Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Obama’s Turkey

The president’s favorite Muslim democrat is turning into just another Middle Eastern despot

Print Email
Protestors clash with riot police between Taksim and Besiktas in Istanbul, on June 1, 2013, during a demonstration against the demolition of the park. (GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images)
Related Content

Talking Turkey

Inside the West’s once-ally


The Wikileaks diplomatic cables reveal further evidence of a Turkish prime minister using every tactic at his disposal to bolster his authoritarianism

Last weekend, years of pent-up fury and frustration erupted into anti-government demonstrations as tens of thousands of Turks took to the streets of Istanbul to protest the increasing authoritarianism of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The protests quickly spread to more than a dozen cities across the country. In Taksim Square in the center of Istanbul, the police repeatedly tried to disperse the demonstrators with pepper gas, pressurized-water cannons, and plastic bullets. Dozens of demonstrators were injured, many of them critically. But the number of protesters continued to grow. Finally, on Saturday afternoon, as the world watched on television, Erdogan was forced to admit defeat and withdraw the police, allowing the demonstrators to occupy Taksim Square.

Ironically, the protests came just two weeks after Erdogan paid a visit to Washington, where U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the relationship between their two countries as being “rooted in democratic values, freedom, pluralism, and justice.” Kerry’s paean was just the latest in a series of eulogies lavished on Erdogan and the moderate Islamism of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) by the Obama Administration, which appears to have singled out Turkey as a role model to which other predominantly Muslim countries should aspire. Erdogan himself has made no secret of his hopes that, as new regimes emerge in the Arab world, they will look to Ankara for leadership—and enable him to realize his ambition of creating a neo-Ottoman sphere of Turkish influence in the Middle East.

Yet it seems fair to say that this hopeful description of the values that Erdogan and the AKP represent, which are intended to serve as a beacon for Arab countries that have sunk into turmoil since the 2011 outbreak of the Arab Spring, is largely a fiction. Far from serving as an example of the leader of a Muslim country with democratic values, Erdogan has increasingly begun to resemble the authoritarian potentate of popular caricature. Nor has Turkey shown much of an ability to influence events in the rest of the Arab world, beginning with its flailing intervention in the Syrian civil war. The question of why the “Turkish model” appears to be failing is therefore an urgent one. Is there something wrong with the model of Islamist democracy that Obama and his predecessor George W. Bush have both championed so ardently? Or is the problem Tayyip Erdogan?


Erdogan’s bludgeoning rhetoric and ability to connect with the average voter have made him the most successful politician in modern Turkish history. His party, the AKP, first took office in November 2002. It has since been re-elected twice, most recently in June 2011, when it won 49.8 percent of the popular vote. Opinion polls suggest that support for the AKP is currently running at around 53-54 percent. The opposition parties remain weak and divided and appear unconvinced of their own chances of ousting the AKP.

The AKP’s electoral success is largely attributable to the energy, cunning, and raw political charisma of Erdogan himself. While some party members resent Erdogan’s abrasive self-confidence and autocratic management style, few are bold enough to confront him—not least because they know how much their own political careers owe to his electoral appeal among the Turkish masses. As a result, Erdogan has increasingly concentrated political power in his own hands. Relying on a small inner court of trusted advisers rather than the career bureaucrats in the civil service, Erdogan has the final say on every aspect of AKP policy, with the result that Turkish politics and policy-making have become both deinstitutionalized and highly personalized.

Disturbingly, the longer Erdogan has remained in power—and particularly since the election of June 2011—the more he has appeared to regard himself as the embodiment of the national will and to identify his own views, values, and prejudices as those of the entire Turkish population. Over the last year, this has led him increasingly to try to re-shape Turkey according to his own personal tastes. For example, in November 2012, the makers of a popular television series set in the 16th-century reign of Suleyman the Magnificent were forced to change both its script and its costumes after Erdogan publicly complained that it failed to reflect the piety of the Ottoman court and focused too much on palace intrigues rather than military campaigns. In April 2013, Erdogan abruptly announced that he had decided that ayran or “buttermilk” was now Turkey’s national drink. No one else was consulted.

