Opinion: Turkey still safe for Kiwis despite President's actions and Winston Peters' 'peaceful' choice not to challenge them

I must admit I was a bit naively nervous about visiting Turkey in the wake of President Erdogan’s inflammatory comments about Anzacs, and the fact he’s been airing blurred vision of the Christchurch gun attacks again and again.

I genuinely wondered whether being a Kiwi would suddenly make me some kind of target, especially given we have a large broadcast camera with us. And I know I’m not alone in my initial thoughts as a fair few Kiwis I’ve spoken to over the past few days are nervous about attending the ANZAC day service at Gallipoli, but after seeking security advice and being on the ground here I realise I was wrong to be wary.

The Turkish are some of the most hospitable and gracious people in the world. Not one person (be it in a taxi, in a hotel lobby, in a press conference or in the doner kebab shop) has expressed any anti-Kiwi sentiment.  In fact – the total opposite.

The overwhelming message has been that New Zealanders are as welcome as they’ve always been. The foreign minister addressing it directly saying, “We will always welcome the grandchildren of the Anzacs as we have done in the past and future”.

I was particularly moved by the actions of a famous Turkish rock star. Haluk Levent runs a social support charity Ahbap (which has 30,000 volunteers in 63 cities) and after 25 years in the music industry is a much loved figure here.

He was so affected by the events in Christchurch that he decided to donate the profit from a concert near Gallipoli (he says where our grandfathers spilt blood) to the victims.

100,000 people attended the event on the 19th March and he raised about $14,000 NZD – this is a lot for Turkey.

He says, “I’m representing the Turkish people, and I want to show that I am sharing the grief of New Zealand’s people. Turks are heartbroken by this tragedy as much as the New Zealanders”.

When I ask him whether Kiwis have anything to fear in visiting the country he says with passionate arm gestures (as though he’s hugging someone) that, “nobody should be worried about coming to Turkey, we will be hospitable to all Australians and New Zealanders - They should come here and show their feelings of friendship and brotherhood and sisterhood and we are here to embrace them with our feelings of love and solidarity”. It seems very genuine.

I can’t say I’ve canvassed every faction of Turkish society, but Winston Peters appears reassured by his conversations which of course have been at a much higher level than my chats on the street.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes the supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a rally in Konya, Turkey, Friday, March 22, 2019. Erdogan sparked controversy by screening video clips of the New Zealand mosque attack, despite efforts by New Zealand to prevent the video's spread. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan salutes the supporters of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a rally in Konya, Turkey, Friday, March 22, 2019. Source: Associated Press

He says, “we are returning home to New Zealand with a grateful reassurance that our people will come here to commemorate ANZAC and will be as welcome as they always were.”

Of course it has to be remembered that the tourism industry enjoys the annual ANZAC pilgrimage too.

The ongoing airing of the gunman’s killing spree at President Erdogan’s election rallies however is not as heart-warming as the welcoming sentiments being expressed by his foreign minister.

I must say I, like many people, was surprised President Erdogan had aired the controversial vision for a 9th time today especially given the New Zealand Foreign Minister is currently in the country and the Islamic and Arab countries had just expressed solidarity with New Zealand.

Governments and social media sites have attempted to remove it from distribution and it’s illegal to show or even have a copy of it in New Zealand.

But Mr Peters said he didn’t address it with the president saying, “I did not see any sound long term peaceful purpose in raising it”. Just a few days ago the Prime Minister said, “our Deputy Prime Minister will be confronting those comments in Turkey".

Not bringing up the video or the ANZAC comments does not appear to be much of a confrontation. Is there more at play here? Is there something behind the scenes we don’t know about?

To put it in context too, Turkey is one week away from local elections. These are a big deal and the last few days are crucial for persuading undecided voters.

President Erdogan appears to be throwing everything at these local elections to distract from the fact that Turkey is facing economic challenges (inflation is at 20%, unemployment is at 13.5% and food prices have soared). He is appealing to his conservative audience by using this rhetoric.

But the vast majority of people I’ve spoken with don’t believe it will ignite any anti-Kiwi sentiment. It’s targeted at anti-Muslims and there’s no way the New Zealand response in the wake of these tragedies can be called anti-Muslim.

In fact, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation thanked New Zealand on behalf of Muslims worldwide for the way it had rallied around the Christchurch Islamic community.

My impression (and I’m by no means a security expert) is that it’s no more dangerous to be a Kiwi in Turkey now than it was before the attacks.

There are no new travel warnings or advice for Kiwis at this point. Turkey is a country that has a shared history with our nation and the people, it seems, have no intention of changing that.

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Erdogan used a political rally to play parts of video, live-streamed by the gunman to Facebook. Source: 1 NEWS