted by Jan Böhmermann, a German comedian who had used his television show on the country’s ZDF channel to test the limits of free speech by reciting verses in which he made a lewd attack on the Turkish president.

While the poem itself generated outrage in Turkey, it was what happened next that seized headlines in Europe: Ankara demanded Böhmermann be prosecuted under a dusty old German law that criminalises insults against foreign leaders.

Chancellor Angela Merkel, who arrives in Turkey today in an effort to bolster the refugee deal struck between Ankara and Brussels last month, decided to greenlight criminal proceedings against the comic, while adding that her government would repeal the statute on lèse-majesté at the earliest opportunity.

The saga has already made Mr Erdogan the target of more jibes at the hands of Europe’s media. Britain’s Spectator magazine has launched a contest for the most obscene limerick about the Turkish president. At first glance, this looks like yet another example of the thin-skinned, pugnacious leader trying to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on the flames.

Viewed from Turkey, however, the German comedian’s poem didn’t set up Mr Erdogan for an own goal so much as leave him with an open one.

Turkey’s mainstream, government-friendly media has had a field day. On current affairs chat show Serbestiyet on Sunday host Zeynep Türkoglu and academic Halil Berktay ruminated at length on the poem.

“This would never have been written about any German citizen, any German politician, any European or American politician,” fumed Mr Berktay. “There is awful racism in this.”

Regardless of how Mrs Merkel had handled the furore, it would always have reinforced Mr Erdogan’s favourite narrative about Europe: that the continent is anti-Turkish and that its sermons on human rights and free speech are hypocritical and insincere.

Had she blocked prosecution, she would have been seen to endorse what is being portrayed in Turkey as racially-infused hate speech. On the other hand, by allowing criminal charges to be brought she has provided a dubious vindication of Mr Erdogan’s extensive crackdown on “insulting” language in his own country.

While lèse-majesté laws protecting the president have long existed in Turkey, rarely have they been as aggressively applied as today. During his predecessor Abdullah Gül’s seven-year presidency, 545 people were prosecuted for the crime of insulting the head of state, eight of which led to arrests or pretrial detention.

In the first 19 months of Mr Erdogan’s tenure, however, 1,845 prosecutions were launched, with around 250 leading to arrests. Those targeted have included journalists, academics, a former Miss Turkey, a 14-year-old boy who spent a night in prison over a Facebook post, and most recently, a man who was reported to have drunkenly called the emergency services to vent his wrath at the president.

These cases are part of a broader crackdown on press freedom that has recently included the court-backed seizure of two opposition media groups, a clutch of government-critical television channels being forced off air, and the editor-in-chief of one of the country’s leading opposition newspapers facing possible life imprisonment on treason charges.

By pushing the free speech envelope to a place that is controversial even in comparatively liberal Germany, Böhmermann has allowed Mr Erdogan’s allies to shift the debate in Turkey (at least temporarily) to a place where even his critics have felt bound to side with him.

Perhaps more importantly, using this opportunity to hector Germany into applying its own lèse-majesté law has allowed Ankara to reinforce its claim that it has nothing left to learn from Europe in the field of free speech and human rights.

In this regard, the saga sheds light on a puzzling aspect of the Turkey-EU refugee deal: Ankara’s insistence that the revitalisation of membership talks be included as part of the package. Since no one seriously believes any more that Ankara, Brussels or any European government actually wants Turkey to join, why put it on the table?

The answer may be that it allows Mr Erdogan to furnish evidence for his long-standing suspicion – shared by many Turks – that membership of the European club is less about human rights principles or democratic standards than about power.

It also helps formalise the Turkey-EU relationship’s shift onto a more transactional footing, while maintaining the threadbare but still useful fiction that the country is slowly harmonising its laws and political culture with that of Europe.

The big loser in the saga is Angela Merkel. In an opinion poll published in Die Welt, 80 per cent of Germans surveyed opposed the investigation into Böhmermann. Her decision to green-light it can only be explained by her desire not to anger Mr Erdogan in the context of the refugee crisis, and it has fuelled accusations that she is “selling out” Europe’s values by pandering to Turkey’s authoritarian leader.

That Ms Merkel would consider the refugee pact so sensitive that a comedian’s smutty poem could upend it is perhaps a suggestion of just how fragile it really is.

Regardless of Ms Merkel’s accommodation of Mr Erdogan, the deal is likely doomed. Turkish prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu warned this week that Turkey would drop its side of the bargain if the EU failed to grant visa-free travel to its citizens by June, a pledge that is unlikely to be delivered given opposition in Europe’s national parliaments.

The other big loser is Erdogan’s – and by extension Turkey’s – reputation in Europe. Just as the Böhmermann case helps reinforce Turks’ negative caricature of the continent, so Ankara’s handling of it reinforces the hostility to Turkey within Europe, where racist aversion to “the Turk” has rarely been far from the surface.

Given the worrying trend towards xenophobic demagoguery in Europe, Mr Erdogan may in time find himself facing European leaders who are less accommodating than Mrs Merkel and more prone to populist showboating in their dealings with Turkey. In short, he may end up facing someone more like himself.

That would be bad news for Turkey, the EU and the millions of refugees whose fate is being decided by their cooperation.

Alexander Christie-Miller is a writer and freelance journalist who has been reporting from Istanbul since 2010

On Twitter: @AChristieMiller