Piety, intimacy, and emotions: Political symbolism of the AKP government

By Senem Aslan, Bates College

*This memo was prepared for presentation at the Contemporary Turkish Politics Workshop at Rice University’s Baker Institute on  October 14, 2016

In August 2013, then-prime minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began to cry during a live television broadcast as a letter written by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood politician Mohammed el-Baltagy was being read. The dramatic letter was addressed to el-Baltagy’s deceased daughter killed by Egyptian security forces during the violent protests against the military coup that ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power. The cameras zoomed in on Erdoğan for several minutes as he cried. When the moderator asked what made him so emotional, Erdoğan stated that the poem made him think about his own children who could not see their father adequately while growing up because he was working so hard for his political cause. He added that he was moved by el-Baltagy’s maturity in approaching life after death and his daughter’s martyrdom.[1]

This was not the first or the last time Erdoğan appeared emotional on TV. Contradicting the typical image of a tough authoritarian strongman, Erdoğan has been seen crying many times in public. In 2007, he cried at the parliament while listening to a poem by Mehmet Akif Ersoy, an Islamist-nationalist poet who wrote the Turkish national anthem. In 2009, he cried during an interview on TV while reciting a nationalist poem. In 2010, he could not hold his tears back at the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) group meeting while talking about executions by the military after the 1980 coup. Such emotional displays became more pronounced, finding more publicity in the media after the Gezi protests. In 2014, the AKP’s election campaign song filled his eyes with tears. In 2015 he cried with his wife in Albania as they listened to a poem by a student during a mosque’s inauguration ceremony. The cameras zoomed in on Erdoğan’s eyes once more when brimmed with tears listening to a student reciting a poem during the opening ceremony of the Diyanet Center of America in Maryland in April 2016. Recently, Erdoğan broke down in tears while attending a funeral for his former campaign manager and others who were killed in the violence during the failed coup attempt in July 2016. He had to cut his speech short because he was too emotional. He has also provoked his audience to cry with his emotional speeches. While speaking at a conference, he brought many to tears when he asked for soil to be taken from the grave of an Ottoman soldier in Myanmar’s Arakan to be put in his grave.

Other prominent members of the AKP have also cried in public several times. In a 2015 election campaign video, party leader and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu could be seen in tears hugging a Palestinian man in Gaza. At an inauguration ceremony, AKP politician Bülent Arınç could not contain his tears while giving a speech that also made Davutoğlu cryBinali Yıldırım, Melih Gökçek, Abdullah Gül, Ali Babacan, and Abdülkadir Aksu were among other AKP politicians who cried at different public occasions.

Erdoğan’s propensity to tears in public does not easily conform to his tough, masculine, and relentless posturing. Statesmen and politicians’ crying in public is also unprecedented in Turkish political history. In addition, such expressions of vulnerability contradict AKP’s assertions of power through grandiose political spectacles. Particularly after the Gezi Protests, as the government drifted more towards authoritarianism and encountered significant opposition to its rule, its official iconography and ceremonies became more daring, provocative, and spectacular. At grandiose opening ceremonies of public works and massive rallies marked by special audio-visual effects, the AKP remobilized its electoral base, reaffirming solidarity with Erdoğan. These venues also asserted authority and communicated the extent of the government’s power to the opposition. So how can we make sense of such public displays of emotionality by Erdoğan and other leaders of the AKP?

Crying as an important part of Islamist imagery

A sign of devotion to God and innocence, crying is important to Islamists across the globe. It also communicates the message of Muslim victimhood and suffering. Thomas Hegghammer (2015: 8-9) writes how weeping is socially appreciated among jihadis and that communal weeping is an integral part of the jihadi culture like poetry, music, and dream interpretation. According to Hegghammer (2015: 10), one needs to understand the emotional appeal of the cultural practices of jihadism to understand why people are attracted to it. In Turkey, too, the image of crying has been integral to Islamist visual imagery. “Various photographs, illustrations, and drawings of pain and tears, mostly of children, circulate through a wide range of Islamic media, from television to print media to the Internet,” writes Özlem Savaş (2013: 111). Fethullah Gülen, Erdoğan’s most prominent Islamist opponent, is well known for crying while delivering his sermons, inducing mass weeping in the audience. Esra Özyürek (1997) suggests that crying communicates powerlessness and sincerity in face of God. For Gülenists, crying symbolizes purity, compassion, innocence, and awareness of injustices in today’s world (Savaş 2013: 115).

