Uğur Derin
Sep 10 2018

Turkish leaders forever portray a country under external attack

As the Turkish lira lost about 40 percent of its value against the dollar this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and most of the Turkish media managed to portray the economic crisis as a “currency plot” carried out by external powers.

This type of discourse is nothing new. In 1989, Turgut Özal, who dominated Turkish politics in the late 1980s and early 1990s as prime minister and then president, said “whenever Turkey becomes powerful, certain circles embark on nefarious practices”. Asked who those certain circles were, Özal said “everybody knows them” and that “there is no need to give names”. This attitude of blaming external powers for things that go wrong has a long history.

From the late Ottoman period to the present, Turkey has not had one period without “internal and external enemies”. Starting from 1880s and culminating in the 1915 genocide against them, Armenians were accused of collaborating with the Russians. During the early years of the republic, Kurdish revolts were linked to British plots. Kurdish rebel leaders of the 1920s like Sheikh Said are even now portrayed in Kemalist historiography as British agents. During the Cold War, any kind of opposition to the Turkish state was labelled a communist threat and the political left felt the backlash.

Adnan Menderes, Turkey’s first democratically elected prime minister in 1950, talked of “the country's internal and external enemies ... those who are not happy with Turkey's rise”. Almost word for word what Erdoğan now says six decades later.

Süleyman Demirel, seven times prime minister between 1965 and 1993, frequently referred to “those wanting to dismember Turkey”.

Often added to conspiracy theories and the blaming of external powers is the statement “they did this in the past, too”. Erdoğan held one of his most recent rallies against the currency plot on August 26, the anniversary of two Turkish victories, one against the Byzantines in 1071, and the other against the Greeks in 1922. This way, society is reminded that current plots by external powers are nothing but a continuation of their earlier assaults.

Though it has not appeared in Erdoğan’s most recent speeches, an important element of this discourse is the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which proposed a partition of the Ottoman Empire and ceded land to Armenians, Greeks and Kurds, who would traditionally rank as the top three of Turkey's enemies.

All sides of the political spectrum - left or right, conservative or liberal - have all at one time made reference to the Treaty of Sèvres as evidence that external powers want to weaken and destroy Turkey, a view known as the Sèvres Syndrome.

An important thing to note here is that while blaming international conspiracies and making irrelevant historical references is common in every strata of politics, different ideologies highlight different threats. For example, Necmettin Erbakan, from 1996 to 1997 the country’s first Islamist prime minister, once referred to the Treaty of Sevres as the “Great Israel Project”. Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories are quite popular with Islamists. In contrast, secular Kemalists accuse Islamists of being in league with Iran.

The idea and practice of blaming evil external forces for all ills and promoting a leader to unite the nation is age-old. An interesting point though is that many people in Turkey - including the rulers - are aware of fallacy of the tradition, but still use it. An old video of Erdoğan crops up from time to time where he talks about “our problematic tradition of blaming external powers when things go wrong”.

Unless this tradition is abandoned, tackling Turkey’s real problems is unlikely.