Opinion |

Erdogan's Megalomaniac Movie Exposes His Weaknesses

Faced with economic shambles, a static political base and brewing conflict in the Mediterranean, Erdogan is investing in propaganda videos that glorify his 'New Turkey' and its tenets: the flag, the faith and the armed forces

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds up his hand in the ‘Rabia’ four finger sign first used by pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt. AKP headquarters in Ankara, August 13, 2020.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan holds up his hand in the ‘Rabia’ four finger sign first used by pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt. AKP headquarters in Ankara, August 13, 2020.Credit: Turkish Presidential Press Service/AFP
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

The music is martial, the irredentism is harsh, the history is weaponized and the nationalism is hypersonic. There are fighter pilots saluting from their cockpits thousands of feet up in the air, galloping Ottoman horsemen, a stirring male choir, a police motorcycle squad and a lot of scimitar-brandishing. 

There is a whirling dervish, a natural gas exploration ship, tanks, infantry and warships, two policewomen on horseback and a surfeit of kissing: children and soldiers kissing flags, a head-scarfed mother kissing the helmet of her soldier son. The lyrics are stirring: "For the love of God, my Turkey/Make your presence known in history once again."

We see Mehmet, the conquering Ottoman sultan, taking possession of Istanbul’s then Cathedral of Hagia Sophia in 1453 cross-cut with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ‘repossessing’ Hagia Sophia (changing its status from museum to mosque) in 2020. There’s glimpse of the Ka’aba in Mecca, and, just as pointedly, a closing shot panning over the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem. 

In an official accompanying tweet, Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun referred to the oppressed peoples "from Gibraltar to Hejaz [Saudi Arabia], from the Balkans to Asia," all longing for Turkey’s shelter and protection.

This is all in, or connected to, the four minute-long promotional film, "Golden Apple," that Turkey’s Communication Directorate, an office of the presidency, launched last week to mark 949 years since the Battle of Manzikert, in which the Seljuk empire decisively beat the Byzantines and set the scene for Anatolia to become the Turkish heartland and led to the eventual rise of the Ottoman Empire. The mythic "golden apple" were the lands accessible for Turkish conquest, and has long been used as a trope for the unity of the Turkic-speaking peoples.

Its stark militarism, showcasing of Muslim ritual, its framing of Erdogan as heir of Ottoman conquest and glory, its visual language exactly mirroring the smash hit Turkish TV series, Ertugrul (but on steroids), and its unrelenting nationalism triggered some critical observers to compare it to the state propaganda of North Korea, or as (more) evidence that Turkey poses a threat to the Western world comparable to Iran. The movie’s admirers on social media, by contrast, used adjectives like "inspiring," "heroic" and "unafraid." 

What’s clear is the movie’s mix of Islam and Turkish nationalism exhibit how Erdogan — now reliant politically on the ultra-nationalist camp in addition to his Islamist factions — increasingly envisions his New Turkey: a state uniformly obedient to a historical narrative of Turkic heroes and a defiant Islam, leaving no room for any diversity within Turkish society.

Just as clear as the message about the nature of the Turkish body politic is the message outwards: Turkey is a new world power, and its reach won’t end at Syria and Libya, but wherever it chooses. 

Showcasing Erdogan as the latterday Mehmet the Conqueror, ‘reclaiming’ Hagia Sophia, is a deliberate throwing of salt on the wounds of the Greeks, the Orthodox church and the Christian world more generally, who objected profusely to the move, at a time when tensions between Greece and Turkey are rising precipitously in the eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and wife Emine at the historic Hagia Sophia, a day before its conversion from museum to mosque by presidential decree. Istanbul, July 23, 2020
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and wife Emine at the historic Hagia Sophia, a day before its conversion from museum to mosque by presidential decree. Istanbul, July 23, 2020.Credit: ,AP

The movie finale, focused on Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, signals that the liberation of Jerusalem, by Turkey, is just a matter of time. It’s a continuation of the messaging from Erdogan’s ‘victory’ speech six weeks ago, that  "the resurrection of Hagia Sophia" is a sign of the imminent "liberation of the Al-Aqsa mosque." 

