The Middle East

The Sins of Sultan Erdogan

erdogan 2Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s despotic quest to become the indubitable boss of the Republic of Turkey, if the polls are to be believed, will be rejected at the November 1 parliamentary re-election. Even the Anatolian hinterland has, reputedly, gone cool on their one-time hero. Turkey’s homegrown demagogue increasingly appears to be more trouble than he is worth. Sectarian war, which Erdogan has been hell-bent on inciting since his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was denied a plurality at the June 7 parliamentary election, can hardly be in anybody’s interests except Erdogan’s. That is not to say, of course, that the crash-through-or-crash Erdogan is going to play by (what remains) of the rules of Turkish democracy and go quietly into the night.        

Few modern-day politicians have been given the benefit of the doubt more than Erdogan. An Islamist firebrand in his days as mayor of Istanbul (1994 to 1998), he is on record from that period arguing “you cannot be secular and a Muslim” because “Allah, the creator of the Muslim, has absolute power and rule”. A four-month spell in jail in 1999 for contravening Turkey’s Kemalist (secular) constitution gave Erdogan a chance to rethink his political strategy and, until recently, he insisted that the ideology of the AKP was not Islamist but “social conservatism” mixed with “economic liberalism”.

In the aftermath of 9/11—and the AKP’s victory in the 2002 general election—the George W. Bush administration wanted to believe Erdoganism signified a mild and democratic version of Islamic politics that might inoculate the wider Middle East region against the Islamic fanaticism of Al Qaeda. In 2002, for instance, the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, praised Erdogan’s Turkey as “an excellent model, a 99 per cent Muslim country that has great importance as an alternative to radical Islam”.

Despite Erdogan’s refusal to allow Turkey to be used as a launching site for Bush’s military intervention against Saddam Hussein’s regime, it was common practice for politicians, commentators and academics in the West and elsewhere to endorse Erdogan’s “Neo-Ottomanism” foreign policy. In the Summer 2012 edition of the Washington Quarterly, for example, Ömer Taspmar contrasted the inward-looking sterility of traditional Kemalism with the AKP’s more dynamic and constructive paradigm:

Such emphasis on the Ottoman legacy is not part of a plan to Islamise Turkey or Turkish foreign policy; it is an attempt to balance and broaden the geo-strategic horizons of a country which until recently has been obsessed with following an exclusively Western trajectory.

Erdogan’s embrace of Hamas and souring political relations with Israel (notwithstanding a free trade agreement and economic relations that continue to flourish) did not, according to Erdogan’s defenders, portend a dramatic break with the West but, rather, a more self-assured Turkey coming of age and finding its true voice. During the period of the Arab Spring, between December 2010 and mid-2012, Middle East specialists often cited the AKP as “a safety valve” or “role model” for other Islamic parties in the region—including Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, which assumed power in Egypt in June 2012. Prime Minister Erdogan (and then foreign affairs adviser Ahmet Davutoglu) received widespread commendation for the wisdom and consistency of “zero-problems with neighbours”, and yet Ankara vociferously opposed military operations against Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 before stridently approving them, and repeated the same zigzagging course with Syria.

George W. Bush was far less sanguine about Erdogan by the end of his time in the White House. This was due not only to Turkey’s uncooperativeness during the Iraq War. As early as 2004, if we are to believe WikiLeaks revelations, US Ambassador Eric Edelman reported back to Washington that AKP appointees “at the national and provincial levels” were alternatively “incompetent or narrow-minded Islamists”. Other US diplomats noted that although Erdogan was “charismatic” and possessed “street-fighter instincts”, he promoted into positions of power “confidants from the Sunni brotherhoods” and surrounded himself with religious cranks. In another diplomatic report, also from 2004, a member of an AKP think-tank reportedly argued that Turkey’s role is “to take back Andalusia and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683”. Along with the implication of a growing sympathy for Islamic millennialism, there were also cases of astonishing levels of AKP nepotism and cronyism, some of which involved oil and pipelines and the administration of Iran’s President Ahmadinejad.

