The importance of being vigilant: understanding Erdogan and his following

A democratic Turkey is something worth fighting for

On a 22th broadcast of Holland’s most popular talk-show Pauw, Tunahan Kuzu and Farid Azarkan were among those invited to discuss the issues regarding the recent diplomatic squabble with Turkey. The question was whether or not Erdogan influence, who incited hundreds of Turkish-immigrants in Holland to protest the removal of the Turkish minister from campaigning for his cause, is detrimental for the integration of Turkish-immigrants at home. Kuzu and Azarkan are the leading faces of Holland’s pro-immigrant party Think (Denk) which amassed an impressive three seats in the last election. But as often been the case with Kuzu and his party members, whenever the topic of current president of Turkey is breached, it is quickly spun to their usual talking points concerning the rise of xenophobia in Holland. When it came to the subject of the protesters in Rotterdam, he stated that it reflected the failure of Rutte’s domestic policy by having alienated this very immigrant base. He also said that there was a double standard with the little to no outrage reserved for the terrorist PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ party) protests. Azarkan followed Kuzu’s lead by saying that Holland is beginning to develop an ”obsession with everything that is happening in Turkey” and how ”people are invited who immediately has failed” -despite the fact that nobody had said this, the question was whether Erdogan’s influence on these immigrants is harming their integration- and how ” ”for fifteen years we’ve begun to have an obsession with Islam… Nothing can happen in Holland without us presuming that a Muslim is behind it…” and then quickly deflecting that ”we don’t have more terrorist acts than in the seventies with the RAF (Red Army Fraction)” and how Holland has only endured two acts of terror, one being the attack on the mosque in Dordrecht and the other being the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner MH17 by Russian separatists.
As one could read in a previous article of mine, Think has been the subject of various controversies, specifically with its refusal to condemn Recep Tayip Erdogan’s actions after the 2016 (possible manufactured) coup, which Erdogan used as justification to jail thousands of dissidents. Their controversial status has only grown with their refusal to condemn Erdogan’s various outlandish statements towards Holland after the recent diplomatic squabble, one of them being that it’s a remnant state of the Nazi’s. The closest Kuzu came to refuting Erdogan was by stating that ”not everyone in Holland is a fascist”, but could hardly be considered a strong position against the controversial statesman.
While there’s certainly applicable evidence to be had about concerning the rise of bigotry towards with Muslims due to the surge of right-wing extremism, the consistent refusal to condemn Erdogan shows a troubling appeal among Turkish-immigrants concerning Erdogan. The question then is whether Think is ignorant about the crimes of Erdogan are aware of this (as most likely) and don’t condemn him because they are afraid of losing their voting base or maybe even nefariously support his regime. The tactics of think have similar to some of Erdogan’s propagandistic tactics, calling out any Middle-eastern immigrant who doesn’t side by their party as a ”traitor”, even posting hostile videos condemning immigrant politicians. The Council of Moroccan Mosques have made a stated that they’ve felt pressure coming from Think to side with the party and that they find Think’s aggressive style of campaigning polarizing, especially with their focus on religion and ethnic background and that some Muslims are even afraid to speak out against them or that be open about wishing to vote for another party.
The presence of Think also brings up the question of how it can be that so many Turkish-immigrants
support Erdogan, even those who lived the majority of their lives in Holland. Many with a Turkish ethnicity, who grew up in Holland even find themselves identifying more with the state of Turkey than in Holland. As I’ve stated in a previous article of mine: this represents the lack of a strong Dutch nationality identity, something the far-right have been trying to claim and redefine and has alienated many immigrants who then seek comfort in their own ethnic background and culture. Couple this with a political climate that becomes increasingly hostile towards this culture and it only makes sense of why they start chanting for a foreign leader that is closer to the person they identify with.
