Understanding Erdogan’s Appeal

A ‘firebrand’, ‘polarising’, ‘increasingly authoritarian’, and an ‘arrogant self-indulgent man pretending to be a Sultan’. These are some of the criticisms levied at Turkish president Receb Tayyeb Erdogan who has dominated the Turkish political scene since 2003, winning successive elections with his AK Parti, revamping the Turkish economy, overseeing a period of genuine prosperity, and has expanded Turkey’s international prowess.

Since the Gezi Park protests of 2013, which set off a chain of events that saw a falling out with long-time friend and close ally Abdullah Gul, tensions with Ahmet Davutoglu, and all-out war with the Fetullah Gulen movement, Erdogan has come under increased scrutiny as power has become almost completely centralised in his hands and those who are described by critics as his ‘yes’ man.

However, despite the wave of arrests, the crackdown on the Gulen movement, and renewed tension with Europe and Washington, Erdogan’s plaudits and apologists continue to grow in numbers. There is an uncanny correlation between the increased criticism of Erdogan from the likes of Germany and well-regarded media outlets, and the gradual increase in Erdogan’s supporters not just at home, but abroad. Erdogan is referred to fondly as the “Sultan” and even as the lira falls to record lows, even mild critics are buying the opinion that it is a foreign conspiracy launched after Erdogan challenged the international monetary system by declaring interest rates the “mother of all evil” and that he would exert greater influence on Turkey’s monetary policy.

So how can this phenomenon be explained?

Legacy of Ataturk

It is easy to fall into the trap of analysing Erdogan in the context of his victories. However, assessing his rise prior to 2003 provides greater clarity over the trajectory that the AK Parti under Erdogan has pursued, as well as the high stakes that remain at play even today.

Prior to 2003, Turkey had been ruled by the legacy of rabid secularism that gripped the country following the fall of the Ottoman empires. From 1923, Mustapha Kemal Ataturk set about changing the Arabic Ottoman letters to Latin script and after his death, his followers began a ‘reformation’ which saw the Qur’an and Adhan (Islamic call to prayer) banned, and the propagation of a secular identity of the ‘Turk’. The ‘Turk’ included the large Kurdish population in the historical capital of Diyarbakir, Saladin’s rumoured historical military stopover Vaan, as well as the traditionally more conservative population of Anatolia.

The Kurdish and Arabic languages were set aside in favour of Turkish in this overwhelming drive to create this modern identity. Government posters were placed in Kurdish areas propagating phrases including ‘the happiest person in the world is one who says he is a Turk’. Dissent was crushed by a number of military coups, the most famous being that of 1960 conducted against the then Prime Minister Adnan Menderis who veered from the sacred tenants of secularism that Ataturk’s disciples preached.

However, rather than creating a new modern ‘Turk’, the state policy merely drove the ‘Islamist’ identity into hiding. For while Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir developed sizeable secular communities, Anatolia continued to preserve its traditional heritage and the Kurds maintained their language in spite of efforts to ban its use in the public domain. The more the state strived to reduce and ultimately remove the Islamic and Kurdish identities within Turkish society, the more it drove people to grasp onto them as an existential raison d’etre. The Kurdish groups began to strike up resistance in the form of the PKK and rallied to Abdullah Ocalan’s call for a ‘fight to exist’ against a state unwilling to acknowledge them.

Liberation of society

The impact of these policies meant that by the time Necmettin Arbakan, Erdogan’s mentor, came to the fore of Turkish politics, the alienated elements of Turkish society, significantly larger than the then dominating secular groups, began to find space to breathe and seized the opportunity to drive back Ataturk’s ideology. Moreover, Fetullah Gulen’s movement (then an ally of Erdogan), successfully infiltrated state institutions including the army, which enabled the AK Parti to fend off deep state resistance to their electoral victory.

The paralysis of the army ensured free and fair elections. In an environment of freedom, the repressed Islamic elements of society came out in force. The proof of their sizeable influence is reflected in the AK Parti’s consistent electoral victories.

