Turkey’s Raw Deal

The nation of Turkey has, it seems, few defenders. Once the receptacle of popular goodwill and support – in Europe generally and not least in Britain, where many public figures advocated on behalf of its joining the European Union – the country has become instead something of a pariah. In the increasingly fevered final stages of Britain’s EU referendum campaign, Turkey (and its projected entrance into the Union, with its single market and free movement of labour) is used as a byword for increased migration, something which has become an essential preoccupation of many British voters.

The opprobrium does not stop there. Turkey has been accused of tacitly supporting the growth of ISIS by allowing would-be fighters to slip through its porous borders; its policy towards Kurds, both in Turkey and in other countries, has been persistently criticised; and all of this has been underwritten by a general disdain – one which is felt internationally and expressed colourfully – for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, whose personality is held up to ridicule and whose policies are widely condemned.

What this amounts to, in sum, is a tide of bad blood and real animosity. Turkey is, crudely put, currently enduring a tremendous and largely unwarranted barrage of criticism.

It must be said that this is not apologia for President Erdoğan; his particular quasi-dictatorial style of rule is not a good or noble one, and some of what he has done recently – for example his attempts to have a German comedian prosecuted for insulting his character as a foreign head of state – are censorious and deeply unpleasant. But it is worth examining some of the ways Western countries and their respective media traditions have rather set out to demonize and criticize the Turkish nation. The same is true – perhaps more so – for Russia.

Particularly damaging is the repetition of the notion – largely unfounded – that Turkey supports ISIS in some way; there is also a corollary argument: that the Turkish state facilitates ISIS as a matter of policy. This trope has been well used by Russia of late, and is a common currency for many (like blaming an imaginary Saudi connection) who either propound a conspiracy theory-laden interpretation of ISIS’ advent or wish, perhaps oddly, to blame the United States and its allies for the growth of the terror state. That Turkey and ISIS are allies is a theme frequently used by some who would rather forget the ISIS-inspired and -directed terrorist attacks on Turkish soil.

The Russian connection cannot be overlooked. Because Russian and Turkish interests come into conflict in Syria (especially regarding the eventual fate of the Assad regime), this sort of confrontation is to a certain extent predictable. But in this war of words, the most surprising aspect is not its occurrence per se, but rather the extent to which Russian attempts to demonize Turkey are consistent with a broader strategy of abusing regional complexity and media pluralism, and making reality itself seem mutable.

Some of the most common mouthpieces for the aforementioned conspiracy theories are Russian state broadcasters. RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik News have recently propagated stories purporting to expose ‘Turkey’s alleged ISIS support’, argued that that ‘Turkey Provides Military Equipment to ISIS’, and attempted to explain how ‘Daesh [is] Receiving Assistance From Turkey “With Ankara’s Tacit Approval”’.

All of this gives some support to the more febrile claims of Britain’s leave campaign, which has prominently featured on its posters and leaflets not just Turkey’s population but also its location, with Iraq and Syria illuminated in bright red. British newspapers which favour ‘Brexit’ – notably the Daily Mail and Daily Express – have also featured reports along these lines, including reiterating Vladimir Putin’s claim that ‘Turkey shot down [a] Russian fighter [plane] to protect its supply of oil from ISIS’. The implication – hardly a subtle one – being that Turkey is indelibly associated with the trouble and instability of those two countries and that its future membership in the European Union, through its links with the former, would be a dangerous thing in itself.

This has necessitated some abrupt about-turns; Boris Johnson, somewhat inexplicably the de facto leader of the leave faction (and also a man with Turkish ancestry), used to advocate strongly in favour of Turkish entry into the European Union. So too did one of his allies, Liam Fox. Now they head the campaign whose message appears increasingly mired in anti-Turkish sentiment.

There is also a historic precedent especially in Britain (dating back to the 19th century) for politicians to condemn ‘Turkish atrocities’ in places like Bulgaria and Greece, both of which were formerly outposts of the Ottoman Empire. Politicians such as Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone made a great deal out of what he called ‘Bulgarian Horrors’ committed by Turks. A similar trend can, I think, be traced in some of what Britain’s Leave campaign are saying about Turkey’s proposed membership of the EU and its proximity to Iraq and Syria. In a way, similar rhetorical exercises are frequently deployed today. This time, however, the subject is not Bulgaria or Greece; it is the fate of the Kurds, to whose plight much of the world has only recently become aware.

Much of what Turkey does and has done to the Kurds (both historically and in the present) has been disastrous. But it cannot be ignored that while Turkey’s treatment of Kurds at home and in Syria has been distinctly harsh – as Kyle Orton wrote last year – the PKK threat against which Turkish officials claim they are acting is a legitimate one in principle; and that organization is a US-designated terrorist body. This seems all too easily forgotten in a rush to add yet more condemnation to the international debate surrounding Turkey.

In a world where extreme and often inaccurate stories like these can gain instant traction, and where the spread of hyperbolic propaganda of this nature is simply so easy, becoming aware of the problem is the first step towards defeating it. Until that happens, Turkey will continue to get a raw deal.

This piece was originally published quite some time ago at NOW News.