Return of the Sultan
After his recent win, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to be the longest-serving head of state in modern Turkey, second in importance only to its secular modernizing founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Erdogan has been a reverse Atatürk; his play has been just as deliberate and long-term. Over the course of his career, he has survived a jail term for his political and religious convictions, a health crisis and collapse inside a car, a failed coup against him, a Kurdish insurgency within, a war in the neighboring Syria, millions of refugees, a near constant attack from Euro-American LGBT advocates, another war across the sea in Ukraine, a newly revanchist Russia, and a near constant rivalry with France and Greece.
Erdogan’s Turkey is qualitatively similar to the U.K. and the U.S., divided between the powerful, financially sound, secular, and cosmopolitan Istanbul and west taking the place of London and the American coasts, and the vast, impoverished, and conservative east taking the place of middle-England or heartland-America. Erdogan was the first true populist in the sense we recognize today, much before Orbán or Modi: a quasi-Caesarian messiah for what he considered his own people, the poor and the pious, the salt of the earth.
When he broke against his own formative political party, he was said to have quoted Aristotle on truth and appropriated classical literature and Homer as Turkish (Trojan) history. “Like all the points of Anatolia, every point of the Dardanelles is adorned with the precious traces of the history of humanity and our history. Among them are the city of Aristotle, Assos and the city of Homer, Troy. Turkey is not just a country that consists of the borders that appear on maps.”
In foreign policy, Erdogan wanted to take the role of the erstwhile Ottoman Empire, of being the protector of the faith across Eurasia and a pivot power joining two continents. He didn’t succeed much on the first one, which resulted in entanglements that he could have avoided, such as his support for Islamist forces opposed to secular Arab dictators to his south in erstwhile Ottoman lands.
But Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, one of the sharpest minds in Eurasia, was given free rein to chart the grand strategy of Turkey, as an inheritor of the former, centuries-old empire in a way we don’t see in the democratic West. In that cause, Turkey maintained a realist equidistance in the NATO proxy war with Russia over Ukraine, kept its distance between E.U. and China, dominated the conversation of naval balance in the Black Sea, helped Azerbaijan steam over Armenia in a short brutal war, invaded Syria and created a buffer zone, threatened to invade Greece, and played Russia and the E.U. against one another, while vowing to unleash hundreds of thousands of migrants.
And in that, Erdogan demonstrated something that is now lost in the managerial West: a will to use power and put politics (and at least a certain skewed sense of history and justice) over the economy. Conservatives in the West don’t like to use power, nor do they care about history or defending patrimony; those who do are called reactionaries. But power has a logical path of its own. It creates realities.
As Hannah Lucinda Smith wrote in the Times, “And yet we thought Erdogan wouldn’t invade Syria—until he did. We thought he wouldn’t build a mosque in Taksim — until he did. We thought his vows to turn Hagia Sophia into a mosque were just populist bluster. In recent years Erdogan the politician has looked more like an old-style Turkish nationalist. He has allied with the far right and rebooted the war on Kurdish militancy. He is stirring old grievances with Greece and Cyprus.”
Erdogan has, through sheer will, opposed the LGBT movement in his country. “Secular women look on in horror at their shrouded countrywomen and see their president as an existential threat…He and his clerics denounce LGBT people.”
Erdogan has converted his popular mandate into power and used that power to remake Turkey’s relations with the rest of the world. He has expanded Turkish influence in Syria and northern Iraq and tilted Turkey—a NATO member—toward China, Iran, and Russia. His use of power has also generated dissent among feminists, leftists, and the secular middle class. Under Erdogan’s watch, Turkey has become the world’s largest prison for journalists. Filmmakers, novelists, photographers, and scholars are also among the imprisoned. Turkey has banned gay and transgender pride marches since 2015; Wikipedia has been blocked since 2017.
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It is easy to just imagine Erdogan as some Middle Eastern tyrant. His way of life, culture, and worldview are alien to most Euro-Americans. But as cities across the West are ravaged by lawlessness and targeted big-corporate backed activism; as democracy itself loses meaning due to the continuity granted by a Praetorian deep state and civil service across the Anglosphere; as universities churn out anti-Western radicals, one needs to ask a simple question: Why is Erdogan popular and why is he winning? What does he do that we deem impossible in this country?
By every analysis, the Turkish economy is not great, but the people are still voting for him, confounding rational pollsters. The once mighty army and civil service, consistently a bane of populist democracy, is now neutered and purged, and the space is filled with competent and patriotic, religious and educated Turks from deep Anatolia. There are prayer calls again in Hagia Sophia, if not as a Christian church, as a Muslim place of worship, instead of a secular museum.
Erdogan was given a gift of power by the forgotten people. He gave them back what they lacked more than money, and honor, and in turn, placed them in positions of power, bolstering his own rule. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a proverbial Carlylean “great man of history”. One might worship him or despise him, and his name and policies might be taboo in sophisticated circles, but that doesn’t change the fact that he singlehandedly changed the identity and destiny of his country as we know it.