On 11 June, in the midst of the return of the Istanbul police forces to Gezi Park and Taksim Square, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose in the Turkish parliament and expressed his frustrations with the protestors occupying the park. The protests began as an effort to save one of Istanbul’s last green spaces from being flattened to make room for a shopping mall, but subsequently transformed into a greater movement against excessive use of force by the police and Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. In this speech, Erdoğan employed his trademark philippic style to make his point. Social media have quoted Erdoğan as saying, “They think we don`t know anything about art and music. They think we are negroes." (“Onlara göre biz resimden, müzikten, anlamayız. Onlara göre biz zenciyiz.”) In fact, the full quotation from the speech, available on video from Erdoğan’s Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP) website, is as follows:
“Onlara göre biz siyasetten anlamayız. Onlara göre biz sanattan, tiyatrodan, sinemadan, resimden, şiirden anlamayız. Onlara göre biz estetiken, mimariden anlamayız. Onlara göre biz okumamış, cahil, alt tabaka, verilen yetinmesi gereken... yani zenci bir grubuz.” [Applause]
[“According to them we don’t understand politics. According to them we don’t understand art, theatre, cinema, poetry. According to them we don’t understand aesthetics, architecture. According to them we are uneducated, ignorant, the lower class, who has to be content with what is being given, needy; meaning, we are a group of negroes.”] [Applause]
Erdoğan’s point was to illustrate the divide in values between him, his party, and the “average Turk” from those of urban, upper-middle class Istanbullians who, in this populist script, fancy themselves better and more “civilized” than the rest of the country. This trope is well-worn ground for Erdoğan, a staple of his self-branding as the great outsider, disinterested and removed from the politics of twentieth-century one-party rule and corruption, just a simple man trying to get things done for Turkey.
[Screen capture of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan`s 11 June speech.]
In Turkish politics, this characterization of class divide is expressed in the well-known concept of “White Turks” and “Black Turks.” White Turks are considered to be educated, working mainly in the upper reaches of the state bureaucracy, the army, and business worlds, while Black Turks are their opposite: uneducated, lower classes, or people with peasant backgrounds. What Erdoğan was doing in this speech, then, was trying to emphasize that he and his party have been discriminated against by their opponents, whose views have been more fueled by prejudice than logic. While these terms are relatively common, the most often quoted iteration of this expression by Erdoğan goes: “In this country there are White Turks, as well as Black Turks. Your Brother Tayyip is from the Black Turks.” [“Bu ülkede bir Beyaz Türkler, bir de siyah Türkler var. Kardeşiniz Tayyip, siyah Türklerdendir”.] It thus appears most likely that in his recent speech, Erdoğan was drawing on this familiar notion, and yet dramatically elevated the language to distinguish himself from the abject and racialized “zenci.” Indeed, this attempt to demonstrate the level of disdain his opponents have for his party’s success and his everyman roots operates on the steam of an ugly racial stereotype. His willingness to make such a comparison is not only disingenuous; it also reveals the cloudy history of race politics in Turkey.
It is important to note that this was not the first time a Turkish politician has used zenci in place of “Black Turks,” but it is certainly the most prominent. Not surprisingly, however, given the Turkish media’s unwillingness to criticize Erdoğan, especially during this period of heightened tensions, this direct quote notably does not appear on any mainstream media’s website, nor is there any discussion of his use of the term, save for one small article paraphrasıng his speech on the website of Radikal.
Erdoğan himself has in fact used the word zenci before. For example, on 13 February he gave a speech in the Istanbul neighborhood of Zeytinburnu, where he spoke to a large group of his supporters about an upcoming “urban renewal” project to create earthquake proof homes for lower income families. In this instance, Erdoğan presented himself as an authentic zenci Turk who, despite all the discrimination, managed to get into power. His comments garnered warm applause from the audience.
The Politics of Polarization
In taking this metaphor of White Turks and Black Turks to such a level, Erdoğan is adding to the numerous ways in which he has sought to polarize Turkish citizens. This strategy is not unlike the rise in negative attack ads that American politicians have developed in recent years, as pandering and Manichaeism prove more electorally shrewd than coalition-building.
To name just a few recent examples during the current crisis: on 2 June, Erdoğan called the social media tool Twitter “the worst menace to society” (knowing that protestors and the opposition are using it as a key means to organize and disseminate information). To demonstrate the immorality and impiety of the protestors, he has repeatedly claimed (with no evidence) that protestors fleeing a tear gas attack brought alcohol in the Dolmabahçe Mosque. Perhaps the best-known example, and arguably the least effective attempt, was to describe the protestors as “looters” (çapulcular) in the first days of the conflict, a term that was subsequently co-opted by protestors and their supporters as a collective sobriquet.
More recently, at the “Respect for the National Will” rallies held by the AKP in Ankara and Istanbul on 16 June, Erdoğan went as far as to claim that “terrorists” and a conspiracy were involved in the protests, designed to tarnish Turkey’s international position. At yet another rally on 22 June, the fifth he has organized since the current crisis began; Erdoğan portrayed the police force as victims and once again asserted their lawful and moral high ground. These aggressive statements, and the corresponding crackdown on protests in numerous cities, suggest a leadership more intent on capitalizing on social cleavages than repairing them
Online reaction was largely critical of his usage of the term “zenci.” Many saw it as outright racism against people of African descent. One social media user questioned why someone who claims to be representing a united Turkey would use such divisive language. Still others took it in stride, perhaps now so accustomed to Erdoğan’s negative rhetoric as to laugh it off, hoping that his use of the word zenci might draw support from African-Americans for the Gezi Park movement. Some who defended Erdogan’s use of the term argued that context and the language it was said in matter, only becoming “racist” when decontextualized and translated into English, in which the word “negro” is much more politicized. Most of the arguments around the word focused on how to properly translate it to communicate the meaning of what Erdoğan meant for an international audience.
