I wrote in The Hidden Hand, my 1996 book surveying conspiracy theories in the Middle East, that
Turkey and Israel stand out as the only two Middle Eastern countries where leaders are fully accountable to electorates, where the West is viewed more as an ally than as an enemy, and where conspiracy theories have a relatively minor role in public life. … Few mainstream politician, intellectual, or religious leaders [in Turkey] engage in conspiratorial thinking, which exists mostly at the fringes of polite society.
How sadly have things changed in the intervening years. Here's one example of many, not more egregious but more spectacular than most:
The background: On Jan. 30, Israeli warplanes struck targets in Syria. A week later, the exact details remain murky, but it concerned the transfer of advanced armaments by the Syrian regime to the Hizbullah terrorist group in Lebanon. One might expect the Turkish authorities to applaud this step, both because it did damage to the regime Ankara wants to overthrow and because those advanced armaments could potentially be used against Turkish interests. But no, both the government and the communist opposition spun elaborate and unconvincing conspiracy theories about the Israel raid.
Government: Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu criticized the Syrian government for not responding to the Israeli attack and spoke of a secret deal. "Why has the Syrian army, which has been attacking its own people with warplanes and tanks for 22 months, not responded to this Israeli operation? Why doesn't [Bashar al-Assad] throw a stone at the Israeli planes while they fly over his palace and insult his nation's honor? Why doesn't he do anything against Israel while he drops bombs on the innocent people of his country? Is there a secret agreement between Israel and Assad?" He suggested that the Israeli air strikes serve the interests of the Syrian government, arguing that Assad is "exploiting" the Israeli attack to increase his support among Muslims.
Opposition: SANA, the Syrian news agency, quotes Bülent Esinoğlu, vice chairman of Turkish Labor Party (EMEP), saying that the AKP government in Turkey "has cooperated with Israel in its aggression" on Syria. He goes on to claim that Davutoğlu turned a blind eye to this event and that "the Turkish Government was aware of the aggression in advance."
In brief, the government has Assad cooperating with Israel and the communists have Prime Minister Erdoğan cooperating with Israel.
Comments: (1) This sort of reasoning can quickly leave one with a sore head. (2) With inane conspiracy theories flying back and forth, the population gets confused, public life is degraded, and the portents for Turkey look dim. (February 4, 2013)
June 26, 2013 update: For a post-Gezi Park collection of conspiracy theories in Turkey, see Piotr Zalewski, "Protocols of the Interest Rate Lobby." Excerpts:
In Turkey, conspiracy theories are to politics what kebabs and baklava are to an evening meal. That goes for supporters and opponents of Erdogan alike, often with the same targets in mind. Of the dozens of Gezi protesters I talked to over the past weeks, many earnestly claimed that the United States had parachuted Erdogan and his party into power in 2002, that the Obama administration retained a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, in order to bolster its aims in the Middle East, and that it and the European Union continued to support the militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in a bid to divide Turkey.
Zalewski then provides a timeline quite at variance with my own (I see conspiracy theories taking off only after the AKP came to power in 2002):
The tendency to cry "plot" is as old as the Turkish Republic itself, understandable in a part of the world where the West's armies and intelligence agencies have intervened on a regular basis—particularly so in a country that faced the very real prospect of Allied partition after World War I. Well into the 1990s, rare was the national crisis that Turkish politicians and army generals refused to blame on Greece, the United States, the EU, the Armenian diaspora, or Turkey's own Kurdish minority.
Refreshingly, during Erdoğan's first decade in power, the conspiracy reflex appeared to be ebbing. The economy boomed, the prime minister's Justice and Development Party (AKP) ruled uncontested, confidence was sky-high, and relations with neighbors were better than ever. Even if it continued to sense domestic plots around every corner, the AKP, with a few notable exceptions, saw no use in banging on about global ones.
That era ended with the Gezi Park protests this month. With the government still very popular but increasingly on the defensive, and with Erdoğan raising the temperature with every speech, conspiracy theories have once again boiled to the surface. The prime minister and his allies in government and the media, rather than acknowledge the depth of the resentment fueled by some of their policies and by the scale of the police crackdown, have begun pinning the popular unrest on a cabal of international actors.
He documents some of those theories, then concludes:
Unfortunately, the conspiracy theory narratives have progressed beyond the sound-bite stage: they're being acted upon. In the past 10 days alone, the ministry of interior has announced that it would begin work on a law allowing it to investigate and prosecute those who publish "false and provocative" posts on the Internet; the national intelligence agency has launched an official investigation into "foreign links" to the Gezi protests; and the mayor of Ankara has taken to Twitter to launch a hashtag campaign against a BBC journalist, Selin Girit, whom he accuses, on the basis of a quote that wasn't even her own, of being a British agent. Finally, Turkey's Capital Markets Board has launched a probe into brokerage transactions concluded at the height of the protests—presumably to expose, once and for all, both the identity and the secret machinations of the "interest rate" lobby.
