Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan celebrate July 16 after soldiers involved in the coup surrendered on the Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul. (CNS photo/Yagiz Karahan, Reuters)
A Dutchman of 6-foot-5 stature looked
at me with a tilted head at an academic conference. “My grandmother used to
tell me if I didn’t behave she would give me to Turks…you don’t look that
menacing.” I looked up at the man, who was a foot taller than me, and thanked him
for the compliment, and we continued our discussion about Turkey’s accession to
That was the first time I met a
European who expressed anything negative about the past relations between the
Ottomans and the European nations. Most Americans are oblivious to the marks
six centuries of an ever-growing Muslim empire have left, but the developments
of the last decade in Turkey awakens the memories of the past.
In this analysis, my intention is to
provide a historical overview of Islam in Turkey from Ottoman times to today’s
Erdogan government, and to attempt to explain what this evolution means for the
region, while placing ISIS within the context of Turkish politics.
Islam in the Ottoman Empire
The Ottomans, sons of Osman, were once
a small tribe among many other Turkish tribes in Anatolia, also known as Asia
Minor. During the 2,000 years since Paul walked the Roman-made roads of the
peninsula, much has changed, and the most drastic of these changes was the introduction
Once all the Turkish tribes united
under the banner of Osman, Constantinople became the ultimate prize in the eyes
of the sultan. After all, Muhammad himself had promised blessings to the conqueror
who brought the capital of Byzantine Empire under Islamic rule. Many attempted
this feat, and many failed. It was the young Sultan Mehmed II who captured the
city after a 53-day siege in 1453.
The conquest was a significant blow to
the Christendom, opening Europe to further attacks and conquests by the
Ottomans. In addition, having Constantinoplenow Istanbulas his capital, and
having converted the magnificent Hagia Sophia church into a mosque, Sultan
Mehmed became the uncontested leader of political Islam. All the emperor needed
was to solidify the claim of his father, Murad I, to the caliphate.
Istanbul's Hagia Sophia (Image via Wiki Commons, by Arild Vågen)
Mehmed’s grandson, Sultan Selim I,
conquered the Mamluk Sultanate of Egypt and brought the two Muslim holy cities,
Mecca and Medina, under Ottoman rule. This granted the title of caliph to
Selim, who had united the Muslim lands under one rule.
Since in Islam there is no distinction
between religious and political affairsthere is no separation of church and
stateShari’a was the law of the land. Conquered peoples had to pay the jizya.
Even though non-Muslims were able to practice their religion, they were second-class
citizens who were not allowed to build churches or synagogues, who were
required keep their buildings shorter than those of Muslims, who could not
carry weapons, and who had to show deference to Muslims.
The jizya laws were relaxed in the
19th century as the Ottoman Empire declined and gave in to pressures from the
European powers, but the caliphate and the sultanate remained intact, albeit
weakened, until World War I.
Mustafa Kemal and Islam
Despite the reforms of the 19th
century, when the empire collapsed the people of Anatolia were predominantly
Muslims who had lived under the rule of the sultan and the caliph for
centuries. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk used the opportunity of saving the country
from invasion to abolish the caliphate, to install a more Western constitution,
and to ban all religious garb. The Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Latin
alphabet, and a more Westernized education system was introduced. In the span
of a decade, Ataturk was able to contain the river that had been flowing in the
direction of Shari’a for centuries.
To think that these changes occurred
peacefully would be naive. Ataturk was a ruthless dictator and a superb
statesman. His experiences as a pasha in the Ottoman army and as the leader of
the newly formed Turkish Republic provided him the legitimacy and the know-how
to impose the French version of secularism, laicism, on a young and confused
The nation-building of the following
years included a deep reverence for Ataturk himself, and only a certain amount
of Islam. Ataturk was clever enough to know that the society needed Islam as
its glue, even though it is doubtful that he was Muslim himself. The army
nation where all children had to attend state schools and all young men were
conscripted for a period of 18 months slowly became the only secular Muslim
Necmettin Erbakan and the widening holes
in the Kemalist front
Ataturk’s strategy worked for a long
time, with the support of a devoted cadre of educators and one of the strongest
militaries in the region. Kemalists never let their guard down as the country’s
cities became more Westernized, while the rural areas stayed in the previous
I grew up in one of the more
conservative parts of the country, where women were not supposed to wear shorts
or sleeveless shirts. Every summer, all the neighborhood kids toddled to the
local mosque to learn how to read the Quran and memorize our prayers. Then, in
the winter, we memorized speeches of Ataturk. Despite the deep-seated
religiosity, I don’t remember seeing women in hijab. The older women, or those
who wanted to cover their hair, used a simple headscarf in the fashion of
Eastern European women. The government remained secular with the support of the
military, and Islam remained the social foundation. In the short span of my
lifetime, all this would change.
With a growing base that still
retained its Muslim roots and the lack of depth in the Kemalist ideology, it
was only matter of time before a resurgence of political Islam occurred.
