Turkey: One Nation, One Flag, One State, One Man
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan capped off a very eventful weekend with a visit to the Sunday closing ceremonies of the Turkish Olympiad, an annual event that brings together students from the Gulen movement’s global network of schools to show off their language skills through song and dance (if you’ve ever wanted to see African children belt it out in Turkish while dressed up like Turkic nomads, this is the event for you).
But the day’s real show of linguistic prowess was on display earlier, when Erdogan gave a two-hour speech – most of it without even looking at any notes – in front of a crowd of hundreds of thousands of flag-waving supporters at an Istanbul rally. It was a bravura performance, one that, incredibly, saw Erdogan’s voice actually lose the hoarseness that he started off with and get stronger as he went along. By the end, Erdogan had once again shown that there is really no one in the Turkish political landscape that can touch him in terms of working up a crowd and projecting his personality so forcefully and effectively.
The actual content of his speech itself was a different matter, the talk filled with dispiriting and troubling language and images. “I am not your master, but your servant,” Erdogan told the crowd, his faux humility betrayed by the fact that he was speaking from a stage flanked by a massive portrait of him. Towards the end of his speech, after blaming the foreign media for stirring up the trouble in Turkey, the PM led the crowd in chanting “One nation, one flag, one state,” a traditional Turkish nation-building refrain that for many – Kurds especially – evokes the worst of the country’s statist tradition. Finally, to finish off, Erdogan further appealed to nationalist sentiment by urging his followers to launch a flag campaign and hang the Turkish star and crescent from their windows and balconies as a rebuke to the protestors in Taksim Square and Gezi Park. (The last time a campaign like this was organized in Turkey, in 2005, it was the military – whose power Erdogan and his Islamic-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) had worked so hard to curtail – that had called for it.)
Put all together, the elements of Erdogan’s speech made it clear that the turmoil that is gripping Turkey right now is not really a battle between Islamists and secularists, but one between “old” Turkey and “new” Turkey. The PM and the AKP might have been a fresh force in Turkish politics when they were first elected in 2002, but Sunday’s Erdogan did not sound much different than the hard-line Kemalists he took on and defeated over the course of the last decade (albeit with a religious veneer). “Now the AK Party discourse appears xenophobic, anti-Western, inward-looking, anti-globalization and pro-status quo. I used to describe the Kemalists-secularists-nationalists in these terms just a few years ago,” Ihsan Dagi, a professor at Ankara’s Middle East Technical University and former supporter of the AKP, wrote yesterday in a Today’s Zaman column.
At one point during his speech, Erdogan touted his party’s achievements by listing the endless kilometers of new roads it has built and the multitudes of expensive infrastructure megaprojects it has in the works. It was another indication that Erdogan was firmly stuck in the past. These are all impressive achievements, but a truly new Turkey needs to built through more than constructing new roads, bridges, airports, dams and malls. It also needs to built by raising a new generation that’s no longer captive to the paranoia, fear mongering, nationalism and jingoism of the past. With yesterday’s speech, Erdogan decisively made clear he was leading a march back to Turkey’s intellectual bondage of the past.