Month: September 2016

Turkey’s biggest trauma

The recent coup attempt in Turkey should be recognised as a “national trauma”, according to regional expert Sinan Ciddi, speaking at an event organised by the Centre for Turkey Studies at SOAS.

“We are still unsure who was behind the coup,” Ciddi said. “We only have certain suspicions that it was instigated by ‘factions’ of the Turkish military.”

In the wake of the coup attempt, it is important to understand, 1) why it failed, and 2) what the implications will be, both long and short-term, for Turkey. The following is a summary of and reflections on some of the key points from the evening’s discussion.

The US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen has been scapegoated for the coup attempt. Some of the perpetrators were loyal to Gülen, that’s for sure. But others were hardline Kemalists forming an ‘unholy alliance’, with Gülen to unseat the AKP government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself.

The Turkish government only allows us to see a carefully curated view of events, thanks to the strategy of media blackouts that is always swiftly implemented after any incident of civil unrest. Only independent outlets such as Al Monitor can freely publish news about controversial events in Turkey. In recent months most of the events in this category have been terrorist attacks, but a media blackout also happened during the brief hours of the July coup attempt.

Why did the coup fail?
Erdogan broke the blockade of the normal media ban and took to the airwaves via FaceTime to galvanise the people against the putschists. His message resounded heavily with the crowd and propelled them into action. This was the undoing of the coup. In addition, the military made certain logistical failures, e.g. by deploying too few a number of troops, which in some ways didn’t look like a serious attempt.

The prime reason for failure was the widespread lack of military support. Generals did not step up to deploy troops in Istanbul. The coup was doomed to failure from the very beginning and civilian authority was restored overnight. Did the putschists actually intend to succeed? Or was the coup simply a smokescreen for a more sinister political strategy?

What are the implications for Turkey?
Firstly, there is now a general problem of governability in Turkey. The government has put the country under a state of emergency for three months. This means, among other things, that the cabinet can be ruled by decree and is no longer subject to parliamentary approval, nor is it under the purview of the judiciary. Since the state of emergency has been declared, there have been various rulings, which have curtailed the role of the military while enabling civilians to gain control. Military institutions have been handed over to civilian authority, including seemingly harmless ones such as hospitals and schools.

This ‘Erdoganisation’ of the military aims to undercut that institution’s Kemalist structures and construct a new military that is unflinchingly loyal to the president. In pursuit of this goal, the government has conducted a widespread purging of the ranks, with 10,000s of officers removed from their posts. The AKP has also cast a wide net to catch any additional suspected coup plotters, mainly targeting Gülenists, in a process Ciddi referred to as ‘de-Gülenification’. In addition to the military purge, at least 4000 schools, companies, universities and media organisations have also been curtailed and closed down, including the Zaman newspaper group, and Istanbul’s biggest Gülen-linked university, Fatih University.

Turkey is certainly not headed towards greater democracy. Instead, it is systematically removing all actors that potentially threaten Erdogan’s power, including political dissidents and all other opposition figures (mainly Gülenists). The coup attempt has presented the perfect excuse to do this. It is no wonder Erdogan described the event as a ‘gift from God’.

So what will the judicial landscape of Turkey look like once the state of emergency has ended? There is likely to be less and less independent governing by institutions. Instead things will shift towards the creation of Erdogan’s own ‘kingdom’, as he continues to gut Turkey’s institutions and reshape them in his preferred fashion. This is alarming for the future of Turkey’s governance, as the world still does not know what kind of constitution will eventually emerge.

What are the foreign policy implications?
In the West, alarm bells are already ringing as Turkey ratchets up the tension with its Western partners. The US ambassador did not condemn the coup immediately, a move which rankled Turks and stirred up a ripple of suspicion and anti-American sentiment. In contrast, Russian president Vladimir Putin hurried to condemn the coup and offer his support. Turks love a good conspiracy theory, and the rising suspicion of the West, especially the United States, is at an all-time high. Some people think: ‘Perhaps the US was actually complicit in the coup. After all, it is currently harbouring the ‘terrorist’ Fethullah Gülen over in Pennsylvania and refuses to give him up to face Turkish justice. Why not?’

