Facebook Twitter YouTube SoundCloud RSS

Turkey’s Election Re-Run: Back to the Future Redux

Dr. Can Ermitan 

21st Century Wire

People in Turkey and Turkey-watchers around the world seem to have had a rude awakening recently, as the opposition did not sweep into power on election day (14 May 2023). The word on the street in Turkey now is that the re-run (28 May) was really between Biden and Putin the puppet-masters behind the scenes. In reality though, the election was really all but a referendum on Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (whom I like to call the Prez) and his vision of a pious country beholden to the Prophet’s example and the religion of Islam.

But the past two weeks have shown that the ideology of Turkish nationalism still holds sway in the country, with both candidates ensuring support from right-wing figures (the leader of the nationalist Zafer Partisi, Ümit Özdağ, allied himself with the opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, and the Prez was supported by the first-round nationalist presidential candidate, Sinan Oğan) – a fact that goes to show that 80 years of Kemalist indoctrination has turned the country’s population deeply nationalist, which these days has also fused with feelings of Islamic piety and rectitude.

Dr Howard Eissenstat, a renowned Turkey specialist, rightfully calls nationalism a “powerful factor” in Turkish politics, adding that its current “particularly militant” form “seems to reflect a growing wave of populism around the world.” Eissenstat then correctly concludes that “in that sense, [Turkey] isn’t so much unusual as emblematic.” The nationalist undertow in Turkish public life even forced the Prez to shroud his pious message in the colours of the Turkish flag. The director of the German Marshall Fund’s Ankara bureau, Özgür Unluhisarcıklı, pensively adds that “AKP voters are more nationalistic than they were and MHP voters are more conservative [or Islamic] than they were.” This coalescing of nationalist and religious sentiments is actually yet another global trend, if we for instance consider “the relationship between Christian nationalism and Trump support” in the U.S. Similarities between the populist Trump and the Islamist Erdoğan have been remarked upon in the past.

On his Truth Social media platform, Trump posted the following message: “Congratulations to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on his big and well deserved victory in Turkey.” Even adding a bit of personal touch next, “I know him well, he is a friend, and have learned firsthand how much he loves his Country and the great people of Turkey, which he has lifted to a new level of prominence and respect!” These social media messages all but underline that the New Turkey is not “so much unusual as emblematic.” Unluhisarcıklı quite rightly states that the Prez “would not have [had] a path to victory in either the parliamentary or the presidential elections without the 10 percent that the [nationalist] MHP brings to the table.” And so we can see that in the New Turkey, Islam and nationalism go hand in hand.

Fears and Predictions: The AKP Policy of Sunnification

Turkish nationalism is a strange beast, an ideology based on ethnic and linguistic purity and cohesion. The reality on the ground turns out to be rather different, as I explained ten years ago:

Even though the republic has always been at pains to stress that Turkey is a unitary nation state with a homogeneous population, the reality is that Turkey’s population is ethnically diverse and an heterogeneous amalgam of individuals. Anatolia has always been home to a wide variety of ethnic and religious groups and sub-groups, and today, the makeup Turkey’s population is the result of Ottoman government policies carried out in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These policies were aimed at transforming Anatolia (the heartland of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic’s geo-body, using Thongchai Winichakul’s coinage denoting the territory of a nation as expressed on a map and inscribed on the people’s consciousness) into a Muslim homeland where refugees from the Russian Empire and the Balkans were settled.

In the early 20th century, Anatolia was thus home to ethnically heterogeneous Muslim groups: in addition to a large majority of Turkish Muslims, there were Kurds, Arabs, Lazes, Muslim Georgians, Greek-speaking Muslims, Albanians, Macedonian Muslims, Pomaks, Serbian Muslims, Bosnian Muslims, Tatars, Circassians, Abkhazians and Dagestanis among others. Prior to the formulation of Turkish nationalism as an ideological binding-force, the diverse ethnic groups in Anatolia were united by their common identity as Muslims and their allegiance to the Ottoman Caliphate, abolished in 1924.

A hundred years after the Ottoman sultanate was abolished and the Republic of Turkey established (1922-3), the Anatolian population has been transformed into a unitary nation called Turkish: “A policy of Turkification carried out in the first decades of the republican existence has meant that the various ethnic subgroups have in time merged with the Turkish mainstream.” Yet, the actual binding force holding these different groups together has always been the religion of Islam.

