[Blog] Erdoğan rallies supporters with fiery rhetoric

Alev Yaman and Erda Halisdemir report on a contentious rally held by Prime Minister Erdoğan in Turkey late last night.

Beleaguered Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan showed no sign that he would be backing down last night as he spoke to a crowd of 10,000 fervent AKP supporters at a heated midnight rally in Istanbul. Erdoğan, who has spent the last four days touring North Africa, delivered a defiant performance with trademark bravado, as Turkey entered an eighth day of nationwide, anti-government protests sparked by plans to build a reconstructed Ottoman barracks on the site of one of Istanbul’s few remaining central green spaces, Gezi Park.

Much to the delight of his audience, Erdoğan was in no mood for reconciliation: recognition of police brutality and the deaths of two young protestors was framed against the ‘martyrdom’ of a police officer who fell off a bridge while pursuing protesters in the southern city of Adana; talk of representing the entirety of Turkey’s 76 million people was tempered by a refusal to acknowledge the protesters’ demands unless these were manifested in the form of votes at elections; the protesters themselves were variously cast as flag burners, easily manipulated flag-wavers, paupers, provocateurs, vandals and enablers of terrorism; and a reference was even made to ‘usurious’ bankers causing the Turkish markets to dip dramatically.

Yet the most striking feature of this exercise in political theatre did not, for once, come from Erdoğan; it was the pro-AKP crowd, with their incessant, aggressive chanting, that stole the limelight. Regular chants of ‘Ya Allah, Bismillah, Allahu Akbar’ – the favoured chant of Turkey’s Muslim extremists, sung loud by the mobs that perpetrated the Sivas, Maras and Corum massacres – were interspersed throughout the speech; chants of ‘Let us go, let us crush Taksim’ were met with silence from Erdoğan; as were those of ‘the minority, get a grip, don’t make us lose our patience’ and ‘tell us to strike, and we’ll strike [them], tell us to die and we’ll die’. The name of Ottoman Sultan Selim ‘the Grim’, whose reign saw the issue of a fatwa instructing Muslims to slay infidel Kizilbash (the 16th century name for the contemporary Alevi sect), was sung in an appropriated football chant. Such aggression does not bode well for a country which has had its share of bloody civil unrest in the past. Although Erdoğan spoke admirably about peace and pursuing the path of democracy elsewhere in his speech, his lack of response to such venomous chanting was telling.

Indeed, one could hardly be blamed for coming away with the impression that Erdoğan was pandering to precisely this kind of aggressive, Islamist sentiment in his speech. While peaceful allusions were made to former Ottoman possessions in the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle-East and Maghreb, and a quotation from Sufi poet Yunus Emre advocating peace was read out, conflicting messages came in the form of a poem penned by Turkish poet Mehmet Akif Ersoy. Inspired by the clash between East and West at Gallipoli, the poem opens with the following incendiary lines:

I cannot applaud tyranny, I can never love a tyrant;
I cannot revile history for the amusement of someone errant,
If someone attacks my ancestry, that person I will strangle!

Erdoğan made further allusions to prayer and religious duty throughout his speech, referring to the crowd as ‘the generation of Asim’ (a fictional character in Mehmet Akif Ersoy’s epic Safahat, Asim is a young Gallipoli veteran who is willing to give his life for Islam and has contempt for the values of the West that his fellow countrymen seek to adopt). Erdoğan’s persistent invocation of religion throughout the speech, coupled with the aggressive, Islamist zeal displayed by his supporters, achieves little but the further polarisation of the country. Erdoğan claims to be the prime minister of the 76 million citizens of Turkey, but how many of those would have been comfortable with the chanting and rhetoric of last night? An excellent opportunity to soften the volatile political climate in Turkey has been missed by Erdoğan after some promising comments from the Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc and President Abdullah Gul.  One can only look ahead with consternation at an increasingly intractable situation.

Alev Yaman is a human rights advocate, who has worked for various London-based organisations specialising in freedom of expression, migration studies and the rule of law. She is currently working as a Turkey  researcher for English PEN and consult for PEN International.

Erda Halisdemir is a writer and translator who worked as a researcher at PEN International until the end of last month.

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