The recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu underlines the persistence of what some call “populism”. Despite the Israeli Prime Minister facing imminent charges of corruption, the seriousness of which would have been the undoing of any normal politician, Netanyahu not only won the election, but his Likud party won additional seats in the Knesset.
In other countries, the persistence of populism remains as strong as ever. Despite the hype about the success of Turkey’s opposition in recent local elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in steadfast control of the country and has significant support. US President Donald Trump also remains as strong as ever despite the release of the Mueller Report. Hungary’s Viktor Orban remains firmly in the helm and so does India’s NarendraModi and the recently elected Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Populists don't need to be right wing either. Just look to France and Emmanuel Macron holding steady in hisposition as President of the French Republic, and, despite facing a corruption scandal, Justin Trudeau still sits conformably as Prime Minister in Canada.
So let’s revisit the question of populism and try and understand what it is and why it persists.
Some argue that populism is an ideology, or, moreover, a “thin” ideology (like nationalism, Feminism and ecologism) and can therefore be hosted by other more defined ideological positions. I disagree. Populism does not have the same depth of so-called “thin” ideologies. However, the point that populism can latch onto the left or the right is an important one. I think the Australian academic Benjamin Moffitt gets it more or less right in his explanation of populism as a political style, a kind of repertoire. You might want to call it a performance (Max Weber also saw politics as a form of performance as well).
Indeed, one could certainly add that it's a form of political theatre where social media is the stage and soundbites within 140 characters are the actor’s lines. The populist leader, usually an archetype “charismatic” figure, likes to simplify policy and groups political life into “us” and “them” with appeals to “the people” against a particular group, nation or outsider. This may be the traditional elite, the supreme court, nefarious international forces or the hostile media. And as we have seen in numerous examples, it works.
But why does it work? Why do these messages resonate? Different scholars and commentators have offered a range of suggestions. Some say the rise of populist politicians is a reaction to economic recession. Similarly, others point to the spread of neo-liberalism, especially the discontent of those left behind. Others see it as a reaction to political correctness. Some attest that it is a result of the decline of ideological politics or the perceived failure of traditional elites to deal effectively with the problems of today, or perhaps ignoring it while it is plain sight to the general public.
My personal take is that populism emerges when large segments of a population feel that what was once familiar has become unfamiliar and strange, perhaps even unrecognisable. You might want to call it 21stcentury alienation. It is a very strong reaction to the speed of change which happens so quickly that people have had no time to adjust or pause for thought.
These rapid changes which make the familiar unfamiliar can be broad in range and can include urban regeneration and rapid demographical shifts within a given neighbourhood. They might include the pace of technological change and innovation or the closure of shops on the high street or the local factory or power plant. It might even be something as trivial as the imposition of metric units of measurements as required by EU regulation.
What happens when the familiar becomes unfamiliar and the political elite not only ignore your concerns but shut it out from mainstream discussion and instead insist that these changes are a good thing? Those who feel alienated develop a mythical nostalgia of the past and resent those who they perceive have contributed to their alienation.
When a charismatic figure emerges and purports to speak for the alienated, the resentment of this segment of the population is channelled into the support for the charismatic figure who claims to seek the rectification for the wrongs of the past. For Netanyahu supporters it is the error of the Oslo peace process, for Erdogan it is failures of the Kemalist elite to fully realise Turkey’s potential, for Trump it is anything Obama did. And the populist does this through performance in an appeal to the disenchanted for their support.
Populism emerges when the familiar becomes unfamiliar and a sizeable population becomes alienated from their own society. Is it any wonder that populism still persists today?
Following the results of the March 31 local elections in Turkey which saw Turkey’s main opposition, Republican People’s Party (CHP), win 4 out of 5 largest cities in Turkey, some commentators were quick to call the defeat of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a victory for democracy.
But what do these commentators mean when they say victory for democracy? More of often than not they mean that the party they support did well. However, the real test of whether an election is a victory for democracy is not if the party you voted for wins, but the extent to which the elections were held under conditions considered free and fair, the incumbent’s willingness to concede defeat and the applicability of contestation to all parties who have a legitimate grievance.
Sadly, in all of the above counts Turkey failed. Firstly, just as previous elections over the past few years, they were neither free nor fair. Media coverage was overwhelmingly pro-government, there were incidents of intimidation and harassment, and the governing AKP had the benefit of using state resources for their campaign.
Secondly, although the ballots have been officially counted, the ruling AKP has refused to accept defeat in Ankara and Istanbul. Although they were very close races it is quite clear that barring some irregularities, the CHP won in both cities. Still, the AKP has insisted on recounts (there were even rumours that AKP had sought to nullify the vote in the entire city of Istanbul). One may object and say that the AKP has a right to do so. Fair enough, but at the same time the AKP has put up posters across Istanbul thanking voters for their victory. The recounts are taking a long time and there is extreme pressure being put on the Supreme Election Board.
Thirdly, when the ruling AKP demands recounts it usually (not always) gets its way, but when the liberal and Kurdish oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) demands the same by district and provisional boards in localities where it lost by the narrowest of margins, its appeals are rejected. In other words, there are clearly double standards.
