"When did the world become this loveless?” Turkey's republicans see electoral and mayoral success, using a strategy of "Radical Love"

'The Radical Love Book' front page. Banner reads 'Love my brother/sister'.  English language version here.

'The Radical Love Book' front page. Banner reads 'Love my brother/sister'. English language version here.

One of the great ambitions we have in A/UK is that we can begin to refresh the language of citizenship by appealing to people’s common challenges, starting from their localities and communities. And that the meeting of these challenges, in a direct and friendly way, might reduce the polarisations that come from participating in the usual “political” sphere - that of national parties on a right-left spectrum (or even Remain-Leave) spectrum.

The recent rise of Flatplack-Democracy-inspired “independent” local councillors in the UK - see our coverage here and here - are hopeful signs that this might be an attractive alternative to button-pushing populism.

But we’ve just heard of an extraordinary instance of it in Turkey, where the increasingly authoritarian President Erdogan’s party was defeated by a Republican Party in Istanbul, and other major cities, that preached a politics of “Radical Love”…

The Atlantic sets out the story:

Consider the following scenario: You are an opposition leader in a deeply divided nation. Against all odds, you narrowly win a local election against a ruling party that controls the public space and censors the media, becoming mayor of the country’s largest city. Under government pressure, however, the authorities rule that the vote was rigged, deposing you from office and triggering a new election.

What do you do?

This was precisely the dilemma facing the now-ousted mayor of Istanbul, Ekrem İmamoğlu, last month. Yet as many feared street protests or violence, he called for something perhaps more threatening to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)—love.

“They want conflict from us,” İmamoğlu told his furious supporters on the night he was deposed from office. “But we, the people who do not want this nation to fight, we will insist upon embracing each other.”

Turns out he meant it, quite literally. Ahead of the rerun of the mayoral election on June 23, İmamoğlu has taken to the streets of Istanbul, cuddling up with voters and uniting them around a slogan of disarming optimism: “Everything will be fine.”

Ekrem Imamoglu, CHP mayor of Istanbul, with his mother and sister

Ekrem Imamoglu, CHP mayor of Istanbul, with his mother and sister

While the AKP and the media outlets that support it accuse him of being an imported Greek backed by terrorists, the new star of the Turkish opposition has taken the lead in the polls by eschewing that confrontational approach. “Find a neighbor who doesn’t think like you,” he said, “and just give them a hug.”

In an interview with The Atlantic, İmamoğlu underlined the global significance of his strategy. “Polarization is a universal problem,” he said. “All around the world, populism is used to divide and rule. But I believe we can turn this trend upside down.

To do so, İmamoğlu is reaching out to the supporters of the government that pushed to depose him. Instead of retreating into the secular identity of his own Republican People’s Party (CHP), he has toured the mosques of Istanbul to signal his respect for the religious lifestyle of many AKP voters.

And instead of rejecting populism altogether, the deposed mayor trades in populist tactics of his own—promising to fight urban poverty by providing free water, milk, and bread to poor Istanbul families. “If a populist style helps to unite people, it is a good thing,” İmamoğlu told me. “We are showing that walls can be torn down with love.”

Not just love, but “Radical Love.” That is the name of the CHP’s new campaign strategy, outlined in a 50-page pamphlet, the Book of Radical Love. Though the document is adorned with flowery illustrations and citations from Sufi love poems, its author insisted to me there was nothing lighthearted about it.

Far from lovey-dovey chitchat, “Radical Love” articulates the struggle to love others under the worst conditions, said Ateş İlyas Başsoy, a CHP strategist. “We saw that we cannot change Erdoğan,” he said in an interview. “So we fight by changing ourselves.”

Başsoy’s work is based on the idea that polarization is closely tied to social life in a digital age. The constant use of mobile phones and social media, he argued, has introduced a form of restlessness and loneliness that stimulates anxieties and fears, which polarizing populists can feed off.

To overcome such emotions, the Book of Radical Love proposes more patient and sincere forms of communication. It advises campaigners to talk less and listen more, be open-minded, avoid ideological debates—and, above all, avoid attacking Erdoğan or demeaning his supporters. “The first principle of Radical Love is very simple,” Başsoy told me. “Ignore Erdoğan, but love those who love him.”

So are there any lessons for our own polarised public spheres in the West? The Atlantic goes on to quote from the American sociologist Arlie Hoschchild, who has recently made it her mission to listen and respond to the Trump voters she lives alongside:

In her best-selling study of the American right, based on years of fieldwork with Tea Party supporters in Louisiana, Hochschild demonstrates that many divisions in American society can, in fact, be overcome by crossing what she calls “empathy walls.”

“I see many parallels between my work and what the Turkish opposition is trying to do with Radical Love,” Hochschild told me. “Both are about mastering a temporary suspension of self—not a suspension of moral commitment, but of self—in order to surrender to the deep act of curiosity about others. It is a form of ‘emotion work’ that is hugely important in politics.”

Yet this emotional dimension, Hochschild argued, often gets overlooked in many discussions on right-wing populism. To beat politicians such as Donald Trump and Erdoğan, she said, opposition parties have to engage in more face-to-face contact with those leaders’ supporters and address their feelings of injured pride.

Far from giving in to right-wing populism, such outreach effectively communicates alternatives to it. “Radical Love is not naive,” Hochschild said of the CHP strategy. “It’s a way of dealing with conflict.”

The Radical Love strategy was brought to our attention by this tweet from Alex Evans. His Collective Psychology project (which we’ve recently profiled) is precisely aimed a creating what they call “A Larger Us”, or a bigger and more capacious sense of community, by focusing on psychological shifts and inner work.

From “The Radical Love Book” ( PDF in English )

From “The Radical Love Book” (PDF in English)

Yet Alex is as excited as we are about the emotional, poetic language that’s being used in the Radical Love strategy - doubtless drawing from an open appeal to the religiosity of the voters, but still somewhat shocking in its big-hearted directness. Some slogans collected by Middle East Eye and Euronews:

  • "In the endless emptiness of space, there's life on a tiny little planet. But there's always fighting on this planet… When did the world become this loveless?”

  • ”We are all in the same local bus”

  • “Uncle, I will not let your produce rot on the field”

  • “The end of the March is Spring”

What would a politics this direct, this human, sound like in the UK of 2019?