Nevertheless, on April 9, 2009, President Barack Obama offered an extraordinary endorsement of Erdogan in front of Turkey’s Grand National Assembly. Obama effectively blamed his predecessor, George W. Bush, for the tensions that had developed between the United States and the Republic of Turkey over the previous eight years. Bush upset the “Muslim world” with his impulsive response to the events of 9/11. Violent extremism, in the form of Al Qaeda, constituted “a fringe ideology that people of all faiths reject” and had no connection with Islam. America blundering into Afghanistan and Iraq was no way to address the root causes of terrorism. “You cannot put out fire with flames,” declared Obama, quoting a Turkish proverb. He pledged to “seek common ground” between Washington and Ankara, entreating Turkey to play its part as America’s “critical ally”. During an interview for Time magazine, in January 2012, President Obama nominated Recep Tayyip Erdogan—along with Angela Merkel, David Cameron, Manmohan Singh and Lee Hsien Loong—as one of the five national leaders with whom he had achieved utmost “trust and confidence”.

APOLOGISTS for Erdogan could certainly point to a number of successes on the part of AKP governance. Turkey’s economy had been relatively moribund in the 1990s but surged during the first ten years of AKP rule, which went some of the way to explaining the party’s success in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and 2011. More important, perhaps, was Erdogan’s stated goal to overcome the Turkish-Kurdish divide through “societal reconciliation” with Turkey’s 16 million Kurds, who constitute a fifth of the country’s population. The process benefited from the growing national economy, the effects of which were felt in the Kurdish regions of south-eastern Turkey. Some of the AKP government’s initiatives were ground-breaking, including the launching of the first television channel in Kurdish in 2009, permitting the use of Kurdish in courtroom procedures and during family prison visits, and the teaching of Kurdish in selected educational institutions.

The glue binding the nation—“New Turkey” as Erdogan calls it—would not be the Kemalist-style secularism of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) or the ultra-nationalism of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), but the Islamist revivalism—or “conservative democracy” as it was tagged—of the AKP. Erdogan scored a double victory in late 2011 on becoming the first Turkish leader to apologise for the 1937-38 Dersim Massacre of somewhere between 13,000 and 70,000 Kurds: “If there is need for an apology on behalf of the state, if there is such a practice in the books, I would apologise and I am apologising.” Some dismissed his regret as half-hearted, and yet the unprecedented nature of the gesture could not be denied. Erdogan struck home his political advantage when he repeatedly blasted the CHP—Ataturk’s creation and the ruling party at the time of Dersim—for being the cause of a national tragedy that only the balm of the AKP’s “societal reconciliation” could heal.

If the Kurds were not initially slated as the enemy of Erdogan’s “New Turkey”, the supporters of the CHP surely were. These impenitent secularists were less upbeat than Barack Obama about Erdoganism. The 2013 Gezi Park demonstrations targeted not only the AKP’s environmental vandalism and chronic cronyism but the restriction of freedom of speech through new blasphemy laws, the co-opting of the media, the purging of Kemalist elements in the army and the bureau­cracy, the undermining of judicial independence, the state-sponsored return of the hijab to public life, the appearance and expansion of Islamic elements in primary and secondary school education, and the banning of the sale and consumption of alcohol on university campuses in order to spawn a generation of “pious youth”.

By 2013, according to Reporters Without Borders, the Republic of Turkey had become “the world’s biggest prison for journalists”, with the country slipping to number 154—one above Swaziland—on the Press Freedom Index. The police crackdown on the Gezi Park protesters resulted in eleven people killed and 8000 injured. Jenna Krajeski, writing in the New Yorker at the time, noted the absence of Kurds during these tumultuous days: “With some notable exceptions, Kurds, usually Turkey’s most robust anti-government protesters, had been absent”.

