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Turkish PM Erdogan vs French Intellectual Bernard-Henry Levy: what’s at stake in that argument

Turkish PM Erdogan vs French Intellectual Bernard-Henry Levy: what’s at stake in that argument

28.08.2013 • France/Turkey •

There is as much to be learnt from the mud slinging between the Turkish Prime Minister and the French philosopher, as from the way their words get quoted by others.

Bernard-Henry Lévy’s way of dealing once and for all with Recep Tayyip Erdogan must have ruffled a few feathers among the French diplomats of the Quai d’Orsay. In June, as Erdogan was being booed by demonstrators, some confidential advice was given to diplomats, academics and other officials posted in Turkey, asking them to “avoid focussing on the Turkish Prime Minister” – that is, to avoid any public criticism against Turkey’s strong man.

But flamboyant French BHL has just thrown all diplomatic caution to the wind. In an interview given on Saturday 24th August to Kemalist opposition daily Cumhuriyet, the philosopher does not mince his words and labels Erdogan a “paranoiac”, a “potentate”, adding “Emperor Erdogan is naked”, that he “threw a fit”, “must have been high as a kite”, that he is a “character” whose “stupidity” is fascinating and his explanations, “childish”, “a big kid” who “broke his toy” and who, in the end, is nothing but a “Putin-like Sultan” that Turkish people had better “get rid of”.

One has to admit that Recep Tayyip Erdogan basically did everything to deserve such an earful. Trying to make the best of a meeting with hundreds of supporters in the Anatolian province, the Turkish PM accused both Israel and the French intellectual to be responsible for staging the military coup in Egypt and the removal from power of his “brother” Mohamed Morsi – proof of it being a 2011 video shot at Tel Aviv University, showing BHL, sitting next to Israel’s current Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, and saying the worse of the Muslim Brotherhood, who should be kept away from power “at all costs”. A Turkish subtitled version of the video was even posted on YouTube.

Targeted for being Jewish

So appalling is this latest chapter of conspiracy theory cum anti-Semitism that one feels like moving on as fast as possible. Take a deep breath and remember that Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s carefully thought-out verbal attacks tell us as much about their author as about Turkish society. What’s more, this time, it comes with a bonus: BHL’s own answer, just as full of teachings.

So, why does Erdogan target BHL out of all people?

Because BHL is Jewish. Quite obviously.

Ever since 2010, as he had to deal with tricky internal problems (such as the fall of the Turkish pound on a background, during that particular summer, of demonstrations by his opposition and the youth), or an international one (the loss of Egypt as an ally and a mounting regional isolation), some Justice and Development Party (AKP) strong men, first of whom Recep Tayyip Erdogan, have chosen to lash at Israel and invoke an alleged plot by the “Jewish lobby”.  That’s the way they chose to divert attention away from themselves, while opting for quite a rewarding tactic in terms of popularity in Turkey and the Arab world, though a hugely schizophrenic one, as Ankara and Tel Aviv are being forced to negotiate with each other by their American friend.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s man

BHL is not only Jewish but also French, and in Turkey, people see him as Nicolas Sarkozy’s man, being responsible for having convinced the former French president to take military action in Libya. The thing is, in Turkey, people hate Nicolas Sarkozy so much that his portrait was printed on toilet paper.

Hatred for Sarkozy is widespread, and not just among AKP voters. It runs through the entire political spectrum. Our former president has often humiliated Turkish people who are very nationalistic and hold him responsible for Turkey’s accession to the EU being turned down.

Then, there was BHL’s role in Libya, which the philosopher described as “rubbing shoulders with Libyan revolutionaries, and putting his life at risk in the process”. The thing is that Turkey was always reluctant to intervene in Libya, until it eventually gave in and mainly accepted a humanitarian role. Ankara had big economic interests in Libya, with thousands of Turkish workers who had to be repatriated urgently.

During the intervention in Libya, Turkey accused France of acting like a colonial power. Turkish criticisms, hesitations, and turnabouts compounded the relations with Paris and NATO.

The thing is that added to this, the drift into chaos of Libya’s security situation and its militarization may provide the Turkish government with all the appearances of a justified reluctance. And on that issue, Erdogan finds a sympathetic ear in a country that does not share at all the same enthusiasm for military interventions as our white-shirt philosopher does.

“The Arab version of Nazism”

Erdogan used BHL as an argument to criticize President Morsi’s overthrow by the Egyptian military; but when BHL granted an interview to Cumhuriyet, he himself became a tool in the opposition’s hand, this time, to lay criticism at Erdogan. In Turkey, it would be hard for the main Kemalist and nationalist daily to find anyone with more radical and scathing criticisms of Erdogan than BHL – if it were only for fear of being brought to justice.

In his interview, BHL fiercely defends his point of view with scathing criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, whom he describes as anti-democrats, “an Arab version of Nazism” dating back to 1928 when the movement was founded by El-Banaa. For BHL, the Muslim Brotherhood, just like Hitler and the Hamas, are suspected of using elections to destroy democracy. But for Erdogan, it is the will of the people that expresses itself during election time; it may be so, but freedom is an essential dimension of democracy, argues back BHL, despite also advocating the Algerian method whereby the military blocked access to power to the Islamists.

Quite understandably, such an argument is not really acceptable in Turkey – a country that has lived through 3, even 4 military coups, the last attempt dating back to 2007. “No military coup, no sharia” shouted demonstrators in June 2013 – BHL thus wrongly claiming to share their views.

If Recep Tayyip Erdogan claims to be a Muslim-democrat, just like there are Christian-democrats, the truth is, he looks more like a Muslim-dictator, explains BHL, who specifies that this enemy of democracy is set on “undoing the Kemalist heritage and its civilizational achievements”, as, over the past 12 years, he kept on leading Turkey away from the path to the EU, as well as opposed the recognition of the Armenian genocide.

Unfortunate omissions

Erdogan, Egypt and BHL” – Ara Toranian, an influential columnist in the Armenian diaspora in France, thus entitled the article that recounts the argument.  Another title could have been “BHL, Erdogan and the Turkish opposition”, so striking is the fact that the Kemalist opposition, bent on forgetting its past, makes the best out of BHL’s criticisms by reproducing them extensively.

As for BHL, he seems to forget that during the 40’s, Kemalism was not immune to the Nazi and fascist influences of the days – as the Jewish community in Turkey would recall –, and that the Turkish democracy was harmed by several Kemalist military coups. He apparently also ignores that initially, the AKP was at the forefront of policies that were willing to bring positive reforms for human rights and the Kurd and Armenian minorities – something that staggered their more radical opponents -, and which allowed it to win over the votes of the liberals, including those of the Jewish minority.

Finally, one surprisingly comes to regret that when BHL mentions the siege of Sarajevo and the Bosnian war, and also pays tribute to the Turkish people, he forgets that on that point, his views converge with current Foreign Affairs Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who once made out of all this, a great business for himself.

Ariane Bonzon

Photo : REUTERS/Umit Bektas Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, 15th August 2013.

Original French version (dates back to 28.08.2013) : Ce que révèle l’affrontement verbal entre Recep Tayyip Erdogan et Bernard-Henri Lévy.

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