Battle for The Soul of Turkey. But which one is Turkey’s soul?

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Meriem Mahdhi, Journalism Undergraduate, University of Roehampton

Right while Turkey dominates worldwide headlines for its controversial intervention in Syria against the Kurdish population, Hannah Lucinda Smith comes to Wimbledon BookFest to present her book Rising Erdogan: Battle for The Soul of Turkey.

In conversation with Robin Lustig she explains that to understand why Erdogan is important, we need to understand why Turkey is so important geopolitically. Turkey is not only a portal between the East and West, but it’s also confining with Syria, Iran and is very close to Russia. It’s a shock absorber, as she defines it, of the most problematic regions on our planet.

“I really do not like Erdogan or sympathize with his policies, but there is something about him... When he speaks to a crowd, you feel like he is speaking directly at you.”

After decades of secularism with Atatürk, Islam found its way within politics again in Turkey with Adnan Menderes, this is the era that characterised Erdogan’s childhood. A man promising to defend Islam and its principles was very appealing to a boy growing up in Beyoglu, one of Istanbul’s most radical Islamic neighbourhoods.

When Menderes was hanged following a military coup, Erdogan’s involvement in politics grew. He won the elections as mayor of Istanbul going on to become Prime Minister and now finally, President. This is how “Turkey passed from the cult of Atatürk to the cult of Erdogan.”

Over time, Erdogan has changed strategy and language and shifted completely his foreign policies after the attempted coup in 2016.

“It’s a politically devastated scenario” says Smith. Now that Erdogan is losing popularity, he is trying to find a way not to hold elections in 2023. To keep his power, he has begun imprisoning prominent figures expressing opinions against him. According to Smith there are currently 180,000 people imprisoned in Turkey for expressing themselves against Erdogan. Most of these people are academics and journalists but it also includes a number of soldiers who participated in the 2016 coup.

Surprisingly after being asked about the situation of the Kurdish population living in Turkey, Smith has debunked the myth that the Turkish government is hostile to them. In Turkey there is still a persistent number of Kurdish AKP voters (Erdogan’s party). “It’s also under Erdogan that the Kurdish language ban was lifted and the first TV Channel in Kurdish was founded.”

Turkey is an extremely diverse country. Its Islamic social and political roots have long coexisted with different cultures and religions and as a country that has long been trying to be part of the EU and that in the future might succeed, it is important to keep an eye on it, especially at a time in which all freedoms (and democracy itself) seem to be under constant threat.