Despite the victory of the CHP in several cities, this was not a win for democracy. If it turns out that the AKP concedes defeat to the CHP in Ankara and Istanbul, I have the following words which were published in a piece for Haaretzand have pasted below and can also be found here:
Erdogan wobbled. But can he really be toppled?
The polls should have been a sleepy affair. They were local elections for mayoral and municipal offices. And last weekend was the seventh time in five years that Turkey had held elections.
However, far from being dreary, the elections proved to be a rather lively affair as Turkey’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of Turkish politics for 17 years, did not get his way. And that’s just putting it mildly.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost four of the country’s five largest cities to the opposition, including the capital Ankara and the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
What to make of these results? Do they mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan’s apparent invincibility? How significant a victory is this for the country’s beleaguered opposition, led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP)?
The CHP deserves some credit. Together with the Iyi Parti (Good Party) with whom it formed an alliance, the CHP campaigned hard and under very difficult circumstances, managing to not only win major cities and municipalities but also garner 30 per cent of the popular vote, a significant improvement on recent years.
The CHP’s successes in Istanbul and Ankara were also due to the strategic decision by the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) not to field candidates in these cities. Reportedly, HDP leaders urged its supporters to vote for the CHP instead. Thus, the HDP got in some retribution against Erdogan, whose government has mercilessly suppressed the party, even arresting and detaining its leadership under trumped up terrorism charges and removing elected mayors in the Southeast.
Unlike the AKP, which also benefitted from the use of government and state resources, the CHP had to fend off underhanded attacks by Erdogan and his followers who accused it of perfidy and siding with terrorists.
Mansur Yavas, the CHP Ankara mayoral candidate, was accused of forging a signature over a decade ago in a spurious attempt to delegitimize him. Erdogan even broadcast footage from the gruesome Christchurch massacre to boost his party’s chances.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s subdued media offered the government obsequious coverage. For example, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT gave 135 hours of positive coverage to Erdogan and his allies but just 20 hours, most of it negative, to the opposition. It was therefore quite a feat that the CHP managed to attract additional votes.
Still, one should not write off Erdogan so easily. Far from being the beginning of the end, Erdogan and the AKP remain popular.
Despite voter fatigue, international isolation and an economic downturn that has seen inflation spiral and the lira tumble, prompting the government to sell its own subsidized fruit and vegetables, the AKP still managed to win over 44 per cent of the popular vote. This is about two percent more than last year’s parliamentary elections and a gain of 1.5 per cent compared to the last local elections of 2014.
In other words, the CHP has only managed to make a small dent in the AKP’s support base.
Meanwhile, Erdogan still enjoys the backing of his political allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they won over 51 per cent of the vote. Erdogan also controls all the state’s levers of power from the security forces to the judiciary and is not afraid to use them. This is especially ominous, as there are no more elections scheduled for the next four and a half years. A period of unaccountability looms.
If the opposition wishes to make further gains it needs to maintain the tacit CHP-HDP understanding which thwarted Erdogan’s plans in this election. This means the CHP will have to swallow its Turkish national pride and convince its followers that it is prudent to come to a tacit understanding with the Kurdish-oriented HDP.
And that’s just the easy bit. Despite all the talk of the economy and international affairs during the campaign, this was a local election.
If the opposition is serious about making this a turning point, it needs to knuckle down and dedicate itself to improving municipal services in order to prove to the electorate that it can be trusted with the country’s economy and positively steer Turkey’s political future. That is, of course, assuming that the AKP's attempt to stifle the loss of Istanbul by demanding recounts proves fruitless.
Either way, the opposition will no doubt face a relentless campaign of delegitimization and intimidation by Erdogan and the AKP, who don’t kindly to strong opposition. Pro-government media are already pushing the narrative that the results in Istanbul are an attempted "coup." Still, it’s an opportunity. The opposition best make the most of it.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 April 2019
I recently published an op-ed piece in Haaretz about antisemitism in Turkey which can be found here. This is the second such piece I have authored about antisemitism in Turkey, only this time I provide different examples and offer a more contemporary context.
Unfortunately, these pieces are just too easy to write. Conspiratorial notions of world Jewish power are not intimated in Turkey, they are overtly pronounced by public intellectuals and political figures especially by those who identify with the religious-nationalist and conservative camps (left wing antisemitism is also present albeit somewhat differently). As my recent article highlights, every time there is a political, economic or social crisis in Turkey, it almost goes without saying that there will be at least one public official or so-called intellectual who will point the finger at the Jews. Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed George Soros “the famous Hungarian Jew” for being the secret puppet master behind the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
The case of anti-Semitism in Turkey is a rather paradoxical phenomenon when you consider that the once thriving Jewish population of Turkey today barely stands at 20,000. Turkey, in other words, is one of those countries where there is a significant presence of antisemitism but with very few actual Semites. This is not unlike antisemitism in the contemporary Muslim world where conspiratorial notions of world Zionism are rife, but the Jewish population virtually nil. This of course stands in stark contrast to the antisemitism of Russia and Europe in the centuries leading up to World War II where the notion of world Jewish conspiracy was born.
