Erdoğan’s Islamic State
The imminent demise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s “caliphate” must be counted as a clear win in the Long War or the War of Freedom and yet, to borrow from Churchill, we are a long way from final victory: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” Even that may be overly optimistic. Still incapable of identifying our mortal enemy, we remain stuck in 1938. This major peril confronting us is yet another incarnation of Islamic revivalism, one more manifestation of the hydra-like Global Jihad at war with Dar al-Garb (House of the West). The danger posed to the world by the burgeoning Islamic state of Turkey remains hidden in plain sight.
Almost everything about the Turkish Republic is a lie or, at the very best, a half-truth, starting with its name. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s secular Turkish Republic is being dismantled piecemeal by a modern-day demagogue, President Erdoğan. If the Tribune of Anatolia, who possesses the second-largest army in NATO, holds onto power until October 29, 2023—the centenary of the proclamation of the republic—his suzerainty is no doubt going to be reconstituted as the Islamic Republic of Turkey. This development will denote something more than modern-day Turks revisiting their Ottoman heritage. Ottoman-style Islam, as demanding and controlling as it was, might be counted as mild-mannered and easy-going compared with the fanatical millennialism of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The rise and rise of Erdoğan, whose Freedom and Justice Party (AKP) won the 2002 parliamentary elections and has stayed in power ever since, did not occur in a vacuum. Erdoğan, as Soner Cagaptay points out in The New Sultan: Erdoğan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey (2017), was an acolyte of Necmettin Erbakan, a Turkish version of historic members of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. The reason Erbakan’s vision of Islamic revivalism began to resonate in Turkey during the last twenty-five years of the twentieth century would probably require an investigation rooted in psychiatric anthropology. To make it brief, many Turks, especially in the Anatolian hinterland, were left feeling uncomfortable, dissatisfied and straight-out confused by Atatürk’s experiment in Western-style modernity.
Samuel P. Huntington, in The Clash of Civilisations?, encapsulated the problem as well as anyone. Turkey is a quintessential “torn country”, caught between the House of Freedom to its immediate north and Islamic rectitude to its south:
[Kemalists] allied Turkey with the West in NATO and in the Gulf War; they applied for membership in the European community. At the same time, however, elements in Turkish society have supported an Islamic revival and have argued that Turkey is basically a Middle Eastern society.
The issue might have been decided, at least in a symbolic sense, when Erdoğan imposed Middle East standard time in 2016, abandoning the decades-old custom of Turkey aligning with the time zone of Eastern Europe.
The trouble is that Erbakan and Erdoğan’s brand of Islamic revivalism is not merely a nostalgia for Turkey’s Ottoman heritage but something far more sinister and totalitarian. A virulent new form of anti-Semitism, one based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which has been published in Turkish at least 114 times since the foundation of the State of Israel, is at the heart of this radical Islamic ideology. As Cagaptay writes:
In a 2007 television interview, [Erbakan] seethed when saying that “all infidel nations are one Zionist entity,” and that this “Zionist bacteria” had been working to control the globe for more than 5,000 years.
This is the same psychosis that informs the Islamic Republic of Iran’s talk of Little Satan (Israel) and Big Satan (United States). Erdoğan himself is more likely to use the term “interest rate lobby”—defined by a spokesman as “the Jewish Diaspora”—to explain everything from Istanbul’s famous Gezi Park protests/crackdown, Turkish coalmining disasters, the 2013 building development scandal that still hangs over the astonishingly wealthy Erdoğan family, the fall of Mohammed Morsi of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and, yes, the existence of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).
Why have successive leaders of the West been so obtuse on the subject of Erdoğan’s Islamic revivalism? They have long known, from WikiLeaks revelations, that the fanatics in Erdoğan’s AKP speak of Turkey’s mission “to take back Andalusia and avenge the defeat at the siege of Vienna in 1683”. In 2002, Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s then National Security Advisor, described Erdoğan’s Turkey as “an excellent model, a 99 per cent Muslim country that has great importance as an alternative to radical Islam”. What was she thinking? A newly-elected President Barack Obama, during an embarrassing and self-abnegating endorsement of Erdoğan before Turkey’s Grand National Assembly, lambasted President George W. Bush, his predecessor in the White House, and entreated Turkey to be America’s “critical ally”.
As late as 2012, Obama disclosed to Time magazine that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was one of five international leaders with whom he had achieved the utmost “trust and confidence”. In one of his last extensive White House interviews, granted to the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, President Obama confirmed that he originally considered Erdoğan—in the words of the interviewer—to be “the sort of moderate Muslim leader who would bridge the divide between East and West”. By early 2016, however, Obama no longer held that opinion—Erdoğan was a “failure”. But a failure at what? Bridging the divide between the East and the West? Given that the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkish or otherwise, is founded on enmity towards the West, Obama’s former “trust and confidence” in Erdoğan was always delusional.
