Category: Reputation

From mosques to swastikas: Images of terrorism

In November 2016 the terrorist Thomas Mair was sentenced to life in prison for the politically-motivated murder of Jo Cox, MP.

Many news outlets featuring headlines about the verdict chose to place quote marks around the word ‘terrorist’. Other terms used in the media to describe Mair included ‘deranged white supremacist’, ‘far-right fanatic’, and ‘neo-Nazi’.

While these terms are both accurate and suitably negative, they also suggest the media remains reluctant to label Mair by one term: a terrorist. Only one article in the Guardian included the word in its headline (without quote marks) as well as in the opening sentence.

This may seem like a trivial problem of semantics. Surely terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ are good enough to describe Mair in light of his actions. But there’s more to it than that.

Perceptions are at the heart of the matter. The point is fairly obvious and it’s been made many times; if this white man had been Muslim he’d have been instantly called a terrorist (without a quote mark in sight). By putting the word in quote marks or using terms like ‘neo-Nazi’ and ‘white supremacist’, the media paints Mair’s actions as unusual and an anomaly.

Use of these terms does not imply any ongoing link between white men and terrorism. That’s reserved for brown men with beards – and has been so for most of two decades. Public perceptions of terrorism and Muslims are full of double standards; and the image of both the religion and its followers is now synonymous with terrorism.

Much of that image has been created and reinforced by the constant drip feed of certain narratives in the mainstream media that draw often hysterical links between terrorism, extremism and Muslims. The resulting Islamophobia within wider Western society has formed a grim backdrop to everyday life for numerous Muslim communities. The repercussions have been immense and damaging, ranging from everyday discrimination to acts of outright violence against Muslims and symbols of Islam, such as mosques.

There’s also the added challenge of counter-terrorism measures such as Prevent, which have been accused of a disproportionate focus on Muslims, creating an atmosphere of suspicion where innocent citizens feel singled out and victimised. On top of this, the much-publicised crimes of Daesh (ISIS) have further inflamed the situation. Resentment, fear and distrust of Muslims is at an all-time high.

But in recent months Daesh has taken a back seat . A new group has risen to prominence; the so-called ‘alt-right’, otherwise known as far-right extremists, or white supremacists. The resulting media furore surrounding the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election as US president has thrown the spotlight onto far-right extremism. The far-right has always been around – 1 in 3 cases referred to Prevent involve far-right extremism – but hasn’t received so much media coverage until now.

There’s nothing positive about such hateful trends. But against this backdrop, with Daesh fading into memory, perhaps the image of Islam will regain some ground. Society must realise that violent extremism and terrorism are not just related to Islamic groups. Hate and dissatisfaction come in many flavours; with a much broader spectrum than mainstream media coverage suggests. Before Al Qaeda, many people associated ‘terrorism’ with the IRA, i.e. white Catholics.

The image of Islam must start to reflect reality; and people must realise that terrorism and Islam are absolutely not synonymous. It may seem counterintuitive, but perhaps the rise of far-right extremism could help drive this shift in perceptions.

Ranking CVE effectiveness around the world

Ranking countries and cities on their various merits is a familiar concept to practitioners of place branding. Can this approach be used to rank the effectiveness of global CVE efforts?

Many rankings have been created assessing everything from a nation’s dollar brand value to the level of good deeds it contributes to the world as a whole.

You may have seen the latest editions of ‘World’s Happiest Countries’ (with Sweden, Denmark or Bhutan usually leading), or perhaps ‘World’s Most Violent Cities’ (a death knell for the winner’s tourism industry). These rankings are usually based on hard data (e.g. census data, statistics on violent crime, value of exports, etc), combined with results from various surveys that assess people’s perceptions of the country in question.

The recently released Global Terrorism Index (2016 edition) combines approaches from country branding and terrorism studies to create an index that measures levels of terrorism activity affecting 162 countries (although some of these do not show any activity whatsoever). The index attempts to systematically rank the countries based on levels of terrorism activity.

