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Birth control as ‘treason?’ The logic behind the Turkish president’s latest controversy

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a meeting in Istanbul, Turkey. (AP Photo)
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Over the past few months, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made a number of provocative statements. At times, he has pushed what appeared to be a socially conservative agenda; telling a conference that dealt with women's rights that women could not be equal to men in November, for example. At other points, he appeared to be pushing a nationalism deeply intertwined with an Islamic religious identity — arguing for the return of the language of the Ottoman empire or pushing a theory that Muslim explorers discovered America.

These threads were combined in comments he made over the weekend, when he told a wedding party that birth control wasn't just wrong — it was "treason," the Turkish leader explained.

“One or two (children) is not enough. To make our nation stronger, we need a more dynamic and younger population. We need this to take Turkey above the level of modern civilizations,” Erdogan said at the wedding on Sunday, Agence France Presse reports. “In this country, they (opponents) have been engaged in the treason of birth control for years and sought to dry up our generation."

Erdogan is a devout Muslim, and his comments on women's rights have often been interpreted as a sign of the conservative, traditional gender roles he and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) espouse. In the past he has called abortion murder, for example, an argument similar to many made by a number of religions. However, the shift in language in his comments suggests Erdogan was making an argument based on political rather than moral reasoning.

While Turkey still has a relatively young population, official figures from last year showed that the birth rate had dropped to around 2.07 last year, continuing a decades long decline and now below the 2.1 rate required for countries to keep their populations stable. Erdogan, who himself has four children, made it his goal after that to push Turkish families to have more children — three or four or even five, if possible.

“One (child) means loneliness, two means rivalry, three means balance and four means abundance," Erdogan said on Sunday. "And God takes care of the rest."

For Erdogan, whose ambitions for Turkey are notably grand, likely wants a large nation to buttress those ambitions. He's also no doubt aware of the economic problems that can come from aging populations, but there may be another factor at work here, too. Birth rates tend to be higher among Turkey's Kurdish minority, leading some to wonder about the demographic future of the country.

However, for those who have been watching Erdogan's comments over the past few months, some sensed another motivation behind the timing of comments. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he made the comments about birth control just a day before his ex-ministers were being questioned about the corruption allegations against them,”  Ebru Kazanc, a member of the Platform to Stop Violence Against Women, told the New York Times, referring to a corruption scandal that tainted the government last year.

Erdogan's comments also came just after a media crackdown, which Erdogan justified with a vow to “bring down the network of treachery and make it pay.”