The making of a demagogue: how Erdoğan became Turkey's strongman

Ece Temelkuran’s Turkey: the Insane and the Melancholy (2016) chronicles Erdoğan's paranoid style of politics and his lurch into authoritarian populism.

William Eichler
18 April 2017

Erdoğan claims victory while supporters celebrate near Taksim Square, Istanbul. Depo Photos/PA Images. All rights reserved.“The slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.” Albert Camus’ description of the journey taken by many a rebel is an apt characterisation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s trajectory. Turkey’s President has gone from Islamist activist railing against his country’s authoritarian secular elites to untouchable sultan purging his enemies – real and imagined. He has become a cliché. 

Erdoğan – like all strongmen – is an insecure leader with a penchant for hunting critics down.

Ece Temelkuran’s Turkey: the Insane and the Melancholy (2016) is a non-fiction account of life under Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). The novelist-cum-journalist traces the rise of the divisive leader and places it within the context of the republic’s contested history. This is a perilous undertaking. Turkey’s twentieth century is littered with taboo subjects, each marked ‘Handle with Care’, and Erdoğan – like all strongmen – is an insecure leader with a penchant for hunting critics down.

This does not deter Temelkuran. A regular commentator on Kurdish and Armenian affairs (her 2010 book Deep Mountain, dedicated to the murdered Turkish Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, is a must-read) and one of a legion of Turkish journalists who have suffered as a result of speaking their minds, she has – one presumes – become inured to the risks hanging over Turkish writers. If not, it does not show here. Turkey: the Insane and the Melancholy is a full frontal assault on the authoritarianism Erdoğan personifies. 

The formation of the Kemalist state 

The book opens with the well-worn metaphor of Turkey as a bridge between east and west, outlining the role this bifurcation has played in shaping Turkish politics and identity. “Between the Orient and the Occident,” writes Temelkuran. “This ‘in between-ness’ has engendered hesitancy in the imaginations of nearly everyone who hails from here.” Such a distinction is a myth, of course, developed by political actors, rather than a description of reality – but it is powerful nonetheless. And it derived most of its power from the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

The hero of Gallipoli and the Turkish War of Independence, Mustafa Kemal became Atatürk – father of the Turks – in the period following the founding of the republic in 1923. From his unassailable position at the apex of government, he overhauled the conservative, Islamic rump of the former Ottoman Empire and replaced it with a modern, secular republic. Six hundred years of imperial rule – already ended by foreign intervention, ethnic nationalism and war – was duly dispatched and treated as an Islamic aberration in the long history of the Turkish people.

Get yourself out of there and run towards the west as fast as your feet can carry you.

During his 14-year rule, Atatürk, the baş öğretmen (or head teacher – a telling epithet), kept his eyes firmly on the west and attempted to create a people in its image. He abolished the caliphate and reformed the Turkish language, dress, calendar, habits and much more. The teacher, in the manner of a European colonial overlord, wished to civilise his pupils and transform Anatolian Muslim subjects into westernised Turkish nationals. The new elite that emerged under his tutelage eschewed their Islamic, imperial heritage and looked, instead, to a semi-mythical central Asian past to give historical depth to their new identity.

As proud of their distant past as Atatürk’s followers were, however, it was always to the European present they aspired. Temelkuran captures the eurocentric outlook of this new ruling class. “Don’t look down or to the right, look up,” she writes: “above is a colourful and vivacious life. There is nothing below other than ‘the dirty Arabs’ and camels. There is nothing worthy of your curiosity. Get yourself out of there and run towards the west as fast as your feet can carry you.” This western-oriented elite dominated every aspect of society until long after Atatürk died in 1938, and the military watched over them to ensure no-one strayed too far from their father’s blueprint of the ideal society.

Democracy and religious populism 

But the people had other ideas. Turkey’s move to a multi-party democracy in the 1950s saw the masses enter politics for the first time. The populist Prime Minister Adnan Menderes, leader of the Democrat Party, was elected and proceeded to chip away at Atatürk’s cultural reforms, shoring up his position by presenting himself as an authentic man of the east – even while tacking westwards in the Cold War (Turkey became a member of NATO in 1952). This period saw a conservative backlash against the dominance of Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) and a temporary rejection of “state-imposed modernism, one-party authority and heavy-handed statism” in Temelkuran’s words. 

