Erdogan vs. Auster: Why Is the Turkish Prime Minister Feuding with a Brooklyn-Based Writer?

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An Internet-fueled war of words raged across the Atlantic this week between the unlikeliest of opponents: Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamic-leaning politician of fiery rhetoric and oft bellicose disposition, and the erudite Brooklyn-based American novelist Paul Auster. At issue was the state of press freedom in Turkey, which currently ranks alongside China in the number of journalists it has jailed.

(READ: TIME’s Exclusive Interview with Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan.)

The spat was prompted by Auster’s comments to a Turkish newspaper that he would not visit Turkey, or China, in protest of the jailing of dozens of journalists and intellectuals. “How many are jailed now? Over 100?” said Auster, a well-read author in Turkey where his new book Winter Journal has just been published.

Around 100 members of the Turkish press are currently in jail, according to the Turkish Journalists Union — they include two well-known investigative reporters critical of the government, Ahmet Sik and Nedim Sener, whose detention has made them an international cause célèbre. The government insists they are not being prosecuted because of what they wrote, but for engaging in illegal activities.

In Ankara, Erdogan seized on Auster’s words during an address to party members. “Ah, we really depend on you,” he said, sarcastically. “Who cares if you come or if you don’t? Would Turkey lose prestige?”

The Prime Minister went on to accuse Auster of being hypocritical in view of the author’s recent visit to Israel, with whom Ankara has icy relations. “Supposedly Israel is a democratic country, a secular country, a country of limitless freedom of expression, individual freedoms and human rights. What an ignorant man you are … Israel is a real theocracy,” Erdogan said. “Didn’t [Israel] shower Gaza with bombs? Didn’t [Israel] launch phosphorus bombs and use chemical weapons?”

Auster quickly shot back: “Whatever the Prime Minister might think about the state of Israel, the fact is that free speech exists there and no writers or journalists are in jail.”

Most of Turkey’s jailed journalists work for the Kurdish press and were detained as part of a sweeping plan to eradicate a group called KCK, which the government says is an urban offshoot of the Kurdish separatist group PKK. But those arrested for alleged KCK-related offenses include people like Busra Ersan, a well-known and respected Istanbul professor, and publisher Ragip Zarakolu, whose work has been commended internationally. Because of the glacial pace of the Turkish court system, it might take months before they appear before a judge. “According to the latest numbers gathered by PEN, there are nearly 100 writers imprisoned in Turkey, not to speak of independent international publishers such as Ragip Zarakolu, whose case is being closely watched by PEN Centers around the world,” Auster said.

The Auster affair instantly became headline news in Turkey. “One of the last things I could ever have imagined is that Prime Minister Erdogan, who has become an important global political figure, would engage in coffee-house style polemics with the famous author Paul Auster,” wrote commentator Cengiz Candar in the Radikal newspaper. “Yes, this will make Turkey lose altitude [internationally].”

The charismatic Erdogan, who was re-elected by an overwhelming majority for a third term in June, has become an increasingly high-profile leader in recent years, particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring. Under him, Turkey is now the most popular country among people in 16 countries in the Middle East, according to a new survey by the research group TESEV. More than 60% of respondents said they thought Turkey was a positive role model.

Ironically, the main reason cited for Turkey’s appeal was its “democratic regime.” This came above other factors like its booming economy or Muslim identity. Yet it is precisely on that score that Erdogan’s authoritarian bent has drawn increasing criticism at home and from Europe and the U.S. In 2011, Turkey was the worst violator of press freedom in Europe, according to the European Court of Human Rights. Erdogan himself brooks little dissent and does not hesitate to sue journalists or cartoonists who are critical of him. So although Auster is the first novelist of international stature to earn his wrath, he might not be the last.

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