Has Erdoğan decided to act presidentially?
Speaking at an iftar dinner over the weekend, which he gave in honor of artists, sportsmen and sportswomen, Presidential Recep Tayyip Erdoğan underlined the urgent need for “unity” in Turkey, saying this was required more than ever if the country is to move ahead. He pointed out that attaining this unity would also provide an example for the “wronged and oppressed” nations of the world.
“My desire as president is always this: I say that if we act in unity, if we are strong and brotherly, then no one will be able to bring Turkey down ... Sometimes people say, ‘this is a Turk, this is a Kurd, this is a Laz, a Circassian, a Georgian or an Abkhazian. What I say is that there is no room for this in our book. We must secure unity as citizens of the Turkish Republic,” he said.
These are wise words suggesting a democratic president whose primary aim is to work for the unity of the nation without discriminating on the basis of ethnicity, creed, religion, sex, lifestyle or sexual orientation. There are, however, some problems with this. To start with, Erdoğan is the one who alienated citizens of Kurdish origin with remarks like when he said that “Turkey has no Kurdish problem.”
The anger of the Kurds was fueled further with his insensitivity toward the fate of the Kurds in Kobane when they were under siege by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as well as his general position on the Syrian Kurds. Instead of acknowledging that Kurds represent a significant minority in Turkey, whose democratic demands have to be listened to and sensitivities respected, Erdoğan fanned the flames of divisions between Turks and Kurds by reverting to hardline nationalist language, rather than trying to douse the flames of ethnic division as a democratic and impartial president.
This anger was reflected clearly in the results of the recent general election. But this is only one aspect of the problem relating to Erdoğan. Turkey is, after all, a country of multiple fault-lines - ethnicity is just one of them. The secular/religious fault-line is much more serious because it cuts through class and ethnicity, dividing the country into two distinct camps.
One side sees religion not just as something that provides guidelines for individuals, but also as a form of public administration guided by the Quran. The other side opposes this vehemently, saying religion has no place in the public domain in a democracy and should belong instead to the private domain. It is interesting to note that Erdogan did not say anything with regard to this fault-line during his iftar dinner.
As matters stand there is very little evidence to show that Erdoğan has done his level best, since coming to power, to ensure that national unity is maintained, despite strong feelings across the religious/secular divide. More often than not, his utterances on sensitive issues have helped deepen this divide. Given his Sunni-based outlook, Erdoğan has also done little to overcome the sectarian divide among Turks along the Sunni/Alevi fault-line.
To the contrary, he has deepened this divide by veering strongly toward the Sunni line, especially with regard to developments in the Middle East. What’s more, nobody hears Erdogan defending the rights of people who do not think like him, who live alternative lifestyles, or the LGBT community, anymore.
All of this aside, if Erdoğan has decided now that it is time to act presidentially and to represent the nation as a whole, without discrimination, and to try and unify what is ultimately a deeply divided country, then this can only be for the better. He will have to prove, however, that he is speaking earnestly when underlining the dire need for unity in Turkey.