Ordered Liberty

Erdogan: 'I Am a Servant of Sharia'

Spring is about to begin and my book, Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy, has just been published in paperback — originally, it was available only as an eBook. To mark these occasions, and more importantly, to elaborate on why the “Arab Spring” is really the ascendancy of Islamic supremacism (as Spring Fever foretold and as each day’s news confirms), Ordered Liberty will be running some excerpts in the coming days. Here is the first:

“Thank God almighty, I am a servant of sharia.” It was 1994, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan was proud to proclaim his Islamist roots in his native Istanbul, where he served as the mayor – or, as he customarily described himself, the city’s “imam.”

Erdogan’s star was rising in Turkey’s political firmament, thanks to his mentor, Necmettin Erbakan, trailblazer of the country’s modern Islamist politics. In fact, it was as president of the Istanbul Youth Movement, the shock troops of Erbakan’s “National Salvation” party, that Erdogan first made his mark. The main vehicle for his renown was a 1974 theatrical production called Maskomya. It was both virulently anti-Semitic and, this being Turkey, sadly popular. The prodigy, then twenty years old, not only wrote and directed the play but performed the lead role, as well. As Andrew Bostom recounts, “Mas-Kom-Ya was a compound acronym for ‘Masons-Communists-Yahudi’ – the latter meaning ‘Jews.’” In Erdogan’s telling, the common denominator of these evil, conspiratorial groups was Judaism.

Where Islam Meets the West

Turkey is a plenary Muslim country of 74 million. Yet, it does not have a plenary Islamic history. It lies on the fault line between East and West. With a rich, unique history, and one foot planted in Europe, the Turks are not an easy fit in the global ummah that Erdogan, now in his third term as Turkey’s prime minister, is undertaking to lead. Indeed, the relative success of Turkish society and its growing stature among Muslims, though publicly celebrated by Arabs, is, privately, a bitter pill for them. Historically, Saudis, Egyptians and other Arabs, Islam’s primus inter pares and notoriously arrogant about their Muslim authenticity, have been wont to look down their noses at the Turks.

The Ottoman legacy to which modern Turkey is heir was, by the empire’s demise in World War I, substantially Eurocentric and largely detached from the everyday affairs of the Arab Middle East. Yes, the population has always featured a strong Islamist plurality, traditionally concentrated in the rural areas. Most urban centers, however, have been secular, Euro-minded strongholds – including much of Eastern Thrace, where the Western half of Istanbul is located. And then there are Turkey’s ethnic minorities, most notably the contentious, largely unassimilated Kurds.

This is not to say that Arab countries are strangers to ethnic and sectarian diversity. As we’ve seen, they feature varying Islamic sects and non-Muslim minorities. They tend, though, to be much more attitudinally homogenous, especially in their animus toward the West. Kemalist Turkey, by contrast, saw itself as part of Europe and its future inclined toward the West. The majority of Kemalists continued to identify themselves as Muslims, but Kemalist cultural secularism bred an indifference to Islamic doctrine’s supremacist injunctions and an outright hostility to its sharia framework for society. We should pause, then, to consider how remarkable is the advance of Islamic supremacism in Turkey under Erdogan’s cunning stewardship. Comparatively speaking, the Islamist march through the Middle East is sure to be much smoother.

Ataturk’s secularization project, repressive of Islamic doctrine and unabashedly hostile to public displays of Islamic culture, could only have happened in Turkey. This is not to suggest that it was a mean feat to muffle Islam in a nearly 100 percent Muslim country where tens of millions of the citizens are Islamists. In fact, a herculean effort was required – and even with that, the project ultimately failed: Erdogan & Co. needed far less time to revert Turkey to the Islamist camp than the Kemalists took to secularize it.

The point is that Ataturk’s temporary achievement could never have happened in “one of the Arab Spring countries” (as even al Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri has fondly taken to calling them). So inscribed is Islam on the DNA of Arab lands that strongmen from Nasser to Arafat to Saddam, despite their secular inclinations, always appreciated the imperative of paying at least lip-service veneration to Islam – and of ostensibly pursuing their agendas within the Islamic framework, not against it – and certainly not by supplanting it.