Despite the official secularism of the Kemalist state, Sunni Islam was always a silent partner in the construction of a modern Turkish identity. While Atatürk’s most committed followers portrayed Islam and modernity as mutually exclusive concepts, they could not change the fact that “Turk” and “Sunni” were inextricably linked in the minds of many. This manifested itself during the War of Independence; Anatolian Muslims fought as much for the ummah (Muslim community) as they did for the fatherland.

The Democrats placed this submerged religious identity front and centre.

But it was also evident in the early years of Atatürk’s reign. The republic’s founding constitution retained Islam as the state religion, a clause only removed in 1928, and the state institutionalised the faith through the Directorate General of Religious Affairs, Diyanet, which monopolised the appointment of imams and distributed the sermons they were to deliver to their flock.

The Democrats placed this submerged religious identity front and centre. “The ‘crowds’ were in power now,” writes Temelkuran. “The Islamic religion and call to prayer, which had been made Turkish with the founding of the Republic, were now converted back to Arabic, the ‘crowds’ gratefully reuniting with their religion – just the way they liked it.” This alarmed the establishment; the people appeared to connect more with their immediate past than with their ancient ancestors or Europe. The country seemed, from the perspective of the Kemalists, to be moving backwards towards those “‘dirty Arabs’ and camels”.

Darbe: the generals set the people straight 

On 27 May 1960 the military decided to act. They took power in a coup (darbe), executed Menderes, Minister of Finance Hasan Polatkan and Minister of Foreign Affairs Fatin Rüştü Zorlu, and instituted a new constitution – one more in tune with the earlier republican zeitgeist. This was the first in a long line of military interventions where the army, the guardians of Atatürk’s revolution, made it clear they would not tolerate deviation from the straight path of secular nationalism. It was, relatively speaking, a mild affair — something that cannot be said for the coup that would follow 20 years later.

During the next two decades Turkey became a Cold War battleground.

During the next two decades Turkey became a Cold War battleground. Left-wing movements grew and right-wing forces, often backed by the state, met them head on. The external struggle between the Soviet Union and NATO was mirrored in Anatolian towns and cities with brutal consequences. Another coup in 1971 attempted to quash the rising internecine violence but it was to no avail. Civil strife escalated and sectarian tensions even crept in with massacres of Alevis, a Shia minority, in Maraş and Çorum. By the end of the decade, an average of 20 people were being killed every day. And between 1977 and 1980, 5000 people lost their lives.

The military decided to act again. On 12 September 1980 the army, led by General Kenan Evren, took power in a coup that would have a profound impact on the course of Turkish politics. This time they were unforgiving with their wayward children. 650,000 people were taken into custody. The death penalty was requested for 7000 prisoners and carried out in 49 cases. There were even, Temelkuran writes, 300,000 “suspicious deaths”. It was all necessary, Evren (the “pasha of blood and tears” in Temelkuran’s memorable formulation) said, to “stop the war between brothers”. And he did this, effectively, by waging war against the entire family.

Neoliberal Islam 

This violent takeover led to two transformations. The first was neoliberal reform of Turkey’s mixed but ailing economy. Under the premiership of Turgut Özal – the military and Washington’s man – the public sector was dismantled and privatised, financial markets were developed and foreign trade was liberalised. These reforms could never have gone ahead the previous decade; the chaos and existence of a militant labour movement had all but ruled it out. The iron discipline of the bloody pasha, however, crushed any potential resistance and stabilised the country enough for the market reforms to be pushed through. Temelkuran has no doubt on this point: “This was the reason why the 12 September 1980 coup was staged.” 

This violent takeover led to the neoliberal reform of Turkey’s mixed but ailing economy.

The other transformation was in the ruling ideology. The generals adopted what was known as the Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a blend of Turkish nationalism and Sunni Islam that had been brewing in conservative circles for decades. Religion was propagated through İmam-Hatip schools, mosques and pious organisations. It even found its way into the speeches of secular leaders. In a paradoxical turn of events, Islam, which had always been a substratum of Turkish identity, was now explicitly promoted by traditional defenders of the secular order. And it was a move they would come to regret. 

The aim of such a wholesale adoption of religious nationalism, according to the sociologist Banu Eligür, was to cultivate an “Islamic sense of community and prevent a recurrence of ideological clashes and the political violence of the 1970s.” Cihan Tuğal, author of Passive Revolution: absorbing the Islamic challenge to capitalism (2009), argues the move was designed to diffuse the threat of the emerging Islamist movement by giving in to a number of their demands, enabling the military to secure the state against the possibility of an Iranian-style revolution. Whatever the reason, the result was the same: the top-down Islamification of Turkish political culture. 

