Erdoğan’s Doctrine: Political Islam Illusion or Distortion
Erdoğan’s Doctrine: Political Islam Illusion or Distortion?
By N.Selin Şenocak
“The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.” (Steve Biko)
Since the Party of Justice and Development (AKP) assumed power in 2002, Turkey has progressively pursued a new foreign policy that has generated astonishment in the great capitals of the world. Turkish foreign policy has been radically restructured over the last fifty years. This new foreign policy does not meet the expectations of many political theorists. To cite a few examples, many famous works – including Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and John Mearsheimer’s The Tragedy of Great Power Politics – have exposed the role and position of Turkey between Islam and modernity without knowing precisely whether or not Islam would play an important role in the 21st century. Hugh Pope has noted and inquired about the following:
Turkey does not fit neatly into anyone’s conception of the world order. For centuries, people have debated or fought over whether it is part of Europe, the Middle East, the Mediterranean, or Eurasia. Some see its current government as careening toward ‘Islamist fascism’; others believe it is integrating into a basically pluralistic, secular, globalized international order. Does its fast-growing economy, the 17th largest in the world, make it a rising international power on a par with Brazil, China, India, and Russia? Or is it a minor player that is overextending itself?
Pope has further highlighted that ‘Turkey is particularly vulnerable to misunderstandings, in particular since the Turks themselves often seem not to know exactly what they want for their country.’
According to David Fromkin, the new Turkish foreign policy, which he describes in the form of Pax-Ottomana or Neo-Ottomanism, clearly demonstrated that the fall of the Ottoman Empire broke the regional peace that had reigned for centuries and created a state of continuous war. According to Fromkin, a new Ottoman Pax could be indispensable; for this, it was first necessary to train those capable of defending the Neo-Ottoman perception. Fromkin has described the forces that pivoted the Middle East in the 1920s as follows:
The European powers at that time believed they could change Moslem Asia in the very fundamentals of its political existence, and in their attempt to do so introduced an artificial state system into the Middle East that has made it into a region of countries that have not become nations even today. The basis of political life in the Middle East- religion – was called into question by Russians, who proposed communism, and by the British, who proposed nationalism or dynastic loyalty, in its place. The French government, which in the Middle East did allow religion to be the basis of politics – championed one sect against the others.
Richard C. Holbrooke, a renowned diplomacy expert, has written, ‘Today we live with the consequences of these almost forgotten events.’ With respect to both the profile established by Fromkin and Holbrooke’s judicious and important analysis following this analogy, it is evident that as an Islamist party the AKP is attempting to create a new identity in contemporary Turkey. This ‘new model of identity’ has undoubtedly been designed on the basis of Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer’s conception of the 1957
It is important to note that in the last general elections with the leadership of President Erdogan the AKP gained 45–49% of the vote to become the first political party in power for 20 years. The results of constitutional referendum held in Turkey on April 16, 2017, exposed the politico-cultural split and political tropism of the country’s population: ‘yes’ votes dominated with 51.41%, while ‘no’ votes captured 48.59%. Voter turnout was 85.46%. As a result of this referendum, Turkey will replace its parliamentary government with an executive presidential system and give the president absolute power. In view of this, Turkey has concluded a chapter of its pluralist-democratic secular state system and is moving towards a more conservative-dogmatic political system. The results of this referendum are also a reaction to the EU; repressed and discriminated against for decades. Turkey’s main concern is to build an alternative regional space and new axiology by highlighting its Turkish-Muslim cultural identity. As stated in Stratfor special report, a deep power struggle is under way in the Republic of Turkey Most outside observers see this as the latest phase in the decades-long battle between Islamism and Kemalist secularism. Others paint it as traditional Anatolia’s struggle against modern Istanbul, egalitarianism versus economic elitism or democracy’s rise against authoritarianism. The renewed interest in the Ottoman past and Islam appears to strive the Turkish population to reconnect with an authentic Turkish identity.
orientation of Turkey, it is necessary to study the events and changes that Turkey has experienced during the past 90 years.
It is essential to examine the radical changes – which may also be called a revolution – that have marked Turkey in this time. It is also critical to seek the source and initiator of these changes in the comprehension of ‘the State’ and briefly address Turkey’s geopolitical situation and historical and cultural components.
