Reacting to events in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11-12, 2017, Hilal Kaplan, a columnist for Sabah, a pro-government Turkish newspaper, and head of the Turkish-government linked think tank, Bosphorus Global, wrote a piece titled “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The article opened with a provocative claim: “American white supremacists are in revolt. Who are these? In a sense, USA’s ‘White Turks’ but an important difference from our [White Turks] is that they are all from middle or lower class.”
Were it not for Kaplan’s linking of white Turks and American white supremacists, her article would have been just another expression of anti-American sentiment in the Turkish media. But, because of her analogy, Kaplan’s piece was as much a commentary on domestic Turkish politics as it was about Charlottesville’s significance for U.S. politics.
Behind Kaplan’s claims are one ongoing and one emerging trend in Islamist political discourse in Turkey. The first is the white Turk – black (zenci) Turk dichotomy, which has been based on a distorted reading of race relationships in the United States. The second is interpretation of current racial tensions in the U.S., as manifested in Charlottesville, through the white Turk-zenci Turk lenses and instrumentalization of these American events to make a point about their own victimhood.
White Turks and the Other Turkey
The concept of the “white Turk” dates back to early 1990s. It was only after the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in the early 2000s, however, that “white Turk” was contrasted to “zenci Turk,” taking on racial significance.
Journalist Ufuk Güldemir first introduced the term “white Turk” in his book Texas-Malatya in 1992. In the book that examined the connections between the U.S. and Turkish president Turgut Özal, Güldemir depicted white Turks as a narrow group of aristocratic elites, detached from and lacking in understanding of ordinary people’s experiences. He described them as “a species that don’t like Turks too much and long for blond Francophone Istanbulites at Çankaya [the Presidential residence]” like Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Another journalist, Serdar Turgut, helped to popularize the term in his columns about the effects of the 1999 economic crisis. His definition of white Turks was quite different from Güldemir’s, however. Turgut’s white Turks corresponded to a white-collar economic class. They were “educated, informed, professionals who define themselves not with their nationality or religion but with their careers, of which they are proud.”
Both Güldemir and Turgut served as Washington, D.C. correspondents for Turkish newspapers. Their concept and definitions of white Turks were, as such, likely influenced by the existence of privileged American groups, like WASPS (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants) or Yuppies. They stopped short, however, of drawing analogies between the situation in Turkey and race relations in the United States. For Turgut, white Turks existed alongside “the other Turkey (öteki Türkiye),” comprised of ordinary Turks, who were losers in the country’s widening income inequality. As Michael Harrington did in his 1962 study of poverty in the U.S., The Other America, Turgut wrote many columns about those lived in poverty in Turkey.
In the early 2000s, television also helped to reinforce the white Turks vs. the other Turkey dichotomy. The very popular sit-com, Avrupa Yakası (the European Side), centered around this dichotomy. By 2004, when the series started airing, the dichotomy had moved past its original class based definitions, and adopted a variety of lifestyle and cultural connotations. The series, for example, fed-off of comical contrasts between Istanbulite, educated, cosmopolitan, white-collar, upper-middle class characters vs. provincial, uneducated, lower or lower-middle class characters, most of whom retained their provincial accents. It also depicted characters who tried to pass from the latter to the former group, with various levels of success.
As the white Turk discourse became popular in the late 1990s, Islamists adopted the word zenci to define themselves as the representatives of ordinary Turks in contrast with the secular “white Turks”. In Turkish language, both siyah (black) and zenci (negro) are used in reference to people of African descent; zenci does not have the same negative connotations as the word negro has in the American context. Depending on the context, it can be a neutral word or a racial slur, much like the word negro in Spanish. Introduction of the word zenci to the ongoing “white Turk” discourse aimed to invoke racial oppression to establish Islamists’ victimhood and to label the white Turks as the oppressors.
After the Welfare (Refah) Party, an Islamist political party, was shuttered by the Constitutional Court in 1998, party vice-chair Recai Kutan reportedly said “We are the zencis of Turkey (Türkiye’nin zencileri).” By using the word zenci, and in particular, the phrase “zencis of Turkey” (instead of zenci Turks), Kutan was drawing an explicit parallel between the Turkish Islamists’ experience in the aftermath of February 28th decisions and the black community and its experience in the United States. In 1999, Kutan used the zenci analogy again to defend MP Merve Kavakçı, who was ousted from the parliament because she refused to remove her headscarf earlier that year. Kutan compared exclusion of Kavakçı from the parliament to the experience of the Little Rock Nine (although he mis-described the details of the American event). He revoked the American black experience with oppression to claim the higher moral ground for the Islamist movement’s political struggles in the Turkish context.
