How Fooled We Were: A Reflection on the European Union in ‘Dark Times’

‘The Europe’ we know has gone. In fact, it never existed. Maybe it existed for those who were living on the edge of Europe, trying to reach Europe mentally, economically, and politically, or trying to reach it physically on smuggling boats. It was a sanctuary of human rights and democracy that we could look up to, imitate and, in return, be approved of. It was a land of freedom where an asylum-seeker could buy a loaf of bread without being shot.

How fooled we were! How majestically we were fooled.

Decades ago, in her seminal book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt gave warnings about Europe. Through the concept called ‘the boomerang effect’, Arendt explained the process through which European imperialism in Africa and Asia created the idea of supreme race, hierarchical colonial relations, and brutal ways of dealing with ‘the different’, ‘the lower’. It engendered a new politics and transferred these new political ideas and methods to the Continent. The rest of the story is well-known: racial classifications, ethnic division, war, and the Holocaust. In other words, colonialism hit Europe back, just like a boomerang. Arendt alsowarned us in relation to another issue: what ‘we’ are, who ‘we’ are to become is reflected upon how ‘we’ deal with those who are not ‘us’. Similarly, what the European Union is about to become can be seen in its dealings with refugees and Turkey.

The EU’s attempts to stop individuals from obtaining protection begun at the beginning of the 1990s with the legally questionable ‘safe third country’ and ‘host third country’ clauses as well as the Dublin Conventions. It accelerated with the atmosphere of urgency following the terrorist attacks in the USA and Europe. Border controls were integrated into the fight against terrorism. The EU made visa facilitation offers to North African states through the European Neighbourhood Policy to convince them to become ‘Europe’s dumping area’ for irregular migrants, many of whom could be legitimate asylum seekers according to international law; instead, they were detained under inhumane conditions and subsequently repatriated, even if their lives were at risk. The EU also offered regional protection programmes in North and Sub-Saharan Africa that would ‘improve the management of refugee flows’ so that asylum seekers would not attempt to go to the EU. ‘Asylum-seeker’, ‘refugee’, and ‘illegal migrant’ have all been mixed and mashed in the same basket as ‘the different’, ‘the poor’, and ‘those liars who want to exploit our social services’: those who should be stopped outside the EU borders.

The EU has not been ashamed of any political bribe to achieve this end. It offered its neighbours ‘visa facilitation’ regimes if they accepted to work with the EU in preventing individuals from seeking protection, safety, and a new life in Europe. To this end, it worked with the authoritarian regimes of Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi until they were toppled by their own people. Now it has made a similar pay-out offer to Turkey, a country that is daily sliding further and further into authoritarianism. Turkey ranks at 138 in the global Press Freedom Index, 98 in the Democracy Index, 3.53 of 10 in the Index of Civil Rights and Freedoms, and 130 in the Gender Equality Index. In November 2015, the EU agreed to pay 3 billion Euros to Turkey to keep refugees within this borders and enable European countries to send them back to Turkey, all while promising ‘to think about’ visa facilitation for Turkish nationals.

The days when ‘we’, who looked up to Europe as an ideal and called it ‘normative power’, a different type of power whose strength was derived from its dedication to human rights, democracy, and freedoms, have long gone. What is left for the EU? What kind of power is it, if it is certainly not ‘normative’? In fact, the EU has never been proven to be a ‘normative power’ for refugees who are drowning in the Mediterranean. It was, and is, a mirage of democracy and human rights for its ‘EU citizens’, not for those who are fleeing for protection to its borders. The question is, how long will the EU be able to keep this mirage alive for its own citizens? When will the boomerang that Arendt argued decades ago hit back at ‘the home’ again? The signs are already alarming in the new curfew state in France or Victor Orban’s Hungary.

Both EU citizens and non-EU citizens are faced with choices that will greatly impact their common future. What type of common future this will be is a pressing question in the EU’s ‘dark times’.


Turkish Right’s Imperial Dreams over the Middle East

Turkey’s proactive foreign and economic policy towards the Middle East under the conservative right-wing Justice and Development Party (JDP) government has been a target of criticism since 2002. The proponents of the policy often refute criticism by invoking Turkey’s ‘historical ties’, ‘cultural proximity’ to the Middle East, Turkey’s ‘bridge role’, and its ‘role model’ regarding the region. A little digging of the history of Turkey’s right-wing policymakers, however, shows another dimension of this ‘proactive’ policy. It is the expansion of Turkey’s sphere of influence as a paternalistic former imperial ‘older brother’ by reviving the Ottoman past. This desire pleases Turkey’s conservative right-wing movement’s plea to become a paternalistic protector and, subsequently, a leader of the Middle East against the West. The JDP, which claiming itself as the representative of this conservative line of thinking, has been repeating the policy of former right-wing parties, which had come to power as single party governments and had determined Turkey’s foreign policy without any domestic challenge. Two examples from history are illustrative.

