Erdogan's attempted crackdown against the popular show bodes poorly for free expression.Asmaa Waguih/Reuters
Instead of leading the post-Arab Spring Middle East, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting a sad new standard for gratuitous intolerance. Three weeks ago, Turkey's dominant political figure took time out of his busy schedule to threaten the makers of Turkey's most popular soap opera.
The program -‑ "Magnificent Century" ‑- is a titillating weekly series that exaggerates the romance, intrigue and sex life of Suleiman the Magnificent, a revered 16th-century Ottoman leader. Hugely popular in Turkey and the Middle East, the show is broadcast in 43 countries and watched by 200 million people.
This spring, I interviewed the directors and actors who create "Magnificent Century," toured their lavish set and lauded the program and other Turkish soap operas for creating new roles, new heroes and new cultural norms in a rapidly changing region. Erdogan views the program as seditious.
"I'm condemning both the director of that series as well as the owner of the television station," Erdogan said in a bizarre speech at the opening of an airport in western Turkey last month. "We have already alerted authorities about this and we are still waiting for a judicial action."
Erdogan's liberal political critics erupted at the comment and accused him of authoritarianism. "The prime minister must be jealous of the series' popularity," said Muharrem Ince, the deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party. "Erdogan wants to be the only sultan."
Last week, Erdogan criticized the series again and called for its creators to be "taught a lesson." And reports emerged that Erdogan's party is laying the groundwork for a sweeping new law that would ban "Magnificent Century" and any other works that "humiliate" Turkish historical figures.
"The new law aims to forbid humiliation of historical figures or perversion of real facts," he told the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
Culture wars, of course, are fought in every country. And the portrayal of revered historical figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Suleiman the Magnificent, can spark angry debate. But what is so troubling about Erdogan's behavior is the heedless example it sets at a vital time in the region.
As Egyptians vote on a divisive constitution and Syria approaches a bloody denouement, there needs to be more tolerance for dissent, debate and expression in the Middle East, not less. Turkey is heading in the wrong direction. More than 10,000 members of Turkey's Kurdish minority -- who account for 18 percent of the country's population -- languish in the country's jails on various terrorism charges. And Turkey now has more journalists in jail -- 49 -‑ than any other nation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That is more than Iran, which has jailed 45, or China, which has imprisoned 32.
With a long history of military rule, Turkey is a relatively new democracy. And an insurgency mounted by separatist Kurds has claimed 40,000 lives since 1984. Other nations transitioning to democracy and facing insurgencies have struggled with dissent, with leaders seeing it as disloyal rather than legitimate.
Some, such as Brazil, Ghana and Mongolia, have welcomed bracing debate. But others, particularly countries with no history of strong opposition parties, struggle to accept it.
Tom Carothers, an expert in transitions to democracy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that in the end it often comes down to the disposition of individual leaders.