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Hugh Fitzgerald: The Rise and Rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan


In 2003, Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected Prime Minister of Turkey, a post he held until 2014. In that year, he was elected President of Turkey, a post he still holds. As Prime Minister, he required that the military — the ultimate guarantor of secularism — be reined in, made subject to greater civilian control. To this end, he exploited two supposed coup attempts by the military, to gain control over the army by arresting, and putting on trial, senior officers. These two coups — “Sledgehammer,” and “Ergenekon” — were both fabrications, but Erdogan cleverly exploited the fear of these supposed plots in order to weaken the military. When hundreds of officers were arrested, and put on trial, that discouraged others, even if, in the end, those officers were all exonerated in both “Sledgehammer” and “Ergenekon.” Both so-called plots are now generally accepted to have been fabricated.

But  a real coup d’etat was attempted on July 15, 2016, when military men in Ankara and Istanbul tried to seize power (killing over 300 people, including fellow soldiers) but was quickly put down. They called themselves the Peace At Home Council, and they proclaimed their anxiety over the erosion of secularism, the elimination of democratic rule, and the disregard for human rights. But few joined the original plotters, and Erdogan quickly rounded them up. He accused them of doing the bidding of Fethulleh Gulen from his exile in Pennsylvania. Erdogan had more than 140,000 people detained and more than 50,000 arrested. Tens of thousands lost their jobs. Any  link of this abortive coup to Gulen appears unproven.

Erdogan has been strengthened, and so has his party, the AKP, because the Turkish economy is doing well. He has not been shy about rewarding himself. He has had built as his presidential residence the White Palace, or Ak Saray, with more than 1100 rooms, that cost $631 million. Sixteen Turkish soldiers, each dressed in a costume representing a different period of Turkish history, line an interior staircase of this palace. It is clear that Erdogan dreams of rivaling the Ottoman despots. He has outsmarted the army and outmaneuvered his civilian opponents.

Erdogan has also been re-islamizing secularist Turkey. Here are some of the things he has managed to accomplish, without triggering a military coup, both while Mayor of Istanbul and as Prime Minister:

1. Between 2002 and 2013, the Turkish government  built 17,000 new mosques. Many more have been built since, and more still are now being planned. In addition, thousands of Ottoman era mosques have been repaired and refurbished. Erdogan is building a gigantic mosque on the Asian side of the Bosporus, which can accommodate 30,000 worshippers.

2.When Erdogan first came to power, women working in the public sector were still banned from wearing the Hijab, including teachers, lawyers, parliamentarians and others working in state-run institutions. In recent years, the Justice and Development Party has lifted bans on wearing the Hijab in schools and all state institutions. Now those teachers, lawyers, parliamentarians are not merely allowed, but encouraged, to wear the hijab by the AKP. Even female ministers and judges have taken to wearing hijabs. The wives of Erdogan, Gul, and other ministers all appear ostentatiously hijabbed.

3. After traditional madrasas were banned by Ataturk, Imam-Hatip schools were set up to take their place. These are vocational education institutions designed to provide religious education and train Imams, but also now offering a regular academic curriculum as well, open to students who are not training to be imams. Mosques in Turkey are government appointed and many Imams are trained in Imam-Hatip schools.

In 2002, there were 65,000 students involved in Imam-Hatip schools. That number grew by ten times, to 658,000 in 2013, and it was recently announced that the number of Imam-hatip schools has now reached more than one million.

4. Compulsory religious education in schools has been introduced. Courses on “the life of Prophet Muhammad” and “the Qur’an” have also been made mandatory.

5. The lower age-limit for taking courses on the Qur’an has been eliminated. Until now children had to be at least 12 years old  before they could attend Qu’ran classes. This has been abolished by Erdogan’s government, allowing Qur’an courses even for preschoolers.

6. Bans on alcohol advertising are now in place, whereas secular Turkey always allowed them. The AKP passed a bill in 2013 that banned any advertising of alcohol within 100 meters of a mosque or school.

Blurring out depictions of alcohol on television and in films has also been made mandatory.

The selling of alcohol has now been banned from student dormitories, health institutions, sports clubs, educational institutions and gas stations. All sale of alcohol anywhere  is now banned after 10pm.

7. Sharia-compliant Islamic banking has greatly expanded, and the state-owned Ziraat Islamic bank now has more than 200 branches.

At every turn, Erdogan has managed to best his perceived enemies, and to deal ruthlessly with them. There have been mass firings and arrests of military men, including high-ranking officers, university professors, journalists, doctors, lawyers, even high school teachers, all ostensibly because of their roles in a coup Erdogan insists was masterminded, from Pennsylvania, by Fethulleh Gulen. Almost 10,000 of those arrested have been military officers. And Erdogan seems more secure than ever in his powerful post.

What this history of Turkey in recent years makes clear is that while Ataturk’s reforms once seemed to be forever, it was not Kemalism, but rather its nemesis, Islam, that appears to have made a comeback and  to have prevailed, under the relentlessly re-islamizing despot Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Right now he has cowed all his secularist opposition. Instead the hijab has been reintroduced where it was formerly banned, Islamic banking has taken off, nearly 20,000 new mosques have been built, with the biggest of all, for 30,000 worshippers, almost completed on the Asian side of the Bosporus. Religious education is now compulsory in the regular schools, the Qur’an can now be studied even by pre-schoolers, and the number of students in the imam-hatip schools, where religious training is emphasized, has gone from 65,000 in 2002 to more than a million today.

Turkey has always been held up as an example of a Muslim country that could successfully tame Islam, limit its role in society and politics, and make possible the modernization of the country in every important respect. That’s how Turkey appeared to be going, for more than seventy years, in the direction Ataturk had set, until Erbakan and, much more devastatingly, Erdogan and his AKP party, arrived on the scene to re-escort Islam back onto the center of the Turkish scene. There is no moral in tow, no lesson to be derived here, only the recognition that the  secularists grew too confident and complacent, came to believe that after 70 years, Kemalism was forever. They ceased to watch like a hawk the forces of a newly-invigorated Islam and did not realize how wily and dangerous was the despot who became the Turkish  standard-bearer of re-islamization.

Under new legislation Erdogan could remain as President until 2029. But not everyone is reconciled to his overweening despotism, nor delighted with his 250-room palace, that cost the Turkish taxpayers $631 million. And while the secularists no longer can count on an army coup to protect them, they still exist in large numbers. They can do little but bide their time. Should Erdogan overreach and stumble as self-made sultan, and create so many enemies that the secularists will manage to return to power, backed by a chastened and much more wary military, the secularists mustn’t repeat their previous mistake. They took Kemalism too much for granted, and their complacency gave the wily Erdogan the opening he needed. The secularists should hold fast to the example of Ataturk, who systematically outmaneuvered those who opposed his reforms, in order to make sure that were Erdogan to finally lose his grip — one possible way to do this would be for the West  to infuriate him so much that he withdraws Turkey from NATO — no other islamizing politician arises, with his program insufficiently appreciated by the secularists until it is too late.

The Truth Must be Told

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