By Martijn Icks
Ethnic minorities are particularly vulnerable to character attacks. Last March, Dutch parliament passed a motion urging the political party DENK to stop publishing intimidating video clips about MPs with Turkish roots. Signatories expressed their concern that MPs were attacked “primarily on the basis of their descent” rather than because of their political views. “Through these despicable practices of DENK, parliamentary norms are broken,” Harry van der Molen, the initiator of the motion, explained.
So what was going on here? If you’re unfamiliar with the Dutch political landscape, you might suppose that DENK is an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration party aiming to make life tough for representatives from an ethnic minority background. In fact, the opposite is true. DENK – which means “think” in Dutch and “equality” in Turkish – was founded in 2014 by Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, two former Labour MPs. Both are men of Turkish descent and favour an ethnically diverse society.
With such a profile, enmity between DENK and right-wing anti-immigration parties like Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party were pretty much a given. However, DENK and its founding members soon became controversial in more progressive circles as well. In 2017, the newspaper NRC Handelsblad revealed that the party made use of fake accounts on social media to influence public opinion. Perhaps even more damaging to DENK’s image has been their unwavering support for Turkish President Erdogan, prompting some to suggest that the party is little more than a mouth-piece for Ankara.
Which brings us back to the video clips. Last February, DENK leader Kuzu came to blows with Zihni Özdil, a Turkish-born representative of the Green Left party. Soon after their heated discussion, a clip was published on the DENK Facebook page denouncing Özdil as a hypocrite. What had raised Kuzu’s ire was that his fellow MP had allegedly “seized and copied” one of DENK’s political positions, namely to abolish the post of Minister of Integration, right before the elections. Kuzu fumed that Özdil “pretends to be better than he is” and called him “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”.
The word “hypocrite” bears special significance in this clip. As Özdil immediately spotted, and Arabist scholars confirmed, “hypocrite” can be translated as munafiq in Arabic, a term that is used to describe those who only pretend to be devout Muslims, but secretly do not believe in Allah. Possibly, then, DENK included the accusation as a dog whistle. Extremists might even interpret the allegation of hypocrisy as a call to action, regarding it as their sacred duty to deal out punishment to the unbeliever. But this remains mere speculation, and DENK emphatically denies any such intentions.
Hidden message or not, Özdil was certainly not the party’s only target. NRC Handelsblad revealed that DENK frequently publishes video clips of MPs from rival parties on social media, especially of members with a Turkish background, exposing them when they are seen to act against Turkish or Muslim interests. For instance, a clip of Moroccan-born Khadija Arib, Chairman of the House of Representatives, was posted online after she had refused to postpone a parliamentary vote because of the end of Ramadan.
When almost the entire Dutch parliament voted to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide, a very controversial issue in Turkey, Kuzu appeared on a Turkish TV channel, calling upon Dutch Turks to confront MPs with a Turkish background on the issue. The pro-Erdogan Turkish newspaper Sabah ran the headline “the five Turks who betrayed their mother country”, including pictures of the Turkish-Dutch MPs who had voted for recognition of the genocide. As a result of such actions by DENK and Turkish media, the MPs in question frequently receive threats and feel intimidated.
“We’re traitors to Turkish nationalism,” Özdil told Dutch journalists. “That’s the subtext of everything Kuzu does. In this way, they turn us into an enemy of their support base. What better enemy than a traitor?”
It’s an astute summary of DENK’s tactics. People from ethnic minorities are often attacked for not “belonging” to their society’s dominant culture. Their loyalty to the nation is frequently doubted. But in a very real sense, DENK’s targets are attacked for not being “ethnic” enough – and for being disloyal to a nation they haven’t called home since childhood.