Ambiguities of the Word “Zenci”
What kind of weight does this word carry in everyday Turkish conversation? Importantly, the modern Turkish word zenci is indeed not a precise analogue to negro in English. Depending on context, it can range from the more acceptable “black,” to “negro,” to a much more derogatory racial slur. However, by employing the word zenci with such a detailed description, as opposed to other options such as siyahi or arap (both often used to mean “black skinned,” though they can be just as problematic), Erdoğan deliberately chose the most vulgar language, opting for a word that has a complicated, unstable meaning, with a deep history rooted in the Ottoman period.
While the etymology of the word is clear, coming from the Persian zangi, the genealogy of the word zenci has yet to be fully explored by scholars. The African slave trade to the Ottoman Empire was suppressed through British and Ottoman cooperation beginning in 1857 and slowed to a trickle by the end of the empire in 1922. Though historians of the Ottoman slave trade and its aftermath have shown the ambiguities of the word zenci even in that historical context, in both British and Ottoman sources the term “zenci” (as well as the feminine zenciye) is generally used to refer to a black skinned sub-Saharan African who was either enslaved or recently emancipated, and generally impoverished and unadapted to Ottoman culture and norms—what might otherwise be referred to as “black, ignorant, and poor.”
If the online reaction is any indication, the impact and intention of Erdogan’s statement is opaque for even a native speaker. Perhaps more significantly, one might wonder about the impact this type of language has for those citizens of Turkey who trace their heritage to the emancipated African slaves who were brought to Anatolia and scattered largely down the Aegean coastline and in Istanbul. Even today, these Afro-Turks, as they are sometimes called, often face discrimination based on their skin color, including the use of the word “zenci” as a racial slur.
Mustafa Olpak and the Africans Culture and Solidarity Society
In 2005, a marble worker from Ayvalık named Mustafa Olpak wrote a biography of his family entitled Kenya-Girit-İstanbul: Köle Kıyısından İnsan Biyografileri [Kenya-Crete-Istanbul: Human Biographies from the Slave Coast], detailing his family history from enslavement in Africa to integrating into modern Turkey in the twentieth century. Its publication opened the door to a new discussion about the history of people of African descent in modern Turkey.
With the success of the book, along with support from UNESCO and the EU, Olpak founded the Africans Culture and Solidarity Society (Afrikalılar Kültür ve Dayanışma Derneği) that now has its office in Izmir. His book was made into a documentary for Turkish state television, featuring interviews from slavery historians Ehud Toledano and Y. Hakan Erdem as well as Olpak himself. Since then, Olpak has become the informal leader of the emerging Afro-Turk community, raising their profile and discussing Turkey’s history of slavery publicly for the first time.
Since the mid-2000s, Olpak has worked with local political support to organize an African festival in Izmir and surrounding villages, modeled on the Calf Festival (Dana Bayramı), celebrated by the emancipated African community of Izmir in the late Ottoman period. What was once deemed a festival that ran “contrary to Islam,” was subject to attempted bans by Ottoman authorities in the 1890s, and then was forced underground or stopped in the early twentieth century with the rise of Turkish nationalism, is now the centerpiece of the community’s revival. This year’s festivities, the seventh annual, were held in the village of Bayındır on 25 May, bringing together three thousand people, including local and foreign dignitaries.
[Advertisement for this year’s Calf Festival in Bayındır.]
In his work to build support for the Afro-Turk community, Olpak has had, or attempted to have, meetings with politicians from any party or background willing to work with him and support his cause, despite the fact that his own political views are rooted in the labor movement. He has, in many instances, expressed his frustrations with politicians who have not taken him seriously or have treated him contemptuously. Despite this, in 2010 Olpak told local media in Izmir that if Erdoğan’s AKP vowed to give real support to the Afro-Turk cause, he would ask the members of his association, numbering around 1,500 at that time, to wear an AKP pin and support the party’s democratic reform initiative (demokratik açılım).
When asked for a comment about the current situation and the use of the term zenci by Erdoğan, Olpak responded:
Everywhere demonstrations are being made for democracy and freedom. The people have stood up against the government. Unfortunately there are thousands injured, four people have lost their lives […] Our wish, without seeing anyone else harmed, is for people to use their democratic rights and for democracy to be victorious.
Regrettably, Mr. Erdoğan gave a very unfortunate example in his speech. While complaining about experiencing unjust treatment and discrimination, he himself made the most racist discrimination. Certainly this is a very upsetting situation. If such a thing can still be found in the speeches of a prime minister, it means that our work is very difficult. While we are making an effort to raise awareness, it is really unfortunate if those who are at the very top use these expressions.
Judging by Olpak’s response, any support the AKP might have expected from Afro-Turks may have suffered irreparable damage as a result of Erdoğan’s statement. By resorting to the word zenci, Erdoğan deployed a conception of skin color that is aligned in the popular imagination with an innate lack of education and culture. His rhetoric, often polarizing and divisive, has taken a new turn toward alienating actually “black” Turks, as well as the figuratively “white” ones. In order to claim that White Turks regard him and his supporters as nothing more than “negroes,” he compared his own trajectory and that of his supporters to the experiences of formerly enslaved Africans in the diaspora. Yet this blunt attempt to reclaim the “blackness” of the Turks he claims to represent mobilized racial stereotypes of Afro-Turks as backward, lazy, and helpless. If this embellishment was meant for heightened effect, it veered off course to instead reveal the Turkish leader’s disregard for some of Turkey’s most marginalized people and, more generally, for the country’s latent unresolved issues around race and the legacies of African slavery. As a prime minister standing in front of parliament, this statement appears out of place and jarring. Maybe that’s what he wanted all along?