Over the years in which the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) has ruled, we have seen an array of pejorative epithets, actually contradicting each other, used for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, ranging from "dictator" and "authoritarian sultan" to "follower of Sharia" and "Modern Yazid."* During the resolution process with Kurds, he was called a "traitor" by the republican leftists as well as the nationalists. Yet when the ceasefire was ended by the PKK, he was held accountable for breaking the resolution process by the same opponents. While the PKK declared cease fire, these opponents claimed Erdoğan must have given some concessions in return, but when the PKK ended the ceasefire, the same opponents never questioned what concessions Erdoğan had not made. In one case, Erdoğan was accused of being a follower of Sharia while his new Gülenist opponents began referring to him as the modern Yazid. They portrayed him as misrepresenting Turkish public opinion, whereas in the West he was depicted as an oppressive Sharia follower opposed to the secular system.
Such campaigns at defamation are by no means new in the history of Turkish politics, which is riddled by its own set of conflicts. Similar propaganda was directed against the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II by local and foreign opponents with exactly the same epithets. Members of the Young Turks' Party conducted two different opposition campaigns against the sultan. They spoke in concurrence with Western media outlets and accused the sultan of authoritarianism and dictatorial behavior. While in the Ottoman Turkish and Arabic publications, he was accused of being a "modern Yazid" and "blasphemous" among the Muslim community. Because Sultan Abdülhamid II was perceived as a Pan-Islamist and dictator oppressing non-Muslim citizens, the Young Turks avoided using this "blasphemous Sultan" propaganda in the West.
Sultan Abdülhamid II was accused of not abiding by the Sharia (Muslim canonical laws) and falsifying the written works of the religion to establish his own personal dominion over religious matters and ultimately maintain his so-called "tyranny." Professor Şükrü Hanioğlu of Princeton University stated in an article published in Derin Tarih magazine that "In each and every final verse of the 'Terane-i Ahrar,' the anthem of İttihad ve Terakki Cemiyeti [the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP)], known as the major opponent party against the sultan, the epithet 'treacherous Yazid' was repeated."
Photo from Prof. Şükrü Hanioğlu's article published in monthly history magazine "Derin Tarih."
The Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) prepared this document, which accuses Abdülhamid II of various crimes toward the end of 1897, in order to be distributed in Istanbul and other provinces in secret. The aim of the document was to raise questions about the legitimacy of the sultan amongst public.
"Bir beladan bin bela icad eder hain Yezid / Ademiyet, mülk ve millet düşmanı Abdülhamid." (Traitor Yazid who creates thousands of troubles out of one / Abdülhamid is the enemy of his people, property and democracy).
A declaration emphasizing the "blasphemy of the Sultan," with aims to call his legitimacy into question, was written by the CUP and secretly distributed throughout Istanbul and other cities in 1897.
What is interesting is that those who accused the Sultan of blasphemy were actually themselves very materialistic and primarily secular in orientation. Undoubtedly, they were merely paving the way for social opposition against the sultan through manipulation of his widely Islamist public image. Besides, the opponents of the sultan were trying to influence the ulama and win their support with a fatwa to dethrone him. As a result of this propaganda, in 1909, they could have toppled the sultan by a fatwa, with accusations of him removing important religious content from the books and banning or burning them. But even if they had succeeded in their efforts to persuade the ulama to declare a fatwa, citing the Sultan as blasphemous, they failed to manipulate the public opinion. Sultan Abdülhamid II was a "father," who is still enshrined in the hearts of his people. When he died in 1918, the grass roots flocked to his funeral.
Ironically, after the dethronement of the sultan, this propaganda ended as if it had been severed by the knife, and new propaganda ensued: bigotry. Still, Sultan Abdülhamid II was held responsible for the reactionary uprising. Later on, in books that were published during the early Turkish Republic era, it grew evident that Sultan Abdülhamid II was being accused for creating policies according to the sharia laws.
This was not the only propaganda war waged against him; rumors also swirled that the sultan had various mental problems and behavioral disorders.
"This defamation campaign reached its height when the best-selling book, 'Andul-Hamid Intime' (1901), was written by Anastase Adossides under the penname George Doris, and was translated into many different languages," said Professor Hanioğlu.
Under this image, Sultan Abdülhamid II was portrayed as a ruler who dealt with mental problems and lacked the ability to govern a state. During the stages of his defamation, the Young Turks' Party and the CUP took advantage of the media, presenting their propaganda to the public. "Kanun-i Esasi," "Layiha ve Mektub," "Meşveret," "Osmanlı Mecmuası" and "Mizan" can be described as the strongest opposition journals published against the sultan. Here, I want to share the most interesting quotes from Professor Hanioğlu's aforementioned article, as well as the ones that are eerily similar to the discourse we see in the rhetoric of Turkey's modern opposition.
In the journal "Meşveret," overseen by Ahmed Rıza Bey, the following words were written: "Abdülhamid has been willfully and purposefully ruining the nation. Damn him!" In the journal "Mizan" published by Murad Bey, Sultan Abdülhamid was defined as "the Dullard of the Yıldız Palace" and, in the major journal of the CUP, titled "Osmanlı Mecmuası," the sultan was referred to as "Going crazy, going mad, trembling you tyrant, just trembling."
Occasionally, we could see how the evil alliance proceeded against the sultan and how, as a result of the endless hatred, some intellectuals of the period dared to even support the terrorists, attempting to legitimize the assassination of the sultan by claiming he was a dictator and evil. Some of these intellectuals blatantly praised Edouard Jorris, the Armenian partisan assassin who attempted to kill the sultan in front of the Hamidiye Camii (Yıldız Mosque) in 1905. When the sultan was about to leave the mosque after the Friday Prayers, he stopped and began to talk with the Shaykh al-Islam – a short conversation which ultimately saved him from being assassinated. A timed bomb exploded at that moment. Luckily, the sultan survived, but the assassination attempt resulted in the deaths of 26 people and the injury of 58 others. Blinded by his own hatred and without regard for the innocent people who lost their lives that day, the poet Tevfik Fikret wrote a poem titled, "Bir Lahza-i Taahhür" (A Momentary Lateness) in which he addressed the assassin with the following words:
"O, the glorious hunter, you didn't set a trap in vain / you shot but you missed it [the target]."
In a written account of the assassination, Historian Ahmet Refik wrote in his book, "Abdülhamid ve Sultanlık Dönemi Üzerine" (On Abdülhamid and the Sultanate Era) that "Finally the truth was unveiled: The heroic rebellion for saving the Ottoman people from the oppression of Abdülhamid was carried out by the Armenian citizens."
Today's sentiments are not so far removed from those accounts. In a nutshell, first they used blasphemy and the label of Yazid as precursors to manipulate public opinion and, after the Sultan's dethronement, he was blamed for being a bigot and accused of organizing the March 31 Incident.
W.H Auden, the famous Anglo-American poet, describes propaganda as a monologue that is not looking for an answer, but an echo. Today when we try to figure out the developments taking place inside and outside Turkey, we can see that the country is moving through a new propaganda tunnel, taking us to an unknown destination. Fortunately, today the Turkish people are more conscious and wise, with access to more reliable information through independent channels, which allows them to realize that we are watching the same movie many times over, with different actors but the same plot. Hopefully, history will not repeat itself ever again…
*Yazid I is the second caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate. He was regarded as a tyrannical dictator who committed major crimes, including the murder of Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, the massacre of Hussein's soldiers and the sieging of Mecca and Medina, which are regarded as the holy lands of Islam. He is one of the most controversial figures in Islamic history and is unpopular among both Shia and Sunni Muslims.