In Turkey, Erdoğan fans an Islamic nationalism to build Ottoman-style influence

Fifteen years into his rule, Erdoğan has gradually turned his country away from the secular tradition of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. He has also moved away from democratic norms, complicating ties with the West.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images/File
Turks spill into Istanbul streets for Friday prayers as they overflow a small mosque last September. A new mosque will be built nearby in Taksim Square.

They portray themselves as the “average Joes” of Turkish politics: a builder-handyman and his fiancée, a cleaner, who both work for the same small Istanbul company that has been going through tough times.

Harun Demir, whose hands bear the signs of hard work, wears a small beard and an easy smile; Seniz Kaya’s long thick curls are fashionably dyed, and very visible since she doesn’t wear a headscarf.

The couple could not look less religious, or less political. Yet they are the face of a new politics in Turkey, a staunchly held view of Islamic nationalism deliberately and painstakingly carved by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

They believe – like many of their fellow Turks – that Mr. Erdoğan’s heavy hand on everything from press freedom to engineering unprecedented presidential power is justified as the best path to solve Turkey’s constellation of problems. The country was convulsed by 30 attacks last year, faces a struggling economy, and is at war in southeast Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.

They also echo officials when they say that Turkey is in the process of restoring its historical Ottoman influence as a leader of the Islamic world. Those references point to a moderate, inclusive form of Islam, but also authoritarian rule in the form of a sultan.

Indeed, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım last month portrayed Erdoğan as a descendant of a well-regarded Ottoman-era sultan. Last fall, a local AKP official controversially posted on his Facebook page that Erdoğan “will be the Caliph of the Presidency,” and that in 2023 – when the Turkish republic reaches its 100th birthday – “Allah will finish the light.”

“Now there seems to be a new pattern of leadership: Erdoğan, Russian President [Vladimir] Putin, and Trump. They are not dictators, they are strongmen,” says Mr. Demir, approvingly. Erdoğan “is talking to people, he is doing it for the people. Maybe he is twisting some arms, but it is for a good cause."

Turks should be patient and have faith in the changes, says Ms. Kaya: “For it to work, you must have trust [in Erdoğan]. It’s our role as Turkish citizens to trust our leader.” 

That is a perspective Erdoğan is happy to feed. While critics charge that his largely unfettered rule has dragged Turkey into a domestic quagmire of social division, anti-Western sentiment, financial troubles, and multiple conflicts abroad, the president has promoted a much more flattering narrative, casting even the escalating attacks by the so-called Islamic State and Kurdish militants as a response to his country’s resurgent greatness.

Fifteen years into his rule, Erdoğan has gradually turned his country away from the secular tradition of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the modern state from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. And there is little room for any competing views as the once ardently secular eastern anchor of NATO, which has aspired to membership in the European Union, weakens once-promising linkages with the West, promotes the role of religion in public life, clamps down on opponents and the media, and moves ever more firmly away from democratic norms. 

“Turkey is under very serious attack both inside and outside,” Erdoğan said on Jan. 10. “It is not because we are a weak country, but because we are a stronger and stronger country.”

Religious majority

Demir and Kara could not agree more. And recent polls indicate that Turkey’s conservative, religious political bloc, to which they belong, is a majority that will shape Turkish politics for the foreseeable future.

“They think that Turkey is facing big troubles – and they are correct on that – but they think those troubles are created by malicious forces conspiring against Turkey. That’s Erdoğan’s narrative, they buy into that,” says Mustafa Akyol, a Turkish analyst of politics and culture, and author of the new book “The Islamic Jesus.”

“They think this conspiracy will only be undone by a very powerful, defiant leader, which is of course Erdoğan himself,” says Mr. Akyol, currently a senior fellow of the Freedom Project at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

“That political propaganda is in your face every day, every single moment. If you turn on TV, if you open newspapers, 70 to 80 percent of them almost will be telling that to you,” says Akyol, noting that Erdoğan’s opponents have been “marginalized, silenced, jailed, exiled.”

For decades, the military served as a self-declared bulwark of Turkish secularism – mounting four coups since 1960 to block Islamists from governing – but AKP rule has since neutered the military’s role in politics, and made many changes in Turkish society in the name of religion.

On Wednesday, for example, female Army officers and cadets were officially allowed to wear headscarves as part of their uniforms. The move is the culmination of years of AKP chipping away at a decades-long headscarf ban that saw a similar ruling for policewomen last year, and in 2013 for civil servants and in schools.

In another sign of AKP reshaping, last week ground was broken on a new mosque on the edge of Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square, after years of controversy.

There has “always been a xenophobic, paranoid nationalism, but since it was based on Atatürk, it was also a secular nationalism and maybe didn’t [sit well] with the conservative Islamic camp,” adds Akyol. “But now it is nationalism [with] a heavy dose of Islam, so it appeals to religious conservatives very strongly.” 

Ruling party operatives have sometimes pushed too hard, as did an AKP youth leader in the southern coastal city of Mersin. Last week, he tweeted that, “if only [Atatürk] did not exist,” and suggested that the father of the nation should not be considered a Turk because he was born in Ottoman-era Thessaloniki, in modern-day Greece, and “doesn’t look Turkish.”