And that is the principle the Prez (and his AKP henchmen) adhere to and in the run-up to the first-round of the presidential election, he made this crystal clear in challenging his opponent Kılıçdaroğlu:

This nation’s essence is strong, and on May 14 [and 28], this nation will give you the necessary lesson with Allah’s permission. We do not have a Sunni, Alevi, or Shia religion; our religion has only one name, and that is Islam. Our religious identity has only one name, and that is being a Muslim.

On the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish nation state, Tayyip Edoğan is hell-bent of leading his constituency back to the future – a future predicated on the past, not necessarily the Ottoman past but definitely a past that is beholden to the religion of Islam and its tenets. The CHP’s Kılıçdaroğlu had stirred up things in a Twitter video, released on April 18. The video message was a first in Turkish history: As an Alevi himself, Kılıçdaroğlu had called for equal citizenship rights for the Alevi minority and for Alevism to be recognized by the state. The video was viewed nearly 30 million times, becoming one of the most watched videos on Twitter in Turkey:

As an Alevi [not be confused with Alawite], I am a sincere Muslim raised with the belief of Haqq – Muhammad – Ali ….Our identities are the assets that make us who we are; of course, we must protect them with honor. But there are important things we can choose in life. We can choose to be a good person, to be honest, moral, conscientious, virtuous and just.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tweet gathered ‘115.9M Views’ and ran around Turkey and wider world like wildfire. He recited the trinity ‘Haqq – Muhammad – Ali’ or the deity that represents the right of God (Haqq Allah) as well as his Prophet and the latter’s son-in-law. The religious scholar Dr Krisztina Kehl-Bodrogi provides some background to Kılıçdaroğlu’s video, saying that “the Alevis [like] to present themselves to secular Turkey as a natural stronghold against Islamism and as ‘guarantors of laicism’” – laicism means secularism as a translation of the Turkisy term laiklik, itself based on the French laïcité. And for that very reason, the video and subsequent tweet were nothing but revolutionary in a Turkish context and really combustible within the framework of the New Turkey, the bastion of (Sunni) Islam in the Middle East and around the world. Turkey’s Alevi community, is different from the Alawite Sect in Syria. The latter, also known as Nusayris, are a branch of the Twelver school of Shi’a Islam (representing about 12% of Syria’s overall population). Turkey’s Alevis, on the other hand, are described as a Turkish religious community on the periphery of Shi’a Islam, practicing elements of pre-Islamic Turkish shamanism in combination with aspects of mainstream Shi’a Islam – crystalised in the veneration of the Prophet’s son-in-law.

The Sunni-Alevi Nexus

The Prez may very claim to be nothing but a Muslim for electoral and/or political reasons, but Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs (or Diyanet) is “a state-run body whose members are carefully selected and vetted by the authorities and who, in good Ottoman tradition, preach a very pro-state interpretation of Islamic tenets,” as worded in an “occasional paper” (dated June 2007) of the European Union Institute for Security Studies. And the “good Ottoman tradition” mentioned refers to the practice of Sunni Islam according to the tenets of the Hanafi Madhab. In contrast to this official of Islam (also known in Turkish as Müslümanlık), the Alevi faith experience is completely different as explained by Dr Kehl-Bodrogi here:

Expelled by the larger [Turkish] society as heretics and afflicted with the stigma of immorality, the Alevis practised for centuries taqiyya, [or] the concealment of one’s own religious identity. They guarded their doctrines as mystery (sır), not to be disclosed to anyone but those born into the community. The esoteric knowledge was handed down orally in a number of holy lineages (ocak) which claim descent from the Prophet and passed on to the laymen (talip) in special initiation rites. Though a kind of hierarchy existed among the ocak, none of them exercised the role of a central religious authority. This segmented organization along with the lack of a binding script forestalled the development of a single and uniquely valid religious tradition among the Alevis .

In the context of Kemalist Turkey, Alevi believers have always been seen staunch allies and supporters of the self-professed secular state. In the present-day reality of a pseudo-Ottoman polity leading the country and its people into a pious and devout future (which is but a revival of the past), Kılıçdaroğlu’s video message was a brave move that gathered a lot of popular acclaim at home as well as abroad.

