Turkey’s controversial President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a savvy political leader to say the least. He is also very intelligent, and his latest move is another attempt to survive amidst the ongoing global turmoil. Mr. Erdogan sees the rising tide of populist nationalism (most prominently exemplified by June 2016’s “Brexit” and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in November 2016) and is looking to exploit it by re-branding himself as a populist nationalist leader. His latest tactic focuses on football stadiums. On 29 May 2017 Mr. Erdogan announced that he was “going to remove the word ‘arena’ from stadiums”, deeming the word “un-Turkish”. According to The Telegraph, Mr. Erdogan asked a rhetorical question: “What does arena mean? We don’t have such a thing in our language,’ Mr Erdogan added, urging people to examine the ‘meaning and interpretation’ of arenas saying the word was ‘neither polite nor elegant’ “.

 

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Ataturk’s Language Reform. Image Courtesy of: http://www.nationalturk.com/en/turkey-83th-anniversary-of-turkish-language-reform-to-be-celebrated-14675/

 

Of course, such a move is not new or unprecedented in Turkish history. Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, pursued a language revolution which brought the Latin alphabet to Turkey by eliminating the Perso-Arabic script of Ottoman Turkish; it was one of the cornerstones of Ataturk’s revolution designed to “Westernize” Turkey. More recently, as scholar Banu Eligur points out in her illuminating book on Political Islam in Turkey, the military did the same after the 1980 intervention when “the state-owned television issued a long list of words that were banned from use over the network” (Eligur, 2010: 117). According to the author, “the state was not simply expected to promote a conservative understanding of national culture, but to discourage—or, as one document puts it—to ‘extinguish’ modernist movements in literature and the arts” (Eligur, 2010: 117). This is the same kind of consolidation that Mr. Erdogan is looking to achieve with his attempt to ban the word “arena” from use in Turkish stadiums; it is also an attempt for Mr. Erdogan to equate himself with Ataturk.

 

 

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According to Mr. Erdogan’s Decree, the Names of Galatasaray’s Turk Telekom Arena (Top) and Besiktas’ Vodafone Arena (Bottom) Will Have to Change. Images Courtesy of https://www.tripadvisor.co.za/LocationPhotoDirectLink-g293974-d2329797-i222044743-Turk_Telekom_Arena-Istanbul.html (Top) and http://www.vodafonearena.com.tr/_assets/images/layout/og-image.jpg (Bottom).

 

It would behoove observers to realize that Mr. Erdogan’s purported goal is a façade. After breaking with Fethullah Gulen—the reclusive Islamic cleric blamed for the 15 July 2016 coup attempt—Erdogan is looking to become more of a nationalist and less of a globalist (as Mr. Gulen is). Mr. Gulen, who is undoubtedly an Islamist, embraces a globalist vision without countries; it is a vision where an Islamic umma (believers) is united as Muslims and not Turks, Egyptians, Iranians, etc. State media in the United States decided to publish a statement by Mr. Gulen (himself a traitor to his country) on 15 May 2017, in which he states his position clearly. He argues that:

 

school curriculum that emphasizes democratic and pluralistic values and encourages critical thinking must be developed. Every student must learn the importance of balancing state powers with individual rights, the separation of powers, judicial independence and press freedom, and the dangers of extreme nationalism, politicization of religion and veneration of the state or any leader. [Emphasis added].

 

It is remarkable how closely Mr. Gulen’s emphasis on “pluralistic values” and “critical thinking” resembles the indoctrination strategies of many universities in the United States, where “critical thinking” is a code-word for anything but; in reality it means “think like your professors think”. Mr. Gulen’s decrying of nationalism and the “veneration of the state or any leader” fits in with the same anti-nationalist rhetoric of globalists around the world. That American state media should publish the words of a shady Islamic cleric is, also, sadly not surprising. The Washington Post turned against Mr. Erdogan since his split with Mr. Gulen; after Mr. Erdogan’s bodyguards thuggishly attacked anti Erdogan protesters in May of 2017 the newspaper called Mr. Erdogan’s security detail “thugs” and “goons”. That the newspaper is finally outing Mr. Erdogan for his authoritarianism does not absolve them of their guilt for supporting Mr. Erdogan (while he still worked with Mr. Gulen) during the Gezi Park protests of 2013 when Max Fisher cited a poll which said Mr. Erdogan had “high approval ratings” despite the protests. The false nature of the claims—designed to discredit the anti-government protestors—is made clear by the newspaper’s own admission of misrepresenting the facts. A disclaimer in the story reads:

