In the beginning of December 2017, US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel fell like ripe fruit into the hands of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. At the time, Erdoğan was attempting to draw attention away from various corruption scandals in the United States and Turkey, in which senior officials of his government were implicated. The public discourse that developed in response to news of the scandals revealed the schism within Turkish society, while the issue of Jerusalem unified all political actors in Turkey, in the old Erdoğanian style of using foreign issues as leverage in the domestic political arena.
The corruption scandal topping the headlines in Turkey centers on Iranian-Turkish businessman Reza Zarrab, who was trusted by Erdoğan and his associates for years until December 2013, when he was accused of offering an associate of Erdoğan a large bribe in return for assistance in bypassing international sanctions against Iran. During the investigation, Zarrab remained in custody for two months. Thanks to government intervention, he was released and the judges cleared him of all charges.
In March 2016, Zarrab returned to the headlines in Turkey after he fled the country and subsequently turned himself in to authorities in the United States. His flight and subsequent actions were motivated by a fear that Ankara would eventually extradite him to Tehran on charges that he had stolen huge sums from the Iranian state treasury, which could ultimately lead to his execution. Following a plea bargain signed with the United States, Zarrab became a state witness providing incriminating evidence in a case then being made against the Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank, whose deputy director, Hakan Atilla, is also in United States custody. The detailed evidence Zarrab provided became a hot topic of discussion on Turkish social networking services (SNS), while the established media in Turkey chose to report only superficial details of the case. Independent journalists disseminated the information on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. During the trial in the United States it was revealed, inter alia, that senior ministers in the Turkish government were accused of taking bribes valued at millions of dollars, in addition to receiving costly gifts. It is important to note that accusations of bypassing the sanctions against Iran expose Halkbank and other banks in Turkey to serious fines.
When news of the affair reached them, secular users took advantage of the opportunity to attack Erdoğan and his followers. They tagged Erdoğan’s associates as corrupt, and shared a photograph taken in the city of Trabzon where Zarrab and Erdoğan are seen sitting in the ranks of dignitaries at the front of the stage. Users scoffed at the confidence Erdoğan’s supporters placed in Zarrab, and called for a government investigation and for Erdoğan to resign.
Conversely, Erdoğan’s supporters rejected these claims, and presented the trial in the United States as a plot by exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who the Turkish government believes is also the mastermind behind the failed coup attempt of July 2016. These supporters believe that both Gülen and Zarrab are American agents. As part of their struggle, Erdoğan’s supporters led a solidarity campaign with Halkbank, under the slogan, “The US has no jurisdiction in Turkey. Turkish secularists, for their part, disavowed the campaign and did not allow Erdoğan’s supporters to turn the affair into a national struggle against the United States, using the hashtag, “#We are not in the same boat.” Shortly afterwards, another corruption scandal was exposed by opposition leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, in which Erdoğan’s associates were accused of allegedly receiving bribes from various sources, which they smuggled to the Isle of Man, a well-known tax haven. This episode was also the focus of significant attention on SNS. Secular users shared photographs of a document unearthed by Kılıçdaroğlu related to the affair, and uploaded various videos that addressed questions of corruption to the Turkish Directorate of Religious Affairs.
In the shadow of the anger surrounding the corruption affairs, the opportunity Erdoğan had sought to change the public discourse appeared in the form of Trump’s declaration recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. In accordance with his long-held approach, the Turkish president chose to strongly criticize Israel, and proclaimed that he would not recognize the declaration, saying, “Jerusalem is the red line for Muslims.” This line became a slogan that his supporters circulated on SNS. A few days later, Erdoğan spoke to his supporters with large maps of the Land of Israel behind him, enabling him to point to what he called “the theft of the Palestinian territory” during the address.
Erdoğan made exceptionally strident remarks against Israel when he referred to the Hadith of the Prophet Muhammad about the boxthorn tree. According to this text, in the apocalyptic war at the end of days, trees are expected to reveal the location of the Jews to Muslims, but the boxthorn, identified in the Islamic literature as a “Jewish tree,” would prevent this. The Turkish president chose this image to send a warning to Israel: “Those who think of themselves as land owners in Jerusalem will not find a single tree to hide behind tomorrow.” This extraordinary statement appeared on posters with pictures of the president, aimed at enlisting the support of the people and increasing awareness about the issue of Jerusalem. Behind the professional editing and distribution of these posters was the “Cyber Army” of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which was founded in 2013 and employs over 12,000 people. Participants in the heated discourse against Israel and the United States, aimed at preventing the “Judaization of Jerusalem,” as they call it, included Erdoğan’s supporters and various non-governmental organizations, such as the Islamic İHH, Our Heritage, the Jerusalem Academy, and To Jerusalem. They invited the masses to take part in huge demonstrations organized throughout Turkey under the slogan, “Jerusalem belongs to Islam.”
Despite attempts by many secular users to emphasize the danger of diverting public discourse from the issue of corruption to that of Jerusalem, such users also chose to support Erdoğan’s position vis-à-vis the United States and Israel. This position is also common among the opposition parties, which have witnessed the beneficial effect that Erdoğan’s verbal attacks on Israel have delivered at the ballot box for many years. Therefore, the opposition also chooses to adopt a belligerent approach, apparently to prevent the ruling party from taking advantage of the issue of Jerusalem and to alone reap all of the benefit. Alternatively, these groups may wish to avoid remaining on the “wrong” side of the discourse. Despite their extraordinary support for the state’s position, secular users did not hesitate to mock the Turkish president by calling on him “to lead the Muslim world” and to bring about recognition of northern Cyprus as a sovereign state, and to not act only on behalf of the Palestinians.
The speed at which the issue of Jerusalem displaced corruption as the focus of discourse on Turkish SNS shows the ease with which foreign affairs issues can sometimes be “spun” to change Turkey’s domestic public agenda. In spite of the divisions in Turkish society, Jerusalem, or more precisely, an anti-Israeli stance, are common social conventions shared by all factions, who are well aware of the political benefits inherent in these positions. The solidarity shown on SNS surrounding Trump’s declaration, and the joint proclamation by the parties in the Turkish parliament that they refuse to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, illustrates this well.