But the US ambassador’s move, seen by Turks as failure to empathise with their traumatised country, has not helped matters. In his typical confrontational style, Erdogan quickly seized on this to stoke public sentiment against the West in an attempt to solidify Turks as a nation united against the threat of outsiders. In recent weeks Turkey has started to turn towards unlikely new friends, including Israel and Russia. But at the same time it remains a member of NATO. How long can this uncomfortable dynamic continue?

The relationship between Turkey and the EU now hinges on one issue: refugees. Believing that Europe failed to support Turkey during the coup, Erdogan has threatened to cancel his refugee programme and let them all pour across European borders. With this sword of Damocles hanging over Merkel and friends, the EU is forced to keep Turkey on side, but barely.

So what role does Turkey play in the region now?
Turkey is no longer inspiring much confidence in its Western allies in terms of resolving the Syrian conflict. It is uncertain whether Turkey can actually help in Syria or merely hinder. No-one knows for sure if the Turkish army is primarily targeting ISIS militants or instead the Kurdish forces (Western allies against ISIS), in pursuit of the Turkish state’s age-old ‘Kurdish issue’. After all, having an independent Kurdish-ruled state (Rojava) on its borders is seen by Turkey as a significant existential threat. This begs the question: what is Turkey’s true goal in Jarablus and beyond?

How far will the AKP take the state-of-emergency law?
It  could perhaps be leveraged strategically to fashion a new Turkey, one where Erdogan rules unchallenged and keeps every facet of society firmly within his grasp. Will Turkey cooperate with the western powers in Syria? And will Turkey’s currently weakened government structures be able to help stabilise Syria, or just make it worse?

The feud between Erdogan and Fethullah Gülen goes back only a short time, to around 2010. Before then, the two sides were the strongest of allies. In fact, the Gülenists were fast-tracked into power by the AKP, after the Ergenekon trials ended. Turkey has a long history of ‘deep state’ activity, so why tolerate it for all this time only to make a massive deal of it now? Is it because the Gülenists got too comfortable with their positions of power and began to overplay their hand, eventually antagonising the AKP?

The coup attempt came as a huge shock to most Western observers. Turkey is now in a state of flux and, although we can toss ideas and theories around, it is difficult to predict with any certainty what will happen next. That the AKP will take an even tighter grip on Turkey is one sure thing, especially with greater consensus between the three main parties (AKP, CHP, MHP) as they come together against the coup. Whatever we in the West think of Erdogan, we must not forget that he and the AKP remain highly popular with many Turks. He is still a democratically elected leader, although of course his actions reflect anything but democracy. Turkey remains a conundrum in many ways.

Beyoglu: From grime to glamour

Beyoglu IstanbulIn March 2016, a suicide bomber attacked Istiklal Avenue, in the heart of Istanbul’s commercial district. Since then, the city’s most famous street has been a shadow of its former self. The hustle and bustle has slowed to a mere trickle. I wrote the below piece in early January 2015, when times were still good and the street was still busy.

Beyoğlu, that most storied district of Istanbul, is the first place that many new arrivals to the city find themselves. First impressions count. For many visitors, Beyoglu has played a significant part in shaping their perceptions of Istanbul.

The pulsating artery of Istiklal Avenue enthrals most newcomers during their early weeks, but as they grow more familiar with the city they tend to branch out and explore further, discovering quieter, more relaxed places to spend time.

Istanbul is a hectic city at the best of times, so rest and relaxation are valuable for those who live here. After one year in Istanbul I’ve started avoiding the stress of traversing this overcrowded avenue, finding myself going there less and less.

