President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared victory in an election which independent observers say was neither free nor fair. Under Turkey’s new executive presidency, Erdogan can rule by decree. Then again, he has been able to do so for almost two years, since he declared a state of emergency in the wake of a coup attempt which very well may have been Turkey’s equivalent of the Reichstag fire. Those who support continued U.S.-Turkey partnership sayeither that the United States has invested too much in its ties to Turkey to walk away because of disgust with one man or they point to Turkey’s strategic value.
These concerns miss the point, however: The partnership between Washington and Ankara was never arbitrary; it rested on shared values. The values the Turkish government now holds, however, are the antithesis of American democratic and liberal values. Erdogan has cracked down on free press, imprisons opponents, and engages in hostage diplomacy. He unapologetically supports Islamist terrorist groups and threatens to betray U.S. military technology to Russia. NATO, meanwhile, is an alliance of joint defense. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. When one member is threatened, the others rally to its defense; they do not engage in a bidding war for loyalty, as Erdogan openly does with Washington and Moscow.
The real problem with Turkey is not its relationship with the United States, however, but rather its relations with the world.
Consider the case of Saudi Arabia: It grew tremendously wealthy in the 1970s on the back of the petrodollar and used that money to spread its intolerant and extreme vision of Islam around the world. The Sept. 11 attacks perpetrated by Saudi hijackers and financed in part by Saudi royals was simply the tip of the iceberg. Saudi money, Saudi nongovernmental organizations, and Saudi-funded mosques are responsible for hundreds of thousands, if not more, deaths in conflicts from Paris to the Philippines and from Syria to Somalia.
That began to change not in the aftermath of the attacks on New York and Washington, but rather when al Qaeda terrorists attacked inside Saudi Arabia itself. The Saudis quickly understood the blowback they risked. After all, al Qaeda essentially followed a theological exegesis and worldview taught in Saudi textbooks. The kingdom could no longer ensure its own security by ensuring that its militants focused their efforts on conflicts beyond its borders.
It is uncertain if Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman will be successful with his reforms and, if not, radicalism could return with a vengeance. That said, there is optimism not only in Washington, but across the Islamic world and in Riyadh itself that bin Salman is serious about righting past wrongs and beginning to unravel the radicalism which his kingdom and his relatives once supported. The irony here, however, is that as Saudi Arabia pulls back from its past role as the number one financier of religious radicalism, Turkey may take its place.
Erdogan is the product of a religious education in Turkey and joined a movement more attuned to the Muslim Brotherhood than traditional Turkish Islam. As he has consolidated power, he has sought to privilege this Salafi vision and fundamentally change Turkish society. After all, when Erdogan has promised “to raise a religious generation,” he means one that adheres only to his vision. He has sought to force Alevi students to undertake religious education with Sunni teachers, and he has lifted age and time restrictions on supplemental Quran schools often taught by teachers from oil-rich Gulf emirates like Qatar. He had replaced the traditionally technocratic banking board with Turkish alum who learned their trade working in Islamic banking in Saudi Arabia. And he has undertaken an unprecedented mosque construction program which he then staffs with those who amplify his vision. The whole dispute with exiled theologian Fethullah Gulen? That has more to do with a conflict between Erdogan’s more Salafi exegesis and Gulen’s more traditionalist, Turkish Sufi vision than political and financial competition.
While Erdogan has laid the groundwork for a new Islamist vision in Turkey, his ambitions go beyond. He sees Turkey as leader of the Islamic world.
In 2004, he pushed successfully for a Turk to lead the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. And he has pushed the Diyanet, the institutionalization of Islam in Turkey, not only to take a more international role, but to take a more Islamist one as well.
Indeed, European security services increasingly see the Diyanet and the imams it funds and produces to be a security threat in much the same way that graduates of Saudi-funded religious seminaries were once viewed. Austria is closing Turkey-funded mosques and expelling Turkey-sponsored imams. Germany and the Netherlands are also investigating Turkey and Turkey-sponsored imams for illegal activities on their soil. Turkey’s diplomats and imams increasingly pose a security threat in the Balkans, where they work to radicalize Muslim populations in Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo. About 90 percent of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters traversed Turkey.
Had Erdogan sought to control his border, ISIS would never have seized the territory it did. While Erdogan has justified his incursion into the Afrin district in Syria as necessary for counterterrorism, he has allowed radical Syrian Islamist groups to fill the vacuum left by largely secular Kurds ethnically cleansed from the region. Turkey is also reaching out and using its imams to proselytize a more radical vision among Muslims in Africa; a leaked phone call suggests it may even have supplied arms to Boko Haram. Turkey’s new Islamist drive also determines its growing relationship with Sudan, Qatar, and the Hamas-run administration of the Gaza Strip.
Erdogan’s vision is clear. His goal was never simply consolidation of absolute power over Turkey, but rather to lead a worldwide transformation of Islam and become leader of the Islamic world. For Erdogan, phase one is complete, but phase two of his program is just beginning. He may not have the money Saudi Arabia once did, but he has picked up the baton dropped by Saudi Arabia as it seeks a new direction. Alas, it increasingly appears that Turkey, as Erdogan’s vassal, will become the new engine for instability just as the old one responsible for so much destruction sputters out.
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog. He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official.