Is Turkey’s Strongman Caught in a Web of His Own Making?

When it comes to extended reporting in the Western press, Turkey generally gets a pass. The country is far away, sandwiched between the Arab world, Iran, Central Asia, and the Balkan peninsula. Its language is strange and forbidding. Neither Indo-European nor Semitic, Turkish is bereft of articles, gender, and relative pronouns; replete with suffixes employed for a great variety of purposes; and characterized by a host of idiomatic expressions baffling to outsiders. Moreover, Turks tend to be reticent and, as a political community, inward-looking. They have a proud history, and they have always marched to their own drummer. Few Europeans and even fewer Americans are closely familiar with Anatolia and those who inhabit it.

This is a misfortune, for Turkey is important. The country is large, populous, and strategically situated. It controls the entrance to the Black Sea. It sits athwart the most easily traversable roads that lead from Europe to the Middle East, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and China. Its army is large and well-trained.

During the Cold War, Turkey’s membership in NATO was a great boon for that alliance. Over the last two decades, however, the country has become increasingly uncooperative, and its relationship with the United States and the West more generally is now in question.

To some degree, this is a natural concomitant of the end of the Cold War. Alliances tend to be held together by fear focused on a common threat, and when the threat disappears and the fear recedes, alliances tend to collapse or gradually dissolve. In this case, however, the approach taken by the current Turkish government verges on outright hostility. If it persists in its determination to deploy a Russian-made radar and air defense system—a system incompatible with NATO armaments and likely to enable our adversaries to learn the capabilities of our air force—it is possible to imagine Turkey’s expulsion from NATO.

Modernization on the French Model

If one is to grasp how this hostility developed, one must first glance at the country’s past history.

Turkey has long been a cultural force of importance within the Islamic world. During the Ottoman period, the rulers of Anatolia supplied Sunni Islam with its caliph; they provided the Sunni world with leadership and military protection; and at times they threatened to gain full control within the Mediterranean and to overwhelm Western Europe.

In the 19th century, the Ottoman regime began to give ground as the Christian minorities within its boundaries, encouraged by the states to the immediate west, emerged as self-conscious nations intent on achieving independence. It was at this time that, in the face of repeated humiliation, prominent Turkish-speaking loyalists began exploring the possibility of modernization on the European model within the Ottoman realm.

This process and the attendant debates, which Bernard Lewis traced in his classic work The Emergence of Modern Turkey (1969), eventually gave rise to Turkish nationalism. And where the Young Turks of the late Ottoman period stumbled and lost a great war, Mustafa Kemal, who came to be called Atatürk or “father of the Turks,” succeeded.

Like many of the Ottoman modernizers, Kemal was an army man—acutely sensitive to the technological backwardness of the polity he was called on to defend. He was also more than merely competent in French, and he was familiar with the arguments advanced by the Baron de Montesquieu and other French Enlightenment thinkers. During World War I, those of the Young Turks who sensed the depths of his ambition denied him access to a command where he was likely to be able to distinguish himself; but he was able to turn this circumstance to his advantage. For he was in command at Gallipoli in 1915 when the British landed along that peninsula’s shores, and by means of his victory in that encounter he emerged as the only Turkish commander to have enjoyed a notable success in the war.

In the aftermath of that brutal conflict, the sultan dispatched Kemal to Anatolia to disarm the remaining Ottoman troops. He did the opposite, organizing an army to resist the Greek invasion. After having expelled the invaders, Kemal then leveraged the prestige he had gained, and on the ruins of the Ottoman dominion in eastern Thrace and Anatolia he founded a modern, secular nation-state.

This required that he drag the largely illiterate peoples of these two regions into a new and unfamiliar world that was incompatible with traditional Islam. To this end, he effected the abolition of the Sultanate, then the Caliphate, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, and the religious schools. Taking France’s Third Republic as a model, he confined religion to the private sphere, put Sunni Islam on a leash, and instituted secular schools. He purged Turkish of Arabic loan words and substituted the Latin alphabet for the Perso-Arabic script hitherto employed. He abolished the religious courts, and, in place of the shariah, he established a legal system modelled on the law codes of Switzerland, Italy, France, and Germany.

