Talking Turkey

Anti-Erdogan flyers. Berlin, September 2018.

Few foreign leaders receive more attention from Berliners than Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A frequent visitor to Germany, Erdogan is routinely greeted by several weeks worth of political flyers and graffiti, disparaging his authoritarianism, and mistreatment of the Kurds.

The Turkish leader’s arrival in the German capital on 27 September was no exception. Starting in late July, Berlin grew inundated with radical graffiti, stickers and flyers, ranging from denunciations of his Justice and Development Party (AKP, or AK Parti) to graffiti calling for the liberation of Afrin, a Kurdish city in northern Syria, ethnically cleansed by Turkish forces and allied Arab militias last winter.

For anyone familiar with Turkish politics, such hostility, particularly in Germany is to be expected. Few European capitals play host to more progressive Turks than Berlin. And few European countries have larger Kurdish communities than Germany, which have swelled with the arrival of thousands of Syrian Kurds fleeing the country’s civil war over the past seven years.

Less considered are the Western taboos local criticism of Erdogan breaks. As the lead photo in this article contends, Erdogan is a fascist. While there is indeed some truth to that – he is indeed authoritarian – to level the charge in Germany is of course especially significant. The president is made complicit with a type of politics associated with Europe,  not something more local, such as Turkish nationalism, or Islam.

Defend Afrin. Kreuzberg, September 2018.

At the same time, charging an explicitly religious, Muslim head of state with fascism also indulges right-wing Western criticisms of Muslims, particularly jihadists, as Islamo-fascists. The invocation of fascism, in Western conservative circles, in talk about Islam, doesn’t mean the same thing as when leftists use it. It is ideological, not political. The distinction is important.

A Middle Eastern city. Neukölln, September 2018.

Nevertheless, it must be accepted, on a certain level, as a reflection of an internal community debate about Erdogan, one which is not necessarily available in Turkey. Since the July 2016 coup, the country’s news media has largely come under his government’s control, making it practically impossible to oppose the president and his policies in public. Any criticism of him, outside of Turkey, would naturally be more intense. 

There is still something sad about the criticisms, especially from a German perspective. No country in Europe, with the exception of Belgium, has as proportionally large a Turkish community as Germany. One might think that Germany’s relative liberalism, and respect for the rule of law, and human rights, would have rubbed off on Turkey over the past few decades. Given how many Turks have lived in Germany since the 1960s, it’s not an unreasonable expectation. The closeness of the two countries is about a lot more than doner and BMWs.

Yet, Germany and its post-war transition to democracy has not been of much influence. Not just on Turkey, but also its eastern neighbours, and, most importantly, to residents of the former eastern half of Germany, as well. With its community of neo-Nazis and far-right extremists at an all-time high, particularly in parts of the country once dominated by communists, Turkey’s proclivity for nationalism is understandable.

Still, one cannot help but wish that anti-fascist forces in Germany took their Turkish neighbours more seriously, and helped them evolve an alternative politics with significant middle-class appeal – one which ideally could serve as a renewal, as much for Germans as it is for leftwing Turks and Kurds living in Berlin.

Fuck the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti.) Mitte, September 2018.

Commentary by Joel Schalit Photographs courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.