Former PM Davutoğlu's TV performance sparks debate across social media

An angry exchange on a Turkish fundamentalist Islamist channel Akit TV this week brought the focus on the acrimonious divisions among Turkey’s conservative religious factions, as an Akit TV host shouted down Ahmet Davutoğlu, a former prime minister and current leader of the Future Party.

Davutoğlu served as the AKP’s foreign minister between 2009 and 2014, when he took over the role of prime minister when Recep Tayyip Erdoğan moved to the Presidency.

As such, he was one of the AKP’s top names during a period when it dismantled previous secularist administrations’ bans on women wearing headscarves in public institutions, and was part of the movement that opposed the bans for a much longer period.

Yet Ali İhsan Karahasanoğlu, the editor-in-chief of Yeni Akit newspaper, appeared to hold him responsible for the repression of religious women when the pair faced off on the Akit TV panel show.

A visibly angry Karahasanoğlu repeatedly shouted over Davutoğlu as he tried to speak about legal action taken against Istanbul Şehir University, an institution the former prime minister helped to found, leading him to ask the Akit TV host in a calm voice to control himself.

“Why are you shouting? You won’t prove your point by shouting,” Davutoğlu said. “I know you’ve got a guilty conscience over what has been done to Şehir University, and you’re trying to hide it with your voice.”

The university has become symbolic of the rifts among the Islamists’ ranks that led Davutoğlu to form the Future Party while Ali Babacan, another well-regarded former high ranking AKP politician who quit the party last year, established the DEVA party in March.

Though once considered the pride of Erdoğan’s AKP and an alternative institution where pious students could receive higher education at top standards, Şehir University was taken over by government appointees last year after a bank took it to court over a loan it took out to build a campus. Davutoğlu, who quit the AKP last September, says targeted the university due to his association with it.

As Karahasanoğlu continued to press the attack on Davutoğlu with his voice raised, the prime minister repeatedly asked him to cool his tone, eventually questioning whether the Akit TV host was in his right mind.

“Are you sure there’s a stable connection between your brain and your tongue?” Davutoğlu said.

“No, there isn’t, I have a condition,” Karahasanoğlu responded.

The Future Party leader eventually lost his cool and shouted back when the Yeni Akit editor began haranguing him about a high school student whose foot was amputated after being crushed during a protest against the secularist government’s ban on wearing headscarves in educational institutions in 1998.

The exchange was widely shared and discussed on social media, with Davutoğlu’s supporters condemning the channel for inviting him on as a guest and subjecting him to an angry tirade.

But several commentators saw the television show as a pragmatic victory for the Future Party leader, who they said had come off well while under an unprovoked attack on the show.

Ömer Turan, a conservative commentator who drifted away from the AKP during the local election run-up in March 2019, compared the Akit TV scenes to another heated exchange between the pro-government television anchor Turgay Güler and Ekrem İmamoğlu, the main opposition mayoral candidate for Istanbul who shocked the ruling party last year by winning the city.

“This programme could be a huge milestone for the Future Party,” Turan said. “The part’s supporters shouldn’t be criticising Akit TV but thanking them for putting Ahmet Davutoğlu on the screen. The effect of this programme will be huge.”

Other commentators pointed to the show as an example of the cutthroat nature of the political scene in Turkey, where today’s prime minister can quickly become an object of hostility from the people he led.

“Those who would be bowing and scraping before Davutoğlu today if he were still prime minister do not see any harm in testing the limits of conduct when he is not in power,” said Şehir University political scientist Hasan Kösebalaban in a tweet. “Those in government today should take a lesson: Fear most those who bend the knee to you while you’re in power.”