CATF Reports Jul. 26, 2016, 9:17am


The crowd who poured into the streets in Istanbul at President Erdogan’s call to resist a military takeover on Friday July 15 was very different from the one who gathered behind the Gezi Park protest in 2013. “I’m calling on our nation. Let us gather at squares and airports. Let us give them the answer they deserve,” he incited from the CNN Turk anchor’s iPhone to an astonished nation witnessing a new attempted putsch led by a group among the Turkish armed forces. His call resonated through 85,000 mosques that night, yet the pro-Erdogan mob who responded is not representative of the Turkish nation or Turkey’s Islam. Radically Islamist in its character and brutal in its tones, this mob is the product of President Erdogan’s prolonged authoritarian devolution in domestic policy and of his miscalculated alliances in the broader Middle Eastern theater.

Erdogan’s Islamist constituency does not reflect the traditionally various AKP electoral backbone. As Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Soner Cagaptay wrote for the Wall Street Journal, it is made up of “Islamists, and even jihadists”. Images of brutalities, including torture and even one reported beheading, started to circulate on social media shortly after the turmoil unfolded, probably appealing to that 8% of the Turkish population who perceives ISIS favorably. Against the inclusive Sufi nature of the faith of the vast majority of the population, increasingly religious yet mostly foreign to the Islamist political ambition or to stricter religious practice, Erdogan has consistently sought the Islamization of education and social behavior over the past five years.

In line with his dream to raise pious generations, Erdogan implemented legislation that force students underperforming on entrance exams for secondary schools to register for imam-hatips schools focused on the intensive study of the Quran and of Arabic language, which now enroll about 13% of Turkish students. Erdogan’s sponsorship for Islamic education and religion has transcended national borders: only in 2015 the state-controlled Ministry of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has bankrolled projects for the construction of five mosques, the largest of which recently inaugurated in Tirana, Albania. The consequences of Erdogan’s systematic efforts to Islamize Turkish education may have unpredictable long-range consequences. “It is not unlikely […] that they are going to encourage a Sunni Islamic radicalization among sections of the population,” observed the Director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute Svante Cornell. Ultimately, Cornell stressed, “the Islamic overhaul of the education system is bound to have implications for Turkey’s civilizational identity, and on the choices it will make on where it belongs politically.”

Education will certainly prove crucial in determining Turkey’s political future in the long run. In its medium term horizon, however, Turkey will be forced to confirm or discard some key profiles of its foreign policy strategy relevant to its political identity as a major regional player in a Middle Eastern theater increasingly polarized along sectarian cleavages. Since the Arab Spring, Turkey has committed itself to bring about regime change in Syria, and along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Turkey has devolved considerable funds and efforts towards supporting the Sunni uprising against the Alawite regime in Damascus. By embracing a Sunni cause, among other strategic considerations, Turkey has even tolerated the presence and activity of jihadi cells on its soil and quietly supported ISIS, the al-Nusra Front, and Ahrar al-Sham. Even more importantly, Turkey’s plan included sponsorship for Sunni Islamist movements across the region – especially the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas – potentially expendable allies that Turkey may leverage as needed.

Turkey’s history with the Muslim Brotherhood traces back to 1982, when the Syrian Brotherhood leadership fled Syria for Turkey after Hafez al-Assad brutally silenced a major insurgency organized and led by the local branch of the movement. In 2006, Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) mediated the tumultuous relations between Syria’s former Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam – supported by the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood – and the Assad regime. Especially after the Arab Spring, however, Turkey’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood has been articulated in terms of a state sponsorship not different from Qatar’s, and often coordinated with the Gulf state and Hamas in Gaza.

Turkey continues to host exiled Muslim Brothers from Egypt and the UAE. Ankara allowed them to establish a parliament in exile as well as to use the Turkish territory to organize international meetings, open five satellite television networks, and pursue all efforts for build a coalition which some claim may have jurisdiction over Egypt. From Turkey, and primarily through the so-called “Egyptian Revolutionary Council (ERC)” established in 2014 in Istanbul, the Muslim Brotherhood is campaigning to raise awareness among lawmakers and experts across the globe of the illegitimate coup by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that deposed elected President and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi.

Erdogan’s harsh suppression of the July 15 coup attempt especially roused exiled Egyptian Islamists. “The Islamists believe that Erdogan's victory can inspire Egypt's various opposition movements to come together,” the Washington Institute for Near East Studies fellow Eric Trager wrote for the New York Times, “[…]and whenever Egypt's current regime falters, the Brotherhood intends to follow Erdogan's example in quickly targeting enemies within the state.”

Hamas, as well, saluted Erdogan’s triumph though individual statements by Hamas leaders and calls for public protests in support of Erdogan’s elected government. Hamas rightly feared to lose its main financial and political supporter and the main architect of the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation deal, a source of conspicuous humanitarian and political benefits and investments in long term projects for the Gaza strip.

Gönül Tol, Director of the Center for Turkish Studies at The Middle East Institute, remarked that “Turkey has long used its pro-Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas stance to advance its soft power in the region and appeal to its conservative constituency at home.” Erdogan’s loyalty to both Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood is a major obstacle on the path to the normalization of political relations with many countries, Egypt and the UAE in particular. Nonetheless, the Turkish president may be willing to pay this price, especially if he decides to leverage religious fervor to pursue a full scale Islamization of his secular yet devout country. This very strategic decision has historically constituted a major point of contention between Erdogan and Fethullah Gülen, a highly prominent Sufi theologian far from the hardline Islamists now vocally supporting Erdogan, and a brother-in-arms for Erdogan until 2013. Gülen has always opposed Turkey’s support for the plethora of rebel groups fighting Assad in Syria, as well as Erdogan’s sponsorship of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The predominantly religious narrative resonating through the streets in Istanbul immediately after the coup is now slowly shifting towards nationalist themes. Which narrative will Erdogan capitalize on in the near future is unclear, yet the risk of an “Islamist counter-revolution” remains concrete. The ruthless crackdown of the military, the judicial and education apparatus and the state of emergency announced on July 22, with the likely arbitrary suspension of the most basic civil rights, leave Turkey entirely vulnerable to Erdogan’s inscrutable plans.

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