How Erdogan ‘normalises’ hate speech and racism
The accusative speeches of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (RTE) range from grievances vis-à-vis the Western world to blatant expression of hate, threat and insult. The drive of these attacks discloses the personality of a man on whom the fate of so many depends.
He demonstrates the same temperament against his domestic opponents too, but here I will deal only with his international performances. His aggressiveness can be classified into five different domains: History, culture, religion, politics and ethics. In all cases the underlying theme is a comparison of the “positive us” versus the “negative West”.
The basic historical theme is that Turks are the heirs of the powerful and supposedly benevolent Ottoman Empire. Others are depicted as “colonialists, imperialists, exploiters, cruel slave traders, invaders”, etc. According to his interpretation of the past, the Turks respected and protected non-Muslims and never exploited any nation or community; in contrast to what the Westerners did.
Culturally, the West has been “oppressive, racist (NAZI, fascist), insensitive to the needy, rude, manipulative, aggressive and expansionist”, according to Erdogan. In contrast, the Turks have never exhibited such shortcomings, but only a rich and humane culture. Today, Turkey helps the poor in Africa, for example, he points out.
Religious interpretations are frequent. According to RTE, Islam is a religion of peace. Meanwhile in Europe, he refers to the Crusades against the Muslim world, the Inquisition, the burning of convicts, the religious wars and lately Islamophobia, which in practice means violation of human rights, discrimination and insulting the holy images of the Muslims.
Erdogan claims Muslims always respected non-Muslims and lived with them happily for centuries. Meanwhile, one of his preferred examples of Christians’ hate vis-à-vis the Muslims is the case of Spain in the 15th and 16th centuries. The time lapse of centuries is irrelevant when the “character of the nations” is the issue, according to the president.
When it comes to politics, conspiracy theories dominate. Erdogan and his followers claim that the West and especially the United States seek to orchestrate military coups to topple the government. Westerners also help the “terrorist” groups (Kurds, Gulenists) and generally help the enemies of Turkey who seek to partition the country. These forces often undermine the economy of Turkey, too, Erdogan says.
Erdogan’s accusations are blended into a package of ethics. They are associated with the fight of good against evil. Accusations, insults and cursing may appear in a single paragraph intermingled, with present-day politics mixed perhaps with the 13th century Inquisition, economics with religion, NATO issues with the victory of the Preveza sea battle (of the 16th century).
The adjectives used against the enemies of Turkey (the Christian West, the EU and the United States) include the following: “Murderers, racists, Nazis, egoists, exploiters, hypocrites”; and the deeds he accuses them of include: “you commit genocides, treat Muslims badly, insult our Prophet, plan intrigues against our homeland, help our enemies, blackmail us, interfere with our daily practices, look down on us, discriminate us by the use of double standards.”
These characterisations may seem unfair and extravagant but they are not so for many Turks. Once the historical, cultural, religious, political and ethical “characters” of “us” and the “West” are laid out on an “us versus them” basis, then the adjectives used and the roles attributed to the “West” are easily “recognised” by a great section of the Turkish public. The group that perceives this hate discourse as normal and fair constitutes the group that supports RTE.
Actually, this discourse of “us versus them” is neither original nor special to Turkey. Nationalism is expressed with similar “arguments” in many countries. Praise of the “character of our nation” is encountered widely and universally. It is the sine qua non of nationalism. In all nation-states, a similar or a resembling self-image is not unusual.
What is special to RTE, however, is the other component of the “us versus them” discourse, i.e., what he says about the Others. These days, in the worst cases, nationalist hate speech and blatant racist characterisations may be inferred or indirectly hinted at, but they are not directly voiced. That is why the “style” of RTE is perceived as insult and as provocation, too. It is not only what he says, but also the manner in which he says it.
The question remains: why does Erdogan choose this annoying way of expressing himself? Doesn’t he sense that this approach works against his interests?
Various answers come to my mind: Erdogan may believe that thus he will stimulate his followers and strengthen his political standing in the country; or he will impress the Muslim world and gain new followers worldwide. He may be expressing what he sincerely believes, feeling he is speaking the “truth”. He may also be paving the way to part from the Western world; or it could be that in a state of confusion he has lost control of his environment. One may also think of different combinations of the above. In any case, Erdogan strengthens racist feelings and the imagination of those who feel they are justified in “punishing” the West.