Turks were high on the Christchurch killer's list of hate figures. Both in his internet manifesto and engraved on his weapons were the dates and names of victories of Christians over Muslim Turks like the sea-battle of Lepanto in 1571 or Catherine the Great's defeats of the Ottoman armies in modern-day Ukraine two hundred years later.
Traumatised New Zealand does not share the self-proclaimed crusader’s animus against the ghosts of the Ottoman Empire. But Turkey’s President has lent a perverse helping hand to the murderer’s twisted myth-making.
In blaming New Zealand for the deaths of 50 Muslims and the video of the carnage in Christchurch at rallies for Turkey’s looming local elections, Mr Erdogan not only antagonised a grieving country on the other side of the world but also scorned a rare example of historic reconciliation between previous warring parties.
Like Australia, modern New Zealand’s nationhood was formed by the brutal experience of tens of thousands of ANZACs fighting the Turks in the grisly Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. That war helped shape their identity. But the same battle was also a founding myth of modern Turkey, whose first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk became a national hero for leading his men in thwarting the Allied invasion. Out of the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire, Ataturk emerged as his country’s saviour and founder of a new republic.
Ataturk sought reconciliation with his former enemies and set up a memorial to the fallen enemy buried at Gallipoli, assuring them that their bones now lay among “friends.” Attending ANZAC Day every 25 April - and seeing the Turkish Army salute the war dead of both sides - has now become a rite of passage for young New Zealanders and Aussies. Yet this year President Erdogan had a bloodcurdling warning for any visitor taken for an enemy after Christchurch. Should they come to Turkey "with bad intentions", he declared, following criticism from New Zealand for his decision to screen footage of the Christchurch massacre "they will return in coffins as their forefathers".
Decades spent combatting the negative image of Turkey left by the mass deportations of Armenians from eastern Anatolia near the frontline with Russia to a grisly fate happening simultaneously with the defence of gates of Istanbul by Ataturk and his men are undermined by callous and threatening comments like President Erdogan's response to the massacre of Muslims in New Zealand.
Tarnishing his country's international image seems mad, but there may be method in Erdogan's apparently counter-productive comments.
Turkey’s recent experience of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism has not only cost hundreds of lives but also depressed tourism very severely. With an economy already stalling, the President’s remarks seemed to promote economic suicide in addition to inflicting gratuitous injury. It seems a long time since the centenary in 2015 when Mr Erdogan welcomed huge numbers of ANZAC visitors, but then he was seeking integration into the EU and was presenting Turkey as a bastion of the West.
The Turkish President’s rhetoric muddies the water between Islamist extremists and his government. Hardly surprisingly, this puts off Western visitors. Overall tourist numbers are sharply down on 2014’s record year.
Economic and tourist downturns don’t seem to have weakened his grip on power so far. If anything, hard times reinforce his party’s faithful in the need for a hard man at the top. Blaming foreign speculators for the general economic squeeze plays well to enough Turks to rally them behind their president. Throwing in claims of a new Christian crusade might cost a few thousand more waiters and hotel cleaners their jobs but it seems a plus for Erdogan’s poll numbers where it counts.
In Erdogan’s electoral heartland, the Asian bulk of Turkey, blaming foreigners who are also unbelievers for any ills plays well. Turks of course can of course point to cases of anti-Turkish prejudice and Western double-standards. However, when it comes to “Do as I say not as I do”, President Erdogan can beat all comers at that game. His indignation at Assad’s bombardment of residential areas to root out rebels is matched by silence about his own repression of Kurdish districts in the south-east.
Worse still is Erdogan’s capricious habit of switching from praise to blame and vice-versa. The Turkish president used to condemn Russia’s president as a Muslim-killer from Chechnya to Syria before he fell out with his NATO allies and started referring to Vladimir Putin as a friend and put in an order for Russian anti-aircraft missiles rather than US ones.
New Zealand is the last place to look for new crusaders. It is the poster-child of post-modern embrace of diversity. By contrast, Erdogan risks trapping Turkey forever in a state of antagonism with the wider world over historic grievances which can never be reversed because they happened so long ago.
Turkey has too rich a heritage, valuable to the whole world, to let itself become reduced to a weapon of an embittered and self-isolating president. But, sadly, a nationalism manipulated to put emotional resentments ahead of rational self-interest can still come up trumps in Turkish politics.