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Jewish Policy Center: (Audio) Turkey’s Erdogan Sees the Middle East through Ottoman Eyes

In photographs with leaders of other NATO countries, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks like his male peers, beardless and wearing a western suit and tie. But given his performance since 2003, first as prime minister, more recently as president, Erdogan’s looks should no longer be deceiving.

Harold Rhode, a specialist on Islamic culture and the Middle East in the secretary of defense’s office from 1982 through 2010, said Erdogan clearly is “an Islamic fundamentalist.” Yet even now, “most of us in the West don’t understand his mentality,” Rhode told participants in a Jewish Policy Center conference call on May 20.

“In the West, religion is between man and God,” Rhode pointed out. “But Islam is not just a religion but also a civilization with extremely important political elements,” he stressed.

Rhode, who earned a doctorate in Islamic history at Columbia University and has traveled extensively in the Middle East, said it’s important to understand that for an Islamist like Erdogan, “there is no separation of mosque and state.” Further, “all Muslims are brothers”—even if they frequently resort to violence in settling intra-Islamic conflicts.

That means political systems and national borders are less important than relationships from the family to the ummah, the transnational community of Islamic believers. And since no other religion or civilization is superior to Islam, in what might be considered a much earlier version of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev’s doctrine of irreversible communist imperialism, any territory once ruled by Muslims—including present-day Spain as well as modern Israel—must never again be governed by non-Muslims.

In the belief of Islamists like the Turkish president, the only border that really counts separates dar al-Islam, the world of Islam, from dar al-harb, the world of war. And the latter “will eventually become Muslim,” Rhode said.

So Erdogan, Rhode emphasized, is undoing the work of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the secular, Western-oriented Turkish Republic in the 1920s. Ataturk attempted to impose a national identity of “we are all Turks” on anyone living inside Turkey borders, including non-Turkish Kurds and non-Sunni Muslim Alevis. But Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party stress what others have called a border-crossing neo-Ottoman identity.

Rhode, now a distinguished senior fellow for the Gatestone Institute and senior fellow for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said that in Northern Macedonia he found pictures of Erdogan and Turkish flags in local mosques. Their clergy, dispatched from Turkey, preach a more fundamentalist Islam than previously common in the Balkans, and worshippers refer to Erdogan as “our leader.” Turkey’s economy may be suffering, but subsidies from Qatar enable the Turkish leader to pursue his dreams, Rhode said.

Also, in recent speeches, Erdogan has asserted that victories for him or Turkey are just as important in Damascus, Sarajevo or Jerusalem as in Istanbul or Ankara. “He is not interested so much in Turkey as in reestablishing the Ottoman Empire,” Rhode said.

As in the Balkans, Turkey attempts to infiltrate Erdogan’s form of Islam into eastern Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods, Rhode added. The Turkish leader’s long-term policy toward Israel is “anything to get the Jews out. … I see in the Old City of Jerusalem a lot of institutions run by the Turks.”

Erdogan “is actively doing the same in Germany” as in North Macedonia and eastern Jerusalem, Rhode said. Turkey’s Islamism is promoted among Germany’s millions of residents of Turkish background and via the million-plus refugees funneled from war-torn Syria through Turkey into European Union countries.

Westerners were taken in by Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party not only on the basis of appearances. They were finessed by rhetoric as well, according to Rhode.

“We Americans are looking for moderates all over the place,” he said. “Whenever we hear someone say something nice … we think they’re moderate.” But Erdogan “always hated Ataturk’s secular republic.”

However, he and his party had learned to “go slow, slowly” from the failure of Necmettin Erbakan and his Islamist Welfare Party, in power from 1995 to 1997, Rhode said. Erbakan and his administration attempted to rush Islamicization of Turkey, and were pushed out by the military. The Turkish armed forces had served as protector of the secularize state since Ataturk’s death.

But especially since a failed military coup in 2016, which Rhode implied might have been staged as a pretext for Erdogan to consolidate power, the Turkish president has led “almost as a dictator.” After the coup attempt, Erdogan ousted tens of thousands of military officers, academics, judges and other government workers, jailing many, and cracked down on the news media.


Though Erdogan and Fetthulah Gulen, both Islamists, once were political allies, Gulen has long lived in exile in the United States. Especially since the coup—which Erdogan blamed on Gulen—the Turkish government has driven Gulen’s movement underground, Rhode said.

The Kurds, in Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran, number more than 35 million. They are natural allies of the United States, Rhode said. But chronic Kurdish disunity prevents them from being the force they could be otherwise and means Washington should avoid entanglements with internal Kurdish affairs.

Younger Turks may be repelled by Erdogan’s Islamist campaign, “but culturally they are Muslims even if not religious,” Rhode said. In any case, such people “are leaving Turkey in droves. “Anyone who stands up to him [Erdogan] is going to be jailed.”

Rhodes said his long-held position is that Turkey, NATO member or not, “is not an ally anymore. … It really wants to undermine many NATO countries to push its political Islam.” Even the Turkish military, especially post-coup attempt, is “becoming Islamified.”

But trying to oust Turkey from NATO would hand Erdogan an us-versus-them propaganda win. A better policy for the United States and its NATO partners when dealing with Erdogan would be “never trust him,” Rhode said.

The Turkish-Iranian standoff is 400 years old, he said. Turkey has long seen itself as the center of Sunni Islam, Persian Iran as the focal point of Shi’ite Islam. Neither of these regional powers are Arab, a point not lost on their neighbors.

Between Turkey and Iran “there is no letting bygones be bygones.” Though they may cooperate in some areas, in others such as Syria they compete. In Syria’s civil war, Turkey has worked to oust Bashar al-Assad and his minority Alawite-based regime, Alawis being a Shi’ite offshoot. Iran has heavily supported Assad.

The effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on Turkey is difficult if not impossible to gauge, Rhode said, because official figures from it and some other Middle Eastern countries are unreliable.

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