The proclivity for conspiracy theories in the Middle East is universal. A cursory survey of any average media outlet presents a legion of examples of automatic assumption of a plot or some kind of conspiracy when attempting to make sense of any event of any import. The usual villains are the United States and Israel. The suspicion and hate towards these two countries are coupled with exaggerated view of their omnipotence. Anything happens because these two countries want it or things do not happen because these two countries have another agenda. This instinctual assumption is partially borne out of real experience. The United States has been at the center of almost all major developments -largely negative- in the Middle East. And equally Israel is not known for sitting on its hand when it comes to interference in issues it deems important for its national interest. Despite this fact, however, conspiracy theories are peddled in a place of serious and sober explications and they are cleverly used by every autocrat and demagogue in the region to manipulate public opinion and sentiments. Whenever popular uprising threatens their power, Middle Eastern autocrats come up with elaborate and sometimes ridiculous explanations. Mega-conspiracy theories are embraced and actively encouraged to displace attention from serious internal ailments and to misattribute them to a foreign bogeymen and/or domestic collaborators. This tendency has serious policy implications for the region and Turkey is not an exception to this rule.
In the perpetual struggle for the soul of Turkey between Islamists and secularists, the latter’s dominance of the Republic has been credited by many Islamists to the Zionist connivance and plot with an active support from the United States. For example, Ataturk is considered by many Islamist as a “Zionist agent” who was commissioned to bring Turkey to the Zionist fold. The American support, if tacit, of the various coups staged by the military against elected Islamist governments reinforce the suspicion that things are cooked by the CIA and, by extension, Israel. Sometimes small minority groups in Turkey take the brunt of conspiracy theories. One such group is the Dönmeh community – small, secretive Jewish society founded during the Ottoman Empire. Members of this community are blamed for maintaining a secretive network to insure their dominance in the political and economic spheres of the country. Ridiculously some people allege that Erdoğan is a member of this crypto-Jewish community.
True to trend, Erdoğan and his incumbent party are also masters of conspiracy theories whenever they face opposition not only from their historical enemies — the secularists— but also from their former bosom buddies; the Gulenists. When his government faced one of its biggest challenges in 2013 with the massive Gezi Park protests, he and his army of cadres went overboard to peddle plots presumably hatched by the usual suspects. The paranoia that comes with believing its own conspiracy theory was so intensive that Turkish authorities detained a bird on suspicion it was spying for Israel, but freed it after X-rays showed it was not embedded with surveillance equipment.
In his grandiloquent posturing as the promoter of Turkish independence from Western condescension and as the only boy in the block to accord Turkey a pride of place in the pantheon of global power, blaming foreign powers and their domestic collaborators is a favorite pastime for the Turkish president. As a fine example of this gimmick is his attribution of the Gezi park protests, the legal corruption probe into his inner circle to a Üst akıl — a Turkish word for supreme mind. Taking a cue from this, some of Turkish media outlets, which are at the beck and call of the ruling party, call this ‘Supreme Mind’ by it real name— Jewish conspiracy. A Turkish columnist writes of a documentary that purports to uncover the workings of the Supreme Mind produced by AHaber Tv, a media outlet affiliated to the ruling party . The AHaber documentary begins with Erdoğan stating: “Don’t be misled. Don’t think that these operations are against me, our government, our party. Friends, these operations are rather directed against Turkey itself — its unity, its peace, its economy, its independence. And as I have said before, behind all these steps there is a mastermind. People ask me, ‘Who is this mastermind?’ Well, you have to figure that out. And actually, you know who it is.”
