Troubled Turkey Looks to Conspiracy Theories for Answers

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Facing bouts of civil unrest, corruption probes and growing financial and economic pressure, the Turkish government is increasingly looking to blame its ills on foreign conspiracies.

Ever since the 2013 anti-government protests that posed the first serious challenge to the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s decade-long rule, these theories have come thick and fast. Foreign media, a so-called “interest-rate lobby” and the “Jewish Diaspora” are among those officials name as having dark designs on Turkey.

The February 7 deportation of Azerbaijani reporter Mahir Zeynalov appears to fit into this pattern. Zeynalov works for the Istanbul-based Today’s Zaman, an English-language publication seen as sympathetic toward Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s friend-turned-foe Fethullah Gülen, a highly influential Islamic cleric whom Erdo?an has accused of running a “parallel state” in Turkey.

Zeynallov, now living in Azerbaijan, drew the wrath of the government after posting tweets about ongoing probes into alleged official corruption.

But foreign media, too, are in the prime minister’s sights.

“My dear brothers, these [media] organizations have always stolen the will of this country. They are stealing the resources and energy of our country,” Erdo?an thundered to AKP parliamentary deputies on January 28.”Is it only the BBC? Also The Wall Street Journal. Who are the bosses of these newspapers? Who owns these newspapers?”

The comment, believed to stem from the stereotypical belief that Jews control Western media, was widely interpreted as implying a Jewish conspiracy.

Last summer, amidst the Gezi-Park protests, Deputy Prime Minister Be?ir Atalay had made similar claims, hinting at a supposed connection between “the Jewish Diaspora” and “foreign media attitudes” toward the unrest.

“They are all uniting,” Atalay claimed, in reported comments.

Turkey’s economy, now sluggish after years of record growth, also appears to fuel such theories. Erdo?an’s January 28 comments were made as the Turkish lira was in freefall, a decline only stemmed by doubling interest rates the same day.

This time, no mention was made of the “interest rate lobby,” the prime minister’s name for those he charged had staged the Gezi-Park unrest to drive up Turkey’s interest rates. His chief advisor, Yi?it Bulut, earlier accused the German national air carrier Lufthansa of being part of this supposed “lobby,” and intent on blocking the construction of Istanbul’s third airport.

But these theories, outlandish as they may sound, have discernable roots.

“Both Islamists and those coming from a right-wing tradition have these conspiratorial fears of the West,” noted political scientist and columnist Nuray Mert. “They see everything through this prism. When they fail, it is not because of their own mistakes, but because of the enmity or hostility of the foreign powers and they start to recall skepticism stemming from conspiracies theories [sic], that all the world is against Turkey, all the western world is against Muslims, starting from the crusaders.”

But such conspiracy theories could also be a shrewd political move. “Turks love it,” argued Cengiz Aktar, a senior scholar at Sabanci University’s Istanbul Policy Forum, “because they don’t know the world. Turks are very much monolingual. They don’t read newspapers much. They don’t know what the world thinks about them. So, when you don’t know about it, you fear or you invent theories. The majority of Turks love these kind of stories.”

For generations, fear of the world was reinforced by Turkey’s nationalist school curriculum. Until recently, children were taught that enemies surrounded Turkey. History lessons focus heavily on the demise of the Ottoman Empire, blamed on foreign powers stirring up ethnic minorities to rebel. Even today a common saying holds that “the only friend of a Turk is a Turk.”

Yet returning to the rhetoric of the past seems to be coming at a high diplomatic price for Erdo?an. “No one in the West buys these international conspiracy theories to overthrow the government,” warned diplomatic columnist Kadri Gürsel of the daily newspaper Milliyet. “It destroys . . . [the prime minister’s] legacy, his reputation around the world. He is not aware of this. Maybe he can convince part of his electorate, but not the world.”

Speaking to on condition of anonymity, a senior AKP member acknowledged the need to repair relations with Turkey’s traditional Western allies, but admitted that the argument still had not been won within the leadership.

Turkey also could be paying an economic cost for the conspiracy theories. “The problem is that the foreign investors are just laughing at this and Turkey is going through a very serious test of creditability,” analyst Aktar said.

Political analyst Atilla Ye?ilada of the Istanbul-based Global Source Partners, an emerging-markets research firm, agreed. “International investors have turned extremely negative on Turkey. . . . I believe the manner in which [the] AKP conducts itself has become a serious obstacle to foreign direct investment.”

Turkey’s net foreign-direct investment (FDI) of $9.6 billion is just over half its level in 2009, The Financial Times reported on February 13.

But the political cost could ultimately be just as damaging. Ultimately, Turkey’s current run of “xenophobic” conspiracy theories only “promises more authoritarianism . . .” Mert, the political scientist, predicted.

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