Standing at the crossroads of East and West, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ruthlessly exploits enormous power.
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN MAGAZINE, FEBRUARY 18-19, 2017
STORY: LOUISE CALLAGHAN
The most powerful man in Turkey has a chicken coop outside his wooden holiday home and a goat skull over the garage door. His neighbours like him. A lot. "I never knew a child like him," says Aisha Mutlu, 84, as she gnaws on a piece of sweetcorn grown in President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s garden, which overlooks a misty, verdant valley of tea plantations. "And I’ve never known a man like him. He’s a wonderful leader for our country." At her words, the beaming government officials assembled around us nod in unison. This is Güneysu, the ancestral home of the president, where his party, the AKP, won 94 per cent of the vote in the November 2015 elections. Next time they’re aiming for 100 per cent.
Erdogan spent much of his childhood — and every summer since then — in this tiny, ultra-conservative town in the mountains 7km from the Black Sea. Its people worship him. When he comes to visit, they queue up outside his house, forming a raggedy trail down the mountain path to meet their leader. He is, they say, a man of the people and every person I speak to here has a story about the president’s seemingly endless generosity and kindness. "When he last visited he saw my husband was ill," chirrups a middle-aged lady with a basket of laundry. "Then he called us and said that he’d pay for him to go to hospital in Istanbul." At least three people cry when talking about the things the president has done for them. One tiny woman in a headscarf compares him to the prophet Mohammed. His honour is bound to theirs — and never are they more hurt than when they discuss the terrible things said about him in the West.
After surviving a coup attempt last July, in which almost 300 people died, Erdogan is at the top of the international news agenda. He doesn’t like the reason why. Rather than celebrating the survival of his democratically elected government, the world has focused on the Soviet-like purge he has ordered to identify the plotters.
The numbers are stark: more than 40,000 people have been arrested and 100,000 have been dismissed or suspended from their jobs. Meanwhile, 38,000 inmates are set to be released from prison to make space for the suspected putschists. Businessmen, journalists and baklava shop owners have been swept up in the purges, which many believe are being used as a smokescreen to silence government critics. Amnesty International has documented reports of detainees being beaten and raped. Erdogan is furious. In his mind, the world has ignored the tragedy that befell his country — on the streets of the capital, Ankara, civilians were shot at from helicopters; in Istanbul they were run over by tanks commandeered by rebels within the Turkish armed forces — and is barely concealing its disappointment at his survival.
A tank on the streets of Ankara during the attempted coup in July.
His anger matters. After consolidating power over the past decade and a half, Erdogan is the outward face and the driving power of Turkey, a NATO member with a population of 75 million that straddles Europe and Asia; a buffer against the chaos of the Middle East that stretches from Greece to Iraq. The country, once best known for its beaches and bazaars, lies on a rapidly fracturing geopolitical fault line. ISIS, which flies its black flags just a few miles from Turkey’s border with Syria, claimed it was one of its "heroic soldiers" who killed 39 people in an Istanbul nightclub on New Year’s Eve. It has also been linked to at least two other attacks in Turkey last year. In the southeast, the decades-old Kurdish rebellion simmers, flaring occasionally into full-scale conflict.
To the horror of European policymakers, Erdogan relishes wielding the power that comes with being the gatekeeper of the West. His most useful assets are the 2.7 million Syrian refugees whom Turkey hosts and Europe would do almost anything to avoid taking. The European Union, he once said, needs him more than he needs them. He’s not wrong.
A few weeks ago, British Prime Minister Theresa May rushed to Ankara to pay homage to the Turkish leader straight after her visit to new US President Donald Trump. They announced a $164 million deal to build fighter jets for Turkey. She made a vague statement on the importance of human rights, but Erdogan’s critics railed against her apparent unwillingness to pin him down on the imprisonment of opposition supporters — a sign, many believe, of Erdogan’s heft with the West.
Theresa May in Turkey in January.
Meanwhile, his swaggering bravado has endeared him to the other rising strongmen. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, in particular, has gone from a despised enemy to a close ally; they’re united in their machismo and distaste for the western liberal world order. The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in December by a Turkish police officer has only brought them closer. They are currently sidelining the US to seek a political solution to the Syrian civil war, in which they support opposing sides.
For now, though, Erdogan’s most important battle is at home. The president wants to cement his hold over the country with changes to the Turkish constitution that would vastly expand his powers and could see him rule until 2029. They would scrap the office of prime minister and allow him to control budgets and appoint judges. For the amendments to pass, they must be approved in a referendum, expected to take place in April. In this deeply divided country, any outcome will be met with horror by half the population.