Erdogan has long inveighed against the use of alcohol. Since it came to power, the AKP has more than doubled the taxes on alcoholic beverages and effectively banned it from all state and municipal premises. On May 24, 2013, the government tightened legislation still further by banning all advertisements for alcohol and forbidding the issuing of new licenses to sell alcohol to any premises located within 100 meters of an educational establishment or place of worship. Turkish law now also requires all depictions of alcohol in movies or on television to be obscured by being blurred, on the grounds that they would otherwise encourage people to drink.

Erdogan has disingenuously dismissed suggestions that the new restrictions on alcohol are religiously motivated, arguing that they are prerequisites for public health—despite the fact that similar strictures are not applied to other items that are generally considered to be harmful to the public, like, say, guns. On May 28, 2013, in an alarming demonstration of his apparent belief that the AKP now owns the public space, Erdogan blithely dismissed criticism of the new alcohol law. “We have not outlawed the consumption of alcohol,” he told a meeting of the AKP parliamentary party. “People can still buy alcohol and drink it in the privacy of their own homes.”

While it is possible to dismiss Erdogan’s war on alcohol as a personal preference, or a pious foible, it is harder to dismiss the use of the police and the courts to stifle dissent. In recent years, more than one thousand actual or suspected opponents and rivals of the Turkish Islamist movement have been charged in a series of highly politicized trials, such as the notorious Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations. Much of the evidence in the trials has clearly been fabricated and planted in the homes and offices of the accused. In September 2012, a total of 331 serving and retired members of the Turkish military, once the dominant power in Turkish politics and social life, were sentenced to lengthy jail terms for alleged involvement in plans for a military coup. Prosecutors claim that plans for the coup were saved to a CD on 5 March 2003—even though the judges in the trial accepted forensic analysis showing that the documents in question had been written using Microsoft Office 2007. Faced with such blatant manipulation of the judicial system, it is hardly surprising that most Turks are now afraid of publicly criticizing Erdogan, the AKP, or other members of the Turkish Islamist movement.

Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism comes at a time when he is attempting to change the Turkish constitution and replace the country’s parliamentary system with one in which all political power is concentrated in the office of the presidency—without, as is the case in countries such as the United States, any system of checks and balances. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that Erdogan plans to introduce the new system in 2014, when he will stand as a candidate in Turkey’s presidential elections.

Erdogan’s Putin-esque ambitions come amid an epidemic of nostalgia for the Ottoman Empire among Turkey’s conservative ruling elite—or, more accurately, nostalgia for a highly sanitized version of the Ottoman past. Turkey’s current outbreak of Ottomania permeates not only the speeches of AKP ministers but also popular culture, from cinema and television dramas to the worlds of fashion and design, “rediscovered” traditions, and even a penchant for Ottoman vocabulary and grammatical constructions. Most perniciously, it also informs the worldviews of both Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. What neither man appears to realize is that their vision of the Ottoman state as a paradigm of tolerance and social harmony to which everyone would naturally wish to return is not shared by the empire’s former subject peoples in the predominantly Christian provinces of southeast Europe or in the mainly Muslim Arab world.

Nevertheless, both Erdogan and Davutoglu saw the uprisings that swept the Arab world as an opportunity to restore what the Turkish foreign minister has described as “the natural flow of history”—namely, Turkish domination of the Middle East. Syria was to be Turkey’s first neo-Ottoman dependency. After initially aligning himself with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan turned against him in summer 2011 and became the most outspoken supporter of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), which he allowed to operate freely along the Turkish-Syrian border, even helping to facilitate supplies of arms bought with Qatari and Saudi Arabian funds. Erdogan’s expectation was that Assad would swiftly be overthrown. He believed that not only would this demonstrate Turkey’s growing power but that, in gratitude for Ankara’s support, the subsequent FSA-dominated government would become the first member of a Turkish sphere of influence in the Middle East.

