Usual Suspects: Iran and Turkey’s Scapegoating of Minorities during Covid-19

June 11, 2020

By Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir and David Andrew Weinberg

The global pandemic has posed unprecedented challenges to governments around the globe.  But the Middle East in particular is one of the regions where majoritarian governments and their supporters are responding to the medical, societal and economic challenges of Covid-19 by doubling down on scapegoating minorities in order to whitewash the state’s own governance failures.  

In the Middle East, Turkey and Iran are the worst perpetrators in this regard and have the highest number of officially acknowledged deaths from the virus in the region. Just as in China there are also widespread concerns that Turkey and Iran are significantly underreporting Covid-19 cases and deaths. Additionally, the governments of both Turkey and Iran are facing dire economic troubles, which the pandemic is only exacerbating. 

Iran’s inability to respond effectively to the public health crisis has been undermined by its prioritization of spending to support the regional expansionist ambitions of the Islamic Republic, and further exacerbated by its endemic corruption.  Moreover, Iran’s admitted death total is the worst in Asia, surpassing even China – and the early spike in the contagion can reportedly be attributed in part to how dependent Iran’s ruling clique is on China.  For example, flights between Tehran and Beijing continued for nearly a month, clearly contributing to the spread of the virus in Iran.   

In facing domestic and external criticism of their handling of the crisis, the Iranian regime opted to blame others.  Iran’s scapegoating strategy involves blaming the United States and Israel for the emergence and spread of Covid-19 and includes conspiracy theories fabricating fictitious links to its vulnerable minorities. 

One particularly shocking conspiracy theory that the Iranian regime media promoted was a baseless allegation that the crisis was caused by an American and Israeli bioweapon generated by Jews and Baha’is using an obscure biomedical study at Stanford University that studied Iranian American genomes for better calibrating blood thinner dosages.

Likewise, an Iranian news outlet associated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has claimed without evidence that Iranian authorities broke up a Baha’i “gang” hoarding masks and hygienic supplies with the support of foreign television networks it slanders as evil, all-powerful, Baha’i puppet masters plotting against the people of Iran.

Similar patterns are also playing out to varying degrees in Turkey. Turkey’s economy had already been on a calamitous trajectory prior to the pandemic, in part based on Erdogan’s conspiratorial – and in some regards, even antisemitic – beliefs about economic policy, such as making macroeconomic decisions based on a false theory that a Zionist “interest rate lobby” is targeting Turkey.  When faced with the pandemic, the government prioritized its efforts on saving Turkey’s collapsing economy over human lives.  

Erdogan’s pro-Islamist government was reluctant to implement the necessary quarantine measures for the mass number of pilgrims coming back from Mecca. The government’s inability and unwillingness to establish controls for its primary constituency, pious and conservative Sunnis in particular, was a critical initial misstep that fueled the widespread pandemic.

Even in the most tranquil of times, there is a deep-rooted and widespread conspiracy-theory subculture in Turkey.  Shortly after the detection of the first case of Covid-19, conspiracy theories blaming Jews and other minorities for the disease and its spread emerged in various media outlets.  While Turkey’s government detained hundreds of critics for what it termed harmful disinformation related to the pandemic, the pro-government actors baselessly scapegoating Jews and Israel for this health crisis have of course faced no such penalty from the authorities.

One popular pro-government TV channel presented a so-called expert declaring that whoever created the virus would be the first to find a vaccination for it, and that “Israel has already said that, in a matter of time, the vaccination will be commercially available.”  Fatih Erbakan, a prominent Islamist politician, has alleged that “Zionism is a five-thousand-year-old bacteria” and that the current pandemic serves its goals.  A columnist writing for the pro-government, pro-Islamist daily Yeni Akit, has been particularly prolific in regularly publishing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the creation and spread of the coronavirus. CNN’s Turkish network CNNTurk hosted a TV show in which one participant blurted a baseless conspiracy theory claiming coronavirus was a biological warfare weapon created by a Jewish Harvard professor working with Wuhan.  

Other minorities have been targeted as well – both with hateful language and hate crimes.  In Istanbul an assailant attacked an Armenian Church, claiming that “they brought the coronavirus (onto) Turkey.”  Rather than condemning such baseless demonization of the Armenian community in Turkey, President Erdogan poured metaphorical fuel on the fire several days later in a national address about the health crisis, accusing “Armenian and Greek lobbies” of causing Turkey “evil” trouble.

The LGBTI community also received a major share of scapegoating in Turkey. In the first sermon of Ramadan, the head of the government’s General Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) blamed “unmarried couples and LGBTI people” for spreading diseases. Although the Diyanet chief’s statement was vague in pinpointing the disease in question, its timing during the peak of Covid-19 implicitly linked the outbreak to LGBTI individuals, an already vulnerable group.  His comments received significant backlash from human rights groups and bar associations, including within Turkey. Yet President Erdogan supported him by saying “what he said is right” and “an attack on the Diyanet chief is an attack on the state.” 

In Iran, the Islamic Republic’s top-down scapegoating has created fictitious ties that accuse minorities of cooperating with the designated enemies of the state, namely the United States and Israel. In this crisis, as in the past, minority communities are unfairly framed as foreign agents in Iran working against the well-being of the country.  The regime’s scapegoating reinforces a particular worldview perpetuated by the government, that Iran is under constant attack by foreign forces with agents infiltrating Iranian society. In so doing, the government blames its own failure on the minorities.

Turkey’s scapegoating of minorities, however, illustrates a somewhat more complicated pattern.  Erdogan’s hate speech towards religious, ethnic, and sexual minorities is longstanding, but it is also encouraged by even more broadly shared sentiments of hate and xenophobia in Turkish society. Scapegoating Jews and other minorities for all manner of governance failures is therefore quite common in both countries, but in Iran it seems to be more top-down, whereas in Turkey it seems to be more of a hybrid, with the government engaging in scapegoating at times but also more often encouraging and enabling such scapegoating originating at the societal level.

Regardless of the somewhat different dynamics, the consequences are clearly the same.  Large numbers of Turks and Iranians are dying in this pandemic in part because their governments would rather demonize the Jewish people and other vulnerable groups rather than acknowledge and address their own governance failures to their bases of support.

Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir is the Coordinator of ADL’s Task Force on Middle East Minorities.  David Andrew Weinberg is ADL’s Washington Director for International Affairs.