If ever compelled to go to Istiklal, perhaps to meet friends for an evening out, or to visit one of the antique shops, or just to walk between the adjacent metro stations of Taksim and Şişhane, you must be prepared to run the gauntlet of pushing, shoving and jostling international crowds. Most noticeable among these are the Arab tourists often with bandaged heads fresh from hair-implant surgery.

While at the beginning you might have wandered aimlessly savouring the bustle and diversity, now the mission is to penetrate the street as efficiently as possible, ducking and weaving through the crowds, all the while grumpily complaining about how much you dislike coming to this street.

Traversing İstiklal Avenue leaves many people exhausted and irritable. But on those rare quiet moments, perhaps in the early morning when the place is unencumbered by crowds, it’s worth taking the time to glance around and appreciate the imposing European architecture that lines the street side.

The area that is today’s Beyoğlu used to be known by its Greek name Pera, back in the days before the Turkish Republic was founded. Pera has a long history, beginning from the 13th century when it was established as a Genoese trading centre and foreign colony situated within, yet remaining more or less independent from, the Byzantine Empire of the time. In the 15th century, Mehmet the Conqueror took over the city as he founded the Ottoman Empire.

Despite this, Pera held on to its independence, although it allied itself with the Ottoman Empire, which was probably a pragmatic move to ensure its survival. Little of note happened until the 18th century, when the drive to modernise Istanbul resulted in a major transformation of Pera society. Diversity flourished among the largely non-Muslim population, who came from places as far afield as Russia, China and Brazil, along with many others from various European nations.

A multitude of cafes, bars, shops, restaurants and other entertainment venues sprang up as a result of the population’s needs and wants. With all these nationalities living side by side, the mix of languages spoken in Pera formed a regular Tower of Babel effect, as described by the upper-class English travel writer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu in her otherwise somewhat unflattering description of Pera’s multicultural population (according to a 2013 article by Özlem Sandikci). This was also the time when various nations established embassies in Pera and staked out their own little patches of territory within the tangle that was Istanbul.

The resulting clusters of European-ness around each embassy (including Greek, French, Swedish, British, Russian and Dutch) added another level of cosmopolitanism to the district and helped develop its story further. Foreigners associated with the embassies built their own churches, designed lavish homes and continued to pursue their usual habits and way of life among these privileged enclaves, away from the influence of the Ottoman Turks.

In the 19th century, there emerged certain elite Ottomans who developed new ideas about reform and therefore wished to recreate the image of Istanbul and change it into that of a Western city (Sandikci, 2013). Pera provided the perfect model for them to follow in their attempts to achieve this aim. So in order to further expand the district in their desired style, these elite set up a government department which took charge of regulating the area and managing its image.

It was an early example of city brand strategy. At that century’s end, things had changed dramatically in Pera. The area had become thoroughly Europeanised and bourgeoise, complete with department stores, posh hotels, expensive restaurants and decadent nightclubs that couldn’t be found anywhere else in Istanbul. Upper class Turks, foreigners, and various minority groups flourished there.

But there were certain elements of society who hated everything that they believed Pera represented. Some Ottoman Turks disliked its sense of slavish European-ness, as if this suggested that Ottoman culture was somehow inferior. Conservative Muslims also disliked Pera, but instead for what they perceived as its immorality. Despite these differences of opinion the area continued to grow and develop, maintaining its strong image while at the same time helping to cement the overall perception among Europeans of Istanbul as a desirable, exotic city. City brand strategy had begun, albeit organic rather than deliberately engineered.

When the Ottoman Empire finally fell, Istanbul’s role within the new Turkish Republic was compromised. The functional yet characterless city of Ankara became the new capital and all the embassies relocated there. Istanbul was relegated to second place, with its exotic elements now viewed as somewhat shabby remnants of a decadent and outdated Ottoman past.

The new nation, led by Atatürk, now had its collective eyes firmly fixed on the notion of ‘Turkishness’. The image of Istanbul in the minds of many Turks, had shifted, but the Istanbul city brand in the minds of Europeans likely remained more or less unchanged. The narrative was strong, much of it emanating from Pera where it had been established and developed over centuries. It would take more than a new capital city to water this down.