From Ummah to Westernised Secular Citizenship
The Ottoman Empire was a complex ‘Ummah’ society that ruled for 600 years. Its collapse was due to external pressures, military defeats and external debts, which resulted in the abolition of the sultanate and khalifat to facilitate the creation of a Western-style republic. In his book Devlet ve Kimlik (State and Identity), Altindal explains this ‘difficult and complex’ transition process:
‘Ummah’ is an Arabic word derived from the word ‘Umm’. This word in Arabic is used to mean ‘fertility and motherhood’. Therefore, Ummah is a concept to designate the characteristics of motherhood and to express the verbs nurture, educate and learn. According to Islam, the founder and generator of the Ummah is God. It is for this reason that the Ummah means, the agglomeration of all the Muslims, conducted with the permission of God. In the Ummah, each Muslim has a status of ‘Kul = subject’, – being Kul is not devaluing quite the contrary, it is a concept used to designate ‘honour’ (in the sense of spiritual superiority). In the concept of the Ummah, sovereignty belongs unquestionably to God and there can be no clergy which monopolizes the divine representation as in Christianity.Ummah is not based on common biological origin or elements of
socio-historical identity generators. Rather, it is grounded in common values that
emanate from a spiritual message. Membership in the Ummah is founded on the consent of its individuals to the common spiritual message. It is, by right, co-extensive with all of humankind. Ummah represents the universal value system for the Muslims, it implies an openness to humanity for two reasons:
– The values of the Ummah are destined for all mankind. In practice
of the moral rules, a Muslim should make no distinction between another
Muslim and a non-Muslim;
– The Ummah occupies a mediating position between a universal divine message and humanity.’
After briefly introducing the concept of Ummah, Altindal compares it to the concept of the republic and clarifies the essential link between the concepts of the republic and sovereignty. According to Altindal, national sovereignty is the republic’s sine qua non. Sovereignty, which belonged to Allah in the Ummah, was transformed into belonging to the nation in the republic. Altindal asserts that the Kul in the Ummah is considered ‘an individual’ in the republic:
Therefore, the right and freedom of the individual are not determined by the Sharia which is the declared will of Allah, but by the Constitution written and approved by the nation. This written document (the Constitution) is precisely a ‘secular contract’. It is a contract established between the individual and the Republic at the level of citizenship, and the State is its guarantor. For the State in order to fulfill its duty, it must possess the secular and nominal qualities.
These explanations suggest that it was not easy to destroy the Ummah – the Ottoman Empire – to create the Republic of Turkey. Religion and belief form one of the most fragile aspects of societies. Even though the Turks have adopted secularism with the switch to the Republic they always tolerated the different faiths and religions of those
they reigned over in the past. Millions of Turks, Arabs, Circassians, Lazes and Kurdish ethnic minorities who live in present-day Turkey preferred being citizens of the republic to being the Kul of Allah. Moreover, Bernard Lewis has explained Turkey’s secularisation process as follows:
In the secularization of the West, God was twice dethroned and replaced – a source of sovereignty by the people, as the object of worship by the nation. Both of these ideas were alien to Islam. Only one Muslim state, The Turkish Republic, formally adopted secularism as a principle, and enacted the removal of Islam from the constitution and abrogation of the sharia.
In his analysis, Altindal has highlighted a second crucial point: the difference in the West and Turkey’s understandings of the state, which are based on drastically different roots. Their connotations and perceptions of the concept vary greatly. In both the East and Turkey, the word ‘state’ is a derivative of the word ‘Dawla’, which is used to signify ‘the power to change, to transform’. In other words, for this region, the state refers to the force that has the power to change and transform. The mission of ‘transforming’ in the Ummah belonging to Allah is given to the state in the Republic of Turkey. As a result, all ‘reforms and revolutions’ are conducted in accordance with state-defined permission and limitations. In the West, ‘state’ is used to refer to ‘stability’. As such it is not possible for the state to appropriate itself via ‘transformation’, as is the case in Turkey (where both the bureaucracy and the army have this ability). In Turkey, reforms are implemented ‘from top to bottom’; this is the reverse of what happens in the West, where they are realised ‘from bottom to top’, following the will of an organised population. It is the forced marriage of the Eastern state and the Western republic models that has defined Turkey’s internal and foreign policy for the past 90
Ataturk’s vision of modernisation was based on two basic elements that were linked: political change, which involved abolishing the Ottoman state and its restrictive value system in favour of a westernized democratic system; nevertheless, the socio-cultural revolution and western values were not interiorised by a certain part of the Turkish population, especially in the rural areas such as the Islamist-oriented Anatolia region (which are more attached to the conservative value system). Two surveys conducted in 2006 and 2007 revealed that the most important demand for change among the Turkish population is related to a return to a revered moral past.