Meanwhile, Erdogan claimed he would “drink hemlock” if it would secure peace between the Turks and the Kurds. In December 2012, he went so far as to initiate talks with the PKK’s Abdullah Öcalan, incarcerated on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara since 1999. Circumstances again favoured Erdogan. Abdullah Öcalan—who has remained the de facto leader of Turkish Kurds—had already abandoned the goal of an independent Kurdish state when, in the early years of his imprisonment, he traded Karl Marx’s communism for Murray Bookchin’s communalism. The way forward for Turkey’s persecuted minority, concluded Öcalan, was “democratic confederalism” rather than armed conflict: “Let guns be silenced and politics dominate … a new door is being opened from the process of armed conflict to democratic politics.”

Abdullah Öcalan, without any prompting, demonstrated his good faith in the peace talks by ordering PKK fighters to forsake their numerous strongholds in Turkey for the Qandil mountains of Kurdish Iraq. Erdogan supporters are keen to apportion blame for the eventual breakdown of the Erdogan–Öcalan peace talks—held under the auspices of Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency—along politically expedient lines. Maybe Öcalan pushed the centralist Erdogan too far with a wish-list that included greater autonomy for the Kurdish-majority areas in south-east Turkey. Conversely, perhaps it is too cynical to assume that Erdogan’s rapprochement with Öcalan was only ever a ruse—a scam that lasted only until Erdogan won the August 2014 presidential election with the aid of deceived Kurdish voters. Either way, Abdullah Öcalan is back in solitary confinement and Erdogan takes a very different attitude to the PKK: “For us, there is no difference between terrorist organisations. Whatever their purpose is, for us, a terrorist organisation is a terrorist organisation.” These days the government refers to the PKK as the “separatist terror organisation”.

WHERE did it all go wrong? President Erdogan’s contention is that the events of July 20 this year, in which Seyh Abdurrahman Alagöz slaughtered thirty-three university-aged civilians, changed everything. The atrocity, captured on film, occurred at the Amara Culture Centre in Suruç, the Turkish border town immediately adjacent to the Syrian Kurdish (Rojavan) city of Kobani. Given that most of the dead were young Turkish activists with sympathies for the anti-IS holdout in Kobani, and that the suicide-bomber was an ethnic Kurd with links to IS, Erdogan’s rationale for breaking the two-year-old truce with the PKK seems hardly credible.

The next day, to be sure, Kurdish militants claimed responsibility for murdering two Turkish policemen as retaliation for Turkey’s suspected complicity in the Suruç atrocity. Abdullah Öcalan, for his part, denounced both bouts of violence before the government enforced a blackout on news coming from Imrali Island. Inevitably, a series of massacres and outrages have ensued. In early August, Turkish F-16 jets pounded the Qandil mountains, killing as many as 400 members of the PKK, some of whom may have defended Erbil, the capital of northern Iraq (or the Kurdish Region), in the course of the IS group’s 2014 summer offensive. No matter. Others killed would have been involved, during the same period of time, in the heroic rescue of approximately 200,000 Yazidis trapped on Mt Sinjar—again, no matter. By late August this year there were reports of over 200 deaths in Turkey itself—some belonged to the PKK militia (HPG), some to the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) and more than a few were simply civilians caught in the firing line. Seventy-five Turkish jets, according to a Time report, flew 155 sorties against approximately 400 PKK targets between July 23 and July 26, but struck a mere three IS targets in the same period.

None of this is intended as an apologia for the PKK or its three-decade-long armed struggle against the Turkish state. That protracted conflagration, which commenced in 1984 and may have involved as many as 40,000 deaths, was a brutal affair and resolved nothing. Conservatives can be sceptical about Öcalan’s “democratic confederalism” but it offered a democratic resolution to a problem that has plagued the Republic of Turkey because Ataturk’s brand of nationalism proved too narrow to incorporate Kurdish sensibilities. One man’s failing can be another’s opportunity. Erdogan gave every appearance of responding favourably to Öcalan’s entreaties and—not by coincidence—the AKP improved its support amongst Kurdish voters at the March 2014 local elections. Later that same year Erdogan powered to victory in the presidential contest, not having to trouble himself with a second round since he scored 51.8 per cent of the first-round vote, the second candidate lagging far behind on 38.4 per cent.

