In Print: “Reading Between the Lines”

By Kaya Genç


Necip Fazıl Kısakürek was a Turkish poet. In the 1920s, as the Ottoman Empire disintegrated and the modern Turkish republic took its place, he read philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and became a disciple of the philosopher Henri Bergson. But at the end of his studies, Kısakürek felt purposeless. When he returned home he distanced himself from the Westernizing followers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, annoyed by their view of Islam as a regressive religion that needed to be eradicated from the public sphere. He started a conservative literary magazine called Ağaç (The Tree) and spent his days drinking, smoking, and gambling in the bohemian quarters of Istanbul. His writer friends considered him an oddity and a lost cause.

After falling under the influence of a sheikh from a banned Sufi order, Kısakürek refashioned himself as an Islamist thinker. In Büyük Doğu (The Great East), the political magazine he founded in 1943, Kısakürek diagnosed Marxism and capitalism as the chief causes of Turkey’s ills. He wrote editorials recommending that Islamists seize power, advising them to react to restrictions on religion with a ferocity that matched that of the secular establishment. He reminded readers how much power Ottoman sultans once had, and how toothless the new republic was in comparison. Political scientist Michelangelo Guida describes how the poet saw previous generations of Turks as having “reached the height of civil and religious maturity” in creating “the greatest political experiment in world history—the Ottoman Empire.”

Over the next four decades Kısakürek’s influence rapidly grew, to the extent that a prime minister once offered him hush money to minimize his influence on Islamist youth. Ostracized by the Kemalists, the pro-Western followers of Atatürk, the poet was imprisoned seven times: in 1943, 1947, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1960. The charges against him included insulting Turkishness and defaming the memory of Atatürk. The eighth prison sentence arrived in 1983, when Kısakürek was 79, but the poet couldn’t serve it because he had just died. Thousands attended his funeral in Istanbul. Among the mourners was a young man named Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

The future president of Turkey was 29 at the time. After Erdoğan took the reins of power in 2003, he used his new office as a vehicle for realizing Kısakürek’s vision.

Kısakürek’s bold views on Turkey’s role in history have played a significant role in his disciple’s life and politics. The Islamist dream is to recapture the glory of the Ottoman Empire, and in Erdoğan’s Turkey, Kısakürek has been refashioned as a cultural icon. In 2012, a conservative newspaper began publishing weekly facsimile editions of Büyük Doğu. Two years later, a Necip Fazıl Kısakürek Prize was set up to recognize the best works of prose and poetry written in the tradition of Kısakürek’s cultural views. In his opening speech for the award ceremony Erdoğan told a large audience: “More than his poetry, prose and ideas, what [Kısakürek] has instilled in the new generation was this self-confidence … If the humiliated and insulted of the past can today say ‘I, too, exist in politics,’ this is largely thanks to the self-confidence advocated by Necip Fazıl.”

Erdoğan’s ascent to power was sui generis, but his persona as the permanent outsider, the “wronged man” of Turkish politics, drew on Kısakürek’s confidence as an Islamist at a time when Islam was eradicated from public life, as a thinker who grasped the political strength found in riling the establishment. For three decades, Erdoğan has captured the nation’s attention through his own show of self-assurance; indeed, he has transformed his rebellious image into a commodity peddled to the electorate. Erdoğan is the first civilian politician to use anger to get democratically elected in Turkey. In so doing, he has heralded a new era in Turkish governance—one in which charisma overshadows ideology and party politics, which both still lurk in the background.

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While Kısakürek was an eccentric composite of a bohemian and a purist, Erdoğan was a determined micromanager from an early age. In The New Sultan, a precise and subtle biography of the president, Soner Çağaptay, a political scientist at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, interweaves individual narrative with public history, structuring his book like a 19th-century bildungsroman.

Erdoğan grew up in the 1960s in the Istanbul neighborhood of Kasımpaşa, located around an urban waterway called the Golden Horn. Since Ottoman times, Turks have used the Golden Horn to build their industries, but by the mid-20th century Kasımpaşa had become a refuge for the downtrodden. The estuary was polluted with industrial waste, and “during the summer, the breeze … would carry an overwhelming stench into the narrow alleyways of Kasımpaşa,” Çağaptay writes. “With every rainstorm the rough cobbled streets would fill with mud.”

