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'Who Are You?!' How Erdogan Has Lowered The Tone Of Turkish Politics

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's use of informal Turkish to berate his opponents has altered the way political debate is conducted in the country.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's use of informal Turkish to berate his opponents has altered the way political debate is conducted in the country.

Recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan slammed a top U.S. general using words and a tone of voice that the Turkish public is familiar with when their president talks, but quite unusual for the president of any country talking about an ally, let alone a major NATO ally.

Speaking about the failed coup attempt of July 15, Erdogan picked on General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, who had expressed concern that mass purges in the Turkish Army could weaken the NATO member's military capacity and the ongoing fight against Islamic State (IS).

“You should be ashamed," Erdogan said. "Do you think you are at a level to make this kind of decision [on purges]? Who are you? First, you have to know your limits! First you have to know who you are!”

Erdogan and the Turkish government have alleged that "the West," notably the United States, was behind the coup attempt. As part of their "proof" for this claim, they point to the U.S. residency of the Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen whom Ankara blames for masterminding the coup. Gulen has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999.

Ankara has requested Gulen's extradition to Turkey. In response, Washington has asked for "legitimate evidence" of Gulen’s personal involvement in order to look into that request.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, soon came to Ankara to soothe strained Turkish-U.S. relations. He clearly and strongly condemned the coup attempt and rejected the Turkish accusation of U.S. involvement in it. He met only the prime minister, Binali Yildirim, and the Turkish chief of staff, Hulusi Akar, who tried to somehow calm the bilateral tensions. Dunford even expressed his satisfaction with the positive tone of his talks with Turkish officials, which he described as "not accusatory at all."

Erdogan did not waste any time. Just one day after the U.S. general left Turkey, the president quickly let it be known how he viewed the situation. "Unfortunately, the West is supporting terror and standing by the coup plotters," he said, condemning "those who we imagined to be friends"

Picking Fights

Shortly before the barrage against the United States and the West, the Turkish president had also criticized German democracy.

His remarks were triggered by the situation surrounding ethnic Turkish Erdogan supporters in Germany who had planned a demonstration in Cologne against the coup attempt and in support of Turkish democracy. The event's organizers had invited Erdogan to address their meeting via a satellite video link.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called for calm and warned that it was "unacceptable that anyone would bring internal political tensions from Turkey to Germany and intimidate people with other political beliefs."

German police refused to grant permission for Erdogan's televised speech because they feared it would incite tension. The Turkish government protested against the move but a German court confirmed the ban as valid.

"Bravo! The courts in Germany work very fast," Erdogan said. "Is that the democracy you want to teach us?"

Erdogan's ministers and loyal media followed his lead. Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag said: "And where is your democracy, your freedom of speech? We have no lesson to learn from the West. We can teach them democracy!"

Until recently, such fiery, offhand rhetoric never had a place in the traditional, established tone of Turkish diplomacy, or even in the country's internal politics.

Turkey is the successor state of the vast Ottoman Empire that existed for 600 years. After the establishment of the modern republic in 1923, the country's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and all his successors -- presidents and prime ministers such as Ismet Inonu, Adnan Menderes, Suleyman Demirel and Bulent Ecevit -- were models of traditional Turkish etiquette in public life and international diplomacy, even when it came to the president or prime minister talking to opposition leaders.

This code of behavior was also respected by Turkey’s traditional opposition parties and politicians.

All of this started to change, however, after Erdogan introduced "street slang" into political discourse when he came to power in 2002.

This transformation is not something that can be reflected in English translations of Erdogan's speeches.

He started to address his domestic adversaries using the personal pronoun "sen" -- or "you" in the singular form, which is an impolite way of talking to respected or senior people in Turkey.

A Clear Sign

Recently, when Erdogan was talking about Joseph Votel, the head of the U.S. Central Command, and ironically asked the question: "Who are you?” (“Sen kimsin?” in Turkish) using the singular pronoun for "you" ("sen"), it was a clear sign of disrespect.

In English, there is no longer any distinction between "you" in the singular or plural forms. In Turkish, however, the word "sen" is an informal form of address used among family and friends or when talking to children (like the pronoun "ty" in Russian or "du" in German).

On the other hand, "siz" (corresponding to "vy" in Russian and "Sie" in German) is the formal, polite way of addressing somebody, especially at work or in an office setting. It is also part of the language of government and diplomacy.

Previously, it was always considered rude and a "sign of being uneducated” to use the pronoun "sen" when talking to officials or people you didn't know (although there are some people on the streets who have always used it when shopping or talking to strangers) .

In the last two decades, employees in government agencies, the police and military, airlines, banks and other private businesses were instructed or advised to be formal in their official dealings with others and to use the polite pronoun "siz." This development was publicly viewed as a "sign of improvement" and widely welcomed.

When Erdogan was elected prime minister in 2002, this social trend remained unchanged but the Turkish leader personally began using the "impolite" version of "you" whenever he was criticizing or attacking his opponents.

Soon afterwards, he even started using it when addressing foreign leaders and dignitaries. It wasn't long before Erdogan’s ministers and even his opponents in parliament and other politicians adopted his aggressive style for their own interactions with each other.

It wasn't just the pronoun that changed however. The entire tone of criticism and debate became increasingly impolite, personal, combative, and rude.

When people first started hearing the president and other politicians using this language, they began to wonder how they would feel about talking to each other in such a rude manner.

They soon got used to it.

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.