Fighting the virus the Turkish way

Through its control over the media, the Erdoğan government has been doing everything to turn the coronavirus epidemic into a domestic and foreign policy success story. However, the political use of the coronavirus has its limits.

Apart from its technical aspects, the way governments fight the coronavirus is a political process, composed of political decisions supposedly based on scientific data. To what extent a government will take into consideration the suggestions of experts and scientists on the subject is a political choice. The political choice is usually between the state of the economy and the measures to protect the lives of the people. Elected governments are also worried about their perception among the public and the next elections. States also enter into an implicit competition in terms of fighting the pandemic. This is the case with almost all the governments that are grappling with the virus. This means that fighting the coronavirus depends not only on a government's ability but also on its ideology: whether it will protect human lives or the economy. This goes the same for Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government as well.

The coronavirus came to Turkey at a relatively late date, with the first known case being announced on March 11. This would normally give the government an opportunity and the time to prepare the health system for the epidemic. In fact, the Scientific Committee to tackle the virus was set up at an early date, on January 10, with 31 members. But setting up a committee is only the part of the story.  

The AKP government, too, has had to face all these concerns in its fight against the pandemic but with two additional aspects as well. As of 2020, the AKP’s popularity was already waning, mainly due to the ongoing economic crisis. It was stuck when it came to security and foreign policy areas, as well as cross-border conflicts with no exit strategies. It lost major cities in the local elections last year, and two new parties were established by its former members of the ruling party, representing a fracture in the Islamist movement. 

Then came the coronavirus. One trait of the Turkish Islamists is that they are very experienced in turning crises into political gains; in other words, they have a very powerful survival instinct.

For the AKP, the virus was a matter of competition at almost every possible level. At the political level, like in every country, although the coronavirus placed some stress on the government, it also provided some critical advantages. Through its control over the media, the Erdoğan government has been doing everything to turn the coronavirus epidemic into a domestic and foreign policy success story. In its most politicized version, the pro-government media has been building a narrative from the very beginning of the epidemic. Both Erdoğan himself, his minister of health, and the media boast about the way Turkey is handling this crisis through a rhetoric based on self-admiration. In this narrative, Turkey is represented as a model and as admired by all countries and the World Health Organization (WHO). Pro-AKP media and the party spokesperson define any critics as traitors, and they argue that Turkey has distinguished itself from other countries in its handling of the crisis.

In fact, the government has still refrained from a nationwide lockdown or a specific lockdown confined to Istanbul, which is the epicenter of the epidemic with its more than half of the cases. While the WHO has praised the government for its hospitalization efforts, it also has warned Turkey about the pace of the spread of the virus, which is faster than Italy. It is the local municipalities and the opposition parties that urge the government to order a national lockdown, but so far, the Erdoğan government, fearing the economic consequences, has adopted a phased approach such as banning inter-state travel and locking down people older than 65 years and younger than 20 years. The government has also sidelined critical civil society organizations such as doctors and pharmacists unions, and has not shared critical data with the public, some of which is controversial.

The AKP government has also entered into competition with the municipalities controlled by the opposition. In a surprise move, the government banned local municipalities from organizing donation campaigns and confiscated the donated money deposited in the banks, and did not allow them to distribute masks. Even some members of small groups who distributed masks were detained by the police. The government refused to coordinate its efforts to fight against the pandemic with the mayors; most of its decisions are taken without consulting and notifying the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara.

The second aspect of the pro-government media’s narrative has been to emphasize the shortcomings of Western countries in their handling of the pandemic. In an effort to make a contrast with the AKP’s approach, pro-AKP journalists and writers rushed to highlight the material shortages in some countries like Italy, France, and the US not as a bad governance, but as a sign of the collapse of the Western civilization. In a charm offense, Turkey sent masks and medical gowns to 32 countries affected by the pandemic. In itself, there is nothing wrong with providing excess materials, if there are any, to the needy. Still, the problem is that the AKP government uses this to project its influence in neighboring countries, such as in the Balkan states, and uses this help for domestic image building.  

Apart from the political uses of the virus by the government, the Islamists have conceived of the coronavirus pandemic from a religious perspective, and have found an opportunity to prove the superiority of Islam over Christianity especially. The fight against the coronavirus was perceived not only as an inter-state but also as an inter-faith competition. With the spread of the virus, there was a renewed interest in science and scientific thinking, probably as a reaction to the growing top-down Islamisation of the government. Some Islamist writers were quick to dispute the virtues of the Enlightenment and an increasing interest on the science. Citing Western-rooted theoretical conceptions, since Islamist thought is weak in challenging modernity theoretically, they renewed their attacks on rationality and even secularism, praising the Islamic way of dealing with the epidemic.

Especially noteworthy is the distortion of some practices in the West, such as allowing the call for prayer over loudspeakers in Germany in an effort to involve the Muslims in the fight against the coronavirus outbreak, or the posting of Quranic verses in the Netherlands to appeal to Muslims there. The Islamists handpicked several sources like Newsweek magazine’s March 17 op-ed on the relationship between faith and the pandemic in which the author, a Catholic, referred to Prophet Mohammad’s sayings in the case of an epidemic.

The Islamists have tended to interpret such sporadic references as proof that Islam is better at equipping its believers to deal with such crises, and that Islamic hygiene is superior to the hygienic practices of the West. It may be understandable for Muslims to believe that Islam is better as a religion, but arguing that this pandemic will make Islam more appealing is more wishful thinking rather than the reality on the ground.  

The political uses of the coronavirus have their limits. Turkey's coronavirus curve seems to be flattened at four to five thousand cases daily, which represents a plateau, but one with a very high rate. Without strict measures, like a general lockdown, other experiences show that it seems unlikely that the number of new cases will decrease. The longer the crisis continues, the more profound the economic consequences and its impact on the government itself will be.