The final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s soft power

The final nail in the coffin of Turkey’s soft power

The monstrous attack on Istanbul’s iconic Reina club in the first hours of the new year has inevitably triggered a new wave in the lifestyle debate among secularists in Turkey. Most probably that was the leitmotiv of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which sent one of its exclusively trained assassins to kill 39 in a matter of minutes before vanishing into thin air despite the heavy police presence in the area. 

The first grandiose manifestation of ISIL’s declared fight with the secular Western lifestyle was the Paris attacks of November 2015, since France is historically seen as the cradle of secular liberalism. In a statement claiming responsibility for the attacks, they referred to the Bataclan as the place where “hundreds of apostates had gathered in a profligate prostitution party.”

Reina, just like the Bataclan, was chosen as a target to demonstrate what happens to apostates in ISIL’s world as they knew perfectly well that in recent years, the patrons of the club were mostly Arabs. There was little surprise that among the 25 foreign victims of the Reina attack, seven were identified as Saudi Arabians, three were Lebanese, two were Tunisians, two were Moroccans and two were Jordanians. 

So the Reina attack, in fact, killed two birds with one stone; flexing muscle against Turkey while providing a token of retaliation against Turkish troops’ march toward al-Bab in Syria but, more importantly, putting the last nails in the coffin for whatever is left of Turkey’s soft power. 

The soft power rhetoric was the highlight of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) foreign policy in the 2000s when they were crafting a positive “Turkish story” to sell to the world. “Justice, legitimacy, equality in representation, transparency, accountability, respect for differences, a virtuous society, moral and religious freedom, the protection of dignity and the reassurance of the basic rights and freedoms under the constitution are the pillars of Turkey’s new social imagery,” wrote presidency press secretary İbrahim Kalın in a Turkish Foreign Ministry publication in 2011 when he was the chief policy adviser to then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. 

Sadly, a lot has happened in the last five years that crushed Turkey’s aspirations of becoming the model Mr. Kalın outlined. We have been witnessing the degradation of each one of those principles he referred to more and more under the state of emergency, which was recently extended for another three months. Yet, after a decade of trying to demilitarize Turkey’s foreign policy, the AKP government is back to square one as security concerns and measures heavily dominate both the political agenda at home and Turkey’s frayed image abroad. 

The frequent and wide-ranging terror attacks in the 18 months had already scared away Western tourists, erasing them from the public sphere in Istanbul, which is, without a doubt, the diamond of Turkey’s tourism. For visitors from the Middle East, however, Turkey was still safer and culturally more attractive than their home countries. 

Although Turkish secularists have increasingly been feeling that the rug is being pulled out from underneath them, for someone from Saudi Arabia, Turkey still meant the coexistence of secular social life and piety. Turkey has become a center of attraction for Middle Easterners because it symbolized a gateway to the freedoms of Western culture while providing an at-home feeling through common codes shared in all Islamic countries. 

After all, Turkish soap operas conquered the Arab world because they have shown the kind of life they aspired to: an open, wealthy society consuming and enjoying the simple pleasures of life. Targeting one glamorous icon of the life they admired on one of the most joyful nights of the year is definitely a blow to the dream Turkey had been selling to fellow nations in the region. We lost the fertile conditions to be a viable political model long ago and now we are even losing the dream of being a vibrant social model for others. 

In his first public appearance after the Reina attack, President Erdoğan said nobody should be forced to have the same lifestyle. I am afraid that is too little, too late to ease the fears of secularists and salvage Turkey’s soft power, which has been on life support for quite some time.