Barack Obama, the left-wing professorial Westerner, (?) is perhaps not the most suitable person to be judging his Turkish counterpart a failure. After all, during the period of Obama’s presidency, the trusted Erdoğan closed most independent television channels, newspapers, magazines, radio stations and publishing houses, jailed untold journalists, politicised the police force, beat up and maimed thousands of university students, curtailed parliamentary democracy, arrested his political opponents, limited the sale of alcohol to Turkey’s “pious youth”, ended the independence of the judiciary, boosted the power and influence of the state-funded Directorate of Religious Affairs (the Diyanet), persecuted heterodox Muslims and Christians, Islamised the education system, funded religious schools, encouraged a strict Islamic dress code for women, accrued a personal fortune of reputedly $200 million on a modest $100,000 salary and, with suitably Sultan-like entitlement, created for himself and his corrupt family a 1150-room palace that is thirty times larger than the White House. What self-respecting Muslim Brotherhood firebrand, especially one born to a poor tugboat captain on the Adriatic Sea, would not consider that a success?
Erdoğan’s Turkey is not so much a bridge between West and East as a siege tower or even—as in the case of the Turkish Armed Forces and its incursion into Syria—the actual siege weapon itself. The purpose of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party is to serve as a vanguard for bringing to Turkey, the region, the Greater Middle East and the entire world (if God wills it) a whole new era of Islamic triumphalism.
Fittingly, Enwer Muslim, the Syrian Kurds’ political co-leader (of the PYD) during the 2014-15 Battle of Kobanî, described Kobanî as the “Resistance Castle of the Twenty-First Century”. The same now holds true for Afrin, the mostly Kurdish canton to the west of Kobanî in northern Syria. On January 20 this year, Erdoğan sent the Turkish Armed Forces and the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA) into Turkey to eradicate the PYG-SDF “terrorists”. Back in 2014, when actual head-lopping terrorists under the auspices of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State group occupied great swathes of the Syrian-Turkish borderlands, Erdoğan seemed less troubled by terrorism. Tanks belonging to the Turkish Armed Forces remained literally above the fray, their turrets pointing away from Syria, as the Islamic State death cult lay siege to Kobanî. One man’s terrorist is another fellow’s freedom fighter.
Belatedly, under the spotlight of global humanitarian attention, Erdoğan permitted 150 Kurdish Peshmerga from northern Iraq to transit through southern Turkey and lend assistance to the defenders of Kobanî. Nevertheless, there is more than enough evidence to prove the Erdoğan regime did illicit deals with the Islamic State, including the purchase of oil and the provision of transit, sanctuary and medical assistance for its fighters. For the most part, however, Ankara has aided and abetted al-Qaeda-aligned militias in provinces such as Aleppo and Idlib. Today’s incarnation of the FSA, currently despoiling Afrin countryside with the assistance of the Turkish Land Forces and the Turkish Air Force, could be described most charitably as “moderate al-Qaeda”. NATO obviously requires no enemy when its second-largest constituent army is an active ally of the heirs to Osama bin Laden.
There are a number of inconvenient truths confronting those who justify Turkey’s previous incursion into Syria, Operation Euphrates in 2016, and now Operation Olive Branch, on the basis of an existentialist struggle with “PYD-PKK”, as Turkey’s state-controlled media refers to the Kurdish PYG and its Arab allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces. To be sure, Abdullah Öcalan, incarcerated on Imrali Island in the Sea of Marmara since 1999, is acclaimed by both the PYD in Syria and the PKK in Turkey as a legendary figurehead. What cannot be overlooked, however, is that between December 2012 and mid-2015 Erdoğan entered into lengthy negotiations with Öcalan to start, in Erdoğan’s words, “societal reconciliation”. Öcalan was offering the Turkish state an entirely new (and non-violent) way to solve the Kurdish problem—“democratic confederalism”. In doing so, he was overturning the PKK’s demand for a separate Kurdish state in south-eastern Turkey. In other words, the leader of armed insurrectionaries was prepared to order not only a ceasefire but the demilitarisation of his movement.
