Erdogan wants Turkey off the menu – If you’ve booked a summer vacation in one of the delightful Turkish resorts on the Aegean, don’t panic when you discover your aircraft has touched down not in Turkey, but in a country called Turkiye.
Don’t worry, you didn’t board the wrong aircraft. It’s the same old place, but with a brand new name, the result of the sort of rebranding exercise more commonly associated with chocolate bars and cleaning products than entire nations.
True, countries do change their names from time to time — think Persia/Iran, Holland/The Netherlands and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe — but the practice is generally more common among companies trying to better align their products with a global market.
For example, shoppers of a certain generation in the UK remain traumatized by the overnight renaming by Mars in 1990 of their favorite chocolate bar, Marathon, which had always been known as Snickers everywhere else in the world.
But renaming an entire country takes rebranding to a whole new level.
So why has Turkey become Turkiye (with the second syllable pronounced as in “Ikea”)?
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the new name better evokes the country’s historical roots and “represents and expresses the culture, civilization and values of the Turkish nation in the best way.”
On the other hand, the rumor mill that is social media has it that Erdogan grew tired of the negative associations of the name.
That would be understandable. After all, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines a turkey as “a failure, a flop” — as in the theater review, “Another Broadway turkey set to lay an egg” — or as a “stupid, foolish or inept person.”
And which world leader wouldn’t get in a flap if, every time he typed in the name of his country on his iPhone, ahead of the Turkish flag up popped an emoji of a big, fat bird incapable of flight?
If that was truly President Erdogan’s motivation for the move, then mission accomplished. At the moment, typing in “Turkiye” prompts no suggestions — not even, unfortunately, the Turkish flag.
But some think that the name change might be part of a bid to whip up nationalistic support by a president whose popularity in the polls is at an all-time low and who might be considering bringing national elections forward a year, to this summer or autumn, in the hope of harvesting such support as remains for him and his Justice and Development Party.
Under Erdogan, as a recent summary of his failings on the online security and foreign policy forum Just Security set out, the Turkish public has experienced “a precipitous drop” in the value of the Turkish lira and per-capita gross domestic product, and “ever-falling living standards, aggravated by inflation, high unemployment and poor management of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Furthermore, “an aggressive Turkish foreign policy based on confrontation rather than diplomacy has left the country isolated regionally.”
Berk Esen, assistant professor of political science at Sabanci University, Istanbul, and IPC-Mercator Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, believes the name change has probably been motivated by “a confluence of factors.”
One of these is that “Erdogan’s electoral base is weakening, he is gradually losing his grip on reality and, by extension, his control over the regime and his party is also diminishing.
“That could be why he is raising this issue right now. Other nationalist, right-wing politicians in Turkey have toyed with this idea before. Erdogan is allied with a nationalist party and has switched his rhetoric in a more nationalist direction because he trying to curry favor with nationalist voters.”
But the name change, Esen believes, “is not going to solve any of the major problems that we are facing in Turkey right now. As long as the current political and economic crisis continues, Erdogan will continue to encounter significant troubles at home.”
Regardless, the Turkish government, searching for new markets for exports in the midst of an economic crisis, while also trying to cultivate political ties with new countries, “is trying to rebrand itself overall.”
Perhaps as part of that rebranding or repositioning, on Monday Erdogan began a two-day official visit to the UAE, where he was welcomed in Abu Dhabi by Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
“We do not consider the security and stability of all brotherly countries in the Gulf region separate from our own,” Erdogan told the media before flying out of Ataturk Airport in Istanbul on a mission to mend fences.
“We aim to improve the momentum to bring back our relations to the level they deserve. During my visit, we will take steps that will shape the next 50 years of our friendship and brotherhood with the UAE,” he said.
So for Erdogan, looking for a fresh start all round, said Esen, “what better way than by literally rebranding the country and coming up with a new name?”
Except, of course, there is nothing new about the name, which has deep historical roots — roots into which Erdogan is possibly hoping to tap for political advantage.
From the 13th to the 16th century, the Mamluk Sultanate, whose kingdom included part of modern-day Turkey, was known as al-Dawla al-Turkiyya — the state of Turkey — and was referred to as such in the 14th century by the traveler and chronicler Ibn Battuta.
As for “Turkiye,” that is simply Turkish for “Turkey.” When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was elected the country’s first president after the ousting of the Ottoman dynasty in 1923, the new republic adopted the name “Turkiye Cumhuriyeti” — the Republic of Turkey.
“This is a very old story that is brought back by (Turkish) governments now and then, usually when there are domestic problems. If my memory does not fail me there was a similar campaign sometime in the 80s or 90s, possibly 80s after the military coup of September 1980. It is a way of showing that the government is trying to leverage its influence globally,” said Kemal Kirişci, a non-resident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe’s Turkey Project at Brookings.
“At its origin lies the fact that associating the name of the country with the bird is found offensive by hard nationalists. Trying to replace the word ‘Turkey’ with “Türkiye’ reminds me of the times in the 1920s when the Turkish postal services would refuse to deliver mail addressed to Constantinople instead of Istanbul. I have no idea what kind of sanctions the government intends to introduce to persons, countries, companies, international organizations etc… that employ the word “Turkey” instead of “Turkiye”
If for example Biden employs the term “Turkey” will this lead to Turkiye breaking diplomatic relations with the U.S.A.? What will they do if Putin refuses to employ the term Turkiye? Alternatively, what will happen to a Turkish diplomat who when speaking in English uses the “Turkey,” will he/she be reprimanded, sacked, imprisoned? I think these questions show how poorly this idea/policy has been thought through and in turn I believe this is done primarily for domestic political reasons,” Kirişci added.
For many Turks celebrating on Twitter, at least, where the new name has been trending, the name change represents a long-overdue rejection of an anglicized version of the country’s real title, imposed in an era of cultural imperialism. “It was always Turkiye for us Turks,” as one user put it this week.
Nevertheless, even as Turkey lobbies the UN to acknowledge its new name and the country’s Ministry of Trade tries to ensure that all Turkish exports, from bulgur to coffee, leave the country bearing the legend “Made in Turkiye,” it’s clearly going to take some time for the new name to bed in.
On many news outlets and Wikipedia, the name is still “Turkey.” Still, who can blame them when on its own website, even Ask Turkiye, the Turkish Promotion Group, slips up, still using the old name here and there and still carrying the old logo of the “Ministry of Trade of the Republic of Turkey?