Erdoğan's ambitions inspired by 16th-century sultan - historian

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan looks to 16th-century Ottoman Sultan Selim I for inspiration in a modern-day repeat of the empire’s transformation “from a strong regional power to a gargantuan global empire”, Yale University Department of History Chairman Alan Mikhail wrote in an article for Time magazine on Thursday.

Erdoğan’s moves throughout the summer – from re-converting the Hagia Sophia and the Chora into mosques, to the push for territorial control in the eastern Mediterranean, to showing support for the Palestinian Hamas movement in the wake of an Israel-United Arab Emirates agreement and the announcement of a natural gas discovery in the Black Sea – project the Turkish president’s “vision of Islamist strength into the world”, Mikhail said.

Further developments including the months-long discussion on whether Turkey should withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, the government’s tightening grip on social media show that “standing up for Islam at home … goes hand in hand with domestic repression”, he said. The Istanbul Convention is a global compact designed to protect victims of domestic and gender-based violence.

Erdoğan’s embrace of Selim’s exclusionary vision of Turkish political power “represents a historical example of strongman politics” and takes the form of Erdoğan’s military ventures in northern Africa.  According to Mikhail, Selim functions as “a figure from the past of symbolic use in the present”, presenting a “template for Turkey to become a global political and economic power”.

Sitting on the Ottoman throne for a mere eight years, Selim the Grim defeated all of the empire’s major rivals in the region and captured new territory in the Middle East and North Africa, doubling its lands and turning the empire into the foremost power in the region. The map was maintained through the end of World War I, shortly after which the empire fell and the modern Republic of Turkey emerged.

Erdoğan is the first leader in Turkey’s history to not distance himself from the Ottoman legacy in favour of a Western and secular stance – another parallel with Sultan Selim, whose defeat of the Mamluks made the empire for the first time in its history a Muslim-majority state instead of Greek Orthodox, Mikhail said.

“If Selim was the first Ottoman to be both sultan and caliph, Erdoğan is the first republican leader to profess to possessing both titles,” he said.

Erdoğan has named the third bridge over Istanbul’s Bosporus after the sultan and appeared in public for the first time after the 2017 constitutional referendum at his tomb. “This far-from-subtle first act after winning a referendum that gave him near-limitless power made clear who Erdoğan’s role model is,” the scholar said.

The phrase used by Erdoğan and much of the Turkish right-wing is “grandchildren of the Ottomans” – skipping the generation that founded the republic, “to leapfrog back in time to when the Ottomans ruled the globe” – but such an act requires “violence, censorship, and vitriol”, which Erdoğan appears ready to use, he said.