The rise and rise of Erdogan seemed assured. Not even the December 2013 graft probe, in which police raids uncovered $17.5 million in unexplained cash on the premises of AKP insiders, appeared to dent Erdogan’s popularity. The most astonishing revelation from this tawdry episode was the posting on YouTube of a phone call of a panicky Recep Tayyip Erdogan urging his son, Bilal Erdogan, to offload millions of dollars expeditiously. Here was one young Turk who had flunked the “pious youth” test. Allies of the AKP have since jailed or forced into exile police officers and judicial authorities determined—as Erdogan put it—to “undermine the state”. Members of the judiciary who survived Erdogan’s counter-attack recently agreed to convene a special meeting with the purpose of destroying all evidence pertinent to the investigation of government corruption: not the usual order of things, one might think, in a legal inquiry. Erdogan’s unrelenting attempt to proscribe YouTube and Twitter in Turkey has proved less than decisive—so far.

It was the general election on June 7 that shattered Erdogan’s reputation as an unquestionable winner. Had the AKP won 330 seats, he could have set in motion constitutional changes leading to the transformation of Turkey’s political system from a parliamentary system to a presidential one that better suited his authoritarian temperament. Instead, Erdogan’s AKP won 40.9 per cent of the vote and had to make do with 258 deputies in the Grand National Assembly—not even enough to form a government on its own. The AKP’s traditional rival, the CHP, won 25 per cent of the vote and 132 deputies, the right-wing MHP 16 per cent (eighty deputies) and, to the surprise of almost everyone, the secularist-leftist-pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) found itself with eighty deputies after attracting more than 13.1 per cent of the national vote.

The emergence of the HDP, most analysts agree, deprived the AKP of its predicted majority. Few expected the HDP to cross the steep 10 per cent electoral threshold required for representation in the Grand National Assembly, and even fewer anticipated that non-Kurdish Turks would help swell its ranks.

A percentage of Kurdish voters—but certainly not all of them—turned against Erdogan because of his handling of the threat to the Syrian Kurds posed by the Islamic State. The image from late 2014 of Turkish tanks lining up along the Syrian border, turrets pointed in every direction other than the besieged city of Kobani before them, undermined many people’s confidence in Erdogan. The Rojavan authorities, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG), have long accused Erdogan’s government of providing arms and sanctuary for a multiplicity of Syrian jihadist outfits, including IS itself.

Shortly after the Turkish elections in June 2015, the YPG took the Syrian border town of Tal Abyad from the IS, transforming the Kobani and Jazeera enclaves into one contiguous territory. The capture of Tal Abyad had the additional benefit of cutting off the main access route for IS between Turkey and Raqqa, de facto capital of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State. President Erdogan offered this petulant take on a major defeat for the IS group:

Unfortunately, the West is hitting Arabs and Turkmen with planes and putting the PYD and the PKK in their places. How are we supposed to see this positively? How are we supposed to see the West as honest?

We can now see—admittedly with the benefit of hindsight—that Recep Tayyip Erdogan could never be America’s “critical ally”. In every episode of latter-day Islamic hysteria, from the 2006 Danish cartoon “outrage” to the real outrage of Charlie Hebdo, Erdogan has chosen to be on the wrong side of the barricades. Turning a blind eye to his antics has only encouraged him to venture further along the path of millennialist madness. In May this year, for instance, he and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu turned up in south-eastern Turkey to announce that the country’s fifty-fifth airport would be named Selahaddin Eyyubi Airport after Saladin of the Crusades. Both Erdogan and Davutoglu strongly intimated that the conquest of Jerusalem (al-Quds) and the re-establishment of the Caliphate are worthy goals of Muslims everywhere. Here is Davutoglu fantasising about the capture of Jerusalem:

By Allah’s will, Jerusalem belongs to the Kurds, the Turks, the Arabs, and to all Muslims. And as our forefathers went together to liberate Jerusalem with Saladin, we will march together on the same path.

