Has Erdogan Lost The Plot?

Not necessarily, Steven Cook argues, though his “Hitler fetish” and cult-of-personality stunts like the bizarre soccer match in the video above might suggest otherwise. Rather, Cook writes that what looks like erratic, blustery illiberalism to us is pitch-perfect politics in Turkey, where Erdogan is vying to become the first popularly elected president:

When it comes to anti-Semitism, Erdogan is guilty as charged, but sadly so are large numbers of Turks. It is true that Jews found refuge in Turkey during the Inquisition and have lived and prospered there ever since, but that does not mean that anti-Semitism is alien to Turkish culture. Recent events in which blood curdling hatred of Jews appeared in the pro-Erdogan press (is there any other kind these days?) and among Turkish users of social media in response to Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip demonstrate that it is decidedly not, particularly among Erdogan’s core constituency. Yet even beyond the particular strand of Turkish Islamism from which Erdogan’s worldview comes, anti-Semitism is widespread in Turkey. For Turks, Erdogan is not even necessarily an anti-Semite; more important, by calling out the Israelis for killing Palestinian innocents on a large scale, he is acting as the conscience of the Muslim world.

It would be unfair to a political talent like Erdogan, however, to suggest that he has been successful because of Turks’ dislike of the United States, Israel and Jews, let alone his ability to move around a soccer field relatively well. Erdogan’s repeated electoral victories are attributable to his many achievements.

Since he became prime minister in March 2003, Turkey has made important strides in health care, redeveloped significant portions of its transportation infrastructure, put money in the pockets of the middle class, and become a regional power. … For many Turks, only Erdogan—the strong, unapologetic, tough guy—could have transformed Turkey in the way the prime minister has, even if from the perspective of outside observers these achievements have come at the cost of what was once promising political reform. Erdogan’s rule has become fundamentally illiberal, which seems just fine with his constituents.

But maybe not with Turkey’s ethnic and religious minorities, who find some of Erdogan’s campaign rhetoric discomfiting:

Erdogan has been criticized for repeatedly talking about ethnic and religious differences in what appears to be a bid to shore up his support among his Sunni Islam base. Earlier this week, he had called on his rivals to be clear about their backgrounds. “I am a Sunni, Kemal [Kılıcdaroglu of the Republican People’s Party, or CHP] is an Alevi [a branch of Shiite Islam], Selahattin [Demirtas, presidential candidate of the Peoples’ Democratic Party] is Zaza [a type of Kurdish people],” he said, according to Hurriyet Daily News, later adding. “I respect Alevis. Just as I make my sect public, so should he.” 70,000 or so Armenians still call Turkey home, and many in that community felt marginalized or even threatened before the comments. Erdogan often uses “extremely aggressive and bellicose language when referring to the Armenians or Armenian issue,” Richard Giragosian, an American-born Armenian analyst, told Today’s Zaman in July.

And as for anti-Semitism, he maintains that Israel is to blame for it:

Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has some advice for his strongest supporters in the U.S. Congress: If you don’t like the rise of anti-Semitism that has accompanied Israel’s latest war, then you should pressure Israel to stop killing Palestinians. An August 5 letter written by one of Erdogan’s top advisers on behalf of the prime minister and obtained by The Daily Beast disputes accusations that his recent statements about Israel were anti-Semitic. Those statements include an assertion on July 19 that Israel’s actions in Gaza “surpassed what Hitler did to them.” A few days earlier, a top newspaper in Turkey affiliated with Erdogan called on Turkish Jews to apologize for the actions of Israel’s military in Gaza.

“Each Israeli attack undermines the peace and tranquility of Jews living all around the world and turns them into targets of hate speech,” wrote Volkan Bozkir, a former Turkish ambassador to the European Union and now an Erdogan adviser and legislator who serves as the chairman of the Turkey-USA Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Caucus and the Turkish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.