Turkey’s prime minister has a poetry obsession. Barely a speech of his goes by without him quoting some.
Back in his conservative democratic days, his favorite political slogan was a line of medieval Sufi verse: “Yaradılanı severim, Yaradan’dan ötürü” (“I love the created out of love for the Creator”). It was Islamic mystical love dressed up in modern secular clothes. Today he prefers the more belligerent stance of Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, a mid-twentieth century poet and ideologist of a Turkish Islamic revival who dreamed of a generation of youngsters who would fight for “their religion . . . their hatred and their revenge.”
But we’re not just talking about snippets of poetry here: the prime minister quotes much longer passages, too. At his party conference last autumn, he regaled tens of thousands of onlookers with several stanzas of a very long poem by a contemporary poet. And on his return from a tour of North Africa this summer, met at the airport by supporters as police in cities across the country tear-gassed youngsters protesting his government, he recited a lengthy excerpt from a poem by the author of Turkey’s national anthem.
Why does he do it? One simple answer would be that it is just a sign of the high esteem in which poetry is held in Turkey. Ordinary Turks probably know more poetry than most Western arts graduates do. Turkey’s last prime minister, Bülent Ecevit, didn’t just quote poetry; he wrote it, too, as well as translating T.S. Eliot and Rabindranath Tagore into Turkish.
There is no doubt it helps a politician to know that the audience understands what he is driving at. You can’t really imagine David Cameron using T.S. Eliot to justify austerity, telling voters angered by cuts that “In order to possess what you do not possess / You must go by the way of dispossession.” Nor is Berlusconi likely to use Cavalcanti on a teenager at a party (“Who is this coming, drawing all men’s gaze, / who makes the air tremble with brightness”).
But I’m not sure that that shared knowledge alone explains the peculiar place that poetry has in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rhetorical armory. It may have more to do with his perception, quite alien to the modern, technocratic West, of politics as a place of raw emotion.
It’s not that the West has anything against emotion per se. People love film soundtracks that make them cry. Millions love the sort of singing epitomized by Pavarotti and Whitney Houston, the vibrato and the surfeit of feeling, the sound—as the novelist Robert Musil put it—where “the soul cries into the cosmos like a rutting stag.” And then there is football.
But if any Western politician were to try to turn up the dials even remotely that high, they would be roundly mocked. The old news reels of Mussolini and Hitler look ludicrous today, with their supercharged voices and their histrionic gestures: you wonder how anybody could ever have taken them seriously. Today’s Western politicians dream not of Nuremberg, but of a cosy sitting room. The tone they strive for is intimate and reasonable, and the secret of their most successful slogans—like Margaret Thatcher’s “I want my money back” —is well-judged colloquialism. And when they do have to go out and stand in front of a big audience, there’s that new gesture they all seem to use, borrowed from show business, where they point with a smile to randomly selected members of the audience, one to the left, one to the right, one way over there at the back. “Never mind the crowd and the cameras,” they seem to say. “This is all about you and me.”
With Mr Erdoğan, you can forget the intimate tone. He is Wagnerian. He aims to dominate his audience with his voice, to take it hostage by the sheer force of his emotion. Take his body language, for instance, the way he expands up from the lectern, his hands jabbing and his strange, eyebrow-less face bunching up like a baby with colic, until finally, standing at full height, he swaggers back to acknowledge the applause. The cycle repeats itself over and over again, defensive, pugnacious, triumphant. You are almost tempted to applaud. You probably would if Turkish television hadn’t broadcast almost every one of his speeches in their entirety for the past five years. There is something astonishing about the way he manages, by pure force of personality and a sort of staged anger management, to turn this dumb show of his rise from the disputed margins of Turkish politics to total domination into the narrative of an entire nation, his people, once spat on and reviled, now risen again.
And this is where poetry comes in, because if you subtract the great motor of his voice and charisma, his speeches are actually rather dull. In each one, he will make a few remarks about the greatness of Turkey, salute brother nations like Bosnia and Palestine, dismiss the opposition in a few sarcastic phrases, allude to conspiracy theories you have to be a paid-up member of his Justice and Development Party to understand, let alone believe, and then reel off lists of statistics to show how hard his government has been working, how many hundreds of miles of highway his engineers have built, how many families his municipalities have housed in the new high-rise estates that have sprung up in every town across the country, how many patients have benefited from his health reforms.
This is the development part of Justice and Development, and it is probably the main reason—other than the lack of an alternative—most voters continue to vote for him. But its power to inspire a crowd is limited. Justice is a much more powerful idea, and Mr Erdoğan uses poetry to express it.