July 8, 2013 update: Much more along these lines at "The Great Turkish Conspiracy" by Robert Ellis at Gatestone Institute.
July 10, 2013 update: Colorful details at "Can Erdogan's Enemies Kill Him With Their Minds?" by Bloomberg's Marc Champion.
July 22, 2013 update: "Turkey Between Interest Rates And Conspiracy Theories" by Sami Nader focuses on the economic dimension of Turkish conspiracy theories.
Dec. 20, 2013 update: The public revelation of a vast and three-parted AKP corruption scandal on Dec. 17 has shaken the standing of the hitherto seemingly clean Turkish government, and has done so at a paraticularly sensitive moment, ahead of a municipal and presidential elections in 2014. Semih Idiz explains for Al-Monitor that
To have four ministers implicated in a bribery scandal involving tens of millions of dollars, a shady Iranian businessman, the head of a government bank, a mayor from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and prominent housing contractors who work closely with the government is a political tsunami for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan is fully aware that he has few options, if any, that will make him look good as this scandal unfolds. The firing of so many police chiefs by his government after news of the corruption probe broke and the appointment of "supplemental" prosecutors to the case already looks bad for him.
By consensus, this development results from the growing feud between the AKP and the Gülen movement. But Erdoğan, the party, and its friendly media responded by reverting, as in the Gezi Park episode documented above, to howling conspiracy theories. Idiz writes that "to see a Jewish or Israeli hand in every Turkish crisis has become a knee-jerk reaction, even in crises that are blatantly home grown."
Addressing a crowd in Konya, Central Anatolia, on Dec. 17, shortly after the arrests in connection with the probe started, a visibly angry Erdoğan claimed there was a "dirty alliance" against Turkey, saying, "Those who have the power of capital and the media behind them can't change the direction of this country." He said that those who planned this operation were both outside and inside Turkey, adding, "You can guess who they are. This was a process that started with Gezi Park, and now they have taken a new step," he claimed.
The culprit for Erdoğan behind the Gezi Park protests in June, which left him and his government in a negative light internationally, was a curious "interest-rate lobby." He alleged this lobby was trying to undermine Turkey's economic and political successes. The pro-government media made sure that this was understood to be an essentially Jewish lobby. Having taken its cue from Erdoğan's remarks, this portion of the media is doing the same again by using convoluted arguments to bring in the Israeli and Jewish angle. The Star newspaper, for example, claimed Dec. 18 that Turkey's oil transactions with Iran, for which Halkbank — the government bank implicated in the current probe — was used, was the reason the Mossad had launched the probe.
Given the way the Turkish lira melted against the dollar and the stock market went into heavy turbulence over news of the scandal, it will not be surprising to hear Erdoğan revive the "interest-rate lobby" argument or something similar in the coming days. It is also apparent that Erdoğan can not risk a normalization of ties with Israel at a time when the pro-government media, with prompting from government circles, is claiming that Israel is involved in a conspiracy against his government.
That the Gülen media are focoused on AKP corruption leaves Turkish Islamists bewildered.
With one part of the Islamist media claiming an international conspiracy, and the other saying this is a corruption scandal pure and simple, grass-roots followers of the AKP are confused. If Israel is behind the current scandal — as some in the pro-government camp claim — this means Fetullah Gülen, whose supporters in the police and judiciary allegedly initiated this probe, is in collusion with a country that is universally vilified by Islamists. Many AKP supporters who are sympathetic toward Gülen will find this hard to accept.
Idiz concludes that fighting and winning this domestic war "appears to be of existential importance for Erdoğan. … Otherwise, he would have demanded the immediate resignations of the ministers implicated and supported the rule of law, instead of pushing the international conspiracy line." In other words, expect him to ride the conspiracy line long and hard.
Dec. 21, 2013 update: Erdoğan has now involved the U.S. government in his conspiricizing. The Turkish press reports that Ambassador Francis Ricciardone reminded EU ambassadors on Dec. 17 of American efforts concerning the Iranian activities of Halkbank, a Turkish state-owned bank that is one of the foci of the corruption scandal because of its suspicious financial transactions and its gold-smuggling: "We requested an end of financial ties of Halkbank with Iran. But they didn't listen. You are watching collapse of an empire."
Erdoğan replied yesterday by portraying the corruption charges as the result of an international plot to bring the AKP down and to weaken Turkey: "These recent days, very strangely, ambassadors get involved in some provocative acts. I am calling on them from here, do your job, if you leave your area of duty, this could extend into our government's area of jurisdiction. We do not have to keep you in our country."
Comment: This implicit threat to expel the U.S. ambassador won't make Erdoğan more popular in Washington and again points to Erdoğan's recent incompetence: Whenever he finds himself in a hole, he keeps digging deeper into the ground, compounding his problems.