The West shouldn’t give up on Turkey, especially for the sake of the many Turks who did not vote Erdogan in the last two ballots. In both, the 2014 presidential election and the 2017 referendum on the constitutional amendment, slightly less than half of the electorate voted against the incumbent. Nonetheless, after the unsuccessful coup attempt in the summer of 2016, Erdogan managed to massively expand his influence over the country’s political institutions, courts, and media. As a consequence, the second half of the Turks have become virtually invisible to the rest of the world. Ever since the transformation of the country according to Erdogan’s ideology is in full swing.
His strategy builds on his own idiosyncratic reading of Turkey’s Ottoman past. Since the 2009 World Economic Forum in Davos, where he had brushed off Israel’s president Shimon Peres on stage, he has campaigned to reposition Turkey as the protective power of the Near East – just like in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire. A clear line leads from 2009 into the current military deployment against the Kurds and in Syria. In the years before 2009, Erdogan was the hope of all Turks, the secularists and the pious. Heading towards EU membership, he had brought reforms on their way and strengthened the economy.
Unlike in Erdogan’s much-admired Russia, where minorities are demonised and hunted down, no such strategy is necessary on the Bosporus. While homosexuals and journalists have to fear for their life in Putin’s Russia, Turkey liberalises in some areas, normalises the relationship to the Kurdish minority by allowing more space for their language on airwaves and their culture in the public space.
Today, only a few years later, the fear of a civil war is on the mind of many Turks. Both camps, Erdogan supporters and opponents, face each other with equal might and unforgiving steadfastness. Under the radar, Erdogan long worked towards this confrontation. Back during his first campaign in 2003, he employed a rhetoric that today belongs to the essentials of any populist movement: He, Erdogan, constructed himself as the representative of the ‘brown Turks’, those who call Anatolia and the Coast of the Black Sea their home. In a classic ‘us-versus-them’-narrative, they were pitted against the so-called Kemalist and secular ‘white Turks’. Divide and rule tactics brought him to power.
The West currently discusses, whether Erdogan has forsworn Islamism or not, and consequently whether he intends to lead Turkey back into Islamic ages or a future that reconciles Islam and democracy.
The Turkish EU rapprochement initially gained speed but was ultimately slowed down again by the unsuccessful French and Dutch referenda on an EU constitution. The denial of such an EU-wide constitution was read as a rejection of Turkish EU membership. It will be up to future generations to uncover the point at which Erdogan’s ensuing radicalisation became irreversible.
From today’s perspective, it’s undeniable that he must have recovered a religious reading of his political authority and the country’s path, should he have renounced an Islamic worldview in the first place. Today, the president of the secular Republic of Turkey offers its citizens advice on the number of children a Turkish Muslim wife should have. Erdogan also knows that there is no homosexuality in Turkey, given that such would against his reading of Islam.
The Christian minority in the country is facing enormous pressures. The Turkish Ministry of Religion, ‘Diyanet’, which was initially founded to hedge in the Islamic movement of the country and work towards its compatibility with modernity, now spies on Turkish citizens – domestic and abroad.
In the Federal Republic of Germany, cases became public of Turkish Imams on a government-backed mission to find and denounce sympathisers of Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan does not seem to grow tired of pointing his finger at the preacher as the mastermind behind the coup attempt in Summer 2016. He has thus far produced no evidence or proof of these accusations.
After the coup attempt, thousands of people were stripped of their economic and social status. The fear of an overly-powerful state apparatus firmly in the President’s hands has stifled the resistance of many but hasn’t yet silenced the whole opposition movement. Hundreds of thousands of people, for example, partook in the ‘March for Justice’ in Summer 2017, lead by oppositional politicians and representatives of civil society. The march concluded with a rally in Istanbul.
Turkey was a democracy for ninety years, the country harbours a developed civil society and is accustomed to diversity in opinions, not least on religious issues. Contrary to Erdogan’s retrospective monolithic construction of the Ottoman Empire, different ethnic and religious groups, the Millets, lived a relatively free and autonomous life within it. ‘Turkish Islam’, as the President describes it, is thus not historically ‘Turkish’. Rather, it is part of a much more extensive religious restoration in various parts of the Islamic World that builds on ideological dogmatism and the creation of boundaries.
In today’s terms, the Ottoman Empire certainly was no democracy with human rights, such as religious freedom. But it equally wasn’t a fundamentalist theocracy characterised by religious despotism, as Erdogan’s imagines its resurrection.
The many millions of Turks, who did not vote for Erdogan, are equally descendants of the Ottomans and children of the Turkish Republic. They stand for a different interpretation of the role, which Turkey should assume in the geopolitics of the 21st century. They stand for a conception of society that radically diverges from the Islamic one, which Erdogan’s is busy trying to sell to the West as the only authentic one.
The West would fare well by strengthening and supporting these Turks in their debilitating struggle for the future of the country. We must not give up on Turkey.
Professor Alexander Görlach is an affiliate of the FDR Foundation’s Defense of Democracy program and a senior fellow to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is also a fellow to the Center for the Research in Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge, UK. He holds PhDs in linguistics and comparative religion and is the publisher of the online-magazine www.saveliberaldemocracy.com. This article represents his views alone, not those of the FDR Foundation or other institutions.