Popehat is pleased to offer a guest post by Sarah McLaughlin. Sarah works for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (though the opinions expressed here are her own) and is interested in free speech and civil liberties. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarahemclaugh.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who, I’m legally required to state1, is not now and never has been employed as a Gollum impersonator, is doing a great job supporting the argument that the amount of power a leader has at his disposal is inversely related to his ability to tolerate “insults” or dissent.
At a September press conference, Erdoğan’s spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin claimed “there is a vibrant environment of debate in Turkey,” and said that it’s “never possible to consider insulting the presidential office within freedom of expression.” Although that statement is completely laughable, it was not a joke—Turkey does seriously crack down on “insults” to President Erdoğan, who, I repeat, is not one of the River-folk and has at no point been accused of murdering the hobbit Déagol.
The most recent example of Erdoğan’s tendency to overreact to insults is… precious.2 Today's Zaman reports that a Turkish court has “demanded an expert examination to investigate Gollum's character to decide whether a comparison with him is an insult,” after Dr. Bilgin Ciftci, who has now been fired from Public Health Institution of Turkey, shared this meme:
Ciftci has already attended four hearings over this picture, and will have to suffer through another on February 12 because the judge admitted he hadn’t seen the films, and wasn’t sure if the comparison to The Lord of the Rings character Gollum constitutes an insult. To help him find answers to this very important question3, he put together “an expert panel, which will reportedly include two academics, two behavioural experts and an expert on cinema and television productions.” So in addition to deciding whether or not Ciftci will spend time in prison, potentially two years, a Turkish court will be responsible for taking a position on Gollum’s moral worth. Talk about government overreach.
If they were to ask for my opinion, which I note, they’re not4, I would tell them that, considering the fact that Erdoğan, unlike Gollum, doesn't have a magic ring’s influence as justification for the way he acts, Erdoğan should be grateful for the comparison. Gollum is a complex, tormented character whose struggle against himself elicits the reader’s pity, rather than hatred. Erdoğan is a president who throws tantrums because people tease him online. I would also tell them that a major difference between the two is that Gollum, although obsessed with and in love with the ring and the power it offered, hated himself for it. Although he has good cause to do so, Erdoğan, from what I can tell, doesn’t seem to share Gollum’s sense of self-loathing.
In short, it’s not Erdoğan who is insulted by this comparison—it’s Gollum.
You don’t have to look hard to find more stories like this. A hearing will be held this month to determine the guilt of two children, ages 12 and 13, who were charged with insulting the president after they were caught tearing down posters of Erdoğan in October. Today’s Zaman reports that they could face up to four years in a juvenile facility. That same month, Turkish police arrested a 14 year old boy for allegedly insulting Erdoğan on Facebook. He spent a night in jail and was released the next day. Also in October, police detained Today’s Zaman editor-in-chief Bulent Kenes under this “previously seldom-used law,” claiming his tweets constituted insults to Erdoğan, who, again, is not a small, slimy creature who bit off Frodo Baggins’ finger in a final attempt to regain ownership of the One Ring. Kenes pushed back, arguing that he was simply exercising his rights. That’s just a few reports from one month. These are not isolated incidents.
And it’s not just “insults” that can get you in trouble. Two columnists accused of “openly denigrating the religious values of a part of the population” and “openly inciting groups of the population to breed enmity and hatred towards one another" for reprinting Charlie Hebdo’s post-attack cover of Muhammad will face a hearing next month (they failed to show up at the last hearing) and could face up to 4.5 years in prison if found guilty. In June, Erdoğan threatened to have a reporter “jailed for life” for publishing footage of Turkey’s state intelligence agency giving weapons to Syrian rebels. Last year, a Turkish woman was arrested for tweeting a picture of herself standing on a Quran in red stilettos, after being reported to police by Melih Gokce5, the mayor of Ankara, who claimed that "no one has a right to insult our religion." Last month, The European Commission published a report on human rights in Turkey, noting the “serious backsliding” on freedom of expression in the last two years; “Ongoing and new criminal cases against journalists, writers or social media users, intimidation of journalists and media outlets as well as the authorities' actions curtailing freedom of media are of considerable concern.”
It doesn’t really matter what kind of character Gollum is. The bigger issue here is the fact that innocent people could spend years in jail because they incurred the wrath of a very sensitive president. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote: “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” Erdoğan has decided to spend his time using his country’s courts and police force as weapons against anyone, including teenagers, willing to voice even the mildest criticism against him. He deserves all the insults he gets.
- If I ever want to go to Turkey, probably. ▲
- It’s so absurd, one might only expect it to occur in some kind of fantasy novel. ▲
- Apparently he’s never heard of SparkNotes, or Wikipedia.
- Gokce is apparently suing her for “insulting religion, inciting religious hatred and threatening public peace.” The Huffington Post reports that he’s sued around 3,000 Twitter users. Seems reasonable. ▲
Last 5 posts by Popehat
- Germany's Libel Laws: A Threat To Democracy [Guest Post By Colin Cortbus] - April 20th, 2016
- 2015: Another Bad Year for Blasphemers - December 29th, 2015
- Scared of Sondheim: A Story About Offense - December 23rd, 2015
- Turkish President Erdoğan’s Precious (Feelings) - December 4th, 2015
- Lisa McElroy On Books and Thankfulness - November 25th, 2015