As stated in an Anna Lindh Foundation Report written by Cengiz Gunay, ‘In Turkey, transition to a post-industrial age, induced by the shift to liberal market economy in the 1980s, triggered a revival of spirituality. Rapid urbanisation, unbridled capitalism, unequal socio-economic transformation, corruption, and the influx of new lifestyle-images in the course of globalisation have been factors which enhanced the feeling of many Turkish citizens that moral and values are in erosion. There emerged a call for the restitution of the moral order of an idealised past which seemed more protected and less complex. Since Turkish secularism had failed to produce a secular moral and ethical code, in times of crisis, the demand for values fell back on tradition and Islamic conceptions.’
According to Gunay, secularists and Islamists have battled over the role that religion should play in public life. This battle has also embodied elements of a competition over economic and cultural dominance. Both sides have claimed that their own nostalgic interpretation of the past should determine the nature of legitimate politics in contemporary Turkey. The above explanation of all of the transformations that Turkey has experienced is necessary to better analyse the AKP’s new domestic and foreign policy and the current political tropism of the Turkish population.
IV – Towards a New Turkish Political Model : Political Islam
The AKP is a political party that is supported by Islamist groups that want to become the new leader of Dar-ul-Islam (House of Islam) in Turkey and the Middle East. The policy that it pursues would therefore not be ‘Neo-Ottomanism’, but rather a new ‘Pan-Islamism’. Altindal has called this new Islamic political trend ‘Unitarian Islamism’. This model cannot be considered as ‘Neo-Ottomanism’ or ‘Pax-Ottomana’. In the context of the AKP’s role, the only allusion to the Neo-Ottomanism and Pax-Ottomana theories is not politics, but ‘geography’. The direct historical and geographical links between the AKP and the 13 emerging countries around Turkey after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire represent a situation altogether as a natural environment. It is perfectly natural for Turkey to prioritise relations with neighbouring countries.
The Islamic vision was rooted by the Milli Gorus (National view) in the 1970s, followed by the Refah (Welfare) Party which officially brought political Islam and later on, a more moderate strand emerged with the appearance of the AKP. Though the AKP was more cautious of exposing its Islamist-rooted political vision in its early days of power, it has become clear that the party represents those in Turkey who embrace the country’s Islamic past. The AKP’s vision of Turkey is a country that goes out of its way to defend its Turkic brothers abroad, that infuses religion with politics and that gives rise to what it sees as a long-neglected Anatolian class. In his political discourse, President Erdogan seeks ‘to be the voice of the oppressed’. He refers to the Muslim world in the following statement:
We are the voice of our brothers, our friends, the oppressed; we are that voice opening up to the world’, and that ‘When they tell us: ‘Is it left to you to take care of the oppressed of the world, tell what’s right and defend justice?’ We will remind them that our basic principle is: ‘If your brother is in difficulty, you cannot be in security and stability.’ You cannot make your country prosperous by veiling your heart and your conscience. 
Moreover, Erdogan adds that the ruling AKP policy was based on enhancing ‘brotherhood’ in the region. Keyman underlines that as a modern nation-state formation with a secular, democratic government, largely Muslim population, dynamic economy and a highly mobile, young and entrepreneurial population, Turkey was a model country or inspiration for the future of democracy, stability, and peace in the Middle East and Muslim world in general . According to The Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV) Public opinion surveys conducted between 2010 and 2012 after the post-Arab spring repeatedly showed that approximately 60 percent of the Arab public saw Turkey as a model and believed that Turkey could contribute positively to the transformation of the Arab world. 
