Thanks to reforms enacted by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, first president of the independent Republic of Turkey, the Turkish government was hailed throughout the 20th Century as the model of moderate Islamic government. Turkey became an advanced industrial nation aligned strongly with the West, joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and applied for membership in the European Union.
All of that changed under current president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an Islamist strongman who made it his mission to undo Ataturk’s reforms and restore a Turkish “caliphate.” Erdogan brought Islamic sharia law back to Turkey, seized dictatorial powers, imposed an authoritarian police state, alienated the EU, began turning to Russia as a patron, and may very well oversee Turkey’s expulsion from NATO in the near future.
Erdogan is keenly aware of comparisons to Ataturk. He came to power with aspirations of matching the legendary secular leader’s influence on Turkish history, and it’s hard to argue against his success in that endeavor, although his influence is for the worst. He went from claiming the mantle of Ataturk’s legacy to deliberately shredding it. The only remaining token of respect the 12th president of Turkey offers to the founder of its secular republic is that he visits Ataturk’s tomb in Antikabir once a year to pay his respects.
“We are determined to carry the Republic, founded by Your Excellency and your comrades, and entrusted to us by future generations, to its goals on the 100th anniversary of its foundation. May Allah spare us any embarrassment. May you rest in peace,” Erdogan said during this year’s visits.
Skeptical observers of the Turkish political scene wonder how many more visits he will bother to make. In 2014, Erdogan bulldozed Ataturk Forest Farm, a park created by the once-revered founder of the republic, and built an obnoxious $615 million palace for himself boasting 1,100 rooms and a mosque that can accommodate 4,000 worshippers.
When a court ruled that Erdogan could not build his palace because construction in the Ataturk park was against the law, the president sneered that anyone with “the power and the courage to come and demolish this building” was welcome to try. Short of knocking down the huge statue of Ataturk towering over his tomb, it’s hard to imagine Erdogan sending a stronger signal that Ataturk’s legacy is dead and the new master of Turkey intends to be seen as an even more consequential leader.
Most Westerners think of the term “caliphate” in terms of the Islamic State’s aspirations to carve a bloody empire out of Iraq and Syria, but Turkey was a Muslim caliphate before World War I. Ataturk came to power during a program that would be denounced as “ethnic cleansing” by modern observers. Non-Muslims were marched out of Turkey or slaughtered in horrific numbers, while Muslims were imported from surrounding countries.
And yet, Ataturk eliminated Islamic control over the government of postwar Turkey with astounding speed and thoroughness. Turkey had an actual caliph, a Muslim religious ruler roughly analogous to the ayatollahs of modern Iran. Ataturk saw the caliphate as a rival to Turkey’s secular government and neutralized its power, deposing the caliph and sending his family into exile.
Ataturk initially justified this by invoking a tradition of Islamic governance even older than the caliphate, but he began systematically purging every aspect of sharia law from Turkish government. He overhauled the educational system and eliminated Islamic education. Sharia courts were abolished. The hijab headdress for women was deemed a “ridiculous object” and discarded. Even the calendar was revised to match the one used by the rest of the world, instead of using a calendar based on the life of Mohammed. In 1928, the article of the Turkish constitution specifying Islam as the official state religion was removed.
Erdogan has taken every opportunity to reverse Ataturk’s measures. Islam has been injected back into the Turkish educational system, for example. Erdogan says he wants to “put religion at the heart of national life after decades of secular dominance” and raise a new “pious generation.” The quality of Turkish education promptly collapsed, to the great dismay of secular Turkish parents.
Sharia law is coming back too. Commentary deemed “offensive to Islam” is censored and prosecuted. Turkey’s religious ministry, the Diyanet, was established under Ataturk’s reforms to restrain the influence of religion upon politics, but Erdogan effectively made it a cabinet ministry and began using it as a vehicle to infuse Islamic law into Turkish society.
These days the Diyanet issues fatwas (Muslim religious edicts), ruling that nine-year-old girls are old enough to get married, and declaring the question of whether a father “kissing his daughter with lust or caressing her with desire” would have a negative effect on his marriage is… complicated. That particular fatwa did not go over well with the Turkish public, so the Diyanet web page detailing the ruling soon found itself in need of “repairs.”
Erdogan’s government disturbingly described its invasion of Syria to make war against Kurdish militia groups as a “jihad.” Turkey’s occupation of the Syrian Kurdish enclave of Afrin was described as a victory for “Islam’s last army.”
The government of the Netherlands launched an investigation of a sermon distributed to hundreds of Turkish mosques by the Diyanet in February that celebrated the Syrian operation as a jihad. Dutch ministers said they took the dangers of preaching holy war and martyrdom to Muslim youths in their country “very seriously.”
