by Our Own Correspondent (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 43, No. 7, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1435)
Turkey has a new president in Recep Tayip Erdogan, hitherto Turkey’s prime minister. Our correspondent reports what he saw before, during and after the election in Turkey.
After spending half a month during and after the latest presidential election in Turkey, a Crescent International correspondent shares his observations and analysis.
Given the brutal history of Western imposed secularism on Turkey when the Khilafah, even if reduced to a shell of its former venerable self, was abolished in 1924, Turkey under the Justice and Development Party (AKP) has achieved significant gains in reviving the Islamic spirit of the people. Those familiar with the Kemalist project of Western imperialist regimes that aimed to export this model to the entire Muslim world, cannot deny that Turks and the broader Islamic movement have maintained their Islamic identity largely intact despite enormous odds. The restored Muslim identity was clearly visible during our observation of last month’s presidential election in Turkey.
Even many anti-Erdogan Turks have admitted that until 2003 secularism was literally shoved down people’s throats. Seeing Islamic slogans and flags associated with the Egyptian Ikhwan al-Muslimeen and Palestine during presidential campaign rallies in Turkey is not a minor socio-political change for a country like Turkey. It represents the end of the era of unchallenged Western secular dominance.
Nevertheless, the overall impression gathered from observing the electoral campaign and Turkish society in general leads to one firm conclusion: the Kemalist project is on its deathbed and taking its last dying gasps. Western powers are attempting to replace Kemalism with “moderate Islam” through which the imperialist regimes and their local proxies hope to continue business in a literal and metaphorical sense. This is being done with the active collaboration of pseudo-Islamic groups like the Gulenists and by exploiting the AKP’s half-baked Muslim vision.
Speaking to Turks of various backgrounds from pro-Erdogan and anti-Erdogan camps it is clear that the AKP’s success in Turkey is based on the fact that it has managed to present a program and a vision that appeals to a broad segment of the population. The AKP voters include Salafis as well as leftists. Some Islamic-minded cadres view this phenomenon as Erdogan’s achievement while other Islamic activists consider this as a sign of Erdogan’s un-Islamic Machiavellian politics.
Analyzing the electoral campaign carefully shows that Erdogan and his party managed to convince the majority of Turkish people that the battle is between preserving their religious identity and going back to secularism. This was not really the case but Erdogan’s use of ritualistic notions of Islam convinced the majority of Turks that if he loses, practicing Muslims will be subjected to repression once again. In order to deliver this message across to the generally conservative population of Turkey, AKP’s electoral machine focused on portraying Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the “Ataturk” of the religious/conservative camp.
This strategy worked because the religious segment of the Turkish population never viewed Mustafa Kemal as someone representing them. In Erdogan they found a persona who could be used as the antithesis to Mustafa Kemal and his imported ideology. Had the secular camp been more inclusive and tolerant of Islam in the 1980s and 1990s, the methodology Erdogan skillfully employed during the recent presidential election would not have worked so successfully.
Another crucial issue relating to Erdogan that critics point out is that he has adopted a rigid attitude in defending his personality at all costs. When discussing his domestic and foreign policy slips, Erdogan and his close circle of supporters are quick to blame others but never accept Erdogan’s responsibility. Anti-Erdogan critics within the Islamic movement and outside state that Erdogan implements this policy by making sure that anti-AKP and the old power structures remain weak, but active. This scheme allows Erdogan to blame them for his own leadership shortcomings.
Election slogans and commercials of all candidates focused mainly on how they would improve the economic condition of the average person. Our observations revealed that typical pro-AKP voters in Turkey were primarily concerned with bread and butter issues. Erdogan and his party managed to improve the living condition of most people in rural Turkey. This improvement however, must be viewed in context. Up to the 1990s, the situation of Turkey’s rural population was so bad that anyone performing slightly better than the now obsolete and highly corrupt politicians of the past would be cheered by Turkish citizens.
Observing the economic situation in Istanbul, a city that is the center of economic activity and speaking to various businessmen and even average citizens, it is evident that Erdogan-ruled Turkey is a successful player of the Western economic game that allows the AKP and its leadership to promote itself as saviors of the nation. This aspect also creates unease among many activists of the Islamic movement in Turkey. They point to the fact that allowing the AKP government to participate in the Western economic game is a sign that the West derives strategic economic and political gains from the current Turkish leadership.