In his supporters — 52 per cent of voters in the 2014 presidential elections — Erdogan inspires a devotion that often borders on fanaticism. After the attempted coup, part of the opposition rallied with him for the first time, helping to fill town squares across the land with flag-waving crowds, grateful for the survival of Turkey’s democratically elected government. But the unity was short-lived: within months the head of the HDP, a pro-Kurdish party, had been arrested and dozens of opposition politicians removed from their posts.
With each new purge, arrest and newspaper closure, the country’s fractures deepen. Journalists have been jailed and dissident academics have fled or are in hiding. In the past six months, almost none of my sources will go on the record, even with effusive praise for the president. The rule of law is shattering as judges are imprisoned and lawyers fear taking on the cases of government critics. Turkey’s currency, the lira, is tanking, leading to fears of economic collapse.
In an Istanbul kebab shop not far from the local headquarters of Erdogan’s AKP party, a secular psychotherapist weeps with hate as she tells me how she lost her job for criticising the president. "He’s ruined this country. He’s turned it into Syria," she says, wiping her eyes. "Where can I go? What can I do? I can’t leave. I’m trapped."
Turkey is at a crossroads — or a precipice, depending on who you speak to — and only one man will decide which direction it takes.
Putin and Erdogan.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was born on February 26, 1954, in Kasimpasa, a working-class neighbourhood of Istanbul that’s home to a large diaspora from the Black Sea region, where his parents were born. Though he was raised on the hard streets of the city, the key to Erdogan’s personality lies in the Black Sea town where he spent every summer. Here, if you climb the hills in a blacked-out AKP official’s car, you can still find one of the few surviving relatives who witnessed young Tayyip grow from child to president, and who aren’t as sycophantic as the other locals. "Of course, I couldn’t have known he would grow up to be a great leader," booms his maternal uncle Ali Mutlu, a barrel-chested man of 84, as we sit, wreathed in mist, outside his sprawling hilltop home. The group of officials accompanying me grow pale. "He was just a very serious child."
According to family lore, Tayyip was deeply religious and could recite the Koran from memory while he was still in primary school. He didn’t play with the other children; instead, he went to the mosque every morning. Though extremely close to his mother, he often fell out with his father, a violent tugboat captain who refused to give him pocket money. Instead, the boy sold simit — sesame bread rings — on the streets of Istanbul. "His father beat him several times. His mother couldn’t do anything. Both Tayyip and his mother cried a lot," Mutlu says, tapping his cane on the floor. "His father didn’t want him to sell simit. One day his father saw him in the street; he took his tray and smashed it."
This anecdote has since been told to me by several people who knew the president as a young man. It was something that he would, they say, often bring up as the moment where he realised he would need to fight for justice. Driven by what friends describe as an unstoppable energy, Tayyip later threw himself into politics, via an interlude as a semi-professional football player — a career his strict father is said to have stopped him from pursuing. "He was like an older brother," says an old friend named Bak. "We would watch him playing football. He taught us from the Koran on the street. He would always lead us and show us the right things to do."
Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, Turkey had been dominated by a secular elite under an iron-hard constitution that removed Islam as the state religion and encouraged its disappearance from public life. Successive governments used this to ban — among other things — the wearing of headscarves by state employees and university students.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founding father of the Republic of Turkey, dreamt that by repressing religious expression and encouraging westernisation, the country would quickly become a modern, secular nation state. It didn’t quite work. Though the reforms did much to shape modern Turkey, they also created a pious underclass who felt alienated from public life. Erdogan supported their cause. The pugnacious, charismatic boy from the streets captured the imaginations of the so-called "black Turks" — as distinct from the educated, Europeanised "white Turks" of the secular establishment — who had largely been excluded from politics. His bombastic, searing oratorical style has led to comparisons to both Putin and Trump. But the fervour that the Turkish leader arouses within his voting base has almost no international parallel in a democracy.
By the age of 40, the charismatic footballer from Kasimpasa had become mayor of Istanbul, once the seat of the sultan. "A lot of people feared that he would be Islamist," says one former diplomat. "He just wasn’t. He was extremely efficient. He cleared up rubbish, the water shortage and traffic congestion in no time."
Soon, however, came a moment that would deepen Erdogan’s distaste for the secular political establishment and strengthen his conservative, religious convictions forever. He was given a 10-month prison sentence for reading an Islamic poem at a gathering in Turkey’s southeast. Such religious expression was forbidden under the constitution. "It was a formative moment," the former diplomat says. "Rightly or wrongly, he regards it as necessary to be as ruthless towards the secularists as they were, and could be again, towards him."
