Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent remarks equating birth control to an act of treason have stirred up yet another storm in Turkey and abroad.
The comment is the latest in a series that have made headlines in both international and Turkish media outlets, and also lit up social media platforms with exchanges reflecting the divide between Turkey’s secularists and conservative Muslims.
It has also prompted questioning of the media’s reporting of statements by a politician who himself frequently accuses international and domestic media of distorting his words.
In the early years of his leadership in 2000s, Erdogan was widely seen by the West as a moderate conservative, aiming to improve Turkey’s democratic standards and economy. He managed to set off EU membership talks 2005, but the process has been stalled for years now.
Western perception of the Turkish leader has changed in tandem with Erdogan’s rhetoric.
While some say that Erdogan’s choice of words coupled with their interpretation by media outlets contribute to turning every statement he makes into a headline, others argue that his remarks merely reflect his hardline ideology.
In his remarks on birth control, Erdogan, whose opposition to abortion and contraception is no secret, steered cleared of religious references. He was referring to its economic dimensions, saying birth control threatened Turkey’s bloodline.
Erdogan urged a couple at their wedding on Sunday to have at least three children to help boost Turkish population figures, in keeping with this oft-repeated worries about Turkey’s declining birth rate.
In a statement in November, Erdogan said: “Women do not need to be equal to man, rather they should be guaranteed to be equivalent.
“You cannot subject a pregnant woman to the same working conditions as a man. You cannot make a mother who has to breastfeed her child equal to a man without such responsibilities. You cannot [physically] make women work in the same way men do, as it was in the communist systems.”
I don't believe Erdogan's words fall far from other similar conservative leaders' statements in terms of content.
There is no clear consensus among Turkish commentators on why Erdogan’s words make headlines, reflecting perhaps ordinary Turks’ widely divergent opinions of him.
“I don’t believe Erdogan’s words fall far from other similar conservative leaders’ statements in terms of content. For example, his views on abortion … he comes from a conservative background and speaks accordingly,” Etyen Mahcupyan, a Turkish columnist and senior adviser to Ahmet Davutoglu, the prime minister, told Al Jazeera.
“Western media seeks to use Erdogan’s words for their political agenda. They obviously have a problem with the current position of Turkey [in the world] and they are reflecting this on the country through Erdogan’s statements.”
According to Semih Idiz, a Turkish political analyst, Erdogan has been a charismatic leader since he came to power in the beginning of 2000s.
“His Islamic roots combined with his moderate and democratic discourse, respecting secularism, put him in the attention of the Western media during those years,” he told Al Jazeera.
“However, particularly after the Arab Spring, he leaned towards a sectarian and, to an extent, missionary path. And this has been reflected in his remarks and the Western world’s reaction to a new Erdogan was different than the past.”
In a 2012 statement, Erdogan compared abortion to the botched Turkish air strikes – known as Uludere incident – in 2011 that killed of scores of Kurdish civilians trying to cross from Syria to Turkey.
He called abortion “murder” at various times.
In the same year, his government actively sought to limit abortion rights, the so-called morning-after pill, and Caesarean sections, but withdrew the proposals amid public outcry.
Erdogan is frequently condemned by liberal and secular commentators in Turkey, particularly for his statements on women’s rights.
At times even conservative writers have criticised Erdogan’s choice of phrases, while arguing that the media and public’s focus should be on his message rather than specific words used by him.
. However, the same remarks get him points among Turkish conservatives and Islamic masses across the Middle East.”]
“The tone and wording of the majority of Erdogan’s remarks might sound odd and sharp to the Western world. Erdogan is a politician and he makes his remarks to deliver specific messages. The content is more important than the specific wording of his statements,” Mahcupyan said.
In another remark ridiculed by critics, Erdogan claimed that Muslims discovered the American continent.
“In his memoirs, Christopher Columbus mentions the existence of a mosque atop a hill on the coast of Cuba,” Erdogan said, adding that he wanted to see a mosque built on the same hilltop today.
Youssef Mroueh of the Sunnah Foundation wrote in 1996 that he had discovered evidence of the existence of a pre-Columbian mosque in Cuba.
He wrote: “Columbus admitted in his papers that on Monday, October 21, 1492 CE, while his ship was sailing near Gibara on the northeast coast of Cuba, he saw a mosque on top of a beautiful mountain.”
Columbus’ words are interpreted by most historians as a metaphorical reference to the summit of a mountain that resembles a minaret.
Another case in point is Erdogan’s labelling of all people who consumed alcohol “alcoholics” while appearing on a television programme in 2013, at the height of anti-government protests.
Minutes later in the same show, Erdogan changed his statement to clarify that he was referring to new regulations on drunk driving and restrictions on the sale of alcoholic beverages at shops overnight.
Then again, at the height of leaks of scores of illegal phone recordings in late 2013 and early 2014, Erdogan said: “I am increasingly against the internet every day.”
The recordings allegedly revealed corruption within his government and business circles close to it.
On a separate occasion, Erdogan said: “Social media is the ” and promised to “wipe out” platforms such as Twitter and YouTube.
Idiz, the Turkish analyst, says that Erdogan is widely seen in the West and the Middle East as aiming to be the leader of the Islamic Sunni world.
This path has “radical connotations in the West”, particularly following the recent developments in Syria and Iraq, he told Al Jazeera.
“Erdogan means what he says and makes his remarks for political reasons. His discourse is unusual for the Western world and sometimes puts Turkey in a tough spot [in the West]. However, the same remarks get him points among Turkish conservatives and Islamic masses across the Middle East.”
Mahcupyan, the prime minister’s adviser, says the criticism Erdogan attracts in Turkey reflects the country’s political polarisation.
“The environment ahead of Turkish elections [in June 2015] also affects political rhetoric here. All circles, who speak and listen to [each other in Turkey], see things through this lens, influenced by the tense political atmosphere.”
Follow Umut Uras on Twitter: @Um_Uras