from From the Potomac to the Euphrates and Middle East Program

Shameless in Turkey: Aydinlik, Sabah, and Henri

A man places carnations at the scene of a suicide bombing at Istiklal street, a major shopping and tourist district, in central Istanbul, Turkey (Osman Orsal/Reuters).

After this weekend's horrific terrorist attack in Istanbul, many pro-government Turkish newspapers shamefully levied false accusations against an American scholar for the incident.

March 21, 2016

A man places carnations at the scene of a suicide bombing at Istiklal street, a major shopping and tourist district, in central Istanbul, Turkey (Osman Orsal/Reuters).
Blog Post

On Saturday there was a horrific bombing in Istanbul that killed four and injured thirty six. It is the fourth attack in Turkey in six weeks. The country is under grave threat from the self-declared Islamic State, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, known as the TAK. Ankara has fingered a suspect named Mehmet Ozturk, who is believed to be a Turkish member of the Islamic State, for the weekend’s violence. One would think that the Turkish press would spend its time looking into the attacker’s background, trying to understand who his accomplices are and how he got past Turkey’s rather intensive security. Many journalists are doing just that, but the Turkish newspapers Aydinlik and Sabah had something different in mind for their readers this weekend. Aydinlik’s front-page headline screamed “Barkey’s Bombs Exploded.” The “Barkey” in the headline is Professor Henri J. Barkey of Lehigh University and the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington. For its part, Sabah reported “Istiklal Bomb Threat From CIA” with a picture of Barkey (which Aydinlik had also included).

For my readers who do not know, Barkey is the dean of Turkey watchers in Washington. During the 1990s, he worked on the policy planning staff of the State Department. He is universally respected and his influence ranges from relatively junior desk officers at places like the State Department and senior fellows at august think tanks to the highest ranking U.S. government officials. I once heard a former secretary of state remark, “Everything I know about Turkey I learned from Henri Barkey.” To me, Professor Barkey is not “Professor Barkey,” he is “Henri” or, more often than not, “Hocam”—my teacher. He is also my generous friend with whom I can spend hours sipping coffee and shooting the breeze about Turkey and the Middle East. It is fair to say that I take the attacks on him personally. Common decency would suggest that both the Turkish and American governments should denounce Aydinlik and Sabah, but they likely will not. How did we get here?

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Turkey has long had a vibrant, if not exactly responsible, press. I remember sharing a meal in Ankara in the mid-2000s with a columnist from the daily Milliyet who told me that the Clinton administration’s effort (with Israel’s assistance) to help the Turkish government apprehend the PKK’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan, in 1999 was part of a broad effort culminating in the U.S. invasion of Iraq that was intended to establish Kurdistan. It may very well be that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq is the result of the misbegotten Operation Iraqi Freedom, but it is a stretch to say the least that it is the result of some grand plan hatched across two ideologically incompatible administrations. When President Barack Obama visited Turkey in April 2009, some members of the Turkish press suggested that the First Lady did not join him because she did not want to be photographed with her Turkish counterpart Emine Erdogan, who wears a headscarf. More recently, during the Gezi Park protests in 2013, Washington’s then-ambassador in Ankara, Frank Ricciardone, was accused of masterminding them.

I do not mean to besmirch all Turkish journalists, columnists, and editors. Many of them are outstanding and have been forced to work under increasingly adverse conditions. It is also fair to say that Turks have not cornered the market on conspiracy theories. Just look at American political discourse on the far reaches of the left-right spectrum. Yet Turkey is a magnitude and a degree different. There is an ingrained anti-Americanism, borne of a general suspicion of foreigners that is directly related to the post–World War I Greek, French, and Italian efforts to carve up Anatolia. The result can be everything from a prickly, insular nationalism to wild-eyed conspiracies about American academics and the Central Intelligence Agency. This is the likely reason for Aydinlik’s outrageous headline about Henri—a Jewish foreigner (though he was born in Istanbul) who has worked for the U.S. government and written nuanced analyses of Turkey’s Kurdish question. Fearing for his safety, Henri is unlikely to visit Turkey any time soon, which is probably what the irresponsible neo-nationalists at Aydinlik want.

The Sabah story is more interesting, if only because it is a case of a paper and its “journalists” doing the bidding of its political masters. In 2007, Turkey’s Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (SDIF)—like the American Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation—took over Sabah due to legitimate concerns that its former owner, who had been involved in a bank failure, retained an interest in the paper and another media property. Given the SDIF’s responsibility to recover assets on behalf of depositors, this was an appropriate step. The problem came when the SDIF turned around and sold the properties in a single-bidder deal to a firm called Calik Holding, the chief executive officer of which was none other than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son in law. Sabah, which had grown critical of Erdogan before the sale, became a reliable supporter of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) afterwards. The story of Sabah is one that has been repeated over and over again in Turkey, where the AKP has created a virtual ministry of information to advance and reinforce the party’s worldview. The Turks have not gone as far as the Russians in this regard—Aydinlik, for example, is not pro-Erdogan—but there is still time.

It is important to note that well before the AKP existed, Turkish officials were perfectly willing to spin erroneous tales about the United States, American ambassadors, the CIA, Zionists, and others that any number of Turkish journalists was willing to repeat. That is because, for reasons previously noted, attacking the United States is politically profitable and thus it makes no sense for politicians and the so-called journalists who do their bidding to act responsibly. In the AKP era, however, this sad state of affairs has been taken to its logical extreme with the kinds of odious headlines and stories such as that which Aydinlik and Sabah produced on Sunday. In the meantime, Henri, who loves Turkey and has dedicated his academic career to studying it, now has a target on his back.

To Deniz Yildirim—the editor of Aydinlik—and his counterpart at Sabah, Erdal Safak, I ask: Have you no shame?

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