Erdogan and the threat of division

With his triumph over Turkey’s secular establishment, it became clear that the only thing Recep Tayyip Erdogan needed to fear was himself. In the space of a few weeks, with the choices he has made domestically and abroad, with his increasing authoritarianism, the Turkish prime minister has confirmed that prediction, managing to unite large sections of the population against him. This has jeopardized all that he has accomplished and all that he still plans to do, including the strengthening of the presidency and his election to the post. More dangerous, though, is the fact that Turkey’s leader has undermined two pillars of the state founded by Kemal Ataturk, and in so doing may have opened the door to division and insecurity.

With the dogma “Happy is he who calls himself a Turk,” the state made clear that anyone who lived within its borders was a Turk, and so it imposed social and political cohesion by rejecting the existence of minorities. Also, “Peace at home, peace in the world” may have rung hollow to many of Turkey’s neighbors, but it was an established part of the country’s and citizens’ identity. Turkey’s direct involvement in the Syrian civil war, however, has exposed the country to the turmoil of the Middle East and to the great clash between Islam’s Sunni and Shiite followers, with consequences at home and in its regional role.

Hitherto secular Turkey is now taking sides in a war with a clearly religious angle: Along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, it is a major supporter of the Syrian rebels (who are Sunni in the main), against President Bashar Assad (who is a member of his country’s Alawite minority and allied with the Shiites of Iran and Lebanon). In addition, the Erdogan government’s decision to name a future bridge over the Bosporus after a sultan who massacred the Alawites shows that it cares little about offending the Alawites of Turkey, who account for about 10 percent of the population. Furthermore, cooperation with the Kurds (with the probable recognition of some rights in exchange for their support for Erdogan’s political plans) establishes Turkey as a country with substantial minorities.

Erdogan used Turkey’s ambitions for European Union accession in order to reform the country and, with great mastery, he disarmed the secular establishment, the so-called deep state. As guardians of the country’s secular, Western-oriented direction, the generals could no longer intervene in the affairs of an elected government. However, now that he is called upon to heed democratic principles and to serve national unity, Erdogan seems to be falling back on his own supporters and his own principles, improvising dangerously at the moment that his country is in search of a new national identity.