Until recently, we thought that Europe stood firmly on European values and that these values were not for sale. Just think of the European media’s mockery of Islam. It seems that this popular pastime is justified by the fact that there is a long-established culture of court satire in Europe, where jesters were permitted to make fun of the crowned heads with impunity...
It all began with the murder of the well-known director Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam, who had made a film in 2003 about violence against women in the Muslim world. Much of the story remains unclear, since, if truth be told, Europeans should probably not get involved in a discussion about where the situation for women is better. Especially if you bear in mind the status of women in the more socially disadvantaged groups in Europe. The film also appeared immediately after the start of the US and British war in Iraq. The director was murdered and both European society and the media were rocked by mass protests. The issue of freedom of criticism in the media became even more acute and Europe said: «We are in favour of such freedom». It doesn’t matter who you are: the ayatollah, the president, the prime minister, or even a prominent spiritual authority! If you encroach upon our European values, we will subject you to scathing criticism and draw caricatures of your Prophet Muhammad to boot.
And so everything continued in that vein. The French magazine Charlie Hebdo became known for its caricatures of Muslims and many European publications enthusiastically reprinted them. From 2005 onwards, the magazine became a symbol of Europe’s mocking attitude towards Islamic culture. Many Arab countries protested, the artists were sentenced in absentia, and rewards were offered for their heads. None of this had any effect, however, since European values, including the freedom to mock, should never be called into question.
When the Muslim world responded with a terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo office, therefore, the whole of Europe came out onto the streets. In one voice, Europe declared: «Je suis Charlie!» At that time, incidentally, a group of high-profile demonstrators was organised from among Europe’s leaders, which also included Angela Merkel.
Such a courageous stance was easy for Merkel at the beginning of 2015, since it seems she still believed she could cope with the flood of refugees from the Islamic world. This flood has already increased, however, along with the Germans’ dissatisfaction at the Federal Chancellor’s willingness to take in everyone. But Merkel obviously had no idea at the time that Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who was skilfully directing hordes of dissatisfied Muslims into Europe, was behind this flood. It turns out that he had discovered a rather effective way of subjugating European policy to his own interests. Erdogan’s ‘secret plan’ became clear to everyone, however, and German satirists recalled the traditions of the Dutch and the French.
On 1 April 2016, German satirist Jan Böhmermann read out a poem about Erdogan in the spirit of the mocking French caricaturists on his regular show on ZDF. The poem was accompanied by caricatures. Along with accusing the Turkish president of human rights violations, the satirist also called him a sodomist, a paedophile and other degrading nicknames.
A scandal broke out when Erdogan demanded that Angela Merkel bring the satirist to justice, his idea of European values clearly differing from those of Europeans themselves. And strange as it may seem, Merkel decided not to stand up proudly and declare that freedom of speech exists in Germany. Firstly, she knows the truth – freedom of speech does not exist in Germany. And secondly, a proud stance could cost her dearly, since Germany could be flooded with a new wave of refugees completely at Erdogan’s mercy.
So the first thing that the German authorities did was remove Jan Böhmermann’s programme from the Internet and ban it from being reshown. And the second and most remarkable thing was that Merkel gave the order for the satirist to be prosecuted. An heir of the centuries-old culture of royal court jesters who indulged in unflinching couplets against the crowned heads is to be tried!
And quite tellingly, the French and Dutch media are not protesting against this obvious buckling to a formidable descendent of the Janissaries. Do they also fear the refugees?
Have all of the much-lauded European values simply faded in the face of a menacing roar from Ankara? And what about the large-scale demonstrations, the unity of the people in the face of barbarism and so on?
There is no doubt about it, whatever we may think of Erdogan, he has emerged as a litmus test for European policy.