The growth of the Islamist social movement 


Celebrations as Erdoğan claims victory in the Turkish referendum. NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. Alls rights reserved.This was an opportunity religious activists were not going to pass up. The Turkish Islamist movement had begun to make gains in the 1970s. As Tuğal argues, they had won increased freedom for the operation of İmam-Hatip schools, where prayer leaders (imams) and preachers (hatips) were trained, as well as other students from religious families. This laid the groundwork for later successes. “In time, this generation of İmam-Hatip graduates came to occupy important public positions,” he writes in the New Left Review, “constituting a religious middle class capable of competing with the secularist intelligentsia in economic, cultural and political realms.” 

“A new ‘golden generation’ is to be cultivated,” Temelkuran writes, “an educated generation with fundamentalist and missionary leanings.”

But it was only in the 1980s, under the military’s new tolerance for religious politics, that Islamists made concrete political gains. The main exponent of Turkish Islamism at the time was the Welfare Party (RP). Under the leadership of Necmettin Erbakan, it expanded its base by appealing to provincial, conservative entrepreneurs who chafed against the economic dominance of the secular business elites. It also appealed to the poor who, as a result of the country’s rapid economic changes, were filling up the slums of expanding cities. Its economically progressive programme (adil düzen or ‘just order’) attracted those faced with stark inequality. But its religiously-inspired social welfare programmes, filling in gaps left by the gutting of the welfare state, also played a significant role in winning them over.

The Welfare Party did well in elections. They increased their share of the vote from 8% in 1987 to 16% in 1991, before winning 21% in 1995. The groundwork done by Islamist cadres since the 1970s was beginning to pay off. They were challenging the secular elites in every aspect of society and clocking up remarkable gains. Figures such as Erbakan and Fethullah Gülen, currently Ankara’s most wanted imam, were able to build up the Islamist social movement through political activism, welfare, and education. Their followers began to populate the police, judiciary, and military, increasing the Islamist presence within the state’s institutions.

To put it in Gramscian terms, they were building a historic bloc to challenge Kemalist hegemony. “A new ‘golden generation’ is to be cultivated,” Temelkuran writes of their aims, “an educated generation with fundamentalist and missionary leanings.” This planted the first seeds of a crop Erdoğan would later harvest.

Once again the military wondered what had become of their ward. In 1997, angered by Erbakan’s rise to the premiership the year before as part of a coalition, the army high command flexed their atrophying political muscles (they had returned to their barracks in 1983)[1] . They issued a proclamation demanding the Prime Minister – an avowed Islamist – do more to maintain the strict separation of religion and state. Needless to say, this did not occur and the government collapsed, leading to a Kemalist restoration.

AKP: the new face of political Islam

It did not last long. Political infighting and economic problems saw it unravel and in 2002 the electorate voted for the new face of Turkish political Islam: the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Preferring the epithet “conservative” to “Islamist”, the 21st century’s pious young Turks quickly went to work building a political and social hegemony to rival what would soon be the former Kemalist establishment. And, as one of the prime movers in this nascent political revolution, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (from 2003) was indispensable.

Raised in a poor neighbourhood in Istanbul, this once semi-professional football player had risen under the auspices of the Welfare Party to become the Mayor of Istanbul in 1994. Erdoğan’s critics, nervous of the rising sea of religio-political fervour surrounding them, feared he would impose his socially conservative agenda on the cosmopolitan city. As it turned out, he focused on improving Istanbul’s crumbling infrastructure. Pragmatic governance, it seems, overrode ideology; he was more concerned with transport and air quality than Islamist revolution.

The war on terror was gaining momentum and Britain and America were in need of a local Muslim ally they could hold up as a good example.

His opponents were not convinced. Erdoğan was, in their eyes, a theocrat in disguise –an entryist biding his time as he worked his way up to the highest echelons of power. As evidence, they pointed to his description of democracy as a tram: “it goes as far as we want it to go, and then we get off.” And their suspicions only grew when at a political rally in 1997 he read out a poem by the nationalist ideologue Ziya Gökalp: “Our minarets are our bayonets, / Our domes are our helmets, / Our mosques are our barracks,” he declared. This landed him in prison for four months on the charge of “inciting hatred based on religious differences.”

