Paul Iddon, journalist based in the Middle East
It is said of Al-Jazeera English (AJE) that its coverage differs quite fundamentally from that of Al-Jazeera Arabic (AJA), with the latter trafficking in anti-Americanism and conspiracy theories in a way the former never would. The Arabic version generally “reflects Qatar’s regional interests” while “the English site has a greater internationalist bent to its reporting”. This difference was highlighted recently when a video on AJA was released that amounted to Holocaust denial, replete with a caption asking its viewers: “What is the truth of the Holocaust and how did the Zionist movement benefit from it?” While the two journalists responsible for this video were suspended after it became a controversy, it is impossible that such antisemitic content would appear on AJE.
This is not the case with Turkish press these days. Turkish newspapers, such as the notoriously pro-government ultra-nationalist Yeni Şafak, routinely publish screeds that are often rabidly anti-American, anti-Israel, and generally anti-Western, and do so in both English and Turkish. With this being the case, the outlandishly conspiratorial and hateful material so common in Turkey’s pro-government press is available for anyone to read, and the content is quite revealing.
Anti-Americanism is alarmingly common in the Turkish press. The US is frequently depicted as an aggressor in the Middle East and devious enemy of the Turkish nation. The aforementioned Yeni Şafak uses terms such as “the Crusader-Zionist alliance” to describe the US and Israel and their actions in the region, which the publication invariably claims are all part of a grand conspiracy to carve-up and partition Turkey and eventually eradicate the entire nation.
İbrahim Karagül, Yeni Şafak’s editor, has a column that aptly epitomizes this point of view. For example, last February, when it was speculated that the small US military force in Syria would be reinforced by allied European forces, Karagül immediately claimed this was part of a grand conspiracy to besiege Turkey and then divide and destroy it one-hundred years after the Treaty of Sèvres. “Everybody who was against us a century ago is now joining this siege,” he claimed.
This is an example, albeit an extreme one, of the Sèvres Syndrome — a belief that is not uncommon among Turks that the West is actively trying to once again impose the Sèvres Treaty that was cancelled in 1923 and partition their country. And this belief is increasingly reflected in the pro-government press. Karagül often claims that Ankara needs to militarily extend itself beyond its borders in order to defend itself, arguing that Turkey’s “defense line is in no way the zero point of our border. That defense line is the entire region.” Incidentally, former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu expressed a similar view when he remarked, back in early 2016, that Turkey’s “security zone” extends from Aleppo in Syria all the way to Sulaymani in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Karagül and his publication make such claims quite frequently. He describes the United States as “an enemy country” which poses “a serious threat to our country’s existence, its unity, integrity, present and the future.” He also frequently asserts that the US was behind the 15 July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey and accordingly has called for the Americans to be kicked out of the strategically important Incirlik Airbase in Turkey’s southeastern Adana Province. “Both the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) and Daesh (the Islamic State) are controlled from there,” he wrote. “The July 15 attacks were also controlled from there. After this stage, all US military presence in our country, on our land is a threat to Turkey.” Karagül then went on to add that: “If this is not done, cannot be done, there will come a time when thousands of people surround and siege the Incirlik Base. When the time comes, nobody can stop this nation from intervening in foreign military units, because that anger cannot be stopped or controlled”.
Veiled threats like these have become more commonplace in the pro-government press. One pro-Turkish government commentator even hinted that the US will suffer another 9/11 if it continually mistreats Turkey. “It must be seen that if internal tensions with the United States continue like this that a September 11 is no unlikely possibility,” wrote Abdurrahman Dilipak in the avidly pro-government Islamic daily Yeni Akit. That same publication is certainly no stranger of controversy. It previously blamed the 2013 Gezi Park protests against the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on “Jewish barons” and published a photo of Hitler for a centrepiece in a word puzzle, the answer to which was Turkish for: “We long for you”.
Karagül has also alleged that the US is engaged in a long-term plot to destroy the entire Middle East, which includes attacking Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina. As with the overwhelming majority of his articles, Karagül does not give a shred of evidence to prove these grave allegations. It’s clear that his aim is to portray the US and its allies as mortal enemies of Islam, and therefore Muslims, to foment violence against them. This is a clear-cut case of incitement, especially when he openly calls upon “millions” of Muslims to “pour to the streets” in order “to spoil this game”.
