Erdoğan’s ambitions to lead the Islamic world have been apparent for some time and have not been dampened by the rejection of neo-Ottomanism by the Ottoman Empire’s former subject peoples.
March 14, 2020 marked the 17th year since Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s took the helm in Turkey, first as prime minister and then as president. He is easily Turkey’s second-most consequential ruler; his tenure is already two years longer than Turkey’s first leader, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.
Atatürk, his secular reforms, his fierce nationalism, and his turn toward Europe defined Turkey though most of its first century. But as Turkey nears its centennial - now just over three years away - Erdoğan may seek to seal his legacy by completing Turkey’s transformation.
For much of his reign, diplomats, journalists, and academics have, either out of wishful thinking, a need to maintain access, a desire to avoid trolling and criticism, or outright fear, downplayed the ideological component to Erdoğan’s agenda.
When his Justice and Development Party (AKP) swept to victory in the November 2002 elections, Erdoğan declared, “Secularism is the protector of all beliefs and religions. We are the guarantors of this secularism, and our management will clearly prove that.”
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher celebrated the AKP’s victory as a sign of “the vibrancy of Turkey’s democracy.” Even after Erdoğan began consolidating power, setting the stage for fundamental reforms almost immediately, his Western cheerleaders dismissed concern that Erdoğan was pursuing a religious agenda.
In 2006, for example, Assistant Secretary Daniel Fried, assistant secretary of state, described the AKP as “a kind of Muslim version of a Christian Democratic Party,” such as that which Angela Merkel leads in Germany.That was all nonsense. So, too, was the notion that Erdoğan was using religiosity only as a tool to consolidate power.
After all, it has now been more than a decade since Erdoğan achieved complete dominance within Turkey and during that period, Erdoğan’s Islamism has only become more pronounced. How far Erdoğan may go is anyone’s guess as is his end game.
The same reasons for self-censorship that retarded insight into Erdoğan’s antipathy toward democracy and rule-of-law now lead many to self-censor open discussion about where Turkey may head, especially as Erdoğan prepares to preside over the country’s centenary. Projecting outward, amplifying the whispers of former Turkish officials and AKP defectors, and considering what old guard Turkish journalists believe but cannot write, Erdoğan’s endgame begins to take shape. Below are five possibilities:
1. An End to the Treaty of Lausanne?
The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne set the borders of modern Turkey. Erdoğan’s regime, however, has already laid the groundwork for delegitimizing Lausanne in the public minds.
In December 2017, for example, Erdoğan suggested “some details” in the treaty were “unclear.” Maps displayed on Turkish television show Turkey’s borders extending into Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia, Iraq, and Syria. So too do Turkish newspapers.
On March 11, 2018, Erdoğan suggested that the Bulgarian town of Kardzhali was within Turkey’s “spiritual boundaries,” a comment that drew protests from Bulgaria which at the time held the European Union presidency.
Such episodes could seem hyperboles were it not for subsequent Turkish actions. Erdoğan justified his Syria incursions in counter-terrorism, but proceeded to ethnically cleanse lands seized, not only expelling residents but also bulldozing their ancestors’ graveyards and introducing symbols of the Turkish state such as Turkish post offices. The same pattern has held true in Cyprus, whose occupation predates Erdogan by almost thirty years.
Could Erdoğan seek to formally revoke the Lausanne Treaty? It is a near certainty. But even if he does not formally revoke the treaty, his salami-slicing strategy to expand Turkey’s borders is already underway.
2. Close the door on Atatürk?
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is a revered figure in Turkey. As allied powers sought to grab land in Anatolia upon the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, Atatürk rallied Turkish forces in Turkey’s war of independence, and drove foreign forces.
He was also the founder of modern Turkey and declared Turkey’s independence. In many ways, however, Atatürk was everything Erdoğan has professed to hate. Almost singlehandedly, Atatürk reoriented Turkey from the Middle East toward Europe.
He also set Turkey down a more secular path, at least in governance. (Indeed, most of the early Kurdish rebellions had as much if not more to do with Atatürk’s perceived religious reforms than with his ethnic chauvinism). Portraits of Atatürk are ever-present in Turkish offices, and Turks continue to observe a moment of silence on the hour and minute anniversary of his death.
While Erdoğan pays lip service to Atatürk, he likely seethes at having to do so. In 1994, as mayor of Istanbul, Erdogan criticized those who stood at attention in memory of Turkey's founding father. “One ought not to stand [stiff] like a straw on Atatürk’s commemoration events,” he declared.
A decade later, Erdoğan surprised Turks when he replaced the Turkish flag and portrait of Atatürk in the backdrop for his monthly television address with a portrait of Atatürk’s tomb and a mosque. For Turks, the symbolism was clear: Atatürk was dead, but Islam lives.
Then, in 2012, he announced his goal to be to “raise a religious generation.” As Turkey’s approaches its centenary, Atatürk will likely become a far more frequent target of a campaign of de-legitimization. Expect to hear more about Atatürk’s alcoholism and his addiction to cigarettes.