Necmettin Erbakan and his National
Viewpoint (Milli Gorus) came at a time when the rift between the urban and the rural
deepened, while those who emigrated to cities found modern Turkey shallow and
unsatisfying. The education system, especially the Westernized universities,
supplied a steady stream of laicist upper-class, but the wide base became more
and more disillusioned. Add to that mixture Turgut Ozal’s neoliberal and
populist reforms in the post-1980 coup era, and Erbakan found a Turkey that was
economically integrating into the world with a strong social base in Islam.
Turks were stuck between East and West, and were ripe for someone to remind
them where they came from.
In his short manifesto, Erbakan
rejected further rapprochement with the West and encouraged Turkey to form
closer ties with other Muslim countries. The glorious days of the Ottoman
Empire were gone, he argued, because Turkey had turned its back on its roots
and Islam. There was something fundamentally wrong with the secular system.  The “nation,” for Erbakan’s National
View, is composed of those united around the principles
and traditions introduced by Muhammad. This definition of “nation” sparked a
new movement in Turkey that would bring Erbakan himself to power in a matter of
years and lay the foundation for Tayyip Erdogan’s eventual rise.
A few political parties that followed
Erbakan’s ideology were banned by the Constitutional Court, and Erbakan was
compelled resign by the 1997 “Post-Modern Coup.” But the force he unleashed
only grew in the coming years.
The Gulen movement
Unlike Erbakan, Fethullah Gulen never
became the head of a political party. Instead, he chose to head a movement that
appeared to be progressive and was applauded as the face of Islamist
reformation. Inspired by Said-i Nursi, who favored Islam’s integration with
science, Gulen introduced a more market-friendly Muslim outlook. His main focus
was education. As mentioned before, one of the things that kept the Kemalist
ideology intact was the influence of those who were educated in secular
universities. As long as the education system remained solely in state hands, a
viable resurrection of political Islam in Turkey was nothing but a dream.
The long registration line at Middle
East Technical University contained some of the top minds in the country. A
folder of documents was safely tucked in my bag as I waited for my turn to
become a METU student. By then I had been an atheist for about seven years, and
dirt poor. A Nurcuwhat we called the followers of Gulen in Turkeyapproached
me with an offer of free room and board. All that was required of me was to
attend a weekly get-together. It would have been utterly tempting, if I were
not such a know-it-all. I mockingly rejected the offer, but I wonder how many
they were able recruit that day.
This was the strategy of the Gulen
movement in Turkey, reaching out to underprivileged, intelligent students so
that the secularist cadres would eventually be replaced with more
Islam-friendly bureaucrats, scientists, judges, and diplomats. Even though
Gulen’s schools follow a state-imposed curriculum, the aim is to create a base as
well as social capital that favor a modern outlook on Turkish Islamism. Gulen’s
charter schools eventually expanded to other countries, including more than 120
schools in the United States.
The Gulen movement embraced the
blessings of modern technology such as radio, the Internet, and other media to
create a wide base of followers that extended beyond the boundaries its home
country. Gulen managed portray himself as the face of progressive Islam and
reached many in Turkey, in Europe, and in Central Asia. His movement was on the
rise, until the struggle for power between Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan came
to a head in 2013 in a series of corruption charges.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his rise to power
Following the 1980 coup, Erdogan
became part of Erbakan’s Welfare Party. As the mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to
1998, Erdogan solved the numerous infrastructural problems of a city with a
population of 15 million. His political agenda was kept in the shadows as more
and more disgruntled residents of the metropolis supported his mayorship.
When Erbakan and his party were banned
after the coup of 1997, Erdogan became one of the most vocal critics of the
decision. He made the mistake of quoting a poem, landing himself in prison for
inciting religious violence:
mosques are our barracks,
domes our helmets,
minarets our bayonets,
the faithful our soldiers…
After four months in prison, he had to
give up his mayoral position and was banned from participating in parliamentary
elections. However, a change in law lifted this ban, and he became prime
minister in 2002 at the head of Justice and Development Party.
Having learned from his past mistakes,
Erdogan was cautious during the first five years of his premiership. It had
become clear that the more Islam was politicized in Turkey, the more
reactionary the military and the secularist opposition became. JDP chose a
conservative-centrist approach to counter this threat.  Erdogan even extended the rights of
Kurds and religious minorities in Turkey, giving hope that his rule, after all,
would not mean the rise of political Islam. However, by 2008 various declarations
from Erdogansuch as, “It’s not possible for a Muslim to commit genocide”started to reveal his true
He became more and more emboldened, as
his party won election after election. Freedom of speech and of the press
continuously decreased, leading to Turkey being ranked 151st out of 174
countries in a Reporters Without Borders report on freedom of the press. In 2014, his
government started to limit access to the Internet including Facebook, Twitter,
At the same time, under Erdogan’s rule
the Turkish economy continued to grow, as he undertook reforms in education and
the healthcare system, which affected the lives of those who did not care about
freedom of speech or Internet use. His contributions to these improvements secured
his position even more. His supporters became more devoted, and his critics
became more vocal, dividing country more with every passing year.
By the time he was elected president
in 2014, Erdogan’s ambitions had reached new levels. Now that the presidency
and the parliament were at his disposal, there was no need to hide his agenda.