The adjacent neighborhood of Nişantaşı, meanwhile, was popular with affluent Turks who eyed the Golden Horn’s working-class migrants with suspicion and condescension. In a set of articles published in the newspaper Cumhuriyet (The Republic) newspaper in 1960, Yaşar Kemal, the most perceptive chronicler of mid-20th century Turkey, describes public buses in central Istanbul where locals scoffed at “black Turks,” lower- and working-class citizens outside the secular establishment, for their unruly attire. “Is that how Istanbul used to be?” Kemal recalled a passenger saying. “People who dressed like that … they’d never board buses to city centers in the past.” Yet Kasımpaşa Turks were proud, and refused to let people treat them like bumpkins. Many years later, Erdoğan would recall how he drew on the spirit of his neighborhood during a contentious conversation with George W. Bush: “I told Bush, ‘If you’re from Texas then I am from Kasımpaşa’ … Now he has learned what Kasımpaşa is.”

Lacking political influence and financial power, Erdoğan and many other black Turks chose to devote themselves to religion, and to the pious social networks organized around different Islamic sects. At age 11, Erdoğan’s parents sent their son to Istanbul’s imam hatip high school, a state-run religious boarding school for working-class Sunni boys, hoping he would eventually become a civil servant. There, he joined the Ottoman marching band and became a successful athlete, earning a reputation for being more in his element on the street than in the prayer room. During these years, Çağaptay writes, Erdoğan would join classmates for evening gatherings in which students would recite verses from the Quran and Kısakürek. Delivering Kısakürek’s work to a conservative young audience showed Erdoğan how well the poet’s ideas went down with this group, and helped the future leader develop his oratorical skills.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the secular state made life for imams particularly difficult. After a 1960 coup, generals attempted to close religious schools for good, and 11 years later, another coup led to the abolishment of many imam hatip schools. In this environment, Erdoğan found himself without a steady income after graduation. He sold snacks on the streets, and for a while worked at a restaurant in the Istanbul neighborhood of Beyoğlu, where he became famous for his tripe soups.

In his 20s, Erdoğan was hired to play for the professional soccer team of IETT, a utility and transportation company under the auspices of the Istanbul municipal government. This became his unlikely entry into the world of governance. While on IETT’s payroll, Erdoğan continued to cultivate his passion for Kısakürek’s ideas, and began a parallel career as a youth politician. He was a skilled organizer and orator, and he met his future wife when she approached him after a public event. In the late 1970s, Erdoğan swiftly rose through the ranks of Necmettin Erbakan’s National Salvation Party (MSP), and in 1976 he became leader of the party’s youth branch in Istanbul. 

The MSP was an Islamist home for Turks and Kurds who found traditional right-wing parties insufficiently conservative. In Turkey, conservative parties had historically supported alliances with the U.S. and NATO, as well as distance from Iran and Russia, and rarely questioned Kemalism, nationalism, or modernization, instead focusing on development and enterprise. Despite frustration from their more pious supporters, these parties avoided any confrontations with Atatürk’s legacy, and refused to play the Islam card. Erdoğan was on a different path. By the late 70s, he was known for his fidelity to Erbakan, and had been singled out as a potential leader of the Islamist movement. But then, authoritarianism, that perennial figure throughout the 20th century in Turkey, appeared once again. In September 1980, a military coup would forever change both Turkish politics and Erdoğan’s life, ushering the country into an age of political megalomania.

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Kenan Evren was born in the Aegean town of Alaşehir to a family with Bulgarian and Albanian roots. During the Cold War, he excelled in the Armed Forces, commanding troops in operations against Marxist militants inside Turkey. He continued to cultivate an intense dislike of communists after serving in Korea in the late 1950s, and upon returning home, became suspicious of the religious political forces gaining power in Turkey. In 1978, Evren became Chief of the General Staff, the army’s top post, and from there he watched young leaders in Erbakan’s National Salvation Party advance up the Islamist party ranks.

The late 1970s saw the spread of mass political violence in Turkey, which the shaky parliamentary system was unable to control. Particularly concerning to Evren and military leadership was an MSP gathering known as the “Save Jerusalem” rally, which was held in the southern city of Konya in September 1980, several weeks after Israel declared Jerusalem its eternal capital. The event brought together thousands of Erbakan supporters and Islamists of different hues, and generals watched anxiously as they marched for Palestinian rights. Turkey’s leaders worried that if the protests got out of control, they could challenge the republic by empowering MSP members who hoped to replicate the 1979 revolution in Iran. Meanwhile, violence was intensifying to the point of civil war: Dozens of people were dying every week in street fights between Marxist and nationalist groups. In April 1980 alone, 238 people were killed as a result of political disputes.

