In December 2017, U.S. national security advisor General H. R. McMaster singled out Turkey and Qatar as prime sources of funding for extremist Islamist ideology globally.1 Roughly at the time of McMaster’s pronouncement, his point was unwittingly reinforced by a key mouthpiece of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the editor of the Islamist daily Yeni Şafak, Ibrahim Karagül: “Turkey is emerging as a new power center opposing the United States, the world’s strongest power … the matter is no longer about Jerusalem or about Turkey and Israel. It is a showdown between the United States and Turkey.”2Karagül went on to claim that America’s aim was to occupy Islam’s holy sites, Mecca and Medina.
Either of these pronouncement would have been utterly unthinkable little more than a decade ago. Today, they only raise eyebrows. Indeed, there is a growing consensus that Turkey, aside from becoming increasingly authoritarian, is moving away from the Euro-Atlantic sphere mentally and ideologically. This, most observers realize, has important implications for the regional security of both Europe and the Middle East, not to speak of American interests.
But how deep is this shift, and what lies at its basis? There is more debate regarding these critical questions. A skeptic could observe that President Erdoğan appears to use ideology instrumentally. Indeed, over the past few years his rhetoric, and evolving regime constellation, have cultivated Turkish nationalism as much as Islamism. Further, optimists maintain that Turkish society has developed rapidly in the past two decades, and that its economic strides will counterbalance the danger of radicalization. A parallel argument would hold that the problem is largely the abrasive personality of the Turkish president. Post-Erdoğan, thus, Turkey may revert to the mean and return to its position as a reliable ally.
There is merit to these arguments. In particular, the excessive focus in the West on Erdoğan’s person does hinder deeper analysis of the intricacies of behind-the-scenes Turkish regime politics and masks the very real weaknesses of his position. And there is no question that if Erdoğan is an ideologue, he is a very pragmatic one: His government at first relied on the followers of self-exiled preacher Fethullah Gülen to reduce Turkey’s military and right-wing nationalist establishment to size. But when his relationship with the Gülenists turned sour, he promptly struck up an alliance with those very ultra-nationalist elements and turned against the Kurdish groups he had long cultivated while maximizing Turkish nationalist support.
Still, the ideological underpinnings of Turkish policies are undeniable. Education reforms implemented since 2012 strongly enhanced religious content in the public education system and were accompanied by a boom in religious schools, in many cases involving the forced conversion of secular public schools to religious schools.3 A gigantic and activist state directorate for religious affairs has been built to promote Sunni Islam.4 Simultaneously, especially following the 2011 Arab uprisings, Turkey’s foreign policy was increasingly motivated by a Sunni Islamist agenda.5 The Turkish leadership has also showed a worrisome penchant for conspiracy theories. Following the 2013 Gezi Park riots, government representatives famously blamed the “interest rate lobby” for orchestrating the unrest, and statements that clearly pass the threshold of anti-Semitism have become frequent.
This article will argue that Turkey’s slide in the direction of Islamist ideology is real and goes beyond the personality of Tayyip Erdoğan. To illustrate this point, it will study the ideological worldview of the current Turkish political elite and focus on two key sources. One is the worldview of Necmettin Erbakan, Erdoğan’s predecessor as leader of Turkey’s Islamist movement, which was laid out in a posthumously published memoir. The second is the heritage of the Islamist poet Necip Fazıl Kısakürek, a reference point not just for Erdoğan but for a generation of both Islamist and nationalist elites in Turkey. Their once fringe ideas, far from being arcane, have increasingly become mainstream.