In the mid-1990s, when Tansu Çiller was in charge, there were several political satire shows on Turkish television of a kind that could certainly not be broadcast today.
In one of these – it may be Olacak O Kadar, but my memory fails me – the then Prime Minister was shown in one sketch twiddling her thumbs in at her desk, desperately trying to think of an interesting new policy initiative to raise her popularity once again.
She settles on seizing — in Turkey’s name — a couple of faraway, indistinct islands that she found on the globe in her office. The rest of the sketch was spent with her officials desperately trying to persuade her not to colonise New Zealand.
I recount that faulty memory not because it’s particularly funny, but to illustrate how infrequently New Zealand features in the Turkish mind-set.
Sure, Turkey means a lot to New Zealand, especially because it was where the Battle of Gallipoli took place and New Zealanders discovered their sense of national identity.
But the sentiment doesn’t travel in the other direction: the two countries have embassies in each other’s capitals, but that’s pretty much it. Turkish Airlines doesn’t fly there, and New Zealand doesn’t even rank in the top 100 of Turkish export destinations.
But in the last 48 hours, everything has changed: Turkey’s Foreign Minister has jumped on a plane to visit the islands, while the president has spoken about little else in his local election campaign rallies.
At the centre of the change is, of course, the horrendous atrocity in Christchurch, where at least 49 Muslims were killed by a gunman in the most barbaric attack New Zealand has ever seen.
President Erdoğan was among those directly named — alongside German chancellor Angela Merkel and Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London — in the suspect’s warped “manifesto” of targets and intentions. There was also an absurd warning for all Muslim inhabitants of Western Istanbul to “flee” to the east of the Bosphorus before he comes to reclaim it for, as he perceives them, its original Christian owners.
For most, these are the idiotic ramblings of a future mass murderer. The main suspect is in custody and has already been charged.
But for a select group in Turkey, there is no international incident that cannot have a Turkish spin on it and the atrocity in Christchurch is no exception. One leading conservative commentator has warned of “the Byzantines within us who say the ‘cruelty began in 1453’” — a reference to the year the crumbling Byzantine Empire finally fell to the Ottoman Empire.
There are some, surely, in Greek and Russian Orthodoxy who yearn to reintroduce Christianity around the Bosphorus and think it acutely possible, but they are only fractionally more deluded than those who genuinely believe there is a credible Western plot to reverse Fatih Sultan Mehmet’s (Mehmed II) capture of the city nearly six centuries ago.
Turkish people love a good conspiracy and Mr Erdoğan, the country’s master campaigner, will never miss an opportunity to portray himself as Defender of the Faith.
The New Zealand atrocity demonstrated a grim reality of the world today: that no-one is safe from intolerance, and that Muslims are just as likely to be targeted by extremists as anyone else. But the shooting did not threaten Turkish national security any more than it is already under threat.
That should be self-evident; it’s a sign of Turkey’s political climate that the obvious these days needs spelling out