But it’s got far more, and deliberate, piquancy coming in the wake of the recent UAE-Israel normalization agreement: Turkey is one of the loudest opponents to the deal, never mind that Ankara maintains strong economic ties with Israel and that in pre-COVID days, Tel Aviv was Turkish Airlines’ number one international hub.

While Turkey remains one of the Palestinians’ main international defenders, its influence in the West Bank and Gaza is greatly dependent on its relations with Israel. Turkey can’t push Israel too hard: it has just as much to lose as Israel does — perhaps more — from another repeat downgrading of relations. 

Closing shot of the propaganda movie released by the Turkish presidency showing the Al-Aqsa compound in Jerusalem
Closing shot of the propaganda movie released by the Turkish presidency showing the Al-Aqsa compound in JerusalemCredit: Twitter

Those watching Turkey from abroad might fall into the trap of believing that the "New Turkey" depicted in the short film is somehow experienced in one’s daily life, or that it captures any real sense of how most Turkish citizens see themselves, their country and their president. Perhaps those observers were beguiled by Ali Erbas, head of the Religious Affairs department, who donned a sword for his sermon at the 'conversion ceremony' for Hagia Sophia, a direct nod to the attire of the Ottoman era’s top religious figure, known as the Sheikh of Islam.

Indeed, there’s a surge of staging in today’s Turkey: Erbas was just acting out in real time the action presented in the movie. There were also plenty of theatrics when Erdogan recently announced the discovery of natural gas in the Black Sea. The problem is that the only people buying tickets to the theater of Erdogan are those who already back him. No one should fall under the false impression that most Turkish citizens actually confuse these performances with real life.  

In Istanbul this summer, I can guarantee that I saw no warriors riding on horseback. But I did see a country very divided — more so than ever before during Erdogan’s almost two decades of rule. The economy is in shambles, a meltdown which predated the coronavirus crisis but only has gotten worse due to it. 

The minimum wage in Turkey, currently 2324 Turkish Lira ($316 a month) is among the lowest since 2007. Just a decade ago, the minimum wage reached $418 a month. Meanwhile, prices are rising, wages are stagnant, and people who could once travel abroad can no longer bear the cost. 

Erdogan might have hoped that his much-hyped announcement of natural gas reserves would have flipped the script, at least in terms of morale, for more skeptical citizens. A week ago, he announced that 320 billion cubic meters of natural gas had been found, with the potential to transform the country into a major energy producer, and freeing Turkey from its dependence on mostly Russian natural gas. Last year alone, Turkey imported 41 billion dollars’ worth of it.  

Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan listens to Finance Minister Berat Albayrak and Energy Minister Fatih Donmez on a live video feed from the ‘Fatih’ natural gas drilling. Aug 21, 2020.
Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan listens to Finance Minister Berat Albayrak and Energy Minister Fatih Donmez on a live video feed from the ‘Fatih’ natural gas drilling. Aug 21, 2020.Credit: Murat Cetinmuhurdar/REUTERS

Erdogan did his best to maximize credit for the gas discoveries. Joining him on the live announcement broadcast was his closest confidante, finance minister and son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who, together with the energy minister, broadcast from the deck of the exploratory ship, not accidentally named Fatih, or Conqueror — straight from the Black Sea. 

According to Erdogan, the natural gas will be accessible by 2023. That’s a weighty symbolic date: It marks 100 years since the founding of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. It is the date Erdogan hoped would mark the completion of his revolution, with the country fully incarnated into the "New Turkey." 

This Turkey, in the eyes of Erdogan and his fans, will by then have broken the chains and manipulation of the western countries that have pinned it down and undermined its ability to rule as a great power, as it once did in the grand old days of the Ottoman Empire.

Domestic and international critics of Erdogan quickly rained on his parade.

First, despite the good news, initial rumors had estimated the natural gas reserves as double its actual size. And almost parallel to Erdogan’s announcement, the Turkish Lira lost its brief gains, hitting an all-time low of 7.4 Turkish Lira to US$1. If this was bad news for Albayrak, it was also further proof, if needed, of how the government has continued to manipulate the currency market and the distance between these manipulated values and the market’s real estimation of the worth of the Lira. 

