The United States of America has been taken over by protests after the death of George Floyd during a police arrest. The world is watching closely. China and Iran rushed to condemn the United States. Chinese authorities expressed a concern that the protests have exposed a “chronic disease” of racism in the United States. The Iranian Foreign Ministry called on the White House to “stop the intimidation of the protesters” and “listen to the voices of the American people.”
Anti-democratic regimes never miss an opportunity of this sort to more or less subtly underline how democracies are not supposed to work.
This time, however, Turkey also jumped onto the bandwagon of the concerned. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got on Twitter, a site that he has paradoxically recently promised to tightly regulate and further censor, and condemned the “racist and fascist approach” that led to George Floyd’s death, which he said was a “painful manifestation of the unjust order.”
"I believe that the perpetrators of this inhumane act shall receive the punishment they deserve. We will be monitoring the issue," Erdoğan tweeted. "I remember with respect George Floyd and extend my condolences to his family and loved ones," he added.
Reading only these tweets, one could conclude that Erdoğan stands firmly in support of every protest against injustice. However, not every protest is equal for the Turkish president. Erdoğan’s approach to the so-called Yellow Vests protests in France last year, for example, was substantially different.
“There are Yellow Vests in France, and the [main opposition Republican People's Party] CHP is also there. The Gezi Park protests were held and Mr. Kemal [Kılıçdaroğlu, the CHP chairman] was also there. They are again in preparation [for such protests]. But you are waiting in vain. We will make you pay a heavy price," boasted Erdoğan then.
He drew parallels to Turkey’s Gezi protests and in this case, condemned the protesters instead of the harsh reaction by security forces.
There are several reasons for the variation in Erdoğan’s reaction. Regardless of how banal it may sound, one of them comes from listening to and idealizing too many Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali stories. Due to this, many Turkish Islamists tend to exaggerate and connect all black movements in the United States to Islam. Especially for Erdoğan’s generation of religious conservatives in Turkey, Mohammad Ali was the first Muslim pop culture figure respected across the world. This generation of Turkish Islamists tends to perceive black people in America as majority Muslim. With that mindset, the cause of Erdoğan’s differentiation between these two protests is actually a distorted perception of the religious character that is supposedly represented.
Another reason that probably affected Erdoğan’s perspective is that the protests in America are perceived here in Turkey as protests for identity. On the other hand, the Yellow Vests took to the streets to fight for more rights. Originally, they were against Macron’s retirement plan and were demanding more of their economic rights.
Erdoğan has risen to power in Turkey by always playing the identity card. He has often described Islamists as “the blacks of Turkey.” He knows how to play identity politics, as it has always been at the very core of his rise to and centralization of power. And he is certain he can always be on the winning side of history by playing the identity card.
Unfortunately, Turkish political Islamists are in favor of democracy only if it suits this polarizing form of identity politics. Demanding specific rights, particularly economic ones, on the other hand, and taking to the streets for this cause is scary territory for Erdoğan. Street protests for better economic rights could look too much like the nightmare of the beginning of his political end, regardless of whether he would label it as “domestic evil” or another conspiracy “supported by outside powers.”