"The Victor"

Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak discusses the social media discourse surrounding the well-publicized arrest of the leader of a Turkish sect, which appears to have been timed to distract public attention from the enactment of controversial presidential decrees.
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Poster that Erdoğan’s supporters disseminated on Twitter , with the caption: “The man of ‎the people is the ‎president of the people.”‎

Poster that Erdoğan’s supporters disseminated on Twitter , with the caption: “The man of ‎the people is the ‎president of the people.”‎

Since the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016, Turkey has experienced dramatic changes in its political system. The declaration of a state of emergency immediately after the coup attempt and the referendum held in April 2017 gave President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan broad powers without instituting an adequate system of checks and balances on that power. This fact made the presidential election held on 24 June 2018 especially fateful. At the end of an election campaign in which Turkish president enjoyed the full cooperation of the media, Erdoğan had won 52.3% of votes and thus defeated his opponents in the first round. Shortly thereafter, he enacted several controversial presidential decrees that will impact the quality of life in Turkey, in spheres including culture, law, and higher education.

As expected, the Turkish elections were the subject of widespread public attention on social networks. Erdoğan’s supporters celebrated the victory, using slogans like, “The man of the people is the president of the people” (picture 1), and sharing photographs of victory celebrations in city squares, with the hashtag, “To continue” (#Devam), which is considered a response to the hashtag “enough” (#Tamam). [1]

Although Erdoğan’s victory was expected, some in the opposition had hoped for a reversal, in the wake of the emergence of Muharrem İnce as leader of the Republican People’s Party, and the perception that he might be capable of defeating Erdoğan and leading the masses. Not surprisingly, many of the users who identified with the opposition cast doubt on the credibility of the election results, and accused Erdoğan of fraud. They shared pictures of the rally of millions that İnce held in Istanbul on June 23, the day before the elections, in order to demonstrate his supporters’ enthusiasm for their candidate.[2] The disappearance of İnce on the night of the elections, until noon the next day, spawned conspiracy theories. According to one of the many scenarios floated on social networks, İnce was kidnapped by Erdoğan’s supporters, and had received concrete threats against his family. Another version claimed that it was İnce’s own supporters who confined him, to prevent him from contacting the Turkish media, because they were being threatened by Erdoğan’s supporters.[3]

The uproar on social networks climaxed on the night of the election with the publication of a brief message, “The man won,”[4] which journalist İsmail Küçükkaya leaked to the media in İnce’s name. For his part, İnce claimed that the remark was made in a conversation between friends, and was not intended to be a public announcement. He used a Turkish word for “man” that is recognized as a nickname for Erdoğan, and is parallel in meaning to the Yiddish “mensch.” In the eyes of Erdoğan‎’s supporters, İnce’s use of the term attests to his agreement with Erdoğan‎, which led them to ridicule İnce. İnce’s supporters, on the other hand, saw this as further proof that he was being held by the president’s men, who had pressured him to disseminate the message in order to damage his reputation among his followers. Either way, the day after the elections, İnce rejected this claim, and accepted the results of the elections, both at a press conference and via his Twitter account.[5] His statement did not prevent his supporters from continuing to challenge the results. Users distributed videos showing Erdoğan‎’s enthusiasts celebrating by firing Kalashnikov rifles and pistols into the air, and claimed that İnce recoiled from the possibility of exchanging fire that could lead to civil war. Therefore, he chose to accept the results, but only to maintain peace among the people.[6]

Under heavy suspicion, on July 9th Erdoğan began to function officially as president of the country with broad executive powers. The speeches he made that day in parliament, his visit to the tomb of the founder of the Republic of Ataturk, and the impressive ceremony held in his honor at the presidential palace in Ankara accompanied by the Mehteran Orchestra (also known as the Military Band of the Ottoman Empire) heralded a new chapter in the history of Turkey, which may now become more centralized than ever. The next day, the qualms were realized when President Erdoğan signed controversial orders, including the closure and confiscation of the state theaters[7] and the National Library;[8] the appointment of judges to the Administrative Court, including some without any legal education;[9] the appointment of university rectors who are not professors;[10] and so forth. These orders came into force under the state of emergency, which expired a few days later, on July 19. In this manner, Erdoğan prevented future appeals, which are proscribed by the provisions of the Turkish constitution concerning orders issued during a state of emergency.

