The recent attack on the Istanbul airport, which killed more than 40 people, is only the latest case of terrorism striking Turkey. The country is facing blowback from the Islamic State, a group that it allowed to flourish in the hopes that doing so would bring down the Assad regime in Syria. The country is also in the midst of a domestic insurgency from its Kurdish minority. This comes after recent moves against the Kurds by Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who shows similar levels of contempt for journalists and domestic opponents. Once seen by some as a model for moderate Islamist rule, Erdogan, the most powerful member of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, now appears more akin to a run-of-the-mill authoritarian.
To discuss Turkey’s role in the region, and Erdogan’s future, I spoke by phone recently with Jenny White, the author of numerous books about Turkey, and a professor at Stockholm University’s Institute for Turkish Studies. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, we talked about ISIS’s role in Turkey, Erdogan’s volatile personality, and internal cleavages in Turkish society.
Isaac Chotiner: You have written that Islamism versus secularism is not a good way of understanding Erdogan’s Turkey. Is that still true, and if so, why?
Jenny White: I still agree with that position, although it is getting pretty unpopular. The way that the AKP has been talked about in Turkey by nonpious intellectuals—the sort of group that was pushed aside when the AKP came to power—is in terms of Islamism. They kept worrying that Turkey was going to turn into Iran or something like that, and that Sharia law was the ultimate goal. They used this phrase that Erdogan recited, where he said that democracy is like a tram: You ride it until you arrive at your destination and then you get off. And because of the discourse with which the AKP was discussed in the public arena, the comment was always couched as Islamism vs. secularism. People assumed that what he meant was that you get off and then you have an Islamic state.
I have been following the AKP and its predecessor party since the 1990s, and I have never heard them talk about Sharia law. In fact, there are polls that show that Sharia law has very little support in Turkey, and, as I found out in my own research, a lot of people don’t even know what Sharia law is. Until recently, theological education was in secular institutions.
So what did the quotation mean then?
What I think he meant is that you get off and you ditch democracy. You get off, and you become a dictator or an autocrat. That actually fits his personality. I interviewed him and followed him around when he was the mayor of Istanbul. He has always been a kind of bully in terms of his views and overweening desire to dominate any situation he is in. He had a vision: He wanted total control over what his regime would look like. It wasn’t an ideological position; it was a very pragmatic one. This is what we need to do in terms of getting power. We need to muzzle the army. To muzzle the army we need to continue with the EU accession process. We need to improve the economy, so let’s go hustle up treaties and contracts in Africa and the Middle East. Whenever he went anywhere, he always flew in a plane with businesspeople who would sign contracts wherever they were going. Early on there was a sense of pragmatism, and it was in his interest—both economically and in terms of amassing power—to do all the things he was doing. They weren’t quite liberal, but he had the opening to the Kurds. He did a lot of good things. If he faked it, he faked it for almost a decade.
So essentially he will do good things if they are in his interest.
Yeah. That’s exactly my point.
You mentioned his opposition to the military, but it seems like his regime, to you, is less Islamist and more like a traditional Turkish autocracy.
I think there is a lot of continuity. In the case of the Kemalist period, there was always the same kind of maneuvering that there is now. Turkey is a majoritarian democracy, a winner-take-all system. Whoever wins the election gets to call the shots. There is no sense, and there never has been a sense under any regime, that you have a duty to represent the views of people who didn’t vote for you. That has not changed at all. It’s a different group of people whose values are being represented. It’s always been the case that the government has stacked institutions with their people; the difference now is that the institutions are being dismantled.
You aren’t a psychologist, I don’t think—
I do have a master’s in psychology.
Oh, terrific, you will love this next question. Whether or not Erdogan has always pursued power and his own interests, when you look in that guy’s eyes now, he seems a little bit off. He recently tried to silence a German comedian who made fun of him. Do you think some sort of change has occurred within him?
Yes, I do. You can’t just say, “and then he went mad.” You have to explain what happened. In the beginning you see this pragmatic politician. And then between 2008 and 2011, something changed. You can kind of pinpoint it. He fired a bunch of people that surrounded him and replaced them with really nutty airheads. His major adviser, the first time he spoke up, said that Erdogan was being targeted by people who were trying to kill him with telekinesis. And then Erdogan built this palace, which is very grandiose. It is bigger than Versailles. You know when dictators get overthrown and people flood into their mansions and find gold-plated bathroom fixtures? Once you start building stuff like that, something is going on. He did other strange things, like surrounding himself with actors wearing costumes representing 16 Turkish empires. It’s laughable. People want to say that the emperor has no clothes, but they don’t dare to. And the emperor also controls everything the people say and hear.
He became paranoid. This is the important word. There are all these indications of paranoia that started with the Gülen movement. Presumably people belonging to the Gülen ,ovement, who were in the judiciary, went after Erdogan and his close circle for corruption. That was a serious business. It was around then that this paranoia arose, helping turn Turkey into a snitch society. Recently a student at a Turkish university said he or she didn’t like how a teacher spoke about Erdogan, and the teacher was fired. Neighbors snitch on neighbors.
How do you view his switch on the Kurdish issue, where he went from seeming more amenable to make peace than any Turkish leader in a long time, to a place of aggression? Did he become less practical and more power-hungry?
These two things are not mutually exclusive, power-hungry and practical: He can be practical because he is power-hungry. To me, it’s clear that in terms of timing, it had to do with the elections. He lost his majority in the elections [in June 2015], and two weeks later, all hell broke loose. There were excuses—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, killed a couple of policeman, but the response from the Turkish security services was so overwhelming. And now they are going through Kurdish-majority cities, one by one, and destroying parts of them, getting the people out of them with all kinds of human rights abuses. But he got his majority back in the next election [in November 2015]. It worked. The reason he lost initially was because conservative, pious Kurds who used to vote for the AKP instead voted for the HDP, a party under the leadership of this charismatic guy, Selahattin Demirtaş. The only way to get those votes back was to create chaos. People are terrified of chaos. Chaos can also mean liberalism: Those crazy liberals, who knows what they do? You don’t have boundaries, you don’t have a clear identity. It’s scary.
So you go to the strongman. There is a long history of desire for a strongman. It’s based in part on the patriarchal, traditional family, which is still much beloved in Turkey among every class. The father is the patriarch, and the children, or in this case the citizens, are not supposed to talk back.
After the Istanbul attack, do you think we will see any change in Erdogan’s Syria policy, which has been invested in taking down Assad but has allowed for foreign fighters and weapons to go to groups like ISIS?
The Turkish state has had a blind spot for years with regard for ISIS. When all these other websites were being shut down in Turkey, the ISIS recruitment websites in Turkish were still running without any interference. I don’t quite understand myself where this blind spot comes from. Yes, you could say it was Sunni brotherhood, but Erdogan’s biggest fights right now are with other Sunnis, like the Kurds, many of whom are devout Sunnis, and the Gülen movement. You can’t see it as a religious dispute.
I think it is not beyond the pale for Erdogan to think he might make up with Assad. They used to be friends, and they became enemies when Erdogan and his government felt they had been disrespected by Assad, because while they were sitting in Assad’s living room, Assad promised them that he would never bomb x, y, and z when they were, at that very moment. The Turks felt that their honor had been impugned. So, you know, honor here, honor there: Pragmatism may win out in the end.