John Tulloh. Erdogan leads Turkey back to the Ottoman era.

Apr 6, 2016

     It is the time of the year when we have our annual bout of sentimental reflection on the heroics of the Anzac forces at Gallipoli a century ago. One of the Turkish military commanders whose resistance wore down the Anzacs and other allies was Kemal Ataturk, who went on to be the founder of modern Turkey in 1923. His name remains so revered in Turkey for modernising his country and transforming it into a secular state that insulting his memory is a criminal act.

Ataturk would be startled at what is happening to his country today. His vision has gone into reverse. The U.S. conservative Breitbart news website has this to say about the man in his footsteps, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

He has been ‘using his political clout, both as prime minister and now as president, to reverse the country’s direction. He seeks to undo the miracle Ataturk created in Turkey, returning it to its old Islamic ways. Clearly, Erdogan hopes this redirection will eventually place him in the seat of power abandoned by the last Ottoman sultan. Just as Ataturk was a catalyst in Turkey’s independence movement, Erdogan has proven to be a catalyst in its Islamic movement’.

The Turkish leader is certainly a man of the moment. His country, a NATO member, is no longer the democratic example the West hoped it would represent to its Arab neighbours. Nor is it the dependable bulwark for Western interests against threats from the neighbourhood. Turkey is beset by terrorism, most of it blamed on Kurds, who make up 20% of the population. They are more restless than ever in their quest for autonomy. Erdogan is more active than ever in cracking down on them. For him, the Daesh activity just across the border in Syria is a secondary matter. Indeed his critics accuse him of supporting it. Then there is tension with Russia after the downing of one its jets. Moscow has imposed sanctions which have hit Turkish business and tourism. Ankara hoped the lifting of sanctions against Iran would lead to more business and tourism except Tehran has cosied up to Erdogan’s enemy in Damascus. Many liken Erdogan to Vladimir Putin. Both are bullies, says Daniel Pipes, of the Middle East Forum.

Yet Erdogan has given shelter to 2,500,000 Syrian refugees, more than any Arab nation, adding 3% to Turkey’s population and causing domestic disquiet. He has agreed to take back asylum-seekers who head to Greece seeking refuge within the EU in return for the EU to take an equal number of refugees off his hands. EU members were so relieved to remove the threat of being overrun again that they wasted no time in agreeing to Erdogan’s excessive financial demands. Not once did they clear their throats and mention their saviour’s increasing crackdown on long-established freedoms, especially concerning the media and judiciary. Erdogan was now Europe’s best friend, said Der Spiegel.

Erdogan is a wily figure. As a member of an Islamist party, he was elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994. He gave an inkling of his attitude in 1998 when he read a religious poem that said of Islam:

The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers’. 

     It was provocative enough to put him in prison for a spell. But when he became Prime Minister in 2003, he impressed Western allies with his Ataturk-like vision. He brought about an economic recovery, expanded universities and urged more women to be admitted, oversaw investments in infrastructure which created new roads, airports and a high-speed train network and reached an accord with the Kurds. Even the unworldly President George W.Bush was impressed.

However, he later neutralised the military which in the past has intervened when political matters got out of hand. Slowly he imposed a growing Islamic influence on daily life and his guiding hand turned into a clenched fist. Hijabs became a common sight. Bar-tending classes and alcohol advertising were banned. So was smoking in public places. Court decisions were ignored. The constitution which stipulated the president must be above politics was disregarded. Journalists reporting government corruption were locked up, tv stations closed down and newspapers questioning his authoritarian rule taken over by government acolytes. Insulting Erdogan is now a criminal offence even in your own home.

Unsurprisingly, Erdogan has grandiose visions for his own role as Turkey’s leader or, as is becoming increasingly apparent, dictator. As president, he took over a palace meant for the prime minister on land donated by Ataturk in Ankara for public use. It’s for the Turkish people, he declared. The fact it consisted of at least a thousand rooms was not enough for Erdogan. He is said to be adding another 300 for his own use with an elaborate security bunker.

Erdogan greeted one visiting leader at the palace with guards dressed in Ottoman-style uniforms. ‘We were born and raised on the land that was the Ottoman Empire and its six centuries of rule’, Erdogan likes to say. He has directed schools to teach the old Ottoman version of Turkish written in Arabic script, according to Canada’s National Post. It was Ataturk who introduced Latin script. Erdogan’s critics accused him of wanting to become a ruler in the style of the Ottoman sultans. Or could it be even a caliph? The last caliphate was the Ottoman one which Ataturk wasted no time in abolishing.

Despite the asylum-seeker agreement, Erdogan remains a bogeyman to EU leaders. Under it, provided Ankara complies with certain conditions, Turkey’s 79 million population will be granted visa-free travel throughout the EU as early as June. The Spectator, almost shuddering at the prospect and noting the number of fake Syrian passports in the hands of non-Syrian asylum-seekers, foresees fake Turkish passports to allow non-Turks also to roam continental EU at will. The spectre of jihadists among them will unnerve many Europeans.

As the first would-be migrants were returned from Greece to Turkey this week, Erdogan took the opportunity for taking a jab at Europe for not letting ‘these people into their countries’ by putting up razor wire fences. He asked: “Did we turn Syrians back? No, we didn’t, but they did’. It was a none too subtle reminder that, despite the EU’s desperation to appease Turkey, Erdogan now regarded himself as the good guy and Brussels had better not forget it.

The outlook all round is ominous. ’Once-dependable Turkey seems in danger of implosion’, reported the Guardian. ‘Under Erdogan, Turkey is the West’s disintegrating ally and Europe’s imaginary friend’. Daniel Pipes quotes a Turkish journalist, Burak Bekdil, saying: ‘Modern Turkey has never been this galactically distant from the core values enshrined by the European civilisation and its institutions’, which Ataturk admired. Gokhan Bacik, a professor at Ipek University in Ankara, goes further: ‘Turkey is facing a multi-faceted catastrophe (the scale of which) is beyond Turkey’s capacity for digestion’.

One would imagine that Ataturk today would still see Turkey’s future to the west in Europe with its relative stability and economic power. Erdogan disagrees. The Guardian reported that he ‘often mocks and berates the EU, once calling it an Islamophobic Christian club’. As Breitbart noted, ‘We will recognise Erdogan’s confidence that Turkey is well on the path to Islamism when maligning Ataturk’s memory is no longer tantamount to maligning Erdogan himself’.

‘If Iran today is the Middle East’s greatest danger’, says Pipes, ‘Turkey is tomorrow’s’.

FOOTNOTE. Australians heading to Gallipoli and feeling thirsty should bear in mind that, under laws introduced by Erdogan, the sale of alcohol in shops is banned between 10pm and 6am and at any time near schools and mosques. Bottles now carry warnings of the dangers of drinking alcohol. Taxes on alcohol are the toughest in Turkey’s history.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.


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