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Erdogan's disreputable coup against women

Alexander Görlach
Alexander Görlach
March 31, 2021

Wednesday is the International Transgender Day of Visibility. Turkey has shown itself to be regressive with regard not only to women's rights, but also those of the LGBT+ community.

Protesters in Istanbul, some with banners and face masks
Protesters in Istanbul marched against Turkey's decision to leave an international accord protecting women from violenceImage: Emrah Gurel/AP Photo/picture alliance

In terms of misogyny, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has overtaken the Catholic rulers in Hungary and Poland, who have certainly not been stingy when it came to attacking women in the recent past. In January, Law and Justice, Poland's ruling right-wing populist, anti-Europe party, enforced a ban on abortion, even in cases of severe fetal abnormalities. Hungary signed an anti-abortion declaration last year.

This new form of misogyny comes hand in hand with the exclusion from special protection of homosexual, bisexual and transsexual people. Quite a few Polish counties and cities have declared themselves "LGBT-free zones" — people who are not heterosexual are not welcome. It is a sad repetition of history that people in Poland, which was once invaded by "Jew-free" Nazi Germany, are now stigmatized and declared outlaws in such a disgusting manner.

Erdogan doesn't want to seem like a wimp: He repeated a statement made by the country's top Muslim cleric, who in a sermon at the end of April last year blamed homosexuality for the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.

Joint populist agenda

This needs to be called out as what really it is: dreadfully stupid. But that is not the end of the story. The autocrats in Ankara, Budapest and Poland — nominally, Turkey, Hungary and Poland are democracies, the latter two are members of the European Union — are pursuing a common agenda that the free world cannot be indifferent to.

Alexander Görlach
Alexander GörlachImage: Hong Kiu Cheng

In a nutshell, Erdogan's political biography is a good example. He won the 2004 local elections in part by stylizing himself as a "brown Turk" out to shatter the dominance of the "white Turks," meaning the Kemalist secular elite in the military and politics. A strong man, alone against the establishment, for the people, against the elite at home and abroad — the world has had to watch several repetitions of this populist thriller.

People like Erdogan or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, however, only reject "the elites" at home and abroad who are in a position to keep a close eye on them, expose and punish wrongdoing: the judiciary in Turkey, Poland and Hungary is staffed with minions, the press and the universities put on mute. Rights for everybody, where would that leave us? In this respect, Turkey, Poland and Hungary are also shockingly similar.

Western values are the enemy

In these countries, nepotism and kleptomania have been taking the place of lucid, open processes, of performance and ability. Of course, they do not want anyone on the outside to have the possibility, legal or otherwise, to force them to change their behavior. That is why Poland and Hungary oppose the EU's rule-of-law mechanism.

In this vein, Turkey will never be a member of the European Union; and it has been a long time since Erdogan even wanted to join. The EU is not the only community of values — so is NATO, of which Turkey is a member. The fact that the White House severely criticized Turkey's withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention shows that people everywhere in the free world are shocked by developments in the country.

This woman defied Poland's anti-abortion laws

Populists like Erdogan can only exist on the political scene by presenting their voters with enemies that become scapegoats. Loaded with discontent, it is their substitute for real politics. Poland has announced a replacement for the Istanbul Convention that would ban abortion and same-sex marriage. It won't be long before more grim news emerges from Hungary and Turkey: After all, the wheel of resentment and denigration must keep turning.

Alexander Görlach is a senior fellow with the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs and a senior research associate at the Religion & International Studies Institute at Cambridge University. He has also held several scholarly and advisory positions at Harvard University, National Taiwan University and the City University of Hong Kong. He holds doctorate degrees in comparative religion and linguistics.

This article has been translated from German.