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Erdogan: Sultan of an Illusionary Ottoman Empire

Turkey has no chance to become as powerful and influential as the Ottoman Empire was during its heyday. And it’s all Erdogan’s fault.

Credit: Brookings Institution (www.flickr.com)

Takeaways


  • Erdogan embarked upon a systematic Islamization of the country while dismantling the pillars of democracy.
  • With the new constitutional amendments, Erdogan will be endowed with powers even greater than Atatürk ever held.
  • To project his grandiose vision, Erdogan is trying to instill Ottoman images into the public consciousness.
  • Foreign policy assertiveness: Under Erdogan, Turkey has become increasingly forceful in the region.
  • Erdogan could have been the Atatürk of today had he continued with his historic reforms while protecting individual rights.

In many conversations and encounters I had over the years with former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, he emphatically echoed his boss President Erdogan’s grandiose vision.

The vision was that by 2023 — the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic — Turkey will become as powerful and influential as the Ottoman Empire was during its heyday.

Under the best of circumstances, Turkey cannot realize Erdogan’s far-fetched dream.

Had he stayed the course, however, with the socio-political and judiciary reforms and economic developments that he put in motion during his first nine years in power, Turkey could have become a major player on the global stage and a regional powerhouse.

Erdogan undermined his country’s potential

Sadly, Erdogan abandoned much of the impressive democratic reforms he championed. Instead, he embarked upon a systematic Islamization of the country while dismantling the pillars of democracy.

In the process, Erdogan amassed unprecedented powers and transformed Turkey from a democratic to an autocratic country. He has ensured that he has the last word on all matters of state.

Democracy? Just for show

In retrospect, it appears that Erdogan had never committed himself to a democratic form of government. The reforms he undertook during his first nine years in power were largely induced by the European Union’s requirements from any country seeking membership.

But underneath that reformist skin, he exploited it all as a means by which to propel himself toward his ultimate goal.

A quote attributed to him in 1999 describes precisely what his real intentions were from the day he rose to power. “Democracy” he said, “is like a bus, when you arrive at your destination, you step off.”

Polar opposite as the role model

His role model is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (meaning “Father of the Turks,”) who founded the Turkish Republic in 1923. Both share similar personal attributes (including amazing degrees of personal vanity) as they sought to lead the nation with an iron fist while disregarding any separation of power.

However, Atatürk was determined to establish a Westernized secular democratic state while Erdogan went in the opposite direction.

Erdogan steadily moved to create a theocracy where Islamic tradition and values reign supreme while assuming Atatürk’s image, which is revered by most Turks.

Erdogan presents himself as one who leads with determination and purpose, generating power from his popular support. His ultimate goal is to seek to replace Atatürk.

With the new amendments to the constitution, if passed, he will be endowed with powers even greater than Atatürk ever held.

A great schemer

With his growing popularity and most impressive economic growth, Erdogan successfully created the status of a strong and resolute leader—the new “father” of a new Turkish Republic.

He has artfully managed to penetrate the consciousness of the Turkish public while using Islam as the undisputed pathway that will lead Turkey to greatness.

He is determined to preside at the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic over a powerful nation that, according to his daydream, will rank among the top ten largest global economies and that extends its influence East and West, akin to the prodigious influence that the Ottoman Empire enjoyed.

Sultan-like power, but no empire to speak of

To realize his grand vision, Erdogan took several measures to consolidate his absolute power.
Remove the friends

First, clearing the way: Erdogan embarked on the complete marginalization or elimination of anyone, in and outside the ruling AK Party, that challenged his authority or advanced new ideas for solving the country’s problems.

Those who did not support his policies and dared to question his judgment were not spared. He resorted to conspiracy theories, accusing his political opponents of being enemies of the state aiming to topple his government.

That move was designed to realize his vision for the country, analogous to the influence and outreach of the Ottoman Empire.

He even fired his long-time friend and confidant Davutoglu because Davutoglu differed from him regarding the Kurdish problem.

It also did not help that Davutoglu, a political scientist by training, was reluctant to support Erdogan’s constitutional amendments that will grant the president sweeping and unprecedented powers.

Create a blame game

Second, the need for a culprit: Erdogan needed a scapegoat to blame for any of his shortcomings. He found the Gülen movement to be the perfect foil. Focusing so much attention on it provided him with the cover to overshadow the massive corruption that has swept his government.

In addition, this move also provided him with the “justification” to crack down on many social, political and institutional entities. Erdogan relentlessly silenced the media, controlled the judiciary and subordinated the military.

The aftermath of the attempted military coup in July 2016 gave him the ammunition to conduct a society-wide witch hunt. He purged tens of thousands of people from academia, civil society, judiciary, military and the internal security apparatus.

This has allowed him to assume total control of all departments in the government and private sector. He described his purge as a necessary evil to cleanse the public of the “cancer” that has gripped the country.

In so doing, he ensured that the political system revolves around the presidency, leaving him completely unchallenged to pursue his imperial dream to resurrect the stature of the Ottoman Empire as the country prepares to vote in the constitutional referendum on April 16.

