Low turnout shows Turkish expats ‘reluctant to delve into Turkey’s politics’

Low turnout shows Turkish expats ‘reluctant to delve into Turkey’s politics’

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Low turnout shows Turkish expats ‘reluctant to delve into Turkey’s politics’

Turkey’s diaspora policy is more inclusive than it was before 2002, when the Justice and Development Party came to power, but it remains exclusive to many groups, says Kerem Öktem. HÜRRİYET photo / Selçuk ŞAMİLOĞLU

Turks living abroad feel empowered by a strong leader like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but when it comes to day to day matters they are reluctant to be active in Turkey’s internal politics, says researcher Kerem Öktem, discussing the low turnout among overseas Turks in the recent presidential elections.

Turks abroad are seen by the government as an asset in their own right, but there is also tendency to use them for internal politics, according to Öktem, whose policy report titled “Turkey’s New Diaspora Policy: The Challenge of Inclusivity, Outreach and Capacity” focuses on the work of the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities, which was established in 2010.

What distinguishes the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s approach to the Turkish diaspora from its precedents?

I was born in Germany. So I also had experience of the Turkish state’s perspective on the diaspora in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Turks abroad, especially in Western Europe, were seen as people who you weren’t particularly proud of. They were guest workers, they were not very well educated, they were seen as tarnishing the image of Turkey abroad. The understanding of Turkey then was that Turkey is a modern country, it’s not an Islamic country, and these people somehow spoiled that kind of image of the modern Turkish nation.

But then I also saw how Kurds abroad were treated with extreme suspicion by the state, of course. And then when it came to the non-Muslim communities, the state looked at them with even more suspicion. So generally the Turks abroad were seen as a problem.

Now the AKP, of course, comes from a very different political tradition. They’ve been reinventing Turkey and the Turkish state, and they’ve done this by placing much more emphasis on the common people in this country, the culture they come from, the religious culture they have been brought up with. In 2002, a political movement came in that saw these people in Germany as their own. So suddenly the massive distance that was there between Turks abroad and the Turkish state seems to have diminished.

When you talk about the Turkish diaspora, in what sense do you use it?

I have taken the broadest definition of diaspora, meaning people who are related to Turkey in one way or the other, either by citizenship or by ex-citizenship. This is because a lot of Turks abroad had to give up their citizenship, or for historical reasons, especially when it comes to the Armenians or the Greeks, for instance.

Is this also the understanding of the state?

I don’t think the state has a clear definition of what the diaspora means for them. If you ask Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he would say that everybody who feels a link to Turkey is part of Turkey’s diaspora. When you ask the presidency, they also have that definition up to a point, but they also work at times with Azerbaijani diaspora organizations that would like to do anything to work against the Armenians. So the state’s perspective has a very differentiated, conjectural understanding of the diaspora, which changes over time but at the moment is much more inclusive than it was in the 1990s or 80s.

Let’s elaborate the state’s approach to the diaspora.

Well actually when you look at the presidency there’s obviously a very strong emphasis on the Turkish diaspora in Europe. These are mostly migrant workers, the guest workers.

There is also the Turkic element in Central Asia, and then there’s also the wider Muslim world that is very important in the understanding of the presidency.

At one point in your research there’s also mention of Somalis.

Well now we will see much more of this because with Davutoğlu we have a true pan-Islamist thinker and ideologue. I think this has also shaped the presidency in many ways. There is a sense of Muslim pan-Islamist solidarity and a sense of pan-Islamist leadership by Turkey of the Islamic world, which I think permeates the ideology of the presidency. So for the presidency the diaspora is a catch-all phrase, but it has a lot to do with the projection of Turkish power. So having a Somali in the journal (of the presidency) for instance gives the hint that Turkey wants to be more than a nation state.

So the aim goes beyond reaching out to Turks living abroad.

You can think of these as concentric circles, in the center you have the aim to improve the quality of life and empower your citizens abroad, give them opportunities, make sure that they don’t lose their connection to the homeland, etc. In the second concentric circle you have these larger aims of how Turkey wants to see itself and that’s part of its diaspora policy. You have pan-Islamic ideas, “let’s reach out to the Islamic world, let’s appear as a leader there,” and there’s also a neo-Ottoman understanding and a strong showing in the Balkans. The third circle, I think, is more about day-to-day politics. The presidency played a central role in the mobilization of voters for the Aug. 10 presidential elections. It played a major role in organizing events at which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke.

So you have the most legitimate aim in the center; then you have this slightly fuzzy, unclear, slightly problematic ideological complex; and then you have these day-to-day politics, which we saw in the presidential election.

The diaspora is also increasingly becoming more of a part of foreign policy.