Kemal also suppressed the religious brotherhoods, outlawed the fez, and brought women into the public sphere. Not only that, he enfranchised women, saw to it that there was a common curriculum in the schools for both girls and boys, and encouraged the entry of the former no less than the latter into the learned professions. At the same time, he did everything within his power to encourage the peoples of his new republic to think of themselves first and foremost as Turks, not Muslims.

The Political Character of Islam

In many respects, the revolution instigated by Atatürk was a great success, and it inspired imitation by the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran and by Arab nationalists in a host of countries. But, in the course of the 20th century, he and the Kemalists who rallied to his cause and followed in his footsteps failed in two particulars: They never managed to fully assimilate the Kurds residing in eastern Anatolia, and they never fully tamed Islam. There were Kurdish uprisings in the time of Atatürk, and to this day the Kurds of eastern Anatolia are restive and often in rebellion. Secularism was contested in the 1920s and 1930s, and every time that Atatürk tried to introduce a multi-party system, one of the two parties exploited Muslim discontent, causing him to pull back.

It is easy for Westerners to underestimate the political character of Islam. Under the influence of our Christian heritage, we tend to think religion first and foremost a matter of faith. Under Muhammad, something of the sort may have been true for Islam. But, under the caliphs who succeeded him, it became what it is to this day: a religion of holy law. The word “Islam” means, in Arabic, “submission,” and that to which one is called upon to submit is God’s law. Barring a transformation of Islam far more fundamental than what happened within western Christendom with the coming of the Reformation and the rise of the nation-state, pious Muslims will never be satisfied with secular republicanism. The theologico-political problem is alive and well within the Muslim world.

This is especially true within Sunni Islam, which admits of no distinction between religious and political authority. In effect, as pious Sunni Muslims recognized from the outset, Atatürk’s attempt to confine religion to the private sphere was a direct assault on their religion. It is in no way a surprise that, when free elections were instituted in 1950 under American pressure by Atatürk’s successor Ismet Inönū, Islam once again gained political leverage. It grew thereafter in halting steps. In the mid-1980s, when I lived in Istanbul and traveled in Thrace and throughout Anatolia, the depth of the political divide over Islam was everywhere evident.

A Master Maneuverer

Soner Çaǧaptay’s slender volume, The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey, is an attempt to chart the most recent stage in this theologico-political conflict and the concomitant rise to dominance in Turkey of a man named Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan. In the opening chapters, Çaǧaptay briefly sketches the history of Turkey after Atatürk’s death in the late 1930s, the emergence of Islamic political parties in and after the 1960s, episodic resistance on the part of Kemalist military to the threat to the secular state posed by these parties, and the gradual erosion of Kemalist sentiment within the military. Though useful and necessary to his argument, these chapters leave one wishing for what we lack in English: a full-scale history of the Turkish republic in the last two-thirds of the last century comparable in scope and grandeur to the account of its founding provided in Lord Kinross’s classic biography of Atatürk published in 1964.

The remainder of Çaǧaptay’s fine book has Erdoǧan himself as its focus. We learn about his childhood, his education, and his athletic career. We learn about his early involvement in the political parties headed by Necmettin Erbakan, about his election to the mayoralty in Istanbul and his imprisonment at the instigation of the military, and about his eventual break with Erbakan and his founding of the purportedly non-Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP). We also learn about the financial crisis of the 1990s and the highly unpopular austerity program introduced by the center-Right parties that enabled the AKP to garner more than a third of the vote in the election of 2001. Çaǧaptay also describes the provision of Turkey’s constitution, aimed at eliminating splinter parties and promoting something like bipartisanship, that awarded the AKP an outright majority in the Turkish parliament on the basis of its 2001 plurality.