Unsurprisingly (but perhaps contrary to widespread belief…), the ranking is topped by Iraq, closely followed by Afghanistan (2nd), Nigeria (3rd), Pakistan (4th) and Syria (5th). Together, these five countries accounted for 72% of all terrorism-related deaths in 2015. In contrast, the highest-ranked Western country on the index is France, ranking at number 29.

The GTI is a useful exercise, producing valuable insights into the economic and social impact of terrorism, while also examining the drivers that increase its likelihood in the first place. Terrorism has become the biggest global fear of our time, but the GTI helps put Western fears into perspective. As always, it is not the West that suffers most from terrorism.

Despite ISIS having fallen out of the spotlight in recent months, the issue of global terrorism shows no sign of abating. In fact, it has mutated and arisen in a different (although not new) guise; that of the far-right. In light of this ongoing and constantly changing threat, it is clearly of significant benefit for countries to compare notes on ways to counter violent extremism (CVE), while also taking stock of their own efforts. In light of this, a new research idea comes to mind; one that analyses the effectiveness of CVE efforts around the world. The end result would be a ranking of nations according to their effectiveness in this regard.

Many experts agree that a holistic approach to CVE is needed to help determine its effectiveness. One suggested solution is a comparative scale of CVE effectiveness. In the wake of 9/11, counterterrorism (CT) policy and practice has been largely focused on military and law enforcement measures, which target the perpetrators of attacks. This approach is right and necessary but also overly narrow; failing to fully address the conditions that drive groups and individuals into violent extremism in the first place.

More recently, a combination of better research and concerted efforts by a number of high-level government officials has highlighted the need for prevention measures that deal with the threat in a more sustainable and strategic way. Doing that requires measuring whether or not progress is being made. At present, there is no common set of indicators to assess CVE progress. There is also a distinct lack of compiled data on the effectiveness of CVE efforts around the world.

The proposed CVE Effectiveness Index would address these gaps, drawing on lessons learned from the Global Terrorism Index, along with other relevant indices, including the Good Country Index, the Digital Country Index, the Global Peace Index, and the Freedom House indices.

The new index would potentially track CVE progress (or lack of) across all relevant countries, based on indicators developed and data generated by civil society, combined with a layer of big data and sentiment analysis. A ‘whole of society’ approach should be adopted throughout the project, with strong focus on the role of civil society and community actors in driving national CVE efforts.

To construct a useful index a range of quantitative and qualitative data would be needed. Possible sources could include census data, the World Values Survey, safety/security perceptions survey, government data on various indicators related to terrorist activity/recruitment/incarceration, along with conducting social media sentiment analysis that targets online conversations within the country in question.

Once all the data sets have been fully analysed and the ranking compiled, the results should be displayed for easy access using a dedicated online platform, which would include a world map (using Tableau or similar tool) and drill-downs of data by country (and city/neighbourhood, if data allows).

Much work is still needed to decide on the most pertinent data, along with devising a suitable framework for measurement. One possible framework would approach the data on three levels. The top level would be ‘communications’, (including how effective the country is at monitoring online comms, conducting takedowns of extremist materials, shutting down user accounts, creating and spreading digital counter-narratives, and so on).

The next level down would be ‘community’. This level would analyse effectiveness of the country’s efforts to create outreach and dialogue mechanisms with communities, including grants and capacity-building measures toward CVE objectives. In addition, are there any CVE training programmes in place for individuals and groups working in law, social work, education and healthcare? If so, the effectiveness of these would be analysed, according to measures yet to be determined.

And lastly, the ‘individual’ level. This would include assessing whether the country has any intervention programmes designed to identify, dissuade, counsel, and mentor individuals at risk of committing to extremist violence. If so, how effective are they?

As well as data from sources such as the census, World Values Survey, perceptions surveys, etc, the proposed study should also include a layer of data gleaned from listening to social media conversations in the country being studied.

