ISTANBUL — Forget The Donald, Hillary, and Bernie in New York. If you want to see some serious mud-slinging, look to Turkey’s capital Ankara, where the president of the republic and the leader of the opposition have been calling each other political and sexual perverts.
Turkish politics has never been for the faint-hearted, with sex tapes ending political careers, fistfights breaking out in parliament, lawmakers going to jail for speaking Kurdish, and generals staging three coups d’état in two decades. But the latest gutter-talk exchanges have shocked even seasoned observers here, with what the Hurriyet daily called some of the most severe accusations ever heard in Ankara.
As Murat Yetkin, editor if the English-language Hurriyet Daily News, wrote in a column, “It is not clear where this war of decomposing language will end.”
It all started when a sexual abuse scandal in a dormitory run by Ensar, a religiously conservative NGO seen as close to the government, came to light last month. At least eight male students reportedly were raped by a teacher in the dorm in the central Anatolian city of Karaman. A prosecutor is asking for 600 years in prison for the alleged rapist, who is in pre-trial detention, but the opposition in Ankara is accusing the ruling Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) of playing down the incident in order to protect Ensar.
Last week, opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP), launched a broadside against the government during a speech in Ankara. He said government figures were refusing to protect child rape victims, lashing out against Family Minister Sema Ramazonoglu because she had defended Ensar by insisting a single incident should not be used to blacken the image of a whole institution.
This is when things started getting ugly. Kilicdaroglu said the family minister was “laying [down] in front of someone”; the phrase is well-known in Turkey because a former minister reportedly said he would “lay in front” of a shady businessman to protect him from being investigated for bribery.
Rahsan Gulsan, a columnist writing for the Sozcu newspaper, pointed out that “laying in front of someone” was not the same as saying the female family minister was “laying underneath someone,” but that didn’t stop government leaders from declaring Kilicdaroglu had made a rude and sexist remark.
In the ensuing war of words, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made sure he was the one using the harshest language, saying now that the “sexual pervert” who had raped the boys was behind bars, Turkey should think about what to do with “political perverts” like Kilicdaroglu. “May God save Turkish politics and Turkish democracy from types like this one,” Erdogan said on Friday.
The opposition leader shot back by saying that Erdogan was guilty of “political perversion” himself because he ignored a constitutional demand that the head of state be impartial when in fact he was openly taking the AKP’s side on all matters.
For good measure, Kilicdaroglu added that Erdogan had also admitted to staring at girls and women from the window of his office in Istanbul. “This is called sexual perversion,” Kilicdaroglu said. He accused the government of “immorality” by trying to pin a sexist remark on him when he hadn’t made any and called on Erdogan to “shut up just for two minutes.”
Family Minister Ramazanoglu says she is going to court, demanding 50,000 lira ($17,500) in damages from Kilicdaroglu. Kadem, a women’s rights group, brought criminal charges against the opposition leader, accusing him of a hate crime.
Sex and sexual innuendo pop up surprisingly often in public debates in Turkey, a Muslim society that is much more conservative than those in Western nations, especially outside the big cities like Istanbul.
Last year, an Islamic scholar made headlines by declaring during a chat show on the state-run TRT television channel that “advanced oral sex” was a sin even when performed by a married couple. He failed to explain what exactly he had in mind, as the female presenter of the show broke down laughing while live on air.
Earlier this year, the state-financed Religious Affairs Directorate caused a storm by publishing an Islamic ruling, or fatwa, that gave the impression of tolerating sexual advances of a father towards his own daughter, as long as the girl was older than 9 years old. The directorate said the press had distorted the content of the fatwa, but the author of the ruling was fired.
While the slander game in Ankara continues, some observers say the row around the alleged sexist slur by opposition leader Kilicdaroglu has in effect stopped efforts to get to the bottom of the abuse scandal in Karaman. Everybody in the capital focused on scoring the next rhetorical goal, not solving problems. As Hurriyet columnist Ahmet Hakan wrote on Friday, “That is Turkey’s biggest tragedy.”