But Erdogan now appears to have severely miscalculated both the terms of his support and his likely reward. In his rush to topple Assad, Erdogan made no attempt to prevent Syrian rebel ranks from being swelled by the arrival of salafi jihadists, such as the militant Al-Nusra Front, which has gradually become one of the dominant members of the coalition of forces fighting the regime in Damascus on the ground. The jihadists appear to have no particular interest in belonging to the Turkish Islamist party’s idea of a renewed Ottoman empire, preferring their own dreams of a pan-Islamic caliphate. In turn, Erdogan’s failure to maintain any semblance of Turkish authority inside the rebel ranks has made it difficult for the West to provide meaningful military assistance, which has weakened the rebels and made Erdogan’s decision look even worse.

With Assad still in power after two years of fighting, the Syrian Civil War has demonstrated not Turkey’s strength but its weakness. Erdogan threatened retaliation when Syrian downed a Turkey F-4E Phantom reconnaissance aircraft on June 22, 2012, and retribution when 52 people were killed in a double car bombing, which he blamed on Assad, in the border town of Reyhanli on May 11, 2013. But, fearful of Syria’s Russian-supplied air defenses, and with the overwhelming majority of Turks opposed to any direct military intervention, Turkey has done nothing, which has hardly made the Turkish leader look good inside his own country, or to a wider Arab audience. Nor have Erdogan’s blustering attempts to champion the Palestinian cause paid off with either renewed peace talks or concessions from the Israelis: Instead, they have reinforced the Turkish leader’s regional profile as a hot-head who fails to back up his words with coherent actions.

Erdogan has now turned his attention to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, defying both the central government in Baghdad and the United States and signing a string of energy deals. Publicly, Erdogan maintains—with justification—that Turkey needs to diversify its energy supplies and that imports of oil and natural gas from the KRG would reduce its current dependence on Russia and Iran. However, privately, AKP officials admit that—by providing the KRG with a conduit for energy exports to international markets—they hope to increase its political dependence on Ankara.

The rapprochement with the KRG coincides with a hiatus in Ankara’s long-running, low-level civil war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which in March 2013 announced a ceasefire while it negotiated with the AKP government. The negotiations are expected to take several months. Publicly, Erdogan insists that he will not make any major concessions. In reality, major concessions—including the granting of a degree of autonomy to the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey—are the only way that the conflict can be permanently resolved. Consequently, the choice facing Erdogan is between a renewal of the PKK insurgency and a reduction in the authority of the central government in Ankara, which effectively also means a decrease in his own power. Similarly, even if Turkey were to succeed in bringing the KRG into its sphere of influence, there appears little prospect of extending its influence any farther. Indeed, far from drawing them closer, the AKP’s continued neo-Ottoman rhetoric seems more likely to drive the Arab states away.

Growing international expressions of concern—particularly in Europe—about Erdogan’s increasingly autocratic authoritarianism and his repeated failures as a regional leader appear to be having little effect. In fact, such is Erdogan’s almost hubristic self-confidence that he seems to regard them as mere jealous snipes to try to prevent Turkey’s inevitable rise to superpower status in the Middle East. Ironically, given that the United States in particular has cited Turkey as a democratic model to which the Muslim world should aspire, Erdogan’s government is increasingly beginning to resemble the authoritarian regimes that the Arab uprisings overthrew.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Daily rate: $2
Monthly rate: $18
Yearly rate: $180

Tablet is committed to bringing you the best, smartest, most enlightening and entertaining reporting and writing on Jewish life, all free of charge. We take pride in our community of readers, and are thrilled that you choose to engage with us in a way that is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. But the Internet, for all of its wonders, poses challenges to civilized and constructive discussion, allowing vocal—and, often, anonymous—minorities to drag it down with invective (and worse). Starting today, then, we are asking people who'd like to post comments on the site to pay a nominal fee—less a paywall than a gesture of your own commitment to the cause of great conversation. All proceeds go to helping us bring you the ambitious journalism that brought you here in the first place.

