When things go wrong, Turkey blames its enemies. This tradition can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire and is solidly rooted in Turkish politics. Uğur Derin explores the past and present of Turkey's discourse on enemies and wonders: can it change?
A version of this article was first published in Ahval on 10 September 2018.
As the Turkish Lira has plunged and lost significant value vis-a-vis the Euro and American Dollar in the summer of 2018, a discourse putting all the blame on “external powers” and “conspiracies” has been dominant in the country. President Erdoğan, his government, and most of the Turkish media have managed to portray the downfall of Turkish Lira as a “currency plot.” Such discourse that puts the blame on external powers is nothing new.
In Turkey, blaming the external powers is so commonplace that it is often done without even naming a country or state. In 1989, former Prime Minister and President Turgut Özal said “whenever Turkey becomes powerful, certain circles embark on nefarious practices” and was asked by a journalist who those circles were. Özal replied that “everybody knows them” and “there is no need to give names.”
The attitude of blaming external powers for the things that go wrong has a long history. In a timespan ranging from the late Ottoman period to the Erdoğan administration, Turkey has not had one period without “internal and external enemies.” When in 1923 the Turkish Republic was established over the ashes of the Ottoman Empire, it inherited the Empire's concern for survival and mistrust of foreigners.
Starting from the 1880's and culminating in the Armenian Genocide of 1915, the Armenians were accused of collaborating with the Russians. During the early Republican years, Kurdish revolts were associated with British instigation, and Kurdish rebel leaders like Sheikh Said (Şeyh Said) are still portrayed in the Kemalist historiography as “British agents.”
During the Cold War, any opposition to the Turkish state was labeled a “communist threat” or “Moscow-guided,” and the political left was seriously damaged by this. Irrespective of the period, labeling the opposition as “traitors” and labeling their real or imagined connections with foreign actors "treason” have always been popular.
The rulers of Turkey have so far deftly used the discourse on internal and external enemies to justify their political agendas and their crackdown on opposition. In that respect, it is striking that the statements of Adnan Menderes (the first elected Prime Minister of Turkey who ruled from 1950 to 1960) that “the country's internal and external enemies...those who are not happy with Turkey's rise” mirror Erdoğan's statements six decades later, almost word for word.
The situation did not change in the 1960’s, 70's, or 80's either. Süleyman Demirel, who served as Prime Minister seven times between 1965 and 1993, frequently referred to “those wanting to dismember Turkey,” and reiterated his determination to “stand to unite the country.”
An important tool to perpetuate the discourse on Turkey's enemies is historical legacy. In Turkey, blaming the external powers always comes with the statement “they did this in the past, too.” Therefore, it is no surprise that Erdoğan held one of his most recent demonstrations on 26 August, the anniversary of two Turkish victories: one in 1071 (against the Byzantines) and the other in 1922 (against the Greeks). This way, the society is reminded that “the current plots” of external powers are nothing but a continuation of their earlier assaults.
An important chapter constituting the historical legacy of the external enemies discourse is the Treaty of Sèvres. Signed in 1920, the Treaty of Sèvres proposed to partition the Ottoman Empire among the great powers and ceded land to Armenians, Greeks and Kurds, who would traditionally rank in the top three of Turkey's “enemy lists,” and who would often be perceived as “fifth columns.”
Throughout the history of the Turkish Republic, rulers and movements on different sides of the political spectrum - right or left, conservative or liberal - have all made reference to the Treaty of Sèvres and reiterated that external powers want to weaken and destroy Turkey. The phenomenon is so prevalent, it even has a name: Sèvres Syndrome.
While blaming international conspiracies and making irrelevant historical references is common to every strata of politics, different ideologies highlight different threats. For instance, Kemalists for a long time portrayed Iran as the external enemy and Islam-rooted or conservative governments as the internal enemy, making connections between the two.
On the other hand, during the Gezi process (starting from June 2013), Erdoğan and his media repeatedly blamed “the interest lobby,” an apparently Jewish-rooted scheme with the aim to “weaken Turkey.” Irrespective of ideology or ruler, the secret service organizations CIA, Mossad, and KGB, and historical enemies Armenians, Greeks and Kurds can always be blamed for conspiring against Turkey.
Talking about international conspiracies and blaming the things that go wrong on enemies is a more-than-a-century-old Turkish tradition, a national disease, whose roots can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. Interestingly, people in Turkey - including the rulers - are aware of this tradition, but they still go on to use it for their purposes.
On social media, Turkish people often share a video of Erdoğan from years ago where he talks about “our problematic tradition of blaming external powers when things go wrong,” to draw attention to how Erdoğan ended up using the very same discourse he himself criticized. And Erdoğan is not the only political figure to have criticized the discourse, only to use it at a later point.
In spite of the fact that Turkish rulers seem aware that blaming the things that go wrong on enemies is problematic, they still do so for political purposes. Rather than being thoroughly questioned, the discourse keeps reproducing itself with every new ruler and period. This persistence can partially be explained by the subsisting historical legacy. Combined with the overly pragmatic characteristics of Turkish politics, it does not seem likely that the Turkish tradition of asking “who did this to us?” can be abandoned any time soon.