The 6-year-old child who cried in front of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has become a global sensation. Erdogan spotted the weeping girl wearing a military uniform during an address at his party’s congress last week, brought her onto the stage, and told her that if she died as a martyr, her coffin would be covered with the Turkish flag she held in her pocket. “You are ready for anything, aren’t you?” the Islamist strongman asked. The terrified child managed to utter “yes,” though it was hard to hear it through her sobs.
Nationalism is running high in Turkey. Ankara is at war with Kurdish insurgents in the country’s southeast, and across the border in Syria since January. Moreover, Turkey has been under a state of emergency since mid-2016, when a rogue group within the military attempted a coup against Erdogan’s government, killing some 200 civilians. Amid the growing number of enemies at home and abroad, Erdogan has done his best to promote militarism among the populace, including by openly encouraging the formation of civilian militias claiming to defend his government—and the Turkish nation.
Children have not been immune to these efforts. Over the last year, the Turkish government sent ministers to facilitate militaristic student parades, while Turkey’s state-run religious affairs directorate has been publishing its own propaganda materials, to “teach” Turkish children about the grandeurs of martyrdom. Turkish students, including kindergarteners, around the country have been made to conduct military marches and recite ultranationalist poems at schools. Some state-run schools even replaced their recess bells with Ottoman military marches to raise students’ “national consciousness.” One 17-year-old commented, “sometimes we get so excited that we march like the military during recess.”
These are all extensions of Erdogan’s decade-old efforts to “raise” a pious and zealous generation of Turks that exalts martyrdom to defend the “new Turkey” that the president has worked tirelessly to construct. Erdogan’s shocking 2008 request from Turkish women to produce three to five children each—a request he backed up with financial incentives in 2015—is part and parcel of this strategy. With Turkey’s state-backed Islamic vocational schools proliferating throughout the country, Ankara also amended student-placement procedures to automatically enroll students—including non-Sunni and non-Muslim ones—into these institutions. Tellingly, the president’s son Bilal, in his address to students at one such vocational school in January, told the teenagers, “You are Erdogan’s generation.”
These efforts, along with the relentless propaganda of pro-government Turkish media, paid off in July 2016, when groups of vigilantes heeded Erdogan’s televised call—echoed by the mosques—to take to Istanbul’s streets and resist the coup. While the massive public demonstrations promoting democracy and denouncing a military junta may have been a sign of a maturing civil society, images of vigilante groups physically abusing captured soldiers on Istanbul streets appalled many—and terrified roughly half the electorate that does not support Erdogan. Since then, the rise of civilian pro-Erdogan militias has made headlines in opposition media and stirred heated debates in parliament. Erdogan, meanwhile, decreed impunity for all the groups who partook in the resistance to the coup.
U.S. officials are watching with growing concerns. The Turkish government has stirred and sponsored anti-Americanism, and this is a major motivating force for these vigilantes. Ankara blames Washington for both the failed putsch—which has all but become the founding myth of Erdogan’s new Turkish republic—and the rise of Kurdish self-rule in northern Syria. Erdogan’s ministers and media continuously slander American citizens as coup-plotters and depict the Turkish war against Kurdish militants in Syria as a fight against pro-Kurdish Americans. Most Turkish people, opinion polls show, now consider the United States the top threat to their national security. And the so-called “peoples’ militias” appear ready, Erdogan-willing, to face any enemy of “the nation” as proclaimed by the all-powerful president. Erdogan has also promised to deliver an “Ottoman slap” to the U.S. and “bury” U.S. special forces soldiers operating in northeast Syria.
The challenge for the U.S.-Turkish relationship is that it cannot survive in the long run if the bulk of the Turkish population sees the United States in such adversarial terms. Moreover, the importance of Turkey to the United States has long been as an exemplar of majority Muslim society that was making its way along a long road of democratization and meeting the standards of rule of law and human rights that are associated with the European Union and NATO. Erdogan’s rhetoric sounds more like one might expect from a state sponsor of terrorism than a sound democratic ally. Indeed, Turkey is moving in the direction of an autocratic, militarized, semi-Islamist dictatorship rather than a liberal democracy.
American officials who write off the president’s anti-American rhetoric as Erdogan pandering to his base fail to understand that demonizing the United States is an integral part of Erdogan’s agenda. Only “tough love” will put the U.S.-Turkish relationship on a steadier long-term course. The state of Turkey’s democracy and the government’s shameless promotion of anti-Americanism must be addressed if we are to salvage this relationship. We can no longer postpone the day of reckoning. If we don’t address these problems now, we will share in the blame for what went wrong.
Eric Edelman is a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and a senior advisor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Merve Tahiroglu is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow her on Twitter @MerveTahiroglu.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.