He emerged four months later as a hero for Turkey’s religious underclass, and to an explosive boost to his career. The newly formed Justice & Development Party (AKP), of which Erdogan was a founding member, won by a landslide in the 2002 elections on a ticket of moderate political Islam and increased religious freedoms. Their success shocked the secular establishment to the core. The party was supported by those who saw Erdogan as a firebrand who would fight for their right to practise their religion, but also by some liberals. The West, in particular, adored the AKP. In a post-9/11 world of rising extremism and the war on terror, here was a party promising a modern, moderate version of Islam — one that allowed women to wear headscarves but rejected sharia and autocracy in favour of democracy and open institutions. The secularists (led by the Republican People’s Party, known as the CHP) saw themselves as the defenders of Atatürk’s legacy but its MPs barely showed their faces in their constituencies; in contrast, the AKP worked tirelessly to establish itself at a local level. Universal housing, food and healthcare became a large part of the manifesto on which they rode to power.
Wherever I go in Turkey, Erdogan supporters have the same refrain: He understands us. He’s one of us. Our problems are his problems. "I see in him the characteristics of the prophet," a member of the AKP women’s wing told me. "I can’t compare the love I feel for the president with any other leader this country has had."
In Erdogan’s hands, Islam was a modernising force. The old secular elite was crumbling, holed up in Ankara, a city in the centre of the country that became the capital in 1923. By contrast, Erdogan’s city was Istanbul, once the centre of the Ottoman Empire, where skyscrapers and bridges built by his business contacts now bear his name.
Despite the furore from his opponents and in the West about his "Islamism", Erdogan has never had any desire to turn Turkey into Saudi Arabia or Iran. He doesn’t want Turkey to become a fundamentalist state driven by a desire to impose a medieval brand of Islam on its citizens. Despite the fact that the president, like the majority of Turks, is Sunni, he has never sought to exploit divisions with the country’s Alevi minority — a sect related to Shia Islam, whose adherents have traditionally supported the CHP. Instead, he uses religion as a rallying cry to unite his supporters, a devastatingly effective strategy. Slowly but surely, religious conservatism and intolerance for secularism is rising. But though his supporters thrive on it, Islam is a political tool more than an ideological driving force for Erdogan.
It was this that, in the beginning, made him the darling of the West: proof that moderate Islam could prevail in a democracy. Turkey’s accession to the EU seemed only steps away. But one by one, things started to go wrong. Anti-Muslim sentiment in the West rose after 9/11 — a trend that has been only exacerbated by the rise of ISIS. In 2004, a year after Erdogan became prime minister, Cyprus (including its Turkish citizens in the north) joined the EU, even though the EU refuses to recognise the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. There was talk of betrayal by the West, and hysteria about the "enemy within" — everyone from Kurds to leftists — began to spread.
In 2004 and 2006, the European Court of Human Rights made rulings upholding the headscarf ban in Turkish universities. Erdogan finally succeeded in overturning the ban in 2013. Educated young veiled women often tell me he liberated them: had they not been allowed to wear their headscarves at university, many of their parents would have never let them attend.
Emboldened by his successes at home, Erdogan embarked on a series of foreign policy misadventures in an attempt to be seen as a strong regional power. The wounds that the AKP had pledged to heal, at home and abroad, festered. By the time the anti-government Gezi Park protests erupted in 2013, Turkey was well on its way down a path to instability.
With his wife Emine; they have four children.
The rags-to-riches tale of a religious boy who grew up on the mean streets of Istanbul and freed the people from the yoke of secularism has entered into folklore. The fairytale was completed by the $800 million palace he unveiled in 2014 on the outskirts of Ankara. It comprises two sections — one for the president, one for everyone else — connected by an underground tunnel. On a visit there last year, I got lost walking from one end to the other. It was so quiet and empty, but it wasn’t built to be filled: its primary purpose is to project an image of unshakable power.
To stay on top in Turkey, with its cavernous political rifts, requires strong leadership, constant vigilance and lightning reactions. Erdogan’s paranoia is legendary. On visits abroad, he often travels with a guard of dozens of black-suited men — a far bigger entourage than most world leaders. When I asked one former diplomat whether the president employed a food taster, he laughed: "Just one? How could he ever trust just one?"
Opposition supporters often mocked the AKP for seeing plots and intrigue everywhere — while espousing their own conspiracy theories about how the government is kept in power by the CIA. On the night of the attempted coup last year, the AKP’s paranoia was justified. Now that it has been proven right, the question is what the AKP should do with its authority. The only way to guarantee stability, it says, is to ensure that Turkey is under consolidated control, unencumbered by the time-consuming, bureaucratic parliamentary system. All of this under one man who few people seem to know very well on a personal level.