Erdoğan might use the attack on Atatürk to try to woo Kurds back into the AKP fold. The attack on Atatürk’s honor won’t initially be frontal. Perhaps a vandal will deface a statue and be let off.
Initially, however, the tightly controlled papers will start raising questions about whether Atatürk is truly a righteous symbol for the new, religious generation. It won’t be long before Erdoğan’s minions deny they ever respected the man. Portraits will disappear from offices and then from currency, perhaps to be replaced if not with Erdoğan himself than with Ottoman sultans.
3. A republican monarchy or something more?
Erdoğan famously quipped that democracy was like a streetcar, to be disembarked once the destination was reached. In many ways, the AKP has become equally disposable for the mercurial Turkish dictator.
Whereas Erdoğan once shared power with AKP figures like Abdullah Gül, Ali Babacan, and Ahmet Davutoğlu (who will sometime soon be arrested for his ties to exiled theologian Fethullah Gülen), Erdoğan now relies overwhelmingly on his close family.
His sons Bilal and Burak handle the family business, now worth billions of dollars, while son-in-law Berat Albayrak combines business (such as trading in Islamic State oil) with politics; he currently serves as Minister of Finance.
Turkish state protocol now treats both sons and Erdoğan’s Imelda Marcos-like eldest daughter, Esra, and her younger sibling, Sümeyye, with greater reverence and honor than the formal ministers receive.
Just as the late Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak tried and late Syrian dictator Hafez al-Assad achieved, Erdoğan hopes to place a family member into Turkey’s leadership after he dies. That honor might go to Berat, although Bilal also remains a strong contender.
4. An Islamic Republic?
The question raised by some Turkish officials is whether a family republic will be enough for Erdoğan. While it seems incredibly far-fetched, some staunch Kemalists suggest Erdoğan longs more formally to start a dynasty and shed Turkey’s vestiges of republicanism.
Turks may be more primed for this transformation than Western diplomats acknowledge. Erdoğan could simply declare that republicanism is a system rooted in the West and therefore inherently illegitimate. He could argue that Turkey should revert to a more traditional system.
It might at first simply be a matter of terms. Ministers could again become viziers with the presidency reverting to a sultanate first informally but then formally after Erdoğan closes the chapter on Atatürk’s hundred-year interlude.
Indeed, Erdoğan’s willingness to work with and even encourage the Islamic State should be seen as illustrating his sympathies for the caliphate’s restoration, although not necessarily under an Arab bloodline.
Alternately, Erdoğan might pursue the Iran model and keep most of the trappings of republicanism while declaring Turkey an Islamic Republic. Perhaps he could remain president, but use 2023 to break formally with secularism. Reverting the alphabet to the pre-Atatürk Ottoman script might complete the transformation.
Atatürk embraced the Latin script to force Turks to break not only politically but also intellectually with the past. A reversion to the Ottoman alphabet would have the same purpose. In order to mitigate the impact on business, however, it would likely be gradual, with both alphabets holding joint official status for several years before Latin starts to fade out, first in Turkish hinterlands and then finally everywhere but Istanbul and the tourist destinations of the Mediterranean coast.
5. Leader of the Islamic world?
Erdoğan’s ambitions to lead the Islamic world have been apparent for some time and have not been dampened by the rejection of neo-Ottomanism by the Ottoman Empire’s former subject peoples. Erdoğan’s anti-Western incitement, religious rhetoric, and rejectionism are popular with the same subset of Muslims who once lionized without any sense of contradiction Ayatollah Khomeini, Yasser Arafat, and Osama bin Laden.
Indeed, it is a desire to assert Turkish leadership that best explains Erdoğan’s animosity toward Saudi Arabia. While Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s hit on dissident journalist and ex-intelligence official Jamal Khashoggi is inexcusable, Erdoğan is a hypocrite for taking up Khashoggi’s mantle given his own dismal attitude toward a free press. Rather, Erdoğan seeks to use Khashoggi to de-legitimize Saudi king as the custodian of Mecca and Medina, the basis of their claim to legitimacy.
It was the Ottomans, after all, who controlled the Hajj before the Arab revolt and the Saudis’ subsequent conquest of the Holy Cities in 1924 and 1925. Erdoğan will continue efforts to erode Saudi religious authority with his end goal a proposal to internationalize the Hajj and custodianship over Mecca and Medina through the Organization of Islamic Cooperation into the influence over which Erdoğan has heavily invested.
Historians get paid to predict the past and perhaps get that right only half the time. But some prognostication is warranted since Erdoğan shows no sign of loosening his grip on power or acquiescing to a Turkey which so many Western apologists still hope will re-assert itself.
Fifteen years ago, diplomats and analysts denied Erdoğan sought anything more than to imbue democracy with some Islamic trappings. Perhaps fifteen years from now, the same analysts will question how they could have been blind to Erdoğan’s ultimate agenda.
It is fine to quibble over the five end goals voiced above, but now is the time to discuss openly how Erdoğan visualizes Turkey fifteen years from now.