Manufacturing a Clash of Civilizations: Opportunism and Turkish Foreign Policy

It has been 24 years since Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington published his famous essay “The Clash of Civilizations” in Foreign Affairs. In his essay, Huntington categorized the Republic of Turkey as a “torn country” because its socio-political identity had been sliding back and forth on a spectrum of secularism and conservatism. Since the European Union froze accession talks with Turkey in November, Western foreign policy experts have been citing Huntington’s categorization of Turkey and voicing concerns about the rise of Islamism under the authority of Erdogan’s rule. Especially in the aftermath of the failed coup d’etat, Turkish President Erdogan’s consolidation of power and suppression of secular voices have unsettled American and European allies. Erdogan’s recent criticisms against Germany and, later, the Netherlands have been interpreted as the manifestation of the “clash of civilizations” prophesied by Huntington.

The aforementioned theories about the Erdogan regime are valuable for intellectual discourse, but they misinterpret the causes and effects of Erdogan’s frantic public statements against Germans and the Dutch. Erdogan’s political strategy has always been about formulating a real or imagined struggle against a specific enemy. Over the years, he has successfully alienated the Turkish military, the Gulen Movement, Kurds, and many more imagined foes in order to propagate an us-versus-them rhetoric. After fifteen years of imprisoning and suppressing all voices of opposition, Erdogan has run out of enemies to rally his base and guarantee a majority vote for the upcoming referendum. Erdogan has been diligently campaigning for a “yes” vote in the referendum, which will transform Turkey’s political structure from the current parliamentary system to a presidential system, effectively eliminating the office of the Prime Minister and vesting all executive power in the President. Erdogan, however, has been unable to mobilize his base and surveys show 51 percent of Turks planning to vote “no” in order to preserve the current political structure. Given the dire consequences of this referendum, it has become clearer that Erdogan’s defamation campaign against the West is not an outcome of an ongoing clash of civilizations, but a calculated effort to manufacture the perception of a clash of civilizations in order to ensure a victory for the upcoming referendum on April 16.

There are 400 thousand Turkish immigrants in Netherlands and 2.7 million more expats in Germany who are highly involved in Turkish politics. Many of the Turks who reside in Europe have been consistently voting for Erdogan and his former Justice and Development Party. It is expected that they will vote in favor of the new presidential system. Over the past couple of months, however, many of these Erdogan sympathizers have been actively causing disturbances at various rallies and assaulting members of the Gulen Movement based on Erdogan’s provocations from abroad. The Dutch government consequently decided to block these rallies given the “risks [they present] to public order and security,” and requested that the Turkish government revise its campaigning schedules accordingly. Instead, the Erdogan regime seized this opportunity and sent their family affairs minister Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya to the Netherlands despite repeated warnings by Dutch officials. Disregarding Dutch warnings, Minister Kaya, a veiled woman, attempted to enter Netherlands and refused to cancel her referendum rally. Kaya was removed from the country by Dutch officials and sent back to Germany for entering the country illegally. In the aftermath, Erdogan responded by calling out the Dutch for using “Nazi tactics” against a Muslim woman and accusing the Netherlands of “massacring eight thousand Bosniaks” in Srebrenica. Though these two incidents may initially appear unrelated, Erdogan’s core supporters understand this as the West’s desire to stop Muslim-majority countries from becoming richer, stronger, and better respected, all promises made by Erdogan and contingent upon the successful implementation of the presidential system.

The Turkey-Netherlands diplomatic incident may seem to fit the “Clash of Civilizations” theory, but the reality is that European attitudes towards Erdogan and his ministers stem from genuine security concerns. Despite the increasing media coverage of the rise of far-right politics in Europe, the Netherlands and Germany continue to be some of the most hospitable countries for European Muslims. Currently, there are 4.8 million Muslims in Germany, comprising approximately six percent of the overall German population. Similarly, the Netherlands is home to one million Muslim residents, which corresponds to six percent of their population. Having some of the largest Muslim communities on the European continent, these countries have consistently proven their commitment to treating Muslims and other minority groups equally and eliminating discriminatory practices. According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Germans and 65 percent of Dutch hold positive views of their Muslims neighbors and colleagues. Evidently, these two countries are very accepting of Muslims, which is contrary to Erdogan’s portrayal of their likely attitudes. For Erdogan, however, facts provide little value in the context of this issue while sensationalism promises an electoral victory. He has successfully riled up millions of his followers thanks to the Dutch response to the apparently Muslim Turkish Minister. The Turkish regime is capitalizing on this opportunity by hijacking Islamophobic rhetoric in exchange for votes.

Turks have been protesting the Dutch by peeling oranges on the street, deporting Dutch-grown cows, and even asking President Erdogan for permission to go and fight the Dutch on horses. Despite these ludicrous reactions by Turkish citizens, it is imperative to recognize that Erdogan is not acting based on an existing clash of civilizations. He is actively working to create a temporary perception of a clash for a successful referendum result. This opportunistic attitude has been at the core of his lengthy political career, but this particular incident has revealed something new about Turkey’s future in international politics: having eliminated almost all domestic dissent, Erdogan is ready to sacrifice what remains of Turkish foreign policy when it is potentially beneficial to his one-man regime.