The Sultan’s Wrath: Erdoğan

What an Autocratic Turkey Means for the Region and the World

Chris Kiyaseh
Jul 28, 2018 · 12 min read

The crossroads of the world, the region that merges east and west into an intense fusion of tradition and modernization. The Republic of Turkey links Europe to the Middle East and Asia, the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea, and unites it in the central hub of Istanbul. The Republic also holds great economic, cultural, and military influence throughout the regions surrounding it. Yet as uniting and central as Turkey seems, the state itself is divided into two parts. The western provinces that flourish under a booming economy, which have secular values, and the eastern provinces, which are under privileged and are more conservative.

Mustafe Kemal known as Atatürk

To fully understand why Turkey is the way it is, along with its importance in today’s geopolitical theatre, we must visit one of the darkest times in Turkish history: 1920. There, the skirmishes of the Great War were slowly coming to an end, the Ottoman Empire was all but defeated, and its territories divided among the victors of the Great War. Two years later, the position of Sultan was abolished, and the great Ottomans were no more. Then a bloody War of Independence ensued that took thousands of lives, and from the ashes of the scorched Turkish heartland, unity emerged under Mustafa Kemal, known as Atatürk. This army officer and revolutionary would go on to establish the Republic of Turkey and lead it to a level of modernization then never seen in a Muslim-majority state. The fact that so many states wanted to defeat the Turkish people united them under Atatürk and with his new state, his “Six Arrows” policy was implemented. The Six Arrows referred to Republicanism — which drew upon the rule of law, Statism — focused on a well-regulated economy, Reformism — targeted social reform within the Republic, Populism — encouraged civic virtue, and finally, Nationalism — focused on National unity along with Secularism — being the separation of state and religion. A large portion of the population embraced these ideologies, yet an equal amount of opposition was prevalent as well.

In a move to disassociate the Republic with Islam, Atatürk abolished the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. The Caliphate had served as the religious and political focal point in Ottoman society, but Atatürk moved the country towards the separation of religion from government. He also instituted the use of the Gregorian Calendar, European numerals, and replaced the Arabic alphabet with the Latin alphabet. The office of the Sheik al Islam, a position that presided over religious affairs, along with schools and charities, was abolished, along with apparel such as the Fez. This effort was to completely sever the chains of Islam that would hold the Turkish Republic back from modernization. Finally, in 1928, Islam was removed from the Constitution as the State Religion, ending the Islamic past of Turkey.

As the Turkish state began to evolve, two prevalent sides emerged: the Western Marmara heartland and the Eastern Anatolian highlands. As the West grew rich from trade, the capital generated was invested in the Anatolian highlands and massive economic growth came with that investment. The economic growth was so impressive that many Eastern cities were dubbed the “Anatolian Tigers.” This term was used to refer to and explain the phenomenon of a number of cities in Turkey that displayed impressive economic growth since the 1980s. Yet this economic growth created tensions between the elites, ranging from entrepreneurs to industrialists and state officials merging together into the political system. Likewise, Islamist groups merged into educational and cultural asssociations in resistance to the Six Arrows of Atatürk. These religious leaders claimed that secular values were damaging and alien to the Turkish culture and were inconsistent with Muslim society. With that, two competing groups were created, the Marmara faction adhered to secular codes and the Anatolians stuck to conservative and religious values.

However, the internal Turkish rivalries were not restricted to secularists and clerics. In the 1970s, a low-level insurgency erupted between the left-wing Communists and the right-wing Nationalists resulting in 5000 casualties. As Turkey licked its wounds and the conflicts came to an end, cities began to grow. By 2000, Istanbul reached a population of 8.8 million. With that, Turkey needed to reassess its political alliances. In the early 2000s, the government had devised a diplomatic plan named the “policy of zero problems with our neighbors.” This allowed Turkey to normalize relations with old adversaries like Cyprus and Armenia. Turkey was also able to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran in partnership with Brazil, while mediating between the Arab states and Israel. Furthermore, several energy and construction deals were made with the Russians and settlements were even reached with militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). This made the Turkish state the keystone of stability in the Middle East and the ultimate mediator, truly the crossroads of the world. Unfortunately, soon came a man that would undo all of the hard work that Turkey has done.