While many users were protesting the edicts, the Turkish online sphere was shocked by an extraordinary incident that diverted public attention. Adnan Oktar, the leader of a controversial religious sect – who is also known to the Turkish public as “Adnan Hoca” or “Harun Yahya” – was arrested in a Turkish police operation on the morning of July 11. Oktar’s contempt for Islam and his polygamous lifestyle, the former made particularly evident by his television programs featuring women dancing while reading quotations from the Koran, aroused the wrath of many Turks. Oktar is also remembered as a figure identified with Turkish anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism during the 1990s, when he published books and periodicals on Israel and Judaism, in which he denied the Holocaust. After the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York he discontinued these activities, in part so he could raise funds from evangelical Christians, and to avoid being categorized as a radical Islamic preacher.

Although public excoriation of the detainee traditionally follows every arrest covered by the Turkish media, the response to Oktar’s arrest was exceptionally extensive, because he had provided so many reasons for such antagonism. For a time, it seemed that the entire Turkish network was united against Oktar, with only a few voices supporting him. The latter claimed that the arrest had been made at the request of Great Britain, based on Oktar’s claims that the British nobility opposes him and had directed the plan to arrest him because his efforts to strengthen Turkey are contrary to the British desire to weaken it. In any case, it is clear that Turkish users are pleased with the downfall of Oktar whom they consider a disgrace to Islam and women’s rights. Some even shared pictures showing Oktar and his deputies with senior Israeli officials, including the prime minister, cabinet ministers, members of Knesset accusing him of spying for Israel, and claiming that his Israeli visitors had transferred huge amounts of money in return for his services. Consequently, Oktar became a virtual ‘punching bag’ on social networks, which in turn displaced discussion of the controversial presidential decrees.

The new orders, and their gradually dissipating reverberations on social media, indicated that Turkey under Erdoğan’s new presidential regime is preparing for drastic changes that could move it in a more centralized and conservative direction. Erdoğan, an incomparable strategist in his field, chose to set-up a temporary diversion – the arrest of Oktar – to enflame public discourse, and thus reducing the angry reactions to his presidential decrees. Thus, Erdoğan proved once again that he has no rival in Turkish politics, and will be able to continue conducting the orchestra, dictating the public agenda in Turkey, and being the sole victor at the ballot box.

[1] @jsarieroglu, 24 June 2018, Twitter.com. Last accessed 19 July 2018.

[2] @KadriGursel, 23 June 2018, Twitter.com. Last accessed 19 July 2018.

[3] "Muharrem İnce kaçırıldı mı?", Timetürk, 2 July 2018.

[4] " Muharrem İnce’den ‘Adam kazandı’ açıklaması", Sözcü, 25 June 2018. 

[5] @vekilince, 28 June 2018, Twitter.com. Last Accessed 19 July 2018.

[6] "24 Haziran akşamından skandal görüntüler: Herkesin elinde silah var", Sol, 28 June 2018. 

[7] "İlk kararnameyle sanata darbe: Devlet Tiyatroları lağvedildi," Cumhuriyet, 10 July 2018.

[8] "Milli Kütüphane kaldırıldı! Ülkenin hafızası artık yok," Sözcü, 13 July 2018.

[9] "Herhangi Bir 4 Yıllık Lisans Mezununa İdari Hakimlik Yolu Açıldı Kaynak: Herhangi Bir 4 Yıllık Lisans Mezununa İdari Hakimlik Yolu Açıldı," Kariyer İşİlanları, 10 July 2018.

[10] Duydunuz mu? 703 Sayılı KHK ile Rektör Atamaları İçin "Profesör Olma" Şartı Kaldırıldı, Onedio, 10 July 2018.