This is why it’s so important for Think to condemn Erdogan. It’s not just because it shows a prevailing hypocrisy over the own political manifesto, or that is shows a preferred allegiance to the Turkish state, or that it harms their cause (as I’ve stated in an another article of mine), but because it harms the Turkish citizenry. Their objection against Erdogan could inspire a significant amount of voters to vote against the Turkish referendum on the 16th of April. This referendum will give Erdogan greater executive power, he would be able to fill the judicial and parliamentary branch to his liking and it would ensure his presidency until 2029.
Right now in Turkey, dissidents of every kind are jailed and silenced with false evidence in courtrooms erected in prisons for speaking out against his regime. Education systems are flooded with propaganda through mandatory classes about Religion and the Ottoman Turkish that have eerily reactionary and totalitarian overtones. Any media-outlet that doesn’t conform to the wishes of the state is shut down. People close to Erdogan, just like Putin’s cronies, live comfortably and luxurious lives and are protected from prosecution despite being guilty of terrible crimes- such as Yusuf Yerkel and his guilt of the Soma mining disaster which caused the deaths of over 301 people (and some reports say it’s closer to 340 people). If it doesn’t already resemble a dictatorship, the referendum will seal the deal and any hope for Turkey becoming a democracy again will seem far away. The importance of Think opposing this referendum, is not just because Erdogan is a threat to the West, but because he’s a threat to the liberty and safety of his own citizenry. It’s a moral obligation to the people of Turkey to oppose this referendum because any immigrant supporters of Erdogan will certainly not listen to the their right or leftist opponents, no matter how many times they lecture them about the virtues of democracy. It’s only become harder when Think actively continues the anti-establishment rhetoric that turns many of their immigrant base away from main-stream parties.
Whether or not Think silently supports Erdogan or that its members are simply oblivious to his dictatorial villainy, is not known. But as I first wrote that the pro-immigrant party had become a negative force for Dutch liberalism, it has now become a negative force for the democracy for Turkey. Naturally, they alone are not to blame for this. Somehow, liberal and center parties must find a way to get to this voting base, if not for wellbeing of Turkey then at least for the geopolitical stability between the two regions. Seeing as how the referendum is only weeks away, its doubtful whether or not any significant influence can be had.
But in order to reach them or make impact on the rightful cause we must understand the support of Erdogan. To do this we must look further back, as this problem had been building for some time. Apart from my own research into the political climate of Turkey, I have sought the intellectual aid of Abdullah Bozkurt. Bozkurt is currently the president of the Stockholm center for Democracy and author of ‘Turkey Interrupted: Derailing democracy.’ What makes Bozkurt an excellent authority on this matter is that he himself has become a victim of Erdogan’s tyrannical censorship measures, having been the Ankara bureau chief and regular columnist to Today’s Zaman, a widely read English-newspaper about Turkey, which was then seized by the Erdogan regime. After last year’s failed coup, Bozkurt rightfully feared imprisonment and sought exile in Sweden with his asylum request still pending. Luckily he managed to take his wife and three children with him. Needless to say he’s an excellent authority on the matter of modern Turkey.
Besides being the president of Stockholm Center for Democracy and an author, he’s also a regular contributer to in which he continues to speak out against Erdogan’s regime. Through e-mail I have asked him a series of pertinent questions concerning Erdogan and his influence on Turkish-immigrants in Europe, which I’ve transcribed in this article. When necessary, I will elaborate on certain points.

