On March 31, Turkey will elect mayors for 81 provincial capitals and 957 towns. However, in these local elections, as expressed by narratives of President Erdogan, the impression is that the country is “about to engage in war or is going to undergo a change of regime.” For Erdogan, these elections are a “matter of survival” for Turkey, which now faces stagflation, recession and surging inflation.
He pushes nationalist discourse as his party’s chances start to look shaky in Ankara, Istanbul and other big cities. The president is worried about the possible outcome of the elections and is trying to divert the voters’ attention.
After a relatively long period of silence in his anti-Israeli declarations, Erdogan lately has called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “thief” and a “tyrant who slaughters seven-year-old Palestinian kids.” He warned Netanyahu to not provoke Muslims by making Israeli soldiers enter Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.
But his now well-known anti-Israeli, antisemitic outbursts are nothing compared with the brazen attack on the sensitive issue of China’s massive crackdown on Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province.
On February 9, the Turkish Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning the policy of systematic assimilation against the Uyghur Turks “as a great shame for humanity.” Several days later, at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu cited reports regarding human rights violations against Uyghurs in Xinjiang as serious cause for concern.
The strong Chinese reaction was quickly expressed by its ambassador in Ankara, Deng Li. “Criticizing your friend publicly everywhere is not a constructive approach… if you choose a non-constructive path, it will negatively affect mutual trust and understanding, and will be reflected in commercial and economic relations.” As a first retaliation step, China temporarily closed its consulate in Izmir and issued a travel warning to Chinese citizens traveling to Turkey.
Erdogan has a long history of using nationalistic issues for internal needs. Following the 2009 Urumqi riots in Xinjiang that cost more than 200 lives, mainly of Han Chinese, then-prime minister Erdogan described the events as “a kind of genocide.”
Erdogan’s hypocrisy when he pretends to defend Muslims all over the world is palpable, when compared with Turkey’s policy regarding the rights of its own oppressed Kurdish population. Over a ten-year period (1991-2001) during the democratic regime under military supervision, 3,206 Kurdish villages in southern Turkey were either evacuated or burned down in order to “defend” them from the Kurdish PKK insurgency.
Since Erdogan came to power, no resolution has been found for the situation of people within the southeast of the country. According to Amnesty International, many of the estimated 500,000 people, displaced in 2015 and 2016 from their homes in areas under the curfews across the southeast of Turkey, lacked access to adequate housing and livelihoods. Many were unable to return to their homes that had been destroyed during or after military operations.
THE UN has confirmed reports that during February 2018, Turkey’s military “Operation Olive Branch” against the Afrin Kurdish canton in northern Syria, some 126,000 men, women and children were displaced and prevented from returning home.
To be even more effective, several days ago Turkey heralded as groundbreaking a joint military operation with Iran against Kurdish “terror groups” along the “borders of the two countries.”
Erdogan’s present stance on the Uyghur issue contrasts with the one of his enemy and competitor for the leadership of the Muslim world, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. During his recent visit to China, where he was received with all honors, the prince’s endorsement of China’s right to undertake “anti-terrorism” and “de-extremism” measures was widely seen as tacit support for China’s crackdown on Uyghurs.
For MbS it was a sweet revenge, after the political raw he suffered at the hands of Erdogan, who used the horrendous assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul to present himself as the defender of human rights and free speech. Erdogan ordered the arrest of 231 journalists after the failed military coup of July 2016. According to the Sweden-based advocacy group Stockholm Center for Freedom, in 2018, 122 Turkish journalists received a jail sentence, four prominent ones being sentenced to life in prison without parole. Almost 200 media outlets have been shut down – and of all journalists arrested worldwide, a third were in Turkey.
Turkey, as an historic enemy of Christianity and conqueror of European territory – and President Erdogan personally, as an Islamist world leader – have a special place in The Great Replacement manifesto, posted on Facebook by Australian radical right-wing terrorist Brenton Tarrant, who massacred Muslim worshipers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15. Erdogan is presented as one of the greatest enemies which should be killed.
Erdogan promised in his election rallies to find out why Tarrant visited Istanbul “for three days once and 40 days for the second time,” and claimed the terrorist “talked nonsense by saying ‘we will come to Istanbul and destroy all the mosques and minarets.’”
But at the same time, Erdogan repeatedly showed video footage of the Christchurch mosque attacks to crowds at election rallies, despite the authorities in New Zealand calling for a halt to the videos being shared, as well as attempts by Facebook and YouTube to delete the videos that were circulating.
Moreover, making reference to Turkey’s victory over Australian and New Zealand troops in the WWI Gallipoli campaign, Erdogan threatened that anyone who came to Turkey with anti-Muslim sentiments would be sent back in coffins. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reacted furiously to the offensive comments by the Turkish president, warning that “all options are on the table.”
It will be interesting to see if these hard-nationalistic messages have helped Erdogan to fool, once again, Turkish voters.
The writer is a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) and senior Researcher at The Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS) at The Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya.
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