Tayyip Erdogan

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President of Turkey


"It is obvious that putting the Arab-Israeli dispute on a resolution track would be an important element of overcoming the confidence problem in the region. As the prime minister of a nation that has lived in friendship with its Jewish citizens for centuries and continues to maintain close friendship with both Israelis and Palestinians, I should like to declare this explicitly.”

“There was a democratic election held in the Palestinian territory, and Hamas won the election, and there was no opportunity given to Hamas to act as a government. The ministers and the speaker of the parliament, more than 30 people were put in prison because they were called terrorists.”

“Therefore, the observation must be explicitly made: In the Middle East and in the Muslim world, suspicions linger concerning the objectives of the West and notably the US."

Early Years and Education

You are (Recep) Tayyip Erdogan (you are known by your middle name). You were born in Istanbul in 1954 into an observant Muslim family. You spent your early years in Rize because of your father’s work in the Turkish coast guard, but you returned to Istanbul as a teenager, living in the rough and tumble Kasimpasha neighborhood. After graduating from a Muslim vocational high school, you received a degree in Business Administration from what is now known as the Marmara University Faculty of Economics and Administrative Sciences. While at university, you met the-then Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbekan, and joined his party that would soon morph into the Islamist “Welfare” Party. You developed a local reputation for your soccer prowess, playing semi-professionally for several years. You and your wife Emine have two sons.

Public Life (up to the present day)

You made your first big splash politically when you were elected Mayor of Istanbul in 1994. Your tenure as mayor was a successful one by most accounts, as you made notable progress in addressing several “quality of life” issues including improving the water distribution system, and addressing severe traffic problems in the city. Indeed, you gained something of a reputation as an environmentalist, building state of the art recycling facilities for Istanbul, and modernizing the city’s bus fleet. However, it was owing to matters of faith that you made a truly national splash, as you were actually arrested for reciting a verse ("The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers...") of poetry inspired by Islam. In order to understand how this seemingly innocuous event led to your imprisonment, readers must understand a bit about recent Turkish history.

“Kemalism” and Islam

In the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire during World War I, the modern state of Turkey was formed in 1923 with the charismatic military hero Kemal Ataturk as President. It was Ataturk’s idea that Turkey needed to shed much of its socio-cultural “baggage” in order to take its place among the nations of the world, and for Ataturk this meant turning away from Muslim culture towards the secular west. Not only would there be a republic in place of rule by the Sultan, but Islam would cease to have anything resembling its formerly central place in Turkish daily life. Religious schools were closed, the caliphate was abolished, and an entire system of religious courts was shut down. On the personal level, men were to replace the traditional fez with bowler hats, and women were to be educated and allowed to vote. To put it simply, the “Kemalist” ideal was a distinctly secular (non-religious) vision of nationhood that, in several key ways, was modeled after the United States. This approach, backed by a cooperative military, guided the nation in the decades after 1923. The central place of the military was buttressed by strong military support from the United States, eager to have a strong ally in the Soviet Union’s backyard over the years of the Cold War.

One other feature of the Turkish government worth knowing was that it was VERY sensitive to criticism, and had in place strong laws prohibiting speech contrary to Turkish interests, as well as conduct that too strongly challenged the secular vision, which leads us back to you. Even before your arrest, the military was keeping a watchful eye on any signs of growing Islamism, ultimately tossing your former mentor, Mr. Erbekan, out of office in 1997. You tried to take control of the Islamist party, but your arrest put a temporary stop to that, though it gained you a reputation for being someone who would press boldly for Islam being more visible in society. You helped to form a new Islamist party called Justice and Development, which you led to victory in the 2002 national elections, making you Prime Minister.

Domestic Issues of Concern (political considerations, who are your allies/opponents, etc.)

