It was the motto-"I believe I can fly" that Bilal Erdoğan used as the title of his application letter when he intended to study an undergraduate degree in international relations in the U.S. at the end of the 1990s. As the son of Istanbul's charismatic then mayor, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and one of the brightest graduates of Kartal Anatolian İmam-Hatip High School, he truly represented the new generation of Turkey's conservative youth who could skillfully synthesize the modern with the traditional. His school was renowned as the home of a tolerant interpretation of Islam's relationship with politics, democracy and social and intellectual life, which became influential in raising some of the cadres who would construct the "New Turkey" in the 2000s. Confident, open-minded and eager to learn about the Western world through the social sciences without losing touch with his pious Islamic identity, Bilal set off for the U.S. like many of his peers when Turkey was going through an ultra-secular and oppressive post-modern coup known as the Feb. 28 process.
His colorful journey in American academia started with a degree at Indiana University and continued with esteemed institutions such as Harvard and Johns Hopkins University SAIS Bologna Center with a spell at the World Bank. For an objective observer, this was not such a bad academic career for a young man coming from the heart of Turkey's conservative society, normally characterized by a reserved attitude to Western education. Yet despite his humble character and bright intellect, the perception of Bilal for his friends and foes alike was not that of an ordinary politician's son. The incredible rise of his father to critical posts as Turkey's prime minister and first popularly elected president as a leader who left his mark on Turkish politics in the 2000s meant that the public spotlight was always placed on his family, and particularly on Bilal.
Rather than spending a comfortable lifestyle in Western capitals with luxurious treats and away from the vagaries of Turkey's domestic politics, Bilal's enthusiasm about education and supporting key educational institutions attracted him to charitable work, civil society initiatives and pro-student activities across Turkey. He spearheaded numerous endowments, nongovernmental organization networks and collaborative endeavors to improve the physical infrastructure and quality of secondary education, in particular the İmam-Hatip schools, which were neglected for a long time and ostracized in society following the Feb. 28 process. In that respect, the most important symbolic value of Bilal as a graduate of these schools was to provide comfort and self-confidence to around 1 million students who attended these schools to receive combined education on Islamic and positive sciences, as well as their families. Despite the accusations of political adversaries claiming that these schools were turned into the backyard of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), the Erdoğan family always enjoyed supporting and giving morals to the social fabric around these schools, seeing them as the backbone of Turkey's future intellectual regeneration that could combine moderate Islamic values with modern science, democracy and development.
Unlike typical cases before him, Bilal was not involved in organized crime, was not spotted causing mayhem around elite nightclubs and did not try to force his way into an economic empire. But when the Gezi Park protests and Dec. 17 and Dec. 25 operations exploded, he was selected as a target for disinformation by the Gulenist security, judiciary and media establishment to undermine the legitimacy and reputation of his father, while also eroding the main support-base of İmam-Hatip schools, which were thought to weaken the conservative education market available for Gülen colleges.
The latest saga of social media manipulations based on dreadful claims that Bilal escaped to Italy with many armed bodyguards and transferred $1 billion cash to his international finance network showed the zenith of disinformation we could ever see in Turkey. Meanwhile, Bilal was spending time with his family and contemplating his PhD thesis at SAIS on "Turkey's Development Model," until possibly being outraged with the chain of slander against him. The moral of this true story for starters on Turkey is to never take anything at face value in Turkey's wild politics.