Tensions finally broke at 3 a.m. on the morning of Sept. 12, 1980, when tanks started rolling down the streets of Istanbul. At 3:59, public broadcaster TRT played the national anthem, and Evren came on the radio to announce the coup. Four days later, in his first press conference after the takeover, Evren pointed to the Konya rally as evidence for “how strong Islamists have became in Turkey … how great the danger is.”

Evren cast himself as the savior of the Turkish nation, and Washington welcomed him in. He played the role of charismatic leader, drinking alcohol publicly and proudly wearing a fedora. Like Atatürk, he made no secret of his secularism or fondness for chasing actresses. He immediately began to root out both Islamists and Marxists: Erbakan and members of the MSP were imprisoned, and leftists found themselves locked up for their presumed ties to Soviet Russia. “There were doubts but he symbolized peace and an end to civil war,” a Turkish journalist remembered years later, in a harsh obituary of Evren. “He looked like a father but then he turned into an abusive megalomaniac and an increasingly violent one …  He genuinely believed he was the best thing that had ever happened to this country. He never hesitated to think there could be something wrong.”

Evren was a staunch follower of the ideas of Atatürk, and during his rule he revived the myths of “pure Turkishness.” Turks were taught they were ethnically distinct from Kurds and Armenians, despite overwhelming evidence that the Turkish population was a mixture of all three. Turks were told that they were the first race on earth, and that Turkish was the original language. In their isolation from the outside world, people grew accustomed to the image of Evren in his meticulously clean military uniform, saluting the nation like a faux Atatürk. The 1982 constitution, which was drafted by Evren and his allies and proposed to make him president until 1989, was approved with more than 91 percent of the popular vote. But Evren’s power proved cursory, and a desire for order soon gave way to demands for cultural and human rights. By 1987, when Evren’s opponents were allowed to return to politics, it was clear that his cult of personality wouldn’t last forever.

The rising Turkish political star of the late 1980s was a former World Bank consultant whose ascent to power was built on rational market principles and a critique of Evren. Millions of ethnic Kurds and pious Turks uneasy with Evren’s notion of “Turkishness” supported Turgut Özal, and his blend of economic liberalism and social conservatism created the formula that Erdoğan and Islamist-minded conservatives would follow in the years to come. Over the 1990s, armed with these ideas, Islamists regrouped under the banner of Erbakan’s new Welfare Party (RP), which Erdoğan referred to as “the voice of the silent masses.” They ran against the Kemalist despotism of Evren’s regime, advocating freedom of religion and greater visibility of Sunni Islam in the public sphere. It was a radical break from the secular regime. But even in 1994, when Erdoğan was running for mayor of Istanbul, there were already concerns about him and his colleagues.

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Erdoğan was 40 when he was elected mayor, and his charisma and energy surprised voters used to seeing silver-haired Islamists vying for leadership positions. While many locals were nervous about a hidden religious agenda, the allure of living in a well-run city proved irresistible. During his campaign, Erdoğan focused on fixing Istanbul’s infrastructure problems, once waving aside a journalist who asked him why he wanted to close brothels by saying, “Why don’t you ask me about buses, rubbish collection, pollution, or water?” As he appealed to Istanbulites for votes, Çağaptay notes, the future mayor would resist saying anything that might deviate from his religious values:

He took photo opportunities at meyhanes—tavern-style Turkish restaurants where alcohol flows freely—and he even pulled publicity stunts by visiting Istanbul’s legal brothels. Standing among the gobsmacked sex workers, he insisted that most of them would support the RP and its conservative mission, since it was the only party that would rescue them from their trade.

This pragmatism, Çağaptay writes, was part of Erdoğan’s formula for success. It also helped that he was good at his job. In the following years, even his fiercest critics would concede the young mayor’s administrative skills as he solved the city’s water shortage, pollution, trash collection, and public transport problems.

