Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the strongman president of Turkey, scourge of liberals and secularists, promoter of conservative Islam and Islamism throughout the Middle East, baiter of the West, and jailer of journalists and judges, has been very lucky in his enemies.
Piece by piece Erdogan has overturned a century’s worth of carefully constructed secularism in the largest and most dynamic economy in the Middle East, and he has done so with the unwitting assistance of his political opponents.
Like a martial art master, Erdogan draws his enemy close. Then he turns and uses his opponent’s weight against him. Effectively, he weaves a political narrative that casts whoever opposes him as representative of a murky, secretive and privileged order.
This is a powerful concept in Turkey where suspicions about a “deep state” are entrenched. And thus Erdogan, the perpetual outsider, paints himself as the only one who can call the corrupt elite to account. This is the story told in The New Sultan by the Turkish academic Soner Cagaptay.
Take the attempted military coup of 2016, from which the Turkish president only just escaped with his life. The coup was planned – and bungled – by a faction within the Turkish army, which has posed as a defender of the Turkish constitution against both Right and Left over the last 50 years.
But the ideological drive behind the coup came from the followers of the Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen who has been based in the United States since the late 1990s. Yet the Gülenists, until recently, were close allies of Erdogan.
In a crackdown on secularist journalists, police officers, academics and above all army officers that began back in 2008, Gülenists were prime movers in what amounted to a four-year long purge of Turkish society. This purge helped the Gülenists to infiltrate every level of Turkish government and institutions, their placemen taking the seats vacated by ejected officials.
Whether the 2016 military coup attempt was actually planned by Gülenists, or whether it merely echoed their desire to take control of the Islamising project that Erdogan had started, is an open question. What is clear is that the Gülenists had outlived their usefulness to Erdogan, and the coup provided the perfect opportunity for one of the president’s power pivots.
As always, Erdogan was lucky. The coup plotters chose the wrong time to move: in the evening when the president’s natural supporters were at sober prayer and his natural enemies were out in clubland, and off guard. With only a moment’s warning that something was up, Erdogan left his holiday hotel and the assassination squad arrived to find an empty suite.
The insurgents overplayed their hand, shooting in the streets and bombing the parliament building in Ankara, and failed to capture important broadcast stations.
Within hours Erdogan had taken control of the story, framing the coup faction in the army, the Gülenists, and anyone else with even a hint of a stake in opposing Erdogan as the enemy from the depths of the “deep state”.
There followed a wave of sackings, arrests and detentions that reached into every corner of Turkish society, and which continues to this day. The authorities have had to release thousands of prisoners to make space for the political detainees. In this way, Erdogan is successfully suppressing the liberalism of expression that roughly half of Turkey’s population espouse.
It is a pity that in his portrait of the president, Cagaptay does not spend more time on the setting of Erdogan’s youth and the forces that shaped his personality. But it is clear that the Turkish leader’s claim to be an outsider in the rigid, stratified society that Kemal Ataturk created is at least partly true.
Erdogan was born in Kasimpasa, a depressed industrial suburb of Istanbul, but his family roots were in distant, impoverished northeast Anatolia. The family would go back every summer, and there, on the coast of the Black Sea, Erdogan would breathe in the most conservative variant of Islam in Turkey, both pious and passionate.
Back home in Istanbul, that sort of piety was scorned. It belonged to the eternal poor who scrabbled for a living outside of the privilege and patronage of the Kemalist state. For Erdogan, the rigorously westernising philosophy of Ataturk’s Turkey was also a philosophy of exclusion and poverty, and his sense of injury has never been assuaged.
As Cagaptay writes:
“He has become Turkey’s most powerful leader since Ataturk. But Erdogan still carries a chip on his shoulder: a deep grudge against secular Turks, as if to remind them of how unkindly they treated him as a poor, conservative, and pious youth from Kasimpasa.
“Erdogan has rarely let his guard down against his secular opponents, whose power is waning next to his. This is a result of his persistent fear that one day those opponents could push him back to Kasimpasa. Erdogan’s biggest strength as a politician and biggest weakness as a citizen is that despite being in tight control of the country, he feels as if he is still an outsider.”
The president was educated in the Imam Hatip Islamic school system, a barely-tolerated vestige of institutional Islam in Kemalist Turkey. If confirmation of outsider status were needed, this was it: an Imam Hatip education was a badge of exclusion. The fact that Erdogan was forced into the compromise of entering the public school system in his final year as a way of entering university probably planted a deep resentment.
If Erdogan had continued to sublimate that resentment in his first choice of career – as a professional footballer – Turkey and the Middle East might now look rather different. Instead, he fell under the spell of Necmettin Erbakan, the leader of the first Islamist party to enter the Turkish parliament, an antisemitic reactionary who saw political Islam as the one viable alternative to the violent Left-Right politics that accompanied the decay of Kemalism.
Islamism in Turkey has two springs of popular attraction. One is the perception that whatever Kemal Ataturk achieved in building a modern, post-Ottoman state in Turkey, Kemalism was unfair. The state belonged to Kemalists, an alliance of bureaucrats, army brass and landowners who pushed Islam out of public life altogether, and who decided who would grow rich and who would languish.
The other is a sense of horror at the instability and violence that the extremist politics of the 1970s and 1980s brought to Turkey.
Erdogan and his Islamist predecessors offered an alternative.
It will come as no surprise that the Erdogan alternative actually draws much from the Kemalist system he abhors. The concentration of power in an executive presidency; the majoritarian insistence on one ideology and one only; the control of information; the building of a leader cult with palaces to match.
Although the symbols Erdogan draws on are increasingly Ottoman – or as Cagaptay puts it, they are a caricature of Ottoman Turkey – the authoritarianism of Ataturk remains intact. So does the stark inequality of Turkish society: there are for example more billionaires in Istanbul than in the whole of Japan.
The great difference between the Kemalist and contemporary state is that Turkey is now a literate, connected society, with an economy that looks more like Italy than Iraq. Without a greater degree of pluralism, the economy that Erdogan has certainly helped to open and grow will eventually begin to look less like Italy, and more like Middle Eastern Russia.
Meanwhile, in geopolitical terms Erdogan has boxed himself in. His sponsorship of Islamist revolutions throughout the Middle East has proved a particularly bad bet, leaving him with enemies everywhere but particularly in Egypt and in Syria. Turkey’s natural friend is the US (not least because Russia is its natural foe), a friendship Erdogan’s instinctive anti-Westernism increasingly tests.
In domestic as well as foreign terms, Turkey is in a mess. As Erdogan’s crackdown continues, civil society is frozen. On just about every measure of freedom Turkey is sliding down the rankings – the Freedom House press freedom score for Turkey has slipped into the world’s bottom third, the World Economic Forum’s gender rights score has Turkey at 130 out of 144, and torture and worse in the overflowing detention system are increasingly reported (for example by Amnesty International). The threats posed by Kurdish nationalists and jihadi terrorists are growing. As Cagaptay says, Erdogan “has rendered Turkey politically brittle, in a state of permanent crisis”.
The problem is that if you are Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this doesn’t look like a mess. It looks like the triumph of everything you hoped for.
The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey by Soner Cagaptay is published on 25 May (I B Tauris)