Last week I found myself sitting around a table of foreign and local journalists in the back of a secluded restaurant in Istanbul. It was one of those iconic episodes that conjures images of this city as a hive of foreign correspondents. Over bottles of red wine that lasted deep into the night, we discussed what most journalists discuss in this region these days: the Islamic State.
I asked one journalist – who is based in Beirut – what brought him to the city. His answer was both surprising and unsettling. Just three blocks away from where we were sitting, in the very heart of European Istanbul, he had conducted an exclusive interview with one of the top commanders in Islamic State. The commander, my colleague reported, regularly shuttles between Istanbul and the group’s unofficial capital of Raqqa in Syria. The news was shocking.
We have all watched as reports have flooded the media about the Islamic State’s foothold in Turkey. A chorus of international news outlets and foreign governments began to seriously debate Turkey’s role in combatting the group around the time the fight for the Syrian border town of Kobane kicked off. Worryingly the debate has drifted from the front pages and, in its place, news from Turkey has lately been concerned with the cult of personality that is president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
For the past several weeks, Erdogan has been in the news not for his leadership on the Isis question but because of his new presidential palace. Located on a major environmental reserve in Ankara, it is a sprawling 1,000-room complex replete with an underground tunnel system. Just last week the president announced that an additional 250 rooms would be tacked on to the complex, making it four times the size of Versailles. The addition will bring the price tag close to $1bn (€800m).
If that publicity wasn’t enough, last week in Istanbul Erdogan told the first Latin American Muslim Leaders Summit that Muslims discovered the New World some 300 years before Christopher Columbus. The claim has caused a mild diplomatic spat with several Latin American countries and has been the subject of much disdain in the Spanish press.
Given the gravity of the Islamic State threat these political gaffes seem way off point – but maybe they aren’t. Perhaps Erdogan is playing a wise game of media diversion while his security services design an intelligent strategy to combat regional challenges. The pessimistic take is that Turkey’s leadership has amassed too much power. Our major ally in the region is lost in a world of hubris – a frightening perspective for all involved given just how deep our enemies have entrenched themselves in Turkey.
Joseph Dana is Monocle’s acting Istanbul bureau chief.