The Importance of Jamal Khashoggi to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Celebrated Saudi journalist and commentator Jamal Khashoggi wrote in Arabic and English for publications in his own country and the United States. Due to his criticism of the Saudi regime, Khashoggi was forced to leave Saudi Arabia and settle in the United States, where he continued to write unfettered by government censorship and harassment. On 2 October 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain the documents necessary to marry in Turkey his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. Khashoggi was never seen again by the outside world.
In time, it became known that a team sent from Saudi Arabia murdered Khashoggi in the consulate and had dismembered his body. The whereabouts of his remains are unknown.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has used and continues to use the Turkish state to stifle the expression of dissent in the mass media. He stopped access to Wikipedia in 2017, a ban that lasted almost three years. In 2018, when Khashoggi was murdered, 110 Turkish journalists were under arrest in Turkey. Nevertheless, Erdogan immediately took up the cause of Khashoggi and has castigated Saudi Arabia on numerous occasions. He has gone so far as to say that next to the September 11 attacks in the United States, the murder of Khashoggi has been the most controversial and influential event of the twenty-first century. Erdogan’s reaction was, in fact, predictable given his outlook and his agenda, as well as Turkey’s political and cultural heritage.
On a personal level, Khashoggi was a friend of Erdogan. The murder of a friend and the lurid disposal of his body by agents of a foreign power would anger any head of state. As Khashoggi’s political criticism was directed at Saudi Arabia, his work bore no impediment to Erdogan’s friendship with him. Indeed, it was in keeping with his political agenda, since Khashoggi’s writings had been directed at Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Erdogan’s immediate rival in the Middle East.
Erdogan has stated that he is a friend of King Salman and his loyal subjects but accuses a shadow state within Saudi Arabia of having committed the crime. This language is reminiscent of Erdogan’s readiness to say that the derin devlet (deep state) in Turkey has been persecuting him and is responsible for many of Turkey’s problems. While he is dogged by criticism at home and abroad for his alleged abuses of power, his advocacy for justice in the case of Khashoggi has given him the chance to take the moral high ground. Erdogan has called for transparency and prosecution of all of the members of the conspiracy.
Erdogan has seized this opportunity to use international media and put himself in a position of appealing to international norms in the defense of human rights. Consequently, he wrote an opinion essay for The Washington Post on 29 September 2019, almost one year after Khashoggi’s murder, to shake the world’s conscience about the perfidious nature of the crime and its attack on the world order. On the theme of extraterritorial state action, Erdogan drew a distinction between Israel’s apprehension of Adolf Eichmann in Argentina to be brought to trial in Israel and Saudi Arabia’s murder of Khashoggi. “The kidnapping of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was quite legitimate. However, to say that Khashoggi’s murder in any way served the cause of justice is comical.” Erdogan stated that Khashoggi’s murder was an act of killing someone for his political views.
Erdogan states continually his desire to emulate the Ottoman Empire, which, at its zenith in the mid-1500s, had extended its rule to three continents: from the gates of Vienna to the Persian Gulf, from Crimea to the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, and from the eastern end of the Sultanate of Morocco to Safavid Persia. Whereas Ottoman influence spread and was maintained through military conquest, Erdogan has sought to revive Turkish dominance in the Middle East through soft conquest by establishing influence over Sunni Muslims and their political institutions. Under Erdogan, Turkey has extended its military footprint to five Middle Eastern and Eastern Mediterranean countries formerly under Ottoman rule: Cyprus, Iraq, Libya, Qatar, and Syria.
Whether due to size, lack of resources, or political and social fragmentation, Saudi Arabia is the only Arab state in the Middle East with the weight to hold Erdogan’s agenda in check. Saudi Arabia, unburdened by a recent non-Arab imperial past, through the size of its economy and military has the resources to buy loyalty and influence amongst Middle Eastern Arabs. As the guardian of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia has a heightened status amongst Sunni Muslims.
In addition to its ability to resist Erdogan’s quest to extend Turkish influence, Saudi Arabia bears a historical repugnance to Erdogan as it governs the land that was the locus of the Arab Revolt in World War I, which began in 1916. For Erdogan, this was an act of perfidious treachery as it began less than a year after the Ottoman forces had been weakened after the Allied attack and seven-month siege of Gallipoli, which had threatened Istanbul, the empire’s capital. Subsequently, the revolt wrested from the Ottomans the guardianship of Mecca and Medina. Erdogan’s support of a talented writer in opposition to Riyadh’s policies who could reach readers in both Arabic and English was in keeping with his calculus to counter Saudi influence. Although neither the planners nor the assassins wanted to be caught and bear the expected general opprobrium and possible harsh consequences of their actions, it was a sharp personal blow and insult to Erdogan and his plans for Turkey that Riyadh had planned to murder and did murder Khashoggi in Istanbul, the former capital of the Ottoman Empire.
Erdogan saw this crime as an attack on the state. Erdogan’s reaction was reminiscent of the Turkish military’s reaction to the kidnapping of the Israeli Consul-General Ephraim Elrom on 17 May 1971, two months after the military intervention of 12 March 1971. For the military, this act was not only an attack on a foreign diplomat, but an assault on the state, which was responsible for Elrom’s safety and the maintenance of law and order. Consequently, it rounded up 427 people in 19 provinces, declared a complete curfew in Istanbul, and sent thirty thousand soldiers to conduct a house-to-house search in the city, which ended when Elrom was found dead on 22 May.
Whereas in the former case, Turkish citizens had kidnapped Elrom to create instant propaganda in the international press to bargain for the release of jailed Turkish comrades, in this case, the crime had been committed by foreigners and had taken place in a foreign consulate, which gave all of the responsible parties a sense of impunity and heightened Erdogan’s anger. Saudi Arabia had sent a hit team to Turkey to kill a visitor for whom Turkey and its institutions were responsible for his safety and wellbeing. Perhaps more important, as Erdogan shies not from identifying himself with the state, this act was an unpardonable affront to the communal norms of the traditional mahalle (neighborhood), where there is the constant presence of community norms guided by a shame culture.
Erdogan was raised in Kasımpaşa, a traditional neighborhood in Istanbul where community norms and community consciousness bear a heavy influence on the lives of the residents. In such an environment, it is impossible for the individual to remain anonymous and unobserved. The concept of mahalle kültürü (neighborhood culture) is pervasive and there is a blending of public space and private space that leads to the neighborhood becoming the shared private space of its residents. The safety of a foreigner in such a neighborhood is one of communal responsibility. Should he or she be harmed, it would bring shame on the entire community, not merely on the individual assailants. The fact that Riyadh would consider such an act, let alone commit it, made Erdogan, on a personal level and as the head of state, see this crime as an attack on Turkish sovereignty and himself by the most base means.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan seized the opportunity of an unusual confluence of the idealism of human rights and the promotion of self-interest. Erdogan has made use of the world forum simultaneously to champion the cause of justice, in this case, that of Jamal Khashoggi, and to deflect the attacks of critics and to advance his ongoing struggle with Saudi Arabia.