“History is being written,” tweeted Hasan Baki. “It’s not a revolution of enlightenment or wannabe Westernization, it is the revolution of the Islamic case.” The AKP asked him to resign, and opposition party officials are taking him to court for “insulting Atatürk.” 

Post-coup nationalism

The trend of Islamic nationalism has only accelerated since an attempted coup last July, in which Erdoğan’s call to loyalists to take to the streets to stop putchist soldiers brought the coup attempt to a swift end. Nightly rallies across the country for a month organized by the AKP blended nationalist and Islamist imagery with strident messages of unity. 

A state of emergency has been renewed twice so far, and some 125,000 people have been purged and nearly 50,000 arrested, according to some estimates, for suspected links to the coup attempt. In the political whirlwind, the AKP has convinced one opposition party to join it in rewriting the Constitution to realize Erdoğan’s dream of creating an unassailable executive presidency – to its critics, the post of a modern-day sultan.

Ahead of a national referendum in April, an annual poll by Kadir Has University found a deeply divided society, but one with an ever-coalescing majority.

“The facts are very obvious,” Hasan Bülent Kahraman, the vice president of Kadir Has, told Hürriyet Daily News. “There is a 70 percent majority in Turkey and it is their way of thinking, their ideological thinking, that is already dominating and will dominate in the future.”  

Giving religion a higher profile has been part of the Islamist-rooted AKP’s agenda from the start, and signs have taken hold everywhere, from the increase in the number of women wearing headscarves – in concert with gradual lifting of the ban in government institutions – to the build-up of mosques in the country from 78,608 in 2006 to 86,762 in 2015, according to the Directorate of Religious Affairs.

It has also been manifest in a national campaign by the directorate. “Mosque Week” was declared the first week of last October, and slogans for the year-long campaign include: “We are going to the mosques, we are reading [the Quran]”; and “Let the voice that echoes in your heart be found in the mosque.”

“We are trying to make religion more in social life, to be practiced in homes and make it a more vital part of life,” says Aydin Yiğman, the mufti of the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul, a ranking official expert in the Turkish state religious authority. He wears a suit and tie, not religious garb, and is clean-shaven, in keeping with Turkey’s secular custom for officials since the 1920s. 

“We don’t want people to think of the mosque only on Friday,” says Mr. Yiğman. “We want to spread awareness of religion, so when people hear the call to prayer they are more aware…. It is not something bad or under pressure. We want to build this upon love, so people are receptive to God’s call, because it is God’s call.”

He suggests these days there is no greater religiosity among Turks, yet the scene appears different from years past, as the faithful these days spill onto the streets around mosques in some Istanbul districts during Friday prayers. The new Sunday morning prayer meetings for youth attract up to 250 people a time, though even if there were one-tenth the number, he says, “we would be happy with that.”

He notes that the number is small, in a district with 100 mosques and 250,000 residents, but says progress is being made. “The goal of this education is so people learn the correct Islam,” says Yiğman.

Anecdotally, such efforts are visible. In recent weeks, for example, as frigid cold gripped Istanbul, a van drove through one district announcing free tea at a local mosque, and a program about Ottoman history with a reading of the Quran. And overheard on a bridge crossing the Golden Horn, one headscarf-wearing woman suggested to her mixed group of young men and women that they “hang out at the local mosque.”  

'A different kind of Turkey'

That would be no surprise to Demir and Kaya, who shy away from the term “Islamic nationalism,” but say that “Turkey is more diverse and needs religion to tie everyone together.

“Some people think he is more authoritarian, that he is more dictatorial. But look at where Erdoğan has brought us,” Demir says. “It’s a different kind of Turkey.”

For Demir, Turkey under Erdoğan can shape an Islamic form of government that differs from the austere practices that Saudi Arabia promotes, through money and funding religious schools and mosques, to Muslim countries around the world.

“Our hope for 2023 is that we want to be educated, cultured, and Muslim. We are redefining Islam, and what it is today,” says Demir. “It’s in our genes. The Islam that has been exported from Saudi Arabia and northern Africa failed to work, because of lack of education. We have Ottoman culture to be open and moderate.”

Former AKP Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said in 2015 that Turkey “will re-found the Ottoman state,” in just one example of officials portraying themselves as rightful heirs of the Ottoman legacy.

“Turkish religious conservatives have always had this feeling that Turkey was the standard-bearer of Islamic civilization,” says author Akyol. They say, “‘Turks were the leaders, and that unfortunately collapsed…and that has to be corrected. Turks once again should lead the ummah [Islamic community] as the new Ottomans.’”

“That’s a dream in the religious conservative camp for decades, that is not something new,” he says. “Erdoğan is now giving the message: ‘I am now realizing this.’ That creates a big sentiment around him, from people with Islamic conservative leanings.” 

“The problem is we are not living in Ottoman times, we are not living in the era of sultans,” says Akyol. “We’re living in the era of liberal democracy, and Turkey’s not heading there.”

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