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Turkey Sees Surge in Xenophobia

  • Dorian Jones

FILE - Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians wait behind border fences near the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, Sept. 2014.

FILE - Turkish soldiers stand guard as Syrians wait behind border fences near the southeastern town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, Sept. 2014.

Turkey, a NATO member and European Union applicant, is witnessing a surge in xenophobia, according to new research by Washington-based Pew Research Center.

Findings of the new survey coincide with an increasing amount of conflict along the country's southern border and strained diplomatic relations with neighbors and allies.

Diplomatic columnist Semih Idiz of Taraf and Al Monitor says the anti-foreigner sentiment isn't reserved for Western countries alone — the traditional source perceived antagonism among Turks.

"This is almost universal," Idiz told VOA. "Seventy percent of those surveyed said they were anti-American, but an equal 70 percent said they were anti-Russian; then we find most Turks are against Saudi Arabia and China; they're against NATO; they are against the EU. So there is this kind of national reformation, that everyone hates us."

The shift also coincides with Ankara's recently strained or suspended diplomatic relations with neighboring Syria, Iraq and Iran, and differences with some Western allies over the conflict in Syria and the fight against Islamic State militants.

The perceived sense of isolation on the world stage that Turkish citizens report in the survey, says political scientist Cengiz Aktar of Istanbul’s Suleyman Shah University, is the result of the Turkish government campaign that fuels public hostility toward the world.

"The government is pumping this idea of splendid isolation, which they call 'worthy loneliness' — a bit like Russia, by the way — trying to making its case, but of course no avail," said Aktar.

Analysts say Turkey's suspicion and even outright hostility toward outsiders is nothing new. Throughout much of the 20th century, for example, Turkish schoolchildren were taught that their country was surrounded by enemies, and that collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the result of collusion among Western and Arab countries.

According to Aktar, that sentiment, along with the post-WWI occupation of Turkey by European countries, still shapes the national psyche.

"It goes back to the early 20th century, when Turkey was reborn from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and the country was occupied," he said. "Mustafa Kemal and his friends ended the state of affairs and created a new country. So there is a huge suspicion of anything which comes from the West, a sense that of being surrounded by enemies all over. It's of course very worrisome."

With a general election due by June next year, nationalism is likely to be on the rise, with politicians seeking to exploit public fears, according to diplomatic columnist Idiz.

"It is fact: politicians in Turkey also use this to their advantage," he said. "There is this perception they are guarding Turkey against nefarious outside plans. Erdogan himself was reviving imagery pertaining to the First World War, so as you see we have this being utilized at the highest level of the policy in Turkey."

Last month President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Western meddling in the region was akin to the iconic World War I British army officer known as Lawrence of Arabia, who led an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. President Erdogan warned Turkey was facing the dangers of a new Lawrence of Arabia.

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