This article was published in print on the 5th of May
Erdogan’s legal pursuit of nose-thumbing Jan Böhmermann isn’t antiquated – it’s antiquity itself (and don’t blame the Germans).
Towards the end of the 31st March edition of Neo Magazin Royale – a late-night talk show broadcast on Germany’s relatively minor ZDFNeo public-service offshoot – host Jan Böhmermann sat under a Turkish flag and read out a poem about Turkish President Erdoğan. It was a bit rude. Taking pride of place in this little ditty – which, from the introduction and the soft background guitar, seemed to have been based on Nena’s 99 Luftballons – were a number of defects supposedly attributable to the President: his generally poor personal hygiene, his untrustworthy nature when around livestock, and his lack of endowment.
Personally, I found my sides firmly un-split; though I concede that this was more about a language barrier than Böhmermann’s comedic talents. This lack of mirth was, it seems, shared in rather stronger terms by Mr. Erdoğan. Earlier this month, Turkish officials approached the German federal government with the demand that the Germans invoke §103 of their criminal code (a relic of the country’s 19th century legal framework) which prohibits insulting specific foreign dignitaries – including foreign heads of state. This wasn’t particularly surprising, I think – though others have disagreed with me here – given that the entire point of Böhmermann’s sketch was to illustrate that his actions were, in fact, still illegal in Germany. Though there was much public outcry and governmental wringing of hands, it seemed the case that Chancellor Merkel would be forced to acquiesce; the law was the law, and the Turkish authorities were, legally, completely in the right.
As I’ve said, Böhmermann even conceded that this would be the case whilst reading the poem. The comedian will, it seems, now stand trial and – although he could technically face a prison sentence – it is far, far more likely that he’ll escape with a firm judicial scolding and a fine. In fact, it’s very likely this will be a significant net victory for the talk show host, as senior German politicians (including members of the SPD and Greens) campaign for the hasty repeal of §103; precisely Böhmermann’s apparent intentions.
All in all, then, things seem fine in Germany. Everyone accepts that the Turkish demand was legitimate only in the purest legal sense of the phrase, and it’s provided the impetus required to dispose of some outmoded legislation. What’s far more worrying is what this says about President Erdoğan. Legal provisions such as §103 form part of what has been historically known as lèse-majesté laws, which sprung up in defence of the crowns of Europe during the early medieval period. These laws, for centuries, made the degrading of monarchs a crime, often punishable with great severity; after all, the monarch was the incarnation of the state, and belittling them was a grave insult against the entire country. Going further back (a dip into wikipedia and a couple of encyclopedias tells me) such laws protected the dignity of Imperial Roman emperors, keen to establish themselves as beyond the wit of mere mortals.
Aren’t these laws – and what Erdoğan has attempted to do – the very definition of antiquity? The end of the idea that a ruler is a semi-celestial being to whom the ‘little people’ have no right to give anything other than their unyielding devotion has been key to the long advance of democracy. Any nit-picking over out-of-date German legal codes must therefore play second fiddle to a deeper understanding of how the Turkish government seeks to portray its president; as above democratic restraint.