Here is the extract of the poem by Mehmet Akif that he quoted to the crowd that came to welcome him back from Morocco this June:
“‘I cannot condone tyranny, nor love the tyrant.
I cannot curse the past for the sake of the future.
If somebody attacks my ancestors, I strangle them!’
— ‘Strangle them? But you can’t!’
— ‘Chase them from my side then…
For all my mildness, I’m no meek sheep:
You can cut my throat maybe, but not push me around. . .’”
Out of context, it sounds as if Mr Erdoğan is referring to himself here: he is the one who is mild; he is the one who can’t abide the idea of tyranny. Clearly that is part of the message he intends to convey. But the effect of the quotation is more complex, because he introduces it immediately after he has flattered his audience by comparing it to an idealized vision of Turkish youth that Akif outlines in another poem. As a result, when he says, “I cannot condone tyranny, nor love the tyrant,” the “I” is both the speaker and his crowd. Mr Erdoğan is fond of describing himself as “the voice of the people,” and that is exactly what the poem permits him to become here. The boundaries between speaker and audience have been swept away and the righteous feelings of both have fused.
Another thing has fused too: fact and fiction. Four days before this speech, a peaceful protest in central Istanbul was broken up by police with water cannons and batons. Since then, tear gas has hung over the centers of Turkey’s main cities as protests spread. Three people are dead and two more are to die. Dozens have been blinded by tear gas capsules fired straight into crowds like oversized bullets. Scores are seriously injured. And yet here is the prime minister, master of the country, with the army and the police behind him, speaking in the voice of the underdog.
With prose, this would be a tricky line to sell, but you can just about get away with it with a poem, because a poem encourages a different quality of attention on the part of the listener. It is not exactly a lowering of the guard: in many ways attention is heightened. It is, perhaps, a bit like walking into a museum or a church. At the sound of poetry, ears desensitized to human noise perk up. Skepticism is put on hold. The listener opens themselves to the possibility of wonder.
The other thing about a poem is that you cannot really argue with it. The sort of arguments put forward in a debate can be questioned and refuted, but while you can like a poem or be unmoved by it, you can no more refute it than you can uncook a ready-made meal. It stands there in its pre-packed perfection, waiting to be heated up by the warmth of a speaker’s voice.
As an orator, Mr Erdoğan knows this. He knows that he doesn't have to quote the full poem to convey its broader sense. So it is with the passage from Mehmet Akif that he quoted in June, where he chose to leave out the last six lines of the poem. Four of these continue to describe the revulsion the poet feels at even the slightest hint of injustice. Then the poem changes direction:
“I am the tyrant’s enemy, but I love the oppressed…
Is this the meaning of reaction in that dialect of yours?”
This last couplet is a striking departure from what comes before. In the section he has actually quoted, the poem’s religious references have been mild and generic—justice and injustice, the sacrificial lamb. Here, they become much more explicitly ideological. Reaction (irtica) is the term the state has traditionally used to demonize any religious activity that doesn’t conform to its own version of Islam, and Mehmet Akif is protesting against that demonization.
But what should we make of the fact that Mr Erdoğan chooses to recite a poem with such a message at such a time? Because the fact is that irtica has entirely lost its invective force with the rise of his government. Branded a reactionary by the old establishment since he rose to prominence in the early 1990s, the prime minister is now all-powerful, and the old establishment is gone. It is not ‘reactionaries’ who are the enemies of the people in his Brave New Turkey; it is ‘coup supporters’ and ‘looters.’
There are two possible answers. The first is that he is determined to keep the term alive as a means of ensuring the loyalty of his own support base. Hold tight, lads! We’re surrounded by enemies. The second is that, consciously or unconsciously, he sees society in the same Manichean terms that Mehmet Akif describes in his poem.
The implication of those unspoken final lines is that the one thing linking opponents of the government, above all those protesting on the streets, is a simple hatred of Islam. They hate Mr Erdoğan and his supporters because they see them as representatives of ‘reaction.’ Their blindness prevents them from seeing that theirs is actually the rule of the Just. It is a nonsensical view, but it helps him sustain his image of himself as the avenger of an unjust system. In the context of the massive and violent clampdown on the protests, that last unspoken line rings like a bitter taunt: “Is this the meaning of reaction in that dialect of yours?”
And so we come from a rhetoric of loving the creature because of the Creator to a rhetoric of hatred and revenge. That’s what happens if you depend too heavily on poetry. No wonder Plato banned poets from his Republic.