Spokesmen for Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda or even the Islamic State could not have said it better. These days President Erdogan appears to see himself as the second coming of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the ruler of the Ottoman empire between 1876 and 1909 who tried to protect his realm by initiating a wave of Islamic revivalism. Sultan Abdulhamid II, at least, had the remnants of an empire to save, something to which “Sultan Erdogan” cannot lay claim. Erdogan’s “Neo-Ottomanism”, which was supposed to be about offering practical and wise counsel to the region, has transmuted into something very different indeed.

In truth, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s real grievance is not so much with the PYD or the PKK but the HDP, the secular leftist political party currently co-chaired by the charismatic Selahattin Demirtas. The HDP managed to do what a series of other Kurdish-associated parties have never done, and that is to bridge—on some level, at any rate—the Turkish-Kurdish divide. At its first congress in October 2013, for instance, the HDP leadership team went out of its way to express solidarity with the Gezi Park protests. Demirtas, for one, enthusiastically submitted photographic evidence of his participation in the tumultuous anti-government demonstrations in the summer of that year. Jenna Krajeski’s where-are-the-Kurds-when-you-need-them misgivings found a powerful rejoinder in the HDP’s engagement with nationwide concerns—women’s issues and the rights of religious minorities, for instance—that go beyond traditional Kurdish concerns and strike a blow at the AKP’s growing tyranny. Paradoxically, President Erdogan’s policies have helped to bring together Turks and Kurds, only not in a way he envisaged.

Many of President Erdogan’s actions since the June 7 poll indicate that his goal is no longer to resolve residual Turkish-Kurdish enmity but to exacerbate it for his own political advantage. In a fiery press conference in July he essentially accused the HDP—which garnered six million votes in the election—of being a front for the “separatist terror organisation”: “Executives of this party [HDP] should pay. The Turkish state has the power to make so-called politicians and so-called intellectuals pay for the blood of its martyrs.” Selahattin Demirtas and his colleagues have been threatened with the loss of political indemnity and prosecution for criticisms of AKP rule that threatened to “undermine the state”. President Erdogan has so far refrained from outlawing the HDP but, depending how events unfold, the possibility awaits. Selahattin Demirtas, who has consistently opposed the recent surge of sectarian fighting, claims not implausibly that the only crime of HDP was “to get 13 per cent of the vote”.

During a forty-five-day period after the election, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of the AKP was tasked—as required by the constitution—to form a coalition government. Not many expected Erdogan’s chosen successor in the premiership to broker a partnership with the HDP or the CHP, parties always denigrated as “indifferent to religion” by the man intent on reconfiguring Ataturk’s republic as an Islamic republic. Still, rules are rules in a parliamentary democracy and, after Davutoglu failed to form a majority government by coalescing with one of the three other parties represented in the Grand National Assembly, President Erdogan was obliged by protocol to offer the CHP’s Kemal Kilicdaroglu—as leader of the second-placed party in the election—a mandate to hold coalition negotiations. Instead, Erdogan called a new general election for November 1and appointed his man Davutoglu interim prime minister. This blatantly partisan act contravened the political neutrality required of a presidential incumbent. Kilicdaroglu, not without justification, characterised President Erdogan’s high-handedness as a “civilian coup”.

ERDOGAN’S declaration of war on the PKK has echoes of the tough stance of Devlet Bahceli’s Nationalist Actionist Party (MHP). Nevertheless, Erdogan’s goal is to marginalise the MHP while at the same time appropriating a portion of its hawkish supporters in the November 1 election. Bahceli understands this well enough, and relations between the AKP and his party are no less rancorous than with the other two major parties.

