On the 9th of April, the biggest Turkish workers’ association in Sweden, the Turkiska Riksforbundet, organized a demonstration to protest the recent violent clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh. The demonstration was held at Sergelstorg in Stockholm, a protest hot spot in the heart of the Swedish capital.
Participation was low and it was far from representative of all Turkish organizations in Sweden. Turkish and Azerbaijani flags were present and it was possible to see many young faces in the crowd. The vice president of the association, Barbaros Leylani, took the microphone and made his now infamous speech which went viral within a few hours all around Sweden. Social media accounts spread his speech and shocked many with its content. But what was the ‘big deal’ about this seemingly ordinary protest?
It was surely not the first time Turkish and Azerbaijani organizations joined forces to protest and make their voices heard about the Nagorno-Karabakh case. Demonstrations are a democratic right after all. Especially after a parliamentary resolution which recognized the Armenian and Assyrian genocide in Sweden in 2010, Turkish and Azerbaijani diaspora organizations mobilized and organized protests one after another in order to counter-lobby this resolution.
The Turkish diaspora community was always interested in homeland politics but since 2010, their activities began gaining a political dimension which not only caused polarization among the Turkish community and other ethno-national diasporas in Sweden, but also within the Turkish community at large, which is heterogeneous and breeds various ideological views.
Leylani’s speech carried the political dimensions of these protests to a whole new level however. Leylani started by saying that “the Turks are awakening” and “the Armenian dogs should watch out.” After hearing the approving whistles and applaud, he continues: “Death to Armenian Dogs”. The crowd cheered approvingly in answer to this racist slur, chanting “Death”. He shouted again “Death”, seemingly receiving the desired response.
Within this inflammatory ethno-nationalist rhetoric, religious connotations could be quickly identified. Leylani told protesters that patriotism comes from faith and if people have faith, they should love their country. Such statements reflect the status quo rhetoric of pan-Turkist ideology and as he called for Turkic states to unite.
Reactions to Leylani’s Speech
Armenian, Kurdish and Assyrian community members, as well as diaspora associations, expectedly protested this speech on their social media accounts, emphasizing that there should be legal consequences and calling on Swedish authorities to respond. Many posts also reminded us that this was not the first time that an authoritative person from a Turkish diaspora organization made such claims in public by using a racist rhetoric.
For instance, in 2015, around 20 civil society and diaspora organizations in Sweden called upon Swedish authorities to action against the very same Turkish association for provoking hatred against Kurds, Armenians and Assyrians in Sweden. They added that this association has been using hate speech such as this for over a decade, posing a real threat to peaceful relations among different ethnic communities in Sweden.
One remarkable thing to see was that many members of the Turkish community condemned Leylani’s speech immediately after it went viral. On social media networks, former board members of the Turkish association made official declarations saying that hate speech and racist remarks are absolutely unacceptable and that Leylani had damaged the Turkish community’s reputation with his reckless behaviour. Discussions in chatrooms and other outlets also revealed that many members of the community were extremely disturbed by what happened. However the damage was already done.
On the day of the event, Leylani made an initial declaration, a kind of empty apology, towards the Turkish community alone however. On the 11th of April, Leylani resigned from the board of the association, reportedly due to peer pressure. He later gave an interview to a TV station where he cried and apologized to the Armenian community as well as the Swedish society in general. He said he somehow lost his pace because he was nervous, claiming it was the slip of the tongue.
The unlikely apology, almost as shocking as the initial statements were perhaps a reflection of Leylani’s swift alienation. His association did not stand by him, the Turkish community largely reacted negatively towards him and he suddenly became the persona non grata in Sweden. Even the Turkish Embassy felt obliged to make an official declaration distancing themselves from Leylani. Ambassador Kaya Turkmen stated that his silence could have been interpreted as tacit approval so he had to say something. Since then, a fierce debate has raged across Sweden. This event unpacked an open wound of growing ethnic tension which was silently observed but not publicly discussed previously, despite the fact that it has been festering for a while now.
In addition to these immediate reactions, another debate followed Leylani’s shocking speech. Social media accounts started posting photos of an MP from the Green Party, Mehmet Kaplan, dining with leaders of Turkish associations such as the Grey Wolves and Millî Görüş, both of which are known for their ethno-nationalist and Islamist agendas.