So how did Erdogan pull off his Islamist coup and provide what is now a template for the “Arab Spring”? He followed the Muslim Brotherhood playbook, a how-to manual for weak but shrewd minorities seeking to strengthen their hands. He was also extraordinarily fortunate in both the self-defeating disarray of his domestic adversaries and the flat-footed fecklessness of his Western admirers. Prominently included among the latter are Bush and Obama administration officials, who have lauded him as a “democrat” while he has dismantled Western democracy, piece by piece.

Demography Versus the Deep State

The illusion of “Islamic democracy” substitutes a value-neutral procedural shell, the popular election, for the rich substance of democratic culture. Thus demography, so crucial to the recent electoral success of Turkey’s Islamists, merits scrutiny.

As Tel-Aviv University’s Ehud Toledano explains, the last 15 years have witnessed a transformative population shift. Whereas three-quarters of Turks used to live in small towns and villages, with the remaining 25 percent in the urban centers, that ratio has reversed. Not only has this urbanization process increased the access of formerly rural Turks to higher education and the global economy; it has meant these more devout Muslims have dramatically impacted the cities with what Toledano calls “their traditional culture and sensitivities.”

I more bluntly outlined the phenomenon in The Grand Jihad. When Islamists relocate, they change their new surroundings much more than their new surroundings change them. In accordance with Brotherhood jurist Yusuf Qaradawi’s “voluntary apartheid” approach, Islamists purposely resettle in enclaves where Muslim self-awareness and sharia hold sway. In light of this strategy’s effectiveness in Islamizing swaths of the non-Muslim West, it is no surprise to find it working quite well in Turkey, especially given the Islamist parties’ gradual erosion of Kemalist obstacles to Islamization. It is not a coincidence that the electoral success of Islamist parties – beginning with Necmettin Erbakan’s election as modern Turkey’s first Islamist prime minister in 1996 – exactly tracks Turkey’s demographic sea-change.

Erdogan’s victory formula coupled this enhanced Islamist political consolidation and participation with the peculiarities of Turkey’s electoral system. The latter, ironically, were designed to keep Islamsts out of power.

When Turkey began permitting multi-party politics after World War II, it rigged the electoral system: declining parliamentary representation to political parties that fail to draw a threshold percentage of the popular vote (today, ten percent). Through the latter half of the Twentieth Century, this generally meant that the hardcore minority of Islamists could never form a parliamentary majority: A majority of Turks, theoretically reprogrammed by decades of Kemalist secularism, would reliably unite, at least enough to keep the Islamists at bay. But in 2002, the several non-Islamist parties did the unthinkable: they splintered.

This Kemalist implosion seemed inconceivable. Not only were secular factions, right and left, fully cognizant that failure on their part to coalesce was the minority Islamists’ only path to power. A splintering had, in fact, very recently happened, with sharp consequences. In December 1995, the Islamist Refah (Welfare) Party, founded on the Muslim Brotherhood model by Erbakan in 1983, had managed to win the parliamentary election with only 21 percent of the vote.

So dismayed was Turkey’s ruling class, the “deep state,” that Erbakan’s elevation to the office of prime minister was short-lived. The “deep state” is an elite inner sanctum of top army, government and judicial officials that has historically served as the decisive bulwark against ever-thrumming Islamic supremacism. Its traditionally steely spine, the Turkish military, is the official guardian of the secular order under the Kemalist constitution. The military staged coups d’etat in 1960, 1971 and 1980 when civilian leaders seemed poised to move the nation away from Ataturk’s secular vision. In 1997, Erbakan’s Islamist surge stirred the deep state yet again.

The generals toppled the new prime minister’s governing coalition. The episode is known as the “Postmodern Coup” because the army took pains to resist dissolving Parliament and assuming power directly. Still, the junta did round up a number of notorious Islamist rabble-rousers, including Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Kemal al-Helbawy, a United Kingdom-based Muslim Brotherhood official, has recounted that the Brotherhood “always had ties with the Islamic movement … in Turkey, since its inception” – dating back to Islamist groups Erbakan formed even before he started the National Salvation Party in the Seventies.[1] Erdogan was elected chairman of the NSP’s youth corps (the Istanbul Youth Organization) in 1976, not long after his Mas-Kom-Ya star turn. Helbawy, a contemporary, was one of the original leaders of WAMY – the World Assembly of Muslim Youth, the font of Sunni supremacist ideology and terror facilitation that we discussed (in Chapter 3) in connection with another of its alumni, sharia scholar Taha al-Alwani. According to Helbawy, it was at WAMY, which was active in Turkey as it is in dozens of countries, that he first met Erdogan and several other up-and-coming young Islamists.

