Opinion // The Sultan or the Democrat?
Turkish President Erdogan’s irrational behavior is about power, not religion.
by Konstanty Gebert
Has Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gone insane? Or is he implementing a secret agenda to turn the secular state Ataturk founded 91 years ago into an Islamic republic? The answers matter for the country, which is split 48/48 on its assessment of Erdogan’s performance; for the international community, which still counts on NATO member Turkey to be a regional force for stability; and for Jews and Israel. This summer the American Jewish Congress demanded that Erdogan return the “Profiles in Courage” award the group had bestowed on him in 2004 for his role in “bridging cultures.” The Turkish leader did so “with pleasure.”
The American Jewish Congress now says it considers him “arguably the most virulent anti-Israel leader in the world.” He has publicly denounced Israel as “committing genocide” and “worse than Hitler.” He also called on Turkey’s Jewish community to condemn Israel—while assuring the community that its safety will be “guaranteed.” A reconciliation meeting with the American Jewish Congress ultimately fell through. And various Israeli attempts to mend fences with Ankara after the Mavi Marmara flotilla incident in 2010 have remained fruitless.
Israel is not the only topic on which the Turkish president’s remarks keep him in the media spotlight. Just in November, he stated that Muslims, not Columbus, had discovered America. He has also said that “the West wants [Muslims] dead, they like to see our children die,” and that treating men and women equally “is against human nature.” December saw the president order school textbooks to be changed to give children as much exposure to Ibn Sina, an 11th-century Muslim philosopher and scientist, as to Albert Einstein. He also demanded that schools begin teaching Ottoman Turkish—written in Arabic script and abolished in 1928 in favor of modern Turkish written with Latin characters—“whether they want it or not.” Erdogan then went on to condemn both the Nobel Prize committees and the UN Security Council as “Christian bodies” and therefore biased against Muslims. He most recently denounced birth control as “treasonous.”
So is he nuts? Dr. Aytun Çiray certainly thinks so. “As a doctor, I do not think Erdogan is in his right mind. A psychiatrist had better study him,” he said in May 2014, after Erdogan threw a tantrum at a session of the State Council. Dr. Çiray is also deputy chairman of the CHP, Turkey’s main opposition party, so his professional judgment might not be unbiased. But at a meeting of the European Venture Capitalist Association in Istanbul in June 2013, Jochen Wermuth, CIO at Wermuth Asset Management, also asked Turkish Finance Minister Mehmet Simsek: “Is it time to call the doctor?” His concern was aroused by Erdogan’s statement that the pro-democracy Gezi Park protests were sponsored by an international “interest-rate lobby.”
If Erdogan is unbalanced, he isn’t alone. While Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay helpfully explained that the culprit in Gezi Park was in fact the “Jewish diaspora… jealous of Turkey’s growth,” another politico, Yigit Bulut, blamed Lufthansa—which, supposedly, is jealous of Turkey’s plan to build a third airport in Istanbul. Bulut was also worried that an international plot exists to kill Erdogan by telekinesis. This would be only marginally interesting, were Bulut not Erdogan’s chief economic adviser.
Yet all this colorful detail does not prove that the Turkish president has lost his mind, or that he has set it on building an Islamist state. Erdogan proudly identifies as a Muslim, although a nationalist Turkish one. “You wouldn’t believe the things they have said about me,” he recently complained in a television interview. “They have called me Armenian, but I am Turkish.” His main enemy these days is the Islamist Hizmet movement—led by a former ally Fethullah Gülen, a reclusive thinker living in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
The only real “Islamist” measures imposed in Turkey, after 12 years of Erdogan’s AK party rule, are some restrictions on alcohol sales, the tolerance of the Islamic veil and the resurgence of the imam hatip religious high schools—which dedicate one-fourth of their curriculum to religious matters and enforce an observant lifestyle. These are not intrinsically radical moves. Easing restrictions on women’s wearing the veil can be defended as a legitimate expression of religious freedom.
Then again, Erdogan is no champion of religious freedom—not even for Muslims. Imams in Turkey deliver only such Friday sermons as have been handed down by the government’s religious department. One imam who dared challenge Erdogan’s assertion that Gezi Park demonstrators drank alcohol in his mosque in Istanbul is now in charge of another mosque—in deep Anatolia.
While the Turkish president’s worldview reflects his own imam hatip education, his unbridled arbitrariness is not specifically Islamic, but rather embodies the deeply authoritarian nature of the Turkish state. In fact, his embrace of Islamist doctrine has helped him amass political power. The state originally fought Erdogan’s attempts to do this, but Turkish Muslim voters voted en masse for his AK party, largely out of frustration with the state’s haughty rejection of their identity (kerchiefed women, for example, were not allowed to take exams at state universities or attend state functions). Erdogan, as prime minister and now president, has managed to combine this political popularity with the power of the state.
Jews remain endangered, as do Turkish democracy and Turkey’s neighbors—but this has little to do with rising Islamism. It reflects that the Turkish state continues to regard itself as the ruler, and not the servant, of its citizens. Erdogan’s current and increasingly arbitrary repression of his critics proves this once again. Paradoxically, though, he is limited by institutional curbs he himself imposed when he was still fighting to consolidate his democratically granted power. The army is safely back in the barracks, the judiciary is largely independent, and a free press has flourished. Yet these institutions are in danger.
In a way, the present Sultan Recep Tayyip is fighting the legacy of Erdogan, the erstwhile democrat. Things may still go badly wrong, but don’t blame Islam for that. Blame the cult of the state.