What is your own personal view about the future of Turkey? Will Erdogan be victorious in the coming referendum vote?

Abdullah Bozkurt: Things will get worse in Turkey before it gets better but the resilient country will eventually do away with political Islamists who turned the country upside down, destroyed the institutions, saw divisions and hatred among society. If Erdogan wins the referendum, that will seal his consolidation of powers officially. He has been exercising de facto imperial powers already through loyalists. Winning the referendum will give him direct control over all levers of the government. In either case, he’ll set to lose in the medium and longer run because economically and socially he cannot sustain this type of regime for too long.

In the previous election of Turkey in 2015 Erdogan only amassed a small majority of 52% of the vote, making it hopeful that perhaps, especially with his his recent siege of the liberties of his people, that the tides will turn against him. Yet, with his constant propaganda machine going non-stop and his calling to Turkish-immigrants over Europe, there’s also a very good chance that he will gain just enough support to continue his repressive regime. Either case, I have to agree with Abdullah that it will probably get worse before it gets any better.

What are the biggest misunderstandings Europeans have about the political climate of Turkey?

Abdullah: They have mistaken the engagement for an appeasement. The compromise they made with Erdogan such as migrant deal or other political/economic bargains was read by Erdogan as a weakness. Putin read him much better than Europeans, adopted a very decisive position, pushed to the edge and Erdogan yielded to him and even apologized for shooting down Russian fighter after so much bashing, daring and challenging talks. Erdogan is not a rational actor and can never be one after having involved himself deep in corruption and aiding/abetting radicals in Syria and other places.
This is the same mistake the West made in engaging with Putin. The West has seemingly forgotten the pathology of dictators, giving him the benefit of the doubt, assuming he has similar aims like them. They are not interested in economic stability nor the wellbeing of their own citizens if it means giving up power. The realpolitik between Russia and Turkey has not worked, it has instead been used to further increase their influences outside their countries, just so they can continue robbing their own people of wealth and liberties. Putin with his oligarchic riches has naturally been successful in this (having contributed to the presidency of Trump and perhaps soon of Le Pen) as he has much more to bargain for. Despite the good will shown by the European union, Erdogan has instead used this while (like Putin) spread anti-western propaganda outside of Europe to turn Turkish-immigrants against their country. It in instability that people like Putin and Erdogan thrive and they only care about good relations to foreign nations as long as it benefits them. When, like Putin and now Erdogan, they do not find it necessary or they can in their way, they will react fiercely and it’s up to the West to craft a decisive foreign policy that will back down- as Merkel painfully had done when it came to approved Erdogan’s request to start criminal prosecution of satirist Jan Jan Böhmermann who had him mocked through a silly poem.

The Diyanet organization (Turkey’s directorate for religious affairs) finances several mosques all over Europe. How much influence do its employees of imams have in Holland or Germany in turning Turkish immigrants to Erdogan’s side?

Abdulllah: The considerable degree I suppose given that Diyanet used to be seen as neutral institutions amid religious and political cleavages that runs deep among Turks. Erdogan has turned this institution into a partisan and even a personal tool to project his ambitions, mobilize people and expand his supporters. Imams employed on Turkish govt payroll and sent to Europe were selected among Erdogan loyalists who actively engaged in doing his bidding.

The imams that were fired by Diyanet were also accused of being followers of Fethullah Gullen, the scapegoat who Erdogan blames for the coup. In Germany there has also been cases where clerics were submitting lists of possible Gullen supporters to the Turkish regime.

Do you think Diyanet or far-right extremism is mostly to blame for Turkish immigrants to side with Turkey?

Abdullah: They play a partial role but there are other factors involved as well. Don’t forget the media machinery run by Erdogan that targets expats everyday. Many Turks in Europe watch Turkish TVs and read newspapers and subjected the conspiracy of West trying to dismember Turkey, attack Turkey with fake and fabricated news everyday. Since Erdogan decimated free, independent and critical media, there is no alternative narrative to challenge that.

Are you aware of the Denk (THINK) party in Holland? It’s a party that consistently refused to condemn Erdogan. Do you think it’s because of either fear of losing their base or genuine loyalty to Erdogan?

Abdullah: I’m not really familiar with this party. So my comments would be general. But we have seen how Erdogan funded, supported several political parties or politicians in some cases to create proxies in Europe and other places.

How much if any, do you think, the religion of Islam is used by Erdogan to turn Turkish citizens and immigrants to his side?

Abdullah: Pretty much. He not only uses or rather abuses religion to project his vision but mixes that with a nationalism to create a combustible mix. When that happens, his followers do not question issues that would normally create a firestorm for a corrupt politician like Erdogan. He always find a scapegoat to shift the blame, throws religious and nationalist narrative to explain what he calls conspiracy. Therefore, it is a tool to have an impunity and avoid from being held accountable. That is also why he hates US-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen who dared to challenge him on religious terms by criticizing Turkish president on corruption and Turkey’s aid and abetting of Jihadist fighters. Erdogan quickly branded him as terrorists, cracked down on his network and demonized him in his media.

It’s usually when religious fanaticism becomes intertwined with religion that you have truly scary results. Putin also used the Russian Orthodox-church (and the church uses him) to further his appeal to his people and make himself a crusader of ”holy Russia.” The roots of Erdogan’s brand of populism has similar roots in religion and state worship.
Similar to Putin too, is that while Putin is perceived as being the only person strong enough to enforce stability into the country, Erdogan himself is perceived by his followers as the only one who can defeat the ”outside forces” that are threatening to tear the nation apart. These forces could stem from the west, conspiratorial plotters within the government or terrorist. Erdogan has great ambitions to become the next ”father of Turkey”, replacing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who was the founder of the young republic. Yet while Atatürk made drastic reforms to modernize his regime, wishing to define Turkey as a secular nation, Erdogan prefers to focus on its Ottoman and Islamic heritage.
Erdogan’s desire to replace the previous father of Turkey, could be seen by his propagandistic manner in which he mythologized his (artificial) victory after the 2016 coup. The national mythos being that his continued reign represented a second revolution or the ‘second war of independence’ (probably first coined by his advisor Yiğit Bulut) after the the first one that created the nation of Turkey.

