Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby
World Affairs Journal
“A great nation, a great power”—the recent Fourth General Congress of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party proclaimed this ambitious goal for 2023, the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Turkish Republic. The Congress celebrated Erdogan’s leadership and reelected him as party chairman. With his party’s backing, and through a prospective new constitution that will create a powerful “presidential system,” Erdogan expects to preside over the anniversary celebrations as president of a transformed Turkey that dominates the Middle East.
But what would be the shape of Erdogan’s golden age?
Would Turkey be a moderating influence on political Islam, in particular on the Muslim Brotherhood parties now dominant in much of the new Middle East? Will Erdogan make the country a unique Islamic liberal democracy that will reconcile the Muslim world to the West?
Or is he presiding, as a growing number of observers fear, over an Islamist transformation of Turkey that would put it at odds with the West as it consolidates a “neo-Ottoman” regime? Those who worry about such an outcome find a portent in his remarks—well noted in Turkey but not elsewhere—at his party’s recent Congress. There, Erdogan urged the youth of Turkey to look not only to 2023, but to 2071 as well.
This is a date that is unlikely to be meaningful for Westerners, but is evocative for many Turks. 2071 will mark one thousand years since the Battle of Manzikert. There, the Seljuk Turks—a tribe originally from Central Asia—decisively defeated the leading Christian power of that era, the Byzantine Empire, and thereby stunned the medieval world. At the battle’s end, the Seljuk leader stepped on the Christian emperor’s throat to mark Christendom’s humiliation. The Seljuk victory began a string of events that allowed the Seljuk Turks to capture the lands of modern Turkey and create an empire that would stretch across much of Palestine, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
In evoking Manzikert, Erdogan recalled for today’s Turks the glories of their aggressive warrior ancestors who had set out to conquer non-Muslim lands and, along the way, fought off the hated Shias of their day to dominate much of the Middle East. Manzikert is thus not an image of a peaceful and prosperous liberal state that sways others by its example of tolerance, virtue, and goodwill.
Rather it indicates that as part of his vision of Turkish power and glory, Erdogan seeks to reverse the broad legacy of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who founded modern Turkey in 1923. The recent AKP Congress aimed to celebrate Erdogan as a new and powerful kind of leader—now prime minister, later president—of Turkey, one ready to abandon Ataturk’s secular state structures and Western orientation. The warrior Ataturk warned against the allure of military victories; the politician Erdogan invokes them.
There is little disagreement among Turks about Erdogan’s character. He is famously self-confident and proud, even arrogant—qualities that have helped to make him a charismatic figure for many and an object of suspicion for others. He came of political age within the Turkish Islamist movement, which had long struggled to achieve influence within Turkey’s secular political order. In the early 1990s, the young Erdogan was an Islamist politician in Istanbul, rising to become a successful mayor of the city who addressed practical problems of sanitation, water, and traffic congestion. He was then a junior member of an earlier Islamist party that had ruled briefly but was overthrown by a secular, military-led coup in 1998 that constituted yet another defeat for the Islamist movement. Erdogan himself was jailed for the offense of citing a militant Islamist poem.