Looking at Erdoğan’s regime today, it is hard not to concede his opponents may have had a point. Temelkuran certainly thinks so. But it was not always like this. In the beginning it seemed as if Turkey had elected Erdoğan the pragmatist rather than his more radical alter-ego.

The AKP assumed power in 2002 talking about democracy and human rights and making all the right noises. “It spoke of non-Muslims and Kurds and individual freedoms,” Temelkuran writes. “It condemned the military coup of 12 September 1980. It maintained that the army should be expelled from politics and railed at the top of its lungs for democracy. It pointed out that Turkey was one mosaic composed of a rich spectrum of ethnic and religious colours and gushed about the culture of coexistence.” “It was all so great and so wonderful!” she adds, sarcastically.

This message appealed to a broad spectrum of the population, which provided the AKP with a strong electoral base. The party came to power with 34% of the vote, which rose to 46% in 2007 before hitting 50% in 2011. Liberals applauded the talk of democracy. Provincial entrepreneurs – the “Anatolian Tigers” or Temelkuran’s “conservative capital” – saw in the AKP’s liberal economic policies an end to the dominance of Kemalist capital. The religious masses also welcomed the sight of one of their own in Ankara. And a section of the Kurdish population saw in the new Islamists an antidote to Turkish nationalism. All were united by relief that the unstable coalitions and economic crises of the 1990s and early 2000s were over. 

This new direction was also welcomed by the “international community”. The war on terror was gaining momentum and Britain and America were in need of a local Muslim ally they could hold up as a good example. Erdoğan’s party fitted the bill. “AKP not only represented the perfect marriage between moderate Islam and democracy,” Temelkuran explains, “but it was also a convincing model for the Arab world with its uncontrollable post-9/11 fury towards the West.” In the words of the sociologist Cihan Tuğal, they were the perfect candidates for “NATO’s Islamists.” 

The authoritarian turn 

To ask where it all went wrong is to assume that everything had been right in the first place. Temelkuran, who from day one was critical of Turkey’s new rulers, believes Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn was inscribed in the AKP’s political project from the start, and that the signs were there for anyone interested in looking. In a review of Tuğal’s most recent book The Fall of the Turkish Model (2016), she writes: “for over ten years, western mainstream intellectuals, media and politicians were so dazzled by this image of the perfect blend of east and west that objective thinking and critical stances were set aside.”

This is certainly true. Much that was problematic – misogynistic attitudes to the role of women in society, for instance – was played down. But western myopia aside, it is also the case that today’s AKP is not the same party that came to power in 2002. What changed? Simon Waldman and Emre Çalışkan provide a clue in The New Turkey and its Discontents (2016). They see in Erdogan’s authoritarian turn a latent tendency within the country’s political culture and system. 

“Paradoxically, the style of Turkish democracy at times resembles aspects of authoritarian rule,” they write. “This is due to a majoritarian system in which the political class having won free and fair elections, see fit to make their mark on Turkey almost carte blanche. Once elected, PMs, often charismatic leaders, seek to dominate the political landscape.”

Erdoğan rarely misses an opportunity to preach about the sins of alcohol or the rightful place of women in society. 

The AKP, with the charismatic Erdoğan at the helm, have proven to be no different. Historically the military acted as a check on the power of civilian governments. The AKP were only too aware of this fact in the early years of their rule. But in 2007 an opportunity to end military tutelage presented itself. Erdoğan and the generals faced off over the appointment of a new president: the former wanted Islamist Abdullah Gül to assume the position; the latter wanted a secularist. Erdoğan won. This was the opening salvo in the government’s struggle to sideline the military and end their political role for good. A couple of legally dubious trials over an alleged coup plot later and the job was complete (or so everyone thought). 

Without the – admittedly undemocratic – check of the military, Erdoğan and his allies were free to “make their mark on Turkey”, something religious activists of various stripes had been organising for since the 1970s. No longer constrained by the iron fist of the old establishment, the new Islamists set about creating the socially conservative, politically authoritarian and economically neoliberal Turkey that exists today.

