Turkey’s Erdogan – Friend or Foe to the West? Part 2

Revival of the Ottoman Empire

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was elected in 2014, is a proponent of Neo-Ottomanism, a Turkish political ideology that broadly promotes greater political engagement of the Republic of Turkey within regions formerly under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, its predecessor state, which fell after World War One in 1922. The ideology emphasises support from President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) for increased influence of Ottoman culture in both foreign and social policy, which conflicts with the secular and republican nature of modern-day Turkey. The AKP use slogans such as ‘Osmanlı torunu’, meaning ‘descendant of the Ottomans’ to refer to their supporters. This underscores their efforts to transform Turkey's existing parliamentary system into a presidential system, prompting critics to accuse President Erdogan of acting like an "Ottoman sultan".

President Erdogan Islamist-rooted political empire was built on his successes as mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998, when he improved roads, cleaner water, and social support for the poor. Following the failed 2016 coup, the AKP reinforced its reputation for being anti-academic when an alleged 13,000 tonnes of textbooks were destroyed or purged of ‘terrorist’ content. On the first day back at school, students watched videos about the ‘triumph of democracy’ over the coup plotters, and listened to speeches equating the civilian counter-coup that aborted the takeover with historic Ottoman victories going back 1000 years.

Traditional Turkish foreign policy of the Kemalist ideology emphasized looking westward towards Europe with the goal of avoiding the instability and sectarianism of the Middle East, which Neo-Ottomanism shifts dramatically from. The Islamist AKP maintains support for the Muslim Brotherhood and many elements of its domestic and foreign policy has been perceived to be Pan-Islamist, a stark contrast against its intention to join the European Union (EU) of Christian-secular nations. At public rallies, President Erdogan makes a distinct hand gesture, with four fingers held high and his thumb tucked into his palm, known as ‘the Rabia salute’, which commemorates the killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters by Egyptian military forces in 2013.

Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia, have traditionally served as the West’s chosen power brokers in the Middle East, but President Erdogan’s recent turn toward authoritarianism, such as the 2016 coup, and cooperation with Russia in Syria have strained relations with fellow NATO members. Some critics dismiss his belligerence as cheap electioneering, rather than a reflection of his global pro-Islam ambitions, claiming he maintains diplomatic and economic ties with Israel and the EU. However, President Erdogan expelled Israel’s ambassador from Ankara a month prior to the 2018 Presidential election.

Erdogan’s Imperialist Ambitions

President Erdogan considers himself to be a global Islamic leader who must begin by winning local elections at home, and he regularly picks fights with foreign governments, particularly ahead of elections. In 2017, leading up to a referendum to change the Turkish constitution, President Erdogan accused German and Dutch Ministers of being Nazis. One of his go-to tactics in election campaigns is to inflame issues in western countries to boost his popularity with Turks eligible to vote who live outside of Turkey. Ahead of the most recent March 31 election he chose to screen footage from the Christchurch, New Zealand terrorist attack at several political rallies in Turkey. He also projected excerpts purported to be from the gunman's manifesto onto a giant screen and told the crowd the suspect had made threats against Turkish Muslims. He regularly invokes the First World War battle of Gallipoli, when Turkish forces killed thousands of Australian and New Zealand troops, and warned anti-Muslim Australians that their grandfathers were “sent back in coffins” and that they would share the same fate if they visited Turkey.

Foreign leaders are frustrated with what they see as his meddling in their internal affairs. President Erdogan regularly inflames tensions with the EU by trying to hold political rallies with Turkish communities in Europe. He once called on Turks in Europe to have five children each as a rebuke to the “vulgarism, antagonism, and injustice” of the EU.

Leading up the 2018 Turkish election, President Erdogan addressed 15,000 supporters at the Olympic stadium in Sarajevo to say Turks, who were brought in as temporary guest workers in the 1960s and 70s but did not leave afterward, are discriminated against in Europe. He said expatriates serving in European governments had sought to undermine Turkey, and encouraged his supporters to become educated and work their way into power in those governments.

President Erdogan told the crowd, “The European countries that claim to be the cradles of democracy have failed, European Turks must show their strength to the whole world. You need to be in those parliaments instead of the ones who betray our country. Are you ready to demonstrate to the whole world the strength of European Turks? Are you ready to give the terrorist organizations and their local and foreign henchmen an Ottoman slap?

He attacked European countries for not allowing him to hold rallies on their soil, and said the Turkish state news agency, TRT, would expand its coverage in Europe to counteract the alleged propaganda against Muslims. President Erdogan also promised that expatriates who had obtained citizenship in other countries would still have their right to vote in Turkey. He bussed in his supporters from Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands to Sarajevo, some of whom told European news outlets that they saw Erdogan as “a world leader” despite the fact that he’s been “shut out from everywhere in Europe.”

Many of Germany's Turks have their roots in Anatolia, and for them, President Erdogan will always be one of their own since he hails from a modest, devout Muslim family like many of the first generation of guest workers who came to Germany from Turkey in the 1960s and 70s. General Secretary of the Union of European-Turkish Democrats (UETD) Bulent Bigli, who was one of the organizers of the Sarajevo rally, said second and third generation Turks living in Germany side with President Erdogan, and are especially angered over German news coverage on the coup instead of the President’s supposed victory of democracy over the putschists. These generations of Turks in German feel he is responsible for their strong feelings of national pride for their ethnic homeland and are referred to as "Generation Erdogan".