In 2003, the newly elected AKP Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a New York Times interview: “In this country, there is a segregation of Black Turks and White Turks. Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks.” After AKP came to power, “zencis of Turkey” became “zenci Turks” and Islamists began to appropriate the black experience rather than simply drawing parallels to it. In placing themselves in the shoes of the oppressed, Turkish Islamists branded white Turks as an elitist oppressor class, expanding the term to include Western-oriented, secular, mostly Kemalist Turks across upper, middle and even working classes. According to the AKP’s rhetoric, the secular establishment headed by the military, bureaucracy, and the judicial system, supported by secular elites, oppressed and looked down upon the pious masses (who also happened to be the AKP’s political base).
Of course, there were some grounds for the AKP’s claimed oppression. Secular vs. Islamist, modern vs. conservative, urban vs. rural fault lines have existed in Turkish society and politics since before the republic was founded. The state system and institutions established by Mustafa Kemal favored those who embraced the secularizing and Westernizing reforms he introduced, at least until the Cold War period. Interjecting the brutal and stark history of the African-American political struggle into the existing fault lines in Turkey, however, made these divisions stronger and the polarization even deeper. It is a false comparison, as the history of systemic enslavement and oppression of the African-American community has no comparison with the experience of pious, provincial Turks. Using this false comparison inevitably led to distorting or caricaturizing the African-American experience in offensive and racist ways.
Racism and Contradictions of the Zenci Turk discourse
A 2012 speech Erdoğan gave in the southeastern province of Şanlıurfa illustrates how simplistic and insensitive his understanding and articulation of the African-American experience has been:
Our political views were denied. Our demands were denied. In this country, we got the other treatment, zenci treatment. We were threatened, faced physical and moral attacks. […] Our political parties were shuttered. […] The person who they said ‘couldn’t become even a neighborhood chief’ is now the PM. Dear brothers, they blocked our path but the nation cleared it. Here we are now and we are serving. Because we said ‘We are coming not to be masters but servants of this nation.’ We are not your masters, we are servants and we will continue to serve.
Erdoğan described the denigration he experienced, and the oppression faced by the Islamist political movement as somehow comparable to the treatment of blacks under white domination in the United States. But, in this speech, the word zenci was depicted as derogatory, exclusionary, and belittling; indeed, he expressed offense at being labeled as such.
In a 2013 speech to his parliamentary group, Erdoğan’s zenci references were even more blatantly racist.
According to them [the white Turks], we don’t get politics, arts, theater, poetry, aesthetics, architecture. According to them we are uneducated, ignorant, lower class, has-to-be-content-with-what-they’re given, that is, zenci masses.
In 2014, he offensively equated being zenci to being a servant when he said “If being the servant of this nation is being a zenci, I am a zenci.”
He continued references to being zenci, during campaigning for municipal elections in 2014 and parliamentary elections in 2015. By then, the 2013 Gezi protests had revealed the limits of Erdoğan’s claimed victimhood. After being in power for a decade and using that power to brutally suppress the protests, Erdoğan’s attempted identification with the powerless was particularly egregious. During Gezi, for example, Erdoğan complained about being seen as zenci, while also adopting the language of the oppressor by labeling the protesters çapulcu (looters) and telling them to “know [their] place.”
Who Is Oppressed and Who Isn’t?
Since the attempted coup on July 15, 2016, Erdoğan has entrenched his position, as absolute power-holder. His party has control over all policy-making, through governmental decrees that bypass the parliament. In the fourteen years of AKP rule, Erdoğan and his most loyal supporters have become richer and more extravagant. Yet, both Erdoğan and his supporters still claim victimhood through the zenci Turk discourse.
After over a decade of ever increasing AKP dominance and upward socio-economic mobility for its supporters, members of the Turkish intelligentsia, including Islamists themselves, have started to express confusion and disagreement over which Turks are zenci and which are white. For example, while Kaplan likened white supremacists in Charlottesville to “our white Turks,” Islamist columnist Nihal Bengisu Karaca referred to them as those who are belittled by the Northerners as “rednecks” and suggested that the more accurate analogy was with Turkish “bidon kafalar (jug heads).” Bidon kafalar is a derogatory reference to AKP supporters, which means, in Karaca’s mind, the “white” working class Americans are comparable to the pious conservatives and Islamists in Turkey, not blacks.
But, as far as Erdoğan is concerned, the zenci narrative continues to apply to his political movement. In fact, earlier this year, he argued that AKP government “still [has] problems with [its] social and cultural power.” He also expressed sadness that “people with mentalities foreign to their country and nation [i.e. white Turks] are still in the most effective positions in many fields from media to movies, from science-technology to law.” He will likely continue the zenci discourse until AKP brand of Turkish Islamism is dominant across all spheres in Turkey.
Despite all they have achieved, then, Erdoğan, his party and staunch supporters continue to use the discourse of victimhood, drawing upon prejudicial, or, at best ignorant, views of the African American experience. But, the history of black people in America is not the Islamists’ to distort, adapt, appropriate, or co-opt to fit their cynical political agenda like they have also been doing with the Ottoman past. Unfortunately, African-Americans and black scholars in the U.S. are too busy fighting oppression to call Erdoğan out on using a discourse that trivializes their history and to call his supporters out on trying to take their current racial struggles out of context to score points in a Turkish debate.