On the 15th March, the world was shocked to wake up to the news of the atrocious terrorist attack carried out in a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Later emerged the violent and erratic manifesto of the attacker which directly referred to Turkish people and to President Erdoğan. The overt white supremacist claims that Turkish people are not welcome on European soil and calls for the death of Erdoğan, the leader of the so-called “enemies” of white Europeans.
In the 74-page document, the terrorist-to-be explains that he will carry out the attack in order to further drive a wedge of conflict between Turks and European The following weekend, while social media sites were struggling to contain the video of the live-streamed attack, President Erdoğan used the footage to his advantage.
At rallies held ahead of the Turkish local elections, he projected parts of the gruesome video onto large screens. “They are testing us from 16,500km away,” he asserted, “…This isn’t an individual act, this is organised.”
While highly condemnable no matter which side of the political spectrum you fall on, the Christchurch attack is now being used as a tool by Erdoğan to reinforce his anti-Western populism, much like European populists who may recall the Paris or Manchester attacks when rallying islamophobia.
Erdoğan’s Occidentalism has earned him a high spot on the Global Populism Database’s index, which uses speeches to determine how populist current national leaders are. Erdoğan tops the leader board, falling above both Trump and Orban and only slightly below Venezuala’s Maduro.
The Populist Success of Erdoğan’s AK Party
Since the 2016 attempted coup against the Turkish government, Erdoğan has been increasingly critical of both his opponents inside Turkey and of the European Union and wider western world who have condemned his government’s alleged human rights abuses and pointed involvement in the Syrian conflict.
In a 2017 speech, Erdoğan proclaimed that Germany has no democracy, and likened present-day German officials to Nazis. He has also accused the EU of forming a “Crusader Alliance” to conspire against both Turkish and Muslim people.
Moreover, while the Turkish state is officially secular, the rise of Erdoğan’s conservative AK Party (Justice and Development Party) constitutes a rise of political Islam in Turkey, through which Islam has become a cornerstone in the country’s recently-established executive presidential system .
After two years of an official state of emergency, and despite unprecedented arrests of civil society members deemed to be enemies of the state, a majority of the Turkish electorate opted for Erdoğan to continue at his presidential post in the June 2018 general election. Today, support for the president and the AKP is reportedly waning, largely due to recent economic downturn.
Nevertheless, it is clear to see how Erdoğan’s anti-Western, Islamic-rooted rhetoric has permeated the Turkish cultural and social psyche. A recent study by Kadir Has University in Istanbul reveals that 56% of Turkish people consider Turkey to be an Islamic country, while only 19% consider it a European country. Strikingly, over a quarter of Turkish people view the European Union as a threat, making it the third-biggest perceived threat behind the United States and Israel.
An earlier study also suggested that 9% of Turkish people do not consider ISIS to be a terrorist organisation, while 5% agree with its actions.
Indeed, while various geopolitical and cultural factors impact these views, Erdoğan has incited and substantiated such nationalist, anti-Western sentiment through his charged discourse that appeals to a large number of pious Muslims and even Christians and Jews in Turkey .
Other populist measures such as increasing the minimum wage in Turkey have provoked support from poorer communities. In a recent Guardian piece on populism in Turkey, one farmer says of Erdoğan, “Our hearts are with him. The most important thing is that he stays strong to protect Turkey.”
Seen as protector of both creed and country, President Erdoğan has also managed to garner support from the Turkish diaspora in the West. Much to the dismay of many Europeans, Turkish people living abroad voted in favour of Erdoğan in higher magnitudes than those inside Turkey in the 2018 general election, and many took to the streets to celebrate his victory.
Nationalist Sentiment Infiltrating Turkish and Muslim Society
In a climate of far-right populism and increasing islamophobia in Europe, where many non-white citizens are facing exclusion and oppression, some may argue that it is no wonder that Turkish people are pleased to look up to a figure who is unapologetically suspicious of the West.
Moreover, his Islamic-leaning attitude has won him the favour of not only Turkish people but of the wider Muslim community. Erdoğan arguably aspires to be the leader of the Muslim world and despite diplomatic pushbacks from both the US and the EU, which he can cleverly spin as conspiracies against him and against Islam, he is succeeding.
Alongside his populist discourse, he is effectively employing soft power to mould nationalist preferences through culture and society. For example, glossy television series like Dirilis: Ertugrul, which is set in the 13th century and depicts Ottoman Turks and their battles against the Christian enemies, have ignited nationalistic pride among Muslims at home and abroad.
Similarly, Premier-League footballer, Mesut Ozil, who has both German and Turkish nationality, has expressed support for President Erdoğan, sparking anger in Germany and causing him to quit the national team. A la Erdoğan, Ozil called “conspiracy” and claimed that any antagonism towards his support for the president was simply racism towards Turkish people. Ozil’s explicit support for Erdoğan reflects how well-liked the president is in the sphere of popular culture which has the capacity to impact societies all over the world.
Strained Relations with the West
Erdoğan’s toxic nationalist rhetoric has successfully pervaded Turkish consciousness in a way that is comparable to that of Trump in the US or of Orban in Hungary.
Alongside even more alarming human rights violations and worrying implications in the Syrian conflict, Erdoğan’s authoritarianism has drawn serious attention from the EU, whose parliament has recently backed a resolution to stop accession negotiations with Turkey, and from the US, who are concerned with how instability in Turkey will affect strategic and defence positions.
However, criticisms from the international community only serve to bolster Erdoğan’s argument of an anti-Turkey or anti-Islam conspiracy in the West. To avoid deepening tensions between Turkey and the West, the European Policy Centre has recently advised the EU not to cut its ties with the country, and to instead support defenders of democracy and human rights to impede Erdoğan’s current pursuit .
While he is not solely responsible, his anti-Western rhetoric continues to drive the wedge of tension and conflict between the East and West. While the president did, indeed, allude to the atrocity of the Christchurch attack during the aftermath, in doing so, he granted the wishes of the attacker himself.