Turkish diaspora see Erdoğan as ‘healer’ of frustrations: Professor Ayhan Kaya
Many Turks living in Europe and coming from a disadvantaged socio-economic background see President Erdoğan as a figure who ‘heals their frustrations,’ creating a ‘father figure who can challenge European leaders,’ says prominent academic Ayhan Kaya, citing a recently-held study.
You have received an advanced grant from the European Union for your research. In what sense will your research will differ from others?
From the start I have challenged the rise of “civilizational” discourse, which originates from the “clash of civilizations” paradigm introduced by Samuel Huntington, based on the idea that Muslims and Christians cannot live together simply because they are from two different civilizations. Civilization cannot simply be reduced to religions, it is much more of a material process related to urbanization, industrialization, etc.
Scholars working on both migrant-origin youth and native youth communities have used different approaches, mainly because of the imposition of post-modern civilizational discourse that forces scholars to use different lenses. The way some native youngsters become radicalized and affiliated with Islamophobic and populist discourse is not really different from the way some Muslim-origin youths are radicalized.
They often live in the same cities and are affected by similar social economic political constraints, exposed to the same detrimental effects of globalization. They are the losers of globalization complaining about unemployment, alienation, and the fact that mainstream political parties no longer respond to their problems. And there are no longer any left-wing ideologies promising that another world is possible. All youngsters are searching for some alternative ideologies to express their concerns.
They may suffer from common problems, but when political elites endorse populist rhetoric it seems to have very different reflections on these two groups.
Exactly. Political parties are not willing to find concrete solutions to resolve problems, they prefer to turn to tentative, easy answers. Look at what happened in Palestine. Israel killed more than 60 Palestinians and this shows there is no global justice. One of the reasons why there is more radicalization among Muslim-origin youths towards Islamism is the belief that there is no global justice. You can say something similar for native-origin youngsters living in Dresden. They are not primarily concerned about the rise of Islam, but about the fact that their expectations for the reunification of Germany have not been met. These people are using the discourse of Islamophobia to get attention because that is what has become a mainstream discourse.
But the rise in migration is among the effects of globalization.
Right-wing populist parties are instrumentalizing the fear of refugees and fear of Islam for their own use. In our interviews in six countries with supporters of right-wing populist parties, we saw that they are not actually too hostile to refugees. Rather, they are hostile to settled migrants. One 59-year-old working class person from Rotterdam said: “I don’t really understand these Turkish youngsters. They are now too vocal. Their parents and grandparents were grateful to the Netherlands; they were quiet and respecting us, but these youngsters do not respect us.” They gave this example as an indication of Turkish-origin youngsters’ lack of integration, but in fact the example shows the reality of integration. They have learned about their search for rights and have become vocal. The heightened visibility of Muslims in public space has certainly become disturbing for some groups of people in Europe.
There is a sense that if a Turkish-origin migrant criticizes Erdoğan they are considered a well-integrated citizen, but if they praise him they are not. Do you recognize such a discriminatory approach?
All this started with debates about Erdoğan’s visits to various European cities. This is something we should look at from the angle of the diaspora politics of the Turkish state. The state has long tried to find some liaison communities to pursue its own interests, not only during the rule of the Justice and Development Party [AKP] but also under previous regimes when the military legacy was strong. It was previously seen as the generals’ job to disseminate secular Kemalist perspectives. Now the AKP is disseminating this rather Ottomanist Islamist perspective. This perspective becomes attractive for some groups in the diaspora, especially those who feel the detrimental effects of globalization and who feel neglected. They were always searching for a personality to save them from sources of humiliation.
In our research in different European countries we saw what Erdoğan signifies for many members of the Turkish-origin public. He is seen as the person who can heal the sources of their problems. What many see in the image of Erdoğan is a strong personality who can challenge European leaders. This strong father figure becomes attractive to those with rather conservative religious backgrounds, and mainly those coming from a disadvantaged socio-economic background. These are mostly people who have not taken German citizenship, for example, and are also among the losers of neoliberalism and globalization.
What are the levels of radicalization among Turkish-origin youths?
We don’t really see much radicalization among Turkish-origin youths in terms of jihadism. We see that more among members of the North African diaspora. I think one of the reasons for this is the Ottoman past. The Ottomans were never colonized, which gives them a difference in terms of their identification compared to North Africans.
When Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte barred Turkish leaders from campaigning in the Netherlands last year, it seemed to help him win elections. They argue that the ban was due to public security, do you find that convincing?
I don’t deny that he used the controversy for his own political purposes. But we should be also careful with Turkey’s diaspora politics, which often divides the Turkish-origin populations in these countries.
Also, we know that Islamophobia is rising. But the way it is discussed in the Turkish context is misleading. We assume that Islamophobia is mainly initiated by Christians, but this is wrong. Islamophobes in Europe are not really practicing Christians, they are not the churchgoers. They are mostly agnostic, atheistic, non-churchgoers. They are also mostly uneducated people, living in small cities where there are practically no Muslims. The misperception about Islamophobes in Europe is contributing to the rise of anti-Westernism among Turkish politicians, some of whom have started to suggest there is a “war between the crescent and the cross.” This is completely wrong; the war is between the rich and the poor, the center and the periphery.
Ayhan Kaya is currently a professor of political science and Jean Monnet Chair of European Politics of Interculturalism at Istanbul Bilgi University’s International Relations Department. He is also a member of the Turkish Academy of Sciences.
In 1994, Kaya received his Master of Arts degree from the University of Warwick in England. He then went on to receive his PhD from the same university in 1999. During 2016-2017, he was a Jean Monnet Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy.
Previously, Kaya worked and taught as the Willy Brandt Chair at Sweden’s Malmö University in 2011 and as the Aziz Nesin Chair at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder) in 2013. He is specialized in many fields, including Euro-Turks.