Distrustful of Syrian migrants, Turkey could take a nativist turn

It’s the year 2043 and Syrian gangs roam the streets of crime-ridden and ravaged Istanbul, harassing anxious Turks. A Syrian-led party has come to power in Turkey’s cultural and financial capital and declared Arabic the official “state” language of Istanbul.

In a darkened room, a young Turkish surgeon forced to work as a hospital janitor complains to his parents about his Syrian boss and wonders how they could have allowed all this to happen after being “warned over and over again that Syrians were doing a silent occupation.

Apparently ripped from the pages of Michel Houllebecq’s 2015 bestselling novel Submissionin which a Muslim party comes to power in France, this nine-minute dystopian film commissioned by Victory Party leader Umit Ozdag also echoes the German far-right AfD’s 2019 anti-immigrant campaign that warned of an upcoming “Eurabia”.

Why would a Turkish nationalist party turn against fellow Syrians and adopt the nativist and xenophobic tropes common in the Western Christian far right? Perhaps because Turkey has for years hosted more refugees than any country in the world – around 6 million in all; Istanbul alone is home to 1.3 million people, even as its residents struggle with a seemingly endless economic crisis. The lira fell 45% last year and inflation hit 70% in April.

The film Silent occupationwhich has attracted more than 4 million views since its release last week, claims that thanks to the government’s open door policy after 2011, some 8 million Syrians now live in Turkey – about double the actual figure – and claims that this number will reach 15 million in two decades, with disastrous social and political results.

Unsurprisingly, the ruling AKP is not very happy with the viral video. Turkish authorities briefly detained its director, Hande Karacasu, the day after the film was released on YouTube, for manipulation of facts. The following day, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, in a live television interview, suggested Mr Ozdag was seeking to undermine the government.

After Mr. Ozdag sent the studio a message intended for the minister, Mr. Soylu forbade the anchor from reading it aloud and described Mr. Ozdag as “less than a human, less than an animal”. It was like showing red to a bull.

Mr Ozdag, a Turkish parliamentarian as well as a pan-Turkist and former academic, was brought up in a proudly nationalist family – his father advised the government for years and was close to Alparslan Turkes, founder of the parliamentary partner of the AKP, the extreme right MHP; while her mother led the women’s wing of the MHP.

After years as a top MHP MP, Mr Ozdag was ousted in 2016 after seeking to unseat Devlet Bahceli, who has led the party for more than two decades. Mr Ozdag then signed with the promising Good Party of Meral Aksener, who in turn ousted him at the end of 2020.

Since founding the Victory Party last August, he seems to have found his footing as a venerable xenophobe and has established himself as Turkey’s most outspoken nativist voice. He rails against the government spending billions on Syrians, arguing that they are taking jobs while Turkish citizens suffer, and regularly promises to send all refugees home.

In January, he clashed with the owner of a Syrian jewelry store who has Turkish nationality. Mr Ozdag demanded to see his documents and described him, in a Twitter post, as a danger to Turkey, like nearly a million others who have also obtained Turkish passports.

Last month, Mr Ozdag claimed that if the opposition alliance does not choose Ankara mayor Mansur Yavas – who is with the CHP, but has a history with the MHP and conducts polls for potential candidates in the presidential election – as a candidate, his Victory Party will do. so.

As an independent, Mr Ozdag appears to have taken a smallpox view all over their homes, targeting refugees, the opposition, which takes a softer anti-immigrant line, and the ruling party. In response to Mr Soylu’s insults on TV, Mr Ozdag on Twitter urged the minister to meet him the next morning outside the ministry – like a bully challenging the studious child to a fight after school.

When Mr Ozdag showed up the next day, he was quickly hampered by security forces and took to Twitter again. He accused Mr. Soylu of having “dragged our country into disaster by continuing his ignorance… regarding the secret invasion”.

According to polls, the Victory Party garners only half of 1% of voter support, and lawyers have called for it to be shut down for hate speech. Yet Mr Ozdag’s fiery rhetoric tapped into a deep well of anger, earning him more than 1.3 million Twitter followers.

A tour through Turkish social media in mid-2022 can sometimes look like an AfD anti-immigrant campaign advert: Video shows Turks cowering after shouting at crowds of refugees dancing on Istanbul ferry ; another shows a young Turkish woman sitting next to her toddler and her Pakistani husband, the text suggesting he kidnapped her when she was 13.

It explains why the mayor of Istanbul, supposedly liberal and the main opposition party, has warned against changing the “reckless color of the city” and said that some Syrians may need to be “re-educated”. And why the Turkish government has decided to build housing for more than a million Syrians in Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria.

“We didn’t just open our doors to save the lives and honor of the oppressed,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week. “We have done and are doing everything we can to get them to return home.”

This would represent a return to their homeland, but not to their homes. Some 4 million Syrians – not counting all Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians and Somalis – have built new lives, businesses and communities in a country that, compared to their own, is incredibly stable and prosperous. Many have lived in Turkey for years, even a decade, and some 200,000 have obtained Turkish citizenship.

How many of them will now voluntarily give up all that to move to cinderblock villages in the remote and unstable borderlands of a war-torn state?

Turkey is expected to elect a new government in just over a year. In the months to come, chances are we will either see the government begin forced repatriations or watch a wide range of Turks, spurred on by Mr Ozdag’s dark visions, tear at the very fabric of their changing society. .

Posted: 09 May 2022, 02:00 PM

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Sharon P. Juarez