But the changes did eventually affect Pera, starting with its name change, casting off the Greek name in favour of the Turkish one: Beyoğlu. The district was gradually ‘Turkified’, undergoing campaigns including one that forced everyone to speak Turkish, another that imposed levies on non-Muslim residents, and assorted incidents of looting, vandalism and destruction of churches, shops and houses in the area. Gradually, foreign residents lost their will to remain in Beyoğlu. Life there was no longer easy or pleasant. There was a mass exodus of the foreign population and lots of buildings were left vacant as a result.

The area’s economic strength diminished and property prices became low. In the 1960s, as Istanbul underwent a phase of industrialisation, an influx of immigrants arrived in the city. They gravitated towards the now-affordable Beyoğlu where they could rent cheap housing, or in many cases occupy abandoned buildings illegally. The character of the area began to shift as numerous marginalised groups set up home there, including sex workers, transvestites, and Roma gypsies.

Brothels were opened, drug pushers became more common, and any remaining affluent residents soon moved to more salubrious parts of the city. By the time the 1970s rolled around, Beyoğlu had become associated with seedy underground lifestyles and petty crime on the margins of Istanbul society. What was once the bourgeois and upper-class Pera was now a place that would have been unrecognisable except for the European architecture that still remained, rearing up with its imposing facades from among the shabbiness.

Today’s Beyoğlu has managed to balance on a fine line between its two identities. The seedy side is still there, with prostitutes peering from second story windows in certain back streets behind Istiklal Avenue. Transgendered prostitutes can be found among certain nightclubs catering for that particular target audience. Drunken punters fill the back alleys at night and no doubt plenty of drugs are available if one knows where to look.

At the same time, this area was and remains famous. It’s very popular among visitors and Istanbullers alike. Beyoğlu is the district of Taksim Square, of the trendy Galata area, of Tophane and its fashionable boutique hotels, and high-rent Cihangir with its droves of affluent residents both foreign and Turkish. The strong place image attracts many tourists to the city, especially wealthy Gulf Arabs, who can be seen in hordes around Taksim and its environs. There are shops, hotels and restaurants springing up to cater for this relatively new Gulf tourism trend, with Arabic signs becoming a common sight around Beyoğlu these days.

There is also the contentious issue of Tarlabasi, a Beyoğlu sub-district bordering Taksim Square on the other side of a large road. Despite concerted efforts at gentrification, this area has remained seemingly stuck at an earlier stage of development. Unlike the rest of Beyoğlu, Tarlabasi retains a reputation for seediness and crime that is not seen as part of a tourist experience but as a real danger.

While most of Beyoğlu may be viewed as an interestingly ‘edgy’ district, Tarlabasi remains a place that locals actively advise foreigners to avoid. Rents there are low, reflecting its perceived reputation as a no-go area. Much has been written about Tarlabasi, and its history is a topic outside the scope of this already oversized post. Suffice to say that many of the existing analyses involve the possible fate of the marginalised communities that still cling onto their lives there. It is an interesting topic worth exploring at a later date.

History shows us that Beyoğlu’s cosmopolitan, somewhat decadent nature was part of its identity from the very first days of its existence. A place narrative of this strength and depth becomes quite resilient to change. Beyoğlu has been able to retain its distinct characteristics. It could be said that the influence of this unique area has done more than any other part of Istanbul to develop the city’s overall reputation and image. Beyoğlu has become a city brand strategy extraordinaire.

(The historical information in this piece was inspired by a journal article entitled: ‘Strolling through Istanbul’s Beyoglu: In-between Difference and Containment’, by Özlem Sandikci)

The changing face of post-coup Turkey

Sunset over Haydarpasa Station, Istanbul

The Place Brand Observer invited me to write about the July coup attempt in Turkey, and its implications for the country’s global reputation. 

