Erdoğan’s downfall: choosing control over Islam

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan ultimately disappointed Western observers and Islamist groups across the region, not because of his embrace of Islam, but because of his desire to take full control of the Turkish state, solidifying his authoritarian regime. 

As of Saturday, Turkey had just over 82,300 cases of COVID-19, eighth most in the world, and at least 1,890 deaths from the pandemic. Many observers in Turkey and beyond have faulted the government’s response as slow-footed and uncertain, pointing to examples like the 48-hour curfew announced at the last minute a week ago. 

A troubling juxtaposition emerged on Tuesday, when Turkey’s Directorate of Religious Affairs, or Diyanet, released its coronavirus guidelines for the holy month of Ramadan, which begins next week. The statement warned people not to gather for evening iftar, which could result in virus transmission, yet reiterated that fasting was an obligation and that there had been no scientific evidence that it reduced immunity to infection. 

The same day parliament passed a prison amnesty bill, approving the release of some 90,000 prisoners, including a prominent mafia boss and many convicted of violent crimes and sexual offences. Meanwhile, some 50,000 political prisoners, including hundreds of journalists, activists, and elected politicians, were left in prison, where the coronavirus is expected to spread rapidly due to the close proximity of inmates and severely limited sanitation and medical supplies. 

So, the same government that urges Muslims not to gather for group meals because of a health threat allows tens of thousands of other Muslims to fester in likely COVID-19 vectors because of some perceived offence to the state. The prison amnesty seems the perfect example of Erdoğan prioritising strong-armed rule over the precepts of Islam. 

“In Islam and traditional Islamic thought, there is always this emphasis on the preservation of life as being one of the objectives of the sharia,” Shadi Hamid, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told Ahval in a podcast. “Ultimately, if there’s an imminent risk of life loss, then Islamic law generally prioritises the preservation and protection of life.”

Writing for The Atlantic just after Erdoğan’s April 2017 presidential referendum victory, Hamid argued that the Turkish president is that rare charismatic leader able to overcome strong institutions and internal threats and remake a country. He saw Erdoğan as a committed Muslim, using state power to incentivise piety, rather than impose it, as in the case of Iran.  

Hamid described this approach as soft Islamisation; Erdoğan did not ban alcohol, for instance, but reduced the hours it could be sold. He also vastly expanded the Diyanet and massively increased enrolment at Islam-friendly imam hatip schools. Then came the massive purges of more than 150,000 people, along with some 50,000 detained, in the wake of the failed 2016 coup, which Erdoğan described as a gift from God. 

“If he’s arresting people and detaining people, especially after the 2016 coup attempt, and he’s using religious language to justify his behaviour, that’s obviously not a great look,” said Hamid, who examined the case of Turkey and Erdoğan in his 2017 book “Islamic Exceptionalism”. 

This may explain why Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost a handful of major cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, in local elections last year, and why some of the most prominent AKP figures, including the former president, Abdullah Gül, former economic czar, Ali Babacan, and former prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, have left the party. 

It might also explain polling data released last year, in which Turks self-identified as slightly less pious and less religious, with more non-believers and atheists and significant drops in those who describe themselves as religious conservative (21 percent) and those who fast during Ramadan (14 percent). If a key objective of Erdoğan has been to create, as he has often stated, pious generations of Turks, after 17 years in power he appears to be failing. 

“This calls into question the whole idea of soft Islamisation,” said Hamid, adding that people had likely begun to link Erdoğan with Islam, and thus turning away from him meant turning away from their faith.

Hamid sees Erdoğan as a visceral Islamist, rather than an intellectual one, like Tunisia’s Rachid Ghannouchi or Erdoğan’s own adviser İbrahim Kalın, a former professor of Islam at Georgetown University. As a result, Turkey’s leader may have been unable to envision the policies required to establish a stable Islamic state. 

“There’s no doubt that he feels these things very strongly and it’s very personal for him. But he’s really failed to take that to the next level and articulate a broader Islamic framework,” said Hamid.

Erdoğan’s tendencies may have been more a reflection of Turkish political history than of Islamism. But Hamid believes Erdoğan’s embrace of Islam is not to blame for his problematic state or his declining popularity in Turkey and in the West. 

“How could Erdoğan have gone about this better? The most obvious answer is he shouldn’t have become as authoritarian as he became,” said Hamid. “The biggest mistake he made wasn’t the Islamism as much as the authoritarianism, because that’s what pushes people away from religion.” 

Even during the greatest public health scare Turkey has faced in generations, the government seems more concerned about controlling the narrative and silencing criticism. From March 15 to April 5, more than 3,500 people were investigated for posts on social media and more than 225 detained, including at least 10 journalists and two parliamentarians. 

As columnist Hülya Schenk wrote for Deutsche Welle this week, Erdoğan’s continued repression during the pandemic proves his inhumanity. Just last week the Turkish government buried what may be its most aggressive muzzling of the internet deep inside an economic aid package in response to the pandemic. 

“This is well thought out from the government’s point of view. It doesn’t look like it has been rushed,” Yaman Akdeniz, law professor at Istanbul Bilgi University, told Ahval in a podcast, referring to the proposed internet regulations. “I am expecting a more authoritarian regime in Turkey post-coronavirus pandemic.”

Hamid thought back to his most recent trip to Turkey, last October, when he met activists from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian Islamist group that has long been friendly with Erdoğan’s AKP. He said the activists still supported Erdoğan, but they were less comfortable singing his praises as they were well aware of how far his stock had fallen.

“Remember when we used to talk about 'the Turkish model'?” Hamid wondered, referring to a spate of articles several years ago in mainstream Western media that used that phrase. “You don’t hear that all that much anymore.”

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