The AHaber documentary then goes on identifying the Supreme Mind as the Jews who “rules the world, burns, destroys, starves, wages wars, organizes revolutions and coups, and establishes states within states.” It locates the rationale for the ‘Jewish ambition’ in a ridiculously ancient putative historical event, where Moses led the Israelites from Egypt to the Holy Land. It says that Jews want to do what it claims they have been doing because they are pissed off for losing the Ark of Covenant given to them by God on their way to the Holy Land. One Turkish academic featured in the documentary connects the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 with the Jewish desire to look for an ancient manuscript that contains secrets about the whereabouts of the Ark. The documentary identifies Maimonides, Charles Darwin and Leo Strauss as part of this grand thousands of years old Jewish project. The plot thickens and finally reach the conclusion that the Üst akıl are scared to their bones to see Turkey, under Erdoğan, getting stronger and independent by the day, thereby delivering a fatal knock at their scheme. Going back to history, the documentary presents a roster of actions taken by the Supreme Mind to bring Turkey to its knees. Among its accomplishments the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the establishment of the Republic, the toppling of Sultan Abdul Hamid II, Adnan Menderes and Turgut Özal stood out. Perceiving the re-emergent power of Turkey under Erdoğan as an imminent threat, the Üst akıl is doing whatever it can, from organizing demonstrations to initiating a judicial probe, to arrest this march to progress and greatness.
The AHaber documentary is not the example of the imagination of marginal freaks and ideological crackpots. It is a mainstream view. The news outlet that produced the documentary is second to the Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) network in popularity. Furthermore, it features many AKP luminaries.
The penchant for conspiracy theories intensified in the wake of the failed July 15 military coup. Many people, including one Turkish minister, did not see the need for evidence to cry CIA and Israel. The fact that the alleged leader of the coup, Fethullah Gülen, lives in America was taken as enough reason to implicate the United States. The Turkish ruling party’s top dogs, continue to insinuate that the coup was directed from Langley. One news outlet for example claims that the “coup was financed by the CIA and directed by a retired U.S. army general using a cell in Afghanistan.” The Mayor of Ankara is endowed with the most fertile imagination when it comes to producing fantastical conspiracy theories. One day he twitted: “If you examine the news that sound simple well, you would easily understand the plot. What I’m saying is absolutely not imaginary. I say it by believing and with insistence… External powers are planning an artificial earthquake in Istanbul to collapse our economy… The world should know this… Here is the solid and fresh proof of what I’m saying: North Korea has done a nuclear test in the sea and an earthquake with a magnitude of 5.3 happened!” When asked how Fethullah Gülen managed to maintain a large following in an interview with CNN Türk, the Mayor responds: “This may sound funny to you, but he does it with a strange method. He does it with the ‘three-lettered things.’ Everyone now can debate this. He enslaves people with the ‘three-lettered things,’” and used a Turkish phrase to refer to the word “genie.” He continues: “It’s obvious that a lot people have been enslaved in previous times and then were saved. He has the ability to do this too. People have become mesmerized and enslaved.”
Recently one conspiracy theory is making rounds in the Turkish media about how the Gulenist use U.S. banknotes, particularly one dollar bill, to orchestrate the coup and determine the ranks of members within the echelons of the movement. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag told AHaber Tv that “there is no doubt that this $1 bill has some important function within the Gulenist terror organization. Prosecutors are asking as they investigate what these are. What does this mean? Why are they being carried? Does it signify a hierarchy to them? Is it some sort of ID that identifies them to one another?” Not to be out-done, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim states that: “With one American dollar, this organization turned the children of this country into monsters.”
Conspiracy theories are cleverly used to arouse raw emotions and garner support for the ruling party in Turkey. But it has also negative implications for Turkish foreign policy. Besides stripping Turkey off its reputation in the eye of world public opinion, the wild conspiracy theories creates mistrust and uncertainty among Turkey’s traditional allies. The ruling party uses these methods in order to give importance to Turkey and to ensure public support for its government even if it takes a lot of imagination and lying to remain in power and highly supported by the Turks.
Joe Hammoura, “The Supreme Mind, Genies and the Dollar Bill: Turkey and Conspiracy Theories”, Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS), December 9, 2016.