In 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey. As a religion-based party, the AKP victory and subsequent dominance has allowed Turkish citizens to explore their religious identities more freely. The AKP’s preeminent leader, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also made massive economic reforms that provided significant growth to industries such as agriculture, mining, banking, and construction. Trade flourished under Erdoğan and therefore his religious and conservative ideologies and initiatives were justified by his supporters. Infrastructure investment greatly improved roads, hospitals, and schools, granting Erdoğan legitimacy and winning him nearly a dozen elections consecutively. However, all these economic reforms were just a stepping stone and over the last decade, he has grown more authoritarian. After recently winning the election for President, he has changed the entire political system and swapped the more democratic parliamentary republic for an executive presidency, giving himself disproportionate power. The new government is split up into nine advisory boards that focus on science, technology and innovation, education, economy, security and foreign policy, law, arts and culture, healthcare, and local administration and social policies. They will all have a vice chair including two additional members that report directly to Erdoğan.

Diagram of How the New Government is Structured

In 2013, the Gezi Park protests against the authoritarianism of Erdoğan and his policies were on display. A small sit-in in Istanbul to defend a city park from urban development turned into a harsh crackdown with tear gas and police brutality. As a result, the protests grew greater. Faced with the largest protests in over a decade and an unbearable amount of social unrest, Erdoğan made the following controversial remark in a televised speech: “The police were there yesterday, they are there today, and they will be there tomorrow.” After weeks of clashes in the streets of Istanbul, his government at first apologized to the protestors and called for a plebiscite, but again he then ordered an even tougher crackdown on protesters.

A protester crying out

On 20 July 2016, Erdoğan declared a state of emergency after an attempted coup d’état. The state of emergency was originally supposed to only last three months and the seal of approval from Parliament was all Erdoğan needed. This was then extended three more months, allowing him to clean house and solidify his position further. The ongoing Turkish purges included the elimination of any independent media along with detaining tens of thousands of people, particularly those politically opposed to Erdoğan. Upwards of 50,000 have been arrested and more than 160,000 let go from their jobs by March 2018. Two prominent Turkish journalists, Can Dündar and Erdem Gül, were arrested and detained, potentially facing life sentences for their criticisms of the Turkish government.

Protests in Gezi Park

In August 2016, Erdoğan further increased his crackdown on the press. He had several journalists imprisoned who were about to publish, or had already published, articles that questioned his authority and claimed that his administration is corrupt. A damning revelation surrounding all of this is that the current number of Turkish journalists that are incarcerated by the government is higher than any other state. That means states like North Korea, Cuba, Russia, and China combined cannot hold a candle to the number of journalists being held in Turkey. Moreover, Erdoğan started eliminating any internal opposition, whether it was from within the government or the public sector, and what better way than to raise charges of terrorism? It is the perfect charge, as Turkey claims to be a strong ally in the War on Terror and has been conducting operations in Syria to fight the Kurdish rebels and the extinguished Islamic State. Few assume that those being charged have gone or will go through a proper judicial process. Several states in the international community have and continue to complain about the lack of proper judicial process and unjustified incarceration of potentially innocent people.

In January 2016, over a thousand academics had organized a petition that criticized the harsh military crackdown on ethnic Kurdish neighborhoods and towns in the Eastern Turkey. Regions like Silvan, Silopi, and many more were targeted and assaulted. Academics organized a petition that called for an end to the violence and “Nazi like” tactics. The Turkish government, including Erdoğan, condemned those who had signed the petition and accused them of “terrorist propaganda,” alleging them to be “the darkest of people.” Furthermore, he called for action by the institutions and universities, stating that “Everyone who benefits from this state but is now an enemy of the state must be punished without further delay.” It was only a matter of days before over 30 of the signatories were all arrested in “swat team” like raids in the early morning hours. After brief conversations with the Turkish authorities, the academics were released but not before being fired from their jobs. Members of The Science Academy, a relatively new academic association created after government cooptation of established academic associations, denounced the government for such “wrong and disturbing” treatment. Erdoğan had vowed that the academics would pay the price for “falling into the pit of treachery.”

In April 2017, Erdoğan further confirmed his authoritarian posture and successfully passed legislation that made it illegal for the legislative branch of Turkey to investigate his executive branch of government. Now this move undeniably has dictator written all over it in capital letters. The Republic of Turkey under Erdoğan has lost any democratic characteristics that it had. By destroying the system of checks and balances, along with freedom of speech, Erdoğan answers to nobody and is free from accountability for any of his actions. To add insult to injury, members of the international community, like the United States, should be offering stiff diplomatic resistance, such as imposing sanctions or even verbally condemning such abhorrent actions. But as the old saying goes, “birds of feather flock together,” as the President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, called to congratulate Erdoğan for his recent successful referendum. This seemed to encourage Erdoğan further and only legitimize his actions.