Did Erdogan change many of the doctrines or dogma of Islamic conduct when he came in charge?

Abdullah: There were expectations that Islamist politicians like Erdogan would go along with the rule of law, rights and freedom and democratic principles when he came to power in 2002. He played by the rules at least until 2011 when he felt he had consolidated enough power at this hands. Than he showed his true colors by starting dismantling democratic institutions in Turkey. I don’t think he cares about Islam as a religion. He blatantly violated all the basic principles of Islam by repressing people, jailing tens of thousands of his opponents, running corruption scheme to enrich himself and his family members, destroying the social justice, spreading hatred. He is the mostly anti-Muslim politician in that sense. But he abuses religious narrative at the rhetoric level, enlists many Muslim cleric on his side by offering perks, privileges, support and funds. In some cases, these clerics are very radical ones

There are false flag conspiracies concerning the 2016 coup. Could you tell me in plain words what happened?

Abdullah: This was not a real coup but most likely a staged one by Erdogan’s intelligence to set up his critics for a mass persecution. There are so many indications to support this view. Erdogan is quite savvy when it comes to plotting false flags to shore up his regime.

False flags have become favorable methods by tyrants, as Putin himself is suspected to have ordered a false flag operation during the 1999 September bombings. The short history of the republic of Turkey has had more than its fair shares of violent coupes, and violence and despair creates the mental gap hungry for explanation, which in such circumstances, rarely demands reason. Such a society filled with paranoia is naturally more susceptible to populist leaders. For this very reasons, they spread doubt about mainstream media, assault objective reality and enable conspiracy theories. They speak about conspiracies while they themselves are the conspirators of the greatest violence within their their nation.

Do you think Erdogan feels confident to strike for absolute power because of the instability of Europe and Putin’s consistent threatening presence?

Abdullah: He taps onto conjecture and exploits situations to his own benefit. But he runs out of cards because of constant reshuffling in his own game. He is not a trusted partner by either Europeans or Russians and even Chinese for that matter. He tried to run his own scheme of Islamist brethren network in other countries and that irked so many allies, and partners. He pissed off Russia, China and Western countries by enabling Jihadists to come to Turkey and descend into Iraq and Syria.
He needs to have an absolute power to survive for two reasons: One is to avoid legal troubles that may come and haunt him from corruption and aiding to radicals. The other is to send a message to his foreign interlocutors that they have no alternative other than to deal with him if they want to make a business with Turkey. He want to insure his survival.

If Erdogan will be victorious, will it be a dictatorship of isolationism such as North-Korea or will it veer more to the side of Russia as a petrol state? Or more to China in becoming a giant factory? Will anything change?

Abdullah: Not really. Turkey will be isolated more but not insulated from the impact of changes happening in the world. Erdogan is a source of instability now and not a reliable partner. Do you think Chinese would trust to a guy who enabled Chinese Muslim fighters from Uyghur origins to fight Jihadist war in Syria? If you look at the profile of Jihadists coming to Syria, Chinese nationals tops all the others with a wide margin, followed by Russian Muslims.
Erdogan wont be able to sustain his regime no matter what. The only question is how long. West has enabled him by appeasing this guy far o long. If they target the nomenclature Erdogan relies on to sustain his power, especially businesspeople who support him, his regime would collapse sooner than later.

How strong has his propagandists been in Europe in spreading his message? What are their biggest tactics?

Abdullah: They basically use two patterns to spread the propaganda. One is obviously through official channels like embassy and other government agencies operating abroad. Since many expats have relatves back in Turkey, have homes or assets, they have to come in contact with the government officials. They are afraid if they do not seen as loyal to Erdogan, they may be victimized. There are so many cases now Turkish consular offices refuse to provide services to Turks who are critical of Erdogan and got profiled as such. Simple registry of births, power of attorney business, they don’t process. The fear of getting arrested in Turkey while vacationing there is quite high among expats.
The second tracks is pro-Erdogan NGOs and in some cases shell foundations to spread the propaganda in Europe. The media machinery funded by Erdogan in Turkey has also parallels in Europe, mostly online, to spread his message.

