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Erdoğan: President, Sultan, Caliph or Başbuğ?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan started his career in Erbakan’s Refah Partisi (The Welfare Party). After the closure of the Welfare Party, the founders the Islamo-nationalist Millî Görüş movement (National Outlook) formed yet another party: Fazilet Partisi (The Virtue Party) in 2001, which was also banned by the Kemalist establishment. Before the closure of the Welfare Party two tendencies were formed within it: Yenilikçiler and Gelenekçiler (Reformists or Traditionalists). Erdoğan and Abdullah Gül from the Reformist strand went to form the AKP rather than join the Virtue Party.

Thus, Erdoğan started his career as reformist. The system was definitely in need of reform. After the “Susurluk scandal” in 1996 it was clear that there was a deep state in Turkey in which there were no boundaries between the criminal elements, the state, the police and political parties. Erdoğan came to power to clean this up. The electorate had enough of the Ancien régime.

What was Erdoğan’s dream though? To clean up the system and introduce an environment in which the state institutions would be democratic, civil society would thrive, freedom of speech would prevail and the deep state will disappear? As a reformist he called himself Muslim Democrat, in the same mould as the Christian Democrats in Europe. Fair enough. Was it true though? Was he ever democratic? Initially yes, but his subsequent path shows that moderation is not his style. Even if he had modest objectives initially, these mushroomed to unattainable irredentist dreams. In the process he embraced jihadi Islamism, pseudo-Kemalism, pan-Islamism, nationalism and pan-Turanianism.

Some analysts suggest it is the junior partner of the governing alliance Devlet Bahçeli’s party (MHP) that influenced him towards pan-Turanianism. Some even see him as a hostage to Bahçeli’s ideological predilections (‘Bahçeli and Çakıcı, the two men that rein in Turkey’s Erdogan, Ahval, 26 November 2020). I begged to differ. Erdoğan’s overarching ideology is domination and expansion, both in terms of the domestic politics but also in military terms in acquiring lands near or far from Turkey.

The term Sultan is now widely used by scholars and commentators to reflect Erdoğan’s documented ambition about reviving the Ottoman Empire in some form. This neo-Ottomanism is roughly the recreation of the Ottoman borders. At its height the Ottoman Empire had land in three continents. North Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East was part of the Empire. The late Turgut Özal, both Prime Minister and President between 1893 and 1993 had similar dream: imagining Turkey stretching “from the Adriatic to the China Wall”. This dream was more than just neo-Ottoman, it was pan-Turanian. This is an irredentist dream which hopes to unite Turkic speaking peoples across Eurasia. More than that pan-Turanianism proclaimed the need for close cooperation between or an alliance with culturally, linguistically or ethnically related peoples of Inner and Central Asian origin like the Finns, Japanese, Koreans,Sami, Samoyeds, Hungarians, Turks, Mongols, Manchus. These peoples have nothing in common except in the imagination of Pan-Turanists.

To this we can add a more recent expansionist goal emerged as the Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan). It was  announced by the Turkish Admiral Cem Gürdeniz in 2006: “doctrine’s goal . . . under the auspices of the government, is to achieve Turkey’s control and consolidation in the three seas surrounding it, to impart her regional and international influence and allow it energy sources, which will support its economic and demographic growth without dependence in other countries.” (Eyal Pinko, ‘Turkey’s Maritime Strategy Ambitions: The Blue Homeland Doctrine (Mavi Vatan)’, IIMSR, 31 March 2020). This view adopted by Erdoğan as primary foreign and energy policy objective. Needless to say this expansion is to be primarily at the expense of the national sovereignty of Cyprus and Greece.

Erdoğan is also often bestowed upon by many writers the title of Caliph, the leader of the Sunni Muslim world (Faik Bulut, ‘Halifelik bitti ama halifet oyunlari bitmedi, [The Caliphate ended but caliphate games did not end], Gazete Duvar, 4 March 2019). The office of the Caliphate was abolished in 1924 by the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk). It was an office not compatible with the nascent republic. The reason for this label in relation to Erdoğan is his frequent utterances on behalf of Islam across the world and the use of the Islamic ideology to expand Turkey’s influence beyond its borders.

Putting this all together we see a mélange of ideological positions which are contradictory to each other. The caliphate, the Neo-Ottoman state, the Turan is supposed to unite disparate elements, with no cultural, religious and linguistic affinity or even geographical proximity. What has Finland in common with Kazakhstan so that to unite under the leadership of Erdoğan’s Turkey? This may be an exaggerated example but these are not ideologically cohesive, logical or democratic objectives. They are dreams that are held only by imperialist states, against which Erdoğan frequently engages in discourse; to paraphrase: Western imperialism is bad but Erdoğan’s imperialism is just.

In the title I used the term başbuğ. This is an old Turkic word originated in Central Asia which meant leader. The term in Turkey is usually associated with the founder of the neo-Fascist grey-wolves movement and MHP, Alpaslan Türkeş. It has not been used in association to Erdoğan. Let me be the first. In Turkey itself, Erdoğan does not want to be President but a başbuğ, a hegemonic leader with no dissenting voices to oppose him.

No doubt, under the stewardship of Erdoğan, Turkey has become a significant regional power; a region which encompasses the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and dare I say the Caucasus. However, Erdoğan is not satisfied with this status: his ambition seems to be much beyond of the current objective capabilities of the country. He wants to dominate Europe, Africa and substantial parts of Asia. To this end, he employs any ideology that he can transmit to the masses and form external alliances: Islamism, pan-Islamism, Turanianism, pan-Turanianism, Turkish nationalism, Sunnism, neo-Ottomanism and Blue Homeland. He is not bound by any single ideology, except perhaps his underlying philosophy and outlook of life as Islamist and expansionist. Other than the pro-Kurdish HDP, the opposition consisting of the Republicans (CHP) and the Good Party act as enablers to Erdoğan’s imperialistic dreams. They seem to subscribe to the nationalistic current engulfing Turkey, which it may have severe repercussions for the future of Turkey and the immediate region.

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