The Democrat Party government (1950–1960), as the first representative of the conservative right wing in multiparty political life in Turkey, adopted an aggressive pro-Western foreign policy towards the ‘Third World’. Its pro-USA position at the Bandung Conference in 1955 was the succinct example of this policy. Turkey’s position regarding Middle Eastern countries in this independent group was double-paternalistic. In 1955, angered by the Egyptian–Syrian alliance, Prime Minister Adnan Menderes stated that “those in the Middle East who think that they are protecting their interests by being neutral should know that they owe their independence to the Freedom Front”. He continued, “whatever policies are adopted by the ruling policymakers of certain Arab states today, historical and moral connections between Arabs and Turks have a long history. These feelings will awaken one day”.(1) In this peculiar political articulation, where Turkey’s role as a Cold War frontier state overlapped with its role as a former imperial ‘brother’, Middle Eastern people were represented as those oppressed by their regimes. Turkey would wait patiently until they ‘woke up’, although the right-wing government tried to awaken them by itself once. In 1958, PM Menderes almost launched a unilateral military intervention in Iraq to restore the toppled monarchy, though it was stopped by USA–British intervention.

An additional example from the 1980s was another conservative single party right-wing government that was in power for a prolonged period (1983–1991). The Motherland Party, led by former political Islamist Turgut Özal, like Menderes, overlapped Turkey’s Western and Middle Eastern roles in 1983: “our ties with the Western world and our increasing relations with the Middle Eastern and Arab countries are complementary to each other”; and added, “our common historical and cultural heritage prompt us to pay special attention to the Islamic world.” (2) This window of opportunity was created by the new USA strategy, which was known in Turkey as forming a ‘green line’ consisting of Muslim-populated countries against the red ‘Evil Empire’. During this decade, Turkey not only became one of the branches of the Rapid Deployment Force of the USA to increase the capability of US intervention in the Middle East; also, the share of the Saudi capital in the Turkish banking system increased through institutions such as Al Baraka Turk (Özal’s brother was one of the board members) and Faisal Finance, which funded more than 50 Islamist publishing houses, journals, and newspapers. The Middle East was a focal point of the ‘Greater Turkey’ from ‘the Adriatic to the Chinese Wall’. In fact, the expression of ‘neo-Ottomanism’ was initially used for the Özal period, long before the JDP.

A look at the JDP’s foreign policy towards the Middle East from the prism of history highlights that Turkey’s conservative right-wing governments have had the objective of increasing their political and economic sphere of influence in the Middle East through a paternalistic attitude, which naturalizes the subordination of the Middle Eastern geography, history, and people to the former Imperial brother. It is also not a coincidence that the right wing government pursued this policy by integrating it with the USA strategy in the Middle East. Furthermore, Turkey’s right wing governments’ desire to become ‘influential’ over the Middle East through reviving the Ottoman history seems to be consistent throughout the decades. Perhaps a future coalition government in Turkey, where conservative right-wing’s imperial desires are put under control, would mean one less actor with eyes on the Middle East, which has already had enough of the kind.


Melek Fırat and Ömer Kürkcüoğlu, ‘Orta Doğu ile İlişkiler’, in Baskın Oran, ed., Türk Dış Politikası: Kurtuluş Savaşından Bugüne Olgular, Belgeler, Yorumlar 1919-1980 Volume I, (İstanbul: İletişim, 2013, 18th edition)

Hasan Köni, ‘Saudi Influence on Islamic Institutions in Turkey Beginning in the 1970s’, Middle East Journal, vol. 60, no.1 (2012)

(1) Milliyet, 27 February 1955, p. 7.

(2) TBMM Zabıt Ceridesi, Dönem: 17, Cilt: 1, İçtima: 10, (19 December 1983), p. 83.

Neoliberal Urbanization not ‘Cleansing’ the Shame

In 1950s, Armenian children from all around Turkey came to Istanbul to study at the Gedikpasa Armenian Protestant Primary School. While many would return to their villages and towns by the end of the year, Armenian orphans stayed in Istanbul and spent the long, hot summer days in the garden of the Church and sleeping in the basement dormitory. In order to create a home for the orphans, the Church foundation found land in Tuzla, which was close to the sea, unoccupied, and coloured with all shades of green. They bought the land from the previous Turkish owner by following the letter of the law. According to the 1936 regulations, minority foundations in Turkey had the right to obtain property as long as they informed the state, which ensured that there was nothing illegal in the buying of land by the Armenian Foundation.

Thirty Armenian orphans, aged between 8 and 12, helped the workers to build a new orphanage. They carried water in small buckets, transferred bricks, and helped workers to prepare the cement. They weeded the paths and planted trees on their own. They were building a new home, a sanctuary where they could communicate freely in their language and practice their religion: Camp Armen.

