By Marko Den Hartogh
A Dutch cartoon entitled “the long arm of Erdoğan” featuring the Turkish President as an alpha male or the king of ‘monkey rock’ (apenrots), seemingly squashing Dutch-Turkish journalist Ebru Umar, caused controversy last week and reignited a discussion about freedom of speech and the freedom to offend.
The news of the arrest and subsequent questioning of Dutch journalist of Turkish decent, Ebru Umar, has been hitting headlines globally these past weeks. Pertinent for the Netherlands is Ms. Umar’s criticism of the Turkish consulate for urging Dutch Turks to report on anyone who insulted Turkey or its government. Will such meddling in national affairs heighten tensions between the ever-more autocratic Turkey and the standard-bearers of free-speech, the Netherlands? Is Turkey alienating its allies with its projection of power?
Turkish confidence to influence extra-national affairs has grown parallel to its regional power and economic output. Since Erdoğan took office in 2014, over 2000 legal cases have been launched against those who have supposedly insulted the president or government of Turkey – a growing number of which target people outside of the country.
Ms. Umar previously attacked the deplorable state of freedom of the press in Turkey, which attained infamy last year as one of the top 5 countries with the most journalists in jail. Jailing those who disagree with power however has been commonplace in Turkey long before the rise of the AKP. A tool of choice to silence political opponents is article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which criminalizes ‘Insulting Turkishness’.
The now infamous lawsuit against German comedian Jan Böhmermann, who performed a satirical poem about Erdoğan on national television using slanderous language, is remarkable because Angela Merkel – astonishingly and against the council of some of her closest advisers – agreed to actually prosecute the comedian, mainly due to Turkish pressure. German lawmakers employed an obscure section of the legal code to do so, namely section 103 which prohibits insulting the heads of state of friendly governments.
The reaction in the Netherlands to the German lawsuit, even before the arrest of Ms. Umar, was nothing less than outrage. Rebuttal came in an all too Dutch way: crude jokes. Comedian Hans Teeuwen supported his German colleague by taping a sketch in which he accused Erdoğan of being a ‘selfish lover and lousy prostitute’. Another local comedian, Theo Maassen, replied satirically to Teeuwen’s video in one of the larger national newspapers, claiming that he found Erdoğan to be both insatiable and competent in bed.
The Netherlands, priding itself on a long history of relative tolerance for religious minorities, has, in the last decade or so, become a European battleground in the fight for free speech. In 2002, right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn was shot dead outside a radio studio by an environmental activist. Two years later, filmmaker Theo van Gogh was killed in the streets of Amsterdam for his remarks on the prophet Mohammed and Islamic culture.
During this time, the Netherlands lost some of the consensus-based political culture it is famous for (the Polder-model) and debate between the left and right hardened. Law abiding Muslims were caught in the middle or simply left to fend for themselves. The Netherlands went through a process quite similar to that which we currently see playing out in the United States; attacks on political correctness, distrust of the ruling elites, a firm stance on immigration and increasingly overt racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. Holland found its Trump years ago in Freedom Party (PVV) leader Geert Wilders.
The Dutch attitude to free speech is increasingly juxtaposed to that of the Turkish government. The right to free speech includes the right to offend, free-speech advocates like Mr. Teeuwen claim. The right to free speech is portrayed as a European value, so those who do not support it are perceived as either foreign or poorly integrated. Paradoxically, this is something that fits Mr. Erdoğan’s agenda quite well.
In May of 2015, the AKP sent open letters on behalf of Prime Minister Davutoğlu to Dutch Turks asking them to vote for him in upcoming elections. Efforts like these are working: 69 percent of Dutch Turks voted for the AKP in the last elections, more than anywhere else in the world.
Fed the government narrative through satellite TV, seeing the economic gains during short trips to Turkey and likely feeling estranged from the increasingly hostile Dutch host community; the descendants of workers from rural Anatolia are often very susceptible to the potent cocktail of religious nationalism which is the AKP. This power over Turkish opinion in Europe is used regularly to influence Dutch internal affairs or citizens of Turkish decent.
In February of 2010, Mr. Erdoğan hosted a conference for Turks holding political office in European countries and called on them not to integrate into their host societies. In early 2013, Ankara started investigating Turkish children in Dutch foster homes run by either Christian or same-sex couples, with the Turkish government stating that these children should live in households which hold ‘Turkish values’. Attempts such as these, to engender strong links between Turkey and its overseas subjects, are very beneficial to Mr. Erdoğan.
The gastarbeiter (guest workers) and their descendants ensure millions of euros in remittances and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for boosting Turkey’s economy. Turks abroad are also an important voting demographic; they number about 5 million according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. 3 million of them have returned to Turkey after living abroad for considerable periods of their life – and they take their life-savings with them. The possibility of influencing European voters and local politicians serves two purposes; first, the ability to target unfavorable local policy and second, spreading Turkish cultural hegemony.
The Turkish President’s sensitivity to insults directed at his person is understood by some Dutch Turks, with many of them feeling there are limits to free speech. The media awkwardly found many of them in the days after Ms. Umar’s arrest. The most prominent of which are Öztürk and Kuzu, two Members of Parliament sympathetic to Ms. Umar’s arrest. Europeans have their own limitations to free speech, such as denying the Holocaust, but sympathy for an increasingly authoritarian ruler with a bad sense of humor does not go down well in the Netherlands, as has become clear in recent weeks.
Turks in the Netherlands see an attack on their president as an attack on their identity, while their allegiance to a foreign state is looked upon with suspicion by native Dutch. This schism between the two social groups is exacerbated and cleverly exploited by Erdoğan, who is also a self-proclaimed champion in the fight against Islamophobia.
I should mention here that the Netherlands in fact has laws very similar to those of Turkey. Activist Abulkasim Al-Jaberi shouted ‘fuck the king’ at a political rally in 2014 and the prosecutor’s office threatened to sue. Only after public outcry – and I hope an intervention by the King – was it decided that the right to free speech weighs more heavily than an 1881 law that prohibits insulting the Crown or its next of kin. As recently as 1980, the Dutch introduced a law which explicitly prohibits insulting the head of state from a friendly nation. Furthermore, until 2014, the Netherlands had in place blasphemy legislation. The devil is in the details however as unlike Turkey, the Netherlands do not have a political culture which allows for the enforcement of such laws.
The current government has already stated it will not prosecute anyone for insulting Mr. Erdoğan under the abovementioned laws, although the foreign minister said in parliament that it cannot guarantee the safety of those who choose to insult the Turkish president and decide to travel to Turkey. Dutch diplomacy is generally very accommodating and pragmatic – trade is more important than pride – but it would be wise for Mr. Erdoğan not to overplay his hand.
The President could learn a thing or two from the Dutch royals; they are mocked with a passion and the Dutch take pride in doing so, yet they enjoy extremely high approval ratings at the same time. The Turkish president’s increasingly authoritarian style is alienating European partners, among which the Dutch.
The Dutch have had relations with the Turks for over 400 years, blossoming from Turkish support in their 80-year war against Catholic Spain in the 16th and 17th century. When the refugee crisis ends or changes direction and Turkey loses an important piece of political leverage: will Mr. Erdoğan have any friends left in Europe?