“Paradise lies at the feet of mothers,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said this week, waxing lyrical. “I would kiss my mother’s feet because they smelled of paradise.”
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But Erdogan, who was addressing an Istanbul conference on the status of women, had a different message for any women who imagined their president had come to praise their abilities. “You cannot put women and men on an equal footing,” Erdogan said. “It is against nature. They were created differently. Their nature is different. ... Our religion has defined a position for women: motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t.”
Those who can’t, he said, are the feminists, in whose honor he created a new social theory: What’s needed isn’t equality between the sexes, but “equality among women and equality among men.”
There’s a lot of equality in Erdogan’s definition, which also urges women to have at least three children and defines abortion as murder. Two years ago, his government proposed that abortions be legal only during the first four weeks of pregnancy, down from 10 weeks previously.
Erdogan loves women who are mothers. He showed this back in 2008, when he said that “marking only one day a year as Mother’s Day is an insult to mothers.”
Three years later, Turkey made a lousy showing in the Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum, ranking 120th of 136 countries. According to official data, some 800 Turkish women have been murdered over the last five years, while more than 28,000 were victims of domestic violence.
Three months ago, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc surprised Turkish women with a new demand. “Women shouldn’t laugh in public,” he said. “We must uphold our moral values.” In response, he was deluged with photos of laughing women on Twitter.
The term “moral values” is gaining currency, even though nobody can really define it. Thus, for instance, the government recently decided that foreigners married to Turks could obtain Turkish citizenship only if they meet the criteria of “upholding morality.”
“I assume they’ll ask the applicant to present a good-conduct certificate stating that he hasn’t committed any moral crimes in his own country,” a Turkish journalist told Haaretz. “But perhaps they’ll also start tailing him in the street to ensure he isn’t kissing his wife in public. Who knows?”
Incidentally, Turkish journalists who criticize the government prefer to do so anonymously, especially after three senior editors were fired this week from the Star network, owned by an Erdogan crony. Nor are they the first. Dozens of journalists have lost their jobs – or their freedom – for writing or editing articles Erdogan disliked.
Journalists and feminists aren’t the only people Erdogan upsets. He also has plenty to say about judges, the courts and the law in general. After the country’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, delayed the huge Galataport project due to a lawsuit by engineers against the construction plans, Erdogan said, “The country’s laws are relatively unimportant as long as the ones implementing them behave correctly.” He then added that some court rulings are like “treason against the motherland.”
Erdogan has a long account to settle with the courts over corruption cases in which senior ministers in his government, and even he himself, are suspects, as well as the acquittal of numerous demonstrators arrested during last year’s protests in Gezi Park against Erdogan’s plans to build a mall there. But his latest outburst against the Council of State merely reinforces Turks’ fears that as president, Erdogan plans to behave like a sultan who is above the law, especially given the full cooperation he enjoys from Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who so far has diligently obeyed Erdogan’s orders.
Erdogan is also following in the footsteps of Kemal Ataturk, founder of modern Turkey, who created an ancient heritage for his country by tracing it back to the Hittites and Assyrians. But the history Erdogan is creating is Muslim. For instance, he recently claimed that Muslims discovered America in 1178, about three centuries before Columbus did. The proof? “Columbus mentioned the existence of a mosque on a hill on the Cuban coast,” he said, apparently basing himself on a 1996 article by historian Youssef Mroueh.
Research by Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol showed that Columbus actually reported seeing a hill shaped like a mosque. But the Muslim “discovery” of America has already become a “fact” in Turkey.
While Erdogan was discovering this “ancient American mosque,” the synagogue in Edirne was coming under attack from the provincial governor, Dursun Sahin, a member of Erdogan’s party, whose leader prides himself on protecting Jewish and Christian rights in Turkey. In response to the clashes in Jerusalem over the Temple Mount, Sahin declared that the Edime synagogue – which was built in 1907 and is now undergoing a generously funded restoration – would serve only as a museum, and prayers would be forbidden there. But the central government swiftly overruled him.
The government is building draconian fences around the public discourse in many ways. For instance, it recently blocked access to certain Wikipedia pages, mainly those that describe the human reproductive process. In September, it granted the telecommunications authority the right to block websites without need for a court order. A court overturned that regulation the following month, but it didn’t stop the government from issuing an order this week banning media coverage of a parliamentary investigation into ministers suspected of corruption.
But the government’s war on social media isn’t devoid of irony. While Erdogan declared before the elections in March that he intended to destroy the social networks, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry boasted this week of being a “global leader” in the number of people following its Twitter account. It has some 620,000 followers, roughly twice as many as the U.S. State Department does.
Given the abysmal results of Turkey’s foreign policy in recent years, which has led to fights with almost every country in the region as well as America, it would be interesting to know whether there’s any correlation between the failure of a foreign policy and the number of a Foreign Ministry’s Twitter followers.