Thirty years ago, Recep Tayyip Erdogan explained his goals: “Democracy is not our final goal,” he declared, “but rather a means to restore the civilization of Islam that will advance in the twenty-first century, and whoever participates in the revival of this civilization, his reward with God will be doubled.”
Erdogan is set to achieve his goals.
Recent elections were neither free nor fair. The fix was in before the polls even began. While academicians, think tank Turkey-watchers, journalists, and diplomats may grasp at straws in the desperate hope that Turkey is not now lost, the reality is that Turkey will be a liability to NATO, the West, and the rules-based order for decades to come.
So where might Erdogan take Turkey?
Turkey’s currency continues its precipitous decline. While supporters initially credited Erdogan with the rapid expansion of Turkey’s economy under Erdogan’s stewardship, in hindsight it appears Erdogan was just lucky: He was the beneficiary of Turkey’s demographic dividend. But whereas East Asian leaders seized upon the boost in their working-age population relative to dependents and the elderly to put their economies on firm footing for the future, Erdogan squandered the opportunity. Turkey now teeters on the precipice of Venezuela-like financial implosion.
As Turkey nears both the 100th anniversary of the Lausanne Treaty that set its modern borders and its own centenary as a modern nation-state, Erdogan may confirm Turkey’s foreign policy pivot. Turkey continues to occupy Cyprus and growing areas inside Syria and Iraq. He increasingly embraces Moscow, Beijing, and Eurasia’s dictatorships. Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu continues to incite anti-Americanism. “Turkey has reached such a point that from now on, anyone who follows a policy that focuses on America will be declared a traitor to the motherland,” Soylu declared.
Erdogan sees himself as sultan. Just as Russian President Vladimir Putin sees the fall of the Soviet Union as a calamity, so too does Erdogan see the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. He not only wants to return it to lands he feels the victorious World War I powers unfairly denied Turkey, but he also wants to raise a religious generation to reverse Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s imposed laicism.
This will require three changes to society. First, he will need to return Christians and other religious minorities to second-class status, something that increasing discrimination toward Greek, Armenian, and Jews inside Turkey suggests. Second, he will need to reeducate Turkey’s youth. In Istanbul, along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts and in Turkey’s Kurdistan, many young people resist Erdogan’s Muslim Brotherhood precepts, even if they themselves are religious.
For Erdogan, that is only half the battle. Some people, as far as Erdogan is concerned, are irredeemable. This includes not only the youth, but also what remains of the more secular or Western-leaning middle class. As far as Erdogan, Soylu, and their inner circle are concerned, if they cannot be converted, they should leave.
Already, the evidence of this brain drain is evident in Miami, which is quickly becoming as much little Istanbul as it is little Havana. Those of military background flock instead to Norfolk and Virginia Beach, where former NATO colleagues provide a support network.
Erdogan is not reinventing the wheel, but rather embracing a tried and true tactic. Ayatollah Khomeini transformed Iran not only through indoctrination, but by encouraging a brain drain to rid Iran of an elite who might otherwise ideologically pollute society. Communist dictator Fidel Castro encouraged mass emigration not only to rid himself of a criminal underclass, but also Batista-era elites and those who did not buy into his Marxist vision. Muqtada al-Sadr embraced the same strategy in Iraq post-2003 as he sought to rid Baghdad of a middle class whose values he did not share.
Erdogan may replace some “white Turkish” elites, as well as Alevis and Kurds with religiously conservative Syrian Arabs, while he will then encourage other refugees to continue their journey into Europe proper. Many of Turkey’s traditional Kemalists, though, will not stay to fight another day. They will look at Kemal Kilicdaroglu’s loss as their last chance and pack their bags. Get ready for sociological change in Turkey’s society to accelerate.
Now a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).