Readers can still interact with us free of charge via Facebook, Twitter, and our other social media channels, or write to us at Each week, we’ll select the best letters and publish them in a new letters to the editor feature on the Scroll.

We hope this new largely symbolic measure will help us create a more pleasant and cultivated environment for all of our readers, and, as always, we thank you deeply for your support.

julis123 says:

Another example of President Hope and Change’s terrible middle east policy.

    How ridiculous. As if Obama’s policies have in any way significantly influenced Erdogan’s actions.

    CABchi says:

    The article was a good discussion of the current situation in Turkey, but both the author and julius123 confuse the public diplomatic niceties of Secretary Kerry and the President with their actual views of the Turkish regime. There’s no doubt that we would prefer a non-religious democratic government in Turkey, but we have to deal with the facts on the ground… just as Bibi does. Nevertheless, my guess is that the private discussion with Erdogan was much more candid and pointed than their public comments.

      Bill Robbins says:

      I doubt it. Obama actually believes that Erdogan is wonderful, and Kerry is the perfect stooge to deliver the message.

ginzy1 says:

Anyone who is surprised about Erdogan is a candidate to invest in prime bridge real estate in Brooklyn.


Jerusalem / Efrata

ott198089 says:

The urban, westernized and mostly secular Turks have finally had enough with the creeping Islamization the AKP has been carrying out since it came to power. Unfortunately, the majority of the country is mostly rural, poorly educated, and deeply religious and they’re behind the AKP no matter what.

The bottom line is that the secular Turkey, a staunch NATO ally and a friend of the West is no more.

The only person unaware of what’s been going on in Turkey is Barack Obama. After all, if he did, he wouldn’t be Erdogan’s bosom friend… On the other hand, maybe there’s a another reason why Erdogan is Obama’s friend.

41953 says:

Blaming Obama is ridiculous! He is looking for geopolitical allies like all powerful leaders. Israel has cozied up to some rotten regimes too!

    Boosbazaar .Com says:

    “Blaming Obama Is Ridiculous”..Maybe..Probably more France and UK …But I have To ask You… You Stated…Israel Has Cozied? Up To Rotten Regimes..But You Did Not Give Any Examples ..But Just Your Ideological Sound Bite?.. I May Self Can Not Think Of One.. Because Yisrael Has Always Had To Be In Defense Mode Posture Against The Rest Of The World, That Hates Her…Now Maybe You Mean Strategic Negotiation To Maintain Our Survival? You Must Finish Your Comment Please and Give Me Examples Of Your So Called Counties That Israel Has Schmoozed Up To!

    ott198089 says:

    It’s one thing to “cozy up” to some rotten regimes like the one run by Mubarak, and it’s a completely different thing to support Islamist leaders like Erdogan and Morsi who are much more dangerous to the US national security interests.

41953 says:

Blaming Obama is ridiculous! He is looking for geopolitical allies like all powerful leaders. Israel has cozied up to some rotten regimes too!

41953 says:

South Africa under apartheid, Iran under the Shah, Turkey itself under previous regimes, Central American dictatorships…

DrJLD says:

Pride leads to the fall.

Guest says:

This is the first I am hearing about this— which goes to show how uninformed about the world I am.

As to the drinking of alcohol, all I know is that wine is considered sacred by Muslims and as such is not to be consumed in this lifetime but once in the presence of God. I, myself, am not a drinker and don’t care much for booze, but I guess, to each their own. On another note, there is something to be said about the vast presence of liquor stores in impoverished communities in the U.S.

. . . If only I had a magic wand I could wave to fix the world’s problems.

