Authoritarianism and Xenophobia in the New Turkey

By Bediz Yılmaz

A very recent publication named The Great Regression cites Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s name among the politicians worldwide who replace the liberal democracy with a populist authoritarianism (Geiselberger 2017: 10). The others are, as one should immediately guess: Trump of the USA, Putin of Russia, Modi of India and Orban of Hungary. In many Western and Eastern European countries, we are witnessing a gradual rise of right-wing ideologies with considerable claims to power.

Although the book rightfully enumerates many elements of commonality among these leaders as well as the countries where they actually govern or will soon govern, I will single out one of these aspects and try to discuss why Erdoğan’s Turkey should be considered as a unique case regarding this issue. This is the issue of immigration, closely related of course to xenophobia.

It is widely acknowledged that one of the strongest pillars of the recent increase in populist authoritarianism is an anti-immigrant sentiment within the host societies. Trump’s campaign was based on the registration of Muslims, expulsion of undocumented migrants and restriction of border controls (Appadurai 2017: 21). And soon after his rise to power, his administration issued a new ban for the immigrants of seven Muslim-majority countries. In France, the Netherlands and Germany, we observe a growth of anti-EU arguments which are rooted in the fear towards new immigrants as well as those who have previously settled (ibid.: 26). Poland, Hungary and Slovenia also express their opposition to the EU because of its legal regulations towards migrants (ibid.: 27). According to Appadurai, these may trigger an “exit” in the Hirschmannian sense, from the democratic values and principles, and that’s why he warns against such an “exit”.

I would like to discuss the role of migrants for the Erdoğan regime, by trying to answer the following question: is the public support towards this regime based on a hostility towards the nearly three million Syrians who have settled during the last years in Turkey? Put differently, does Erdoğan build his populist authoritarianism on a xenophobic discourse? The answer to both is a clear “no”. Though it is true that hostile and provocative discourses abound in this regime, these are pronounced as misogyny or more commonly as hostility towards non-Muslim or non-Turkish minorities (such as Armenians, Kurds and Alevites). they are commonly not oriented towards the newcomer population who has been the target of xenophobic attitudes in other countries where extreme-right ideologies are on the rise.

The scene is quite the contrary in Turkey: Erdoğan and the AKP government have been quite sensible regarding the Syrian population fleeing from the war. Departing with a discourse of “our Muslim brothers”, passing through “our guests” and for the moment concluding in the “persons under temporary protection”, they have promoted a quite positive discourse. The supporters of AKP have as well adopted – or seem to have adopted – the same position, which undoubtedly gives them a certain Ottoman pride as the protector of an Islamic population. But xenophobic attitudes within this community have always been present and continue to occur, proving that the need for a more comprehensive and more delicate policy on integration supporting the host and migrant communities is urgent.

It is not in the government’s declarations that we observe a higher degree of hostility towards the Syrians, but rather in statements of the main opposition party, CHP. A close look at the declarations made by its directors reveals clearly how xenophobic the party can be considered. In a recent speech to persuade voters to check the “No”-box held during the campaign of the referendum on the constitutional amendment, the head of CHP, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, declared: “They [Syrians] are first-class citizens, ours are second class. Our patients wait in line in the hospitals, they do not. […] They [the Government] will give Turkish nationality to three million Syrians in case ‘Yes’ overwhelms. That is the real meaning of voting for ‘Yes’” (Hürriyet 2017; Diken 20.03.2017). Slightly earlier than this, he had declared: “Our children die as martyrs for Syria in Syria, their children are in Turkey. And they find jobs and work while our children are jobless.” (Diken 28.02.2017) During a speech addressed to village-guards, the Ministry of Interior replied to this: “Targeting our Syrian brothers did not suit the leader of the main opposition party, that is a shame for him. None of his words are worthy of humanity. I ask my brothers of CHP, if there is a fire next to your house, would you draw the curtains down and ignore it?” (Diken 01.03.2017)

What I aim at pointing out in this article is threefold. First, Erdoğan’s authoritarianism does not have an anti-refugee standpoint; quite the contrary, their very existence is used and abused as a founding element of this authoritarianism. Discursively, the sentiment of belonging to the Sunnite umma (as the bigger brother) is flattered, and, on a more material basis, there is a clear will of demographic engineering against the Alevite population.[1] This authoritarianism is directed towards opponents of all kinds and not to the Syrians presented as “Muslim brothers”.

Second, the main opposition party’s discourse is more anti-immigrant. The “Syrians issue” thus seems to act as a dividing-line between the government and the opposition: while the former sees this population as yet another instrument for domestic and foreign politics and tries to get the maximum benefit from it, the latter misguides the attention of the opposition towards the Syrians instead of the government.