If Turkey does not want to be divided, it is obliged to create a new space for itself. However, the new Neo-Ottoman or Ottoman Pax theories do not correspond with this new strategy. In the current situation, it is Islamic rhetoric that can yield opportunities for Turkey; Islam, not Ottomanism, has credibility in the Arab world. Graham Fuller, a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Middle East expert, has stated:
It is of course, absurd to argue that the existence of Islam has had no independent impact on the Middle East or East-West relations. Islam has been a unifying force of a high order across a wide region. As a global universal faith, it has created a broad civilization that shares many common principles of philosophy, the arts, and society; a vision of the moral life; a sense of justice, jurisprudence, and good governance – all a deeply rooted high culture. As a cultural and moral force, Islam has helped bridge ethnic differences among diverse Muslim peoples, encouraging them to feel part of a broader Muslim civilizational project. Islam affected political geography as well: If there had been no Islam, the Muslim counties of South Asia and Southeast Asia today – particularly Pakistan, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia – would be rooted in the Hindu World.
The community to which Fuller refers is the Ummah (which is explained above). The difference between AKP and Ottoman governance appears in the subject of ‘identity’. For the AKP, Islam is a ‘fundamental identity’, while being Ottoman, Turkish, Circassian and so forth is a ‘subordinate identity’. The AKP considers the attempt to develop a new identity to be a condition of existence for the new Turkey.
The Muslim world encompasses 57 countries and 1.7 billion adherents, comprising over 23% of the world’s population. It thus represents a substantial economic market that is as important as the Chinese market. Turkey wants to become a leading country to guide this space and views the Middle East as an indispensable hinterland. In this conjuncture, Turkey could have a choice between becoming a pivotal power (or state) – similar to Russia, China and Brazil – or undergoing the threat of ‘separatism’, fragmentation and civil war.
The question of whether the AKP government has sufficient foreign policy experience and knowledge to play this leadership role effectively in the Muslim World is critical. Even if the AKP government lacks the necessary experience and knowledge, it is interesting to note the willingness of the Arab and Muslim countries to define Turkey as a role model. President Erdogan receives great admiration in the Arab world. His charisma, rhetoric and political positioning incite fascination, and he is considered both the ‘strong man’ against the West and the ‘voice of the oppressed’. Nevertheless, the gap
between the AKP and Arab Islamists political view is important, some of radical Islamic political organizations like Hizb-ut-Tahrir Al Islami are fully opposed to Turkish model in the Arab world: “The Turkish secular regime represented by AKP and its leader Erdoğan have not defended the interest of the Ummah ever since they came to power. Moreover it did not hesitate, even for a moment, to implement American plans in the region.”
The AKP decided to change the Turkish secularism according to their definition ‘rigid secularism’ through ‘liberal secularism’. “The Turkish Constitutional Court has made a revolutionary decision on secularism definition in Turkey, it changed it as liberal secularism, rather than a definition of old rigid secularism, the decision no. 2012/128 was published in the Official Journal. Liberal secularism refers to liberal democracy and tolerance; it is increasingly replacing rigid secularism, which is more dogmatic and conceived on the basis of a radical republic”.
Relations between Turkey and the EU are undergoing a radical change. In 2004, then Prime Minister Erdogan proclaimed that the EU is a ‘union of values’ and that he aimed to make ‘European values Ankara’s values’. Today, he stresses:
If we look at to the past from the perspective of values, we can see that they never keep their words. They won’t this time either. I am aware. Why? In the past, when a negotiation chapter would be opened, it had to be closed as well. Only the chapter on education could be closed. There are now 14 chapters opened but none of them closed. Why? Because they have suspended the closure of chapters. Why? This is Turkey. When they implement this for another country, they immediately close them.
Since Turkey has new strategic partners in Russia, Iran, China and Qatar, it is less stimulated by relations with the EU, which has been confronted by many economic and structural crises (such as those evident in Greece, Portugal and the Brexit event). Turkey has suggested that it may instead join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an economic bloc that includes China and Russia.
