North Africa, West Asia

Anti–westernism in Turkey

Erdoğan now adopts the same rhetoric of his political opponents even though they were imprisoned for attempting to overthrow his government. This anti-western, conspiracy-driven rhetoric may lead to a point of no return.

Hakki Tas
11 March 2014

Conspiracy theories have a long shelf life in Turkey. Such narratives, mostly drawing parallels between the imperial history of Europe and its political ambitions today, rely on an inflated self-confidence and superiority complex. The underlying assumption of these conspiracy theories is that Turkey’s unbridled rise and political potency challenges and annoys the hegemonic western powers. Considering the discrepancy between political reality and national self-perception, these explanations flattering many Turks might really sell.

Recently, similar ideas have often been voiced by secular neo-nationalists. Many leading figures of this strand, referred to as “ulusalcılık,” were jailed after the Ergenekon trials resulted in prison sentences for several retired generals, journalists, and lawyers found guilty of plotting a coup against the government of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan. Ironically, the anti-western discourse promoted by the ulusalcılık has now been adopted by Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi - AKP).

The discursive shift

The most dramatic political twist of the early 2000s in Turkey was that the once staunchly anti-western post-Islamists opted for a European Union (EU) membership and integration with capitalism; whereas secular Kemalists, pioneers of westernization, adopted a more guarded attitude toward pursuing membership in the EU, which they began viewing as a threat to national unity and territorial integrity.

Therefore, the first decade of 2000 saw the main axis in Turkish social life set as pro-EU conservatives versus the secular nationalists. The political reflection of this axis was a power struggle between the governing AKP and the army, respectively. This led in 2007 to the Ergenekon investigations, which purged many leading figures of neonationalism from across the civil and military bureaucracy, business and media accused of sowing the seeds of chaos in an effort to overthrow the AKP government.

Under Erdoğan, with its ideological roots in an anti-western Islamist political movement, Turkey made tremendous progress towards EU membership. Nevertheless, this relationship turned into a discursive vendetta in 2013, when Erdoğan faced two of the most daunting challenges to his rule: (1) the Gezi protests in Taksim, Istanbul; (2) and, the “December 17”  probe, which charged the sons of two cabinet ministers and the head of the state-owned Halkbank with corruption.

The anti-western tone came to a head in the latter instance when Erdoğan demonized the American ambassador to Turkey, Francis Ricciardone, implying that he was involved in the probe. Erdoğan declared, “These recent days, very strangely, ambassadors get involved in some provocative acts. I am calling on them: Do your job […] We don't have to keep you in our country.” The following day, the headline of the pro-government daily, Yeni Şafak, read: “Get out of this country!”

Take us to Shanghai

Last year, Erdoğan repeatedly called for Turkey to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) instead of continuing to wait at the door of the EU. “Take us to Shanghai and relieve us from this pain,” Erdoğan told the Russian President Vladimir Putin in a joint press conference. He also added that Turkey is “ready to ink free trade agreements with countries in Eurasia.”

Erdoğan further stressed that Turkey has more values in common with the Shanghai Five, which, he thinks, is better and more powerful than the EU in both political and economic terms. The SCO, founded in 2001, is comprised of Russia, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with Afghanistan, India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan holding observer status. Turkey, along with Belarus and Sri Lanka, is an official dialogue partner of the SCO. Joining the Shangai Five would please no one more than Doğu Perinçek, the leader of the Turkish Communist Party and pioneer of Eurasianism in Turkey, who was sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment in the Ergenekon trial.

One of the prime movers of Erdoğan’s Eurasianist inclinations was General Tuncer Kılıç, former Secretary-General of the National Security Council. In 2002, when addressing the military academy, Kılıç suggested that Turkey look for alternative political alliances, primarily with nations such as Russia and China, rather than seeking EU membership. Five years later, he even suggested that Turkey withdraw from NATO.

Mustafa Özbek, a prominent trade union leader and another important neonationalist figure, declared similar views in 2006: “We should establish a Union of Turkic States. Then we should cooperate with Russia, Ukraine, Pakistan and China. If we do these, then we can have the EU kneel before us.” A similar logic operated when the massive 2007 Republic Rallies commonly used the slogan “Neither EU, nor USA, Fully Independent Turkey!”

Whose liberation war?

For Turkey’s secularists, the path to EU membership symbolized a revitalization of the Sèvres Treaty of 1920, which proposed the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire along religious and ethnic lines after its defeat in World War I. Though the treaty was not put into force, it has continued to occupy a prominent position within the Turkish imaginary as proof of European “imperialist” ambitions in Anatiolia. It further crystallized the conviction that Turkey is surrounded by powers intending to divide it.