These are not the writings of some fringe group of marginalized conspiracy theorists and/or fanatics. These are the stances of journalists who have the largest platforms, and in Turkey the media environment is such that the country has the largest number of imprisoned journalists on the planet. For both of these things to be true, it can only mean that Karagül and his ilk have the approval of Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to espouse such views.
When the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region held an independence referendum in September 2017 the Turkish press promoted a series of antisemitic conspiracy theories aimed at helping the Erdoğan government undermine it. It was said by Turkish newspapers that 200,000 Jewish-Israelis of Kurdish origin were going to be resettled in Iraqi Kurdistan following the vote as part of a secret deal between Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani and the Israeli government. Israel was the only country in the world to express public support for Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence.
President Erdoğan himself promulgated antisemitic conspiracies about the referendum. He took issue with the presence of French philosopher Benard-Henri Levy and former French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner in Kurdistan with Barzani at that time. In meetings with Iran’s President Hasan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, he insisted that the referendum was a major conspiracy being orchestrated by Israeli intelligence, citing the presence of Levy and Kouchner — who are both Jewish — as his evidence.
Yeni Şafak simultaneously sought to bolster their leader’s conspiracy theories, insisting that Barzani supported the creation of the Islamic State — which they once again claimed was created by the US and Israel to harm Turkey — by bizarrely citing an Iraqi intelligence document from the time of Saddam Hussein. The alleged document also, the newspaper claimed, implicated Levy in the scheme. “Levy, who does not hide that he is a Jew, is one of the architects of the illegitimate referendum in northern Iraq,” the article stated, seemingly suggesting that Levy’s faith was evidence of a nefarious conspiracy. Turkish Islamic daily’s also published cartoons depicting Barzani as a pawn of the Israelis, who are in turn portrayed using the most primitive antisemitic portrayals of Jews.
Antisemitism is frequently espoused by Erdoğan and Turkey has become a much less safe place for its already shrinking Jewish minority as a direct result. Erdoğan and his media mouthpieces recently claimed that investor George Soros supported “terrorist financier” Osman Kavala, whom Erdoğan alleges was responsible for the 2013 Gezi Park protests. In reality, Kavala is a businessman and philanthropist. The Turkish president also insisted that “the famous Hungarian Jew Soros” is “a man who assigns people to divide nations and shatter them. He has so much money and he spends it this way.” Use of such populist, antisemitic rhetoric by Erdoğan and his proxies in the Turkish media have also contributed to Turkey’s recent economic decline.
Conformity and the Party Line
An estimated 90 percent of the media in Turkey is pro-government, and the vast majority is controlled by individuals or organizations who are in one way or another loyal to the government. As a practical matter, independent media has been squeezed out. In early 2018, the Turkish firm Demirören Holding purchased the Doğan media conglomerate. As a result, the hitherto private broadcaster CNN Türk and the previously respected newspaper Hurriyet Daily News were taken over by a pro-Erdoğan conglomerate. During the last June 2018 national elections, Dogan’s media outlets, almost in unison, devoted coverage to Erdoğan and his party while attacking, misrepresenting, or simply ignoring the opposition. In one case CNN Türk cut a live broadcast of an opposition figure in the local elections in Istanbul in order to broadcast another speech by President Erdoğan.
Not all of Turkey’s pro-government media adopt the same tone as Yeni Şafak. At one end of the spectrum there is the bellicose incitement of Karagül. Then there are relatively more mild-toned articles in publications like Anadolu Agency and Daily Sabah. Anadolu primarily covers what Erdoğan says and does, and often feels like reading a series of press releases from the presidential palace as a result. Daily Sabah uses a similar approach and seeks to impugn critics of the Turkish government, although its reasoning is typically much less conspiratorial and paranoid than Karagül’s. Still, relatively more subtle as Anadolu and Daily Sabah are, they still reflect the government line on most issues and thus push in the same direction as Yeni Şafak.
