Erdoğan's Anti-Western Discourse: Ideology or Opportunism?

Over the past five years political circles, as well as public opinion in Europe and the United States, have often been shocked by the way the president of Turkey has depicted the West as an enemy in proclamations and speeches for a Turkish audience.

For Western policy makers and opinion leaders, accustomed for decades to think of Turkey as an ally in the instable Middle East and the post-Soviet realm, this came as a shock. How was it possible that a NATO ally and candidate member of the European Union no longer saw Russian irredentism, Iranian subversion of Middle Eastern states or indeed the terror of Islamic State (ISIS) as its main threat, but Israel, the United States and the EU?  

The issue was discussed in countless briefings and panel discussions and these often revolved around one question: Why does he do it?

Is the anti-Western discourse of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a political tool to mobilise his followers in Turkey, or to put pressure on the West, or was it an expression of a deep-seated conviction, an ideology? If the last was the case, did that mean that “we”, the West, had allowed ourselves to be misled all the time when we saw Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) as forces for the democratisation and modernisation of Turkey?

Europeans first became aware of the problem in May 2013, during the large-scale Gezi protests in Turkey, when the Turkish president and people around him (notably his adviser Yiğit Bulut) accused news channels BBC and CNN, as well as at one point German airline Lufthansa, of having paid for the riots. Bulut famously accused the West of destabilising the Turkish government through telekinesis. Erdoğan himself most consistently pointed the finger at what he called the interest lobby, the investors in Turkish public debt – a term that many people understood to be an anti-Semitic dog whistle.

The breakdown in relations between Erdoğan’s group and their old allies, the Gülenist Hizmet movement in December 2013 was the next occasion for a salvo of anti-Western rhetoric. Not only the CIA, but also a number of European countries, notably Germany, Norway and the Netherlands were accused in the following years of supporting the Gülenists’ efforts to infiltrate the Turkish state.

From the summer of 2015 onwards, when the peace process between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) broke down, and when Turkey gradually turned against Islamic State, the president increasingly developed a discourse in which the Gülenists (from 2016 “FETÖ”), the PKK, its Syrian offshoot the YPG, the radical left DHKP-C and ISIS were presented as five fingers of one hand – all of them terrorist organisations that shared two things: they threatened Turkey and they were supported by foreign interests.

The perceived lack of solidarity on the part of the West after the failed coup of July 2016, and the criticism of the crackdown on dissidents that followed, made Erdoğan’s anti-Western discourse more vehement. As he said in November 2016: “These are not our only enemies. Behind them are others with other plans and projects.”

He then went on the directly accuse the West of sheltering terrorists because it did not want Turkey to become strong and powerful.

The almost non-stop campaigning that took place in Turkey, with four elections and a referendum over a five-year period, gave ample opportunity for extreme nationalist rhetoric. During the speeches to mass rallies of his followers, at which he excels, Erdoğan constantly evoked the threat of foreign plots against Turkey and consciously inflamed tensions with Germany and the Netherlands over their refusal to let Turkish cabinet ministers give public speeches on the referendum in their countries. Erdoğan referred to their policies as “Nazism and Fascism” and called the Dutch prime minister a “Nazi leftover”, thereby touching on the rawest possible nerve in Germany and the Netherlands.

All of this has been enough to fundamentally affect the way Turkey and its current government are perceived in the West, but the question remains: what animates Erdoğan? Is it a deep-rooted ideological stance or is it political opportunism?

It is undoubtedly the case that Erdoğan throughout these years when he fought off challenges to his regime and ultimately established total dominance on the basis of the mobilisation of his core constituency of nationalist conservative Sunni Turks from the Anatolian heartland, he created external enemies to bond with his supporters and to position himself as the only person who could defend Turkey. It was a very effective tactic. The row with Germany and the Netherlands alone gained him several percentage points in the closely fought referendum.

At the same time, it is also true that Erdoğan is on record as being a follower of writers like Mehmet Akif Ersoy, Ziya Gökalp and particularly Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, whom he has called his greatest source of inspiration.  

Kısakürek was undoubtedly an important poet, but at the same time an extremely unsavoury character – a fascist and anti-Semite, who can be regarded as the founding father of extreme Muslim-Turkish nationalism. He was also fiercely anti-Western.

As is well known, Erdoğan, while still a student, expressed the ideas he derived from Necip Fazıl in his play Maskomya, which depicted freemasons, communists and Jews as enemies of Turkey.

So what is it: ideological firebrand or consummate politician?

I think asking the question in this manner is fundamentally misleading. Both elements can be reconciled very well if we make use of the concept of “affective disposition” that Ronald Grigor Suny has used in his insightful explanations of the Armenian genocide. He argues that there were a range of conjunctural factors  - political and military – that ultimately led to the Young Turks adopting a radical policy of ethnic cleansing, but that there also was an underlying, long-term, development in which the Young Turks, and Muslims more generally developed an “affective disposition” to see the Armenians as a potential threat and as secret enemies. Both factors together were what led to the tragedy of 1915.

Something similar could be said for Erdoğan’s use of anti-Western rhetoric in his public discourse over the past five years: moving from crisis to crisis and from campaign to campaign there were excellent political reasons to depict the West as an enemy of Turkey, to drum up political support and confirm the image of the leader. But there was, and is, also an underlying “affective disposition” that has been part of Erdoğan’s mental make-up since his teenage years, when he discovered Necip Fazıl.

Without the political struggles he would not have made so much of this anti-Westernism, but without the affective disposition he would not have chosen this weapon in his political struggles.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.