When faced with accusations of antisemitism, Turkey’s political elite like to respond by declaring their affection towards Turkey’s small Jewish community and remind anyone who will listen that it was the Ottoman Empire which welcomed the Jews of Spain after they were expelled in 1492, forgetting that when Sultan Bayezid II commented of the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that “You venture to call Ferdinand [of Spain] a wise ruler…he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" In other words, the Ottoman Sultan had an economic motive for opening Turkey to Jews rather than a benevolent one.
Regardless, with a community that barely stands at 20,000 souls, less than 0.1% of the population, it shouldn’t be difficult for a country to have good communal relations with such a small minority, especially when one considers that the Jewish community is barely distinguishable by looks, language or nationality to the rest of the population and are law abiding, integrated and quiet. And still this tiny community has faced terrorist atrocities such as the 1986 Abu Nidal attack where Palestinian gunmen burst premises to slaughter 22 people while a service was taking place. There was also the 2003 Istanbul bombings in which two synagogues were bombed (including the Neve Shalom), this time by a home grown Turkish al-Qaeda faction which killed 23 people. Let’s not even get to threats against Jewish targets and violence and insults against individuals.
Still, the idea of a global pernicious Jewish conspiracy against Turkey remains as strong as ever, begging the question why do such notions continue to resonate within Turkish society, especially among ultra-nationalists and religious conservatives?
Leaving aside purely religiously inspired antisemitism, my answer to this perplexing question is that the Jewish scapegoat works in the Turkish context because of the of prevalence of religious-nationalism which emphasises that Turkey is predestined to be a both a great nation and the leader of the Islamic world. This is the view of leading cadres of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and also members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and also has roots in the thinking of the Milli Gorus (National Outlook) tradition from which leading members of the AKP, Erdogan included, emerged. This was an Islamically rooted political movement which emphasised that it is Turkey’s natural place to lead the Muslim world and that the Turks are the warriors of Islam. Therefore, it would follow on that just like it Ottoman forbearers Turkey will once again have a powerful position in the world and it is currently in the process of achieving this aim.
But if Turkey is predestined to be a leading world power, the question looms why has this still not been realised? What is holding Turkey back? It is here that the international Jewish conspiracy makes a fine answer which allows the government and its supporters to point towards an easy scapegoat and avoid the difficult (but more constructive) path of self-criticism and accountability. This is why international Jewry is blamed for anything from the Gezi protests and the current financial crisis to Kurdish nationalism. What a pity.
I have recently authored a full-length report about British-Turkish relations. Not to give too much away, I argue that although both British and Turkish politicians call bilateral ties a “strategic partnership”, in reality there is little that is strategic about the relationship. The report is due to be released in a couple of weeks so please watch this space.
However, let me address an aspect of British-Turkish relations which I allude to in my report, a factor for why there are closer ties between Britain and Turkey: Britain is not Germany! Allow me to explain what I mean.
After Germany, Britain is Turkey’s largest trading partner in Europe. Like Germany, Britain excels in the automotive, pharmaceutical, chemicals and arms industries. And just like Germany, Britain is a significant world economic power and there are thousands of UK companies which operate in Turkey and is an important source of foreign investment.
However, unlike Germany Britain does not link relations with Turkey with human rights or democratization (or even pay lip service to such lofty ideals). British policy makers prefer to voice concern about Turkey’s decent to authoritarianism, lack of freedom of expression and the erosion of checks and balances in private. Unlike their German counterparts, British officials seldom criticise Turkish policies or actions in public. This works for the Turkish government which is tired about hearing such criticism.
In contrast to Germany, Britain does not have a strong of a presence of members of the Gulen movement or the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This is important because the Turkish government considers followers of Fetullah Gulen, the Turkish preacher in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and accused of masterminding the July 2016 attempted coup, an existential challenge. The Turkish government remains in an all-out war against the movement and not only seeks to purge them within Turkish state organs and eradicate their presence in civil society, but Ankara also seeks the extradition of leading members who reside or fled abroad. This means their activities in Germany is a significant source of tension.
Similarly, the PKK which has waged an on and off separatist war against the Turkish state since the 1980s is considered by Ankara a significant challenge to the Turkish Republic. The current Turkish government is in no mood to negotiate with even moderate Kurds as evidenced by the arrests of members of the largely peaceful parliamentary Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Both the Gulen movement and the PKK activities in the UK, although present, are far less prolific than in Germany. Sure, there was a recent extradition request against a Gulen member which a British court rejected, but overall this is small fry compared to other European countries. In other words, while Turkey is seething because Germany’s insistence on due process and fairness when it comes to PKK and Gulenist activities, Britain gives Turkey much less cause for anger.
