Fieldwork in Istanbul by Donya Alinejad: The Amsterdam-Istanbul connection vs. The Hague-Ankara tension

A week ago I was in Amsterdam, preparing for a month of field research in Istanbul. That same moment happened to be a time of exceptional diplomatic tension between the Netherlands and Turkey. What did that mean for the Turkish-Dutch connections of migration and digital media I wanted to study? Well, the Dutch premier had publicly expressed his objections to Turkish ministers entering the Netherlands to campaign for Turkish-Dutch “yes” votes in the run-up to the April constitutional referendum in Turkey. A “yes” outcome would, among other things, replace the current parliamentary system with a presidential one, with Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the AK Party in the executive role. The Dutch government’s decision to keep the Turkish ministers of foreign affairs and family affairs out of the Netherlands and away from their diaspora political base was received with defiant outrage by Erdogan, whose public response likened the Dutch to Nazis, and characterized the move by Mark Rutte, leader of the Liberal Party (VVD), as election posturing in the run-up to the 2017 Parliamentary elections in the Netherlands. Indeed, the Netherlands had witnessed an election in which Dutch nationalism had featured as a major campaign issue, with anti-Muslim sentiment and Islamophobic racism being stoked by right wing parties and setting the tone of campaigns across the board. Rutte’s party went on to win that election, while the Netherlands’ first explicitly anti-racist party, with a clear Turkish-Dutch image managed to enter parliament with multiple seats in their first ever election run.

In the days that had followed the diplomatic escalation,the public debate surged with dramatic questions. Were the grounds for denying the ministers entry in conflict with freedom of speech laws in the Netherlands and European treaties to which the Dutch are signatories (uncomfortably turning the tables, given Erdogan’s own record on human rights)? Should concerns about the lacking “integration” of Turks in the Netherlands dating back to policies towards “guest workers” be taken more seriously? And were local mayoral and police reactions in the Dutch city of Rotterdam where Erdogan supporters protested a disproportionate use of force on Dutch citizens? In the midst of this spectacle of conflict between respective heads of state in The Hague and Ankara (and their lower-downs), the rise of right wing nationalism across Europe was only meagerly dampened by the Dutch election results of March 15th, and at the same time, the reality of Erdogan’s influence in Europe via both the diaspora and through the EU-Turkey deal on asylum seekers was also confirmed. It seems the stakes were never higher for claiming identities rooted in loyalties to both Dutch and Turkish nations. And the possibility of combining them never more difficult. And yet these identities are lived out together, daily.

In this increasingly polarized context, both nationally and internationally, I became all the more motivated by the questions of the field research I was preparing to do. Especially, as I saw news coverage of this issue repeatedly foregrounding the statements of second and third-generation Turkish-Dutch young people in response to the question of how Turkish and/or Dutch they felt. It was striking to me that the identities of these young people became a matter of national public interest in the Netherlands during this period in particular. But rather than reflecting a sudden curiosity, this interest treated the generations of Turks who were born and raised in the Netherlands as a momentary symbol of all-that’s-wrong-with-the-world. This is the same group I take as the focus on of my fieldwork, and I attempt to trace their mobile, digitally-mediated lives as they connect the cities of Amsterdam and Istanbul – both cities being global metropoles, but not political capitals. Rather than thrusting my attention upon this group as a symptom of wider problems, I try to understand how they experience being seen in this way, what kinds of choices they make in this context, and how they live their political, cultural, and emotional lives through movement and media connections between these two cities.

After sitting down to speak at length with three young people of Turkish descent who were born and raised in the Netherlands in the weeks before I left, and after witnessing and filming (see above photo and videos) parts of the Turkish nationalist protest from my own street in Amsterdam, I’ve now spent my first week of fieldwork in Istanbul. This entry opens a series of posts to come, in which I’ll share my thoughts and reflections from the field in the course of conducting interviews and observations in the city for the coming few weeks. My focus will be on the lives of the second and third-generation Turkish-Dutch research participants I encounter here. The fact that there are more Turkish-Dutch people returning to Turkey right now than there are Turks immigrating to the Netherlands sets the stage for understanding these respondents’ lives not only in terms of their identities, but as actors taking part in an interesting current phenomenon. A phenomenon that is still vastly understudied, and conceptualized with the rather ill-fitting term for second and third generations of “return migration.”

Posted on @thedonyablog