In hindsight, Erdogan’s true agenda should have been clear. As Istanbul’s mayor, Erdogan had regularly disparaged secularism. “Thank God Almighty, I am a servant of sharia,” he declared in 1994, and the following year he described himself as “the imam of Istanbul.” Around the same time, Turkish journalist Cengiz Candar, who often serves as Erdogan’s unofficial mouthpiece, hinted that the new political class would end its embrace of Kemalism — the secular political philosophy inaugurated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey. “We cannot stick to the old taboos while the world is changing and new opportunities are arising for Turkey,” he told the Washington Post. “We have to think big.” As Erdogan ascended to the premiership, Ali Bayramoglu, a commentator for the fiercely Islamist and anti-Western daily Yeni Safak, which Erdogan described as his newspaper of choice, bragged that the partisans of “neo-Ottomanism . . . are increasing every day.”
Bayramoglu cast neo-Ottomanism in opposition to Kemalism. If Kemalism combines laicism with the notion that Turkey should emulate the West, neo-Ottomanists focus less on Europe and instead seek to leverage Turkey’s imperial past in the Middle East, much as Russian nationalists embrace the former Soviet republics and even Eastern Europe as their “near abroad.”
Erdogan was shrewd, however. He did not publicly abandon Turkey’s drive toward European Union accession. To do so would have been to show his cards while his hand was still weak. Instead, he pursued the accession process for devious reasons.
The AKP has never respected Europe and its institutions. When the European Court of Human Rights upheld a headscarf ban at Turkish universities in November 2005, Erdogan used a visit to Denmark to declare, “It is wrong that those who have no connection to this field make such a decision . . . without consulting Islamic scholars.” The following year, Erdogan excised all references to secularism from a negotiating paper discussing the future of Turkey’s educational system.
Erdogan continued the EU-accession effort for one simple reason: The process required Turkey to reduce the military influence in politics. On the surface, this sounds beneficial to democracy: After all, the military had forcibly overthrown Turkish governments in 1960 and 1980, and in 1971 and 1997 the threat of military action was sufficient to force governments to resign. In reality, however, Turkey’s military enabled democracy. Not only was it charged with national defense, but it also served as the guarantor of Turkey’s constitution. If the Islamists wanted to end Turkey’s constitutional order, therefore, they first had to weaken the military.
With Europe’s blessing, Erdogan subordinated Turkey’s National Security Council to civilian control and passed a reform package that further reduced that body’s power in government. Never did European officials — or their American counterparts — recognize that they were undercutting an important check-and-balance system without constructing a civilian alternative. The 2005 threat by Bulent Arinc, now Erdogan’s chief deputy, to dissolve the constitutional court if it continued to find AKP legislation unconstitutional highlights the need for a constitutional guarantor. Erdogan further undercut the military with a crackdown on alleged malfeasance, imprisoning dozens of secularist officers on spurious charges. European officials, notoriously distrustful of hard power, seldom raised their voices, perhaps believing that the end justified the means.
By the time Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu acknowledged that neo-Ottomanism formed the basis of AKP foreign policy, in December 2009, Turkey had already changed irreversibly from the Western-leaning pillar of NATO into a state whose future rests in the Middle East.