Erdogan uses religion, fear to stay politically afloat

Circumventing every possible obstacle, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan keeps moving ahead on the path he set, cementing his rule in Turkey, as he takes every opportunity, big or small, to consolidate his legitimacy on the basis of “stability in Turkey.”

Having survived political defeat in the local elections some seven months ago, Erdogan is back in the game, using the same fundamental tools that have kept him in power: use of religion in a rhetoric similar to the one applied by the Muslim Brotherhood; conducting divisive policies at home, fiercely exercised to keep the opposition as polarised as ever before; constantly driving a wedge between bodies such as NATO and the European Union and, as the Syrian incursion exemplified, raising the stakes for Turkish nationalism; and irredentism, which causes growing concern in the Eastern Mediterranean basin.

In all these efforts Erdogan seems unstoppable. Regarding religion as a political tool, he knows he has the powerful backing of the overwhelming Muslim majority at home, which he hopes will see him as the unchallenged leader of the country.

Addressing the sixth Religious Council meeting of the Presidency of Religious Affairs November 28 in Ankara, his gambling became obvious once more: “Even if it may burden ourselves, we shall place the decretals, and not the rules of the present, at the centre of our lives,” Erdogan said. “Islam is an acquis of rules and prohibitions which encircle all the sections of our lives. We believe in a religion that encompasses its every phase. We are ordered to live as Muslims until the very end.”

Even if Erdogan took his time to underline the traps of “fault lines among Muslims in the world,” it was these words that echoed in Turkey’s increasingly oppressed secular circles, more than his unanswered ambitions to emerge as the leader of the Islamic world.

He also knows that such statements are without a doubt breaches of the constitution, which emphasises that the president remains an impartial and unifying figure. But his challenging in-your-face gestures have always remained his game. He knows that dropping the rhetoric of religion altogether may spell a lethal weakening of his power. Nevertheless, the result of such statements is a continuous Islamisation of the education system, undermining Turkey as a modern nation.

His use of nationalism has pushed the centrist opposition into a corner but, for Erdogan, it is not sufficient, unless coupled with bold divisions within it.

The chain of events placing the secular main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), have recently presented a taste of what is bound to come in the near future. It all began with an obvious piece of disinformation spread by a couple of murky reporters in the press. The “rumour,” these reports said, was that a prominent figure of the main opposition had secretly met Erdogan at his palace to hear from him that “it would be a fine idea if he had replaced the current leader of the CHP, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.”

The media jumped on the bandwagon, dragged by the unconfirmed piece aimed at manipulation. It took several days to deny it, as the opposition party was delivered blow after blow, and internal rifts surfaced. The damage was done, proving, as it were, the oppressed Kurdish politicians who had warned the CHP figures that “you remain silent before the cruelties to us, but you will be next in line.” Erdogan was visibly content and in waves of joyful attacks, as was expected of him. He felt assured that he has his opponents in control.

In foreign policy, Erdogan is benefiting enormously from the overall turbulence and international folly developing day by day. Volatile conjuncture in the Middle East and Europe leaves his daredevil policies room to develop and enlarge, so far so that Ankara feels a growing appetite for irredentism for redrawing the map of the eastern Mediterranean, testing the reaction capacities of the EU.

The more the EU appeases, the more it encourages an escalation of the crisis with Turkey at one side and Greece, Cyprus and Egypt on the other. Amnesia reigns: It was the reactions to the Treaty of Versailles that shaped the Nazi regime in Germany and, in some sense perhaps, the discontent with the Lausanne Treaty will have a similar effect in Turkey’s path to totalitarian rule.

Erdogan, while challenging the European Union, places his bet on the EU trauma. The violent fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya is the main source of the refugee crisis that has been reshaping the European political landscape to far-right populism and overall disorder. Erdogan knows very well that the EU at the end of the day would prefer to have him as the leader of Turkey, who will maintain its stability, as opposed to any alternative that would amount to deeper chaos.

The same fear — a prospective instability bigger than in Libya — applies among NATO’s European allies. Thus, Erdogan and his team feel free to block NATO’s plans for its Baltic members, as the bloc turns into a witness as Ankara develops into a Trojan horse.

All these factors explain the success of Erdogan’s survival. He reads the new global reality better than all the others — except perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.