Neither Sharia, Nor Democracy: Why Erdogan’s Hybrid Regime Is Doomed to Constant Coups


Having stopped halfway between a pro-Western democracy, with its mass culture and lack of spirituality, and a pure Sharia regime, Erdogan will be inevitably rejected by the supporters of those two opposing visions.

Erdogan prevailed over the coup plotters this time. His victory will clearly strengthen his grip over Turkey in the short-term, but without making his regime any more stable in the long run. Having stopped halfway between a pro-Western democracy, with its mass culture and lack of spirituality, and a pure Sharia regime, Erdogan will be inevitably rejected by the supporters of both. It is for this reason that more coup attempts are to come.

Way back in 1994, the well-known Turkish journalist Rusen Cakir published a book about Necmettin Erbakan’s Refah or Welfare Party under the title Neither Sharia, Nor Democracy. It shows the hybrid and transitional nature of Turkey’s institutionalized Islamism created by Erbakan and inherited by the country’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Of course, against this backdrop Erdogan’s regime can satisfy neither Turkey’s secular forces and the military who dream of restoring a Kemalist junta, nor the true Islamists who are becoming an increasingly important force due to ISIS and Turkey’s ties with Qatar.

As a result, over the last month the Istanbul airport suffered a terrorist attack organized by forces closely related to ISIS, followed by an attempted government coup staged by mid-ranking military personnel with Kemalist leanings. On the night of the coup, the plotters issued a manifesto saying that they stand for restoring secular rule in Turkey, which was not respected by Erdogan, and amending the country’s constitution in the spirit of Kemalism.

Consequently, Erdogan’s regime is coming under pressure on both flanks, from secular as well as radical and religious groups. Those two forces have decided to engage in violent actions at the same time, sending a clear signal that compromise is no longer possible.

The fact that the onslaught against the Erdogan regime by secular and religious groups started almost simultaneously suggests that they could possibly coordinate their actions. Of course, this idea is not obvious as far as conspiracy theories are concerned. However, it is telling that Erdogan blamed the coup on Fethullah Gulen, one of his main rivals in the world of Turkish Islamism, instead of going after the Kemalist-leaning groups.

The suggestion is that an Islamist preacher is pulling the strings of Kemalist officers who appear as his obedient puppets. The US is naturally accused of standing behind both Gulen and the military. In statements on the night of the coup, Erdogan and his prime minister sounded clearly anti-American, and this is quite indicative. In their worldview, the US is a source of evil eager to manipulate even Islamist radicals, let alone pro-western secularists.

The Erdogan regime beat back the coup. Regarding the tactics President Erdogan employed during the night of the coup, it is worth noting his bold and courageous actions, as well as his rather subtle and efficient approach. He called on the masses in Istanbul and other cities to take to the streets and support their president.

This turned out to be a decisive moment that tipped the scales in Erdogan’s favor, since the coup organizers had not thought of doing the same and followed the standard top-down playbook for a coup whereby the military present themselves as the saviors of the nation and take to the streets with the tanks, neutralize the authorities, occupy TV stations and declare that the people of the country “have been saved.” Under this scenario, people remain silent and are not given any role by the conspirators.

It should be noted that this reflects an entrenched snobbish disdain toward the masses that has become a defining feature of the army elite, just as all other technocratic elites. This snobbism and even contempt toward the masses undermined the coup. As a result, instead of having to deal with the presidential guard on the run, those behind the attempt to depose Erdogan faced crowds of galvanized supporters they were not ready to deal with. “Fire but not at the people” is a typical mantra in failed coups, including this latest attempt in Turkey.

So Erdogan has won this round. But this victory will hardly make his government any more stable in the long run. The reason lies with the very hybrid nature of his regime that is unable to deliver either Sharia or democratic rule to the people.

In the immediate aftermath of the coup, the repression extended beyond those directly involved to all Kemalist-leaning groups within the Turkish society. The numbers in the first hours after Erdogan’s victory were staggering: thousands of officers were arrested and thousands of judges dismissed, and this trend is expected to pick up momentum moving forward. Naturally, this will not only result in a deeper feeling of resentment towards Erdogan among the Kemalists within the Turkish military, but also predictable protests against human rights violations coming from the West.

Today, faced with Erdogan’s victory and accusations of US involvement in the coup, John Kerry has been put on the defensive and forced to say that the State Department was not involved in the coup, while the US submitted a draft resolution to the UN Security Council, condemning the coup. However, things will calm down with time, and Erdogan will again be subject to criticism by the US and the EU. The European Parliament will not fail to adopt some kind of resolution, since there is no lack of anti-Turkish lobbyist groups within its walls. All this will lead the West to keep the idea of regime change in Turkey on the table. All possible scenarios, including a Maidan-like movement or a military coup, will be discussed in earnest. In addition, the West is expected to openly support those that could effect regime change, be it the Istanbul liberals from Taksim square, officers seeking to resurrect a Kemalist junta, or somebody else.