We also learn a great deal about what Erdoǧan did with this opportunity in the 16 years that followed.

With consummate skill, this canny man tacked one way. He visited Israel and cozied up to the Europeans. He sidelined the military by using as allies the pro-Western liberals (who recognized this as a prerequisite for Turkey’s admission to the European Union) and the well-educated followers of the charismatic religious teacher Fethullah Gülen, who had been driven from Turkey by the Kemalist officers. He conducted negotiations with the Kurds and offered them concessions, and he absorbed a host of center-Right figures into the AKP. In these years, with the help of the economic expertise supplied by those trained in Gülen’s vast network of schools, he briefly continued the austerity program, stabilized the currency, and then oversaw a period of dramatic economic growth.

Thereafter, Erdoǧan tacked the other way, ostentatiously stirring up trouble for Israel, discarding the liberals, purging the Gülenists, using state power to eliminate the bulk of the opposition press, turning on the Kurds, eliminating the center-Rightists from his party, transforming the AKP into a fiercely Islamist party, and making deals with Turkey’s ultra-nationalists.

All the while, as he won election after election, Erdoǧan consolidated his loyalists’ hold over the military, the courts, the bureaucracy, and the press, systematically eliminating from positions of influence not only the Kemalists but also his erstwhile allies. Finally, he rewrote the Turkish constitution, transforming the republic from a parliamentary to a presidential regime on the French model, and he sidelined those who had helped him found the AKP. One may not like the man or what he is doing, but one must admire his political adroitness, and Çaǧaptay does a wonderful job of tracing his maneuvers.

And a Neo-Ottoman Prince

Where this volume falls short, however, is in the field of prognostication. Like many a Turkish liberal, Çaǧaptay falls prey to wishful thinking. One cannot read his narrative without coming to realize that Erdoǧan is a man with a mission. Atatürk founded the Turkish republic just under a century ago. Although Erdoǧan concedes the greatness of his predecessor, he is intent on overturning nearly everything that he achieved; and though, in contrast to his onetime mentor Erbakan, he is tactically flexible in the extreme, turning Turkey into an Islamic republic, jettisoning its pro-Western policy and its stance of neutrality in the Middle East, and turning it into a player in the larger Sunni Muslim world has been his aim from the outset.

As the title of the book suggests, Erdoǧan is a neo-Ottoman prince intent on following a neo-Ottoman policy, and it is easy to imagine him setting himself up as caliph and posing as the Commander of the Faithful. This might be folly. Atatürk would certainly have thought it so, and the advice that Çaǧaptay proffers to Erdoǧan at the end of the book is excellent. But it will not be taken.

It is, nonetheless, possible that Erdoǧan will find himself out of power in the relatively near future. They still hold elections in Turkey. These may not be conducted in a manner fully fair, and they are not entirely free, but to date few, if any, ballot boxes have been stuffed and the votes have been accurately counted. Just such an election is due in 2023, on the 100th anniversary of the republic’s founding, and Erdoǧan is under pressure. His party briefly lost its majority in parliament not so long ago; the economy is now in a tailspin likely to produce an enduring downturn; and in Istanbul, a stronghold that Erdoǧan and his minions have controlled for the last quarter-century, the opposition candidate just won the mayoralty by a healthy margin.

Turkey is a large, complex country. Thanks to the economic growth that took place early in the new century, it is now, as Çaǧaptay points out, majority middle class. Something like half of the Turks are fiercely hostile to Erdoǧan and his party. The liberals, the Gülenists, the old center-Right, and the Kurds are not likely ever to cozy up to the man again. Moreover, Turkey’s political parties have nearly always been personal vehicles, which is certainly the case with the AKP. The only such party to have survived the demise of its founder has been Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party. And, since 1950, the ascent of a party leader to the presidency of Turkey has led to his party’s collapse.

The adroit maneuvers that enabled Erdoǧan to get where he is now may render further maneuvers of a similar sort impossible. This new sultan would not be the first politician to be caught in a web of his own making.