A coalition with the MHP would make tactical sense if only the Justice and Development Party were a political party in the proper sense of the term. The original meaning of party, as Richard Pipes pointed out in a different era, is to be a part of a multi-party political system. But the nature of AKP seems more akin to an “order” in the manner of Hitler’s Nazis or Lenin’s Bolsheviks. In fact, the Justice and Development Party turns out to be nothing more than a stealthier version of Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party (see “How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt”, Quadrant, December 2013), and proof—if more proof were needed—that “democratic Islamism” is an oxymoron.

President Erdogan’s attempt to incite sectarian warfare, while international investment and the economy go belly up, has not had the intended effect of significantly boosting the popularity of the AKP in the lead-up to the November 1 election. Even if the Islamists manage to win a majority in the next sitting of the Grand National Assembly, there is no (legal) way the AKP will obtain the 330 seats necessary to change the constitution and formally make Recep Tayyip Erdogan a president after the fashion of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. An AKP government could initiate a referendum in 2016 to achieve the same end, though the latest polls show 78 per cent of Turks reject the idea of restructuring the parliamentary system as a top-down presidential arrangement. Given the latest polls showing increased support for the HDP and the CHP, unless Erdogan can instigate the kind of emergency that will prevent Kurds from voting on November 1, the AKP tally might well fall short of a plurality for the second time in one year. And what then—a military coup or nightmarish descent into Syrian-style civil war?

There can be no happy dénouement in the Recep Tayyip Erdogan tale. Either the Tribune of Anatolia crushes the Turkish Republic or the people of Turkey vanquish him. His despotism denies the possibility of a middle way. Today he and his family inhabit a newly built palace in Ankara that cost more than $615 million to construct. Its gas bill alone equates to the combined salaries of 315 average Turkish workers. This oversized edifice, 1000 rooms in total with a 250-room private residence for the Erdogans, reminds many of the People’s Palace in Bucharest—and we know how the Ceausescu story ended.

Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes was arguing before the June 7 election that from the moment Erdogan assumed the presidency in August 2014 he behaved as if “his wished-for constitutional changes had already been effected” and the Turkish parliamentary system was already a dead letter. President Erdogan “chaired cabinet meetings, chose AKP candidates, leaned on the judiciary, and deployed a bevy of ‘czars’ to compete with the prime minister’s staff”.

Not even the massive electoral rebuff his despotic ambitions received on June 7 could dissuade the self-styled Tribune of Anatolia from his goal of extinguishing the “multi-headedness” of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy. On August 14, in his hometown of Rize, Erdogan brazenly affirmed that a new presidential-based system was a done deal: “You can accept it or not. Turkey’s governmental system has been de facto changed in this regard.” Erdogan now answers to no one but —in his own words— “his people” and “the nation”, despite the fact that on June 7 almost 60 per cent of “his people” chose not to answer to him and his call to transform the country’s political structure.

“Democracy is a train,” Erdogan reputedly claimed during his time as Mayor of Istanbul, “once you reach your destination you get off.” The terminus draws nearer by the day.

Daryl McCann wrote on “Obama’s Munich Moment” in the September issue. He has a blog at


One thought on “The Sins of Sultan Erdogan

  • says:

    You have to hand it to Erdogan: compared to other islamist leaders pretending to be “friends” or at least not hostile to the west, he is very honest in his pronouncements. He freely acknowledges that Islam and secularism are mutually exclusive and that the same goes for Islam and democracy. If only Muslim leaders in Australian were as frank as that. As to the bigger picture, Erdogan is simply a more sophisticated version of El Bagdadi, the “caliph” of Islamic State. He is just as committed to seeing Islam conquering the world, only employs more subtle means for advancing the cause. Reading this article is yet another confirmation of the mortal peril Islam means to the west.

Leave a Reply