My last comment on the subject: Don’t make war, make love.

    HannaH43 says:

    My G-d, you sound disgusting. not wish to see that the president of Turkey trying to make Turkey of fundamentalists Islamic country. The government of Turkey has shown hate for Israel.We have a president who is a laughing stock of the world, and specially the Arab world.has shown very little caring for human rights in the world. Christians are being persecuted, all through the Mideast. He has not said one word about it. In fact, the American government report on civil rights and freedom. No longer even mentions religious persecution wonder why

Papa493 says:

The fact is that Israel would love to be back in Erdogan’s good graces and have supported US efforts to mend the rift between the two nations. Israel needs Turkey, once its closest Moslem ally. And as for White House visits, Turkey is a member of NATO. Thus, such visits can be expected.

Steve wine says:

O’ Bammer, (obama) who is he fooling? John Kerry is a joke! Wake up America! You will never be able to manage to convert the Muslim countries to democratic societies!!! Russia is teaching America a lesson!!! There will be no Libya repeat!!!
Egypt failed, Irak failed, Afganistan will fail, Put your trust in ISRAEL!!! The only Democracy in the Middle East !

A planned chain of events will soon result in revolutions

Although they may seem disconnected they all have a common

The struggle must focus on the root of the problem to be
resolved: the human dilemma between Individuality and Equality.

There is a need for a new Direction that may be unthinkable
right now.

There is also the need for a strategy.

Once revolutions will have occurred all over the World they
soon need to be coordinated.

In a moment when Humankind will be most vulnerable, some
will promise you all you wish to hear but the answer to such problem should not
be that of any single individual.

Worldwide Referendum broadcasted Live simultaneously on
large screens in the squares of all Countries could answer specific questions
selected to decide what type of Democracy will exist in a new Humankind.

In a new and long lasting form of government, Trust can no
longer be one of its components. All efforts should be made to form a new type
of government with new mechanisms that will not require the element of Trust or
the promise of a politician to guarantee that the will of the majority will
always be reflected in the laws of that government. This will be a system that
could improve in time the already existing possibility of such government today
structured through the use of the Internet.

A new form of Democratic government is Commutalism.

Commutalism is a new concept of Democracy without
politicians which is organized through the Internet to balance the needs of the
Individual with the Respect for Equality.

Commutalism is structured to provide the necessary goods for
the survival of everyone and introduces at the same time a new transparent form
of Capitalism to trade all those goods which are not necessary, like in a market
open to the competition of all superfluous goods.

For the sake of transparency, this new type of Capitalism
would rule that each single transaction must be reported on the Net to become
visible like an invoice made public and taxable at the origin with one fix
percentage applied for all.

In such system, all private properties and their owners like
also all money transactions and trades of private property must be publicly
reported on the Net. This is to prevent unlawful transactions and root out corruption
through the immediate confiscation of those goods that have not been reported.

Moreover, to reduce Greed and restore the financial
equilibrium worldwide, it will be enough to eliminate the concept of
inheritance. The private property of the people will return to the State after
the death of each person to be auctioned among all citizens. People could spend
as much as they want to educate their children but inheritance and donations
would not be allowed.

Once the survival is guaranteed for everybody there will be
no need to be as tolerant with crime as we are today when the crime is a
consequence of our corrupted system.

In Commutalism, the right to own must be protected and
guaranteed also for those who want to work and trade their own Time to obtain
more than just the basic necessities provided by the system.

Lucifer says:

After killing and uprooting all non-Muslim populations of Constantinople and Asia Minor, Turkey claims to be secular

gwhepner says:


Of Recep Tayyip Erdogan

I am not the greatest fan.

Acting like an Ottoman,

he’s turned into a rotterman,

of whom I, being somewhat smirky,

would like to get rid of, cold turkey.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Obama’s Turkey

The president’s favorite Muslim democrat is turning into just another Middle Eastern despot