A magnitude 6.7 earthquake occurred off the coast of the Turkish resort town of Bodrum at about 1:30 am local time on Thursday, July 20. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the earthquake was the result of a normal fault, a crack in the earth’s surface due to stress from continental plates moving past each other, and was “broadly consistent with past earthquakes in the region.” The Aegean Sea, where the quake occurred, has been the site of twenty-seven other earthquakes of magnitude six or larger over the past century.
But, according Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Turkey’s capital, Ankara, and member of the ruling AKP, what happened on Thursday was anything but normal. On Thursday night, Gokcek tweeted from both his Turkish and English language accounts, saying he had “doubts” about the cause of the earthquake.
1️⃣Another Earthquake in Aegean region.This might be an artificial earthquake. I don’t say it’s certain but it’s a very serious possibility.
— İbrahim Melih Gökçek (@melihgokcekENG) July 21, 2017
Much has been made of the parallels between Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the current American president. But, Gokcek, in personality and governing style, is more like Donald Trump than Erdogan. Like Trump, Gokcek maintains a Twitter feed full of vitriol and dubious claims. Since becoming mayor, Gokcek has made it his mission to revitalize Ankara. Under his watch, however, the city has become a strange place full of half-finished construction projects, bizarre public attractions, poor infrastructure, and chronic flooding. As with Trump, Gokcek’s children have taken advantage of their father’s political position. Gokcek’s son, for example, is the coordinator of a TV channel where his father is a frequent guest.
As reflected in his latest tweets, Gokcek believes that international (read: Western European and American) powers have “earthquake machines” and use them to cause earthquakes in Turkey. According to a foreign journalist based in Ankara, who spoke with Muftah under condition of anonymity, Gokcek has been toting this theory since at least 2014. When he first introduced the idea, the mayor claimed the Gulen movement, which had just recently become the AKP government’s primary foe, owned and operated an earthquake machine against Turkey.
According to the Ankara-based journalist, Gokcek is “a man who loves attacking elites, foreigners, liberals, educated people, and those defending minorities, and so he manages to carry out identity politics on behalf of Sunni Turks, the vast majority of the population of the city.” In other words, “to his supporters, he is like Donald Trump.”
The same American conspiracy theorists, to whom Trump is so appealing, are also fueling Gokcek’s earthquake theory. On June 12, after a quake similar to the recent one in strength and location occurred, Gokcek tweeted out a video claiming to show how man-made earthquakes are striking Turkey.
7️⃣ You can also watch the following video carefully regarding Van Earthquake…👇
— İbrahim Melih Gökçek (@melihgokcekENG) June 12, 2017
The video is narrated by English speakers, with American accents, and was uploaded to YouTube by an account named “controlfreakssuckass” in May 2011. According to the narrators, the video shows earthquake epicenters appearing in an unnatural grid-like pattern in the Van province in far eastern Turkey. In October 2011, a devastating 7.2 earthquake struck Van province, killing more than 570. According to the logic of the conspiracy theory, the October 2011 earthquake was part of a pattern of man-made earthquakes illustrated in the video. The account hosting the original video also promotes the very American “chemtrail” conspiracy theory, claiming that airline contrails are made up of chemical or biological agents and are being used to target American citizens.
The connection between American conspiracy theorists and Gokcek is more than just a coincidence. Conspiracy theories often hinge on exposing the evil deeds of a deep state, international cabal, or Big Brother-like government. As such, they allow populists like Gokcek and Trump to tout their “anti-establishment” credentials to their base. Conspiracies also allow populists to avoid meeting the real needs of their constituencies, and to blame outside forces when their policies fail or disasters strike.
For all these reasons, the mayor of a far away Turkish city may seem quite familiar to many Americans.