The coronavirus pandemic has fueled hate and xenophobic speech in the predominantly pro-government Turkish media, which accuses the usually targeted groups and countries including Jews, the Gülen movement and the West of being the source of COVID-19 and spreading the virus among Turkish society.
The pandemic is portrayed by the country’s pro-government “experts” as a tool of biological warfare, a selective or smart virus developed by Zionists, Westerners/dominant powers, people affiliated with the Gülen movement or the Rockefeller family in order to “subjugate intransigent countries to their will,” “redesign the world,” “launch chaos in the country,” “create ‘Lego’ religions” or “occupy minds”.
COVID-19 has become an opportunity to dehumanize minorities and vulnerable social groups for some loyalists of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. According to Nedim Şener, a government propagandist: “The coronavirus is a disease that can someday be cured. But FETÖ is incurable. It cannot be gotten rid of unless someone dies. FETÖ is an illness and immorality that is worse than the coronavirus. There is no cure for it at all. This society hosts hundreds of thousands of those who have contracted the FETÖ virus.”
FETÖ is a derogatory term coined by the Turkish government to refer to the faith-based Gülen movement, a civic group that has been active in education, interfaith and intercultural dialogue and charity work in many countries. The movement is led by US-based Turkish Muslim scholar Fethullah Gülen, a vocal critic of Erdoğan on corruption and the Turkish government’s aiding and abetting of armed jihadist groups in Syria and other countries. President Erdoğan turned against the movement after major corruption investigations in December 2013 that implicated Erdoğan, his family members and his business and political associates.
“What is the purpose? Whose plot is it [COVID-19]?” an anchorman at A Haber, a widely watched news channel owned by President Erdogan’s family, asked his guest, Coşkun Başbuğ, who was presented as an expert on security and terrorism. “It is the plot of the Zionist terror organization. Zionism is a structure accustomed to ruling the world through economy. It benefits from drops in stock markets. You are going to see in a matter of weeks that they will find a vaccination for this virus,” Başbuğ replied.
Then Başbuğ stated that “Italy is one of the targets because it rejected a proposal from ‘the hitman of the Zionists,’ US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to set up an Operation Provide Comfort-like military force in Syria [a reference to military operations initiated by the US-led coalition to defend northern Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the Gulf War]. China and Iran have for some time been the targets of the smart virus or biological war.”
Another time the same expert was more precise, saying: “Nobody should doubt that those who created this virus will find a vaccine for it. Irael has already announced that it found one,” adding that “Jews, Zionists have engineered the coronavirus as a biological weapon just like the bird flu and the Crimean–Congo hemorrhagic fever [CCHF]. They are an organized network targeting Russia through oil and market fluctuations and China through the coronavirus. They have inflicted a scourge called the coronavirus on humanity. They keep generating those kinds of viruses to design the world, to force people to buy their medications, to subjugate countries and to neuter the world’s population.”
In another program on the same TV channel, one of the commentators, Ergun Diler, argued that “the coronavirus pandemic is a global exercise carried out by the dominant powers. They do not want a population over 60. They want a young population that can fight. The growing size of the world population is threatening the world, as revealed by David Rockefeller. It has to be reduced.”
CNN Türk, another pro-government television station, the Turkish affiliate of CNN International, has also become a platform for similar rants: “The coronavirus is a means to persuade humans to be subjected to total brain control, if necessary, through implanting biometric chips. … The 20th century was a century of territorial occupation, the 21st is a century of the occupation of minds. …The Rockefeller family and Fethullah Gülen are behind this.”
Mustafa Şahin, the rector of Turkey’s state-run Selcuk University in Konya province and a physician by profession, was more ambiguous in a televised speech, stating: “The coronavirus pandemic is part of psychological warfare. It is basically no worse than similar epidemics. There are some who want to use it as a tool of psychological warfare to reach certain goals by creating chaos and commotion in societies.”
Another pundit, an expert in experimental medicine, claimed that “genetic features play an important part in spreading the coronavirus. It was the case with SARS. Asians are more prone to be affected by this virus. It has a genetic infrastructure. Turkish genes are resistant to this virus. SARS did not affect Turks, either.”
In another CNN Türk program focused on the pandemic, a commentator argued that “the pandemic is being used by the West to create a ‘Lego’ religion — a mixture of paganism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity — which is FETO. With the Abrahamic religions’ conspiracy [a reference to the interfaith dialogue advocated by the Gülen movement] they will eviscerate the religions.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan
As a matter of fact, this kind of discourse is not peculiar to the coronavirus pandemic in Erdoğan’s Turkey. Whenever Erdoğan and his kowtowers found his rule in a predicament, be it in the form of an economic crisis, popular unrest or a political challenge, they have always found scapegoats to blame. However, it would be fair to remind that the discourse of Erdoğan and his supporters finds it origins in his radical Islamist, anti-Semitic, anti-West and pro-Third World ideology and hence goes back a long way.
President Erdoğan himself first resorted to this kind of discourse during the Gezi protests, when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets on May 28, 2013 to protest an urban development project initiated by Erdogan in Istanbul’s historic Taksim Square. The demonstrations were quickly transformed into civil unrest with an ever-increasing number of protestors who wanted to peacefully express their resentment of Erdoğan’s growing authoritarianism. The civil unrest took on a dimension and magnitude compromising Erdogan’s rule similar to that seen in the Arab Spring.
Instead of empathizing with the protesters and trying to accommodate their wishes, Erdoğan preferred to accuse them of being traitors and collaborators with external forces, which proved quite effective in quelling the uprising. According to Erdoğan and his mouthpieces in the media and politics, the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), the Alevis, Turkish business conglomerate the Koç Group, Jews, Germany, Mossad and Fethullah Gülen were the instigators of those internal and external conspirators.
Seeing that this kind of political discourse paid off in consolidating the rank and file of his followers and in cornering his opponents, Erdoğan made a habit of using the same political language whenever he found himself in a political bind. Thus, he dismissed the December 17-25, 2013 corruption investigations in which he, his son, four of his ministers and other AKP notables were implicated as a Gülenist conspiracy.
He and his henchmen used similar jargon when Turks faced a shortage of basic foodstuffs during a recent economic slump and held external conspirators/powers responsible for the shortage. Given this track record it is not surprising that Erdoğan loyalists employ similar language for the spread of the coronavirus, a predicament that will, to all appearances, overwhelm the country’s health infrastructure. Hence it is a pre-emptive tactic against the potential resentment of the people for the deficiencies of the health system vis-à-vis an enormous pandemic, a tested tactic proven to be highly effective. Dehumanizing a persecuted faith-based group such as the Gülen movement and others to this end is quite permissible in his playbook.