Muslim victimhood and suffering due to injustices at the hands of the enemy – whether Kemalists, Westerners, secularists, Israelis, or the military – are also central themes in the AKP’s rhetoric. The AKP government stands out in Turkish political history in its heavy use of Islamist symbolism during its tenure, initiating significant changes in the official symbolic repertoire. It moved away from expressions of staunch secularism, making religious symbols more visible in public space. For example, official ceremonies began to include prayers led by the head of the Religious Affairs Directorate (Diyanet) and Quran recitations. In some venues, it is President Erdoğan himself who recites verses from the Quran.[13] The government reordered the rules of state protocol, curbing the public profile of the military and moving up the position of the Religious Affairs Directorate in the official hierarchy. It also incorporated Ottoman and Islamic imagery into the state’s symbolic repertoire. For example, it scaled down official national days that are associated with Turkey’s secular Republican history and promoted alternative days of commemoration that celebrate Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic heritage like the conquest of Istanbul and the birth of Prophet Muhammed (the Holy Birth Week).

Crying is part of this Islamist symbolic repertoire, signaling Muslim solidarity and empathy. By crying for the suffering of fellow political Islamists abroad or the injustices he suffered during his political career, Erdoğan connects himself to the larger Islamist movement in the Middle East and calls attention to the threats Islamists continue to face. The campaign song that filled Erdoğan’s eyes with tears praised him as “the feared nightmare of the oppressor,” “loud voice of the oppressed,” and “the light of hope of the millions.” The poem that triggered an emotional response from Erdoğan and his wife in Albania reads like a prayer, begging God not to allow the country to be taken over by non-Muslims.[14] Crying communicates vulnerability and reminds the AKP constituency of the importance of devotion to the cause and persistence in the face of continuing threats and challenges. It helps make AKP support a “felt identity” (Berezin 2001: 86).

Populist leaders and public emotion

Public crying also relates to populism. The AKP came to power with a strong anti-elitist discourse, emphasizing the victimhood of the majority at the hands of a repressive, secular, and Western-oriented minority. The party presents itself as the representative of the real “national will” and the people on the street. In his speeches Erdoğan frequently brought up the discrimination and humiliation that people from lower-income, conservative groups from rural backgrounds encountered (Koyuncu 2014: 157-173). “In this country there are White Turks as well as Black Turks. Your brother Tayyip belongs to the Black Turks,” he stated.[15] In another speech he said, “We know very well what exclusion means due to someone’s belief, exercise of religion, and scarf on her head. We know what poverty is… We are the children of this land.” (Koyuncu 2014: 165). He boasted of working hard, selling lemonade on the street, coming from a pious and modest family, and attending a religious school (Türk 2014). Other leaders of the AKP have also frequently signaled their piety, previous lower-class status, and closeness to the public through the ways they speak, dress, and act. As does the increased emphasis on Islam and piety, crying in public connects the ruler and the ruled because it communicates intimacy, approachability, and equality with fellow citizens.

In one instance, Erdoğan’s crying was triggered by a sentimental poem titled “Farewell Mother,” recited on stage by İbrahim Sadri, a poet and an artist popular particularly among Turkey’s conservatives.[16] After finishing the poem, Sadri gave a short speech emphasizing Erdoğan’s loyalty to his friends, saying that Erdoğan never left him alone during difficult times when he lost his mother and his brother. Such instances of emotionality foster the image of a compassionate and authentic leader. After crying over el-Baltagy’s farewell letter to his deceased daughter, Erdoğan underlined that he spoke not as the prime minister but as an ordinary citizen. It is not a coincidence that the pro-AKP media covered Erdoğan’s public crying more frequently particularly after the Gezi Protests when sustaining the credibility of a populist discourse as he consolidated authoritarian rule has become increasingly challenging. The image of emotionality helps legitimize Erdoğan’s populist discourse at a time when his growing political power and economic wealth increasingly set him apart from the politically and economically marginalized he claims to represent.

