Turkey’s president ridiculed through poetry

Mocked into shape: Margaret Thatcher and others were lampooned in ITV’s Spitting Image.

A British magazine has made waves worldwide by asking readers to mock President Erdoğan in verse after he reacted angrily to a satirical sketch. Deserved mockery? Or tasteless bear-baiting?

Yesterday The Spectator published the results of an usual competition. The British political magazine had commissioned limericks that insult the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Entries flooded in from around the world – including Turkey.

The winner was none other than Britain’s prime ministerial contender Boris Johnson. Suffice to say that his entry is too rude to be republished here.

Erdoğan is no stranger to insults. In March, German comedian Jan Böhmermann read out a satirical poem on television, in which he accused the controversial politician of bestiality – and worse. A furious Erdoğan convinced the German government to approve criminal proceedings against Böhmermann. Free speech advocates were shocked; The Spectator launched its response.

Satire has a rich history. The playwright Aristophanes was famed throughout ancient Greece for his penetrating send-ups of Athenian society. In the Middle Ages, jesters poked fun at kings in European courts, while Arab poets composed hija: verses that mocked enemy tribes (The Spectator would approve). Today, shows like Spitting Image and South Park ridicule public figures.

These examples have one thing in common: they all target figures of authority, or oppressive social trends. This reflects a core principle of satire: it is supposed to draw attention to problems in society. It must speak truth to power.

One recent case threw this into relief. Last year, Islamist gunmen murdered many on the editorial team of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine with a history of mocking Islam, and much else. The world reacted with outrage. But in the aftermath, some questioned whether the publication was right to lampoon Islamic targets, given that it could thus be said to be antagonising French Muslims who already face a great deal of discrimination.

Satire has always thrived in free, open societies. It clearly serves an important function. But is it always justified?

It’s a free country

Yes, say some. Through the ages, satire has been a powerful weapon against authority, as Erdoğan’s reaction to Böhmermann’s poem shows: it hit him where it hurts. If we begin to censor satire, as the German courts are doing, we are effectively giving up our hard-won freedom of speech. We need only look at Erdoğan’s Turkey to see where that leads us.

Censorship is bad, agree others. But for satire to be justified, it needs to be constructive. Writing lewd poems about Erdoğan’s sex life may be fun, but there is no point in insulting him for the sake of it. Criticising Islam as a religion may be justified, but to offend an oppressed social group is to miss the point. With freedom comes responsibility – we must not forget that.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever made fun of someone then regretted it?
  2. Should we have absolute freedom of speech? (Or should there be exceptions, such as a ban on hate speech?)


  1. Write a poem mocking a public figure of your choice. (No obscenities!)
  2. Pick two examples of satire in history: one which you think succeeds, and one which fails. Write 250 words on each, explaining your choices.

Some People Say...

“You can make fun of everything.”

Matt Stone, co-creator of South Park

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t find Böhmermann’s joke funny.
And you’re not alone. Then again, satire doesn’t necessarily have to make you laugh out loud. It can make its point through clever irony, or by deliberately setting out to be outrageous or simply to shock.
Why did the German government authorise the prosecution?
The European Union – which is effectively led by Germany – recently concluded a deal with Erdoğan, as part of which the Turks would stop asylum seekers reaching Greece via Turkey. Until it is signed off some suggest Germany and the EU are nervous about offending Erdoğan.
Why does Germany ban the mockery of foreign leaders anyway?
Good question. Despite authorising Böhmermann’s prosecution, Chancellor Angela Merkel says she intends to change the outdated and widely condemned law. This has led to her being criticised for ‘hypocrisy’.

Word Watch

Boris Johnson
The judge says he picked Johnson not for the quality of his limerick, but to make the point that UK politicians are not afraid of standing up to Erdoğan. As it happens, Johnson is part-Turkish.
Erdoğan’s regime is accused of various human rights abuses, including censorship. Böhmermann’s poem made reference to these as well.
Criminal proceedings
Under an obscure German law those insulting ‘organs or representatives of foreign states’ can be prosecuted if the offended party requests and the government approves it. The penalty is up to five years in jail.
The story goes that Plato, asked by a foreign friend for the best way to learn about Athenian society, simply handed him Aristophanes’ plays.
Mocking Islam
For example, the magazine had published cartoons of the Prophet – an act many Muslims consider to be blasphemous.
Erdoğan’s Turkey
In Turkey, many subjects – such as political Islam and the Kurds – are politically sensitive, and coverage in the media can lead to censorship or arrest. The country ranks a lowly 151 on the Press Freedom Index.

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