Turkey’s Islamist rulers have not only spread fabricated news and planted false stories in the Turkish media, which is now pretty much controlled by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but have also disseminated fake news abroad to influence Muslim communities. In parallel with that, Islamist groups were clandestinely mobilized to make it appear that this façade actually reflected the truth while the official narrative was pumped into it as if the Turkish government were contemplating something serious.
I had not realized the depth of this propaganda machine that transcends Turkey’s borders when I served for years in Ankara as bureau chief for a national daily. You hear all kinds of crazy things in that gossipy Turkish capital that make you dizzy with the chatter of non-stop conspiracies, political plots and government leaks often spread by spin doctors working on behalf of various interest groups. Then it hit me when I was in Afghanistan in October 2015 to attend the fourth series of the Herat Security Dialogue (HSD) held by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies (AISS). On the way to my hotel, the driver who picked me up from the Kabul airport told me how Erdoğan sent Turkish navy warships to Myanmar to send a stern message to the government there over the oppression of the Rohingya Muslims.
If Turkish warships had sailed for Myanmar, that would have been a major news story, of course, but only if it were true. When I told my friends in Afghanistan about this bizarre chat I had with the driver, I learned that the story had been spread over the Internet by online portals apparently financed by the Turkish government’s slush fund available at the discretion of Erdoğan’s office. It had been talked about on the streets of Kabul among small shop owners, prompting praise for Erdoğan and the Turkish government. I didn’t think much about that until I saw Myanmar suddenly pop up in a six-point declaration made after the National Security Council (MGK) meeting on Jan. 31, 2017 that was attended by top commanders of the Turkish military and government ministers under the chairmanship of Erdoğan.
It was quite strange. I don’t recall Myanmar ever making it to the agenda of Turkey’s top security council, which is usually preoccupied with clear and emerging threats in Turkey and its neighborhood. I suppose this critical institution has now become a tool in the hands of the Islamist president who abuses it to channel his own ambitions just as he has been manipulating the judiciary and legislative bodies to persecute his critics and opponents on trumped-up charges while helping loyalists and associates act freely and with impunity. I’m sure Erdoğan’s spin doctors will use this Myanmar point in the MGK declaration to show how Erdoğan is interested in the plight of Muslims as the undeclared caliph of all Muslims in the world.
Of course, this is not the first time Erdoğan has meddled in other countries’ affairs in Central and Southeast Asia for his own political calculations. He stirred up trouble with the Bangladeshi government by publicly scolding Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina over her crackdown on Islamists. He led the controversial charity group, the Humanitarian Aid Foundation (İHH), accused by Russia of smuggling arms to jihadist groups in Syria by in the UN Security Council, to be part of the Third Party Monitoring Team in peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Erdoğan has enabled many Chinese Uyghur jihadists to enter Syria by providing them with Turkish passports and facilitating their travel. Jihadists from Central Asian countries including Russia and Uzbekistan were able go to Syria through Turkey with the help of Turkish intelligence under directives from Erdoğan.
Like the planted fake Myanmar story in the Afghan media, I remember how Erdoğan also orchestrated a similar one for Thailand, but this time for the Turkish media in 2014. Speaking at a parliamentary group meeting on April 22, 2014, Erdoğan, then prime minister, suddenly uttered the name of Pattani, a southern province of Thailand where the long-standing animosity of the province’s majority Malay-Muslim population towards the central government has been a lingering issue fueling violence. The Thai government has been trying to address this issue, albeit with limited success, as it also deals with some violent factions that use extremist religious ideology to channel Malay Muslims’ frustration into recruitment to their ranks. It was the first time a Turkish prime minister had dropped Pattani onto the public agenda.
In the speech Erdoğan referred to exclusive video footage aired four days earlier by Islamist broadcasting network Kanal 7, which is an ardent supporter of Erdoğan. The network sent a crew to report on news about the Pattani region and interviewed people there. Erdoğan said: “This morning I saw a picture of Pattani, where Muslims are under pressure from Buddhists and hundreds and thousands of Muslims have been killed in recent days. I saw an elderly Muslim man who prays for Turkey. … He said ‘Be patient, Erdoğan’ and then cried.” The woman who did the interview was later rewarded by getting promoted to anchor on the main news segment at the network. Nobody bothered to check Erdoğan’s false claim of thousands being killed in Pattani at the time.
Erdoğan is never enthusiastic or sincere in addressing the problems of Muslim minorities in other countries, be it in Europe, Africa, Asia or the Americas. Instead of trying to work out issues through legitimate governments, competent authorities and international partners and allies, he has exploited sensitive issues for his own petty interests and, frankly, to the detriment of the people he claims to be helping in the first place. He did the same to the Palestinians by deepening divisions there and playing favorites and sabotaging reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah. He encouraged and sponsored the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to take to the streets, fueling clashes and disrupting the order in that most important Arab nation. He poured arms into Libya for Islamists, helping shed more Muslim blood there as he did for Syria. When asked, Erdoğan maintains he did all this for the good of Muslims.
Well, what to expect from a man who has lied so many times during his political career and never felt ashamed or embarrassed when his fabrications were exposed. He is a habitual liar and has somehow managed to get away with that so far. When a fake assassination plot to kill his daughter Sümeyye was revealed, the prosecutor who dug out the truth was punished instead of the dailies that ran the plot in headlines with engineered evidence. When massive corruption in billions of dollars incriminated him, Erdoğan lied again by saying evidence was doctored and that his voice recordings were montaged. When heavy arms bound for jihadists in Syria were intercepted by prosecutors and law enforcement agencies and documented by video recordings and photographs, he claimed the shipment was humanitarian aid. There are more examples that could be cited to suggest that there is a clear pattern of lies, cheating, deception and misleading statements by this man who holds the levers of power in the Turkish government.
Just as the world is aware of Erdoğan’s fabrications, I think most Turkish people are also aware of them. Somehow they do not want to admit that what they are witnessing is fake, as if watching a TV drama series unfolding before their eyes. They know it is not real, but they do not want to admit it for fear of spoiling the entertainment and excitement or disturbing the routine they’re used to. However, the reality is looming dark on the horizon as the security, economic and political/social balance of the country is on the verge of collapse.