Turkish voters are far more informed about the political choices they make then they are given credit for outside of Turkey.
Many Muslims around the world are relieved that Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won in the Turkish election. While not perfect, for many Muslims Erdogan is the main hope for the Muslim world at the moment.
Although you’ll find that this image is a far cry from the narrative often presented by Erdogan's critics and descriptions of a dictator seemed to fill up the pages of the western press.
I’m not writing to make a case for Erdogan; my point is to stress that there is a sense of arrogance in the dismissiveness of how Turks and Muslims feel regarding their place in the world, and in particular to the informed political choices they make.
The celebrations in my area of Uskudar in Istanbul were jubilant and passionate, with both young and old, women and men, beeping their horns, waving flags and letting off flares.
In the crowds I saw the headscarf wearing AK Party supporters, as well as a Turkish man covered in tattoos from Germany celebrating the president’s victory. I’m not sure how Angela Merkel would feel about his presence. Good thing he doesn’t play for the German national team.
The crowds were diverse, and many Turks spoke to me explaining with great clarity why they made the choice that they did. When I challenged them with the idea that some believe that they have voted for a dictatorship, many people felt offended that they were seen as unable to make a choice of what the future course their nation should take.
I left knowing that many who report about Turkey continue to assume that people in this part of the world are unable to make choices, unless it is a choice given to them by the west.
If you were to be reading the western press or parts of the Turkish Twitter-sphere you would have been thinking that the opposition was on its way to securing its first election victory. The opposition leader Muharrem Ince’s last throw of the dice to be politically relevant felt like political suicide, others felt that his own party had thrown him under the bus.
With the direction the country took over the past decade, surely there was only one outcome, surely Ince knew that none of the polls pointed to an Erdogan defeat.
However, photographs of Ince’s rally in the CHP’s base of Izmir, and in Istanbul, as a reflection of growing opposition to Erdogan altered perceptions, especially for readers of the western press.
While western journalists were attacking Erdogan with vigour, surely quality journalism would have equally criticised the opposition for suggesting that they would force Syrian refugees in Turkey to return back to Syria, as according to them, the war had ended.
While this oversight was missed by many in the western press, it was not by many Muslims and Turks in the country who were appalled at such a suggestion. When the dust starts to settle, Erdogan’s victories are as much about the ineptness of the opposition as they are about his personal popularity.
It also showed the multifaceted sentiment that Turks have towards Syrians, even though the refugee crisis has genuinely posed a host of unprecedented challenges that requires dialogue and introspection for Turkish society. If I were the editor at a western news outlet I would surely be asking serious questions of how my writers are still getting it so wrong with regards to the feelings of many voters on the ground.
But let’s get back to Erdogan.
Too often obsessed with Erdogan both journalists and academics have failed to provide nuanced positions on matters related to Turkey. They have failed to acknowledge that Muslims in general, and Turks specifically, are able to make informed politician opinions and choices.
I have heard too often the assumption that Erdogan can only win if the elections are rigged, or that most AK Party supporters are simply “sheep”. A better argument might be that the opposition are hopeless, and need to take a hard look at themselves. If I were a western journalist, maybe that is where my next story should be.
Most Turks I’ve spoken to feel that vote rigging is a consistent narrative to undermine non-western nations when they choose a leader that isn’t what the west want. In this narrative, it seems that the west are democrats while the “orient” continues to be despotic. The fact that the voter turnout was 87 percent wouldn’t really matter to most in the western press.
Significantly the loss of the AK Party’s parliamentary majority is an indication of the acumen of the Turkish voter, as it goes to reflect that there was indeed a segment within the government’s popular base that was unhappy—especially in Istanbul—and made the government aware of this in the election.
Kurds too, chose to make decisions in the interest of the future of the country. The Turkish public is indeed a conscientious voter. For many who live in Turkey, they would know that Turkey is a politicised, and polarised, country in which most have informed political views. With a government being formed as a coalition it would also be in the government’s interest to listen to those who chose to give their votes elsewhere.
Journalism or orientalism?
But it is not only the rejection of Erdogan’s supporters that reflects the continual arrogance in the guise of western intellectual superiority. Terms such as “dictator” and “sultan” continue to be brandished in the attempt to consolidate a narrative of a despotic oriental east that has a tradition and history of such. As an Ottoman historian, I can tell you that is simply not the case.
While many in the west may be suffering from a sense of collective amnesia of the manner about how they have presented leaders of this region, Turks are well aware of the orientalism projected towards the Ottoman Sultans in the western press since the nineteenth century, which has simply mutated towards a new target: Erdogan.
The fact that Erdogan is often labelled a sultan is telling of how dismissive the west is both to the Ottoman past, and the choices made by the people in the present.
Journalists and activists alike would be well-served to realise that their language continues to come from a colonial perspective—one that was vested in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire—and while their memories may be short, the people of this region have not forgotten.
The usual tropes from western news outlets do not go unnoticed by people in Turkey nor by Muslims around the world. By and large Muslims do not see western media outlets as objective when covering Islam or Turkey.
When a Guardian journalist recently wrote that Turkish voters need to kick Erdogan out of office, what he failed to appreciate was that the voters who had the agency to make such a change do not form the majority in Turkey (despite numerous polls showing this). If the journalist was truly asking the supporters of Erdogan to do that, it once again consolidated the arrogance of western writers attempting to school the Turkish voter.
If the western press wants to be seen credible in its reporting of the events in Turkey, and attempts to understand Erdogan’s popularity, it will have to come down from its ivory tower and start listening to those who support him.
If they paid attention, they would realise that Erdogan’s supporters are well aware of his and Turkey’s shortcomings. If only in the west they chose to listen, rather than dictate what people in the region should do, and be. But maybe this would be too much to ask as opinions are often not based on facts but on ingrained assumptions.
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