ISTANBUL ― Flying back to Istanbul after a warm week in Britain ― where it felt liberating to be away from the constant political chatter back home ― I came to the shocking realization that the Netherlands, of all things, had been dominating Turkey’s news cycle in my absence.
In Germany, and now in the Netherlands, Turkish politicians who support Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposal for an executive presidency in the upcoming April referendum, had been barred from organizing public rallies for Turks there who can vote, I learned.
Those countries are important in my personal history ― I lived in them and wandered in their streets. I fell in and out of love in their bohemian quarters. And in my 20s, they represented freedom to my youthful mind, even while I was witnessing the rebirth of a specter in their dark corners ― the specter of “the barbarian.”
“'Turks are ugly, regressive and violent; they are rapists and murderers; they need to be stopped.' This is the message spreading in Europe nowadays.”
At the time, I was unprepared for the ominous power of identity politics, ready to prove to my European hosts that I was not a barbarian but a civilized young man from Turkey. The same was not expected from students who didn’t come from Muslim-majority countries.
I am not a conservative, but reading about the recent violent events against conservative Turks there ― the Dutch police had attacked those who came to the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam to support a conservative Turkish politician ― deeply unsettled me.
I came across an article about a video of a group of men in Switzerland dressed as terrifying Ottoman Turks ― they had thick beards and fezzes on their heads, the piece reported. Marching like Death Troopers, with the Turkish president representing a kind of Darth Vader, they seemed to scream, “Turks are ugly, regressive and violent; they are rapists and murderers; they need to be stopped.” This is the message spreading in Europe nowadays ― a new ghost set to haunt the continent even more than it already has. While the tone in Switzerland wasn’t as harsh toward Turkey as Germany or the Netherlands on rallies, this footage, which I cannot verify but which was spread around on social media here, was shocking for many Turks. But for me, this terrifying bogeyman seemed eerily familiar.
I don’t like murderers, but I don’t like European politicians telling me I will be perceived as one of those nasty people if I act too Turkish, for that is clearly the sentiment, part of a larger anti-Muslim sentiment, being disseminated from cities across Europe these days.
Thanks to the rise of right-wing politics, the most liberal countries in the continent have changed beyond return.
In the Netherlands, where I was a graduate student a decade ago, I had once taken much pleasure in being away from the kind of nationalism that had been brewing up in Turkey back then. As someone deeply weary of jingoism and the political rhetoric of patriotism, I had long disliked Turkish identity politics. And yet, it was also in the Netherlands that I’d realized the uncannily inescapable power of national and religious identity ― of the misery of being pigeonholed into categories inside which I couldn’t help but appear to Europeans.
“I don’t like murderers, but I don’t like European politicians telling me I will be perceived as one of those nasty people if I act too Turkish.”
On the day I arrived in Amsterdam in 2004, a Dutch-Moroccan extremist had cut the throat of filmmaker Theo van Gogh near Oosterpark, a public park located a few hundred meters away from my apartment. I had had little idea then but I would have no other choice but to experience my new city under the shadow of that murder.
As my plane flew over the Rhine, I remembered that day ― November 2, 2004 ― when I headed out with my flatmate and a graduate student I had just met. There was outrage on the Amsterdam street ― a feeling equally intense to that produced by the assassination, in 2002, of Pim Fortuyn, a politician who held anti-Islam views similar to those of Theo van Gogh and Geert Wilders.
In the liberal capital of Europe, Fortuyn’s assassination, the first in Dutch history in centuries, had sent shockwaves. The killing of van Gogh in 2004 rekindled that feeling with a fervor. That was understandable. When someone is assassinated in a park of your city, you are perfectly entitled to be outraged. But then again, ideology cunningly makes use of such feelings. And so it did in Amsterdam from my first day there.
A war had been waged against liberal values by “barbarians,” locals whispered to each other, and that needed to be answered with equal ferocity ― for people like now-far-right candidate Geert Wilders, but also for mainstream politicians, this sense of outrage would turn into an opportunity. Despite Wilders’ defeat by incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte in this week’s elections, mainstream Dutch politics had already turned right-wing and anti-Islam back then, thanks to the instrumentalization of that 2004 murder. The fact that Wilders’ party came in second shows it’s still a contender.
That night, we had made our way to an avant garde bar. We were full of hopes and dreams. We talked about Jacques Derrida and wanted to explore minds as curious as ours ― I wanted to discover new views and face new ideas. Instead, I was lectured by a group of old local hippies at the bar about the beauty of freedom in Europe. Learning that I was coming from Turkey, they instructed me to tell my “Muslim countrymen” about the importance of Enlightenment.
Oh, the Enlightenment, that sacred word! The idea that destroying Islam from the face of the earth was a necessary condition of our liberation was almost laughable. Gradually, I was realizing how coming from a Muslim country was equal in this land to having the potential to become a “barbarian.”
“Wear a white mask and no European fears you ... But behind masks and the erasure of one’s perceived self, lies the seeds of subjugation and self-denial.”
It is a difficult task, for a liberal to understand his condescension towards the “regressive” people of the world. The liberal worldview smoothly provides the comforting bubble of opinion outside of which all seems barbaric.
In Amsterdam all was fine as long as I acted in a non-Turkish way and agreed to “de-Turkishize” my character. As an aspiring Oscar Wilde scholar and, like him, someone deeply suspicious of nationalism, that was easy.
But did I really want to hate my own past and memories and experiences? Just wear a white mask and no European fears you any longer. But behind masks and the erasure of one’s perceived self, lies the seeds of subjugation and self-denial.
Politics is theater, and whilst talking about books in Britain, I had almost missed the biggest play on offer, I realized as the plane flew over Europe: Turkey’s foreign minister had been banned from landing in the Netherlands, the Turkish minister of families stopped outside the door in the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam before reportedly being forced to spend about four hours in her car, and others.
This reminded me of how the Turk is a crucial character in the European psyche. While in Britain on my most recent trip, a local gentleman told me that his aunt used to warn him against becoming “a Turk” when he acted violently. The Turk: the darkest fear of the European, the age-old stereotype goes.
What is more surprising to me is how the most liberal friends I have on social media have started expressing views that are but an evolution of that stereotype so masterfully repurposed by right-wing politicians ― my friends consider themselves left wing and yet they openly confess to agreeing with the views of Wilders on Turks living in European Union countries.
“The Turk is a crucial character in the European psyche ... the darkest fear of the European.”
Reading about how a Dutch mayor said he’d given special forces the go ahead to open fire on the Turkish crowd in Rotterdam if they found it necessary and the protests in Istanbul where someone reportedly changed the Dutch flag at the consulate with the Turkish one, I was initially reminded of the protest culture in my homeland ― or rather its violent suppression by the Turkish state.
This was, after all, precisely the kind of reaction the Turkish police force had towards protesters at Gezi Park in Istanbul during 2013’s environmentalist uprising. Young activists were killed, and fear and anxiety had dominated the public space. The authorities acted cowardly, as they often do, and young people were understandably furious. Officials ruthlessly burned the tents of young people whose ideals they failed to burn ― they live on.
People watching Turkey back then might have pointed at the violence in Gezi as yet another reason to brand us barbarians. But just as it wasn’t fair to label me with this term back in 2004 as a student looking to get an education in the Netherlands, this label isn’t fair here either.
Turks like the novelist Orhan Pamuk or the filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan have been inspiring youth all over the world because of their explorations of the Turkish psyche and the Anatolian heartland. They have challenged the stereotype of “the regressive Turkish culture,” instead choosing to focus on exploring its intricacies. From contemporary artists like Deniz Tortum and Deniz Gamze Ergüven to musicians like Gaye Su Akyol, a new generation of creative Turks are also producing exciting artworks.
But why should I, a Turkish novelist, be forced to give examples of Nobelists, Palme d’Or winners and Academy Awards nominees to prove that Turks can be creative, worthwhile members of the international community? Citizens of only some nations are put in this unsettling position.
I’m afraid that the rise of this intensely creative new generation of Turks, as well as the existence of perfectly civilized Turkish citizens, will do little in combating the image of “the barbarian” that had long haunted the European psyche and made a comeback a decade ago. Having taken the shape of the fez-wearing Ottoman Turk, an image meant to terrify us and change our ways, this specter will prove ineffective in turning Turks, the majority of whom don’t see their traditional culture as a form of barbarism, into something else ― it may even turn the Ottoman fez into a fashion item.
“Despite Geert Wilders’ defeat, I fear that the genie put out of the bottle by right-wing European politicians will continue haunting the continent.”
As my plane started descending on Istanbul, I had the distinct memory of an Amsterdam coffeehouse by a canal that I used to frequent as a 23-year-old. With a cigarette in my hand, I would reflect on the kind of nationalism brewing in my homeland and believed, naively, that the laid-back streets of this city could provide an antidote, and a solution, to all that.
Despite Wilders’ defeat, I fear that the genie put out of the bottle by right-wing European politicians will continue haunting the continent.
It was raining at Atatürk Airport when I touched ground, and the night seemed grim.