One of the difficulties of writing about Turkey for a foreign audience is figuring out a way to explain the country’s inherent political weirdness. Try succinctly describing the role of the powerful Islamic Gulen movement, which has no official leadership inside Turkey and whose spiritual leader actually lives in the Poconos, or easily illuminating the Baroque ins-and-outs of Ergenekon, Sledgehammer and other intriguingly-named coup plot cases working their way through the Turkish courts.
This was the challenge facing Washington, DC-based Turkey analyst Omer Taspinar when he made an appearance on the Colbert Report the other night. As Taspinar was trying to describe to his host why the Prime Minister of a country of 72 million would be involved in deciding where a mall would be built in Istanbul – something most Turks have by now come to take for granted – Colbert interrupted him. “That would be like Barack Obama saying, ‘We need a left turn lane past the Arby’s on Maple Street. Why is he micromanaging like this?’” Colbert said, as the audience laughed loudly.
The unhinged part of Turkish politics, something that up to now was really only consumed domestically, had suddenly gone global. For the image-makers at the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and PM Erdogan, Turkey’s debut on the Colbert Report should be seen as a very dangerous moment. Previously, the fact that some of the most disturbing things about what was going on in the country were also some of the most difficult to explain abroad worked to the government’s advantage, allowing it to mostly control the narrative about the “new Turkey” that was emerging, one free of the ills of the past.
In the wake of the violent crackdown on the protests in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, though, that narrative started quickly crumbling, with Erdogan and his dutiful ministers doing all the work to make that happen by issuing a string of increasingly incredulous (to foreign ears, that is) statements. For Turks, hearing Erdogan talk about an “interest rate lobby” that was out to destroy Turkey or hearing other officials – most shockingly (again, to an international audience) the foreign minister and finance minister, a former Merrill Lynch economist in London – refer to dark foreign plots to topple the country (or keep it from being able to build its own spaceship, as one minister claimed) was nothing new. But this kind of language had never gotten the sort of wide international exposure it was suddenly getting. As one analyst at an event I went to in Washington yesterday said, “I think this is revealing some odd elements in the world view of the prime minister.” You can say that again.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s state run press agency, Anadolu, was busy running articles that would have made Soviet-era Pravda proud. At one point during the crackdown in Taksim, Anadolu launched a social media campaign that asked Turks to add the clunky "YouCANTstopTurkishSuccess" hashtag to their Tweets. The agency later proudly reported on its recently revamped English-language site that even some ministers had joined in the campaign! In another article, the increasingly clueless news outlet proudly showed a picture of a young man holding a swastika sign at a small pro-government and anti-foreign media protest in front of the BBC’s Istanbul office. The foreign media out to tarnish Turkey’s image? Try the house organ.
Erdogan has lost a lot after the events of the last almost two weeks. On the domestic front, he may yet find a way out of the current mess and even further consolidate his power if he plays his cards right. Internationally, though, Erdogan and his party are now faced with the almost impossible task of salvaging reputation that has been completely undermined by their own words and actions. Perhaps an Erdogan appearance on Colbert is in order?