His close links to pro-government Turkish diaspora associations was already an issue of concern, which came to light even before the Leylani incident. Swedish media and some Green party members put pressure on Kaplan to resign for a variety of reasons (some of which are not related to this case) and he finally handed in his resignation on the 18th of April.
With Kaplan’s resignation, the Turkish diaspora has lost an important ‘asset’ in their European lobbying efforts. Both Leylani’s uncharacteristic apology and the Kaplan resignation indicate that in Sweden there is little tolerance for hate speech, racist/ fascist rhetoric, and similarly even less tolerance for those who even give the impression that they aligned with such activities or actors.
What does Leylani’s Speech tell us?
We should get one thing straight. Diaspora leaders do not necessarily represent the whole community in a given host country. They declare themselves as representatives and act that way however. Yet their authority is self-declared and can by no means be accepted as the one and only authoritative voice of the community. Therefore, Leylani’s hate speech does not mean that all Turks who live in Sweden think the same. Nevertheless, when it comes to the damage caused, it affects the whole community. It stigmatizes and labels the Turkish community in Sweden and it will take a lot of effort from less-vocal Turks and their descendants to make this point. Leylani’s speech enforced already existing negative image and stereotypes about the Turkish community and painted all its colours to black.
That said however, we should also keep in mind that Leylani is a product of this diaspora community. It may seem like he is a radical or an isolated case at the moment because nobody publicly supports his ideas – including now, himself. But the real fact here is that he is not unique, he is only exposed.
When we evaluate what has happened at Sergelstorg that day, we should take into account the cheering crowd. These people did not look opposed to this kind of hate-speech. His polarizing rhetoric with its poisoning tone actually gained support, sadly enough from young people as well. There are surely many more who were not present that day but share similar views. Clearly there are racists within the Turkish community who wish death for Armenians. And some of them live in Sweden.
There is a crucial issue in Leylani’s speech which analysts have largely ignored, as it is overshadowed by the the shocking statements wishing death to Armenians. Leylani stated that “we should unite more in similar demonstrations… We should show to Sweden, Scandinavia and Europe what Turks are”, continuing to say that “We don’t like blood but we will spill blood. We will when it is necessary”.
Leylani wants to show the might of the great Turk to Europeans, to Swedes and others. Why? Isn’t he a Swedish citizen as well? Doesn’t he live in Sweden? Why does he want to teach them a lesson? I believe this is an almost equally poisonous aspect of the speech; the worst message that can be transmitted to future generations, circulating distrust and suspicion about the country they live in to young people who are born and bred there. Creating some kind of nostalgia of a homeland under a pan-Turkist ideal and damaging intra-ethnic interactions and bonds with their country of residence. This should not go unnoticed.
Maybe Leylani thought that others would not hear his speech under the cosy secrecy of his mother language, that it would be solely used to galvanize emotions at the demonstration. But he was wrong. He did it in a country where hate speech and racist rhetoric do not go unnoticed and more importantly unpunished. This will be remembered for decades and will be a hurdle in front of peaceful relations among the Assyrians, Armenians, Turks and Kurds who reside in Sweden.
Transnationalisation of Homeland Conflicts
While this fierce debate still rages in Sweden, Turkish domestic politics continues disseminating to the transnational space one way or another. For instance, President Erdoğan’s visit to Washington revealed that Turkey’s domestic problems have an audience in the US. Protests and counter protests took place during his visit, including a now well-publicized PR fiasco entailing a street brawl between the president’s security guards and opposition journalists. There were also some very creative pro-government movements such as the trucks which drove around Washington all day displaying advertisements condemning the PKK and the Gülen Movement. In Germany as well, there have been violent clashes between Turkish and Kurdish communities in Aschaffenburg. There have been also pro-government and anti-Kurdish demonstrations by various recently emerged Turkish associations in Germany.
With the experience of the 90s still fresh in many minds, it would not be dramatic to predict wider violent and non-violent clashes as a result of political instability in Turkey. Furthermore, it seems that we will be observing even more polarization among different ethnic, religious and ideological diaspora groups from Turkey who reside outside Turkish borders.