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Turkey’s Erdogan: The Making Of A Latter-Day Sultan
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his wife wave to supporters during a 2016 rally in Istanbul to mark the 563rd anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the city. (OZAN KOSE/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey’s Erdogan: The Making Of A Latter-Day Sultan

How the Turkish president is trying to make the Ottoman Empire great again

Analysts largely agree that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done more to shape Turkey than any other leader since Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk), the legendary leader who founded the Turkish republic in 1923.

Atatürk, who served as the country’s first president from 1923-1938, worked tirelessly to put Turkey on a secular, Westward-looking trajectory. To this end, he helped abolish the Ottoman Sultanate, separated secular law from Sharia (Islamic law), and even discouraged the use of headscarves in public venues, among a host of other “modernizing” reforms.

And while Atatürk’s influence still seems to loom large over the country—his portrait is still displayed in many shops and restaurants, like an omnipresent father watching over his progeny—it is becoming increasing clear that Erdogan is chipping away his legacy.

Erdogan, 64, is positioning himself as the bearer of a new Turkish identity, one more closely aligned with Turkey’s Ottoman past and Islamic heritage. It is also an identity that appears to lend to strongman rule.

The Turkish president has been consolidating political power in steady fashion ever since he became prime minister in 2003. After serving in that capacity for 11 years, he quickly transitioned into the presidency, a role he will officially retain until 2023 and perhaps beyond. In 2016, he used a failed coup to purge his opposition in the aftermath. Since then, over 100,000 public service personnel and soldiers have been dismissed from their jobs and more than 50,000 people, including many journalists, have been imprisoned, many still awaiting trial.

In April 2017, a slim majority of Turkish voters endorsed a new constitution that terminated the role of the prime minister while granting the presidency—previously an honorary role—wide-ranging powers. To this end, Erdogan can now directly appoint top government officials, intervene in the country’s legal system, and declare a state of emergency.

In fact, he already imposed a state of emergency following his attempted overthrow, which he blamed on exiled Turkish cleric Fetullah Gulen. Only last week was it finally allowed to expire, with Erdogan framing this as the fulfillment of a campaign promise. Opponents, however, say the move is pointless given that Erdogan can declare another state of emergency on a whim.

On June 24, presidential and parliamentary elections were concurrently held throughout the country, with Erdogan securing nearly 53 percent of the vote. His closest rival, Muharrem Ince, head of the staunchly secular Republican People’s Party, took 31%. Erdogan’s political allies—part of the People’s Alliance—also fared well, allowing the bloc to retain a firm grip on parliament.

Democracy advocates have expressed concern that Turkey is quickly devolving into a one-man regime. And while they have sharply criticized the president’s more obvious power grabs such as his constitutional reforms, they have largely neglected his subtler tactics.

One such strategy has been Erdogan’s promotion of all things Ottoman.

For example, he has publically defended Sultan Abdulhamid II, who ruled the empire from 1876 until 1909. Even though many historians, as well as Turkish republicans under Atatürk, view him as a murderous despot who ordered the killing of 300,000 Armenians in the mid-1890s, Erdogan has not shied away from expressing his affection for the man.

During a rally earlier this year, he described the sultan as “one of the most important, most visionary, most strategic-minded personalities who have put their stamps on the last 150 years of our state.”

Not surprisingly, then, “Payitaht,” a hit television series, depicts Abdulhamid II as an honorable and pious ruler who stands up to land-hungry European colonialist powers. Convinced of his God-given right to rule, he also resists liberal-minded ministers who urge him to implement democratic reforms. Erdogan deemed the series essential viewing for Turkish youth.

By extoling the glories of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish president may be trying to tighten his grip over a polarized nation by tapping into their nostalgia for past perceived glories.

Fadi Hakura, an expert on Turkish domestic politics at the London-based Chatham House think tank, told The Media Line that while Erdogan promotes the country’s Ottoman past, he does so as justification for the advancement of his neo-Islamist and Turkish nationalist ambitions. “This is a more accurate way of defining his agenda,” Hakura contended.

Nevertheless, he stressed that Erdogan’s constant invoking of Turkey’s Ottoman past is resonating among the public. “There is a flourishing of ‘Otto-mania’ in movies, television series, restaurants offering Ottoman dishes, and school curriculums,” Hakura explained. “But Turks cannot define what the Ottoman past was all about. Beyond empire-building, the Ottomans are difficult to pin down,” he said.

For example, the Ottomans borrowed from different cultures—poetry from the Persians, architecture from the Greeks and the concept of warfare from the Europeans. They were essentially cosmopolitan in their approach, but their openness to foreign influence is not valued in the current nationalist rhetoric.

Instead of truly understanding the Ottoman past, Hakuri concluded, “Erdogan seems more intent on dismissing Turkey’s cultural heritage to pursue his nationalist, commercialist, and neo-Islamist agenda.”

“Take, for example, the area around Gezi Park in central Istanbul, which used to be a center for Turkish culture—for art, music, theater and film. It has been completely transformed in a much more conservative direction. Erdogan is building a major mosque there while promoting commercial activities and shops like Starbucks.”

Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkish affairs at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, told The Media Line that the Turkish president’s rhetoric is in sharp contrast to that of his rivals. “His opponents espouse republican ‘Kemalist’ values while Erdogan sees himself and his political movement as an extension of pre-republican Ottoman history.”

Although Erdogan’s approach incorporates some historical truths, Ülgen explained, it is a glorified, sanitized and romanticized version of the Ottoman past, one that has permeated into popular Turkish culture.

“The emphasis is on all the successes of Ottoman times,” he elaborated. “Take, for example, the hit TV show ‘Payitaht’ about Sultan Abdulhamid II. During his reign, the Ottoman Empire lost three-fourths of its territory in Eastern Europe, but none of that is taken into account.

“This kind of rhetoric and symbolism about Ottoman glories resonates among Erdogan’s constituency,” Ülgen concluded, “but for the opposition, the overriding historical narrative remains anchored to Atatürk.”

“Otto-mania,” therefore, seems to be geared towards mobilizing and strengthening Erdogan’s support base. How it might be cementing his authority beyond his base is still an open question. One thing is for certain, though. “Otto-mania” makes for good television in a country whose present is becoming increasingly intertwined with the past.

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