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Turkey: A Conspiratorial State of Mind

As Eurasianet's Dorian Jones pointed out in a recent article, in response to growing domestic political strife and economic uncertainty, Turks are turning to conspiracy theories to explain things (with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading the pack).

The propensity to turn to conspiracy theories fueled by the belief that foreign powers are out to get Turkey is certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, it has a clinical name: Sèvres Syndrome, in reference to the treaty the Ottomans were forced to sign at the end of World War I which led to the carving up of their former empire.

In a new paper released by the German Marshall Fund, pollster and political scientist Emre Erdogan takes a look at the syndrome's enduring legacy and its relevance to today's politics in Turkey. From his piece:

The Turkish political culture and education system have reproduced this anxiety over generations. A very simple battery of survey questions illustrates this: 60 percent of the Turkish population believes that “Western powers” aim to disintegrate Turkey, as they have in the past. Similar percentages agree that the reforms that the EU expects Turkey to implement within the framework of the accession process are similar to articles of the Sèvres Treaty, and that the attitudes of Europeans toward Turkey is based on the “crusader ideals.”

These levels remained the same in different surveys conducted in 2003, 2006, and 2012. While almost one- quarter of the Turkish population has been renewed through generational replacement, there has been no change in the intensity of Sèvres Syndrome, a clear indicator of the success of the education system and political culture in shaping people’s attitudes.

Every analysis of Turkish foreign policy has to take this phenomenon into account; this syndrome is the DNA of Turkish political culture. Changing environmental factors such as economic growth, prosperity, and enduring peace directly affect its expression, which leads even to increased trust towards foreigners. But the possibility of the reversal of that trust is very high: a sudden change in internal or external political environment may easily result in a change or a swing in public attitudes, and doves can easily be trans- formed to hawks.

But while the readiness to believe in conspiracy theories may not be something new, it may be reaching new -- and ultimately corrosive -- levels. Writing today on this subject, Turkish novelist Elif Safak describes a society where nobody takes anything at face value anymore:

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly accused outsiders of being behind the protests in Gezi Park last summer, which left six people dead and 8,000 injured. Several government officials insinuated that dark forces were operating behind the scenes, including the Jewish diaspora, the C.I.A., the BBC, CNN and the interest-rate lobby, a term for a cabal of domestic and foreign banks that officials believe want to harm Turkey to further their own interests. A Turkish BBC reporter was openly accused of being a foreign spy. Protesters in Taksim Square were called terrorists. The German airline Lufthansa, it was suggested, was trying to scuttle an important new airport for Istanbul.

On social media there are endless rumors about “deep state within deep state.” Gradually, Turkey is turning into a nation in the grip of paranoia.

For now, it's hard to imagine Turkey coming out of this death spiral of paranoia, with every day's news making the ground even more fertile for the conspiracy mongers.

Turkey: A Conspiratorial State of Mind

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