The Real Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The immensely popular Turkish PM has transformed his country and shaken up the region. But can Washington trust him?

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been something of a rockstar not only in the Middle East but also in New York. His recent trip to the U.N. General Assembly was marked by high-profile interviews with Fareed Zakaria and Charlie Rose as well as by numerous articles proclaiming him the man of the hour and Turkey a new power, no longer dependent on the West and with its own agenda.

Erdogan has transformed Turkey in a way that no other leader has since Ataturk. The country is more dynamic, democratic and freer than it has ever been. Turkey’s vast economic growth has enabled it to again become a significant international player. He has particularly re-engaged with the Middle East and elevated Turkey as a model for the area. His activism and his anti-Israel stance are immensely popular domestically and in most Middle East countries. By all accounts Mr. Obama sees Erodgan as a constructive partner, speaks with him frequently by phone and seeks his views on the region.

Given all this, deciphering Erdogan’s worldview is increasingly important. Many in and outside of Turkey are concerned about how much his dedication to Islam drives his actions in the Middle East. A penchant for emotional, personalistic rhetoric has sometimes clouded the “principles” of liberty and democracy that Erdogan says guide him. Some, less charitably, say he drones on ad hoc on all sorts of issues, often conveniently forgetting his previous stances. His selective application of principles on both international and domestic issues has left many asking: Who is the real Erdogan? Here we seek to probe that question.

Islam and Justice

Erdogan, who grew up in Turkey’s Islamic political parties, was shaped by his personal and political roots in Islam. He sees the world as controlled by the non-Muslim West, which continually and systematically mistreats Muslim countries. He sees Israel dominating its Muslim neighbors while receiving special treatment from the West. Meanwhile, Muslim countries such as Sudan and Iran are sanctioned and isolated for the same behavior. Principal actors in this unjust system are the UN and the Security Council because they enable Israel to maintain military and nuclear superiority over its Muslim neighbors. As the leader of a democratic and economically successful Muslim state, Erdogan sees himself as the voice of an oppressed Muslim constituency that includes the peoples of the Middle East, most importantly the Palestinians, and increasingly the Muslims of Africa. Erdogan frequently identifies justice as his guiding principle, with Islam often the primary factor in his evaluation of justice and victimization.

The Palestinians in Gaza are ground zero of Erdogan’s unjust world. Israel cruelly oppresses them without consequences. The small number of rockets from Gaza hitting Israel are irrelevant to Erdogan compared to Palestinian casualties generated by Israel. Israel is able to maintain its superiority because of the double standards of the United States and other Western countries. The Security Council’s silence on Israel’s weapons of mass destruction while Muslim Iran is sanctioned because of its nuclear program (which Erdogan continues to defend as peaceful) is a primary indicator of that biased view.

Turkey has supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan and broader U.S. efforts against terrorism. However, Erdogan’s rubric for determining what constitutes terrorism or war crimes is heavily influenced by his view of Islam. If a leader is Muslim, then he “cannot commit genocide” because Islam forbids murder; such was Erdogan’s defense of Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir for his massive destruction of Darfur, many of whose people were not Muslims. Likewise, if an Islamic group like Hamas is fighting Israel, that group can be called “freedom fighters.” However, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose members come from Muslim Kurdish families, should be labeled terrorists (as they are by most Western countries) and cannot be Islamic because they are also killing civilians and fighting the democratic Turkish state. This he distinguishes from organizations like al-Qaeda and the Taliban that claim to be Islamic but commit acts of terrorism. With the notable exceptions of Bashir and Hamas, Erdogan’s rubric has not put him in direct conflict with the U.S. policy on terrorism.

Erdogan’s focal point is where Islam, democracy and secularism intersect—as, for example, in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where efforts are being made to form new governments. As a messenger for Islam’s compatibility with democratic values, Erdogan sought to fill a gap in discussions over the Middle East’s future. In Cairo, he made the case for secular government, how a religious man can lead a secular democracy and not sacrifice his religiosity or the secular nature of the state. Erdogan is putting his brand of Islam and democracy front and center.


Erdogan’s ascendance in Turkey has been mirrored by a new narrative in which he has become the focus of policy. He speaks of his emotions and personal relationships as key determinants in Turkey’s orientation toward other countries. Regarding Syria, Erdogan explains that Assad no longer has a place in his heart and that his “patience” for Assad’s violence against his citizens has ended. This, coupled with a trip to a Syrian refugee camp, is often cited as the reason for Turkey’s changed stance. Turkey and Syria had developed close economic and political ties under Erdogan’s leadership. Concentrating on his feelings toward Assad rather than Turkey’s strategic and economic interests, Erdogan puts himself forward as the embodiment of Turkey