To achieve this, tools such as Crimson Hexagon could be used to gather data and analyse sentiment from across social media channels. In 2011, Crimson Hexagon conducted a research project to determine European and Arab sentiment regarding the Syrian war. Data gathering for the project involved training an algorithm to look for patterns in posts and mentions of keywords relating to the war and to Syrian refugees.

Doing this for the proposed CVE index would enable researchers to determine overall public sentiment as well as highlight any significant shifts in sentiment around keywords related to terrorism and violent extremism.

To make this index a reality the next step would be to select a range of data sources to measure. How accessible and reliable are they likely to be? Will every country be able to offer the same data sources? Then, it would be necessary to narrow down the framework and decide on the final version, decide which resources would be needed, create a timetable for delivery, look for partners, and seek sources of funding.

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

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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

An imagined nation carving out its niche

Mardin old town

Kurdistan is an imagined nation that exists only in the minds of the its people. But the concept of ‘Kurdishness’ crosses many borders. The Kurds have been called the ‘world’s largest stateless nation’, although some have criticised this designation for its suggestion of homogeneity. In reality there are many differences between various Kurdish groups.

The Kurds number around 30 million people, spread across four neighbouring countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Despite having their own distinct languages, culture and history, the Kurds are still struggling to carve out their own space somewhere in the niche where those four ancient lands meet.

A Kurd may hold a Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, or Iraqi passport, but he or she will always identify as a Kurd first and foremost. The sense of national pride for a nation not yet born is nevertheless strong and widespread.

The problem of statelessness is not new for Kurds. Throughout history they have been engaged in an ongoing struggle for recognition and independence. So far their dream of an independent state has not been realised. Iraqi Kurdistan may be the closest the Kurds have come so far to having an independent Kurdish state.

Officially still part of a federal Iraq, this Kurdish region is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), headed by its own president (Maasoud Barzani), and enjoys a certain level of freedom from Baghdad central control. Accordingly, the region has developed into relative prosperity, thanks to its oil wealth, and has become known as the most secure and stable area of a largely war-torn Iraq.

The Kurdish example illustrates our focus on the cross-border mentality in a number of interesting ways. Firstly, the whole idea of ‘Kurdishness’, is a concept that crosses borders, not just the four borders of the mountainous Kurdish homelands, but also internationally. This sense of Kurdish unity was consolidated and brought dramatically to world attention last year, when the plight of Kobane hit the news.

Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish city, came dangerously close to being overrun by Islamic State militants. But the city was saved, partly because Kurds came from all over neighbouring Turkey, and some from even further afield, to support their brothers and sisters across the border in the battle against IS.

It seemed that the sense of Kurdish solidarity had never been stronger than in the battle for Kobane. As a result, the Kurdish reputation garnered increased global support and attention as the media portrayed the Kurds as a brave force protecting the world from the IS onslaught. In this way, Kobane acquired a symbolic significance.

The story of Kobane has given the Kurdish national project a fresh and revitalised narrative. In particular, some experts in Kurdish affairs claim that the events in Kobane have given the Kurds increased international legitimacy.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty carved up the Middle East between the British and the French after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The heavy-handed approach of the treaty showed complete ignorance of the region. It created many new borders that disrupted fragile religious, tribal and ethnic boundaries.

The violent repercussions of Sykes-Picot have been felt ever since. Fortunately, there may be a new approach. Economic cross-border cooperation, while keeping nation-states intact, may help end some of the region’s conflicts. Ironically, it is the Kurds and their long-time foe, the Turkish state, who are leading the way.

Iraqi Kurdistan produces a great deal of oil and gas. Baghdad lays claim to most of the revenue from this, depriving Erbil of what the latter says is its fair share. To out-manoeuvre Baghdad, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan came together to build an oil pipeline from Erbil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

This cross-border endeavour has allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to access the international markets for its oil and gas, while simultaneously avoiding Baghdad seizing control over the revenues.

Collaboration such as this is still rare in the region. The Ceyhan pipeline is a groundbreaking attempt to transverse borders for mutual economic benefit. Cross-border economic initiatives like this one can potentially pave the way for greater understanding and mutual cooperation between states in the Middle East.