Amid reports of significant ballot-box stuffing, roughing up dissenters, and other electoral fraud, Turkey’s sharia-supremacist strongman, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hammered the final nail in the coffin of his country’s democracy. Last weekend, he narrowly prevailed in a referendum that formally concentrates in the presidency the autocratic powers he had previously usurped.
Afterwards, Donald Trump called to congratulate him.
You read that right. The president of the United States called to congratulate a terror-supporting Islamist ruler on completing his country’s turn away from Western liberalism.
Five years ago, I wrote a book called Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy. It was largely about Erdogan and Turkey. That story needed telling in order to explain why, far from a democratic revolution, the so-called Arab Spring would result in the ascendancy of political Islam in all its classic totalitarianism. The point was that we knew how the story would end in the Middle East and North Africa because the same story had already played out in Ankara.
And so it did.
Erdogan had seized the reins thanks to a constitutional quirk ironically designed to keep Islamists out of power. Gradually — in many ways, brilliantly — he strengthened his hand until, finally, he succeeded in his goal of eviscerating the secular, Westward-leaning society forged by Mustafa Kemal — Atatürk — out of the Ottoman Empire’s post-World War I collapse.
Spring Fever presaged what happened last weekend. Though he was still prime minister at the time (mid-2012, the height of Arab Spring exuberance), I contended that Erdogan’s goal was “the adoption of a new constitution with a powerful presidency that Erdogan would occupy.” Thus, my rueful conclusion that “‘Islamic Democracy’ begins to sound a lot like Russian ‘democracy.’”
It was always sadly amusing that Western devotees of “Islamic democracy” pointed to “the Turkish model” as proof positive that their oxymoronic fantasy could become Middle Eastern reality.
Even in their rose-tinted telling, the Arab Spring was supposed to be a mass transformation from dictatorships to democracy. Turkey, to the contrary, was already a democracy when Erdogan took over in 2003. He represented a shift from a secular, pro-Western orientation to sharia supremacism. There never was an Arab Spring, but Erdogan is the Turkish Winter, transforming democracy into dictatorship.
Steadily, he accumulated power though starting from a position of weakness. He was shrewd, but the tea leaves were never hard to read. “Democracy,” he proclaimed, “is just the train we board to reach our destination.” Erdogan never saw democracy as a goal, never aspired to adopt a culture of liberty and the protection of minority rights. For him democracy was nothing but the procedural means — mainly, popular elections in a Muslim majority country — to the desired end of imposing sharia, Islam’s societal framework and legal system. “I am a servant of sharia,” Erdogan was wont to say when he was Istanbul’s mayor — though he preferred to refer to himself as the city’s “imam.”
As prime minister, his masterstroke was to exploit the con-job known as European integration. Erdogan knew that, for all their flowery rhetoric, Germany, France, and the rest had no intention of welcoming a Muslim country of 80 million into the EU. Moreover, as an Islamist in the Muslim Brotherhood mold, Erdogan despises the West and had no intention of conforming in order to join. To this day, he exhorts Muslims to integrate into the West but resist assimilation. Indeed, he has described Western pressure on Muslims to assimilate as a “crime against humanity.” When it comes to Europe, Erdogan’s long range plan is to extort its accommodation of Islamic norms, not to become a partner.
Thus, we find the brilliance of Erdogan’s strategy. His main opponents when he took power were the Turkish military, which had staged coups throughout modern Turkey’s history to prevent an Islamist takeover, and the rest of the “deep state” guardians of the secular Kemalist order. So Erdogan undertook to leverage the endless European integration process in a manner that undermined his rivals. There was the Western insistence on civilian control of the military, which paralyzed Kemalists who might otherwise plot to remove Erdogan; the prime minister thus gradually installed his own loyalists. And while EU bureaucrats care little about Western religious traditions, they are indignant on the matter of religious liberty where Islam is concerned. As applied to Turkey, this EU integration metric gave Erdogan the cover he needed to ease Kemalist restrictions on the teaching and practice of Islam.
Meanwhile, Erdogan focused on restoring sharia norms in the culture and sharia tenets in the classroom. When it became clear that the armed forces would not dare overthrow him, he purged Kemalist officers, including in mass, trumped-up prosecutions. Ditto journalists: Erdogan’s Turkey imprisons more reporters than China, and is brutal generally toward dissenters.
