Turkey’s Turning Point: The View From the Diaspora

Turkish-Americans weigh in on a referendum that consolidates the president’s vast power

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey

On April 16, Turkey held a referendum to approve amendments to its constitution, amendments that would consolidate the power of its authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In Turkey, 51.1% of the people voted yes, according to NTV and other media outlets in Turkey. Although members of the observer mission from the Council of Europe, a leading human rights organization, stated that more 2.5 million votes might have been manipulated in the referendum, a defiant Erdogan dismissed their claims.

In the U.S., meanwhile, of the 32,600 votes cast by Turkish-Americans, more than 80% voted No. As in the homeland, the Turkish diaspora in the U.S. is sharply divided in its opinion of Erdogan, but a higher percentage is opposed to him. The diaspora seems deeply worried about a power-grab by a president who is rapidly undermining democracy in the country.

The amendments approved include abolishing the office of the Prime Minister, replacing the parliamentary system with a presidential one, increasing the number of seats in the parliament from 550 to 600, and giving the president more control over appointments of the top judicial positions.

Most liberals view it as the start of Erdogan’s dictatorship. That includes Turkish Americans in New York like Ayse Ozturk, who moved to the U.S. thirteen years ago. The photographer, who loves to shoot on the streets of both her home country and his adopted one, was distraught about the referendum outcome. “This is the end of the country as I once knew it,” said Ozturk. “They have taken away the hope and future of our children.”
 
Erdogan has been steadily consolidating his power since 2001 when his party, the AKP, came into power. From 2007 on, Erdogan effectively persecuted those he believed were a threat to his power or who had criticised him. This included the secular elite that included the military and political leaders. In 2013, Erdogan came under fire when the police cracked down on students in the Gezi Park protests, killing many and injuring thousands.

But after the failed coup against him in 2016, Erdogan used the opportunity to weed out thousands of teachers, journalists, academics, businessmen, and others he considered disloyal to him.

Ozturk says she has witnessed Istanbul change in the last decade. When she was in college in Istanbul almost 30 years ago, it was rare to see women in hijabs on campus and in the streets. Now they are a common sight. The curriculum of public schools has been changed to include the Sunni Islamic religion and its practices. According to Ozturk, this has caused anxiety in secular parents who did not want to give up parental control on how religion is followed and interpreted in their homes.

“Turkey is no longer the country I grew up in,” said Ozturk. “I fear for it.”

But for her husband, Mehmet Ozturk, a student of Ottoman history, Erdogan and his possible dictatorship—and the return to using religion as a political tool—is not surprising. Mehmet is a liberal who voted no in the referendum and found its outcome distasteful. However, he says that learning his country’s history gave him a perspective that his liberal friends dislike. To understand Erdogan, he says, one had to understand the history of modern Turkey.

As Mehmet recounts his nation’s history, at the end of the first world war, the Ottoman empire collapsed and the modern state of Turkey came into existence. Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938), known as Ataturk, Father of the Turks, is considered the founder of modern day Turkey. Ataturk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate—led by the caliph, the religious and spiritual leader of the Sunnis, who traditionally wielded absolute power over his followers. The military and secular elite put their energies into building the new Turkish state. Ataturk developed a platform for development and progress, and according to Mehmet,  Ataturk believed that western notions of democracy were key to the survival of the new Turkish state. He sought to minimise anything that would lead Turkey to being identified as a non-European state. That included de-emphasising the Ottoman history and Islam.
 
Subsequent generations of secular leaders did not bother to relax his strict secularism or build a true democracy. “It was a combination of elitism, intellectual laziness, and short-sightedness to keep the legacy of ‘assertive’ secularism alive,” said Mehmet. “Now Erdogan has cashed in on the ‘suppression’.”

Ahmet T. Kuru, director of the Center for Islamic and Arabic studies at San Diego State University, used the term ‘assertive secularism’ in his book, Secularism and State Policies towards Religion: The United States, France, and Turkey. Like France, Turkey adopted the model of secularism, in which the state played an ‘assertive’ role in excluding religion from the public sphere.

In the Turkey in which the Ozturks grew up, therefore, there were restrictions on religious social organizations, religious education, and religious dress like headscarves. Political parties were not allowed to have religious platforms.

Yet the country’s religious roots remained strong, and almost 80 years later, the conservatives and the anti-secularists found a voice in Erdogan. While the movement might seem like religious conservatism, Mehmet says it does not have a simple explanation.

 “Conservatives viewed the Turkish democracy as limiting, and serving the needs of the military and other elite.” said Mehmet. “ And Erdogan’s early successes have made him powerful.”

Los Angeles based Kenan Demir, a Turkish-American author and filmmaker,  agrees. He believes Erdogan and the referendum are good for Turkey. “Finally the Turkish people have chosen to create a constitution they want,” said Demir. “One that suits their needs.”

Demir believes that Erdogan has been on the right path to rid the country of the control of the elites and so-called secularists.His family in Turkey are supporters of Erdogan and appreciative of the progress he has brought in. Demir dismisses the idea that Erdogan has ambitions to become a dictator. “ Erdogan always demonstrated his willingness to work with the other side,” said Demir. “The liberals rebuffed him again and again.”

Professor Rashid Khalidi, of the history department at Columbia University, believes that the referendum will not impact Turkey’s relations with its Arab neighbors. He was not sure how the European relationship would play out. But Mehmet believes that Erdogan’s conservative, populist agenda will make it almost impossible for Turkey to ever be a part of the European Union. He also blames the EU for emboldening Erdogan. with its ambivalent attitude towards making Turkey an EU member.

“In the earlier days, Erdogan initiated a number of reforms,” said Mehmet. “But the EU always found ways to deny Turkey a membership.”

Ozturk felt that Turkey just endangered its biggest asset. “ We were so special in our geographical location as the bridge between Europe and Asia,” said Ozturk. “We are ruining the gift.”

Nobody yet knows what the political outcomes of the referendum, and Erdogan’s path forward, will be. But many Turkish-Americans are not optimistic. For Erdem Dogru, an engineer in the auto sector in New York, Erdogan’s power-grabbing and financial corruption will never be prosecuted after this referendum’s results. He considers the referendum catastrophic for Turkey and its citizens.

‘Turks just voted for a dictatorship,” said Dogru. “They may not have a meaningful vote for a long time.”

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