Michael Gess: “Erdogan turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing for Europe”

Michael Gess: “Erdogan turned out to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing for Europe”

Interview by Orkhan Sattarov, the head of the European Bureau of Vestnik Kavkaza

 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently visited Ankara, met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and declared the failure of the South Stream project and plans for a new high-scale Russian-Turkish project. Some in Russia consider the Turkish leader to be a charismatic and principled leader pursuing national interests. Many in Europe call him a dictator, letting down Europe, which had been encouraging Turkey to continue the European course. Docent Dr. Michael Reinhard Gess of the Institute of Turkology of the Free University of Berlin, has explained the causes and possible repercussions of the superiority of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP).

 

- Throughout Erdogan’s factual power, Europe’s attitude towards him has changed from encouragement and big hopes to overt disappointment. Meanwhile, his popularity in Turkey is very popular, just as before. How can you explain this phenomenon?

- The popularity of the JDP and its leader among Turkish citizens is explained by several factors. One of them, in my opinion, is the important position of the growing cultural estrangement between many ordinary Turks and the Kemal line. The alphabet reform realized by Ataturk, depriving people of the opportunity to read the works of their poets and writers in the original, and the general institutional “demonization” of all the Ottoman cultural heritage taken up by Kemalists, eventually resulted in many Turks left by the cultural-ideological wayside. The return to the cultural origins of the Ottoman Empire is clearly seen in the early works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. In other words, the cultural component played its role.

Another cause for the rise of the JDP is the failures of the Turkish political elites, which have been continuing since the late 1990s. Kemalists, starting with the epoch of Ataturk, tried to incorporate Western values using authoritarian methods. But attempts to force democracy from above, simultaneously with interference in the political life of the military, does not work. A demonstrative example is the coup d’etat started by the Turkish military, resulting in the ousting of Necmettin Erbakan, the spiritual mentor of Erdogan. A situation where the military of the country decide which president suits the country and which does not cannot a priori be called democratic. Speaking of which, the protests against Erdogan in the country this year are in some way an expression of the aspirations of certain strata of Turkish society to achieve democracy “from below.”

The corruption of a large part of the political system had a certain effect on the rising Islamic sentiment of the country’s population. The population viewed political Islam as an alternative to the system existing then, with all its disadvantages. The rise of the political career of Erdogan started when he was the mayor of Istanbul, when he managed to effectively solve major infrastructure problems in the city, which was in quite a deplorable state at that time.

The objective economic successes of the Islamists led to national pride in Turkey, because Ankara turned from a constant beggar at the doors of arrogant Europeans into an economically-firm and self-sufficient state in a relatively short period of time. Another problem is the durability of the Turkish economic model, which is growing like a balloon from the borrowing more and more loans. The durability of the economic growth of Turkey is a different topic that I would prefer to avoid.

- Can we say that the era of Erdogan’s reign was characterized by a shift from nationalistic settings in Turkey?

- The Turkish president is distancing from Kemalist settings in the favour of the Islamic factor to a certain extent. However, national motives are still largely determining his policy, as seen in the cautious position of Turkey in the problem of Syrian Kurds fighting against Islamic State.

- What is your view of the intermediate results of over a decade of Erdogan’s rule?

- Erdogan managed to weaken the influence of the military on the political situation in the country. Considering the huge power and authority of the army, its weakening as a political factor was a surprise to many observers, including myself. Obviously, the new Turkish leader made conclusions from the fate of Erbakan, who had dared go for open confrontation with the military, and from personal experience of jailing. That is why Erdogan started playing a subtle game, taking the role of a representative of “Euro-Islam.”

- This “Euro-Islam” was taken very positively in Europe at first. What has changed?

- Until the mid-2000s, Europe had an animated outlook on Turkey under the rule of the JDP. Major reforms were realized throughout time, bringing Turkish laws closer to European legislation. Eventually, a lot of that was left only on paper. Erdogan turned out to be “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” for Europe. I remember how many Europeans were adamant that Islam could be blended with Western values, pointing out the “Islamic model” of Erdogan. I was not confident in a combination of Islam, in its interpretation by the majority of followers, with Western values, neither then, nor obviously now. In blocking access to social networks, suppressing protests, Erdogan is going too far, in my opinion.

- What motives do you think prevail in the Turkish leader, ideological or pragmatic?

- I tend not to consider Erdogan an Islamic ideologist. In my opinion, he is a pragmatic politician, an incredibly dynamic figure. A man from a working neighborhood of Istanbul who managed to reach the political top. I do not think that his final goal is to transform Turkey into an Islamic state like Iran. The Islamic rhetoric and the steps of Erdogan are most likely tools to achieve the goal of keeping power.

- What consequences may the visible process of the Islamization of Turkish society have?

- Turkey is currently a lot more Islamized than 15-20 years ago. It is important to understand that the results of this Islamization will not disappear, even when Erdogan resigns. In this case, you cannot be sure that the current moderate Islamism would not be succeeded by a more radical Islam. One thing is clear, Turkey after Erdogan will have harder times finding an internal political model other than the Islamic one. Turkey has left the European path, and its society has transformed accordingly in the last few years.

I tend not to criticize Turks for the return to the religious heritage, it is the religion they have followed for a thousand years, before the traditions were broken by the efforts of Ataturk and his followers. We need to understand that the bet on Islamization, especially in such an unstable region, may be a dangerous game.

