The Anzac myth that stems from the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 is as sacrosanct a topic as exists in the modern Australian political landscape. So when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan linked the Christchurch massacre to what he claimed was the anti-Islam motivation behind the Anzacs’ delpoyment to Turkey, he would have been fully aware of the outrage it would cause.

At a rally in Çanakkale Province this week, Erdoğan said “We had no issues with [Australia], why did you come all the way over here? The only reason: we’re Muslim, and they’re Christian”. 

He went a step further, saying anyone who brought anti-Muslim sentiments to Turkey would go home “in a casket … like your grandfathers”. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the comments were “highly reckless” and an insult to “the memory of our Anzacs”. So why would Erdoğan prod at such a sensitive topic for an ostensible ally?

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What is the political climate like in Turkey right now?

“The most important context for Erdoğan’s comments is the upcoming local elections,” Dr Banu Senay, an anthropologist of Turkey at Macquarie University, told Crikey. “I was in Istanbul across January and February, and there seems to be a shifting mood, a sense that people who previously voted for him weren’t going to this time. I think he’s feeling anxious.”

Turkey has been in turmoil in recent years. There was the attempted coup of 2016 and the purges of the civil service and the military that followed, as well as a rapidly slowing economy.

Senay said provocative language around religion and the west was consistent with Erdoğan’s approach during times of political anxiety. “In the last five years, he’s gotten more and more aggressive. He bundles a lot of enemies together — it’s worth noting he mentioned the coup in the speech about Christchurch — but more and more he’s been framing ‘the west’ as the enemy,” she said. 

Erdoğan has a long history making inflammatory statements (particularly around persecution of Muslims) when faced with domestic struggles. This goes back to 2009 when, facing widespread claims of electoral fraud in the local elections that year, he defended Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir against accusations of genocide in Darfur. He claimed “it is not possible for those who belong to the Muslim faith to carry out genocide” and added that Israeli actions in Gaza were worse than anything that has taken place in Sudan.

Brad West, senior lecturer in sociology at the University of South Australia, told Crikey Erdoğan had been making statements about Gallipoli being a holy war and Anzacs being the enemy of Islam for several years — “but these had not been picked up by the Australian media and did not result in much controversy”.

Is Turkey looking for new allies?

Stephanie Wright, associate lecturer at the Australian National University’s Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, said the comments where part of a broader shift in Turkey’s foreign policy rhetoric.

“I take Erdoğan’s comments to signal a shift away from one way of remembering Gallipoli — as a common tragedy and shared loss that unites Australia and Turkey — to another — as an episode in the history of Western imperialism in the region,” she said.

“This shift in political rhetoric reflects the souring of relations between the US and its allies — including Australia — and Turkey since the failed coup of 2016, which Erdoğan claimed was backed by the US.”

What is Turkey’s relationship with Gallipoli?

We know how Gallipoli is used in the Australian political landscape; less interrogated in Australia is Turkey’s interaction with that history. On that soil “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth“, an entire generation of Turks was wiped out. Given they lost 10 times the number of soldiers as Australia, is there a lingering resentment at tourists draped in Australian flags descending upon the site of an attempted invasion once a year?

West said it was only in the 1980s, when large groups of Australians started visiting the battlefields, and the Australian government funded the construction of new memorials, that Gallipoli became part of popular Turkish history.

“Unlike in Australia, where Gallipoli has to varying degrees been a key part of the national consciousness, Gallipoli was deliberately suppressed in Turkish memory and remembrance of the past as it was deemed Ottoman rather than Turkish history,” he said.

“This changed in the 1980s when it started to be used by nationalist secular politicians as a way of consolidating patriotism — centrally through emphasising the heroic role of Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) in the battle.”

Professor Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra, author of several books on Gallipoli, told Crikey this relationship with Gallipoli had shifted under Erdoğan. 

“Formerly, a nationalist ‘Kemalist’ interpretation positioned Gallipoli as the foundation of the Turkish nation,” he said. “Now, under Erdoğan, an Islamist-nationalist view claims Gallipoli as a victory inspired by faith. Erdoğan’s Turkey uses Gallipoli explicitly as Islamist-nationalist propaganda — Turkish dead are martyrs for the faith, not just the nation.” 

Senay said the Islamic elements to this and other provocative statements from Erdoğan were mere cynical populism.” I don’t agree when people say he’s an Islamist, that’s just what modern Turkish nationalism looks like.”  

What does this mean for Australia-Turkey relations?

 Stanley said the shared idea of Gallipoli was a mutual political convenience for the two countries, based on “bogus history”.

“Turkey formerly welcomed Australian visitors to Gallipoli, easily persuading them to adopt a view of the campaign sympathetic to Turkey — for example, ignoring the Armenian genocide — which Australians readily accepted,” he said.

“Erdogan has certainly breached the ‘soft’ understanding of Gallipoli in which Australians praised Ataturk, whose secular legacy Erdoğan deprecates, and tacitly ignored the Armenian genocide and Turkey welcomed visitors to Gallipoli. Whether it’s irreparable remains to be seen.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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