Britain is also different from Germany because of the make-up of citizens of Turkish origin. The British-Turkish population stands at around 500,000 which is certainly not an insignificant number. However, this is nowhere near the size of their German counterparts where the population of Turkish origin Germans is about 4 million or 5% of the total population. Unlike Germany two-thirds of British Turks are from Cyprus rather than Turkey proper. This is an important distinction because the Mediterranean island was a protectorate of the British Empire and then a crown colony for much of the previous century. This meant that the population who migrated to the UK were familiar with British customs and practices.
Although not perfect, the integration process of Turks in Britain was comparatively easier than Germany for numerous reasons that many scholars have already addressed. Also, the other Turks who migrated to the UK came during different periods. Some were intellectuals who fled the 1980 coup, others were Kurds seeking a better life away from the conflict in the Southeast. Others were students at British universities or businesspersons with a financial stake in Britain’s future prosperity.
So, when Turkish politicians such as President Erdogan say that Turks abroad should not assimilate and see Turks outside of Turkey as part of their jurisdiction, it strikes a chord with Berlin, but doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact in London.
However, the fact that Britain is not Germany is, as my report argues, not enough to cement a strategic partnership between Britain and Turkey. In fact, it is a weak basis for relations to develop into anything significant. Germany’s relations with Turkey has more depth, meaning and engages broader segments of Turkish society. In the long-term this will be beneficial to Germany as its relations with Turkey is one which is not just with the governing party.
A couple of days ago I had an op-ed published by Haaretzentitled, “Turkey: The One Place that Trump’s Bullying is Actually Working” and can be found here. In the piece, I argue that President Trump’s hard line against Turkey, mainly over the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, paid off. Following US sanctions and tariffs, Turkey finally relented and a few weeks ago Brunson was released. In the period since, Turkey and the US seem to have advanced in other areas including progressing on their Manbij agreement with joint patrols in the city. Washington even offered a US$4-5 million reward for information about the whereabouts of leading PKK operatives.
It seems as if President Trump has taken a page out of Russia’s playbook. Back in 2015, Turkish-Russians relations hit an all-time low after Turkey downed a Russian SU-24 jet which was traversing northern Syrian into Turkish airspace. In order to get its apology and other Turkish concessions, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure and announced sanctions which hurt the Turkish economy ranging from banning Russian travel agencies from selling package holidays to Turkey and ending visa-free travel to the banning of Turkish fruit and vegetables. Finally, in June 2016, President Erdogan relented and issued an expression of regret while blaming the affair on the activities of the Gulen movement, the ultimate internal Turkish bogeyman. Soon, Russian-Turkish relations began to blossom with regular ministerial visits, cooperation in Syria and Turkey’s decision to buy Russian military hardware.
Although US-Turkish relations are far from where they were several years ago, I think what is happening is that the US is seeking a transactional relationship with Turkey, something I have actually long advocated. In other words, Washington is basing its bilateral relationship on specific areas of interest and working out respective arrangements based on a formula of give and take - a concession in one sphere for a concession elsewhere. For example, releasing Brunson in exchange for easing US sanctions (including allowing Turkey to purchase Iranian crude following the snapping back of US sanctions on Iran), US support for the Turkish position west of the Euphrates in Syria in return for expectations that Turkey hold back in the East of the Euphrates.
In some respects, Europe has also turned towards a transactional relationship with Turkey (although the ties are considerably deeper especially on civil-society, trade and human capacity levels). Following the very vocal and ugly bust-ups between Turkish leaders and several European countries over the last couple of years and Turkey’s seeming strategic about face towards Russia and Iran, Europe seems to have calculated that relations with Turkey are best worked out on a case-by-case transactional basis, the 2016 Migrant deal being the prime example of this – European aid and work towards visa free travel in exchange for Turkey ensuring that Syrian refugees remain in Turkey. Despite all the turbulence in Turkey’s relations with Europe and the West and strains in mutual relations, this example of transactional diplomacy has lasted to this day.
The reality is that shared values of democracy, human rights and rule of law are no longer factors that even from an aspirational perspective link Turkey with the West. Also, Turkey is under the centralised control of its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who perceives himself as leader of a powerful international power which is not bound by any particular alliance. I would also argue that in terms of strategic priorities, Turkey’s threats are not the same as those of the West (with the more or less exception of ISIS since 2016) and there is therefore little interest for close strategic relations as was the case during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. With this is mind, a transactional approach to Turkey is the West’s best bet, at least for the short to medium terms, and perhaps, in the not too distant future mutual confidence can be built to once again foster closer relations.
Turkey’s current monetary crisis is certainly not the first that the country has faced. There have been many. However, this recent crisis, which was made all too real during the collapse of the Turkish lira against the dollar and other major currencies in August 2018 (as much as 40%), highlights a stark contrast to the way in which the previous financial crisis was handled just over a decade and a half ago.