It is interesting to highlight the terms used by Erdoğan in his speeches related to the discussion on citizenships of Syrians. He qualifies the Turkish people as ensar and the Syrians as muhacir, words borrowed from Islamic terminology signifying the Muslims (ansar) who, during the Hijrah from Mecca to Medina, helped the migrants (muhajirun) by opening their houses and sharing their food with them, hence protecting them from being killed.[2] With this, Erdoğan places Turkey as the protector of an Islamic population in danger. Moreover, in his speech he makes another identification, stating that he understands very well the sentiments of Syrian migrants, because he himself belongs to a group of people who have been, in the words of a poet very dear to AKP, “stranger in his own country, pariah in his own homeland”.[3]

As for the major opposition party, they seem to fall in all the traps of the government and to be far from remembering its social democratic roots, which would call for principles based on fundamental human and refugee rights. They thus fail to diagnose the drawbacks within the AKP’s policies towards migrants and to criticize the instrumentalist elements in these, failing also to dismantle the discourse as paternalistic. Not only CHP, but also sections of the population that define themselves as socialist seem to be so blinded by their hatred against AKP and their prejudices against the Syrians that they do not recognise the fact that many among the Syrians are not content with the policies of the AKP, do not wish to become Turkish citizens[4], and try to leave Turkey where they are exploited, underpaid and discriminated.[5]

Each party thus seems to regard the Syrians as a homogenous and passive mass without any self-reflection concerning their own existence which can easily be manipulated and guided. Hence, parties demonstrate a lack of respect towards subjectivities of the Syrian population and their rights as refugees as well as a lack of attention to their internal differences. This moreover shows a lack of respect towards their dignity, something any human being is in need of. The search for a dignified life is actually what drives the “(non)refugees”[6] away from Turkey and towards Europe. But there too, it seems that respect for human dignity is becoming a tale of past times.

[1] There has been a great controversy over the decision to build a container-camp for refugees near Alevite villages in Maraş. (Birgün 28.03.2016, “Reaction of the people towards the construction of camps in Alevite villages: We are afraid that jihadists are placed here”).

[2] Speech held during an iftar diner at Kilis to the Turkish Red Crescent (02.08.2016).

[3]Özyurdunda garip, özvatanında parya” by Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, was pronounced during the speech to the Turkish Red Crescent at an iftar dinner in Kilis (02.08.2016)

[4] In a recent study named Elite Dialogue conducted among the Syrian academics and university students in Turkey, it is stated that the academics express their wish to quit in Turkey, where they cannot exercise their professions, and to exile in European countries, whereas for the university students receiving a proper refugee status with residency and work permits is preferred over naturalisation. (Elite Dialogue: Dialogue with Syrians in Turkey through Syrian Academics, HUGO (Hacettepe University Migration and Politics Research Center) and IGAM (Research Centre on Asylum and Migration), August 2017) []

[5] A report on Syrian workers in the textile sector issued by United Metalworkers’ Union (DİSK-Birleşik Metal-İş, Syrian Migrant Labour: İstanbul Textile Sector Research, June 2017) demonstrates the existence of child labour, unpaid extra-work hours, unregistered employment, lack of social security and payment below minimum wage, especially for women. []

[6] “Non-refugee” is the term I would like to suggest to describe the condition of Syrians in Turkey: they are not mere migrants, because they are war-induced border-crossing migrants and entitled to refugee rights as defined by international law, but they are not recognised as such by the laws of Turkey. The usage of the term “refugee”, as done from a political standpoint by many scholars and INGOs, also fails to fully reveal their position in limbo in Turkey due to the lack of refugee status.


Al Jazeera Turk, 11.11.2016, “Erdoğan: Mülteciler Avrupa’ya yürürse Avrupa ne yapacağını şaşırır” []

Diken, 28.02.2017, “Kılıçdaroğlu’ndan iki yeni referandum önerisi: Milletten korkmayacaksınız, bizim gibi” []

Diken, 01.03.2017, “Bakan Soylu’ya göre ‘kişi sevdiğiyle beraberdir’: CHP, teröre can suyu veriyor” []

Diken, 20.03.2017, “Kılıçdaroğlu, Suriyeliler üzerinden ‘Hayır’ istedi” []

DİSK – Birleşik Metal-İş, Suriyeli Göçmen Emeği – İstanbul Tekstil Sektörü Araştırması, June 2017. []

Gazete Duvar, 09.08.2017, “Suriyeli akademisyenler Türkiye’den niye kaçıyor?” []

Geiselberger, Heinrich (2017) Büyük Gerileme-Zamanımızın Ruh Hali Üstüne Uluslararası Bir Tartışma, Metis. [English edition: Heinrich Geiselberger (ed.) The Great Regression, Polity. 2017.]

Habertürk, 05.07.2016, “Suriyelilere ‘vatandaşlık’ın kriterleri” []

Habertürk, 09.07.2016, “Suriyelilere ‘vatandaşlık hakkının’ detayalrı ortaya çıktı” []

HUGO (Hacettepe University Migration and Politics Research Center) and IGAM (Research Centre on Asylum and Migration), Elite Dialogue: Dialogue with Syrians in Turkey through Syrian Academics, August 2017.

Hürriyet, 05.04.2017, “Kılıçdaroğlu: Evet çıkarsa Suriyelilere vatandaşlık verecekler” []

Vatan, 12.07.2016, “İçişleri Bakanı’ndan Suriyelilere vatandaşlık açıklaması” [–966004-gundem/]