The rhetoric of many European leaders, including Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and Sebastian Kurz, communicates, ‘We are never going to admit Turkey within the European Union since we don’t share the same values.’ This has had impressive repercussions on polls in Turkey. According to a survey conducted by the German-based Turkish European Foundation for Education and Scientific Studies (TAVAK) in 2008, 80% of the Turkish population was in favour of integration into the EU; this rate has since decreased to 17–19% in 2016. The Turkish people have lost their confidence in Europe, and a growing and culturally imbedded opposition to the idea of Turkish EU membership exists. The Turkish public is abandoning EU-related hopes due to the rise of Islamophobia, as well as to Turcophobia and negative perceptions of Turkey in Europe.
After the deadly coup attempt organised by the Gulenist Radical Islamist Terrorist Group (FETO) on July 15, 2016 marked a turning point in Turkey’s political history with the EU, with Turkey feeling betrayed by the EU. The Turkish foreign affairs minister declared, ‘Unfortunately the EU is making some serious mistakes. They have failed thetest following the coup attempt … Their issue is anti-Turkey and anti-Erdogan sentiment.’
For many Turks, the failed coup attempt signified the rebirth of modern Turkey; it was a victory of ‘democracy’ over Occidental enemies who wanted to destabilise the country
due to effective political propaganda of the AKP’s government. After the event, President Erdogan appealed to the unity of the country and received support from the main opposition, namely the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) President Erdogan declared, ‘Every coup which does not kill us, makes us stronger. Just like here and now.’ Regardless of ethnic, religious, cultural, class and lifestyle differences, Turkish citizens were united against the coup. From political parties to economic actors, from media to civil society organizations. The unity displayed by Turkish citizens was remarkable in the name of protecting democracy over military rule, living together rather than polarization. .
According to several press articles and reports, the lack of empathy and support by European media and politics, which emphasised on its anti-Erdogan propaganda, at the result of the coup attempt that was regarded as a ‘victory of democracy’ by the Turkish population; created a sense of disappointment among the Turks, who interpreted their reaction as a Western plot against their country’s integrity. “There are several theories as to who was behind this failed coup attempt. One theory suggests it was a ‘false flag’ event staged by President Erdogan to gain more power, but common sense dictates the event went too far to be a false flag”. The Turkish government accused Europe of hypocritically interpreting democracy and values according to its self-interest. This situation has intensified the nationalistic feelings of Turks, invoking the proverb ‘the Turk has no other friend than the Turk’. The discrimination against President Erdogan is considered discrimination against Turkey and the Turkish population.
Since the coup attempt, Turkey has suspended the European Convention on Human Rights and declared a state of emergency. Erdogan has accused FETO of being a ‘parallel state’ within the Turkish state .The government began purging those who were suspected of involvement in the coup or affiliated with the Gulenist movement. Thousands of soldiers, police officers, judges, civil servants and teachers have been suspended, detained or placed under investigation so far.
For years, the AKP government gave full power to the FETO and accepted the infiltration of Gulen’s followers as diplomats, bureaucrats and civil servants into state institutions. According to Stratfor special report, the Gulen movement has spent the past three decades working aggressively in the education sector to mould young minds in Turkish schools at home and abroad. The goal is to create a generation of well-educated Turks who ascribe to the Gulen tradition and have the technical skills (and under the AKP, the political connections) to assume high positions in strategic sectors of the economy, government and armed forces. The political marriage between FETO and the AKP exploded in December 2013, as Gulen-linked officials raided the homes of dozens of individuals, initiating a ground-shaking corruption scandal that involved President Erdogan himself. Since then, the president has publicly expressed regret over his once-friendly relations with Fethullah Gulen, likening what he perceives as ‘betrayal’ by Gulen and the Gulenist movement to being stabbed in the back.
European Parliament President Martin Schulz has accused Turkey of enacting ‘revenge’ against its opponents and critics. He has also said that a debate over restoring the death
penalty in the country is ‘deeply worrying’; indeed, the EU has warned that such a move would end talks over Turkey joining the bloc.