Protestors shouting slogans along with signs reading “democracy time” and “Free press”

Later that April, Erdoğan had instated an internal block on all Wikipedia access using Turkey’s domestic internet filtering system. This censorship was due to the sites alleged “offensive content.” As a rebuttal, the co-founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, responded with a post on Twitter, writing that “access to information is a fundamental human right. Turkish people, I will always stand with you and fight for this right.” Finally, on July 8, 2018, Erdogan purged over 18,000 officials for alleged ties to the cleric Fethullah Gülen, a political adversary based in the United States. This was done a night before he renewed his term as President of Turkey. 9000 of those removed were police officers, 5000 were members of the armed forces, and hundreds were academics.

With Erdogan calling the shots, several regional and international policies have shifted due to direct actions by Erdoğan’s conservative and religious agenda. As the result of European Union (EU) rejection, the bilateral trade between Turkey and China saw a significant increase from $1 billion a year back in 2002 to over $27 billion a year in 2017. Erdoğan also stated that Turkey might lean towards joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as a snub to the EU. Continuing to burn bridges with Europe, he threatened to send millions of refugees from Turkey to EU member states. Erdoğan stated, “we can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and we can put the refugees on buses, so how will you deal with refugees if you don’t get a deal? Kill the refugees?” This comes amid the recent Turkish developments including the suppression of freedom of the media and freedom of speech, the absence of the rule of law and the human rights violations related to anti-terrorism security operations.

Turkish-Israeli relations have also worsened as a result of Erdoğan’s rhetoric accusing Israel of being “more barbaric than Hitler” and conducting “state terrorism” and “genocide” against the Palestinian people. The hypocrisy here is that Turkey actively carries out military operations against ethnic Kurds. Moreover, Turkey is still heavily involved in the Syrian Civil War. Since 2015, Turkey has funded and supported the Army of Conquest, a Syrian rebel group that allegedly is linked to al-Qaeda, al-Nusra Front, and the Islamic State, known as Daesh in the Middle East. These groups at times put aside their differences to fight the Syrian government and allies of Al-Assad who stand in the way of spreading their respective ideologies. Turkey supports opposition to Assad and is involved to end Assad’s rule in Syria. This puts Ankara at odds with Iran and Russia, which both support Assad in Syria. Currently, Turkey has created more enemies than allies, further destabilizing the region and solidifying their military presence in states like Syria and more recently Cyprus. In early 2017, Erdoğan said that the removal of troops from Northern Cyprus is “out of the question” and Turkey will be in Cyprus “forever.”

At this rate, the Turkish political structure lacks diversity, which will lead down a dark and dangerous road. The Turkish people along with the international community, especially the United Nations, must intervene in retaliation to Erdoğan’s human rights violations and continued targeting of ethnic Kurdish people. The Armenian Genocide is not ancient history and neither is the Holocaust. The global community must not allow history to repeat itself. Turkey, a longtime member of NATO, has become a rogue nation under the leadership of Erdoğan and abandoned all democratic initiatives. The continued suppression of any opposition and extreme censorship of the media and the freedom of speech is akin to that of China or Russia and offers no room for dissent. Turkey received a score of 5.5 out of 7 on the scale of freedom with 1 being free and 7 being less free, this according to the non-governmental organization (NGO) Freedom House which “works to defend human rights and promote democratic change, with a focus on political rights and civil liberties.”

The path that Turkey is on is one of a reversed direction towards the old Ottoman Empire and creates a more hostile atmosphere in the Middle East. Keeping in mind how fragile the Middle East already is, adding another authoritarian dictatorship to the mix would further complicate matters. This is especially true for a capable state like Turkey, with one of the strongest militaries in the region and nuclear capabilities. Unless Erdoğan is removed from office, he will come to rule for as long as he is able and act in his personal interest. This spells damnation for Turkish citizens, especially those of Kurdish descent. It bodes a bleak future for Turkish democracy and any chance of an EU membership, making Turkey a potential enemy of Western states and burning the carefully built bridges between crucial allies. Undoubtedly, Erdoğan has made himself the new Sultan of Turkey whether its citizens, or the rest of the world, like it or not.


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An online platform for thought-provoking, critical, and contextual articles on politics, society, and policy.

Chris Kiyaseh

Written by

Political Science student and writer for the page Reformer. Florida, United States of America


An online platform for thought-provoking, critical, and contextual articles on politics, society, and policy.

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