People in Turkey are currently swept up in nationalistic fervor, whipped up by country’s populist president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, following President Donald J. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
For over a decade, Erdogan’s most loyal friend in politics was his nationalistic rhetoric. For a leader as divisive as Erdogan, the only chance to expand or at least preserve his fan base is the refined nationalism that includes spies, treason, Palestinians and dark global evil circles.
This is not nationalism espoused by founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who envisioned a homogenous nation of men and women as a Turk, Sunni and secular. It is not the kind of raw nationalism promoted by parties like MHP or BBP, which attaches divinity to Turkishness. It is also not identical to anti-imperialist nationalism whose proponents include figures like Dogu Perincek.
Erdogan’s nationalism envisions the “brotherhood of Muslims against Western crusaders,” with Turkey as the bulwark against this “menace.” This type of nationalism embodies brotherhood with Arabs (unlike Kemalists) and strong religious conservatism (unlike Perincek followers). The common thread of Erdogan’s nationalism is Islam as the unifying force, with Turkey as the only strong nation that can stand up against the West. Its Islamic nationalism is reminiscent of Ottoman governance that kept Kurds, Turks, and Arabs together.
Erdogan’s biggest mistake during his rule since 2003 has been to start peace talks with Kurds, which cost him 2015 elections. But he is a quick learner. As soon as he lost the parliamentary majority in June 2015, he buried the peace process and regained the majority in snap elections in November.
Erdogan’s evident nationalistic rhetoric before 2011 and 2015 elections proves that it is a recurring campaign tactic. The last time the Turkish leader displayed such an overt anti-Western stance was before the referendum in the spring.
Erdogan is a president who is in ambush for a chance to land a hit against the West. And what could be better than an issue that concerns all Muslims? Jerusalem, of course. Ruling AKP’s tactics are so skilled that even nationalist opposition parties are forced to catch up.
Last month, a significant challenge to President Erdogan came from a high-profile case of Reza Zarrab, an Iranian gold trader, a scandal that Erdogan once buried and can’t tolerate to its resurrection. The case in New York elicited harsh public responses from Ankara, but the decision by the U.S. to recognize Jerusalem came as a windfall for Erdogan. Detecting in the latest Jerusalem decision a chance to reinforce his campaign tactics, Erdogan has been blasting the West, and in particular Israel and the U.S., with loudspeakers across the country.
Erdogan exhibited blatant anti-Western impulses in his rallies since the Jerusalem decision. The president continued a pattern of criticizing the Western countries for “taking an anti-Turkey stance,” recalling an episode in the Netherlands where a Turkish minister was confronted by the local police.
It’s highly likely that many diplomats in Ankara downplay Erdogan’s anti-Western temptations, portraying it as a political calculation for domestic consumption to mask the corruption allegations resurfaced in New York.
But incessant campaigns to whip up nationalistic sentiments will undoubtedly leave an indelible mark on the Turkish society. And there is no reason Erdogan will let up this nationalistic talk, with three elections coming up in 2 years.
The U.S. has proved reluctant to directly criticize Turkish political leaders, treating it as a nation that could always swing out of Washington’s orbit. While the U.S. is seeking to strike a careful balance, the momentum has clearly swung in Moscow’s favor. Since the military coup attempt in Turkey, Erdogan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin 10 times and talked on the phone for 18 times. With President Trump, Erdogan met only three times and talked on the phone five times (and three times with Obama since last summer).
President Erdogan’s rhetoric threw a great question mark over Turkey’s commitment to the West. Turkey’s current leadership and the U.S. are odd bedfellows who are allies on paper but embody widely differing visions on how to handle conflicts in the region. It is obvious that Turkey views Iran and Russia as real players in the region rather than the U.S., which failed to show any strong leadership, especially in Syria.
For decades, Turkey’s military and financial dependence on the West and threats from Russia kept Ankara within NATO and integrated with Western institutions. Erdogan is sensing that Russia and China could be an answer to Turkey’s military and financial needs. Turkey is purchasing anti-air defense systems from Russia and getting much-needed loans from China.
Another factor that keeps Ankara aligned with Russia is a threat from the army, the only institution that Erdogan couldn’t transform. He is relying on a network of generals aligned with Perincek, a staunch pro-Russian politician, to keep uneasy and pro-Western generals under check. His government already jailed half of all generals and admirals, most of whom had close contacts with NATO. This alliance is expected to continue until Erdogan fills up the army with his own loyalists, trained and raised by National Defense University.
The Turkish society has always been skeptical of the West, according to most surveys, and viewed Turkey’s relationship with the West as a marriage of necessity. Now Erdogan is tapping on this sentiment. And it might not be for winning elections.