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The Neo-Ottoman Slap and How It Continues to Backfire

It is common for the Turkish government, and numerous governments worldwide, to use foreign policy as a tool of domestic policy. A mildly interested citizen could notice how politicians change their tones dramatically on polemical subjects within notably short time frames, tailored to their current political agenda. I find that this take on propaganda works especially well in nations many would describe as emotional, fanatical, and above all temperamental. It is beyond my insight to comment on the matter globally, yet I can easily approach the subject by my keeping up with the Turkish news.


In a recent example, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canıklı urged the US to end support to the YPG (People’s Protection Units, a mainly-Kurdish militia) in Syria. President Erdoğan supported Canıklı, by mentioning that the US troops standing in the way of Turkey’s military operations in Syria would receive an “Ottoman slap.” The US State Department spokesperson probably had to google what an Ottoman slap is before commenting, “We’re used to that kind of rhetoric, whether it’s from the Turkish government or from other governments… we don’t get too riled about that.” I luckily did not have to look it up; an Ottoman slap is believed to be a hand combat technique in the Ottoman army in the event of a soldier ending up unarmed. One that is such a strong blow that it could easily turn out to be lethal.


Another instance was last year, March 2017, when President Erdoğan labeled the Dutch government as “Nazi remnants and fascists” after a Turkish Minister was not allowed in the Netherlands as part of the constitutional referendum campaign. Erdoğan’s words have echoed in the global media, accompanied by much disconformity. However, when it comes to a vote, the criticism from abroad does more good than bad.


It would be naive for anyone to think that Erdoğan and other Turkish government officials have unresolved anger issues and resentments, and that the Ottoman slap metaphor is impromptu. Clearly, these are carefully calculated political moves, and controversy is the oil that greases the wheels. Any veto for the Turkish government from abroad is translated right into envy or bigotry in the mainstream Turkish media. Conveniently, this plays right into the temperament of the people, and their patriotism.


This exact scenario took effect in the last year’s constitutional referendum when support for Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP) peaked every time a European government (Dutch, Swiss, German, and Austrian) disallowed campaigning in their country. Inspecting Erdoğan’s casual threats to various countries on a regular basis, one might be surprised that those very words have likely increased his approval ratings in the recent polls by some percentage points.


What is more, these spectacles of tenacity practically have immunity against any opposition opinion. No opposing leader would imply that they go hand in hand with a European government in their critiques. During the referendum campaign, opposition leaders who were against the referendum measures censured EU governments for blocking campaign events for the sake of not crossing the public opinion. At the time the Dutch government emerged as the public enemy, a few days later it was some other country, person, idea… In essence, a common enemy often brings people together, independent of what or who that enemy might be; at least in Turkey.


Despite gaining massive support and popularity back home, this rhetoric is deteriorating EU-Turkey relations, along with years and years of discourse. With Greece and Bulgaria bordering Turkey on the west, the EU has undeniable ties to Turkey both geographically and economically. Since 1996, the EU-Turkey Customs Union establishing a free trade area proved much useful to both parties. On Turkey’s part, it has improved both imports and exports, and consequently the GDP per capita. The country’s economic transition from agrarian to industrial was sped up and eased through its membership of the customs union. Without a question, a finer dialogue between EU and Turkey which aims to make progress as allies rather than create speculation would let many other rewarding opportunities possible for the pair.


The repercussions of the undiplomatic tone of voice that Turkey has adopted in the last years is worrying in other aspects of life too. A conflict with Turkey helps right-wing extremists in Europe with an anti-immigrant and anti-Islamic agenda. This, in turn, complicates many things as simple as a visa application for the Turkish people. When Dutch – Turkish people living in the Netherlands protested in front of the Turkish Embassy in Rotterdam during the referendum campaign, Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) tweeted:“The Netherlands can see that these people are Turks, not Dutch… they have Dutch passports but they don’t belong here.” Wilders is using the same tactic, exploiting his voice as a politician to criticize specific countries/people in order to round up support back at home.


While in the short term this kind of behavior plays well for certain politicians or parties, what is at stake for the people, diplomatic conversation and progress, is far too important to joke around with. However, this does not mean that the politicians will play fair. It is up to the people to set the theatre apart from the reality and turn to actions rather than words when it comes to politics. It would be no surprise to witness the use of similar language as Turkey gets closer to the 2019 presidential elections. Hopefully, today’s elections’ dramatics will not cost the Turkish people their future.

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