17 August 2023
Last week, two significant events occurred that shed light on the global perspective and goals of Turkey’s Erdoğan government, now past the general elections. Unlike Erdoğan’s usual speeches, often ignored for their self-praising content, these two texts offered important insights into the regime’s current direction. However, they were not widely discussed.
The first was a speech at the 14th Ambassadors’ Conference, and the second was a statement from the National Security Council (NSC). Both highlighted Erdoğan’s approach of viewing power not as a local issue but as part of a global and regional process, linking state control with political Islam’s worldwide influence. For the first time, the concepts of global Islam and Muslim identity were articulated in a way that goes beyond mere rhetoric. These two texts presented a strategic approach that connects state power with the global influence of political Islam, not just within Turkey but also on the international stage.
In his speech at the Ambassadors’ Conference, Erdoğan addressed the issue of ‘Islamophobia,’ highlighting that it has reached intolerable levels in some European countries. He declared Turkey’s commitment to combating this problem, not only in collaboration with friendly and allied nations but also with believers of other religions who reject any form of disrespect towards sacred values. He stated, “We are conducting our fight against Islamophobia in cooperation with those who do not accept disrespect towards the sacred, as well as with friendly and brotherly countries. Turkey will rightfully fulfill its responsibility as the standard-bearer of this struggle today, as it has for centuries.”
The same theme was expressed even more strongly in the National Security Council statement, convened under Erdoğan’s leadership a day later. The statement was cloaked in expressions that go beyond the NSC’s usual bounds and was declared to the world, accompanied by warnings against states that fail to fulfil their responsibilities: “States that do not fulfil their responsibilities must understand the destructive effects that the seeds of hatred they sow under the guise of freedom of expression can create. They are urgently invited to change their attitudes and to join in the fight against attacks on sacred values.”
This language and expression clearly have no connection with the duties and powers of the NSC. According to the current 1982 Constitution, the NSC’s role is solely to inform the Council of Ministers about the state’s national security policy and its views on the matter.
According to Law No. 2945 on the “National Security Council and the National Security Council General Secretariat,” the State’s National Security Policy is defined as “a policy encompassing the fundamental principles of internal, external, and defence actions, determined by the Council of Ministers, with the aim of ensuring national security and achieving national goals, and within the views established by the National Security Council.”
In other words, the NSC’s duties do not include taking part in global and regional conflicts based on religious principles. Furthermore, the NSC does not have the right or authority to adopt a stance or invite other states to change their attitudes on religious matters at the international level, surpassing the government and ministries.
Looking at the latest NSC statement from this perspective, it is possible to see that Erdoğan, who once complained about the “tutelage of the NSC” until he became an absolute ruler, has now brought all institutions under his control and acts with the confidence that he has made the NSC General Secretary his personal secretary. In the past, due to the obligation to formally follow the chain of authority and responsibility, it would have been unthinkable for even the most “authoritative” NSC to presume to “rebuke” other states. However, in 2023, we are not surprised to see the NSC General Secretariat, which has been tasked with publishing the statement dictated by Erdoğan, communicating in the language of Erdoğan’s alter ego.
In short, contrary to the expectations of those who find liberal wisdom in the “prince of darkness”* Erdoğan’s pearl of wisdom that the EU’s refusal to admit Turkey is a “strategic blindness”, “Erdoğan’s Ankara” is not extending an invitation for “peace at home and in the world” for the next five years. Instead, it is waving the flag of “world domination” under the guise of claiming the standard-bearer of Islam.
However, this Erdoğan is no longer the Erbakanist militant sitting at the feet of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; he is an autocrat who has taken control of one of the world’s top 20 economies and NATO’s second-largest military power. What guides him now are not naive attachments or doctrinaire passions. Erdoğan, after 21 years in power, has become a post-modern Islamist who believes that, to achieve a “strategic goal”, it is preferable to lean on the power and wealth of the capitalist class and the might of a tyrannical state to sideline rivals and bolster his own faction, rather than embark on a bare-sword Islamic revolution. Erdoğan’s interpretation of Islam, which he is busy injecting into Foreign Affairs and the National Security Council, is a translation of a worldly existence and way of life that is deeply intertwined with the state, rather than something heavenly or divine.
Erdoğan expresses this point at the Ambassadors’ Conference with the following words: “Situated at the heart of three continents, Turkey cannot merely observe events from the stands. Being strong both on the field and at the table is not a choice for us, but a necessity […] We are concerned with protecting Turkey’s interests by utilising all the means of diplomacy, and all elements of hard and soft power.”
What Erdoğan refers to as ‘Turkey’s interest’ is this: “Each of our ambassadors must also be the pioneer of our country’s export mobilisation in the place where they serve. Turkey has no other way out but to produce more in every field and increase exports. You must intensify your efforts in promoting Turkish products, finding new markets for our business world, and attracting more tourists to our country.”
The gist is, “setting and defending the Islamic standards” is not for free! In return, the Turkish state, through direct sales and marketing, sends the son-in-law’s** UAVs and armed drones to international markets, while Erdoğan places the interest of the “military-industrial complex,” whose core is formed by his family, at the centre of the “Islamic cause,” thereby transforming the state into an Islamic joint-stock company. This is the “modern” interpretation indicated by the “light bulb”.
No one has any new reason to delude themselves with dreams of a turn towards Europe, internal peace, or similar aspirations after 14 and 28 May. The AKP’s initial goals continue to guide the regime, but with this difference: Erdoğan set out to establish an Islamic regime, yet, since it did not rely on a higher culture and civilisation than the regime he aimed to dismantle, he and his cadre were transformed by the state in every encounter, even as they slightly transformed the state’s operation. As a result, as the Republic approaches its 100th year, what we have is a late Ottoman restoration or a post-modern Sultanate, characterised by a hybrid of Erdoğan’s merely verbal Islamic liberation ideal and the state’s tyrannical reality. If anything were to emerge from this, it should have done so before the antique Sultanate was demolished.
As the Republic’s 100th year anniversary confronts us with the fact that it has not gone beyond the “preservation and defence” of this sultanate’s core, it seems the most appropriate action to take as congresses herald a new era to focus our attention on the possibilities and necessities of total liberation, rather than indulging in partial salvation fantasies.
(*) The term “prince of darkness” in the above paragraph refers to Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s Foreign Minister and former Intelligence Chief. He spoke at the same ambassadors’ conference, expressing the following views:
“Labelling Turkey with vague, historically disconnected, and baseless ideas, almost as if it were a power outside the region or even an enemy, is the most serious mistake that can be made in the Balkans. At a time when the possibility of EU and NATO membership is being discussed for all Balkan countries, including Moldova and Ukraine, the hindrance of Turkey’s EU membership process is a sign of strategic blindness. In the coming period, it’s vital to look at Turkey’s relationship with the European Union with fresh eyes and a visionary approach, breathing new life into the process with the prospect of full membership.”
(**) The son-in-law in question is Selçuk Bayraktar, who is married to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s daughter. He is the Chief Technology Officer of Baykar, a company that manufactures unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and armed drones.