Turkish newspapers rush to hail Boris Johnson despite his cynicism

New British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s great grandfather was an Ottoman liberal who was killed after being captured by troops aligned to nationalist leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk at the end of the revolutionary war. Never mind the exact details of the history - historical detail has never been the forte of either British or Turkish nationalists - Johnson’s Turkish ancestry has been noted as positive news for the relationship between Britain and Turkey by a number of Turkish newspapers.

Back in 2006, Johnson was a back-bench member of parliament and was about to run to be mayor of London. At the time he was positioning himself as a liberal conservative, in an era where the Conservatives were trying to shake off their public image as ‘the nasty party’, losing two elections in which they attempted to use immigration as a wedge issue. Johnson obviously decided that being overtly racist was not a good strategy in diverse London, so he affected a cosmopolitan air and made a television programme in which he spoke enthusiastically about Turkey joining the European Union.

There is a slight irony in the way Johnson praised Atatürk’s secular Republic in this programme, because of Johnson’s family history. I recommend you read the Wikipedia page for Ali Kemal, Johnson’s great-grandfather, because his backstory is more complex than I can do justice to here. Essentially, he was abducted by troops aligned to Atatürk. I came across this fascinating account by the poet Nâzım Hikmet of his execution by a mob in Izmit, accused of being an ‘In the pay of the English. He was the Caliph’s man’.

Johnson continued to advocate for Turkey to join the EU even after Britain had narrowly voted to leave in 2016. Yet he was also a leading member of the Vote Leave campaign, which advocated Britain leaving the EU and used the fear of Turkey joining the union to help persuade the British people to vote for Brexit. He co-signed a letter to the Prime Minister David Cameron a week before the 2016 referendum that stated “the only way to avoid having common borders with Turkey is to vote Leave”. When asked about his attitude to Turkey’s accession by journalist Andrew Marr, he said "Frankly I don't mind whether Turkey joins the EU, provided the UK leaves the EU." 

Despite this, in January this year he told reporters that “I didn't say anything about Turkey during the referendum.”

This cynicism has not put off some Turkish media in its rush to hail the new British prime minister as a Turkish export. Sabah excitedly interviewed one of Johnson’s distant cousins from the village where his great grandfather was born, which is apparently well known for producing ‘blond boys’, and noted that “Johnson was greeted with applause on arrival at the prime minister's official residence”. Videos of his arrival on Twitter painted a different image of his popularity with the public. Sabah’s opinion writers were not as kind as the news headlines though, effectively calling him a liar and a good example of the West’s decline into post-truth politics.

Not known for its temperate language, the religious/nationalist newspaper Yeni Akit newspaper called Johnson an ‘enemy of Islam’, and referred to his 2006 book The Dream of Rome, and another essay from 2007, in which he suggested that Islam had set back the development of the Muslim world. It also did not escape the attention of Yeni Akit that Johnson had described women who wore the burka as looking like letterboxes and that he had come first in a competition to produce a poem insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Yeni Şafak, meanwhile, decided to avoid the complex history of Johnson’s Turkish roots and go for the simple, feel-good nationalism of claiming Johnson as one of their own. The headman of the village where Johnson’s great-grandfather was from is even expected to travel to Britain to congratulate Johnson, who will be pleased to note that “resident Selim Barışkan ... said they expect help from [Johnson] to solve the problems of their village.”

It is interesting to note how quickly nationalist media like Yeni Şafak can switch from the idea that Britain is an imperialist power intent on undermining Turkish greatness to a position of claiming the British prime minister as one of their own. This line, of avoiding the problems with Johnson’s relationship to Islam and his Turkish roots, seems to be the Turkish government’s current attitude. After all, Britain, which is theoretically about the leave the EU, could be an important trading partner for Turkey, and Britain may need a free trade deal with Turkey as quickly as possible.

Maybe we should not expect a man like Johnson to be consistent in his beliefs. As a boy, he reportedly said it was his ambition to become ‘World King’. He is a man who admires power, and those who get it, even if they ordered the execution of his great-grandfather. The question the British public are now asking themselves is whether, having attained power, he knows what to do with it.