The Turkish government has declared war on Twitter. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced that “We’ll eradicate it” and widespread outages were reported down shortly after midnight last night throughout Turkey. With court orders banning Twitter in hand, Erdoğan has said: “The international community can say this, can say that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is.” #TwitterisblockedinTurkey has trended in response, representing a social-media revolt.
American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin is a longtime expert on Turkey and talks to National Review Online about the situation in Turkey. (You can read our longer conversation about his new book Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes on NRO here.)
KJL: What do you make of Turkey banning Twitter?
MICHAEL RUBIN: Long before he became Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan famously quipped that “Democracy was like a streetcar; you ride is as far as you need, and then you get off.” His trajectory has shown that he took such words to heart. He has always been unwilling to tolerate dissent, and resents that twitter and other social networks provide an alternative to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the mosque.
At the same time, Erdoğan is facing a perfect storm: corruption allegations, Nowruz (the Kurdish/Iranian new year), and elections in a little more than a week. He wants to take the steam out of protests and prevent his opponents from organizing ahead of elections.
KJL: Did you see this coming? You’ve been warning of Erdoğan for a while now.
RUBIN: It’s been clear for some time that Erdoğan was an autocrat at heart, and a corrupt one at that. But, he really seems to have fallen off the deep end in the past year. Part of what might be motivating Erdoğan is a recognition that the Turkish bubble might soon burst. When Turks ask why Erdoğan would fan the flames of discord after his political ally Abdullah Gül worked so hard to calm them last May, they speculated that Erdoğan wanted protests to continue so that he could blame Turkey’s economic decline on the opposition.
KJL: Is Twitter and social media as powerful as Erdoğan seems to think it is — that it is a menace to be eradicated?
RUBIN: It’s not that social media is so powerful. It’s that it’s independent of state control. Remember, this is a man who has systematically worked to close opposition newspapers and who, leaked tapes have revealed, constantly calls media owners to dictate to them their coverage or to threaten them if they stray.
KJL: He sounds like a tyrant. Is he?
RUBIN: Yes, absolutely. Finally, there is bipartisan recognition of this in Washington—just look at the breadth of the signatories of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s recent letter. What amazes me is how many U.S. Congressmen bolster Erdoğan through their membership in the Congressional Turkish Caucus, which the Turkish government actively interprets as an indication of U.S. support for Erdoğan’s endeavors.
KJL: What’s the future of Twitter and social media in turkey? In Islamic cultures?
RUBIN: Well, Turks have really seized upon social media from the start, and are also quite active of Facebook. Islam is largely irrelevant to issue. Islamic countries have always seized upon new technology. My Ph.D. dissertation was about the introduction and use of the telegraph in Iran in the nineteenth century. After the opposition began organizing mass movements via telegraph, the Iranian government would try to censor or even cut the telegraph line to try to prevent its opponents organizing on it, but without success. Saudi Arabia also tried to censor the telegraph, until, back in the 1930s, the king insisted clergy submit their vouchers for payment by telegram. With their pay at stake, they concluded it wasn’t so satanic after all. But, back to the point: Autocracies are going to try to crackdown on social media regardless of their religion. It has more to do with the nature of tyranny and less to do with the specifics of any religion. Heck, Vietnam has cracked down on Facebook, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Venezuela or Ecuador continue their crackdown on social media.
KJL: Is Turkey a secular or Islamic culture?
RUBIN: Split right down the middle, but demography is in favor of Kurdish nationalists and Islamists, not secularists or liberals.
KJL: What’s the future of Turkey?
RUBIN: Turkey has its share of charismatic leaders—Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Adnan Menderes, Turgut Özal, and now Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—but with the exception of Atatürk, none has seen his political network survive long after his death. The AKP will eventually fracture. The question is how much damage will Erdoğan do before that.
Read more from Michael Rubin — talking about his book — here.