When the NSP was closed down by the 1980 military coup, Erdogan followed Erbakan to the new Refah Party, described by Soner Cagaptay, a stellar scholar of Turkey, as “an explicitly Islamist party, which featured strong anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-democratic, and anti-secular elements.” Erdogan was in his mid-30s and a leading Refah figure by the time of the Postmodern Coup, during which the deep state, through the instrument of Turkey’s constitutional court, banned Refah and other Islamist parties. Erdogan himself was arrested for religious incitement, convicted in 1998, and imprisoned for six months.

The Turkish Spring

It was from the ruins of the banned parties that Erdogan, with the help of his fellow Erbakan acolyte, Abdullah Gul, constructed the AKP (the Justice and Development Party, Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi). The founders’ hard experience also induced them to adopt the pragmatic radicalism turned into an art form by the Muslim Brotherhood: softening their supremacist rhetoric while in a position of relative weakness; going the extra mile to appear unthreatening; lying about their true intentions, particularly to a credulous West that is manic to prove its Islamophilia; prioritizing the enhancement of their influence over major societal institutions; directing demagoguery at lighting-rod targets (in Turkey, Jews and Israel work well) in order to rally support; and infiltrating their political opposition, gradually defanging it from within.

As I contended in The Grand Jihad, the parallels between the Brotherhood’s modus operandi and Saul Alinksy-style ground-up radicalism – also known as “community organizing” – are palpable. They do much to explain the confederation of Islamists and Leftists against the culture of liberty. When both Brotherhood operatives and community organizers speak publicly, they emphasize semiotics over bombast, code words being a perspicacious device for winking in solidarity at one’s allies while steering clear of explicit, actionable incitement. In the AKP’s case, the choice to name itself after “Justice” speaks volumes.

Hearing the word, ordinary Westerners draw the common inference of simple “fairness” or “rectitude.” It seems aspirational, not provocative. But just as the term “social justice” in Leftist parlance connotes an entire system of statism, confiscatory taxation, and redistribution of wealth, Islamist odes to “justice” connote sharia, Islam’s legal system and totalitarian societal scheme. It is not for nothing that one of Brotherhood theorist Sayyid Qutb’s most influential tracts is entitled Social Justice in Islam – and would be equally at home at either the book-stand of an Occupy Wall Street encampment or an Arab Spring rally.

By 2002, the scene was set for a “Turkish Spring.” The multiple Kemalist parties were widely disdained, being seen as sclerotic and responsible for thoroughgoing governmental corruption. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party saw its opening. The AKP pols shrewdly packaged themselves not as implacable Islamists but as pragmatic reformers: members of a conventional, moderate, “socially conservative” movement committed to “improving” the secular framework, not tearing it asunder. Riding the demographic wave, AKP took 34 percent of the vote – nearly doubling Erbakan’s haul only seven years earlier. And thus did the purported safeguards Kemalists built into Turkey’s electoral system come back to bite the designers: with the wretched showing of the secular parties, the AKP’s mere one-third of the vote translated into a stranglehold two-thirds’ majority in Parliament.

Michael Rubin, the American Enterprise Institute scholar who has written with singular clarity on Erbakan’s Turkey, recounted the debacle in National Review. In triumph, Erdogan was sagely subdued. “We are the guardians of this secularism,” he feigned, “and our management will clearly prove that.” As is reliably the case when Erdogan bats his eyes Westward, there was an ulterior motive. Having been convicted of sedition, he was disqualified from public office. Regardless of his unquestioned control of the AKP, Erdogan was thus denied the premiership he so coveted.

So, while disarming wary onlookers with the AKP’s apparent eagerness to please, Erdogan busied himself behind the scenes, arranging to have the prime minister’s chair kept warm for him by Gul, fresh from a lengthy stint as a sharia-finance specialist in at the Islamic Development Bank in Saudi Arabia – a venerable underwriter of Islamist causes, which, during Gul’s IDB tenure, included the Islamization of Sudan.[2] With Gul’s leadership and the AKP’s stranglehold on Parliament, the law was amended so that Erdogan could run for office. He promptly prevailed in a suspect special election – as Rubin notes, “after a court conveniently threw out the results in one district.”

Now officially a member of the legislature, Erdogan became prime minister on March 14, 2003.