These newspapers have also published misinformation to reinforce government narratives. For example, when Turkey invaded the Afrin enclave in northern Syria in early 2018, in a military operation designed to clear a pocket controlled by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Syrian branch of the PKK, both Anadolu and Daily Sabah reported that the Turkish Army was being confronted by Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, alongside the YPG/PKK. No evidence, whatsoever, was provided for this claim, and, given the fact that the YPG and ISIS are mortal enemies, it’s unclear how ISIS could have possibly operated in that enclave.
The depiction these outlets try to give of Turkey’s actions in Syria is a good example of the Pravda-like coverage they offer, even when they don’t technically lie or fabricate. Turkey’s occupation of the two enclaves of northern Aleppo, the so-called Euphrates Shield area in the east and Afrin in the west, is portrayed largely as a humanitarian and benevolent endeavour that is warmly welcomed by Turkey’s Syrian brethren. It is quite true that many Syrians welcome Turkey’s arrival, particularly in the Euphrates Shield zone that was under ISIS control, and it is true that Turkey has done significant humanitarian and reconstruction work. But nothing is ever perfect, so it is suspicious enough that no light is ever cast on the negative aspects of Turkey’s actions, and in reality Turkey’s Arab proxies have behaved in ways that have caused notable discontent among locals.
Afrin is significantly worse than Euphrates Shield. During the invasion, Turkish papers like Yeni Şafak focused on the alleged popularity of the Turkish move among Afrin’s population, suggesting they felt it as a liberation from terrorists. One story that was highlighted was a little girl in Afrin who was reunited with her pet goat thanks to the operation. What was not focused on was the displacement of more than 100,000 Kurds in this historically Kurdish-majority area during the incursion.
These Kurds displaced from Afrin have not been permitted to return, and the displaced Yazidis fear returning to Afrin now that it is in the hands of Turkish-backed militias, some of them Islamist and some of them semi-criminal, who might well target this most vulnerable minority. The abuses against civilians by the Turkish proxy militias, which have included “arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearances, and confiscation of property and looting to which Turkey’s armed forces have turned a blind eye”, and the general lawlessness in Afrin, are never mentioned by Turkey’s pro-government press.
The demographic engineering by Turkey and its dependencies in Afrin is mentioned in the Turkish press — and justified. The displaced Kurds have not only not been allowed back. Arabs displaced from elsewhere in Syria, notably East Ghouta, have been settled in Afrin, creating facts on the ground as part of Erdoğan’s stated goal of giving the region back to its “rightful owners”, i.e. populations more favourable to Turkey and its allies. The Turkish press focuses on the humanitarian aspect of Turkey enabling the Syrians displaced by the brutality of Bashar al-Assad’s regime to find new homes in Afrin, ignoring the geostrategic purpose of this resettlement.
By contrast, the Turkish press is very sensitive to abuses against Muslims. On this year’s Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr, pro-AKP television channels broadcast gruesome videos showing Muslims being beaten up by Hindu mobs in India. Focus on these abuses is quite legitimate; it is just striking that, as Turkish journalist Ilhan Tanir pointed out, none of the similar videos of Kurds in Afrin being beaten by Turkish-backed groups “made it to those TVs”.
The Turkish press’ efforts to airbrush things that embarrass or undermine the government can often be darkly comic. For example, CNN Türk became a source of ridicule when it ignored the Gezi Park protests and instead aired a documentary on penguins. Just over a year later, when Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s inaction as ISIS besieged the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, the channel broadcast another documentary — this time about honeybees.
The modern surge in anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment in Turkey can be traced back to around 2003, and several events since then have reinforced and expanded this trend.
Turkey’s parliament, reflecting public will, decided at the last moment against participating in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 alongside the United States, despite Erdoğan’s efforts. On 4 July 2003, Turks were infuriated when members of their special forces in Iraqi Kurdistan — where they were believed to have been plotting to destabilize the region as a pretext for Turkey to intervene — were arrested by American soldiers and photographed with their hands bound and hoods placed over their heads before being released. That incident has not been forgotten in Turkey, where it was viewed as a grave national humiliation. Turkish newspapers promptly described US forces as “Rambos” and “ugly Americans”. The affair has since become known as the Hood event (Çuval Olayı). As the US occupation dragged on, and civilian casualties increased, popular opinion in Turkey turned ever-more harshly against the Americans.