 

Correction: This post originally indicated that the Pew poll had been taken after protests began. In fact, it was taken in March, before protests started. 

 

It seems “fake news”, or at least deliberate misrepresentation of the facts by state media in the U.S., was alive and well long before the Donald Trump era in a bid to prop up Mr. Erdogan. Now, having lost his globalist ally, state media is changing their tune just as Mr. Erdogan is. It is important to realize that Mr. Erdogan is merely adapting to a changing world without truly changing at all.

The fact that Galatasaray was the first team to change the name of their stadium in response to Mr. Erdogan’s comments is not surprising (the team has been close to Mr. Erdogan), but it is indicative of the falseness inherent in Mr. Erdogan’s comments. Sports Illustrated reported that Galatasaray changed their stadium’s name from “Turk Telekom Arena” to “Turk Telekom Stadium”. But…what is a “stadium”? Is “stadium” not a non-Turkish word? Of course it is, and it underlines the ridiculousness of the call to erase “Arena” from Turkish stadiums; it is more ridiculous when one realizes that most of the new stadiums built in Turkey under the AKP regime have been named…arenas. Mr. Erdogan is trying to re-brand himself by separating himself from the era of Gulenist influence but it will not be that easy since Mr. Erdogan is not a nationalist, and has never been one.

As Banu Eligur notes, Mr. Erdogan said in January 1995 that “the 21st century will be an era in which systems that are based on Islam will come to power in the world” (Eligur, 2010: 162). Islamism is, clearly, not compatible with nationalism, itself a secular ideology. Thus, it is unlikely that Mr. Erdogan’s about face is credible. It shouldn’t be surprising, since his own reformist wing within the Turkish Islamist movement founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP); it was a wing that, according to Eligur, “placed a greater value on electoral victory, which required a significant expansion of the party’s constituency base, than on the religious purity of the membership” (Eligur, 2010: 198). In other words, Mr. Erdogan was never really a Islamist (in terms of faithfulness to the religion of Islam), rather he was looking for votes (and by extension) power. Thus his new-found populist nationalism is similarly false.

To understand this, Banu Eligur’s work is again useful. Eligur ends her book by pointing out that

 

Islamism, unlike Turkish nationalism, does not accept the notion of a Turkish identity. Turkish nationalism, as a secular ideology, seeks to protect both the secular and the unitary character of the state. The Islamist movement is likely to have a hard time competing against the very foundations of the secular-democratic Turkish Republic: the Turkish nationalism of Ataturk. However, Islamist entrepreneurs may opt once again, as they have after each threat to the survival of their movement, to reframe their message to the Turkish people so as to neutralize the nationalist challenge and secure the power and appeal of the Islamist movement in Turkey. (Eligur, 2010: 283)

 

This is the essential point that observers of Turkey should keep in mind at this critical juncture in history. Mr. Erdogan’s move regarding stadium naming policy is—to borrow Eligur’s term—a “reframing” of the message. Mr. Erdogan, being the observant leader that he is, senses the rising tide of populist nationalism in the world and is looking to reframe himself in that context. None should be fooled, however, as to Mr. Erdogan’s intentions. He is still a politician who—in the context of extreme capitalism—is looking to keep his hold on power in Turkey using whatever methods necessary. Due to the global context, for the foreseeable future it seems as if Mr. Erdogan will look to exploit Turkish nationalism as a means to keep his hold on power and the Turkish state.

 

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Banal Nationalism. Image Courtesy Of: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flag-map_of_Turkey.svg
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