Erdogan Exploits Democracy to Reconstruct Turkey's Identity

The Turkish president aims to shape a new model of the state, with himself as the supreme interpreter of values. Paradoxically, his ideas are taken from his archrival Gulen.

People gather during a pro-government demonstration in Ankara, July 29, 2016.
Ali Unal, AP

Next month, Recep Tayyip Erdogan will mark two years in office as Turkey's president. It’s possible that he will no longer have to rely on parliamentary elections to change the constitution and obtain special authorization to head the executive branch. The official political opposition in Turkey is now trapped between understandable and justified opposition to military coups and the substantial harm to democracy such a coup could have wrought, and the revulsion its leaders feel towards Erdogan.

Last week, following a meeting between opposition leaders and Erdogan in his magnificent palace, the leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, welcomed the “spirit of reconciliation” that must be preserved from now on. In the name of this reconciliation, Erdogan hopes to obtain the opposition’s support for amending the constitution without holding elections. In a “generous” move that will not overshadow the aggressive suppression of the freedom of expression, more than 1,800 lawsuits against people suspected of insulting him in traditional and social media have been dropped as a "one-time gesture,” but the intimidating effect has already been achieved.

Every Turkish journalist or blogger, not just the 17 journalists who were arrested after the coup attempt, knows very well the limits of what is permitted in public discourse. Media outlets that had previously criticized Erdogan now appear to transmit that “spirit of reconciliation,” submerging the need to protect civil rights under a wave of sharp-worded articles condemning the coup attempt. “We have to be much more cautious now,” one Turkish journalist told Haaretz. “The closure of newspapers and assaults on journalists and civil rights activists have become routine, and, more gravely, [these actions] are receiving public legitimization. The choice is between bowing one’s head or losing it.”

Turkey is already in the post-coup era, where the next political moves will determine its character and the nature of its government. The conciliatory spirit noted by Kilicdaroglu will likely be leveraged shortly by Erdogan in order to draft constitutional amendments, build a new military hierarchy and legislate laws that promote his ideological agenda, an agenda immersed in a socioreligious worldview. Erdogan is aiming for something beyond his personal achievements or the suppression of the opposition. He’s striving to shape a new model for the Turkish state, one whose values are based on social-religious elements and whose government — namely Erdogan — is their supreme arbiter.

Turkish President Erdogan meets with representatives of the main opposition parties and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim in Ankara, July 25, 2016.
Kayhan Ozer, AP

This needn’t necessarily be a theocratic state based on the Egyptian model, let alone the Saudi one, but rather a state in which a pluralistic Islam serves as the source of morality, without which there can be no national identity. Paradoxically, these are not original ideas conjured up by Erdogan, who is far from being an original thinker, but are those of his archrival Fethullah Gulen, whose Gulen Movement now suspected of being behind the attempted coup. Erdogan rejected a demand made last April by the speaker of Turkey’s parliament to formulate a religious constitution, based on the fact that Turkey is a country of Muslims. Erdogan explained that the state must be “at equal distance from all religions. That is the nature of secularism, which means not exploiting religion for political purposes.” One can of course distrust Erdogan’s motives, but the fact is that up until now he has exploited politics in the service of religion and not the opposite.

When Erdogan visited Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood's victory there, he suggested that they adopt the “Turkish model” in which the state is secular and the prime minister is religious. While Gulen is suspected of trying to establish a “parallel state” within Turkey, Erdogan can establish the “above-ground” state while exploiting the attempted coup to remove suspicions regarding him harboring anti-democratic motives. After all, what could be more democratic than to shatter a “parallel state” which posed a threat to Turkish democracy? What could be more liberal than keeping the army in its barracks, not allowing it to meddle in politics?

Here is where the slippery slope begins, where democracy becomes the source of authority for muzzling freedom of expression, shutting down newspapers and delegitimizing political rivals. Gulen, who advocated for and impressively worked to insert his ideas and followers into state institutions, often collaborating with some of them, such as the military, never had the power and authority which Erdogan now possesses.

The rhetoric so far has succeeded in convincing the public. They have accepted the huge numbers of people who were fired from their jobs, detained or interrogated with relative quiet. This is due to the fact that the attempted coup is perceived not just as an attempt to topple Erdogan, but as a deep insult to Turkey’s across-the-board image of itself as a democracy, the era of regime-changing coups having given way to a civilian era in which citizens have the power to determine the country’s political fate.

Moreover, Turkey is not part of the Middle Eastern Arab package which requires an Arab Spring in order to change governments or to give the public a sense of power. Turkey is perceived as a Western country in the eyes of its citizens and its neighbors. Far from being an economic or geopolitical status, it is part of its national identity, along with Islam and its Turkishness. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, strived to transform Turkey into a part of Europe, imposing ideas such as secularism forcefully and certainly undemocratically. Erdogan now has an opportunity to generate his own Turkish model.