What is the consistent propagandistic message by the state-owned media of Turkey?

Abdullah: There is little or no distinction between state-owned media or other media in Turkey. Almost all parrot the government line after the closure of 180 media outlets and jailing 200 journalists in the last eight months alone. The main message is that Turkey is under attack by the world powers especially from the West, and is very much motivated by whet Erdogan’s calls an alliance of Crusaders led by Vatican. He is trying to frame this as part of religious as well as civilizations war to distract people from talking about real issues such as rising unemployment, inflation, and other economic troubles Turks face.

What is the best foreign policy towards Erdogan? What do you think Holland should have done when it came to its latest diplomatic skirmish? Should they have banned the minister from campaigning?

Abdullah: On personal level, Erdogan is terrified of legal actions. When he faced a corruption probe in December 2013, he turned judiciary upside down, branded the move as a coup, and sacked all judges, prosecutors to save his son and associates. He got agitated when Italian prosecutor launched a legal probe against his son over money laundering charges, he got scared. Now he is worried about a case going in New York when FBI arrested Reza Zarrab, key operative that bribed senior government officials in Turkey including Erdogan, and deputy general manager of state-lender Halkbank. I think similar legal actions on different issues can be taken against Erdogan and his associates to send a strong message. His clandestine efforts to profile critics and illegal information gathering activities can be a starter as Germany is doing now. Probing Inovo BV, a Dutch consulting firm whose owner, Ekim Alptekin, has ties to Turkey’s President Erdogan may be a starter. Don’t appease him as EU has done in the past by striking a migrant deal. He is now blackmailing Europe with that. You also need to go after his enablers and facilitators in Europe, in some cases politicians and other proxies who are funded or supported by Erdogan. Support his critics who try to counter his poisonous narrative and give them a voice and platform to neutralize his propaganda machinery.
On recent spat, I don’t believe this has anything to do with freedom of speech. They come to Europe to sow divisions, spread hate and brand Turkish critics and opponents of Erdogan as traitors and terrorist. It is more hate speech than freedom of speech. What is more, their real intention is not to pick up votes but to expand their base in Europe while projecting the nationalistic narrative to Turkish audience back at home from Europe. In other words, Erdogan and others appear tough guys who tell to the faces of Europeans how they feel and all this message carried back to Turkey to raise nationalistic fever.

Last point…

Abdullah: Last point is that not just Turkish origin people are targeted by Erdogan and his operatives. Non-Turkish Muslim communities were also penetrated by his people, especially of Egyptian, Syrians and Somalian background. That is something you need to be very vigilant.

In here we see the bigger picture: non-Muslims communities from various national backgrounds, feeling alienated by the socio-political climate that became dominated with the fear of Islamic extremism, have become victim to the propaganda machine by Erdogan. Even in their houses of worship, Erdogan spreads his darkly vision of the west and the worship of his persona. This is a threat to the harmony of European nations as any expressions of their discontent with the Western culture (such as the protests in Rotterdam) will be used by the Far-right to validate their thesis about the threat of Islamic culture. Reforms within these communities are also silenced by forces from within their community and those with great power to speak out (such as Think) and make positive changes to the people in a repressive Turkey, are instead silent, preferring either political gain or its continuous journey into dictatorship.
Looking at this, it’s not hard to see how Western culture has become increasingly polemic. When people are encouraged to only listen to their community, the suffering from other communities will be lost to them. If the Western world does indeed care about democracy and human-rights, we must speak out for these people too and not appease dictators who bargain with human-rights just to further their tyrannical reign. Making deals with these dictators just because we don’t want the mass of refugees who are fleeing from terror too. But while liberal and centrist forces are hard at work to combat the far-right, the tyrannical forces are making their moves. We must wake up to this fact, fast, before it’s too late.
And maybe it already is when it comes to Turkey, but that doesn’t mean we should remain silent. It should be a moral obligation to the West, to anyone who cares about democracy and human-rights, to speak out and speak loudly. If you do, maybe your voice will break through through the loud noises of propaganda those very people live with every day and if they hear your voice clear enough, maybe a few of them will start listening. And if we set the right example, if we follow our words with our deeds, maybe they’ll convince others that there is another way, that this brave new world is something worth fighting for.



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