Erdoğan Running Amok: Turkey and the Politics of Polarization

03/19/2014 02:58 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2014

Tens of thousands took to the streets across Turkey on Tuesday, 11 March, following the death of the 15 year old Berkin Elvan who had been in a coma for 269 days after being hit by a gas canister during the Gezi protests in June. "You slept, but you woke us up" chanted the angry crowds, pointing their fingers to the embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan whom they indirectly held responsible for Berkin's death, the eighth victim of the massive protests that shook the country once hailed as a "model" for the Middle East. The peaceful funeral turned into a violent clash between the mourners and the riot police when the latter attacked with water cannons and pepper gas, claiming two more lives, that of Burak Can Karamanoğlu, 22, murdered in a street battle between rival groups (the radical left DHKP-C issued a statement later that day, owning up to the attack) and a police officer Ahmet Küçüktağ, 30, who had a heart attack after being exposed to heavy tear gas, the staple of Turkish riot police.

From the Politics of Polarization...

Meanwhile, Erdoğan was addressing his supporters in Siirt as part of his campaign for the local elections that will be held on 30 March, calling the protestors "marginal left groups, anarchists, terrorists, vandals who are bent on creating chaos in the streets with the help of CHP, MHP, BDP (the opposition parties) and Pennsylvania," referring by the latter to the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen with whom he has been embroiled in a bitter feud since 17 December, when prosecutors with alleged ties to Gülen have brought charges of corruption to a number of prominent members of Erdoğan's cabinet and their families, as well as Erdoğan's son, Bilal Erdoğan.

The corruption charges were nothing more that the "coming out" of tensions simmering between the two erstwhile allies, who had been on a collision course since 7 February 2012 (some commentator would say even before) when the Head of the Turkish Intelligence Agency, MIT, Hakan Fidan was called to testify before the judiciary on his role in the peace talks between the state the Kurdish PKK that were held in Oslo in 2009. Erdoğan's response to the charges was swift and decisive, yet hardly democratic however you define that term. In the course of two months, thousands of police officers and prosecutors, judges with - again alleged - ties to Gülen community have been displaced; a new bill which brings the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors under the control of the Minister of Justice, hence effectively dissolving the formal separation between the executive and judicial branches of government, has been passed by the parliament; yet another bill introducing strict controls on internet use has been put into force; and all attempts to protest against these moves have been brutally suppressed by the riot police. The Gülen community retaliated by releasing audio recordings of Erdoğan's and his family members' phone conversations with various businesspeople, media barons, with the aim of proving his involvement in graft, cronyism, bribery, attempts to control media and interventions in the judicial process.

Interestingly enough, Erdoğan, while vehemently denying some of these charges, in particular those that involve his son, accepted the veracity of some of these recordings, choosing to demonize the Gülen community for illegally tapping into personal conversations - a method he did not hesitate to use against his own rivals, notably the military, for several years. He also stepped up his polarizing rhetoric, diverting focus towards external targets, the US, the EU and of course Israel, various lobbies, and their internal collaborators, first and foremost a vaguely defined "parallel structure" by which he meant the Gülen community and its followers who, he alleged, had infiltrated into all sectors of the state, and to a lesser extent the Gezicis (those who have supported or been involved in the Gezi protests) which include, literally, all those who criticize the AKP and Erdoğan's authoritarian bent.

To Hate Speech?

Erdoğan's penchant for polarization has been taken to a whole new level on Friday, 14 March, shortly after Berkin Elvan's funeral. Enraged by protestors and Berkin's grieving mother who called him a "murderer," Erdoğan growled in another campaign meeting in Gaziantep: "There was a funeral in Istanbul. Unfortunately, a kid who has been assimilated by terrorist groups, a kid with a scarf on his face, a slingshot in his hands and steel marbles in his pocket, had been exposed to pepper gas. How would the police know how old a person who throws steel marbles at them is? But Kılıçdaroğlu (the leader of the opposition party, CHP) lies as always and says 'a boy who was out to buy bread'. Be honest! What bread? What does bread have to do with it?"

He went on: "DHKP-C martyred our son Burak in the middle of the night. Burak Can did not have a slingshot or weapon in his hands. He was simply in front of his house, that poor boy, and they martyred him ... They (the opposition) are cooperating with them. Those who have martyred our son Burak are the illegal executioners of Kılıçdaroğlu."

It was not only that Erdoğan was distorting the facts, possibly to manipulate the masses. After all, there is no evidence linking Berkin to a "terrorist" organization, and the circumstances surrounding Burak's murder are yet to be clarified. Still, how could a Prime Minister justify the death of a 15 year old at the hands of the police on the grounds that he is a "terrorist," morally distinguishing it from the death of another youngster whom he calls a "martyr"? Could this be considered as yet another manifestation of Erdoğan's strategic use of the politics of polarization to garner more votes in the forthcoming elections? Or is this an example of the nebulous category we call "hate speech"?

It is true that there is no universally agreed definition of what constitutes hate speech; yet I would argue that Erdoğan's statements border on this category, if for example we stick to Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Turkey is a signatory. The ICCPR states that "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law." The fact that Berkin Elvan was an Alevi (like most other victims of Gezi events and Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the CHP the Prime Minister targets) and that Burak Can was killed by an illegal group which purports to protect the Alevi neighbourhood where he was shot could just be a coincidence, one might retort, adding that AKP's general anti-Alevi rhetoric and policies (e.g. excluding the granting of legal status to Cemevis, the Alevi prayer houses from recent democratization packages or the decision to name the third bridge to be built over the Bosphorus after Sultan Selim I, or Selim the Grim, who has been held responsible of the massacre of thousands of Alevis in 1514) are irrelevant in this context.

Yet any citizen of the Turkish Republic with the slightest knowledge of the recent past knows what those words mean for or how they could be interpreted by those eager to take action. After all, the memories of the Maraş (1978) and Çorum (1980) massacres where hundreds of people, most of them Alevis, have been slained are still fresh in public memory.

Whatever his ultimate motives, Erdoğan seems to be playing with fire, acting more like an "amok runner" than a responsible politician, even more so since 17 December when the recordings of the graft charges have been circulated. Derived from the Malay word mengamok which means to make "a furious and desperate charge," running amok is considered a rare psychiatric condition, associated in common parlance with an irrational-acting individual who causes havoc or indeed injuries to others. There are apparently very few recent discussions in the medical literature about the treatment of individuals suffering from this rare condition, experts tell us. One cannot help but wonder whether there are any cases of politicians "running amok," with the capacity of dragging a whole country with them.

I for one would not like to hear the response.

Umut Ozkirimli is Professor in Contemporary Turkey Studies at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Lund University.