Erdogan has presented himself as the leader of Turkey who is restoring its Ottoman/Islamic grandeur. Thus, Turkish foreign policy was an important part of Erdogan’s electoral campaign. Nevertheless, caution and at times nervousness was also evident among pro-AKP activists and media outlets while discussing the “successes” of the AKP government vis-a-vis Syria and Palestine. Even though Erdogan’s electoral camp made sure that he is portrayed as champion of the Palestinian cause, they made sure that no in-depth comparison is made during the campaign between Erdogan’s militant approach on Syria and his “diplomatic” response to Zionist aggression in Gaza.
AKP supporters felt quite uncomfortable when asked what they thought of the fact that despite Erdogan’s soaring rhetoric, Israel’s Economic Ministry announced on July 4, 2014 that exports to Turkey had surpassed even 2013 record level, with the figure climbing nearly 25% to $949.2 million in the first four months of the year. Israel’s Economic Ministry also announced that imports from Turkey grew to $956 million, a 21% increase over the same period last year. According to the Zionist newspaper Haaretz, “the increase comes after two-way trade jumped 39% to a record $48.5 billion in 2013.” This factor was another major concern for many Islamic activists in Turkey that were critical of Erdogan and described him as apower hungry player who skillfully employs an Islamic cover to gain popular support.
In regards to the relations with the US and the EU, Ankara is unlikely to introduce any radical policy shifts. Turkey will remain in a strategic working relationship with Washington and Brussels, unless the two Western systems take aggressive steps to weaken Erdogan’s government. This will depend on the internal dynamics in Turkey that are unlikely to change for the next five to ten years.
A symbolic but impressive vote was garnered by Selahattin Demirtash, presidential candidate of the leftist political party. An ethnic Kurd, Demirtash who was the unofficial candidate of the Kurdish political party called Democratic Regions Party, better known in Turkey as BDP, obtained 9.76% of the vote. Speaking to some anti-Erdogan and pro-Erdogan voters it became clear that Demirtash is widely admired even among people that did not vote for him. If he were not an ethnic Kurd, Demirtash would certainly have gotten a much higher vote.
Evaluating the Kurdish factor within Turkish politics once again confirmed the view of Crescent International that the Kurdish question, after Israel, is the second strongest Western leverage in the Muslim East. The injustices suffered by the Kurdish people inflicted on them by Washington-supported regimes in the Muslim East, ironically turned them into the most reliable ally of the West. Due to Erdogan’s slow rapprochement policies toward them, the Kurds in Turkey will sooner or later become for Washington what they are for the US in Iraq, unless the Turkish government and society take radical steps to address the injustices faced by the Kurds in a speedy manner.
Aiming to position Turkey as the leader of Sunni Muslims, Erdogan has clearly chosen to use the sectarian card. For many Turks that Crescent International spoke to, Erdogan’s numerous sectarian statements have now become his political trademark. Having travelled on numerous occasions to Turkey, this author witnessed for the first time a sectarian driven altercation in a masjid, initiated by a Syrian refugee. Sectarianism was never an important issue in Turkish society, but it is slowly becoming one and the AKP is facilitating it for internal and external purposes.
Through sectarianism the AKP aims to build a solid constituency that will turn a blind eye to its mismanagement and mistakes regardless of their severity. This strategy is definitely working as the incident with the leaked Erdogan tapes has shown. The pro-AKP constituency dismissed the corruption tapes as fake and as the government itself gave no credibility to some independent IT experts (like Joshua Marpet, a US-based cyber analyst who has testified in court on the validity of computer evidence in other Turkish criminal cases) who alleged that the tapes are real. To gain this reaction from its constituency Erdogan employed many tactics, one of which was sectarianism.
Lengthy discussions held with average citizens in Turkey create the impression of a state with vast potential but at the same time one that is vulnerable. There are several key issues over which the Turkish society is divided that can and will be exploited by external powers. The ingredients for turning Turkey into another Syria-type scenario are there unless Erdogan and his political party conduct themselves in a more principled manner for their strength today could easily be turned into their weakness in the future.