For many secularists, the EU’s demands along the acquis and interference in domestic political issues from freedom of expression to Kurdish separatism not only harm national sovereignty and unity, but also serve ends similar to those of the Sèvres Treaty. According to Turgut Özakman, author of the neo-nationalist bestseller Those Crazy Turks, no one could claim that the European leaders’ “foreign policies are based on justice and compassion […] They are the same as they were 1000 years, 500 years ago.” As the War of Independence was a fight against western imperialists and their collaborator, the Ottoman dynasty, one now had to fight against EU imperialism and its collaborator, the AKP. Moreover, Erdoğan’s party, as representative of moderate Islam, was part of the United States’ Greater Middle East Project.

The same AKP, once accused of being the collaborator of western imperialists, now adopts this very discourse and declares its own Liberation War. “Turkey is now in a war of liberation,” Erdoğan stated in December 2013. For the March 2014 local elections, the party also decided to present Erdoğan as “New Turkey’s leader in its Liberation War.” This time, the war is against western superpowers—though with a higher anti-Zionist tone—and their new “collaborator” the Gulen movement, the largest Turkish Islamic community, with which the AKP has collaborated since its rise to power in 2002. 

AKP leaders began using anti-western arguments more intensely when the Gezi protests swept the country in June 2013. At least six people died and 8,000 were wounded in these demonstrations against what the protestors saw as signs of more conservative and authoritarian rule. In Erdoğan’s framing, however, it was not quite so; instead a dark international conspiracy was behind the protests with an intention to hinder Turkey’s rising profile under his rule. He cited Yiğit Bulut, a pro-government commentator and later the Prime Minister’s chief-adviser, who drew attention in turn to the German Airline Lutfhansa which he accused of operating behind the scenes of the protests in an effort to prevent the construction of a third airport in Istanbul. That odd claim was later repeated on the front pages of pro-government newspapers such as TakvimYeni Şafak, and Star. While designating the international media a part of the conspiracy, Erdoğan also accused a Turkish BBC reporter of conspiring against the country. The “interest lobby,” referring to foreign and domestic banks, was also placed at the ceneer of the conspiracy as part of an effort to destabilize the Turkish economy for their own profits.

Late 2013 saw a corruption scandal using similar arguments dominating the media. It was not about corruption, but a “global plot against Halkbank” for its dealings with Iran. "There are extremely dirty alliances in this set-up, dark alliances that can't tolerate the new Turkey, the big Turkey […] Turkey has never been subjected to such an immoral attack," Erdoğan said. He also adds that it was “an operation ordered by some international groups, and their subcontractors within Turkey are carrying it out, as a step taken against the government.”

Of course, the Gulen movement is considered the number one “subcontractor.” According to Erdoğan, the movement, with all its loyalists in the police, judiciary and media, founded a “parallel state” subservient to international forces. He labeled Gulen as a “false prophet,” a “bogus scholar,” and his community as Hashashins. The frontpages of pro-government newspapers published allegations showing Gulen followers and American diplomats in close collaboration.

Anti-westernism sells

Politicians use conspiracy theories not without a reason. It sells. Long used by Arab dictators, this cheap logic may appeal to many people in the region. Initially, when neo-nationalists drew on anti-western arguments in the last decade, they had considerable traction among the public. Research conducted in February 2006 by Umut Özkırımlı showed that the US was viewed as the biggest threat to Turkey by 35,6% of respondents, and half of the respondents (50,3%) believe the EU is trying to divide Turkey just like the Sévres Treaty suggested. Just as in the past, anti-western conspiracy theories are still appealing to Turks. According to another study, conducted by GENAR in December 2013, 70,6% of Turkish respondents believe that dark forces were behind the corruption probe, and 63,3% relate these events to an intention to undermine Turkey’s rising status in global politics.

It is ironic that Erdoğan deploys the fear-mongering discourse of western imperialists and their collaborators in Turkey, once similarly disseminated by his political opponents. In 2005, Erdoğan considered such anti-western neo-nationalist (ulusalcı) arguments as unacceptable. “I do not find their way right because they harm nationalism, as well. They contaminate the concept of nationalism.” Now, it is Erdoğan himself who adopts their rhetoric, although the architects of this discourse have been imprisoned for attempting to overthrow his government. Despite Erdoğan’s political pragmatism, this anti-western, conspiracy-driven rhetoric may lead to a point of no return. Each day, it becomes more difficult to restore faith in the capacity of the current political leadership to govern the country.

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