Throughout the occupation in Iraq, the anti-American sentiment relating to the casualties and the mayhem was compounded in Turkey by a specific national frustration, namely that the Americans were perceived as not doing enough to crack down on the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, when it was the American invasion that had given the PKK even more space to maneuver — enough to recommence their terror war against Turkey in 2004. When the US then chose the YPG, the PKK under another name in Syria, as its anti-ISIS partner in 2014, the Turks were further infuriated. The YPG issue continues to be one of the biggest bones of contentions in Turkey’s relationship with the US today. Barely a day goes by when the Turkish press does not remind its readers that the US supports the “terrorist YPG/PKK in Syria”.
Popular sentiment among Turks against Israel — with which Ankara had friendly relations for decades, at least on a government-to-government level — rose substantially as a result of the 2008-09 Gaza conflict between Israel and Hamas. Erdoğan infamously lambasted Israeli President Shimon Peres at the Davos forum in 2009 over that war and infamously walked off the stage on which they were debating. Relations then hit an all-time low the following year when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish Mavi Marmara vessel, which was part of an aid flotilla of activists that were trying to break the Israeli blockade on Gaza, and shot dead members of its crew. Almost ten years later and relations between the two countries haven’t yet fully recovered. Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continue to trade heated insults.
The mounting anti-Americanism and anti-Israeli sentiment, often crossing into antisemitism, in Turkey can be traced through pop culture.
A Turkish novel called Metal Storm became hugely popular in Turkey in 2004. Its plot dealt with an American invasion of Turkey that is ultimately defeated by Turkish resistance with help from outside powers. In one part of the novel, a Turkish agent even destroys Washington D.C. with a nuclear weapon killing millions of people in the process. While the book was “clearly sold as fiction” its premise nevertheless “entered Turkey’s public discourse in a way that sometimes seems to blur the line between fantasy and reality.” The novel was reportedly read “keenly” by the Turkish Foreign Ministry and General Staff.
The 2006 Turkish movie Valley of Wolves: Iraq is about Turkish commandos infiltrating Iraqi Kurdistan to avenge an incident clearly based on the Hood event. The movie portrayed US soldiers as cold butchers of Iraqi civilians and generally moustache-twirling villains. One Jewish-American soldier, portrayed by Gary Busey, was depicted in the movie harvesting the organs of Iraqis, a typical antisemitic canard. It was the most expensive movie made in Turkey at the time and was hugely popular when it was released. The 2011 Turkish movie Valley of Wolves: Palestine follows a very similar same plot-line, except this time the villains are the Israeli commandos involved in the Mavi Marmara raid.
Arguably the popularity of Metal Storm and the Valley of Wolves movies were testaments to how angry the Turks were over the American and Israeli actions in Iraq and Gaza respectively. While made in response to actual events they remained works of fiction. The Turkish press today, on the other hand, often attempts to promulgate bizarre conspiracy theories as fact to the Turkish public and beyond. It also seeks to distort reality in order to promulgate an extreme Islamist world view that could have harmful repercussions far beyond Turkey’s own borders.
Taken together, these various examples indicate that Turkey is becoming a major source of extremist content. Given Turkey’s historic role as the leading state in its neighbourhood, the strong cultural influence it has over the Arab world, and the large Turkish diaspora populations, such content could negatively affect the wider Middle East, Europe, and beyond. Saudi Arabia was once regarded as the leading promulgator of Islamic radicalism across the world. But the Saudi monarchy has recently taken a turn against Islamism, while Turkey shelters those like the Muslim Brothers driven out of Egypt after the coup and allows them space to broadcast indoctrinating and inciting material. This worrying trend is occurring in the full light of day. Just as Western governments have been willing to raise issues about Al-Jazeera’s in bilateral relations with Qatar, this should become an issue in Western relations with Turkey.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
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