The ambiguity of public crying

The public appearance of vulnerability and fragile emotionality are closely linked to grandiose spectacles of power and assertions of omnipresence by Erdoğan and the AKP. As Fethi Açıkel suggests, the emphasis on suffering, victimhood, and vulnerability is an ambivalent political discourse. While it expresses a need for compassion and affection, it also communicates a desire for more power and revenge (Savaş 2013: 117-118). This dichotomy has been apparent in Erdoğan’s discourse after Gezi, as he more frequently expresses vulnerability through crying but also appears aggressive and defiant in public, using expressions of rage and vengefulness, conspiratorial language, and heavy-handed assertions of power over the opposition. Crying not only suggests vulnerability, it also points to the perpetrators of injustice and suffering[17] and highlights the necessity to defend oneself against opponents. As Erdoğan frequently declares in his speeches, “We won’t turn the other cheek to those who slap us.”[18]

The symbolic practices of the AKP government have mixed consequences. On the one hand, it is crucial to understand the emotional dynamic that this movement created among its supporters through rhetoric and symbolism. AKP’s electoral success and its ability to mobilize the masses cannot be understood without its emotional appeal. On the other hand, far from legitimizing the AKP’s rule broadly, this symbolism has divided society further, hardening political and cultural identities and escalating political tension. Symbolic practices of the AKP government, including Erdoğan’s and other AKP leaders’ public crying, has been severely criticized and mocked by the opposition. Symbolic expressions can exacerbate conflict when they emphasize exclusion, incompatible values, outside threats, a sense of victimization, and revenge (Ross 2007). The AKP’s symbolism has provoked increased politicization of the society by evoking strong and conflicting emotions among its supporters and opponents. The result is a highly polarized and emotionally charged society, presenting ample opportunities for further political unrest and civil strife.

[1] The video with English translation can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOIF0eLb73I

[2] http://www.ensonhaber.com/gundem/35662/basbakan-mecliste-agladi.html

[3] http://www.mynet.com/tv/basbakan-sarki-soyledi-siir-okudu-agladi-vid-2689310/

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MBZcG5IV6EI

[5] http://t24.com.tr/haber/akpnin-secim-sarkisi-erdoganin-gozlerini-doldurdu,251491

[6] http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/video-poetic-prayer-makes-erdogan-couple-shed-tears-in-albania.aspx?PageID=238&NID=82390&NewsCatID=510

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-bujHl8zcI

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7YKc1AM2PEs

[9] See http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/erdogan-reveals-last-will-moves-everyone-to-tears.aspx?PageID=238&NID=83280&NewsCatID=338. For another example see, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujTsrKtOBx8.

[10] The video can be watched at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WVsZiDphrDE

[11] http://www.sabah.com.tr/gundem/2014/11/07/bulent-arinc-hem-agladi-hem-de-aglatti

[12] For a few examples see, http://www.cnnturk.com/haber/turkiye/bulent-arinc-konusurken-duygulandi-davutoglu-agladi, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/gundem/26719543.asp, https://www.avrupagazete.com/turkiye/199655-basbakan-ahmet-davutoglu-o-olay-karsisinda-agladi.html, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pgc0z7XLPkk, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d1WNV30rr4g, http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/cumhurbaskani-erdogan-ve-basbakan-yildirim-agladi-40175845, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E04PkVcq_FE, http://t24.com.tr/haber/bakanlar-kurulunun-veda-toplantisinda-bazi-bakanlar-agladi,268832.

[13] For example, he recited the Quran during the inauguration ceremony of the mosque in Maryland, funded by Diyanet. See, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IZtNYA8aAwM.

[14] The full translation can be found at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/video-poetic-prayer-makes-erdogan-couple-shed-tears-in-albania.aspx?PageID=238&NID=82390&NewsCatID=510. Erdoğan cried at the same poem in 2016 during the commemoration ceremony of the Turkish victory at the Gallipoli campaign in World War I: http://www.ahaber.com.tr/gundem/2016/03/18/imam-hatip-ogrencisinin-dua-siiri-erdogani-aglatti. He recited the same poem in a television commercial prepared for the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign. The commercial can be watched at: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkish-president-erdogans-gallipoli-prayer-stirs-debate.aspx?pageID=238&nID=81350&NewsCatID=338.

[15] http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/12484/white-turks-black-turks-and-negroes_the-politics-o

[16] Sadri’s performance and Erdoğan’s response can be watched at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C35Otcn4UsA

[17] I thank Ekrem Karakoç for calling my attention to this point.

[18] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-turkey-eu-idUSKCN0XL0L6


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