Interview by Orkhan Sattarov, the head of the European Bureau of Vestnik KavkazaRussian President Vladimir Putin has recently visited Ankara, met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan and declared the failure of the South Stream project and plans for a new high-scale Russian-Turkish project. Some in Russia consider the Turkish leader to be a charismatic and principled leader pursuing national interests. Many in Europe call him a dictator, letting down Europe, which had been encouraging Turkey to continue the European course. Docent Dr. Michael Reinhard Gess of the Institute of Turkology of the Free University of Berlin, has explained the causes and possible repercussions of the superiority of Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP).- Throughout Erdogan’s factual power, Europe’s attitude towards him has changed from encouragement and big hopes to overt disappointment. Meanwhile, his popularity in Turkey is very popular, just as before. How can you explain this phenomenon?- The popularity of the JDP and its leader among Turkish citizens is explained by several factors. One of them, in my opinion, is the important position of the growing cultural estrangement between many ordinary Turks and the Kemal line. The alphabet reform realized by Ataturk, depriving people of the opportunity to read the works of their poets and writers in the original, and the general institutional “demonization” of all the Ottoman cultural heritage taken up by Kemalists, eventually resulted in many Turks left by the cultural-ideological wayside. The return to the cultural origins of the Ottoman Empire is clearly seen in the early works of Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. In other words, the cultural component played its role.Another cause for the rise of the JDP is the failures of the Turkish political elites, which have been continuing since the late 1990s. Kemalists, starting with the epoch of Ataturk, tried to incorporate Western values using authoritarian methods. But attempts to force democracy from above, simultaneously with interference in the political life of the military, does not work. A demonstrative example is the coup d’etat started by the Turkish military, resulting in the ousting of Necmettin Erbakan, the spiritual mentor of Erdogan. A situation where the military of the country decide which president suits the country and which does not cannot a priori be called democratic. Speaking of which, the protests against Erdogan in the country this year are in some way an expression of the aspirations of certain strata of Turkish society to achieve democracy “from below.”The corruption of a large part of the political system had a certain effect on the rising Islamic sentiment of the country’s population. The population viewed political Islam as an alternative to the system existing then, with all its disadvantages. The rise of the political career of Erdogan started when he was the mayor of Istanbul, when he managed to effectively solve major infrastructure problems in the city, which was in quite a deplorable state at that time.The objective economic successes of the Islamists led to national pride in Turkey, because Ankara turned from a constant beggar at the doors of arrogant Europeans into an economically-firm and self-sufficient state in a relatively short period of time. Another problem is the durability of the Turkish economic model, which is growing like a balloon from the borrowing more and more loans. The durability of the economic growth of Turkey is a different topic that I would prefer to avoid.- Can we say that the era of Erdogan’s reign was characterized by a shift from nationalistic settings in Turkey?- The Turkish president is distancing from Kemalist settings in the favour of the Islamic factor to a certain extent. However, national motives are still largely determining his policy, as seen in the cautious position of Turkey in the problem of Syrian Kurds fighting against Islamic State.- What is your view of the intermediate results of over a decade of Erdogan’s rule?- Erdogan managed to weaken the influence of the military on the political situation in the country. Considering the huge power and authority of the army, its weakening as a political factor was a surprise to many observers, including myself. Obviously, the new Turkish leader made conclusions from the fate of Erbakan, who had dared go for open confrontation with the military, and from personal experience of jailing. That is why Erdogan started playing a subtle game, taking the role of a representative of “Euro-Islam.”- This “Euro-Islam” was taken very positively in Europe at first. What has changed?- Until the mid-2000s, Europe had an animated outlook on Turkey under the rule of the JDP. Major reforms were realized throughout time, bringing Turkish laws closer to European legislation. Eventually, a lot of that was left only on paper. Erdogan turned out to be “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” for Europe. I remember how many Europeans were adamant that Islam could be blended with Western values, pointing out the “Islamic model” of Erdogan. I was not confident in a combination of Islam, in its interpretation by the majority of followers, with Western values, neither then, nor obviously now. In blocking access to social networks, suppressing protests, Erdogan is going too far, in my opinion.- What motives do you think prevail in the Turkish leader, ideological or pragmatic?- I tend not to consider Erdogan an Islamic ideologist. In my opinion, he is a pragmatic politician, an incredibly dynamic figure. A man from a working neighborhood of Istanbul who managed to reach the political top. I do not think that his final goal is to transform Turkey into an Islamic state like Iran. The Islamic rhetoric and the steps of Erdogan are most likely tools to achieve the goal of keeping power.- What consequences may the visible process of the Islamization of Turkish society have?- Turkey is currently a lot more Islamized than 15-20 years ago. It is important to understand that the results of this Islamization will not disappear, even when Erdogan resigns. In this case, you cannot be sure that the current moderate Islamism would not be succeeded by a more radical Islam. One thing is clear, Turkey after Erdogan will have harder times finding an internal political model other than the Islamic one. Turkey has left the European path, and its society has transformed accordingly in the last few years.I tend not to criticize Turks for the return to the religious heritage, it is the religion they have followed for a thousand years, before the traditions were broken by the efforts of Ataturk and his followers. We need to understand that the bet on Islamization, especially in such an unstable region, may be a dangerous g

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