Greek warships take part in a military exercise, amid rising tensions with Turkey over Turkish exploratory drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean sea, August 25, 2020.
Greek warships take part in a military exercise, amid rising tensions with Turkey over Turkish exploratory drilling in the Eastern Mediterranean sea, August 25, 2020.Credit: Greek Defense Ministry via AP

If anyone had harbored hopes that the Black Sea gas bonanza would entice Turkey to pull back from its confrontation with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, they have been proved dead wrong. Despite pressure from the EU, including possible sanctions, and an emerging and determined alliance of individual EU states, Israel, Egypt and the UAE backing up Greece, Turkey is moving full speed ahead in its search for natural gas off the coast of the Greek island of Crete, and the resultant tensions are becoming increasingly militarized

Last week, Turkish and Greek F-16s engaged in a dogfight. Turkey has announced a two week military exercise off northern Cyprus, while Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu cautioned Greece not to be "bratty" in its challenge to Turkey, and promised this as Ankara’s response to the next "provocation": "Whatever is necessary, we’ll do it without any hesitation." 

Erdogan’s divisive politics may have reached a kind of cul-de-sac. The president can’t grow his base, and he can’t build a "New Turkey" that enough of the population buys into to make it any more than staged noise. 

He’s led the country back to square one in terms of the decades-old Kurdish question. Anyone affiliated with Turkey’s mostly Kurdish opposition HDP party runs the risk of being arrested, or being removed from elected office. Since the March 2019 municipal elections, over 20 mayors have been arrested and numerous former MPs of the party remain behind bars. This blatant discrimination and these authoritarian actions certainly bring him support from nationalists, but it leaves his "New Turkey" looking much more like the old Turkey he came to replace.  

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony marking the 98th anniversary of Victory Day at Anitkabir, Ankara, August 30, 2020.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony marking the 98th anniversary of Victory Day at Anitkabir, Ankara, August 30, 2020.Credit: Presidential Press Office/Reuters

Then there is the fact that Erdogan has never been able to muster up much more than 50 percent of the total vote. Today, most polls places support of his AKP party under 40 percent; the opposition CHP party is looking more attractive to many, as more fringe parties, ready to work together in coalition, emerge. 

Tellingly, Erdogan has failed to forge a younger Turkish mass cadre that is more conservative and in line with the "New Turkey’s" aims: the aspiration to cultivate a "pious generation" in which he has invested so much rhetorical and policy-oriented clout. Anyone under 30 in Turkey has only known Erdogan as its leader — and for many, he is the core of their problems. 

Indeed, Erdogan’s need to inflate the significance of the natural gas find only highlights how, having suppressed the development of a new generation of educated, entrepreneurial Turkish citizens, the AKP is falling back on far more basic natural resources to pump up its economy and status. The best national resource Turkey has is its people.

But rather than focusing on cultivating an open liberal education system, focused on innovation and initiative, Erdogan’s government has done everything to undermine it. 

Had he invested as much time into hi-tech as he did into creating a religiously conservative generation, censoring free speech and narrowing sharply the opportunities for self-expression by women, the LGBT community and minorities, Turkey would look radically different than it does today. Those, sadly, are lost years. 

This is the depressing state of affairs in Turkey. Militarily, Turkey might be stronger than ever, but it’s overcompensation for a lacerated, disillusioned society. If the government’s blurring of theatrics with politics is consumed enthusiastically by hardcore followers of the AKP, most Turkish citizens know that there are no quick miracles in store, and the leader that got the country into this state is hardly likely to be able to redeem them from it. 

It’s no longer enough to keep promising a glorious — and starkly militaristic, Islamist and ultra nationalist — future, re-engineered from a mythic past, and to found that faith in the future in a leadership cult that’s lost its touch. Not even when those aspirations are wrapped in the dark kitsch, gloss and glamor of a stirring propaganda movie. 

Louis Fishman is an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who divides his time between Turkey, the U.S. and Israel, and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv

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