Tuesday, 02 January 2018 15:08

Erdogan's Turkey: the Role of a Little Known Islamist Poet


January 2, 2018 


When President Trump announced that the US had recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the region prepared for violence. Aside from a few days of sporadic protests, relatively little happened. Most Arab leaders – Saudi Arabia chief among them – took the decision in their stride. The one major exception was Turkey. This intriguing op-ed explores why the NATO ally has reacted as it has. Read on! The Editor.


Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has a penchant for conspiracy. In recent years, he has frequently blamed foreign “masterminds” for all problems plaguing Turkey and the Muslim world. Following President Trump’s announcement, Erdoğan called an emergency summit of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation, benefiting from his country’s rotating presidency of that organization, which enabled him to cast himself as the leader of the Muslim world.

Speaking two days later at an award ceremony, Erdoğan outdid himself: “if Jerusalem goes, we will lose Medina. If Medina goes, we will lose Mecca. If Mecca goes, we will lose the Kaaba!”

Where does this vitriol come from? Dismissing it as rhetoric from an embattled regime would be a mistake. Anti-Israel animus and a penchant for conspiracy theories involving global Jewry have been a constant in Erdoğan’s shifting domestic alliances and foreign policy initiatives.

Erdoğan’s December 15 speech was symbolic indeed: the occasion betrayed more than meets the eye. Erdoğan uttered his warning at the awards celebrating the Islamist poet and writer Necip Fazıl Kısakürek (1904-83), who was the intellectual mentor not only for Erdoğan, but for a large portion of the current political elite in Turkey.

Kısakürek was once a marginal figure in Turkey. While educated partially in France, Kısakürek grew to abhor the West, and to see it as the root of all evil. But like many contemporary Islamists, he incorporated European fascist ideas, two of which stand out. The first was his rejection of democracy, and his advocacy instead for a political system led by an “exalted ruler” – a totalitarian Islamist and nationalist regime built on Sunni Islam and Turkish ethnicity, which envisaged the ethnic cleansing of other, less desirable groups.

Second, Kısakürek harbored a strong hatred for Jews and their imagined sidekicks, the freemasons, who he believed were in cahoots, hell-bent on destroying Turkey. This hatred is obvious throughout his work, but was so strong that he devoted an entire book to the subject. He viewed the expulsion of Jews – and a Turkish community of Jewish converts to Islam called the dönme – as critical to the country’s survival. Once this cleansing was complete, Turkey would “shine like a diamond.”

This repulsive and once marginal figure is now widely celebrated: Turkish cabinet ministers regularly sing his praises. Erdoğan himself once cited Kısakürek as the single person who influenced him the most, and his December 15 appearance was no exception: he makes a point out of appearing at events honoring the person he calls his “master,” and reciting his poetry.

In the midst of a sputtering economy, Erdoğan knows his Islamist ideology does not win elections. This is why he is in the midst of trying to co-opt the opposition Nationalist Action Party ahead of elections in coming years. While Israel-bashing will hardly cost Erdoğan any votes, it is not an issue that truly animates the Turkish public. Erdoğan’s hyperbole on Jerusalem is indicative of a broader trend: how the Islamist ideology that Kısakürek represents has become mainstream in Turkey. It is no longer marginal; in fact, it is actively propagated by many of Turkey’s media, schools and mosques. This worldview also forms the backdrop for Turkey’s central role for many Islamist organizations globally, which National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster spoke of on December 11.

Erdoğan’s reaction to the Jerusalem decision should not be construed as being only about Erdoğan. It is an indication of the country’s shifting identity. Finding ways to punish Erdoğan would not solve the deeper problem: Turkish society is rapidly slipping its western moorings. Whatever happens at the political level, it is time to take the long view, and devise ways to counter the ideological drift of this critical ally into a toxic blend of Islamism and ethnic nationalism.

Svante Cornell is director of the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, co-founder of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and policy advisor to the Jewish Institute for National Security of America’s Gemunder Center.

Read 13355 times Last modified on Wednesday, 03 January 2018 20:49





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    Tuesday, 23 May 2023 00:00

    Why Russians Support the War: Jeffrey Gedmin interviews S. Frederick Starr on the resurgence of Imperial Russia.

    The American Purpose, May 23, 2023

    Jeffrey Gedmin: Do we have a Putin problem or a Russia problem today?

    S. Frederick Starr: We have a Putin problem because we have a Russia problem. Bluntly, the mass of Russians are passive and easily manipulated—down to the moment they aren’t. Two decades ago they made a deal with Vladimir Putin, as they have done with many of his predecessors: You give us a basic income, prospects for a better future, and a country we can take pride in, and we will give you a free hand. This is the same formula for autocracy that prevailed in Soviet times, and, before that, under the czars. The difference is that this time Russia’s leader—Putin—and his entourage have adopted a bizarre and dangerous ideology, “Eurasianism,” that empowers them to expand Russian power at will over the entire former territory of the USSR and even beyond. It is a grand and awful vision that puffs up ruler and ruled alike.

    What do most Russians think of this deal? It leaves them bereft of the normal rights of citizenship but free from its day-to-day responsibilities. So instead of debating, voting, and demonstrating, Russians store up their frustrations and then release them in elemental, often destructive, and usually futile acts of rebellion. This “Russia problem” leaves the prospect of change in Russia today in the hands of alienated members of Putin’s immediate entourage, many of whom share his vision of Russia’s destiny and are anyway subject to Putin’s ample levers for control. Thus, our “Putin problem” arises from our “Russia problem.”

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  • CACI director Svante Cornell's interviewed on the 'John Batchelor Show' podcast regarding Turkey's 2023 presidential election
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  • New Article Series on Changing Geopolitics of Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Wednesday, 24 November 2021 11:53


  • CACI Initiative on Religion and the Secular State in Central Asia and the Caucasus
    Sunday, 24 January 2021 13:53

    In 2016, the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program launched an initiative on documenting the interrelationship of religion and the secular state in the region. This initiative departed from the fact that little systematic reserch had been undertaken on the subject thus far. While there was and remains much commentary and criticism of religious policy in the region, there was no comprehensive analysis available on the interrelationship of religion and the state in any regional state, let alone the region as a whole. The result of this initiative has been the publication of six Silk Road Papers studying the matter in regional states, with more to come. In addition, work is ongoing on a volume putting the regional situation in the context of the Muslim world as a whole.


    Case Studies

    Each study below can be freely downloaded in PDF format.


    Azerbaijan's Formula: Secular Governance and Civil Nationhood
    By Svante E. Cornell, Halil Karaveli, and Boris Ajeganov
    November 2016   

    2018-04-Kazakhstan-SecularismReligion and the Secular State in Kazakhstan
    By Svante E. Cornell, S. Frederick Starr and Julian Tucker
    April 2018




    1806-UZ-coverReligion and the Secular State in Uzbekistan
    Svante E. Cornell and Jacob Zenn
    June 2018




    2006-Engvall-coverReligion and the Secular State in Kyrgyzstan
    Johan Engvall
    June 2020

     Event video online


    2006-Clement-coverReligion and the Secular State in Turkmenistan
    Victoria Clement
    June 2020

    Event video online




    Articles and Analyses

    Svante E. Cornell, "Religion and the State in Central Asia," in Ilan Berman, ed., Wars of Ideas: Theology, Interpretation and Power in the Muslim World, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.

    Svante E. Cornell, "Central Asia: Where Did Islamic Radicalization Go?" in Religion, Conflict and Stability in the Former Soviet Union, eds. Katya Migacheva and Bryan Frederick, Arlington, VA: RAND Corporation, 2018.