Anyone who expected you to turn away from the West would have been surprised to see you push hard for Turkey to become a member of the European Union. You felt that Turkey, a member in good standing of the NATO Alliance, was ready to become a part of Europe, in the hope that the move would strengthen your economy and help to build political alliances. You also made moves to rid Turkey of some of its more oppressive laws about political expression, and amended the Turkish constitution to accept the European Convention on Human Rights. You made other moves to weaken the influence of the military, including prison reform and the repeal of the death penalty, strengthened by the strong electoral victory that you had won. As Stephen Kinzer writes in “Reset,” you based many of your actions on the assertion that “(w)e must change in order to become European.” In this sense, you took a page out of Ataturk’s book, surprising many outside observers. You were seriously dismayed, therefore, to find that Europe’s embrace of Turkey was unenthusiastic. Among the changes you brought about was to loosen the prohibitions on the religious expression and dress. You pushed to allow the wearing of headscarves at universities and this, plus the fact that your wife herself wore a headscarf, was seen by some as a worrisome sign that religion would again play a more influential role in civic and political life. It must be added that, for many in Europe, the fact that the religion in question was Islam, sharply heightened these worries. Many of the nations of Europe were dealing with the societal impact of growing populations of Muslims, along with the tensions with militant Islam elsewhere in the Middle East, and worried about opening this door to what appeared to be a Muslim state. The growing ambivalence in Europe about admitting Turkey to the EU made it harder for you to sustain the momentum for reform in keeping with EU guidelines. It is also important to mention the fact that Turkey’s economy is growing at a steady, if not a rapid pace. Turkey has plenty to gain through regional stability making robust regional trade more possible.

Beliefs and Policies Pertaining to (or relevant to) the Middle East

Turkey has had a long and cordial relationship with Israel, dating back to the earliest days of the state. Israel’s so-called “Trident” strategy was to establish relationships with non-Arab states on the outer margins of the region, and along with Iran, Israel developed a strong relationship with Turkey that, as the years went by, led both to strategic partnerships and arms sales from Israel to Turkey. What were the attractions of this relationship for Turkey? In part, it had to do with Turkey’s strong partnership with the United States and NATO. In addition, Turkey’s relationships with neighbors like Syria and Iraq were strained by territorial disputes and disagreements over how best to respond to the aspirations for statehood and growing militancy of the Kurdish people—Turkey felt threatened by the militant PKK movement, while Syria supported it. As recently as 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres address the Turkish parliament, the first time that an Israeli leader addressed the legislature of a Muslin nation and in the following year, you mediated talks between Israel and Syria that were thought to have made real progress...right up until Israel invaded Gaza while the talks were underway, a move that scuttled the talks and damaged relations between Israel and Turkey (more about that in a moment).

As previously mentioned, and most notably in the wake of World War II, Turkey became closely aligned with the Unites States and was a member in good standing of NATO, sending troops to take part in the Korean War, and allowing the United States to establish military bases on Turkish soil. Stephen Kinzer reminds us that during the years of the Cold War the interests of the two countries meshed well: “The United States wanted allies who fully embraced its basic foreign policy principles. Turkey was a reliable frontline state in the confrontation with Soviet power.” (pp. 196) This harmony of interests abated somewhat in the 1990’s, as the steady ascendance of parties with Islamist inclinations (albeit modest ones) resulted in lessened influence for the Turkish military that was, in turn the primary advocate for strategic cooperation with the US. However, that relationship continues to be significant, as testified to by President Obama’s choice to go to Turkey and address the parliament early in his presidency.

The relationship between Turkey and Israel, however, has changed significantly, and these changes have become especially visible in the wake of Israel’s 2008-09 Gaza War. Over the course of 1990’s and the first decade of the new century, Turkey began pursuing a steadily more independent path with regard to its foreign relations, and has sought (and attained) better relationships with the majority Muslim countries of the Middle East. Tensions between Israel and Turkey became apparent when Israel invaded Gaza in 2008 while the Turkish-mediated talks with Syria were ongoing. Despite the fact that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was notified of this impending attack, you were not, and your feelings about this were made vivid when, at the 2009 World Economic Forum meeting, you walked out during a speech being given by Israeli President Peres. Ever since the Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections of 2006 and the western-supported blockade of Gaza that followed in its wake, you have been a very public advocate of the need for Israel and the US to engage with Hamas, and you've loudly championed the Palestinian cause more generally.