They have learnt well from their opponents. The AKP have not shied away from mimicking the often brutal, top-down social engineering approach preferred by the old Kemalist establishment. Erdoğan rarely misses an opportunity to preach about the sins of alcohol or the rightful place of women in society. Freedom of speech in Turkey has all but vanished as critics are herded into jails, and the AKP’s actions in the southeast have shown the state has few qualms about continuing the trend of using violence against its citizens. The country’s economic performance has improved dramatically under the AKP, but wealth has also become more concentrated (the wealth share of the richest 1% rose from 38% in 2000 to 54% in 2014). Under Erdoğan, Turkey has undergone a process Temelkuran describes as “Dubaisation”.

Populism, or how to play the victim

All this, however, means little in the face of public support, which the AKP enjoys in droves. Turkey is a majoritarian system, as Waldman and Çalışkan point out; an illiberal democracy where numbers mean more than rights or the rule of law. Popular support and electoral success is everything, and this is an area in which Erdoğan excels. Speaking in 2012, then Prime Minister Erdoğan told his supporters: “These people look down their noses at the people, at the sweat and blood of the people, the culture and choices of the people. For years they have belittled our people with caricatures. For years they have belittled them through columns, on their screens. For years they have belittled the true servants of this nation – its clergymen…” These are the words of an adept populist; it’s a rhetorical display worthy of Putin, Modi, Netanyahu, Trump, Farage or any other demagogue convinced they are the popular will manifest. 

The words are effective. They speak to a sense of estrangement felt by millions of Turks.

And the words are effective. They speak to a sense of estrangement felt by millions of Turks. They play up the class and cultural divide between the metropolitan elites (“these people” – the Turkish demonstrative adjective being an insult when applied to people) and the conservative masses (“the people”). They draw on the pent up anger – stoked by Islamists over the years – of decades when secular Kemalists dismissed the religious traditions of Turks and insisted they forget their Ottoman glory days. And they promise to restore the ordinary Anatolian to their “proper” history, not an ersatz past imported from the west or built from the nostalgia of the ethno-nationalist imagination (though Erdoğan is not beyond invoking the latter).

But while this narrative still has traction on the campaign trail, it does not hold as true today as it once did (though it was always an exaggeration). Under AKP rule there has been a switch in power – incomplete but no less salient for it – from a secular elite to a religious elite. The same class divides exist, but the identity of who is on top has changed. But the pious ruling class is loath to abandon its victim status because it allows them to mobilise the genuinely alienated. It also enables them to dodge responsibility for failing to ameliorate the conditions that created this sense of alienation in the first place or, indeed, their own role in perpetuating those conditions.  

Temelkuran is particularly acute on this point, and is worth quoting at length. Discussing wealthy conservative women in Istanbul, she mocks: “Even when they traverse Istanbul’s poshest neighbourhoods in the most luxurious cars and the most expensive clothes, they are still the most victimised. And if uncovered women should direct a negative word or attitude towards them, that’s the greatest political error.” She continues: “A woman of the richest order of the new conservative bourgeoisie class is still more of a ‘victim’ than a retired teacher in secular attire (whatever that means) living in borderline poverty.”

The will to power

The socio-economic and cultural transformations that Turkey has undergone under the AKP – and in the aftermath of the 1980 coup more generally – are of little concern to Erdoğan, though. Power is what counts, and if playing up an old divide in order to paper over new ones works, then so be it.

Power is what counts, and if playing up an old divide in order to paper over new ones works, then so be it.

And the more everything crumbles around him, the firmer he holds to the belief that he – the reis or chief – is the manifestation of the popular will and the strongman the country needs. The outbreak of the Arab Spring, and its turn to winter in the Syrian civil war; the electoral successes of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) in 2015, which undermined (for a time) the constitutional reforms necessary to create a presidential system; the outbreak of the conflict with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the southeast; the attempted 2016 coup (probably) organised by supporters of Erdoğan’s former ally, the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen; the fallout with the US and Europe over their reactions to Ankara’s post-coup purge; repeated terrorist attacks. All of this has contributed to reinforcing Erdoğan’s paranoid style of politics and his lurch into authoritarian populism. It seems unlikely things will improve in the near future.  

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may have been a genuine man of the people with dreams of liberation and democracy at one time. But now he is just another demagogue – the clichéd slave-turned-king Camus identified. Never of course a slave, but member of an estranged class; today his royal aspirations are beyond doubt as he rules from a garish palace and demands his subjects invest him with power that is almost absolute. And if Erdoğan has his way, this weekend’s constitutional referendum will end with a coronation. 

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