Back in 2001, Turkey was rocked by a financial disaster while still dealing with the tremors of the earlier 1994 crisis. The 2001 crisis was a result of the country continuing to run a financial deficit while also experiencing inflation and having to cope with the consequences of foreign divestment – a very difficult obstacle considering that the country was dependent on foreign investment. Add to the equation instability within the coalition government and you have a toxic mix that made an economic meltdown all but certain. The subsequent recovery of the Turkish economy was a result of an IMF $11.4 billion. Following the IMF loan, Turkey saw several years of stable Justice and Development Party (AKP) government which ensured, at least for a while, economic discipline. However, just as importantly, during the critical March 2001 to 2002 period, before the AKP swept into power, Turkey’s road to recovery was paved by Kemal Dervis who was appointed economy minister.
This is important. It is one thing to take an IMF loan and meet the DC headquartered international organization’s conditions geared towards economic restructuring (which isn’t easy – initially the IMF programme was hard to implement), but quite another to actually run a country’s economy during a period of turbulence. One of the most important things politicians must do is to create confidence both internationally and domestically. Perhaps the wisest decision of Bulent Ecevit’s political career was to appoint Kemal Dervis economy minister in March 2001. Later, their relationship deteriorated but that’s another story.
Why was the appointment of Dervis so critical? Well, for a start Dervis was a graduate of the London School of Economics and then went on to earn a PhD from Princeton University. For a while he was a faculty member at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, the finest higher education institution in Turkey. He then went back to the US to join the economics faculty at Princeton. Dervis spoke a bunch of languages including English, French and German. Now all this is impressive in and of itself, but Dervis then pursed a career at the World Bank. Soon he found himself Vice President of the MENA region and then vice-President for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management. He also had a network of contacts in the financial sector and his positions at the World Bank made him familiar with the inner workings of such organizations such as the IMF.
So what’s my point? It’s simple. When a country is faced with a financial catastrophe, this is the type of person you want at the helm of the economy. Someone who is academically accomplished and has 20 years or so experience at the highest levels of the financial sector. Someone who in a meeting with the CEOs of the world’s top banks, creditors, regulators, credit agencies and the so-called masters of the universe, is seen as an equal – a person who talks their language, commands their respect and can even teach them a thing or two. With Dervis at the helm the framework for the recovery of the Turkish economy was put into place, but following the 2002 general elections it was the AKP and Erdogan who reaped the rewards of Dervis and his team’s hard work.
Fast forward to today, and just before the looming economic crisis and just after the June 2018 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, who does President Erdogan appoint (without oversight as permitted by the new constitutional changes) as his economy minister? Does he choose a seasoned economist with academic and professional accomplishments? No. He didn’t even keep his previous economy minister Mehmet Simsek who had a pretty decent career in the financial services before entering politics and had worked hard to gain the confidence of international investors. Instead, President Erdogan appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak.
Now, one could argue that the choice of Albayrak has some merits. As the former CEO of Calik holding, a company sympathetic to the President, Albarak knows the inner workings of Turkish conglomerates and their relationship with government. Also, as the son-in-law of the President, Albayrak certainly has the ear of the most powerful man in the country. Foreign investors would hope that Albayrak would be able to gently steer his father-in-law to a positive economic path.
However, the positives of having the ear of the President is not enough for this sort of position at this particular turbulent time. Turkey needs a Dervis. Short of another IMF bailout, if the Turkish government were serious about putting the economy right they would enshrine the independence of the central bank. They would immediately take measures to release all foreign nationals under detention, especially those who could spark a diplomatic crisis with any country with financial clout. Pastor Andrew Brunson should have been released a year ago. The Turkish government should also create a bipartisan advisory group (a real one I mean) comprising of leading Turkish CEOs both in Turkey and abroad and meets regularly and has an influential advisory role. Turkey should also stop spending and being wasteful. This includes mega projects which have everything to do with vanity rather than real infrastructural development. Also, the idea that Turkey should seek the services of consultancy firms such as McKinsey, which the Turkish opposition lamented leading the government to call off the commission, was actually, in my opinion, a good one. Sometimes it takes an outside party for someone to heed good advice.
In 2001 Turkey was lucky enough to have someone at the helm of the economy who could lead Turkey out of its difficult mess. Today, it doesn’t and this is an important reason why this economic crisis is not going away anytime soon.
It has been a month since the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, and the story does not appear to be going away. Such lengthy news coverage is a rare thing in the 21stcentury. How quickly other overseas political assassinations were dropped from the news cycle. How many people remember the murder in the Netherlands of Ahmad Mola Nissi, a leader of a violent Arab Iranian separatist movement in November 2017? Back in February 2017, the murder in Malaysia of Kim Jong-Man, the half-brother of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, who was killed by a chemical weapon no less, did not receive this much attention. Yet somehow the murder of Khashoggi remains in the news. This begs the question, why? Who stands to benefit and who stands to lose with the story remaining on the agenda?
Let’s face it, this kind of story doesn’t come around very often. Not only is this a political assassination, but it took place within a consulate and incorporates all the items of a TV drama – the forensic investigation, the secrecy and the tantalising prospect of a real-life conspiracy involving the most senior levels of a government. Also, the facts keep changing each day as more information comes to light. And what emerges is grizzly to say the least, which also appeals to some. Questions still remain unanswered - was Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal family insider and governmental advisor turned dissident journalist, tortured and then murdered or just murdered straight away? Or was he strangled and then dismembered? Was he injected with poison, and then mutilated? Or was his body dissolved in acid? Or perhaps it was some gruesome combination of the above. Add these questions together and you have yourself a news story that grips viewers and readers as would a TV boxset and a bowl of Doritos.