Concurrently, he rolled out the red carpet for the Muslim Brotherhood, which turned Turkey into a center of movement gravity. He cultivated friendship with Iran, the world’s leading sponsor of jihadist terror, working to help the mullahs defeat American sanctions. He is one of the world’s foremost promoters of Hamas, maintaining that the Palestinian jihadist faction is a political party fighting against occupation — just like Hezbollah, Iran’s Shiite jihadist faction. And Erdogan’s determination to arm and train Sunni jihadists has contributed to the rise of the Islamic State, even if it has strained his relations with Tehran.
To summarize, Erdogan is an anti-Western, anti-Semitic, sharia-supremacist, jihadist-empowering anti-Democrat. As a ruler, he is a Putin wannabe who persecutes those who dare defy him, running his country like a mafia don. His referendum victory is the death knell for democracy in Turkey.
Last summer, candidate Donald Donald Trump lavished praise on Erdogan after the latter put down an attempted coup. The nominee did not realize, or perhaps did not care, that the revolt had been a last-ditch attempt to thwart the regime’s sharia authoritarianism and restore the secular, pro-Western constitutional order. This was bad enough — an early reflection of Trump’s indifference to the internal affairs of countries he perceives as potentially helpful (however well- or ill-informed such perceptions may be).
But it is simply mind-boggling that, as president, Trump would congratulate Erdogan for a stolen election victory that crushes democracy and accelerates Turkey’s Islamist turn.
After he won in November, I wondered aloud whether Trump grasped the reality of sharia supremacism. Sure, he deserved praise for his willingness to name America’s enemy — “radical Islamic terrorism,” he called it. Yet it remained to be seen whether he understood the enemy, particularly the ideology that drives the enemy.
Suffice it to say: I continue to have my doubts.
In his speech accepting the Republican nomination, Trump railed about the “radical Muslim Brotherhood” and put a positive spin on the Egyptian military’s decision to wrest control from the Brotherhood regime. All fine … except this came at the very same time he was lauding Erdogan, the Brotherhood’s key ally and ideological twin, for crushing a similarly motivated coup. Since then, Trump has opined that Turkey could be of great help against the Islamic State, notwithstanding that Erdogan’s empowerment of Sunni militants helped create the Islamic State.
Perhaps someone could explain to the president that although Erdogan, like the Brotherhood and other Islamists, has his disagreements with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, he shares the jihadists’ commitment to sharia rule. That is, his worldview is more like that of totalitarian jihadists than of, say, NATO countries. Of course, when Turkey was permitted to join NATO in 1952, it was Kemalist. Now, though the alliance of democracies has added counterterrorism to its renewed mission of containing the Kremlin’s ambitions, Turkey is Islamist, anti-democratic, supports terrorists, and has cozied up to Putin.
There are two things to notice about Erdogan. First, he sees Islam as the foundation of life, with no division among the political, civic, social, and spiritual realms. Second, he emphatically rejects the concept of “moderate” Islam – recall his famous outburst: “It is an insult to our religion. There is no moderate or immoderate Islam. Islam is Islam and that’s it.” That is why Erdogan so naturally champions the jihadists of Hamas and Hezbollah, and why he was so willing to provide logistical support, training space, weapons, and funding for Sunni jihadists headed to Syria.
Eventually, of course, jihadists began biting the hand that fed them, bombing targets in Turkey and kidnapping Turkish officials. It’s an old game, one Erdogan could learn about from the Saudis, Pakistanis, Egyptians, and other Islamist regimes that have similarly supported Muslim militants in the vain hope of controlling them and using them geopolitically. Only after ISIS struck Turkey did Erdogan begin posing as a committed ISIS enemy. But the new American president is kidding himself if he thinks he can bank on that, or that an Islamist dictator can be a reliable ally against Islamic terrorism while promoting sharia supremacism and continuing to support his preferred Islamic terrorists, such as Hamas.
Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s renowned jurist (and Hamas’s inspiration), has explained that Western democracy is incompatible with Islamic society because sharia is a comprehensive societal system that regards secularism as apostasy — a capital offense in Islamic law.
Al-Qaeda and its breakaway branch, the Islamic State, seek a global caliphate governed by totalitarian sharia, and thus attack governments that aspire to real democracy.
Now, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has snuffed out democracy in his quest to turn Turkey into an authoritarian sharia state.
And the president of the United States has called to congratulate him.