Erdoğan, true to form, exploited the situation for his own narrow political purposes and, having achieved that, torched everyone and everything associated with the negotiations. He won the August 2014 presidential elections, in part, by promoting himself as the champion of a unified (and peaceful) “New Turkey” and disparaging the traditional anti-Kurdish attitudes of the Kemalist Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Action Party (MHP). Grateful Kurdish voters, who constitute between a fifth and a quarter of Turkey’s population, rewarded Erdoğan’s outreach, augmenting AKP’s traditional supporters in the Anatolian hinterland, to give him the presidency. Come the June 7, 2015, parliamentary elections, though, many Kurdish swung their support behind the secular-leftist pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) reducing the AKP’s support to just 40.9 per cent. Erdoğan called for new elections but, not wanting to be defeated all over again, boldly and bloodily reconfigured the political landscape in the months leading up to the November 1, 2015, vote. Two rural Turkish policemen were murdered in their beds after an Islamic State terrorist slaughtered thirty-five university students, most of them Turkish Kurds. Nobody can be sure if the policemen were killed by the PKK—murdering policemen in their beds not being their normal practice—but we do know that Öcalan was pleading for peace before President Erdoğan silenced his would-be partner in “societal reconciliation”, abruptly returning him to solitary confinement.
Instead of attacking the Islamic State group, as he promised President Obama after signing up to America’s “Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS” in 2015, President Erdoğan set his F-16 jets not against the Islamic State group in Syria but against the PKK in northern Iraq. Kurdish-populated cities and towns in south-eastern Turkey, including Diyarbakir, were subsequently besieged by the Turkish army. As a result, at the November 2015 parliamentary re-election a percentage of the MHP ultra-nationalist voters switched allegiance to the AKP and helped President Erdoğan retain control of the Grand National Assembly.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk once explained the Turkish Republic’s standpoint as “Peace at Home, Peace in the World”. We could fairly define President Erdoğan’s political strategy, from the moment he muted Abdullah Öcalan and recommenced hostilities against the Kurds, as “War at Home, War in the World”.
The formula has worked well enough for Erdoğan’s Islamic movement to persist with its crash-or-crash-through strategy until the crack of doom—either the AKP’s doom or the subjugation of its enemies. With the next presidential and Grand National Assembly elections scheduled to occur simultaneously in 2019, the incursion into Syria’s Afrin might be just a foretaste of what lies ahead for the world unless somebody impedes him. This is Erdoğan speaking on February 12 this year: “The things we have done so far [pale in comparison to the] even greater attempts and attacks [we are planning for] the coming days, inshallah!” It is considered a low blow to compare a contemporary political leader with Adolf Hitler, but in January 2016 it was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself who proposed Nazi Germany as the kind of effective presidential system he envisaged for the Turkish Republic: “There are already examples in the world. You can see it when you look at Hitler’s Germany.”
These days, Turkish public opinion, manipulated and debased by three years of “War at Home, War in the World”, is ablaze with the possibility of Turkey attacking Greece in order to annex eighteen Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. The ultra-nationalist MHP, naturally, has been swept up in this Erdoğan-initiated torrent of neo-Ottoman hysteria, but it is truly alarming to observe the Kemalist CHP caught in the same maelstrom. Still, Sultan Erdoğan is the one who stands to profit from the psychosis of Turkish irredentism:
We say at every opportunity we have that Syria, Iraq and other places in the geography in our hearts are no different from our own homeland. We are struggling so that a foreign flag will not be waved anywhere where adham [Islamic call to prayer in mosques] is recited.
There is nothing here that “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would not say.
Who is going to stop Erdoğan from transforming “New Turkey” into the Islamic Republic of Turkey? The Turkish conspirators who attempted a coup d’état on July 15, 2016, proved to be entirely inept and achieved nothing more than providing the Middle East’s would-be Führer with his own “Reichstag fire” scenario—not that the Denizen of the Blue Palace needed any encouragement to crack down on secular-minded military officers, independent journalists and Kurdish politicians.
Might we expect Western Europe to stand up to Sultan Erdoğan’s threats to seize territory rightfully belonging to Greece, the cradle of Western civilisation? I would not bet on it. These are the same actors who allowed Russia to occupy South Ossetia, Abkhazia, eastern Ukraine and the entirety of Crimea during President Obama’s tenure in office. Vladimir Putin could always use his—as it, more or less, is these days—cheap liquefied natural gas as a retaliatory weapon if the energy-starved European Union became too uppity about Russian irredentism. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, on the other hand, has hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, not to mention jurisdiction over 500 mosques in Germany alone, as leverage.
Robert Ellis has described Afrin—and we might add the rest of SYD-controlled Syria—as the “New Sudetenland”. It is a powerful and telling metaphor. Must the freedom-loving people, in the comfort of their Western cities, depend on the hard-pressed Syrian Kurds, themselves Muslims, to once again undo the ambitions of Islamic adventurism as they did so admirably in the Battle of Kobanî (see “The Battle for Modernity on the Kurdistan Border”, Quadrant, January-February 2015)? I fear so.
Daryl McCann wrote on the enemies of the Trump White House in the March issue. He has a blog at http://darylmccann.blogspot.com.au, and he tweets at @dosakamccann