By David Rohde
NEW YORK Dec 14 (Reuters) - Instead of leading the post-Arab Spring Middle East, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting a sad new standard for gratuitous intolerance. Three weeks ago, Turkey's dominant political figure took time out of his busy schedule to threaten the makers of Turkey's most popular soap opera.
The program - "Magnificent Century" - is a titillating weekly series that exaggerates the romance, intrigue and sex life of Suleiman the Magnificent, a revered 16th century Ottoman leader. Hugely popular in Turkey and the Middle East, the show is broadcast in 43 countries and watched by 200 million people.
This spring, I interviewed the directors and actors who create "Magnificent Century," toured their lavish set and lauded the program and other Turkish soap operas for creating new roles, new heroes and new cultural norms in a rapidly changing region. Erdogan views the program as seditious.
"I'm condemning both the director of that series as well as the owner of the television station," Erdogan said in a bizarre speech at the opening of an airport in western Turkey last month. "We have already alerted authorities about this and we are still waiting for a judicial action."
Erdogan's liberal political critics erupted at the comment and accused him of authoritarianism. "The prime minister must be jealous of the series' popularity," said Muharrem Ince, the deputy chairman of the main opposition Republican People's Party. "Erdogan wants to be the only sultan."
Last week, Erdogan criticized the series again and called for its creators to be "taught a lesson." And reports emerged that Erdogan's party is laying the groundwork for a sweeping new law that would ban "Magnificent Century" and any other works that "humiliate" Turkish historical figures.
"The new law aims to forbid humiliation of historical figures or perversion of real facts," he told the Turkish daily Hurriyet.
Culture wars, of course, are fought in every country. And the portrayal of revered historical figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Suleiman the Magnificent, can spark angry debate. But what is so troubling about Erdogan's behavior is the heedless example it sets at a vital time in the region.
As Egyptians vote on a divisive constitution and Syria approaches a bloody denouement, there needs to be more tolerance for dissent, debate and expression in the Middle East, not less. Turkey is heading in the wrong direction. More than 10,000 members of Turkey's Kurdish minority - who account for 18 percent of the country's population - languish in the country's jails on various terrorism charges. And Turkey now has more journalists in jail - 49 - than any other nation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That is more than Iran, which has jailed 45, or China, which has imprisoned 32.
With a long history of military rule, Turkey is a relatively new democracy. And an insurgency mounted by separatist Kurds has claimed 40,000 lives since 1984. Other nations transitioning to democracy and facing insurgencies have struggled with dissent, with leaders seeing it as disloyal rather than legitimate.
Some, such as Brazil, Ghana and Mongolia, have welcomed bracing debate. But others, particularly countries with no history of strong opposition parties, struggle to accept it.
Tom Carothers, an expert in transitions to democracy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said that in the end it often comes down to the disposition of individual leaders. "Putin can't stand dissent," Carothers pointed out, referring to the Russian autocrat. "Yeltsin could."
While Erdogan's actions rankle Turks, the stakes are far higher in Egypt, where Erdogan has sway and vital precedents are being set. During trips in the region, Erdogan himself has called Turkey an example for post-Arab Spring Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.
So far, in terms of the news media, Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi is proving more tolerant of dissent in some ways that Erdogan. While I condemn Mursi's rushed constitutional referendum, I applaud him for allowing general press freedom in Egypt. Since the dispute over the country's constitution began, Mursi's opponents have passionately criticized him in the Egyptian media. Egypt, though, is by no means out of the woods in terms of embracing dissent. On the streets, Mursi's supporters have savagely beaten his opponents.
"In Egypt, the rules of political discourse and contestation are unclear and contested," Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University and expert on Egypt, said in an email today. "Where shrill speech ends and seditious speech begins is being worked out in practice - and in very harsh practice."
Two things are troubling about the tone and tactics employed by Erdogan. First, they are unnecessary. He remains genuinely popular in Turkey and is likely to be elected the country's president when his second - and he says final - term as prime minister ends in 2015. Second, he is unnecessarily sowing divisiveness and sparking debate over a social issue instead of keeping his promise to resolve the country's Kurdish insurgency.
In June he sparked a furor when he called abortion "murder" and elective caesarean sections "unnatural." Abortion has been legal in Turkey since 1983, but only 10 percent of pregnancies in the country were terminated through abortion, a far lower rate than the 30 percent in Europe.
Last month he called for the re-imposition of the death penalty, a ban for which there has been general agreement since his own government banned executions in 2004. The comment also sparked tension with jailed Kurds, who could potentially face the death penalty.
All the while, the Obama administration continues to support Erdogan. His actions now make him the wrong model for the region, not the right one, and the White House should recognize it.
"I was in Washington last week and no one gives a damn about whether or not the quality of Turkish democracy has declined," Soli Ozel, a professor of international affairs at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, said in a telephone interview. "So long as it does not hurt essential American interests - and I don't think it will - nobody is going to talk about it."
Ozel also warned that Erdogan, for once, may be miscalculating politically.
His abortion statements alienated Turkish women, including some who are members of his political base. He is inflaming rather than resolving the Kurdish insurgency, arguably the largest single issue in Turkish politics. And he is attacking "Magnificent Century," which, like it or not, is the country's most popular television program.
Banning television shows, of course, should not matter as much as failing to ease insurgencies. But I hope Erdogan pays a real political price for his intolerance.