Another sign of how events will unfold in the future is the fact that within hours of the coup we saw the all-too-familiar statements alleging that it was Erdogan who masterminded the coup in order to justify his crackdown, undermine democracy and strengthen his personal rule. There is no doubt that this story will gain traction in the West.

On the other hand, it is also quite predictable that the Erdogan regime and the “true” Islamists will be drawn further apart. It is true that in recent years an alliance of convenience has taken shape between Turkey and Qatar, enabling the Erdogan regime to establish ties with ISIS, which no one really tried to hide (this has to do with oil supplies, their common anti-Kurdish agenda and other issues).

However, this does nothing to remove the insurmountable religious and doctrinal differences between Erdogan’s Turks and Salafist Arabs. Primarily, the modern Turkish Islamist vision that was first adopted by Erbakan and later Erdogan is closely linked to the Sufi brotherhoods, above all the Naqshbandi tariqah, which were severely persecuted by the Kemalist junta as important elements of Ottoman political culture.

Any Salafi imam will tell you right away that Sufi brotherhoods present an even bigger evil for a true Muslim than the infidels or the Shia. For the Salafists, Sufis are destroying the Sunni community from within by introducing elements of Christian mysticism and other deviations from the Prophet’s Sunna. It is for this reason that the fight against Sufis and their rituals and their belief in a “popular Islam” in the post-Ottoman world (from the Balkans to the Caucasus and Central Asia), as well as in Africa, is one of the key strategies in the relentless efforts by the Salafists to expand their influence. Salafists tend to ridicule, persecute and even kill Sufi preachers and adherents of popular or traditional Islam across the Muslim world. It would be strange and even naïve to think that Erdogan’s Turkey could be an exception. The recent terrorist attack on the Istanbul airport is telling in this respect.

This growing divide between Erdogan supporters and Salafists is further aggravated by ethnic and historical factors. It is true that only a century ago the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire was viewed as the Caliph and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. But these times are long gone, and the Salafists no longer need the phantoms of the Ottoman world in their quest for Arab (or Saudi, to be more exact) leadership in the Muslim world. In this regard, when Erdogan decided to make an ally out of Ahmet Davutoglu, a supporter of a neo-Ottoman ideology and an Ottoman revival within the political system of Erdogan’s Turkey, this provoked resentment and irritated the Saudis. All this has led the Salafist Saudi Arabia and Erdogan’s Turkey with its neo-Ottoman aspiration to the brink of a strategic rivalry for leadership in the Sunni world.

It is not a coincidence that when Qatar tried to benefit from this situation in the first years of Sheikh Tamim’s rule and under the leadership of the then foreign minister, Khalid Al Attiyah, by engaging in revisionist policies aimed at undermining Saudi dominance in the Arab world, it resulted in Qatar’s rapprochement with neo-Ottoman Turkey.

For this reason, with ISIS leaders and ideologists challenging the right of the Saudi monarchs to call themselves the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques (according to a Hadith, there cannot be two caliphs at the same time, and if two people declare themselves caliphs, one must be killed), the Saudi reaction to Turkey’s neo-Ottoman claims to being the successor of the caliphate (and to the ties between ISIS and Erdogan’s collaborators) have been entirely negative. Having prevailed over factious forces and strengthened his grip on power, Erdogan is likely to double down on Turkey’s claim to international leadership. From this perspective, his clash with Salafist Arabs seems almost inevitable.

The cultural and social differences between Turkey and Salafist countries are also important and obvious factors. Relying on the concept of a Turkish-Islamist synthesis introduced by Erbakan, Erdogan and his supporters can reconcile Islamist slogans with semi-Western lifestyle Turkey inherited from the Kemalists. Everybody knows about the Antalya resorts and Istanbul’s night life, and Erdogan does not intend to give up either of those (after all, he is not Ayatollah Khomeini), which runs counter to the puritan culture preached by the Salafists. For this reason, tensions will keep growing.

All in all, while President Erdogan has prevailed over the coup plotters, which will clearly strengthen his grip over Turkey in the short-term, his victory will not make his regime any more stable in the long run. Having stopped halfway between a pro-Western democracy, with its mass culture and lack of spirituality, and a pure Sharia regime, Erdogan will be inevitably rejected by the supporters of those two opposing visions. It is for this reason that more coup attempts are to come. 
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.

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