The Dutch-Turkish Spat: How Two Wrongs Do Not Make a Right

A few days ago, Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, was prevented from landing in the Netherlands so that he could speak at a rally in Rotterdam. In response, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to the Dutch as ‘Nazi remnants’. A poor choice of phraseology, although he spoke in Turkish and translations of his remarks are prone to exaggerations, if not entirely fabricated.

The Turkish constitutional referendum is on 16 April. The country is divided over the proposed reforms but there is every indication that Erdoğan will succeed in his bid to become an executive president, with all the powers of the state at his disposal, especially as the state of emergency that was introduced after the failed coup of July 2017 is still in place. A day after Çavuşoğlu’s ban, the Dutch restricted Fatma Betul Sayan Kaya, Turkey’s minister for family affairs, from entering the Turkish consulate in Rotterdam. She was on her way to speak to a Turkish audience.

This spat does not seem as if it is going to end well – it will bolster extremists on both sides. The followers of the half-Indonesian Geert Wilders will be emboldened, arguing that their views on Islam as some sort of backward cult that is hell-bent on destroying the civilised Global North carry greater weight in the light of Erdoğan’s remarks. Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) is an anti-Islam outfit that is in a nail-biting election contest, and when the Dutch go to the polls on Wednesday, there is a chance it might win the majority vote.

Backed almost exclusively by American donors, Wilders’ is putting ‘Holland First’, riding on a wave of ‘patriotism’, and now poised to take the helm of soon to be illiberal Netherlands. Given the unpredicted upset that the Brexit and Trump victories caused, both of which emerged through the implementation of enhanced algorithms derived from analysis of social media that helped to predict voting behaviour in response to keywords, there is a real chance the PVV will cross the finish line first.

Too many Dutch intellectuals and commentators are of the view that Erdoğan’s Turkey is a fascist dictatorship, run by a Sultan whose ambitions knows no limits. But they would not be wrong to highlight the human rights issues that emerge from the lack of press and media freedoms, nor mistaken to draw attention to the silencing of opposition voices critical of the government in general. Erdoğan’s Turkey is no longer the ‘miracle’ it once was – no longer the beacon in a world riven by the ‘clash of civilisations’. But it is a Turkey that has remained strong in a fraught region troubled by the weight of European colonial history. Turkey’s strongman at the time of its formation as a secular republic came in the form of Kemal Mustafa Atatürk. Today’s Turkish strongman has a bigger vision for the future of the country, but not all share it, nor most in the EU, whose Turkoscepticism grows and grows.

This episode reveals the simple fact that two wrong do not make a right. But it will give succour to two opposing sets of thinking, where both sides will gain political and cultural capital from these tit-for-tat exchanges. These two camps see the other as the cause of their own discontent, where the dividing line, etched out in its simplest form, is Islam. European integration is disintegrating before our eyes, as Islamophobia becomes the new normal, with the Dutch leading the charge in the present climate.

Following Hungary and Poland, the Dutch could catch the disease consuming innocent but unthinking people everywhere. If the people succumb to the narrow ethnonational patriotisms of Wilders and Erdoğan, common sense, proportionality and right-mindedness will suffer. Whatever the outcomes of these blighted elections, the camps led by Wilders and Erdoğan, will, unfortunately, continue to vanquish their personal demons.