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
Erdogan’s sense of a personal calling to defend the world has extended to Africa. His visit to Somalia at the end of Ramadan was dotted with the language of generosity and unselfish regard for the Somali people. The trip was indeed exceptional. Few foreign leaders of any persuasion have visited Somalia. He had an article this past week on Somali aid in Foreign Policy. His laudable announcement of aid and reconstruction projects was accompanied by an invitation to the West at the recent General Assembly meeting to also participate in responding to the famine, as if no other country had provided aid previously. Of course Turkey, under his leadership, has paid little attention to Somalia the past eight years. It was almost as if the Somalia problem had not existed until Erdogan discovered it. Despite the worthwhile goals of trying to bring more basic healthcare and infrastructure to the country, Erdogan’s narrative seemingly revolves around himself more than around Somalia’s people. Speaking as the leader for the victimized, he sees countries such as Muslim Somalia as opportunities to demonstrate the economic and political reach of Turkey and to showcase his international leadership.
As many leaders find, it is sometimes difficult to balance “principles” with hard political realities. Erdogan’s biggest contradiction stems from the large Kurdish minority in Turkey. More than any other Turkish leader, he has shown flexibility towards the Kurds. The Democratic Opening, while short on tangible benefits, was significant because it seemed the first serious attempt at a political solution to a problem most popularly viewed in Turkey as a military one. The recent revelation that the government was negotiating with the PKK’s leader is further evidence of a willingness to break from the past.
Despite his talk of democracy and liberty abroad, Erdogan has found it difficult to stick to those policies at home. In response to recent deadly PKK attacks, he vowed to push a military solution until the last Kurdish rebel lays down his weapons. That has not worked in the past. Finding a path forward will be difficult, particularly with the uptick in PKK violence, and that will be a consideration in the new civilian constitution the Turkish political parties have begun to draft. Whether it provides the Kurds serious democratic change will be an acid test of Erdogan’s ability to fashion a more open and democratic Turkey.
What do we make of all this?
Clearly, Erdogan is a skilled and charismatic politician who has stepped onto the world stage with impressive gusto. He dominates Turkey, and few in the media dare to challenge him—he brooks little criticism. He is dedicated to growth and has pursued Turkey’s economic interests, even when they conflicted with his own personal ideology. He has articulately laid out a case for Islam’s compatibility with secularism and democracy at a moment when the direction of the Middle East’s future is cloudy.
However, he is a man of strong—even visceral—feelings who clearly believes he has a mission, and the strong support of his people has put the wind at his back. He wants to shake things up internationally, meaning the West’s domination of the global system, and particularly the Middle East, can no longer be at the expense of Muslims. He sees Israel as a culprit, and his dispute with Israel goes far beyond last year’s Israeli attack on a Turkish ship seeking to break Israel’s blockade of Gaza. This perspective puts him at odds with central principles of U.S. policy, focused on Israel’s security as a primary concern. Erdogan’s pragmatism and seasoning as a third-term prime minister should not be discounted. As Turkey’s participation in NATO action against Libya and its agreement to host a NATO radar shield suggest, Erdogan is more in tune with geostrategic concerns and the balancing of interests than some here may choose to believe. He clearly wants, and thinks he can have, a strong relationship with the United States, even in the Middle East. The Obama administration has given him no reason to doubt that. His fierce ambition, his solipsism and his religious worldview, however, blend into a combustible mixture that makes him an unpredictable ally.