If there’s one thing you’d think Turks would have learned by now, it’s that you do not, under any circumstances, insult President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Nor in fact, do you suggest that the government is corrupt, that the PKK may not be “terrorists” after all, that elections may be rigged, or that the MIT is smuggling guns to militants in Syria. All of these things can and will get you arrested or much, much worse.
In the last two weeks alone we’ve witnessed the arrest and detention of two high profile journalists from Cumhuriyet, the arrest of the generals who were responsible for the investigation the Cumhuriyet journalists were arrested for reporting on, and the resignation of Today’s Zaman chief Bulent Kenes.
Cumhuriyet’s Can Dundar and Erdem Gul, were charged with spying and aiding a terrorist group, the gendarmerie with "forming and leading an armed terrorist organization," and as for Bulent Kenes, he cited ongoing legal battles with the government for his resignation.
This is all par for the course in Turkey. Indeed, it was just three months ago that three Vice News journalists (two British citizens and an Iraqi) were arrested for allegedly "engaging in terror activity" on behalf of ISIS. Their real “crime”: reporting on the conflict with the PKK.
Well as those who frequent these pages are no doubt acutely aware, Erdogan has for all intents and purposes lost his mind since AKP put on a better showing at a re-run election the President engineered in early November. In addition to the renewed media crackdown, he’s shot down a Russian warplane and invaded Iraq.
Well, just when you thought things couldn’t get any more surreal in Turkey, Dr. Bilgin Ciftci, a physician with the the Public Health Institution of Turkey has lost is job and now faces two years in prison for sharing the following on social media:
Yes, that’s right, Erdogan is about to put a medical doctor in jail for comparing him to Gollum.
But it gets better.
As The New York Times notes, “a judge said he did not know enough about the Tolkien creature to make an appropriate decision, five experts were ordered to conduct an investigation into Gollum’s moral character before the next phase of the trial begins in February.”
In what certainly comes across as a kind of slightly condescending (if you're a Tolkein fan) attempt to make light of the situation without just coming out and calling the whole thing ridiculous, The Times went to the trouble of interviewing and quoting Michael D. C. Drout, an English professor at Wheaton College who edits an annual review of Tolkien’s works.
“I don’t think there’s any consensus that Gollum is evil. He is the most tragic character in ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ The context is this: Gollum accidentally, not intentionally, saves the entire world. [Tolkein] didn’t see him as irredeemably evil. He saw him as someone who had been destroyed by this evil ring.”
Meanwhile, Peter Jackson - who directed the famous big screen adaptations of Tolkein's trilogy, weighed in as well. "If the images are in fact the ones forming the basis of this Turkish lawsuit, we can state categorically: None of them feature the character known as Gollum. All of them are images of the character called Smeagol. Smeagol would never dream of wielding power over those weaker than himself. He is not a bully. In fact he’s very loveable. This is why audiences all over the world have warmed to his character.”
Hilariously, Ciftci’s lawyer Hicran Danisman told the AP that the reason it came to this in the first place is that a common sense, freedom of expression defense didn't fly in the face of the government's accusations, so she was effectively forced to argue that Gollum isn't all bad. Here's a bit more on the history of the case from al-Monitor:
Initially, almost everyone involved thought the case would be promptly dismissed. However, the case took an unusual turn. The Gollum meme was declared “ideological” and banned at the Public Health Institution, where Ciftci worked. The investigation prepared several reports, one of which claimed that this sort of offensive memes goes against the will of the Turkish people. In a nutshell, the report argued that it should be remembered that such memes target a man who has been elected president by 52% of the vote, about 21 million Turks. The report claimed, “These sorts of memes have no positive impact and … [are] part of an operation to tarnish the elected government’s reputation.”
Article 299 of the Turkish penal code says that anyone who insults the president can face up to four years in prison, and the prison term goes up if the crime is committed publicly. If found guilty, Ciftci may be imprisoned for his Facebook post.
If Gollum is found to be evil, then the meme will be considered “offensive” and Ciftci would be guilty of offending Erdogan. Yet the judge was not familiar with the Tolkien series, and could not independently decide on the character of Smeagol or Gollum. So he asked for an expert council to gather. The court-appointed council contains two academics, a "TV expert" and two behavioral scientists. The absurdity of putting Gollum on trial has sparked a domestic and international uproar.
"What if the meme is found to depict Smeagol? Would there then be a new court-appointed council to investigate the character of Smeagol the hobbit?," al-Monitor goes on to ask, incredulous. Ciftci's lawyer is apparently set to inlcude Peter Jackson's statement in the case file which means that it's at least possible a Turkish court could end up analyzing Gollum and Smeagol as two separate beings on the way to determining whether the good doctor was actually comparing Erdogan to a vile, murderous creature driven mad by the powers of a magical ring, or a tormented, largely misunderstood anti-hero with a good heart.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what's going on in Turkey, a NATO member and an ally that's apparently so valuable to Washington, that the US is prepared to appease Erdogan even if it means risking open warfare with Russia and alienating any friends America still has in Baghdad.
Although we wish Dr. Ciftci the best, we'd argue that Erdogan is a lot closer to Gollum than Smeagol. Decide for yourself: