Suspicious of Syrian migrants, Turkey may be taking a nativist turn

Far-right politicians are blaming outsiders for their economic hardship

Umit Ozdag, the leader of the nationalist Victory Party, speaks to the media before police blocked his attempt to march to the Interior Ministry to confront Suleyman Soylu, the interior minister, in Ankara, on May 6. AP
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The year is 2043 and Syrian gangs roam the streets of a ravaged, crime-ridden Istanbul, harassing anxious Turks. A Syrian-led party has come to power in Turkey’s cultural and financial capital and declared Arabic the official language in the “state” of Istanbul.

In a dark 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 let all this happen after being “warned, over and over, that the Syrians were carrying out a silent occupation”.

Seemingly ripped from the pages of Michel Houllebecq’s bestselling 2015 novel Submission, in which a Muslim party comes to power in France, this dystopic nine-minute film commissioned by Umit Ozdag, head of the Victory Party, also echoes the German far-right AfD’s 2019 anti-immigrant campaign that warned of a coming "Eurabia".

Why would a Turkish nationalist party turn against co-religionist Syrians and embrace the nativist, xenophobic tropes common among the West’s Christian far right? Perhaps because Turkey has for years hosted more refugees than any country in the world – some 6 million in all; Istanbul alone is home to 1.3 million – even as its people struggle through a seemingly endless economic crisis. The lira fell 45 per cent last year and inflation hit 70 per cent in April.

The film Silent Occupation, which has drawn more than 4 million views since its release last week, asserts that thanks to the government’s post-2011 open-door policy, some 8 million Syrians now live in Turkey – roughly twice the actual figure – and claims the number will reach 15 million within two decades, with disastrous social and political results.

Unsurprisingly, the ruling AKP is none too happy about the viral video. Turkish authorities briefly detained its director, Hande Karacasu, the day after the film appeared on YouTube, for manipulating facts. The next day, Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu, in a live television interview, suggested Mr Ozdag sought to undermine the government.

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

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

After years as a top MHP deputy, Mr Ozdag was ousted in 2016 after he sought to unseat Devlet Bahceli, who has run the party for more than two decades. Mr Ozdag then signed on with Meral Aksener’s up-and-coming Good Party, which in turn ousted him in late 2020.

Since founding the Victory Party last August, he seems to have found his groove as a hoary xenophobe and emerged as Turkey’s most virulent nativist voice. He rails against the government spending billions on Syrians, arguing that they take jobs while Turkish citizens suffer, and regularly vows to send every last refugee home.

In January, he confronted a Syrian jewellery shop owner who has Turkish citizenship. 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’ve also gained Turkish passports.

Last month, Mr Ozdag asserted 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 leads in polling for potential presidential candidates – as its candidate, his Victory Party will do so.

As an independent, Mr Ozdag seems to have embraced a pox-on-all-their-houses view, targeting refugees, the opposition, which toes a gentler 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 in front of the ministry – like a bully challenging the studious kid to a fight after school.

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

The Victory Party draws just half of 1 per cent of voter support, according to polls, and lawyers have filed for its closure on the grounds of hate speech. Yet Mr Ozdag’s fiery rhetoric has tapped into a deep well of anger, gaining him more than 1.3 million Twitter followers.

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

This explains why Istanbul’s supposedly liberal, main opposition mayor has warned of changing “the city’s colour recklessly” and said some Syrians may need to be “re-educated”. And why Turkey’s 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 honour of the oppressed,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week. “We made, and are making, every effort for them to return to their homes.”

This would represent a return to their homeland, but not their homes. Some 4 million Syrians – setting aside all the 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 been living in Turkey for years, even as long as a decade, and some 200,000 have gained Turkish citizenship.

How many will now willingly give all that up to move to cinder-block villages in the remote, unsettled borderlands of a war-torn state?

Turkey is set to elect a new leadership in a little more than a year. In the months ahead, there’s a good chance we will either see the government begin forced repatriations, or watch a broad swathe of Turks, spurred on by the dark visions of Mr Ozdag, tear at the very fabric of their changing society.

Published: May 09, 2022, 2:00 PM