Geopolitical Machinations and Creeping Sunnification: A Turkish Century

Prior to the re-run. the BBC’s Orla Guerin posited that “Recep Tayyip Erdogan is promising a new ‘Turkish century’ if he is re-elected.” Guerin then disclosed that “[h]is critics say it will be less Atatürk, more Islamisation, and a darker future.” The outcome of the runoff election was convincing: The Prez was able to get a whopping 52.16% and his opponent, 47.84%. Even though this is nothing but a clear victory, the margins are but a meager 4,32% and for that reason, one cannot but conclude that the New Turkey is a divided country . . . now more than ever. Still, a host of world leaders congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his latest election victory on Sunday night. The U.S. President Joe Biden tweeted the following: “Congratulations to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Türkiye on his re-election. I look forward to continuing to work together as NATO Allies on bilateral issues and shared global challenges” (10:50 pm 28 May 2023). And, the U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, followed suit, tweeting that “Türkiye is a valued @NATO Ally and partner. I look forward to our continued work together with the government chosen by the Turkish people” (11:07 pm 28 May 2023). The POTUS even went as far as speaking to the Prez over the telephone:

President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. called President Recep Tayyip Erdogan today to congratulate him on his re-election as President of Türkiye. They expressed their shared commitment to continue working together as close partners to deepen cooperation between our countries and people. They also discussed their readiness as NATO Allies to address regional and global challenges, including strengthening transatlantic security at the NATO Summit in Vilnius.

In contract, the Kremlin issued the following message conveyed by President Putin over the telephone:

The election victory was a natural result of your selfless work as the head of the Republic of Turkey, clear evidence of the support of the Turkish people for your efforts to strengthen state sovereignty and conduct an independent foreign policy . . . We highly appreciate your personal contribution to the strengthening of friendly Russian-Turkish relations and mutually beneficial cooperation in various areas.

Other world leaders also did their share of well-wishing, from France’s Macron over the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte and Israel’s Isaac Herzog to the current global pop star of international politics, the Ukraine’s Volodimir Zelenskiy.

As a result, in the current context of the ongoing proxy-war in the Ukraine, the Prez’s uncanny ability to turn the political personal seems once again to be bearing fruit. As long ago as 2015, Erdoğan and Putin were at loggerheads over the downing of a Turkish jet, but in the present day, Russia’s and Turkey’s presidents appear to be the best of buddies. These geopolitical considerations do not really affect the daily lives of Turks living in an AKP-ruled land, where economic crises and financial turmoil create havoc. The godfather of Oriental studies Bernard Lewis (1916-2018) made the following prediction late in 2011:

Basically [the Turkish people’s] choice is to go back in the past or go into the future. The Turks themselves will have to decide on that. Besides having to do with examining failures, how innovation is approached will also be decisive . . . If Turkey decides to go that way, the future for Turkey is dim. But Turkey has not yet decided.

It seems that now, in the year 2023 coinciding with the centenary of the Turkish Republic’s foundation, 52.16% of the Turkish electorate has decided on the path forward. Now that the Prez has another five years to reside in his Beştepe Palace, the final transformation into a veritable Islamic state can begin . . . much to the chagrin of 47.84% of the Turkish electorate. Will the year 2023 mark the beginning of Turkey’s journey back to the year 1922?!?? Will Turkey now be traveling back to the future?!?!?

Once upon a time (Saturday, 28 April 2007), the BBC was able to unequivocally state that “[t]he army sees itself as the guardian of Turkey’s secularism” . . . but it seems that the Turkish electorate has now decided that the ideology of Kemalism (as once represented and protected by the Turkish Army and supposedly synonymous with the principle of secularism) is a thing of the past and that the country’s future lies in its past. The people (52.16%) have decided that the Turkish nation is part of the world of Islam and that the way forward is a total fusion of nationalism and religion, a trend that has been noticeable across the globe ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall (9 November 1989).

On the global stage, the Republic of Turkey is not so much ‘unusual as emblematic’ and the figure of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan all but personifies this condition.

21WIRE special contributor Dr. Can Erimtan is an independent historian and geo-political analyst who used to live in Istanbul. At present, he is in self-imposed exile from Turkey. He has a wide interest in the politics, history and culture of the Balkans, the greater Middle East, and the world beyond. He attended the VUB in Brussels and did his graduate work at the universities of Essex and Oxford. In Oxford, Erimtan was a member of Lady Margaret Hall and he obtained his doctorate in Modern History in 2002. His publications include the revisionist monograph “Ottomans Looking West?” as well as numerous scholarly articles. In Istanbul, Erimtan started publishing in the English language Turkish press, culminating in him becoming the Turkey Editor of the İstanbul Gazette. Subsequently, he commenced writing for RT Op-Edge, NEO, and finally, the 21st Century Wire. You can find him on Twitter at @TheErimtanAngle. Read Can’s archive here.

SEE MORE TURKEY NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Turkey Files





Get Your Copy of New Dawn Magazine #203 - Mar-Apr Issue
Get Your Copy of New Dawn Magazine #203 - Mar-Apr Issue
Surfshark - Winter VPN Deal