West needs to rethink its attitude toward Turkey
The echo from the historic elections in Turkey on June 24 can still be heard.
For the first time in its political history, the country held presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time. For the first time, the outcome of an election will transform the political system of the country from parliamentary to an executive presidency. For the first time, political parties entered the election race as alliances.
For the first time since he came to power, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) faced a serious challenge. For the first time, after long years of AKP dominance, a new and a strong figure made an appearance on the Turkish political stage, namely Muharrem Ince, the presidential candidate from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP). For the first time, after nearly three decades, voter turnout was high even when compared to most Western “democratic” countries.
This election had many firsts. However, one thing did not change: The ideological templates constructed by Western media in their discourse toward Turkey and the Turkish people. Ahead of the elections, the Western media was full of articles and reports warning Turks to vote against Erdogan and his “dictatorship.” Here, it is crucial to state that I am not trying to make a case for Erdogan or his party, but trying to highlight the failure of the Western media and academia to understand the Turkish public, not to mention Turkish politics.
Turks do not accept a superior attitude dictating to them what they must do. When the Western media urges Turkish citizens to vote against Erdogan, they feel offended.
In the past few years, election outcomes have shown that as much as the Western discourse over Erdogan becomes harsher, he and his party galvanize just as much support from the Turkish public. With the discourse of “dictating what the Turkish people should do,” while adopting a superior attitude, the West pushes the Turkish public to stand by Erdogan, who in his speeches underlines the role of “foreign agents” trying to seize Turkey’s future.
For instance, an Op-Ed by a journalist in British newspaper The Guardian, titled “Bully-boy Erdogan is a threat to Turkey — and the world,” and calling on Turkish voters to kick Erdogan out of office, clearly did not receive that desired response from the Turkish public.
When American news and opinion website The Daily Beast published an article — asking “Can voters bring down Turkey’s Erdogan?” — it failed to understand the majority of those voters in Turkey. Even the highly respected academic journal Foreign Affairs ran an article warning the Turkish people that the election was their last chance to defeat Erdogan.
For a long time, the Western media has depicted Erdogan as a “Sultan” (such a description in itself is problematic with regards to the Western understanding of Ottoman history), and ahead of the election, such descriptions further occupied the headlines in Western media outlets.
I will be not lecturing the Western media here about the ethics and rules of journalism, which they seemed to go far beyond in their biased and ideological coverage; but I have some notes that the Western media needs to know about the Turkish public before they write their stories about the next elections in the country:
Note 1: Whether a supporter of AKP or another party, Turks do not accept a superior attitude dictating to them what they must do. When the Western media urges Turkish citizens to vote against Erdogan, they feel offended that they are considered a people unable to decide on their own country’s future. Thus, the Western approach did not succeed in influencing the political choices of the people; in contrast, it further strengthened the opinions of Turks on who to vote for.
Note 2: Western media or academia should avoid the “Orientalist” approach when interpreting politics in Turkey, or any Middle Eastern country. The attitude of “East wants this” and therefore “their people should do this” does not only harm the image of the West in the eyes of the people of this region, it also widens the gap between the “we” and the “others” created by the West itself.
Note 3: When focusing solely on a specific political figure, in this case Erdogan, the Western media not only covers just one side of the story in Turkey, but also leads to a misreading of the real shortcomings or achievements of the government or the opposition. For instance, AKP’s loss of a majority in Parliament says a lot about how Turkish voters are well aware of the shortcomings of the ruling party and how to make the government aware of this.
Note 4: The turnout of nearly 90 percent in these elections reflects how Turks believe they can have an effect on the future of their country. Whether pro- or anti-government, Turks believe the problems of the country can be solved when democracy is achieved, and they showed this belief by exercising their democratic will. The turnout was something unthinkable for most Western countries that praise their own democracies. Compare it with France, for example, where the most recent turnout was 65 percent, or the US, where it was 55 percent.
Note 5: Turkey is much more diverse than the Western media depicts, and therefore requires a deeper understanding. Moreover, the country is much more than a single political figure or party, and Turks have quite informed political views. If the Western media wants to really understand the dynamics in this country, it should set aside its biases and come out from the “cloud-cuckoo-land” in which it seems to exist.
Needless to say, in the eyes and the thoughts of the West, there is a narrative to assert “others want this.” Unless they let go of this imaginary reality that they believe in, Western media and academia will continue to fail to understand the realities in Turkey, or any other country. Being too obsessed causes a misreading of the matters related to this region.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.