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50 Shades of Erdogan's Propaganda

Thousands protest in Istanbul against corruption and Erdogan's government in Dec. 2013. A banner with Fethullah Gulen and PM Erdogan's pictures reads: “One is no better than the other”. Fulya Atalay for Demotix.

Joseph Stalin described the work of writers as being akin to the “engineering of human souls.” He was referring not just to any type of writing, but to the writing of propaganda.

Today in Turkey, under the leadership of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), this type of “engineering” has proven relatively successful. Immediately following the 2013 Gezi Park protests, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed to convince his political base that the protests were nothing but the work of an “international interest lobby”.

He has wielded the myth of the “parallel lobby” — a label for opponents real and invented — in countless public speeches ever since. Pro-government media have been essential in helping to get the message out.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour was indignant after Turkish pro-government daily Takvim published a fake interview with her in which she ‘confessed’ to being forced to cover the Gezi protests in a way that cast a negative light on Turkey. Screenshot taken from Hurriyet Daily News report on the subject.

From the CIA, to the international Jewish conspiracy, to an interest rate lobby, to Lufthansa Airlines, to a mysterious telekinetic attack by dark forces; the list of so-called “lobbies” has become extensive. But only one man was sufficiently controversial to offer up the real, living and breathing enemy to take state propaganda to the next level.

Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish preacher and visionary, was Erdogan's ally before he became his enemy. After AKP's first landslide victory in 2002, the pair worked together to re-shape Turkish politics, long-dominated by a secular military elite. But as Erdogan looked to extend his power, Gulen's undoubted influence inside the government became a hindrance. By the time the Gezi protests took place, it had reportedly collapsed. Since a coup attempt the government blames on Gulen took place last year, vicious attacks on the preacher's network in the government-controlled media have reached a crescendo.

An enemy image

While there remain credible suspicions regarding Gulen's involvement in the 2016 failed coup attempt, other charges leveled at him verge on ridiculous.

Among these are the suggestion, prompted by Erdogan himself, that Gulen's movement may have been responsible for shooting down a Russian plane that allegedly entered Turkish airspace during a mission in Syria in late 2015. Ankara was looking to repair damaged relations with Moscow at the time Erdogan made the claim.

Pro-government tabloids also alleged that the assassination of Russia's envoy in the country in 2016 was the work of a Gulenist hand. Photo taken from the website of the ‘Silenced Turkey’ advocacy group.

Clearly, Fetullah Gulen and his movement serve the same broad and convenient purpose that Trotskyites and Tsarists did for Stalin. They help the autocrat lend credibility to actions that would otherwise make no sense, and in doing so, defeat his real enemies: truth and democracy.

In a Washington Post blog exploring why authoritarian leaders resort to lies, Xavier Marquez notes:

In open democracies, a public commitment to certain implausible claims (e.g., the claim that Barack Obama was a Muslim, or was not born in the U.S.) may draw sharp lines between groups, mobilizing supporters while enraging the opposition without being “literally” believed. But implausible lies are more important in the murky environments of many authoritarian regimes, where secrecy and fear make it difficult for rulers to know if their subordinates are truly loyal. These regimes typically need to “dramatize” their cohesion, showing in convincing ways that they are in fact unified to deter internal challengers.

Indeed, peddling “implausible claims” has become a norm in Turkey. In the crackdown that followed last year's failed military coup, more than 100,000 employees lost their jobs.

The government sees Gulenist enemies of the state wherever it wants to, especially in what remains of the free press.

Crackdown International

Erdogan's crackdown has extended itself to international visitors and foreign governments as well.

On July 5, Turkish police stormed a training for Turkish human rights defenders on one of the Istanbul islands, arresting all of the participants as well as two trainers from abroad. The case has now been internationally branded as #Istanbul10. Those detained have been accused of “committing a crime in the name of a terrorist organization without being a member.”

Turkey's foreign ministry has let the world know that it believes the Gulenist scourge is active beyond the country's borders, too.

Outside Turkey, Gulen is best known as an educator, with schools using his approach to education located in nearly one hundred countries across the world. Even before the 2016 coup, Turkey had begun putting heavy pressure on many countries — notably in Africa and Central Asia — to close the schools. That pressure has been ramped up in the aftermath of the failed putsch.

Ironically, prior to Erdogan's fallout with Gulen, the schools were seen as institutions of excellence that created Turkophiles in much of the developing world and contributed to the country's growing “soft power”. Writing for Al-Monitor back in 2015, Fehim Tastekin noted the counter-productive nature of the drive to close the schools.

Unfortunately, if the intensity of state propaganda over the last few years is any indication, Erdogan and AKP have moved well beyond considerations of “soft power”.

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