Syrian refugees in Turkey, Turkish migrants in Germany
In the first decade of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule some among the conservative segments were keen on expressing a sort of admiration for Arab/Islamic culture. There was a net increase in the number of Arabic-origin names given to newborn babies in the 2000’s. One could see this sympathy in architecture as well, especially in the mosques being newly constructed.
This longing for the Arab/Islamic culture was accompanied by the rise in anti-Western feelings, which was not limited to Turks living in Turkey but was also becoming expressed openly by Turks living in Europe even though the latter did not have plans to opt to live in Arab countries instead of European ones.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enjoyed tremendous popularity among the Turkish communities living in Europe. His constant bashing of European leaders made those who did not succeed in feeling at home in Europe quiet happy. And in fact the AK Party’s ruling elites refrained from encouraging Turks abroad to fully integrate in the communities they decided to live with.
Every thesis comes with its anti-thesis. The sympathy for the Arabs and Arabic culture started to change following the arrival of Syrian refugees. Turkish secular elites were never particularly fond of Arabs and they resented the welcoming attitude that were shown to Syrian refuges from day one.
Ironically, Turkish secular elites were not the ones experiencing the Syrian reality in their everyday lives. It was rather AK Party constituency that were so fond of giving their children Arabic names that started to experience that reality, like their children sharing their classrooms with Syrian children.
The increasing encounter with the Arab culture was not limited to the arrival of Syrians. The number of Arab tourists have increased as well, replacing the decreasing number of tourists from the West especially in 2015-16. While you would expect the representatives of the tourism industry, from the small shopkeepers to the taxi drivers, to enjoy the compensation of the loss of the European market with the Arab one, to the contrary, the more they encountered Arab tourists the more they became resentful against them.
In short, there is clear discontent and, in fact, increasing anger against Arabs and Syrian refugees in particular among AK Party voters. Part of the resentment is based on cultural differences. While an outsider might think that there are many common points between Turks and Arabs, due to religious and regional affinities, even Turks living in towns close to Syrian borders are known to feel they are different than Arabs. But another crucial motive behind the resentment is economic. With deteriorating economic circumstances, many feel the country’s limited resources are being depleted by the Syrians, and that their taxes are being used to cater their needs.
Economic difficulties no doubt fuel the cultural resentment further. Their sheer numbers and their visibility make ordinary people more nervous. That’s why Turkish authorities started in July to remove the Arabic shop signs, while the interior minister stated last month that a harmonization program will be initiated in several Turkish cities.
When a Turk living in Europe faces Syrian reality
Summer months are the time of the year when many Turkish families living in Europe come back to visit Turkey. I wonder what they think when they witness the tension between the host communities and the Syrians. What do they advise to their relatives and friends when they complain about “noisy Syrians shouting in Arabic all the time?” Do they say, “Don’t be angry I lived 30 years in Germany yet I don’t even know 30 words in German,” as some used to say in the past with full pride? Those who make sure to wear a traditional shalwar in French cities or who do not send their children to schools on Fridays – do they sympathize with the Syrians when they don’t send their daughters to schools?
Some might object saying it is not rational to compare the two situations. But the comparison is not about the circumstances that led or forced those to leave their homelands, but the circumstances they currently live in. The issue at stake is about living together.