Combating racism requires consistency

Combating racism requires consistency

When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently brought up the issue of racism, he provided us an opportunity to praise him this time, rather than criticize him, albeit with a major caveat: He has to be consistent in this regard. As matters stand, there are those who doubt his sincerity and claim he is merely engaging in populist demagoguery once again.

Given the importance of the topic, though, we prefer to let him have the benefit of the doubt. The reason is that Erdoğan is in a position to increase awareness against racism which appears to be alive and kicking in Turkey.

Take the remarks last week by Birgül Ayman Güler, a deputy from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which apart from being staunchly “Kemalist,” also claims to represent social democratic principles. Güler created a storm, and provided yet another example why genuine social democrats shy away from the party, when she told Parliament that “the Turkish and Kurdish nations could not be considered equals.”

What was surprising was that Güler’s words, which immediately resulted in the resignation of the CHP’s only deputy from the predominantly Kurdish areas of southeast Turkey, were applauded by the majority of members of her party, even though there was the odd senior member here and there who castigated her later.

Güler attempted to provide a pseudo-academic explanation for her words, arguing later that she was merely trying to explain that being “Turkish” was non-racial, and non-discriminatory, whereas being “Kurdish” refers to a racial group. But these unconvincing remarks, which show that she does not fully understand what “racism” means, were not enough to prevent the strong criticism of her or her party.

Erdoğan was among those who lashed out at her angrily. “Whoever gloats over race or tribe, that person is the lowest of the low,” he told a gathering in Istanbul over the weekend. Although his remarks were harsh, it nevertheless carried a basic sentiment that can be shared by civilized people.

Expressing such sentiments at the highest levels of the political domain is increasingly important given that Turks – who are always keen to mention racism in the West – are only just coming around to understanding what “racism,” “anti-Semitism,” or “homophobia” really means.

But, to repeat our key proviso here, it is essential that Erdoğan proves that he is a sincere campaigner against racism at home and abroad. Otherwise his oft-repeated criticism of xenophobia and Islamophobia in Europe will never carry the weight he desires. It is also very important to mention anti-Semitism here.

While it is clear that some CHP members do not understand what racism means, there are also Islamists in this country, and supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), who do not understand the thin line between criticizing Israel’s harsh policies against the Palestinians and plain anti-Semitism. Erdoğan’s characterization of racists as being “the lowest of the low” is equally valid here.

A positive development in this respect was a press release by the Foreign Ministry in Ankara over the weekend, on the occasion of the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, designated as “International Remembrance Day for the Victims of the Holocaust” by the United Nations.

“On this meaningful day we, once again, respectfully remember the Jews and members of other minorities who lost their lives under the Nazi regime during World War II,” the press release said while recalling the Turkish diplomats who saved the lived of Jews during the war and who are today honored by Israel, too.

The release concluded by underlining Turkey’s determination to “continue to resolutely pursue her principled stance on the prevention of anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia, discrimination and Islamophobia.” These are obviously very positive sentiments, but like Erdoğan’s remarks, they require consistency on the part of Turkey to be meaningful and convincing.