Rebel soldiers surrender during last year's failed coup. Amnesty International claims some detainees were beaten and raped.
Erdogan is, adoring colleagues say, a fastidious taskmaster — a perfectionist who delegates very little. As he has grown in power, he has purged the AKP of more moderate elements, replacing them with pious men loyal only to him. At every meeting he takes detailed notes; at the next, he brings them out and checks for progress. He has a very strong sense of what is right and wrong.
It’s extremely difficult to persuade anyone who knows the president well to go on record. But, in private, AKP defectors mutter about his short fuse, his obsession with expanding his powers, and the self-defeating nature of his anti-western rhetoric. After the coup attempt, the West’s perceived betrayal of Turks in their hour of need has become part of national legend: instead of celebrating the heroism of the thousands of Turks who heeded a call from their leader to face down the tanks, the focus in the West has been on the subsequent purges. He took this as a personal affront — a sign that the West thought of him as little more than a tinpot dictator who would be better off deposed.
He may now have an ally in Trump, who has sided with him by saying the US shouldn’t criticise the purges, and who sees him as a partner in beating ISIS. The two leaders are also united in their distaste for the media. Meanwhile, Erdogan is holding Europe to ransom over the refugee crisis. In increasingly belligerent tones he has warned he’ll cancel a deal made with the EU last year, which has all but stopped the flow of refugees to Greece, if Turkish citizens are not given visa-free access to parts of Europe. They probably won’t be — leaving western policymakers terrified that he will reopen the gates to Europe, letting out the Syrian refugees desperate to escape a marginal existence in Turkey.
Erdogan has turned away from the West and made alliances with — or at least friendly overtures to — Russia, Saudi Arabia and, most recently, Iran. Accession to the EU now seems a ludicrous prospect. Instead of hanging on the fringes of Europe, Erdogan is building his own modern sultanate. Turkey is being remade in his image. His face is everywhere, bearing down on public squares, from balconies and on computer screensavers — often next to a picture of Atatürk. Since the attempted coup last July, he has implemented a state of emergency and begun to rule by decree.
In the weeks after July 15, his name was blasted constantly from speakers in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, set to a catchy Ottoman war chant. Soon it was like tinnitus; I couldn’t tell whether it was playing in reality or just repeating in my mind. For days, I carried the president’s name everywhere in my head. The streets of the capital ran red, first with blood, then with Turkish flags bearing the crescent moon and star. Everywhere was a sea of vermilion as parts of the opposition joined the AKP in condemnation of the coup plotters. But the moment of unity was brief: soon the crackdown began with more force than any in the opposition had thought possible.
Now, with the proposed changes to the constitution, Erdogan faces the last and most important step in consolidating his rule. He wants complete power over Turkey, unencumbered by parliament; an Erdogan administration, with an entourage loyal exclusively to him.
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Jason 7 HOURS AGO
I'm fairly certain Theresa May is pictured with the Turkish Prime Minister, Binali Yıldırım, not Erdogan.
IAN 2 HOURS AGO
@Jason If its not BinaliYildirim it sure ain't Mr Erdogan!
Lan 7 HOURS AGO
It's proof when you are in politics, you have to be ruthless.
Derek 20 HOURS AGO
I've read a fair bit about the Kurds, the only group that has stood up continuously, in an organised way, against daesh. Yet the Kurds is an ethnic group, perhaps the only one, without a country that they can call home. That was abolished in one of the carve-ups of the middle east by superpowers. From what I've read, under Erdogan, Turkey may be taking differing sides, including funding daesh, while making out they're fighting them. In the confusion encapsulating the region, and under the guise of fighting daesh, Turkey is launching attacks on civilian towns with predominately Kurd populations, in places like Rojava Qandil and Bakur. Yet, there's hardly a word uttered in support of Kurds, whose fighters include contingents of women, volunteering from across the middle east. It's long overdue that countries, like Australia, speak up about the rights of those who are fighting daesh, and call out Turkey and others with questionable loyalties, affiliations, motives and the demolition of Turkey's democracy, seeking to replacing it with an Islamic caliphate.
Chris 6 HOURS AGO
@Derek Well said. Perhaps outside nations or the UN(?) should assist in reconciling the Turks and Kurds. A homeland is a must for the Kurds.
Myongsook 20 HOURS AGO
A very perceptive article. Unfortunately there will be no turning back from the course upon which Erdogan has set for Turkey.
Bruce 1 DAY AGO
Another example of how Islam and democracy are incompatible
Peter 1 DAY AGO
Good article Louise , thanking you ..