Does Boris Johnson's politics resonate with his Turkish ancestor's?

  • Murat Sofuoglu
  • 1 Aug 2019

The British prime minister has aggressively used all means to reach to the top governing post, a trait that mirrors his Turkish great-grandfather's political approach.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a complicated ancestry from different nations. But his Ottoman great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, appears to have a dominant effect on Johnson’s psyche. ( Kirsty Wigglesworth/Samet Catak / TRTWorld )

Re-examining the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's family lineage, one of the most striking features that emerge is that Johnson during his formative years showed a keen interest in understanding his Turkish ancestry. 

“There is one eighth Turkish blood in his veins," said Selim Kuneralp, a former Turkish diplomat, who's also Johnson's cousin from his great-grandfather Ali Kemal's second marriage. 

Speaking to TRT World, Kuneralp recalls Johnson's first visit to Istanbul in the early 1980s. As a young,19-year-old undergrad student, Kuneralp said that Johnson stayed at his father Zeki Kuneralp's house in Istanbul. Zeki, he said, also helped Johnson write his 'first' journalistic article. 

Zeki was one of the top Turkish diplomats in the 1960s and 1970s, representing Ankara in London, Bern and Madrid. 

Johnson's paternal grandfather Osman Wilfred Kemal, was born to Ali Kemal’s first wife Winifred Brun, an Anglo-Swiss woman, while the Kuneralp siblings came from Kemal’s second marriage with Sabiha Hanim, a Turkish woman, who was the daughter of a prominent Ottoman pasha. 

Ali Kemal is pictured with his first wife, Wilfred Brun, who is seated, in 1900s. Wilfred was Boris Johnson's great-grandmother.(TRTWorld)

Back in the UK, Johnson is a man of many contradictions. The most glaring ones are: He's been accused of racism; he's shifted from being pro to anti-EU, supporting Brexit; he's often courted controversies for making snide remarks and random insults against the Muslim community.  

But he's also been praised for introducing an urban biking program called ‘Boris Bikes’, which encourages cycling as a means of public transport. 

Although the British press has covered many aspects of Johnson's life right from the time in the 1980s when he was elected as president of ‘the union’ at Oxford University, the training ground for future prime ministers, his Turkish ancestry and its influences on his political thinking hasn't been explored much. 

Graphic by Samet Catak(TRTWorld)

Ali Kemal’s ancestors belonged to a Turkish village called Kalfat in the central Anatolian province of Cankiri. Kalfat has been known for a significant population of blond people. The village’s cemetery has a number of graves with the surname Sari, which means yellow in Turkish.

According to some villagers, Johnson and his family have inherited their blond hair from their Turkish origins.

In Turkey, Johnson's great-grandfather Kemal, who served in the Ottoman Empire, has left a controversial legacy behind. He was killed in 1922 because of his opposition to the Turkish Independence War and its leader Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), the founder of the Republic of Turkey.  

Like Johnson, Kemal was also a journalist in his formative years. He was recognised for his razor-sharp commentary against the nationalist forces who fought the Greeks and Armenians, the proxies of the allied powers during the Turkish Independence War, even though the nationalist forces led by Ataturk gained enough leverage on the battlefield to negotiate for an independent and sovereign Turkey. 

Boris Johnson is the great-grandson of Ali Kemal, who was one of the most controversial Ottoman figures, opposing Turkish Independence War.()

In 1909, Kemal became a dissident and took refuge in England. He feared for his life as he publicly criticised the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which overthrew the skillful Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II. Kemal's son Osman Wilfred Kemal was born in London the same year. 

Kemal's views clashed with the nationalist policies of the CUP. In 1909, as the CUP succeeded in reducing the power of the Ottoman monarchy by introducing civil laws, Kemal criticised them over a range of issues, from warning them against resisting the allied powers to questioning their stance toward the Armenians. 

In a heated exchange, the CUP advocates accused the Liberal Union, which was led by Kemal, to be a pro-Western political body aiming to conspire with Armenians to weaken the Empire. Kemal also became a founding member of the Anglophile Society, which defended a British protectorate for Turkey during the Turkish Independence War. 

At one point, he claimed that the CUP members were planning to assassinate him. Although he survived for over a decade, he was eventually killed in a mob attack in 1922. 

Driven by his ideological prowess and also the need to relaunch his political career, Kemal left Britain in 1912 and returned to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. He left his children behind in England with their grandmother.  

Their grandmother replaced the Muslim-sounding surnames of one of his children with an Anglophone one, so as to prevent any backlash from the British authorities during the World War I, since the Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany, the rival of the Britain. Therefore, Osman Wilfred Kemal, Boris Johnson's grandfather, became Wilfred Johnson. 

“When my father was the Turkish ambassador in London, Wilfred Johnson and his sister Selma [who always kept her Muslim last name as Kemal] used to come to our house and talk to my father about our family connections,” Kuneralp said. 

Zeki Kuneralp, who was the Turkish half brother to Boris Johnson’s grandfather, is arriving to London as the new ambassador of Turkey at London Airport with his wife and sons Sinan and Selim in January 1964.()

“I remember a particular thing among others from those days that Wilfred was the one who looked like our grandfather [Ali Kemal] more than the other two siblings.”

Kuneralp also remembers that Wilfred Johnson’s son and Boris Johnson's father Stanley gave his daughter Rachel a Muslim middle name Sabiha, the first name of Kuneralp’s grandmother. 

Many of the Johnson family members showed interest in maintaining some degree of contact with their Turkish ancestry. 

Kuneralp said after his first visit in the 1980s, he kept coming to Turkey on a regular basis, visiting his great-grandfather’s birthplace along with Kuneralp’s older brother, Sinan Kuneralp, a prominent Turkish historian. Johnson, he said, even produced a TV programme for the UK's public broadcaster the BBC. 

Kuneralp said Johnson and his brother have always looked at Turkey with warmth and a distant sense of belonging. 

“His brother Jo, [now a minister in Johnson’s new cabinet] is the same. When he was reporting for the Financial Times in France and India, he established close relationships with our embassies in Paris and New Delhi. This was a family feature,” Kuneralp said. 

Stanley, Rachel and Jo Johnson wait for the new Conservative leader announcement, at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in London, Britain July 23, 2019.(Reuters)

According to Kuneralp, Johnson's unconventional style of politics somehow resonates with his great-grandfather Kemal's.

“There is a similarity between the two,” Kuneralp said, adding that while the Turkish branch of Kemal's politics chose a submissive and well-measured approach to navigating the country's power circles, the British side fully inherited Kemal's aggressive and argumentative attitude. 

From Kemal's grandson, Stanley, who was a British MP, to his great-grandson, Boris, the streak of taking unorthodox positions on compelling political issues is quite visible, Kuneralp said. 

Johnson’s other Turkish cousin, the historian Sinan Kuneralp, has also urged the British prime minister to tread cautiously and avoid any political missteps. 

“He likes to be provocative. His great-grandfather did exactly the same. He needs to be careful,” said Kuneralp during an interview with the Daily Mail this week. 

“If he goes on this way, he will end up by being a contestant for the position of worst prime minister.”