It’s part of a larger understanding of Turkey’s foreign policy as a much more constructive undertaking. This includes soft power. The diaspora policy becomes part of this, let’s say, imaginative foreign policy, which brings a lot of different aspects together. But while it is imaginative it also takes on a lot of risks.

It is a bit of a fantasy, because it is trying to be everything.

All of these are very ambitious policies, so in that respect it’s a fantasy. But at the same time it’s also a very imaginative view of different foreign policy tools. It’s forward-looking and, actually, it is what countries like the United States do. But in Turkey we see that there’s a big mismatch between the means and the goals, both in the foreign policy in general and in the diaspora policy part of this.

Can you elaborate on that?

The Turkish government is trying to do a lot of things for a lot of people, and some of those things might not agree with each other. You include the Armenians and the Greeks as part of our diaspora, but at the same time you collaborate with Azerbaijan, working against the Armenians.

So how are you going to square the circle? You have this imperial understanding of basically almost everything is our diaspora, but then when you want to bring it down to policies, it’s almost impossible. Sometimes it’s even counterproductive because you have to work with groups that have little to say to each other. This is a big risk, but at the same time it’s also a great opportunity. If Turkey had a truly inclusive diaspora policy, it could really change relations between Turks, Kurds and Armenians, and it could contribute to a more peaceful relationship between those groups both in the countries where they live and in Turkey.

You have defined the ideology of the presidency as socially conservative, religiously Muslim, culturally nostalgic, ethnically cosmopolitan and potentially post-nationalist.

I asked all these people working in the presidency: How can you be both pan-Islamist and pan-Turanist and believe in citizenship rights? These are all different traditions that don’t really overlap. One of the leaders there said, “Well this is also about emotions, and if people feel emotionally tied to Turkey then that’s enough for us.” But you cannot quantify that, what is that? It is part of Turkey’s foreign policy and it reflects the weaknesses of that foreign policy. The diaspora policy is too ambitious, it is trying too many things.

So we need a more focused diaspora policy.

Right now the goals are all very mixed. It goes without saying that citizens in Western Europe are the most important part, but then again our understanding of citizenship has changed in Turkey. Citizenship now is defined by being a pious Sunni Muslim. Historically it was defined, in the words of academic Baskın Oran, as “Secular Hanefi Sunni Muslim Turk” Now that has changed, it can include Kurds, but it excludes Alevis and secular Turks. They feel quite excluded by the presidency’s policies.

To wrap up, let’s start with the positive aspect of Turkey’s diaspora policy.

The positive side is that people abroad who have ties with Turkey are seen as an asset. This is potentially empowering. For someone who has been living in Germany, who hasn’t had many opportunities and who has experienced serious racism in European immigrant receiving countries, it makes a big difference if you feel like your country of origin stands behind you. It makes a big difference in people’s self-understanding as well. Having the feeling that Turkey is behind them makes them more confident, which overall is a good thing.

Secondly, having Turkish cultural centers and programs to organize Turks abroad in principle is a very good idea, as long as it is inclusive. I also think the idea of not looking at Turks through a strict ethnic perspective, which was there at the foundation of the Turkish Republic, actually also engages with non-Muslim communities. This has great potential if it’s used well.

So Turkey’s diaspora policy is more inclusive than it was before 2002, but it’s also still exclusive to many other groups.

Which brings us to the challenges.

The negatives are also many, as are the risks. As we saw in the presidential elections, there is a tendency to use Turks living abroad for internal politics because there are many Turks in Western Europe. Still, the participation rate among Turks abroad was very low. This shows that Turks feel empowered by a strong leader like Erdoğan, but when it comes to day-to-day politics they generally choose to be active in their countries of residence rather than in Turkey. That’s why they had a participation rate of only 10 percent.

So you don’t ascribe the low participation rate to technical difficulties.

No, because especially the presidency tried very hard to push this forward. And that’s the danger: When you look to Turks abroad as a political mass that you can manipulate for your own interest - such as to get Erdoğan elected, or to further Turkish national interests abroad - then you also bring these people into disrepute with their countries of residence.

Who is Kerem Öktem


Kerem Öktem is Mercator-IPC fellow at Sabancı University's Istanbul Policy Center, and Research Fellow at Oxford University's European Studies Centre. His main interests lie in the connection between domestic politics and foreign policy, nationalism, the politics of ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities and social movements in Turkey.

He completed his PhD at the School of Geography, Oxford, in 2006, with a thesis on "nation-building in Turkey as a socio-spatial project" (Geographies of Nationalism). Preceding his doctoral studies, he obtained a M.St. in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the Faculty for Oriental Studies at Oxford in 2001, where he also teaches as an Associate Faculty Member. Before his residence in Oxford, he studied and worked in Germany in the field of urban studies.

This September, he will assume the professorial Chair for Southeast European and Turkish Studies at the University of Graz, Austria.