He constructed a magnificent presidential residence and called it Ak Saray,
which means White Palace. Add to that the similarity between Erdogan’s 2014
campaign logo and US President Barack Obama’s, one could only assume the new
president of Turkey was not going to be content with being a minor power in the
In his steady rise to the top, at
first Erdogan welcomed the Syrian civil war. When ISIS emerged from the ashes,
at first he considered this new actor as an opportunity, until it became clear
that ISIS posed a threat to the stability of the southeastern region. Now that
people were more concerned about who supported and who opposed Erdogan and JDP,
the president of Turkey found it hard to gain the support he needed to fight.
ISIS in Turkey
One of the most significant outcomes
of the rise of ISIS for Turkey was the revitalization of Kurdish movements.  For decades, the Turkish government
has been struggling with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which wanted to
establish an independent Kurdish state including parts of southeastern Turkey.
This long-lasting struggle affected how the Erdogan government perceived ISIS, at
least in its formative years. Why not let the ISIS fighters take care of the
re-emerging Kurdish threat? Once that problem was dealt with, than it would be
time to deal with the Islamic State, the reasoning went. Despite rekindled
patriotic feelings among Kurds, ISIS attacks destabilized the region enough to
put a hold on unification attempts,  thus giving the Turkish government a
break in its fight against the PKK. In Kobani, the Kurdish city attacked by
ISIS, the Turkish government considered the threat posed by Syrian Kurdish
organizations more formidable than that of the Islamic State. 
If the Erdogan government supported
ISIS in its early years as it is accused of having done, then by 2014, the
tables had turned. ISIS had gained more and more territory. Turkey was nothing
more than another apostate state, and now Erdogan had to find a way to rescue
49 Turkish hostages, who were kidnapped when ISIS raided the Turkish embassy in
Mosul in June 2014. This hostage situation resulted in Turkey becoming the only
nation in the region to not sign the September 11, 2014 communiqué that
committed 10 Arab countries to the US-led coalition against ISIS. When the
hostages were freed in September 2014, Turkey adjusted its policies to put more
pressure on ISIS by reinforcing its Syrian border and allowing the US to use
the Incirlik air base.
Following the release of the hostages,
the clashes between the Turkey and ISIS increased despite the fact that the Turkish
government declined to commit any troops to the coalition. Meanwhile, there
have been a number of deadly ISIS attacks in Turkey.
It was Erdogan’s hubris that brought
about the inconsistent policy against ISIS. Backing the rebels and the jihadis
against Syria’s President Assad, and hoping the Islamic State would weaken the
Kurds in Syria and Iraq, eventually led to the creation of the Islamic State.
Now, we have a mess in the Middle East. Turkey wants Assad gone, but if it
takes any concrete action, Iran has threatened to support the Kurdish
separatists. Meanwhile, ISIS continues to launch attacks in Ankara and
This was not the way Erdogan had
imagined his days in the magnificent presidential palace. If only there was a
The attempted coup of July 15, 2016
Whether it was Gulen or Erdogan
himself who attempted the feeble coup on July 15 is almost irrelevant now. The
tanks, fighter jets, and soldiers of that night provided all the excuse and
legitimacy Erdogan needed to purge the entire country of his opponents, arguing
that all those involved were traitors.
It hasn’t been a full month since the
coup was attempted, but already about 60,000 soldiers, police officers, judges,
prosecutors, and civil servants having been discharged or detained for conspiring
against the Erdogan government. Deans of Turkish universities were ordered to
resign, while a travel ban was issued to all professors. Licenses of 15,000
teachers were revoked. Forty-two journalists were arrested, as 2,000 lawsuits
against more journalists and media wait to be heard. This purge is nearly
unbelievable in its proportions, and will have repercussions for Erdogan, if he
doesn’t play his cards right.
However, if he succeeds in suppressing
all opposition while keeping the country in a constant state of emergency, then
the torrent the Kemalists had been trying to hold back will sweep the only
secular Muslim country.
There is the Islamic State in Syria
and Iraq. Now, we have a sultan/caliph-to-be in Turkey. Unlike ISIS’ self-proclaimed
caliph Abu Bakr al-Bagdadi, Erdogan has an extremely organized military
apparatus complete with fighter jets, navy, special forces, and nuclear
weapons, curtesy of the US government. The Mediterranean and Black Seas provide
logistical advantages, while the Ottoman Empire and abolished caliphate supply
political and religious legitimacy. If Erdogan went as far as re-claiming the
caliphate for the decedents of the Osman, would the Islamic State bow before
the new masters? I doubt it.
It is no secret that Turks and Arabs
deeply dislike each other. Sultan Selim had to conquer the Mamluks to be
finally accepted as the caliph, but as long as Erdogan is unwilling to put
Turkish boots in ISIS lands, al-Bagdadi will retain his title. It is also
doubtful that Erdogan’s revolution will spill beyond the borders of Turkey.
After all, the age of empires is over. His nostalgia for the glorious Ottoman
era would have to be realized within Anatolia, where he can be the sultan of
his small but still influential kingdom. The Muslim world is so divided that
anything less than the formidable army of an empire would be unable to unite
it. This, however, does not mean that Islam as an ideology will not continue to