In 2001, a number of new conservative parties banded together under Erdoğan to form the Justice and Development Party (AKP). At the beginning, this model of supposedly moderate conservatism appeared to challenge the all-consuming nationalism that had long been dominant. Members critiqued and undermined the nationalist foundations of the modern Turkish state, pledging to remove the student oath (“How happy is the one who says ‘I am a Turk!’”), and even promoting a new word for citizenship, Türkiyeli, which focused on allegiance to the country, rather than ethnicity, as the centerpiece of national identity. Following its ascent to power in 2002, the AKP began to remodel Turkey as a Western-facing democracy oriented toward liberalizing markets and raising citizens’ quality of life. Erdoğan built a mortgage system that extended credit to millions of middle- and working-class Turks, enabling them to buy their first homes. In 2002, Çağaptay tells us, Turkey’s maternal mortality rate “was roughly comparable to prewar Syria’s; now it is close to Spain’s.” The country also secured a seat on the U.N. Security Council, and between 2002 and 2018, the state-run Turkish Airlines increased its number of destinations threefold. For middle-class Turks, who now made up the majority of the population for the first time, the future of their country looked brighter than ever.

As all this was happening, the new conservatives were also revealing their true colors. By 2016, Turkey had become the world’s leading jailer of journalists. Erdoğan accused working women of being “deficient,” called childless women “incomplete,” and offered financial support to encourage couples to have three or more children. Under his leadership, the AKP attempted to criminalize adultery. According to Çağaptay, many analysts who had initially considered the AKP as part of a half-century-long tradition of Turkish conservatism began to acknowledge that they had neglected to consider the extent of Islamist influence. Members of the AKP had taken their more radical ideas from an eccentric visionary, and Kısakürek’s sway was becoming apparent.

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Erdoğan’s vision of a new Turkey materialized gradually in the eyes of the outside world. “Erdoğan has been a Rorschach test for successive U.S. presidents,” Çağaptay muses. After 9/11, George W. Bush held Turkey up as a model democracy in the Middle East. Under Barack Obama, Turkey came to exemplify a secular state and a nation of “moderate Islam.” For those Western leaders, Erdoğan’s Turkey had the potential to positively influence post-revolutionary nations like Egypt. A Brookings survey conducted in five Arab countries in 2011 found that Erdoğan was the most popular world leader at the time. During the turbulent months of the Arab Spring, Obama phoned Erdoğan more than any other political leader, save for David Cameron.

Meanwhile, as Erdoğan was building his empire, another Islamic leader, an imam called Fethullah Gülen, was cementing his own ambitious agenda. Gülen, born in 1941 in the eastern Anatolian city of Erzurum, had spent decades building a global network called Hizmet (“service”), a primarily religious organization that recruited followers and raised money through its educational institutions. These institutions were seen as a path to upward mobility for religious Turkish youth, many of whom went on to pursue careers in the government or military. Yet Gülen’s shadowy empire also extended far beyond Turkey: At its height, it was present in more than 160 countries around the world, and helped forge international support for the Turkish government by advocating for a moderate, civil society-based understanding of Islam. Erdoğan’s foreign policy chiefs saw a business opportunity in this movement, and they embraced it. From 2005 through 2012, it was widely believed that Gülen’s followers were setting the agendas in Turkey’s foreign and internal ministries, despite the organization’s claims of being apolitical.

In late 2013, a decade into his tenure as prime minister, Erdoğan, his family, and his closest AKP associates were targeted in a legal investigation that was initiated and run by figures from the Gülen movement. The court cases were seen as an attempt by Hizmet to topple the AKP, and it led to a loud and messy falling out between Erdoğan and Gülen. In 2014, in an effort to gain control over the Gülenist-run judiciary and police force, Erdoğan began to purge members of the organization from state institutions. He was elected president the same year. As he was busy consolidating power, the government was inventing new traditions: Commemorations of century-old battles, like Britain’s 1916 siege of Kut al-Amara in Iraq, were used to reinforce a backward-facing perspective. At the same time, Erdoğan was reorienting Turkey’s foreign policy toward the Islamic world. In a bid to revive the glorious Ottoman past, Erdoğan adopted the imperial aspirations of Iran, Russia, and China, and decided, according to Çağaptay, that the country’s new foreign policy “should be primarily anti-Western.” 

