The violent aspect of the worrisome radicalization of the Turkish diaspora with a heavy dose of nationalist and Islamist ideology has been personally driven by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who publicly rewards mischief and unashamedly glorifies vigilante behavior among expatriate communities. As a result, the Turkish president is setting up a very dangerous path for many to follow on the violent trajectory while unleashing beasts to wreak havoc in host countries.
Just this week, Erdoğan personally called Turkish national Yusuf Ünsal, who was detained by German police for his interference in a protest in Stuttgart against the Turkish government’s military offensive in Syria’s Afrin district. Police had to pull him away from the crowd, isolate and restrain him before the situation escalated. While he was subdued on the ground, another pro-Erdoğan fan was filming him as he shouted, “Till death, I will stand by Erdoğan.” This video was covered widely by the pro-government media in Turkey before Erdoğan picked up the phone and congratulated him for his stand. That followed a statement by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, who called him a patriot, conveyed his greetings and condemned the German police.
This is not an isolated incident but rather a growing pattern we see in the behavior of Turkey’s Islamist leaders who unashamedly promote violent behavior in the diaspora in the name of love for the homeland. Many foreign governments that tend to believe the Turkish diaspora has more or less integrated into their societies, especially in Europe, have awakened to the troubling fact that pro-Erdoğan Turkish diaspora groups are becoming a real liability that could potentially destabilize the political systems of the host countries.
We have seen that play out during the national elections in the Netherlands where President Erdoğan personally ordered Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, the minister for family and social policy, to drive across the border with Germany for a campaign rally after the Dutch government on March 11, 2017 revoked the landing rights of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, effectively barring his visit to the Netherlands. Thousands of Erdoğan fans clashed with Dutch police in Rotterdam, where 12 suspects were detained and at least seven were wounded. Halil Ibrahim Kurt and his brother Hüseyin Kurt, who were injured in the clashes, were brought to Turkey by the Turkish government for treatment. On April 5, 2017 Erdoğan personally hosted Hüseyin in his palace in Ankara to honor him.
In another example, Erdoğan sent his foreign minister, Çavuşoğlu, in September 2017 to pay a visit to two jailed Turkish nationals, Eyüp Yıldırım of Manchester, New Jersey, and Sinan Narin of McLean, Virginia, who were involved in an altercation outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., in May 2017. “We conveyed the love and greetings of the nation,” Çavuşoğlu tweeted after his visit, attaching two photos. The two were arrested after being charged with taking part in violent attacks on demonstrators who were protesting Erdoğan’s visit to the US capital. Nine protesters were injured in the melee when Erdoğan fans and his bodyguards attacked the demonstrators. Both men pleaded guilty to assault and were sentenced to a year and a day in jail in April 2018.
There are more examples, some known to the public and others that were only publicized among pro-Erdoğan networks in the diaspora, where radical and violent behavior was rewarded as a patriotic duty by senior government and ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) officials. This sets a bad example, undermines the integration policies of the host government for Turkish diaspora groups and poses a national security risk that may very well impact local and national politics amid rising far-right parties in Europe. The Turkish government’s blatant intervention into other countries’ affairs on the pretext of protecting the diaspora, coupled with the harsh Islamist and nationalist narrative of Turkish leaders, may tip the balance in election cycles in closely contested races.
This is a growing threat for many countries that are home to sizable Turkish and Muslims expatriate communities. It must be addressed in a serious manner and definitely not in the form of appeasement policies disguised as engagement with the Erdoğan regime. Given the character of the Turkish president, he would take any overture as a weakness and would press and further irritate this soft underbelly of foreign governments. The trend of radicalization in the Turkish diaspora and related violent acts should be carefully studied, and a roadmap and action plan to address this threat must be developed before it’s too late. For Europe, this must be a continent-wide approach to become more effective in neutralizing Erdoğan’s looming threat over diaspora groups.