Understanding conspiracy theories in the Turkish context

Two important elements in the prevalence of conspiracy rhetoric is secrecy and political insecurities in Turkish politics.

Turkay Salim Nefes
16 October 2015
Imagining conspiracies

Bust of Ziya Gökalp, founding father of Turkish sociology, Diyarbakir.

Bust of Ziya Gökalp, founding father of Turkish sociology, Diyarbakir. Wikicommons/Cemaliamec.Some rights reserved.Conspiracy theories proliferate about many significant events ranging from global warming to assassinations and influence public opinion. For example, the conspiratorial perspective on Jews constitutes the backbone of anti-Semitic ideology. Conspiracy theories have not attracted sufficient attention, basically because a strong intellectual current sees conspiracy theories as deluded accounts that divert people’s attention from the reality.

This perspective tends to label conspiracy theories as products of political extremism and an enemy of democracy. Richard Hofstadter (1965) described conspiracy theories as a ‘paranoid style’: ‘The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a "vast" or "gigantic" conspiracy as the motive force in historical events.’ Hofstadter pities conspiracy theorists as double sufferers, troubled not only by the real world but also his fantasies.

While this perspective can explain some aspects of conspiratorial rhetoric, I think it has slowed down the research on the topic. For example, back in Turkey, when I wanted to do research into the socio-political significance of conspiracy theories as a postgraduate student, I was told by some prominent professors of sociology and political science that they have no significance, and are not worth the time. Yet conspiratorial rhetoric in Turkish politics is rampant. In one recent instance, the Turkish government used accusations of conspiracy in explaining the reasons for the nationwide Gezi Park protests in 2013. Nevertheless, the scholarship is gradually giving up on seeing conspiracy theories solely as paranoid accounts of deluded extremists and is beginning now to publish more empirical accounts of their impact.

A messiah, a sultan and anti-Semitic conspiracy rhetoric in Turkey

I have been examining the socio-political impact of anti-Semitic conspiratorial accounts about a secret Judaic Dönme (convert in Turkish) society in Turkey. The Dönmes are the followers of Sabbatai Sevi (1626–76), who claimed to be the messiah of the Jews in the seventeenth century. Sevi, a very influential religious figure of his time, was forced to convert to Islam by the Ottoman authorities and changed his name to Aziz Mehmed Efendi.

Despite this, several hundred families kept their belief and converted to Islam like Sevi in the seventeenth century, thereby constituting the origin of the Dönmes. They appeared as Muslims in public and secretly practiced Sevi’s version of messianic Judaism in private. As they constitute a secret society, the numbers of the community in modern Turkey are unknown. Nevertheless, there is a historically persistent anti-Semitic rhetoric about the community shaped by conspiracy theories, and the community constitutes a focal point in Turkish anti-Semitism. Most recently, in the 2000s, some of the conspiratorial accusations became best-sellers in the Turkish book market, with titles such as Efendi 1.

The emergence of these conspiracy theories can be traced back to the visit of Theodor Herzl, the head of the World Zionist Organization, in 1899. Herzl intended to buy Palestine for the Jews, but the Ottoman ruler Sultan Abdulhamid II did not accept the purchase. Abdulhamid II was toppled in 1908, and conspiracy theorists claimed that this was a Jewish revenge for his refusal to sell Palestine. They used the involvement of Mehmed Cavid Bey, a Dönme descendant, in the coup d’etat, as proof of a Jewish conspiracy. Since then, the conspiracy theories have been disseminated by both right-wing and left-wing intellectuals. Some recurrent arguments of those accounts over the years are: (a) the Dönme are secretly ruling in Turkey; (b) the community members are the elite that established the Turkish Republic in the early twentieth century; (c) the community hides its membership and malevolent plans; (d) the community degenerates the Turkish culture to destabilize the nation; and (e) the Dönme ally themselves with foreign powers against Turkish interests.

Relying on historical-comparative analysis, in-depth interviews with prominent conspiracy authors, politicians and conspiracy theory readers, I have shown that two important elements in the prevalence of the conspiracy rhetoric is Dönme secrecy and political insecurities in Turkish politics. The former relies on the public’s mistrust of the deeds of secret societies that has been inculcated in them for centuries and is deemed to have played an important part in Turkish political history. One of the reasons for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the predecessor of the Turkish Republic, was the uprisings of its ethnic and religious minorities. Hence, the Turkish elite saw ethnic and religious minorities as a potential reason for the dismemberment. For example, in 1921, Riza Nur, the Minister of Health and Foreign Affairs, asked Ziya Gökalp, the founding father of Turkish sociology, to study the Kurdish community to avoid future problems in South East Turkey. In such a political climate, the Dönme community as a secret, non-Turkish and non-Muslim group constitutes yet another uncanny figure and a well-known subject for conspiracy rhetoric.

Working on the conspiracy theories about the Dönmes illustrates the importance of political insecurities in anti-Semitic literature and the treatment of the minorities in Turkey. Likewise, studying other contexts of conspiratorial accusations could help us to understand important but unseen aspects of politics in a fresh perspective.       

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