However, all changed in 1974, the year of Turkey’s military operation in Cyprus. The hostility towards the Greek minority somehow expanded to involve all non-Muslims, who had come to constitute ‘different’, problematic, and possibly untrustworthy groups within the predominantly Muslim and Turkish society since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire; or at least, they had been perceived thus by the state, whose policies towards minorities are now well-documented. A new law introduced in 1974 banned the foundations of ‘the foreigners’ from acquiring lands in Turkey. The interesting point is that Armenian minorities were also considered ‘foreigners’.

The unavoidable end was at hand. The legal battle between 1979 and 1983 ended with the defeat of the Foundation, which had to return the land to the previous owner, who reoccupied the land with a ready-built complex, on which he had not spent a cent. The legal efforts of the Foundation continued. However, on 6 May 2015, a few weeks after the centennial of 1915, teams arrived for the demolition of the orphanage, although protests have stopped them for now. The owner aims to build a hotel with a sea view on the land whose value has immensely increased recently as the result of the predominance of the construction-based capital accumulation in contemporary Turkey.

The Camp Armen was not the sole victim of urban transformation. Taksim Square, which was the locus of left-wing opposition in the 1960s and 1970s, has been another target. In 1977, when Turkey was in political turmoil, 1 May celebrations were targeted by ‘unknown’ assailants who left 34 protestors killed. Afterwards, Taksim Square was closed to public protests. When the current Justice and Development government announced the Taksim Pedestrian Project in 2011, its plan was to reconstruct the Topçu barracks (Ottoman-style barracks), thus replacing the only green oasis in central Istanbul: Gezi Park. The ‘barracks’ would, in fact, be a shopping mall in the cloak of old barracks. Taksim, which is now a concrete mass, is still part of the left wing political memory as part of its identity.

The cases of demolition of history, city, and memory and their substitution with hotels, villas, business centres, and malls are countless in Turkey. What I would like to underline in the case of Camp Armen is a dimension of neoliberal urbanization that is sometimes lost in the intensity of economic discussions: how urbanization is appropriated in the nation-state context in order to reproduce the marginalization and silencing of the ‘different’ and the ‘deviant’. As argued by critical scholars and activists Hardt and Negri, different type of relationship exists between neoliberal Empire and ‘the difference’. Unlike the former nation-state, Empire does not terminate the different and the deviant. Rather, it values the different; it co-opts, categorizes, and manages it so that solidarity cannot flourish in such a postmodern moment, and so that the new neoliberal elite with their capital move freely. Urban transformation projects in the developed and developing world have been one of the platforms through which Empire reproduces itself with construction bubbles, shopping malls, and massive construction plans such the Canal Istanbul, a project to slash the land into two to construct an artificial canal.

This is not always the case. The Camp Armen experience and many other examples point to neoliberalism being appropriated in order to realize the traditional nation-state political project, which aims to assimilate the different in favour of national homogenization. The legal and political foundations of the dissolution of the Camp or the Taksim Pedestrian Project were set up long before the arrival of Empire, in the 1980s aggressive neoliberal turn with Turgut Özal. The marginalization of non-Muslim and non-Turkish minorities and the silencing of the left (even if it is the soft social democratic version) have been constitutive pillars of exclusionary and oppressive politics in Turkey, as countless reports of NGOs, academic works, and political events have demonstrated. Neoliberal urban transformation is doing the last trick: it decouples the ‘different’ from the space with which it is associated. The orphanage was one of the centres where Armenian identity could be reconstructed in Turkey. So was the Halki Seminary for Turkey’s Greek population. The closure of these institutions was part of the marginalization of the ethnically and religiously ‘different’. The following ‘land grabbing’ of the neoliberal urban transformation has constituted a new phase of respatializing the land in the way that the different cannot be reproduced through/in it.

Another consequence is that the memory of the city can be erased; at least those parts that the neoliberal state, which is in company with the modern nation-state, would like to be ‘cleansed’. The new neoliberal city becomes the city of shopping malls, hotels, business centres, and gated communities, without opposition and difference. In this way, the nation-state is reproduced through the city without the memory of the different and without the space where the different can survive. I believe that the Camp Armen experience should urge us to rethink the productive relations between the two forms of the state: one is the Empire and the other is the traditional, which coexist in a symbiotic relationship. While the neoliberal state gives the traditional nation-state a homogenous nation through urban transformation, the latter provides the political and legal set-up for the new neoliberal local elites to become stronger.

One of the orphans living in Camp Armen met his future wife there. This orphan, journalist Hrant Dink, was murdered in 2007. Following his murder, his wife Rakel urged all of us ‘to question the darkness which converts a baby into a murderer’. The darkness is still with us with a neoliberal touch. In 1915, the territory was cleansed; in 2015, the memory is to be ‘cleansed’. However, neoliberal urban transformation cannot ‘cleanse’ the infamy of 1915 and 2015.


Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Empire. Harvard University Press, 2009.