From a stage where he led a raucous rally exhorting Turks to support their soldiers in Syria, the Turkish president spotted a 6-year-old girl cadet in the crowd, dressed in military-style camouflage and wearing a maroon beret. Her lips trembling, she stood ramrod-straight as she gave a salute.
Beckoned by the president, the girl was lifted into the air and toward the stage to meet him. But she looked hesitant, and eventually began crying, as the president went on to say that she would be honored if she were killed in combat.
Video clips of the encounter between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the first-grader, Amine Tiras, ricocheted across the internet over the weekend. While Turkish news agencies focused on the girl’s emotions — portraying her as brave and resolute — some online commentators said she had been used as a political prop and called it inappropriate.
At the very least, the themes of military service, patriotism and martyrdom seemed rather mature for a first-grader.
“Her Turkish flag is in her pocket,” Erodgan proclaimed after calling Amine onstage. “If she becomes a martyr, God willing, she will be wrapped with it,” he said. “She is ready for everything, aren’t you?”
Erdogan has dispatched Turkish forces to the border area of Syria to battle Kurdish militias he considers Turkey’s enemies and has been rallying his country for the fight, including in daily public speeches.
The girl, according to Turkish news agency reports, had been attending the provincial congress of Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in a military-style uniform Saturday.
The Maroon Berets are fighting in Afrin, a Syrian enclave the Turks are trying to take from the Kurds, and when the president noticed the girl’s beret, he called her to the stage.
“Look, look, look, what is there? Girl, what are you doing there?” he called out.
She held her salute, but her face began to crumple in anxiety as she was lifted out of the crowd to meet the president. “Here are our Maroon Berets. Look, we have our own Maroon Berets,” Erdogan said as she crossed the stage.
Erdogan kissed her on both cheeks, but by then she was in tears.
“But Maroon Berets don’t cry,” the president said.
Amid the applause, supporters in the audience chanted: “Chief, take us to Afrin,” news agencies reported. Erdogan thanked the volunteers but said the Turkish army had professional soldiers to do the job.
Turkey has a long-standing culture of nationalist militarism, with popular slogans such as “Every Turk born a soldier.” Since the Afrin operation began last month, the government has mounted a national campaign in support of the war, with billboards and banners praising the armed forces and saluting those fallen in battle, who are accorded the honor of martyrs.
Erdogan recently made an alliance with the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party to bolster his chances for coming elections and has used the military campaign to improve his stance with nationalists.
He makes public speeches every day and sometimes several times a day, peppering his speeches with nationalist and anti-Western jibes as well as poetry and religious sayings, conjuring glories of Turkish history. He vows to protect Turkey’s borders and to fight terrorism, and rallies popular support for the war, listing the number of enemies killed and commending the nation’s martyrs.
Erdogan’s remarks to the girl Saturday drew criticism from some on social media, who felt that the talk of martyrdom was inappropriate for a child so young.
“Oh my God, I am shocked. Could Erdogan have said the same thing for his grandchild?” one user wrote on Twitter.
The mainstream press, which has been increasingly under the thumb of the government, did not focus on the girl’s tears. Many newspapers showed images of Erdogan with Amine under his arm. One had the headline, “She is ready for anything.” Other news agencies reported that Erdogan had consoled the girl as she cried.