These tensions exploded in the spring of 2010, though, when an international convoy of ships was sent to bring food and humanitarian aid to Gaza. One of these ships, the Mavi Marmara, was a Turkish ship sent with the blessing and support of the government, with many Turkish citizens on board. Israel responded by dispatching its navy to divert the ships, and in still-hazy circumstances, Israeli commandos staged a nighttime aerial boarding of the ship to commandeer it. In the end, nine Turks were killed in the conflict that erupted on board, and many more were injured on both sides. It is no exaggeration to say that you were enraged by the incident, and you demanded a formal apology from the Israelis. Israel did not comply with your request, feeling backed into a corner by a forced confrontation it felt duty-bound to resist. As of Fall 2010, relations between the two nations had grown frosty, resulting in a downgrading of diplomatic relations. This situation was not resolved until 2016, when you signed an agreement with Israel re-establishing full diplomatic relations. As a part of this deal, Israel agreed to set up a $20 million compensation fund for families who lost loved ones in the 2010 ship incident, and Turkey will end all claims against the Israeli government as the two nations begin talks on jointly building a natural gas pipeline. In addition to the economic benefits to be derived from the agreement, the agreement with Israel fit into the larger picture of Turkey seeking to reduce its geopolitical isolation.

Turkey’s relationship with Iran and the Arab world is also evolving. Though your vision of what it means to connect the state and Islam is VERY different from the understanding of the Iranian government, you have a fairly cordial relationship with Iran, and Turkey is a big customer of Iranian natural gas. However, Turkish relations with Iran and with one-time friend Bashar Assad of Syria have been severely constrained by the devastating civil war in Syria that first flared up in 2011. You were very dismayed by the harsh response of Bashar Assad to the civic protests that occurred in 2011, believing that a more measured approach would have been better for Syria, and for the economic relations between your two nations. You also worried that what became all-out war in Syria might embolden the Kurds, something you definitely did not want to see happen, and you also feared what became a massive flood of refugees from the war entering Turkey. Finally, as noted elsewhere, it is important to state that you have made many public declarations on behalf of the cause of the Palestinians in general, and of including Hamas in the peace process in particular.

Role-Playing Notes (what's important to you, what kind of person are you, how much independence do you have, etc)

You seek a strong and independent Turkey that can work with the West as well as it’s neighbors, and re-assume Turkey’s central role on the regional and international stages. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called Turkey (under your leadership) a “model on the way to democracy.” You have certainly made clear that you identify with Hamas, and that identification has won you a lot of credibility at home, especially with those who advocate for a more overtly Islamic government. You are a feisty, strong-willed man who takes pride in accomplishing what you’ve accomplished despite having few advantages. There is no other figure in the region who has the breadth of access you possess, and your challenge is how to use that access, and that influence, to help your people and your nation.

Your nation's reputation was damaged in the eyes of Egypt's new leaders by being too closely allied with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011, and your association with Qatar (who have been active supporters of Hamas and Egypt's Brotherhood) has won you no friends with the Saudis, who also fear what they see as Muslim extremism. Relations with the Saudis and the Egyptians seemed to be improving, as your interests in Syria came more into alignment, but a great deal of damage has been done to your reputation, and your potential as a regional leader. You also broke ties with Syria's embattled President Assad, and that in turn has turned your relationship with Iran cold. As mentioned, the improvement in your relationship with Russia will likely bring a parallel improvement vis-a-vis Iran, but this also remains to be seen. In short, your political skills will continue to be tested as you fight for absolute power domestically and seek to salvage your reputation regionally.

In 2014, you ran for and were elected President of Turkey, hoping to use your influence and force of personality to make the President's position the seat of power in Turkey, rather than the Prime Minister's post. Though there was serious opposition to your presidential candidacy from the left and center, you won the position by an absolute majority, eliminating the need for a primary. Perhaps even more importantly, you responded very forcefully to the failed coup brought against your government in July 2016. You suspended over 60,000 soldiers and military officers, police, judges and teachers, and by all outward appearance it looked like your fight to protect Turkey's democracy was actually presenting you with an opportunity to strengthen your iron-fisted and absolute rule.







Kinzer, Stephen (2010). Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future. Times Books.




http://tinyurl.com/2wqv7rv (International Crisis Group Report on Turkey)









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