It is in the interest of Khashoggi’s home newspaper, the Washington Post, to keep the story alive. Khashoggi was the Post’s columnist and so the Post is absolutely right to demand answers from Saudi Arabia and push the US administration to do all in its power to ascertain the facts and take action. Credit to the Washington Postfor not relenting. Newspapers owe it to their staff to do everything in their power to support journalists and the freedom of expression. And I’m glad other news outlets have kept on following the story.
But there are some, of course, who want the Khashoggi story to go away. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) obviously wants it to disappear. Also, the Trump administration. The White House was in a sluggish mood when the story broke, and President Trump’s comment that there will be consequencesfor those responsible sounded reluctant. If the story dissipates, Trump won’t have to follow through on this statement. Indeed, the US is loathed to take forceful action, save a few sanctions against a couple of individuals. Let us not forget that according to Trump, Saudi and the US have apparently agreed to $100 billionin arms deals (the reality is that this figure is not just a gross over calculation, but a manipulation as to how arms deals are normally calculated). The US also needs Saudi support to maintain the oil price at a reasonable rate especially while additional sanctions against Iran are going into effect.
Ditto Europe. There has been some (welcomed) criticism and condemnation of the Saudis and even pull-outs from MBS’ Saudi desert expo last month. However, most of Europe, Britain and France especially, would prefer the story go away. Very rarely do European governments condemn Saudi Arabia or dwell on its appalling human rights record. Arms contracts are highly lucrative and ensure employment. The steady flow of oil at an affordable rate maintains Europe’s economy and allows energy diversification from Russia.
Iran has been relatively silent on the whole affair. Tehran made a belatedcondemnation, an example of blatant hypocrisy considering the coming to light of a failed assassination attemptin September of a dissident Iranian political figure in Denmark. Perhaps Tehran figures that there is no need to meddle because Saudi Arabia seems to be digging itself in a mess by changing its story every couple of days. The belligerent MBS is seemingly losing his international respect and Saudi is on the back foot, giving Iran some reprieve, not wanting to draw attention to its own misdeeds in Denmark. Meanwhile, Russia is watching by as a US ally is embattled - good for Moscow’s ambitions to dominate the region.
Then we have Turkey. Vying for power in the Muslim world, Turkey is on the opposite end of Saudi Arabia in the post-Arab Spring regional divide. In Egypt, Turkey aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia lent its support to General Sisi. Turkey and Saudi Arabia backed different factions in Syria, and Turkey sided with Qatar during the GCC crisis. However, instead of giving Saudi the legendary Ottoman slap for the Khashoggi murder, Ankara has decided to let information drip out in a means to discredit the Saudi regime in the eyes of the international community. President Erdogan also managed to pen an article in the Washington Postpointing the fingerat Saudi officials who he claims premeditated the murder.
This is an interesting strategy. However, it is meaningless because in the eyes of the international community Saudi Arabia never really had any creditability anyway. Sure, MBS’s reform agenda had some plaudits, but they were limited to wishful thinkers, dupes and a certain New York Timescolumnist. It never really fooled strategically minded thinkers or informed policy makers. And the majority of those who did praise Saudi Arabia for reforms such as giving women the right to drive, did so while making it clear that they remained sceptical.
Put another way, the soap opera that is the Khashoggi murder is simply a big reminder that reform in Saudi Arabia is not about MBS, but rather a whole load of BS. But we knew that already. After this affair blows over, we will return to the pre-2015 status quo ante – an unchanged and unreformed Saudi Arabia, which continues to violate human rights and the international community being unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
Apologies for my absence. I have been working on a number of projects simultaneously and didn’t have much free time to write. This is just a brief post, but there will be plenty more to come in the days and weeks ahead.
I recently wrote an op-ed that featured in Haaretzabout the case of the missing Saudi journalist and recent critic of the Saudi regime Jamal Khashoggi. Turkish police have been granted access to the Saudi consulate where he went missing, but Turkish investigators believe he was killed on the premises. In this piece, I highlight that two of the world's biggest suppressors of freedom of expression are about to go head to head over Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance, while the West, keen to keep Riyadh's billions onside, will only muster a silent displeasure, a whisper in a thunderstorm:
Turkey, Jailer of Journalists, Now Slams Saudi Arabia - for Murdering a Journalist
Saudi dissidents don't just vanish into thin air. If anything, they are deliberately disappeared, as was the case with journalist and prominent media commentator Jamal Khashoggi several days ago. He entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to sign papers relating to his forthcoming marriage but has not been seen since.
Turkish investigators are looking into the possibility that Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and chopped into pieces while still in the consular building.
Shocking? Certainly. Reckless? Absolutely. But the Saudi kingdom figured it could get away with it.
