The Thinnest-Skinned President in the World

Turkey’s leader was once imprisoned for reciting a poem. Now he wants to jail a German satirist for doing the same.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 1998, shortly after being sentenced to jail for "inciting hatred" with a poem (Reuters)

On Saturday, leaders of Turkey, Germany, and the European Union gathered in the Turkish city of Gaziantep, where they briefed journalists on the progress of an EU-Turkey deal aimed at halting the flow of refugees and migrants into Europe. But then conversation turned to Germany’s potential prosecution, at the Turkish government’s request, of a German satirist for reciting on television a fantastically filthy poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The sleepy press conference sprang to life, and the ambiguities of freedom came under scrutiny.

“The freedom of the press should never negate the respect for human dignity,” said Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, claiming that “extreme racist views” are on an “upward trend” in Europe. “Very heavy insults against the president of a country that one should not really hear or read about—is that really part of the freedom of the press? … If these same words were uttered for another nation or the president of another nation, would they be acceptable, I wonder?”

Davutoglu needn’t wonder. History did not begin when the German satirist Jan Böhmermann ridiculed the size of Erdogan’s penis, and the outlandish ways the president allegedly uses it, in an effort to locate the boundary between legal and illegal speech in his country. Around the world, freedom of the press and freedom of expression have long depended on struggles to determine the acceptability of heavy insults.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, is personally acquainted with this history. He was briefly imprisoned in Poland in 1983 for supporting the anti-communist trade union Solidarity and helping launch a pro-democracy publication.

“The line between criticism, insult, and defamation is very thin and relative,” Tusk said at the press conference on Saturday. “And the moment politicians begin to decide which is which can mean the end of the freedom of expression in Europe, in Turkey, in Africa, in Russia, everywhere.”

“I was imprisoned for being critical of the regime, and if I remember well, also my good friend President Erdogan, it was 15 years later, had [a] similar experience for expressing his views,” Tusk continued. “As a politician, I have learned and accepted to have thick skin, and I have no expectation that the press will treat me with special care—quite the opposite.”

Erdogan, it seems, learned the opposite lesson from his stint in jail. In 1997, as mayor of Istanbul, he too spoke poetry to power. At a rally in the city of Siirt, Erdogan loosely referenced a poem by the Turkish nationalist Ziya Gokalp:

The mosques are our barracks,

the domes our helmets,

the minarets our bayonets,

and the believers our soldiers.

Erdogan had included these lines in past speeches. But this time they provoked Turkey’s secular military leaders and civilian elite, who had just forced the country’s first Islamist prime minister from power and who viewed Istanbul’s popular, Islamist-leaning mayor as a threat.

The poem “was an attention-getter,” Erdogan told The New York Times in 2003. “It would make the people spirited.” It also landed him in prison for four months on the charge of inciting religious hatred. In 1999, thousands of supporters escorted him to jail, where his popularity only grew. Erdogan seemingly emerged from prison a changed man, committed more to Western-style democracy than Islamism. He had learned that it “was necessary to catch up with developments, the modern age,” he said in 2002, the year his new political party won its first election.

But that perception was mistaken. Instead, Erdogan appears to have learned that it’s better to be the prosecutor of the poet than the poet himself. Over the last 13 years, his skin has grown thinner even as his power has grown more concentrated. Erdogan presides over the 17th-largest economy in the world and lives in a 1,000-room, 2 million-square-foot palace, but these evidently provide little comfort in the face of criticism. And the more Erdogan has lashed out at criticism, the more fiercely that criticism has come.

In the past year and a half, government prosecutors have opened almost 2,000 cases against Turks for insulting the Turkish president. One Turkish man lodged a legal complaint against his wife for cursing Erdogan in their own home. Another went on trial for comparing Erdogan to Gollum from The Lord of the Rings. Cartoonists were fined for a drawing allegedly implying that Erdogan is gay. And Erdogan has taken his war against insults abroad. In March, the Turkish government summoned Germany’s ambassador in anger over a music video, called “Erdowie, Erdowo, Erdogan,” that aired on a satirical German TV show. On Saturday, the same day Davutoglu and Tusk debated free speech, a Dutch journalist was detained in Turkey for denouncing Erdogan in a column. Since 2002, Turkey has dropped from 99th to 151st in Reporters Without Borders’ annual ranking of press freedom in different countries, largely because of the government’s intimidation of critical journalists and censorship of the Internet.

This is the climate into which Jan Böhmermann thrust his poem, placing what he himself called “abusive criticism” in a satirical setting to see what the combination yielded. In this case, as in the case of Donald Tusk in 1983 and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 1999, the context of the criticism matters as much as, if not more than, the content. And Erdogan himself should know this. “The poem I read I’ve been reciting for the last 20 years,” he said in 2002, while reflecting on the pretext for his imprisonment. In the 20th year, the poem suddenly sounded more menacing to Turkey’s anxious establishment.

The Turkish government has formally asked Germany to prosecute Böhmermann for insulting a representative of a foreign government, under an obscure section of the German criminal code originally designed in the 19th century to shield monarchs from criticism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has authorized public prosecutors to further investigate the case. If the matter moves to the German courts, Böhmermann’s poem could prove a vulgar vehicle with a lofty purpose: exploring when precisely speech veers from protected insults to prosecutable defamation, and identifying what kind of speech is dangerous—and to whom.

“When power leads man towards arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations,” John F. Kennedy once said. “When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.” Maybe, but so much depends on the circumstances of the poet and the man in power. Sometimes the poet, not the man in power, is reminded of his limitations. And sometimes the poet is in Germany, while the man in power is in Turkey. What then?