During a meeting with his Justice and Development Party (AKP) last Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan used a derogatory word for black people in an effort to describe a political rival as being on a lower level than a white man.
Erdogan was criticizing Turkish opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu at his weekly address to AKP officials.
Michael Rubin, a Middle East scholar with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, provides this translation for Erdogan’s quote, reported first in the Turkish publication Gazeteciler Online: “Kilicdaroglu is striving every bit he can to raise himself from the level of a black person to the level of a white man.” Rubin explains that the Turkish word for black that Erdogan used, “zenci,” is often meant derogatorily.
Last week was reportedly not the first time Erdogan publicly used the term that paints blacks as inferior.
President Barack Obama has in the past described Turkey’s Islamist prime minister as one of five world leaders with whom he feels especially close. He told CNN in January 2012, "I mean, I think that if you ask them -- Angela Merkel, or Prime Minister Singh, or President Lee, or Prime Minister Erdogan, or David Cameron would say, we have a lot of trust and confidence in the president.”
Rubin writes in Commentary Magazine, “Perhaps it’s time for Obama to explain just what he sees in the Turkish premier. And perhaps it’s time for the Congressional Turkey Caucus—several members of which are also in the Congressional Black Caucus—to ask Erdogan just what he meant when he described his chief political opponent in decidedly racist tones.”
In an article in the Arab studies journal Jadaliyya, Michael Ferguson surveyed the prime minister’s previous uses of the racial word.
He writes that on June 11th, Erdogan slammed protesters in Istanbul's Gezi Park saying [emphasis added]: “According to them we don’t understand politics. According to them we don’t understand art, theatre, cinema, poetry. According to them we don’t understand aesthetics, architecture. According to them we are uneducated, ignorant, the lower class, who has to be content with what is being given, needy; meaning, we are a group of negroes.”
TheBlaze spoke to a Turkish speaker who closely follows politics in Turkey. He explained that there is a widely-used metaphor in Turkey comparing so-called “White Turks” who are “elite, secular golden children” with “Black Turks” who are “the underdogs and masses who came from the rural areas.”
Erdogan in fact frequently paints himself as a “Black Turk,” that is, an underdog who has challenged the establishment and risen to the country’s top political position.
The Turkish speaker who asked we not name him due to the sensitive topic said that because Turkey doesn’t have the same history of racial relations as in the U.S. “it would be a big stretch to translate that word” as the N-word.
Still it’s no compliment according to Ferguson who writes of Erdogan’s use of the term “zenci” on June 11: “…this attempt to demonstrate the level of disdain his opponents have for his party’s success and his everyman roots operates on the steam of an ugly racial stereotype.”
He writes that online reaction among Turks was critical of the prime minister using a word that could be perceived as a racial slur [emphasis added]:
Many saw it as outright racism against people of African descent. One social media user questioned why someone who claims to be representing a united Turkey would use such divisive language. Still others took it in stride, perhaps now so accustomed to Erdoğan’s negative rhetoric as to laugh it off, hoping that his use of the word zenci might draw support from African-Americans for the Gezi Park movement.
Some who defended Erdogan’s use of the term argued that context and the language it was said in matter, only becoming “racist” when decontextualized and translated into English, in which the word “negro” is much more politicized. Most of the arguments around the word focused on how to properly translate it to communicate the meaning of what Erdoğan meant for an international audience.
Ferguson writes that the word can be translated in several different ways. “Depending on context, it can range from the more acceptable ‘black,’ to ‘negro, to a much more derogatory racial slur.”
In the historical context, "in both British and Ottoman sources the term 'zenci' (as well as the feminine zenciye) is generally used to refer to a black skinned sub-Saharan African who was either enslaved or recently emancipated, and generally impoverished and unadapted to Ottoman culture and norms—what might otherwise be referred to as 'black, ignorant, and poor,'" Ferguson adds.
The use of the term is curious considering in February, Erdogan spoke out against racism, and even called Islamophobia – Islam hatred - “a crime against humanity.”
“We are facing a world in which racist attacks have gained momentum, terrorism has claimed more lives, and religions and sects treat each other with less understanding,” Erdogan said earlier this year.
And it seems those around Erdogan are comfortable targeting Jews.
One of Erdogan’s political associates, Ankara Mayor İbrahim Melih Gokcek – also of the Justice and Development Party - last month spread a conspiracy theory that the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington in February held a meeting to mastermind the protests which broke out last month at Gezi Park in Istanbul.
The Jewish publication The Algemeiner reported, "he claimed that the protests now raging in Turkey are part of an effort by the American 'Jewish lobby' to undermine Turkey’s government."
According to an article by Robert Ellis at the Gatestone Institute's blog, the Islamist daily Yeni Safak reported that the protests were a plot concocted by both the American Enterprise Institute and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.