It has been weeks since the falling out between the US and Turkey over the continued detention of pastor Andrew Brunson, a symptom of many problems between the two countries. Just to briefly recap, some of the other outstanding issues between the sides include Turkey’s anger at US support for Kurdish forces affiliated to the PKK in Syria; the violation of the Iran Sanctions Act by a Turkish state-owned bank, possibly with the full knowledge or even behest of the highest levels of the Turkish government; Turkey’s intent to purchase Russian S400 surface to air missiles; and the residence in the US of Fetullah Gulen who Ankara blames for the July 2016 attempted coup.
Despite the US sanctions which wreaked havoc on the already vulnerable Turkish economy, and the threat of more to come, Turkey is still resisting US pressure. All Ankara has to do is drop the charges against Brunson, so why is Ankara resisting so much? Why not find a face-saving measure and fall into line, just like Ankara did after tensions with Russia?
In an earlier post, I explained how Turkey and the US might overcome some of their differences. And if I can think of a way, I am sure the brilliant minds in Washington and Ankara can do better. I also wrote a post about the underlying symptoms for the breakdown of relations in which I factor Turkey’s internal security threats, Ankara’s delusions of grandeur and Turkey’s authoritarian turn. But there is an additional factor, namely, President Erdogan’s version of political Islam.
Faced with ongoing Magnitsky Act sanctions and high tariffs on aluminium and steel, as well as being excluded from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme after the passing of the 2019 defence spending bill, Turkey is experiencing a continued strain on its economy, an ongoing currency crisis and uncertainty about future military hardware. If President Erdogan truly cared about the Turkish economy, he would have appointed representatives from the business community to establish an economic advisory council, increased interest rates by guaranteeing the independence of the central bank, and, of course, immediately released American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Instead, Erdogan chose his son-in-law to be the country’s economy minister, maintained his position that high interest rates leads to inflation and pressured the central bank to reframe from raising rates. Not only did Erdogan not release Pastor Brunson, but he responded to US sanctions with some of his own, which practically amounts to a trade war against the biggest economy on Earth.
“They have their dollars but we have the Quran”, declared Erdogan, not just once but on countless occasions over the past couple of weeks. This is typical of religious fanatics everywhere; when they don’t have the answers, they double down on God. When asked about the dismal economic performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini responded that, “the revolution was not about the price of watermelons”. Indeed, how can it be when Khomeini promised that Islam was the solution? This is why Erdogan continues to resist increasing interest rates which he has described as “evil”, no doubt a reflection of Islam’s abhorrence to usury. If it is not proscribed by God, it cannot be part of the answer.
Erdogan adds that there is no need to fear, the world is bigger than the United States. Never mind the fact that the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s economy, Turkey, Erdogan insists, can turn to other countries for economic support and arms purchases. Qatar and Russia, or, in the case of F-35s, Turkey’s own military aviation industry (ignoring that the TF-X project, for example, is currently dependent on the expertise and intellectual property of UK firms).
It appears that President Erdogan and his sycophantic band of advisors believe the hype about America’s demise and the rise of the rest. But unlike serious observers who write about America’s inwardly looking trajectory and the rise of China and other developing nations, President Erdogan and his cohorts seem to think the time is nigh. They appear to have missed that for the time being at least, the US is still the most powerful nation on earth, and that remains the case whether we are talking about hard power, soft power, smart power or any other kind of power.
President Erdogan once commented that there is no such thing as moderate Islam. His foreign policy reflects this. President Erdogan’s government continues to support Hamas. It sides with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsors a range of Islamist militants in Syria. Erdogan himself earned his political stripes with the openly Islamist Welfare Party of the one-time Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan who was anti-western to the core and talked about forming an Islamic currency and uniting the Muslim world against US and Zionist conspiracies. Although Erbakan was ousted following a military intervention, his thinking inspired a generation of Turkish Islamists, and President Erdogan was his (wayward) protégé who is beginning to act more and more like his old mentor. “The attack on our economy has absolutely no difference from attacks on our call to prayer and our flag,” Erdogan recently stated, showing his inability to separate religion from economics and international relations. Just last March, Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper and government mouthpiece if ever there was one, talked about creating an Islamic army of millions of soldiers to fight Israel. Erdogan didn’t distance himself from the piece. It also reflect the apparent statements of King Abdullah II of Jordan who told US congressional leaders back in 2016 that the Turkish head of state believes in a “radical Islamic solution” to conflicts in the Middle East.
Erdogan sees himself as the head of a country that leads the Muslim world. The most recent example was when President Erdogan used Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a means to speak on behalf of the Muslim world by convening a special emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Erdogan used this pulpit to lead the Muslim world’s condemnation of the Trump Administration in the most visceral terms imaginable.
In this context, how can it be possible for Erdogan to back down against Trump? It be a setback for Erdogan’s attempt to lead the Muslim world legitimized by Turkey's Ottoman past, Islamic credentials and the Turkish president’s ability to stand up to Israel and America. Of course, the losers will be Turkey’s long-suffering population who are seeing their money devalued, their savings hurt and their businesses on the brink. But they needn’t worry, they always have God.