As a result, an escalation of tension between the EU and Turkey has been unavoidable. The European Parliament’s suspension of negotiations with Turkey in November 2016 has jeopardised a fragile deal reached by the two sides. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has asserted that relations between the parties were already strained, and that the vote would not have much consequence: ‘It is a relationship going grudgingly, with difficulty. The EU should understand this; it should decide whether it wants to shape its vision for the future with Turkey or without Turkey.’ Relations between Turkey and European countries have deteriorated since the attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016, the disproportionate EU-wide ban on Turkish politicians campaigning inside Europe and the EU’s suspicion about the referendum results’ legitimacy.
According to the Anatolian Press Agency, more than 60% of Turkish expatriates living in Europe casted ‘yes’ votes on the referendum to enhance the power and scope of the Turkish presidency; in contrast, more than 60% in Middle Eastern countries voted ‘no’. Nearly 76% of the Turks in Belgium voted for the proposal, which represents the highest percentage in Europe; Austria was in second place, with more than 72%. While only 51.3% of Turks actually living in Turkey want more autocracy, those living outside – and precisely in the heart Europe – are more enthusiastic about political limitations in their home country.
The outcome of the referendum in Turkey had immediate repercussions in European countries. Flemish Christian Democrats (CD&V) lawmaker Hendrik Bogaert called for
the abolition of dual citizenship, saying, ‘We cannot say that nothing has happened. Such dual nationality is not conducive to integration. One is eventually more engaged in foreign than in Belgian politics.’
Deutsche Welle’s Editor-in-Chief Ines Pohl has argued a similar line, stating, ‘If so many people living in Germany support a man who wants, among other things, to reintroduce the death penalty, then, all attempts at integration notwithstanding, things have gone very wrong somewhere’. Both Europe and Turkey should judiciously analyse the outcome of the Turkish referendum. Europe should reconsider its Turco-sceptic positioning that has persisted for 58 years and how its anti-Erdogan stance is seen as a pretext for Turkey’s non-accession to the EU.
Erdogan uses all means to rehabilitate his power by using Islam as a symbol, Hagia Sophia being a significant example of this. This unique and majestic monument has been victim to pillaging by catholic crusaders during the 4th Crusade and regained its splendour after the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453. The Ottomans had even designated it as the “Symbol of Conquest” and transformed it into a mosque while also preserving the Byzantine mosaics. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the decision to transform Hagia Sophia into a museum by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was a strong symbol of secularism of the new Turkish Republic.
Hagia Sophia has always been a subject of controversy between conservative Islamist circles and Kemalists. The importance of the sensitivity of Hagia Sophia by nationalists and Islamist circles is also pushed to the extreme by the excessive and inappropriate ambition of Greece, which proclaims a right on Haghia Sophia. It is as if the Arab World is asking for the right to the Mosque of Cordoba in Andalusia. All these provocations for decades have intensified the will of the Islamist milieu in Turkey to transform the museum into a mosque as a symbol of the conquest of Istanbul by Islam
In recent years, especially after September 11th, the rise of Islamophobia in the world and the discrimination of Muslims especially in the Western world has created hatred within the Muslim Community. It should not be forgotten that Erdogan is appreciated not only in Turkey but also in the Muslim world and Africa, becoming “the voice of the oppressed and discriminated population”. However, his failures in foreign policy during the so-called Arab Spring greatly diminished his popularity in the Arab world. In terms of domestic policy, the situation isn’t any better due to the interference caused by multiple events such as the economic crisis, the ever-present corruption and nepotism in the nation and the low opinion of the general public, as reflected in the popularity polls.
It is in this context that the transition of Hagia Sophia from a museum back into a mosque, serves as a symbol of the conquest of Islam over the Western world. A symbol which was met with approval by a non-negligible part of the population as thousands gathered during the epidemic in order to attend the re-opening ceremony. The negative reaction by the Western media, accompanied by governmental propaganda, has permitted Erdogan to gain back the confidence of Anatolia and the Islamist circles in Turkey and around the world.
To conclude, we can say that the Islamic Unitarianism ambition and the leadership of President Erdogan in the Muslim world (Dar-ul Islam) remains an illusion. However, President Erdogan’s nationalist and Islamic arguments are a distortion of his personal ambitions.