March 29, 2015

Erdoğan the caliph

Mümtazer Türköne

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asserts, “I am the leader of a political movement.”

Those who support him within the AK Party and the wider government also affirm that “he is the leader of a political movement,” thus bowing to his ultimate authority. The careful underscoring by the president of his being the “leader of a political movement” has come in the wake of authority-related problems in the ranks of the ruling party and the government. But Erdoğan's statement has some very deep implications, and they are implications backed up by the chorus of voices seconding his words.

In calling himself “leader of a political movement,” Erdoğan is reaching out to a wide spectrum of people, one that stretches from moderate conservatism to radical Islam. He is using rhetoric that taps into the rich history and political traditions linked to Islam. The controversial theories of political Islam show us what we need to grasp from the phrase “leader of a political movement.”

According to the general theory of political Islam, the relationship between those who lead and those who are led is based upon a “contract of allegiance.” Those who are led declare, via their representatives, that they will obey their leader, thus surrendering all of their political rights -- unconditionally -- to said leader. And so the contract draws up the parameters for both sides: The leader will lead justly, while those who are led will be obedient. In the meantime, within the traditions of political Islam, those who use their power in this way are called “caliphs.” And a caliphate is, for leaders who rely upon religious references in the Islamic world, the name of the system that they will inevitably turn towards.

But is Erdoğan a caliph? This is not a question that has much relevance actually, outside of those searching for some sort of religious legitimacy to his role. At the same time, though, Erdoğan's assertions of power and authority begin to take on greater meaning in light of the caliphate idea. In fact, if you replace the phrase “leader of a political movement” with the word “caliph,” all the stones seem to settle into their places.

Islam has its political as well as its civilian arenas, quite naturally. It is not surprising when a movement that exists in the political arena and uses religious references to legitimize itself winds up becoming radicalized. It is the political conditions in place that wind up determining the radicalization of political Islam. In the meantime, it is also a natural outcome of this situation that we see civil Islamic movements with no desire for political power spread through society as a balancing factor against the radicalization in the political arena. After all, political Islam is a threat to the arena in which civil Islam can survive and flourish.

When viewed in light of the natural balances between civil and political Islam, the current tension we see between the Gülen movement and Erdoğan makes much more sense. The war unleashed by Erdoğan against the Gülen movement is at the same time a war unleashed by political Islam against civil Islam. By declaring the civil arena the enemy, Erdoğan has radicalized the political arena. And today, in order to wield power and authority that is not constitutionally his, Erdoğan has a need for strong Islamic models such as the caliphate.

Had he not decided to wage war on the civil arena, Erdoğan could have procured “religious consent” from society without having to use the strong religious references he now favors and reiterates regularly.

If there is any single reason we no longer view Erdoğan as a “moderate Islamic leader” the way we did in the past, it is because of his war against civil Islam. Only via the radicalization of political Islam in Turkey was it possible to portray the Gülen movement as the enemy.

Interestingly, history shows us that strong sultans did not actually depend on the title of caliph. In fact, Ottoman sultans began to use this title for the first time only when they lost control of Muslim Crimean lands in 1774.

Trying to fortify power by calling oneself the “leader of political movement,” or what we can understand as “caliph,” is just one more sign of weakening strength. It is also a move that brings with it the potential for increased radicalization in the near future.

Published on Today's Zaman, 28 March 2015, Saturday