Although the term “Neo-Ottomanism” actually pre-dates the establishment of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the phrase has often been used to describe Turkish foreign policy under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP. However, not only is the term widely used, it is also under defined and, as a consequence, interpreted in many different ways.
For some, Neo-Ottomanism is a blanket term for Turkey’s greater involvement in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans, areas where the Ottoman Empire once occupied. This could include both diplomatic ties and economic relations. For others, Neo-Ottomanism is a more specific policy of Ankara’s, especially under Erdogan and the AKP, to not only re-engage with the Middle East, but to also position itself as a multi-regional actor rather than being part of Europe. This is in contrast to Turkey’s traditional Kemalist foreign policy which considered itself part of the West. Although fewer in number, some go as far as to define Neo-Ottomanism as an attempt by Turkey to dominate neighbouring states and expand its territory beyond the international barriers stipulated in the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne.
But please allow me to add my thoughts on this subject and define how I understand Neo-Ottomanism. For the sake of clarity, and no doubt to the chagrin of you international relations theorists out there, I will do my best to limit my social science jargon unless absolutely necessary. I’ll save that for an academic article which I hope to write one day in the not too distant future. As always, feel free to email me your thoughts.
Imagine that you have been invited to visit Iraqi Kurdistan. You find yourself staying in Erbil, the KRG’s capital. You spend the night in a hotel which is Turkish owned. In the morning, you drink a cup of tea which is a Turkish brand. You go for a walk and notice that the roads were built by a Turkish construction firm. You enter a shopping mall which was also built by a Turkish company and perhaps owned, at least partly, by a Turkish firm. The shops inside the mall are Turkish chain outlets selling Turkish products. Even the food court consists of Turkish franchisees. And I haven’t even mentioned Turkish schools, universities or hospitals yet.
If one were to replace the word “Turkish” in the above paragraph with “American” or “British”, or nowadays increasingly “Chinese”, some would not hesitate to label such influence an example of neo-colonialism. I see no reason why this term cannot be applied to Turkey. Indeed, it can. And in this case, Neo-Ottomanism is the appropriate word. And let us not forget, Turkey often legitimatises its overwhelming influence in such places because of its presence of these countries during Ottoman times.
The above is how I define the central core of Neo-Ottomanism. In addition to Iraqi Kurdistan, a similar scenario is taking shape in Afrin, Syria, which was recently captured by Turkish supported forces. It is also taking place in the other area of northern Syria which Turkey captured after Operation Euphrates Shield which ended in March 2017. You might even want to include Northern Cyprus too, but you would have to concede that this predated the AKP by almost three decades and has a different historical context and military dynamic. Azerbaijan could also be included in this central core of Neo-Ottomanism, although to a much lesser extent mainly because of continued Russian influence.
Then there is a second layer, the inner core, of Neo-Ottomanism. By this I mean areas which are slighter further away from Turkey, but where Ankara is seeking to exert influence based on both military power, trade relations and cultural capital. Again, this attempt to exert influence is justified by Turkish politicians, President Erdogan included, because of Turkey’s imperial past. Specifically, I am referring to Sudan and Qatar. In December 2017, it was announced that Sudan had agreed to lease Suakin Island, located strategically on the Red Sea, to Turkey. In addition to the historical significance of the port Island during the Ottoman period, Turkey sees this as an opportunity to redevelop the island as a port, a naval dock (civilian and military), and to restore its ancient ruins. The deal represents the strengthening of Turkish-Sudanese ties in which Turkey is by far the dominant force and will give Turkey a long-term presence in the country. Meanwhile in November 2017, Turkey opened a military base in Qatar just as the energy rich Gulf Arab island was being isolated and boycotted by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt for its apparent support for the Muslim Brotherhood and sympathies with Iran. Turkey saw the crisis as a means of currying favour with Doha and benefitting from the now almost monopolised purchases of Turkish goods and services. This together with a military base, translates to unprecedented influence.
Finally, there is the third layer, or outer core, of Neo-Ottomanism in which Turkey seeks a leadership role in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. In addition to having important military, commercial and cultural ties with its Muslim neighbours, Turkey again justifies its leadership role among the Muslim world based on its Ottoman legacy. After all, wasn’t the most recent and greatest Islamic empire that of the Ottomans? Sure, the Koran was written in Arabic and the world’s most populated Muslim countries are in southeast Asia, but, using a mix of Turkish Islamist tropes and ultra-nationalist thought, the role of the Turk is to be the warrior of Islam, those who fight to defend the faith. Wasn’t that what President Erdogan was essentially doing when he convened the OIC in in December 2017 to condemn Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital - leading the defence of Muslim holy sites against foreign onslaught and occupation? Sites which were once part of the Ottoman Empire.
Regardless, Neo-Ottomanism is an aspirational policy. There are many drawbacks, not least the risk of overreach, regional opposition, and having to come to pragmatic arrangements with greater powers such as China and Russia. However, the above is the basis of how I consider and define Neo-Ottomanism, the central pillar and driver of Turkish foreign policy in recent years.
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