And then on July 15, 2016, Turkey was shaken by a coup attempt. Tanks once again rolled into Istanbul and Ankara, and fighter plans dropped bombs on Parliament. Only hours after the violence began, thousands of citizens took to the streets to defend the government, giving Erdoğan an opening to restore order, though not before 241 people were killed. The attempt was blamed on high-ranking Gülenists in the Armed Forces, and it did not escape notice that the U.S. and European governments stayed silent as the coup was ongoing. This radically altered Turkey’s politics and foreign policy, and provided Erdoğan with an excuse to distance himself further from Europe and the U.S. Although the Obama White House, the European Council, and NATO did  eventually express their support for the elected government, Vladimir Putin refashioned himself as Turkey’s best friend, and was rumored to have notified the president hours before the coup happened. After thousands of military personnel, including generals and admirals, fled or were arrested for alleged ties to Gülenists, Russia took advantage of the new mood in Turkey to normalize strained relations.

For Erdoğan, the West’s claimed indifference to the Turkish trauma was a chance to forge closer ties to Qatar, Russia, and Turkic countries like Azerbaijan. Only a month after the failed coup, Erdoğan sent troops into northern Syria with Putin’s blessing. During the Qatar–Saudi Arabia proxy conflict in 2017-2018, Turkey jumped to Doha’s defense, sending batches of soldiers to its military base in Qatar. Such moves have not made much difference: Qatar remains ostracized among the Gulf countries, and Bashar Assad’s grip on power shows little sign of weakening. Turkey has since been forced to soften (if not alter) its positions. Given these failures, it has become apparent that the real gains of the AKP’s approach are in domestic politics, not in the international arena. Erdoğan’s vision plays well at the ballot box, and the further Turkey navigates away from traditional conservatives the more votes he receives. Indeed, the changes that began with foreign policy triggered a process that ended last year with a complete overhaul of Turkey’s parliamentary democracy. In 2017, Erdoğan got more than 51 percent support for his proposal to turn Turkey into an executive presidency: Under the new system, the president is allowed to serve only two terms, but as head of government, state, and the ruling party, he is granted vast new powers.

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Erdoğan has been able to get away with these shifts because of his own history, and his appeal to a large group of voters who had long been overlooked. No politician in today’s Turkey has a story quite like Erdoğan’s. The snap presidential elections on June 24, 2018, which will complete the transition to an executive presidency begun with the 2017 referendum, will be a contest between personalities, rather than between parties and ideologies. Knowing his chances, the leader of Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP), today the largest opposition party, did not even run. As Çağaptay writes, “while the country’s conservative half has Erdoğan, their ‘Atatürk,’ secular and liberal Turks lack a similarly charismatic leader.” Whoever wins, the outcome will be clear: The new system will make the president and his advisers the heart of Turkish governance, replacing a century of parliamentarianism.

How Erdoğan will be remembered is a question Çağaptay ponders at length. He thinks the president’s legacy will be mixed, and wonders whether his revanchist tendencies—such as welcoming world leaders at the presidential palace in Ankara with soldiers wearing the military uniforms of former Turkic states, or vowing to bring back the Ottoman Empire—may actually be “reviving the caricature of the Ottomans that he was taught by the Kemalists.” Çağaptay believes “Erdoğan’s biggest strength as a politician and biggest weakness as a citizen is that … he feels as if he is still an outsider.” The ability to mobilize this feeling appears to be the main parallel between Erdoğan and Kısakürek. But mobilizing a politics of grievance comes with grave risks. Turkey has an ugly history of racist politicians, and if a member of the extreme right is elected to the executive presidency, the thin line that separates national pride and populism could disappear to reveal something much darker.

In his 2015 novel A Strangeness in My Mind, the Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk tells the story of Mevlut, a street vendor trying to make ends meet in the harsh economic climate of late-20th-century Turkey by selling a fermented beverage called boza. Mevlut bears a grudge against affluent Turks, and worries that he “will sell boza until the day the world ends.” Early in the novel, a group of carousing customers invite Mevlut home to wait on them, thinking he won’t catch on to their condescension. But nothing is lost on the vendor, and he patiently endures their mockery. While Mevlut plays the part of the ignorant and pious black Turk, he also quietly pursues his own aims while brushing aside any contempt. It’s unclear whether Erdoğan is interested in becoming a president for all Turkish citizens, but we do know that, like Mevlut, he won’t tolerate anybody who underestimates him.

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Kaya Genç, an essayist based in Istanbul, is a contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of Under the Shadow (I.B. Tauris, 2016).

[Photo courtesy of Adam Jones]

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Click to read more from our summer 2018 issue, “Megalomania”

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