Erdogan was moulded in the secularism versus Islamism era. He is everything that the secular elements of state sought to repress: unashamedly Muslim and proud of his Islamic heritage. In a country where this was once regarded as near blasphemous, it is now seen as refreshing by many of the previously repressed elements of Turkish society. Erdogan’s public recitations of Qur’an, public rebuke of Angela Merkel for using the term ‘Islamist terrorism’, and his rejection of the euro-centric framing of the debate on extremism in Islam (preferring instead to declare extremism as outside the fold of Islam), reverberate among Turkey’s many conservative and semi-conservative elements in society. Claims that Erdogan’s ‘Islam’ threatens Turkey’s ecular identity are poignant and well-founded. However, they are seen as callous among Erdogan’s sympathisers and apathetic to the once-dire plight of these elements of society under the ideology these critics seek to protect.

Moreover, Erdogan is not ‘moulding’ Turkish society as many Western analysts would have it, but liberating it from the “clutches of secularism” that was thrust and forced upon it following the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In other words, Erdogan has merely taken the secular shackles off Turkish society and allowed it to express itself. Islamism has always been the majority view in Turkey. It could only be expressed as a power however, once the guns of secularism had been sabotaged and seized from the tyrannical minority in 2001. Turkey today, is more representative of its people than it has been at any point since 1923.

Authoritarianism and rampant abuse of power

Imprisoning journalists and clamping down on opposition is worthy of drawing criticism. There is much to be concerned with the clamping down on freedom of speech, and imprisoning every writer who publishes even a sentence of opposition. Erdogan’s actions have caused much distress even among those closest to him within his party and has shaken many of the party faithful. However, while criticism within the AK Parti ‘family’ is deemed acceptable, these same individuals have rushed to Erdogan’s defence in the face of increasing criticism from Germany and the liberal West. It is easy to be baffled by this. However, AK Parti members hit back forcefully at what they perceive as flagrant hypocrisy by referencing the continued high esteem in which Barack Obama continues to be held in the eyes of many liberals.

Obama exiled Snowden who exposed the NSA, rabidly chased Bradley Manning, left Guantanamo Bay open even while he knew torture was being conducted, extensively expanded the drones program, supported a military coup against the democratically-elected President Zelaya in Honduras, failed to punish the big banks, and left behind an America ripe for the election of Donald Trump. Yet he is still held in high regard.

If, despite all this, Obama can be considered to be good, then, according to AK Parti supporters and Erdogan sympathisers, surely applying a similar criteria to Erdogan can achieve the same conclusion.

After all, Erdogan warred with the PKK who pulled out of peace negotiations in favour of civil war, achieved rapid economic growth over 15 years, reeled back decades of brutal secular repression in Anatolia and Kurdish areas, ushered in an era of freedom (however relative it may be) not seen since the Republic’s founding, restored Kurdish language lessons in school, took in 3 million Syrian refugees and implemented work, health and education schemes to integrate them despite grumblings from his own base, and consistently won free and fair elections.

It is all a matter of perspective. Obama’s flaws are just as bad, if not worse than Erdogan. This reality leads many, including neutrals, to suggest there is more to liberal criticism of Erdogan than merely his faults; a racism of sorts and an aversion to all things religion than any sincere desire for rights, freedoms and justice in Turkey.

Islamists may criticise Erdogan. However, this is because they desire a more just rule in the Islamic sense reflective of the desires of the majority of the Turkish and Kurdish population. Erdogan’s policies have seen most sections of society improve. Even the ardent Kurdish nationalist will confess that economic improvements instigated by Erdogan in Kurdish areas dented appetite for a Kurdish state prior to 2013. Liberals, however, seek to return to the dark days of the tyranny of the minority where large sections of society remained under vigilant watch and subject to fierce repression. Whether these statements are true are irrelevant. What is clear, is that there are two very different perspectives; one that used to have hegemony and usurped power, and one that spent decades on the receiving end of hegemony and now seeks never to give up the new found hegemony to those who oppressed them. These sentiments have significantly influenced Turkish politics, and indeed Erdogan’s own survival.