Turkey has long been described as a country of contrasts. Ever since Ottoman times it has managed an image that has skilfully blended the best of the East with the strong points of the West.

There have been peaks and troughs but Turkey has overcome them all and emerged stronger. Until now, when the country faces what may be its biggest challenge yet, one that may see it losing favour in the eyes of the West.

On the evening of July 16, 2016 there was a coup attempt in Turkey. Military officers took over Istanbul and Ankara and for the space of a few hours the world watched with bated breath, unsure what the outcome would be.

In the end, the people overcame the putschists and the coup was foiled. Throughout that fraught night, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, addressed the Turkish public, calling for unity and a show of strength against the coup. The people rose to the occasion with panache.

In the wake of this dramatic event, there have been a number of repercussions affecting Turkey’s reputation. According to the 2016 Most Reputable Countries report from Reputation Institute, released just last week, Turkey’s reputation has dropped the most this year out of all the 70 countries surveyed in the report.

This dark shift is reflected in Turkish tourism, an industry that over the last year has reported some of its worst figures in decades. Foreign visitor numbers fell by 41% in June this year, according to data from the Turkish tourism ministry. It was the worst drop in tourist numbers on record.

The July coup attempt has surely done further damage. But this incident is only the final straw in a series of events over the last 12 months that have combined to cause significant damage to Western perceptions of Turkey.

Since summer 2015, Turkey has experienced terrorist attacks, ongoing civil war in the southeast, government crackdowns on press and academic freedom, and loss of certain civil liberties, while becoming subject to a constant stream of negative reporting in the international media. It is no wonder the country’s image has been damaged so severely.

In general, there are two main strands that contribute to forming overall negative perceptions of Turkey; the first, perceptions of the country as unsafe (due to numerous terrorist attacks during 2015/16), and the second, perceptions of its leadership as increasingly authoritarian.

It is worth noting here that Turkey and its government still enjoy widespread popularity among much of the non-Western world, where Erdoğan is still viewed as a strong and successful leader. In addition, recent polls have shown that anti-Western sentiment among Turks has flared up after the coup, with 70% of Turks believing America to have been involved.

If the Most Reputable Countries poll were to be conducted in the Middle East and Africa, we would probably see very different results for Turkey. Nation branding is first and foremost a Western construct, where countries tend to be judged according to Western standards of freedom, democracy, and tolerance. This is worth keeping in mind, lest our perceptions risk becoming too ethnocentric.

But in practice, the Western world holds most of the power. It controls much of the flows of tourism, foreign investment, talent, and diplomacy that determine the success or failure of any nation.

In light of all this, what’s next for Turkey? In a recent article, Efe Sevin writes that the current brand image crisis “should be seen as a prolonged crisis”. He stresses that an active communication campaign would be the best, and perhaps the only, way for Turkey to get its image back on track.

At present, the Turkish government is fully engaged in promoting an image of the country as unified, in opposition to outside forces that would seek to damage the nation. There is much talk of Turkey’s commitment to democracy, yet the West remains unconvinced. In fact, it grows ever more sceptical by the day. In particular, the post-coup response, which involves widespread purging of suspected ‘Gulenists’ from within the judiciary, military and academia, is hindering the ‘democratic’ image of Turkey.

The Gulen movement, or Hizmet, headed by reclusive US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, has now become public enemy number one, blamed for the coup attempt. But just a few years ago Gulen and Erdogan were close allies, and the global network of Hizmet schools were responsible for promoting a positive image of Turkey around much of the world.

In order to move forward post-coup, Turkey needs to acknowledge other factors causing its image problem and not simply resort to blaming everything on Gulenists (as Gulen’s followers are known), as this piece in the Hurriyet newspaper attempts to do. As Sevin points out, the Western media has largely made up its collective mind about Turkey and its government.

To salvage its image in the medium-term, Turkey’s best hope is to decide which audiences matter most, and figure out ways to reach them and get the desired message across.

This post was originally published on the Place Brand Observer