Both a sultan and a caliph

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may have eased off Greece for now – an old technique of the Turks – but he’s insulting Western leaders, defying American sanctions after testing the Russian S-400 missiles, meddling militarily in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, eyeing a role in Sudan, and angering Russia, Egypt, Israel and anyone else he has occasion to. Many are wondering what the reasoning is behind all this. Does Erdogan have a plan?

To the rational Western mind, all of this is simply crazy. What we tend to forget is that Erdogan – despite the smoke screen he had up for 20 odd years – is an Islamist. He may not be a fanatic, but his faith informs his politics to a large degree.

He exploited the attempted coup against him in 2016 to make himself something akin to a sultan by establishing a tough and authoritarian regime, jailing thousands of military officers, academics, writers, journalists etc. He fired thousands of civil servants and gagged the media. The thing is that from 1517, the rulers of the Ottoman Empire were not just sultans, they were also religious leaders, or caliphs, all the way up until 1924, when the title was abolished under the modern Turkish republic. For a religious politician, being “something akin to a caliph” (a leader and protector of the world’s Muslims) is a more desirable position than “something akin to a sultan.”

If the above interpretation proves correct, that will change a lot in this neighborhood. First of all, it would debunk various myths, including the most prevalent Greek one, whereby Turkish foreign policy is consistent and without deviation. In contrast to Greece, which remains consistently and strategically European, Turkey has changed tack three time in the last 40 years alone. From the low-intensity problems created for us by the Kemalist regime, we went to the “zero problems with neighbors” dogma, and are now in the phase of “problems with everyone, neighbors or not.”

Secondly, Greece and the West as a whole will have to readjust their approach to Turkey. If something happens and Erdogan manages to unhook Turkey from the West, he is certainly not going to be attaching it to the chariot of Christian Russia, but will aspire to establish it as new Islamic chariot in the race led by him. 

This will make Greece something like Israel in that it will be on the border of the Islamic world and hopefully Samuel Huntington’s great clash will not transpire.

Published in eKathimerini.com 2.11.2020