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A failure of democracy – Book review of Soner Cagaptay’s The New Sultan: Erdogan and the Crisis of Modern Turkey

My main take-away from The New Sultan, by Soner Cagaptay, is President Erdogan failed democracy after democracy had failed him.  This book is written for laypeople interested in learning how Turkey lost its high standing as one of very few secular democracies in the Muslim world.  It is an appropriately detailed history of Mr. Erdogan that does a good job explaining the complexities of Turkish politics.  I found the book in my local library, and it is available for purchase online and in bookstores.

Mr. Erdogan’s history as an Islamist politician reads like the Whack-A-Mole who keeps popping back up.  Mr. Erdogan had reason to perceive the establishment persecuted Islamist leaders, because it did.  He built up a distrust for the establishment and for fellow Islamists whom he believed would align with him only for their own purposes.  Mr. Erdogan accumulated power by using, then discarding democracy, and doing the same to one political ally after another.  The massive increase in his power and abuses after July 2016 is a predictable acceleration.

Soner Cagaptay takes a balanced approach to the subject.  This too could have been predicted.  The author is the Director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  This think tank seeks to responsibly advise and inform the US government’s foreign policy.  I believe the organization is positioned at center in the US political spectrum.  Throughout the book, the author details how effectively Mr. Erdogan helped his constituents in his various positions, such as building infrastructure when he was Mayor of Istanbul.  Prior to recent years Mr. Erdogan boosted the Turkish economy at large.  At the conclusion of the book, the author appeals to Mr. Erdogan to restore democracy.   The author can take this approach only because he has not called Mr. Erdogan a maniac or dictator!  Elsewhere, such as his opinion columns in major US newspapers, the author takes a stronger line by referring to the “death of democracy” under Mr. Erdogan.  (The author’s articles are available at the website of the Washington Institute.)

Due to the author’s effort to be diplomatic, I feel somewhat left in the dark as to the author’s opinions regarding causation of the coup attempted against Mr. Erdogan in July 2016.   For example, regarding the imam Fethullah Gulen and Mr. Gulen’s supporters, the author says Mr. Erdogan blames them for the coup.  The author states that the movement had obtained many appointments to the military officer corps, police, and judiciary when Mr. Gulen and his movement had supported Mr. Erdogan from 2002 to 2011.   In that period they were “used as a means to help eliminate checks and balances, lock up generals, and intimidate opponents.”  Subsequently, “What ensued was a raw power struggle” between Mr. Erdogan and the Gulen movement.  In July 2016, “Gulen-aligned military officers allegedly formed the backbone of a coup d’etat against Erdogan.”  It is unclear where the author stands on the role of the officers, the imam and the movement’s rank-and-file specifically in the coup.  Unlike Mr. Erdogan, the author does not refer to Mr. Gulen or his movement as terrorist.

What the author does make clear is his view that about half of the Turkish population, and human rights organizations around the world, agree Mr. Erdogan increasingly accumulates and abuses power.  The author cites statistics from several international organization on abuses against Turkey’s media, judiciary, and opposition parties.   The author explains sadly:  Violent opposition, even civil war, grows more likely while peaceful opposition to Mr. Erdogan remains illegal.

I would have liked if the author further detailed the current crisis with some idea of the numbers of Turkish people who have been arrested, or removed from jobs in schools, universities, media, and civil or military service.  I also would have liked a few anecdotes or details about these people.

A dozen Americans have been arrested in Turkey in the past two years because they allegedly had ties to Mr. Gulen’s movement.  Since that movement makes a point of outreach to Americans interested in Turkey – especially non-Muslims – I wound up as an American non-Muslim friend of members of the movement.  I attend their community holiday dinners and other non-political events, often with a theme of harmony among religions.  For attending these peace festivals, could I become another arrest statistic if I went to Turkey to sunbathe on their beaches?

Book published 2017 by I.B.Tauris & Co., 240 pages

 

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