Erdogan Fosters Anti-Western Sentiment in Turkey
by Hany Ghoraba
Investigative Project on Terrorism
The Nov. 1 assault on an American sailor by Turkish nationalists reflects the anti-western sentiment prevailing in Turkey fostered by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
During a stop in Istanbul, the sailor was surrounded by a dozen or more members of a pro-Iranian neo-nationalist group called the Turkish Youth Union (TGB). They put a sack on his head and assaulted him.
TGB posted pictures of its attack on the sailor on its Instagram account.
“WE PUT A #SACK on the head of an AMERICAN SOLDIER in Istanbul. Once again!,” the post said. “The USA is the murderer of millions and the greatest threat to the oppressed nations.
They cannot freely walk in our lands. This sack is a response of all the resisting nations!”
Erdogan backed down after an international backlash, but was trying to retaliate for the countries’ call for the release of a philanthropist Erdogan perceives as a threat who has been imprisoned since 2017.
TGB claims to be Turkey’s largest youth organization, with more than 10,000 members and more than 200 university organizations spread across 65 provinces.
Its members have attacked NATO sailors in Turkey for a decade. In 2014, a group of TGB extremists attacked three American sailors and placed hoods on their heads. The hoods are meant to evoke a 2003 incident in which American troops hooded some Turkish troops detained in Iraq.
In the 2014 incident, one of the attackers shouted that they saw the Americans “as murderers, as killers, we want you to get out of our land.”
Two weeks later, Erdogan echoed that sentiment during a speech at an Organization of Islamic Cooperation meeting.
“They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die. How long will we stand that fact?” Erdogan said. “Only we can solve our problems. I speak openly; foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labor force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us.”
Erdogan’s increasingly fiery rhetoric toward western countries has paved the way for allied radical groups such as the TGB and Gray Wolves to act on their ultra-nationalist sentiments. The Gray Wolves is a far-right group which was involved in a number of criminal and terrorist activities in Turkey and other European countries. The group is now banned in France.
“The enemies of Islam and Turkey have entered a swamp and they will drown in that swamp,” Erdogan told the Turkish parliament last year. “They have to lift their filthy hands from our sanctities.”
Erdogan’s support from the TGB and other nationalists “shows how much his Islamist policies have come under the influence of ultra-nationalism and Eurasianism as the common denominator of anti-Westernism has united former adversaries under the same banner of authoritarianism and illiberalism.” said former Turkish MP Aykan Erdemir, now the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
In addition to inciting against the West, Erdogan hosts terrorist groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He met last year with Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh and deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri. For years, Hamas maintained strong financial ties with Turkey, where the terrorist group has secretly invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the country benefiting from the loopholes in Turkish financial laws, according to an October report by financial investigators Double Cheque.
Turkish state-owned news outlets spotlight statements from terrorist group spokesmen casting Erdogan as the defender of Islam.
Anti-American sentiment has been growing in Turkey for the past decade. A 2019 poll conducted by Istanbul’s Kadir Has University revealed that 82 percent of the Turkish public see the United States as a threat. By comparison, 39 percent see Russia as a threat.
Turkey invests in maintaining those attitudes. University students are introduced to anti-Western rhetoric in their dormitory rooms, through a program that distributes translated works of Muslim Brotherhood ideologues, including founder Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and Syrian Brotherhood leader Sa’id Hawwa. The program is funded by the Turkish government and supervised by Erdogan’s son Bilal.
Meanwhile, schools for minority groups have been denied funding increases to keep pace with public schools. The parliament, dominated by Erdogan’s AKP Party and its ally the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), rejected a proposal to increase funding for Armenian, Jewish and Greek schools.
On the international scale, Erdogan’s policies reflect Turkey’s shady role in a number of regions across the world, most recently in Afghanistan. Erdogan lauded what he called the “moderate” nature of Taliban leaders’ statements and expressed his willingness to cooperate with them.
A Taliban delegation visited Ankara in October, meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. Turkey urged the international community to deal with Taliban, ignoring the atrocities committed by the group for the past 25 years. Those atrocities continue through the harsh application of Sharia laws on citizens upon seizing power.
“We have told the international community about the importance of engagement with the current Taliban administration. In fact, recognition and engagement are two different things,” Cavusoglu said after the closed-door talks.
Erdogan maintained ties with Afghan warlords since the 1980s, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known as the “Butcher of Kabul.” Erdogan was seen sitting at Hekmatyar’s feet during a meeting in Afghanistan circa 1985.
In an interview last year with German daily Der Tagesspiegel, German counter-terrorism expert Guido Steinberg accused Erdogan of encouraging jihadists.
“President Erdogan’s reactions are the example of the mobilization needed by the jihadists,” said Steinberg. “He may mean what he says, but he is also using the situation to position Turkey as the protective power of Islamists in the Arab world and in Europe. This has been the Turkish policy for years.”
Turkey’s ailing economy and the freefall of the Turkish lira, which recently reached an all-time low against the U.S. dollar – worth about two-thirds less than it did just three years ago – are not good news to Erdogan, who is expected to seek reelection in 2023. But instead of forging solid economic plans to face the crisis, he switched to blaming the West for all his political and economic failures and now upped the ante against Western countries.
This sort of rhetoric is inspiring to ultra-nationalist groups such as TGB and the Gray Wolves, who are influenced by Erdogan’s speech fostering anti-Western sentiment and willing to take matters into their own hands.
IPT Senior Fellow Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.
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