The hijab is back in Turkey after being banned for decades. The Turkish military was the last institution to prohibit female officers from wearing Islamic headscarves, but its ban was lifted in 2017. Some observers took this as a sign the Turkish military, the last Kemalist secular bastion in the country, was weakened politically by the failed coup against Erdogan in the summer of 2016. Others argued the long national ban on hijabs worked against secularists in the long run, because it nourished resentment among the majority Muslim population.
Erdogan’s long-term plans put great emphasis on the year 2023, which will mark 100 years since the founding of the Republic of Turkey. For Erdogan, holding the presidency with the enormous powers he claimed in a 2017 referendum will put him in the history books as a leader comparable in stature to Ataturk, the “Founding Father” of a new Turkey. His political propaganda paints the thwarted 2016 coup as a “foreign invasion” Erdogan repelled by leading a new “war of independence,” just like Ataturk did.
Erdogan’s Islamist ideology is more than just a political ploy to maintain power in Turkey, although his fusion of resurgent Muslim pride and nationalism certainly serves that purpose as well. Nostalgia for the glory days of the Ottoman Empire and its caliphate has flourished during Erdogan’s rule. His top officials occasionally suggest Erdogan is an Ottoman sultan, a spiritual or even literal descendant of the old imperial family. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also thinks Erdogan is trying to put the Ottoman caliphate back together, but he’s much less happy about it.
Many of his supporters argue that only a fusion of Islam and nationalism can supply the discipline necessary to solve Turkey’s problems. Political technicians credit Erdogan for shrewdly understanding that Turkey’s nationalists and Islamists used to be feuding camps because the nationalists were Kemalist secularists. By redefining Turkish nationalism as deeply Islamic in character, Erdogan merged those squabbling factions into an unbeatable electoral force.
The Turkish president wants to be seen as an international champion of Islam and elevate Turkey to a Sunni religious authority on par with Saudi Arabia’s custodianship of Mecca and Egypt’s Al-Azhar University. He espouses a version of Islam more in tune with modern times than hardline faiths like the Wahabbism emanating from Saudi Arabia. He seems especially interested in crafting a more progressive form of Islam that will have more appeal to women, perhaps mindful that Turkey’s long cultural and economic contact with the West and century of secular government have created a different market for Islam than one might find in Pakistan or Iran.
“Islam must be updated,” he declared in March in a speech on International Women’s Day, before launching a critique of primitive misogynistic beliefs widely interpreted as a backhanded slap at a conservative Muslim scholar who defended child brides and wife-beating.
“We do not seek reform in religion, which is beyond our capability,” Erdogan reflected shortly afterward. “Our holy Quran has and will always have words to say. Its commandments will never change. But the independent reasoning derived from them, the developed rules and their implementation will surely change according to the time, the conditions and the possibilities.”
On the other hand, Erdogan despises the idea of “moderate Islam” and insists he is not trying to water the faith down by modernizing it. In fact, he has said the very notion of “moderate Islam” was cooked up by the West to confuse and weaken Muslims.
He wants to chop away the fundamentalists and extremists – “there is no Islamic terrorism,” he notoriously declared in 2010, because “Islam means peace, so it can’t come with terror” – and position himself as the champion of a faith that can flourish in the modern world.
When U.S. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. embassy to Israel would be moved to Jerusalem, Erdogan immediately declared himself a leader of the resistance and patron of the Palestinian cause, sensing an opportunity to burnish his credentials as a defender of the faith and leader of the Muslim world.
“Jerusalem is our red line. Any steps against Jerusalem’s historic status and holiness are unacceptable,” he declared in December 2017.
In a May speech delivered at the main square in Istanbul, Erdogan rallied the Muslim world to take a “physical stance” against Israel.
“The occupation of Jerusalem, the violation of the privacy of the al Aqsa mosque, and the violation of the rights of the folks of Palestine… we declare that we will not accept this,” he thundered in a speech peppered with quotes from the Koran.
“To take action for Palestinians massacred by Israeli bandits is to show the whole world that humanity is not dead,” he raged.
The Jerusalem Post noted uneasily in March that Erdogan’s media mouthpieces in Turkey have gone even further and urged the creation of a 57-nation “Army of Islam” that can attack Israel from every direction. Erdogan fanzine Yeni Safak even published a detailed invasion plan involving 250,000 troops, 500 tanks, 500 helicopters, and 50 ships, with Turkey serving as an “important headquarters during the operation.”
The current and previous U.S. presidents both underestimated Erdogan’s devotion to his caliphate ideals. President Barack Obama saluted the nascent Islamist strongman as a model of moderate Muslim statesmanship and spoke of Erdogan as one of the few world leaders he felt a kinship with. President Donald Trump also counted Erdogan as a friend at first.
Both administrations tended to regard Erdogan’s Islamism as a pose he adopted to maintain his political support at home. Both administrations have learned his caliphate ambitions are quite serious. By 2023, he will probably find the perfect moment to prove beyond question just how serious he is.