Erdogan’s Turkish Strategy: Using Religion for…Erdogan

Erdogan’s Turkish Strategy: Using Religion for…Erdogan August 2, 2020

I have reported several times before on Turkey and religiosity. See:

The picture is at best confusing because the power of the religious right, and a rural/urban divide, isn’t necessarily reflective of general views throughout its society at large. Erdogan recently annoyed Christians around the world by reconverting the UNESCO World Heritage site, Saint Sofia (Christian-built to reflect the Temple of Solomon), to be a mosque open for prayer.

As is pretty much usual when concerning Turkey, most of the world moan, but do nothing. Oddly enough, it was only Syria that decided to act, with the backing of its ally Russia (or, more precisely, the Russian Orthodox Church). They are building a miniature version of Saint Sofia in now majority Greek Orthodox and Christian town of Al-Suqaylabiyah in the province of Hama. This is, in itself, an interesting statement from the Ba’athists – that Syria is attempting to send out a secularist message.

So let’s switch back to Turkey, in the modern-day founded by famous secularist Ataturk (although history paints a far more complicated scenario). It seems that, in his desire for never-ending power, Erdogan is intent on destroying the secularist foundations built by Ataturk in the same way that Trump seeks to undo everything that Obama has put in place, perhaps.

And so it appears that Erdogan is the negative image of Ataturk, the yin to his yang.

As The Independent recently reported in “Erdogan is sure his strategy of politics cloaked by religion will consolidate his power. We shall see“:

It’s not difficult to see how Erdogan’s dark and corrosive view of Ataturk came about. Women’s emancipation is not directly contested by Erdogan – save for government directives on the wearing of scarves in government offices – but his disregard for traditional, tribal, “sheikhly” society is. Listen to Ataturk, for example, speaking of Turkey in 1925. “In the face of knowledge, science, and of the whole extent of radiant civilisation,” he told a rural crowd, “I cannot accept the presence in Turkey’s civilised community of people primitive enough to seek material and spiritual benefits in the guidance of sheikhs. The Turkish republic cannot be a country of sheikhs, dervishes and disciples.” Even the Turkish law on clothing was to insist that “the hat is the common headgear of the Turkish people.” This would never come from Erdogan’s mouth.

And yet, whilst there is much to separate the two men, there are also some pertinent similarities:

Yet it’s tempting to believe that there’s an Ataturk “doppelganger” in Erdogan. While he may have overturned Ataturk’s 1935 decision to turn Saint Sophia (or Hagia Sofya) into a museum – and it’s as well to remember that the Muslim shields inscribed with the names of Allah, the prophet Muhammad and the caliphs that Ataturk removed were actually restored long ago (a small matter not mentioned last week) – he shares the Great Leader’s interest in vast national projects, preferably using large amounts of pre-stressed concrete. For Ataturk’s railway stations and dams, just look at Erdogan’s massive, space-age airport in Istanbul or the vast and expensive canal project, and you see the parallels.

Yet the Ottomans were of a similar mind; their railway systems – the Beirut-to-Damascus line over the Lebanese mountains, for example – were state of the art. Hence Germany’s pre-First World War involvement in building Turkish railways and stations. Ataturk did not discover western civilisation for Turkey. The Ottoman elite had learned to play Brahms and Chopin and to paint like western artists.

If Erdogan really does wish to wear the clothes of a caliph, however, then his military incursions into Syria – into Afrin and the Kurdish border areas – certainly have an Ottoman insouciance about them. His contempt for Assad is not unlike the Ottoman disdain for regional but disloyal Arab leaders who dared to oppose the Sublime Porte.

And Erdogan’s occasional scorn for Putin – a highly dangerous characteristic – has something in common with the violent Ottoman opposition to Tsarist Russia. However, the Ottomans had Britain and France on their side against Russia – and then Germany on their side when they made the final, gruesome mistake of joining the Central Powers against Britain and France in 1914. Erdogan has no one who would go to war for him.

Assad knows this as well as anyone. His Hama project may well tweak the caliph of Istanbul’s small grey moustache, but the man who embraced the Ottomans by painting the chairs of his palace in gold leaf – remember how embarrassed Angela Merkel appeared when she had to sit on one of them – has one ultimate comparison to Ataturk: the need for sole and absolute power.

Assad knows this, too. For the Turkish president, this needs popular, nationalist support – which is worth turning a museum back into a mosque. It’s called politics cloaked by religion. And you can forget the Ottomans.

Turkey really is an important and fascinating political and religious landscape, ripe for continued analysis, and an important barometer for progress in the socio-cultural-religio-political context in which it sits.

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