Turkey’s war on Arabic signs reflects intolerance of Syrian refugees

Since the new language standards went into effect, municipal authorities have removed dozens of Arabic-language shop signs in cities all over the country, in some cases by force.
Saturday 17/08/2019
People walk in the Fatih district in Istanbul.  (AP)
Casualty of intolerance. People walk in the Fatih district in Istanbul. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Amid flagging support and a worsening economic crisis, the Turkish Justice and Development Party government has singled out an unlikely enemy: Arabic-language shop signs.

Hundreds of the banners have been removed from high streets across Turkey but critics warn the move would deepen the growing hostility against Syrian refugees.

Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu announced that “offending” Arabic shop signs across Turkey would be changed within six months. “There is a standard and that standard is Turkish. If they want to write small Arabic letters underneath, they can. Everyone will stick to the rules and the obligations, whatever they are,” he said in July.

Turkey shelters approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees, making it the world’s largest refugee hosting country. A small number of the refugees reside in state-run camps but most live in big cities. More than 500,000 Syrians live in Istanbul.

Critics said Turkey’s legislative restrictions and Ankara’s failure to implement a coherent and transparent refugee policy have made it difficult for Syrians to make a living in Turkey and increased anti-refugee sentiment.

Voters across the political spectrum said the large Syrian population in Turkey was a problem that has not been handled well by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government. A report published August 10 at the behest of the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party stated that almost 90% of Turks polled said they wanted Syrians to return to Syria.

Social media in Turkey abound with rumours alleging that Syrian shop owners have an unfair advantage because they do not have to pay taxes and are exempt from rules their Turkish competitors are obliged to obey.

The new signage rules on Syrian-run businesses are yet another obstacle for Syrians trying to carve out a living for themselves and their families in Turkey. The Istanbul governor’s office said in early July that hundreds of shops in three administrative districts of the city had been inspected to ensure they complied with the rule that 75% of the shop signage should be written in Turkish, a rule announced June 15 by the Interior Ministry.

Data published by the Ministry of Trade indicate that more than 15,000 businesses that involve at least one Syrian business partner have opened in Turkey since the war started in 2011. To circumvent legal restrictions on opening businesses, shops, cafes and restaurants are often owned by Turks on paper but managed and operated by Syrians.

Syrian business owners could lose a large percentage of their customers if they cannot advertise in Arabic because they often cater to Arabic-speaking tourists or fellow Syrians who do not speak Turkish.

Some Turks, too, say the new rules discriminate.

“The move against Arabic shop signs was too hasty,” said writer Hayati Inanc. “Istanbul is a cosmopolitan city where people of many different backgrounds live. There are hundreds of thousands of people who live here who only know Arabic. Removing Arabic shop signs while shop signs in Russian and English remain is a hasty move.

“Our language feeds off Arabic, Persian and Turkish. This decision is not good for the Turkish language. It will cause much consternation and many complaints,” he said.

Others said the language ban was not comprehensive enough. Ekrem Erdem, president of the Language and Literature Association Turkey, told the online publication memurlar.net: “There are regulations by the Turkish Standard Institute concerning shop signs on what shop signs in the public and private sector should look like.”

“Steps have to be taken against all languages in this framework. It is not right to take steps only against one language. We talk about Arabic shop signs but there is English everywhere,” he added.

Since the new language standards went into effect, municipal authorities have removed dozens of Arabic-language shop signs in cities all over the country, in some cases by force. Local Turkish newspapers regularly report on “Arabic shop sign operations” by municipal police officers because of the “unease” of Turkish residents.

Ertugrul Kurkcu, honorary president of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party, harshly criticised how the AKP government has been using the plight of Syrian refugees to garner political support, accusing them of turning on the refugees by “fanning the flames of controlled hate.”

Tamer Yazar, a journalist who lives in Hatay, a province near the Syrian border that hosts more than 430,000 Syrian refugees, said the removal of Arabic-language shop signs is another expression of growing intolerance towards Syrians.

Yazar said anti-Syrian sentiments and discrimination against Syrian refugees have been an issue almost since the war in Syria started. Because of the fast-growing number of refugees in the country, the initial goodwill quickly turned sour.

“As soon as the promised return [of Syrians] to their home country was delayed and when Syrians started to live in many parts of Turkey in an uncontrolled manner, everything changed,” Yazar said via WhatsApp. “The Arabic shop signs are interpreted as another indicator for the permanence of these unwanted new residents. Syrians have been the victims of Ankara’s failed refugee policy. Now they are again left to pay the price for it.”