Grandiose and pompous, like any bad Sultan

Third, the creation of Ottoman symbolism: To project his grandiose vision, Erdogan needed to instill Ottoman images into the public consciousness. This includes the building of a 1,100-room ‘White Palace’ as his residence at a prohibitive cost to taxpayers.

His most recent project was the Çamlica Mosque, the now-largest mosque in Istanbul, standing on the eponymous hill that overlooks the entire city.

Recently, Erdogan started the construction of another mosque in Taksim Square — once the site of the fiercest protests against Erdogan in his career — in the style of the Ottoman era.

Erdogan has even instructed that the national anthem be played on modified drums and brass instruments to make the music sound as if it were being played by bands of the Ottoman period.

His purpose is to indoctrinate the public in a subliminal way to his perspective of the glorious Ottoman period.

The man who tries to get little deals, if any

Fourth, foreign policy assertiveness: Under Erdogan, Turkey has become increasingly assertive and forceful in the region.

In Cyprus, he is determined to strike a deal largely on his terms. In Iraq, he placed Turkish troops over the objections of the Iraqi government to maintain his ruthless war against the Kurds.

In Syria, he allowed thousands of foreign fighters, including many who have joined ISIS, to cross the border to strengthen the anti-Assad fight.

He deemed that useful in fighting the Syrian Kurds and preventing them from establishing their own autonomous rule. Erdogan’s not so unreasonable fear is that that the Turkish Kurds would also demand autonomous rule of their own.

Erdogan further promoted the policy of “zero problem with neighbors.” In case you wonder about his track record on this glorious policy pronouncement, Turkey presently has problems with just about every single one of its neighbors.

Never mind that any prospects for a possible EU membership are completely diminished. Unperturbed, Erdogan likes to claim that Turkey enjoys good relations internationally.

Erdogan still uses Turkey’s membership in NATO as a sign of greatness (even though it itches him to move beyond NATO, in Russia’s direction).

The fact that Turkey has the second-largest number of ground troops in NATO reinforces his illusion that Ankara enjoys unrivaled military prowess in the region and commands the respect and attention of the international community that the Ottoman Empire was accorded.

Religion vs. the economy

Fifth, promoting Islam as a powerful tool: Erdogan is also using Sunni Islam to promote the country as a republic with Islamic ideals supported by a loyal state apparatus.

He portrays himself as the leader of the Sunni world that would restore the Ottoman era of influence, while cementing his authoritarian rule at home in the form of a neo-Sultan.

To be sure, Erdogan is vigorously promoting – with the support of his party – Islamic nationalism systematically and meticulously.

Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish analyst of politics and culture and author of the new book The Islamic Jesus, says that “political propaganda is in your face every day, every single moment. If you turn on TV, if you open newspapers…”

Mission failed

Former Prime Minister Davutoglu said in 2015 that Turkey “will re-found the Ottoman state.” Although Davutoglu was fired, he—like most Turkish officials—depicts the government as the rightful heir of the Ottoman legacy.

To that end, Erdogan uses Islam as the unifying theme that would propel Turkey to the greatness that the Ottoman Empire enjoyed.

In fact, Turkish religious leaders have always thought of themselves as the standard-bearer of Islamic civilization, and though this failed with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, to them it must now be corrected.

As they would have it, “Turks once again should lead the ummah (Islamic community) as the new Ottomans.”
What could have been

Sadly, Erdogan, who is still seen as a hero by nearly half of the Turkish population, is leading the country on a treacherous path.

Turkey and its people have the resources, creativity and institutions to make Turkey a significant power. Erdogan, who demonstrated an uncanny ability to harness his country’s natural and human resources, could have made Turkey such a power on the global stage.

Indeed, Erdogan could have been the Atatürk of the new era had he simply continued with his historic reforms while protecting the rights of every individual and creating a real model of Islamic democracy.

Too ambitious a plan

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was largely precipitated, among other things, by its internal political decadence, the arbitrary exercising of power and gross violations of human rights that dramatically eroded the foundation on which the empire was built.

In whichever form Erdogan wants to resurrect the Ottoman Empire, he will fail because no country can survive, let alone become great, as long as the government walks on the backs of the people and stifles their freedom to act, speak, and dream.

There is where the greatness of any nation rests and endures—the Ottoman Empire never provided a model worthy of such emulation.

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About Alon Ben-Meir

Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute [United States]

Responses to “Erdogan: Sultan of an Illusionary Ottoman Empire”

Archived Comments.

  1. On March 13, 2017 at 5:55 am Musaab Osman responded with... #

    What are the steps that Erdogan has taken that have Islamicized the country? I live here and I don’t see any of that. Your agenda is showing, tuck it back in.

  2. On March 15, 2017 at 7:17 am scartoon responded with... #

    The basic building block of an empire is land. Erdogan’s Turkey is the same size as Ataturk’s Turkey save for Syria’s Antakya which the French illegally gave to Turkey in the late ’30s. No Arab country recognizes Turkey’s occupation of Antakya, which Ankara now calls Hatay.
    In the absence of an expanded land mass, an empire needs influence. Turkey has no influence save in dictatorial Azerbaijan and confused Georgia. Once the Syrian/Iraqi conflict is resolved, Erdogan’s tanks will return to Turkey but continue to face Kurdish demands.