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HomeHeadlineRekindling the Caliphate: Erdoğan's Historical Ambitions and the Future of Turkish Politics

Rekindling the Caliphate: Erdoğan’s Historical Ambitions and the Future of Turkish Politics

M. AHMET KARABAY

If President Tayyip Erdoğan’s election strategy works and he manages to win a few major cities, including Istanbul, for his party, Turkey’s agenda will be significantly different. Contrary to what is thought and claimed by some circles, the focus will not be on the economy. Let me tell you what the country’s main agenda will be: THE CALIPHATE!

WHAT HAPPENS IF EKREM İMAMOĞLU WINS?

If Ekrem İmamoğlu wins the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality in the March 31st elections, the loser will not be Murat Kurum but Tayyip Erdoğan. It’s certain that Erdoğan will struggle for a while if the CHP wins in important cities besides Istanbul, such as Bursa.

Leaders of countries far from democratic try hard to show that such shakeups won’t bring them down. It would be naive to expect the Beştepe Palace team to say, “We lost this election, the people no longer want us. We want to bring the country to an early election to renew confidence.” On the contrary, they will try to hold their position by saying, “The nation has given us the authority until 2028!” and will resort to all sorts of methods to regain the power they lost by 2028.

WHAT HAPPENS IF MURAT KURUM WINS?

If Murat Kurum, the real estate agent of the Palace, becomes the Mayor of Istanbul, Erdoğan will undertake radical changes. Turkey will enter a process similar to the one after the transition to the Presidential System on June 24, 2018.

Remember Devlet Bahçeli, the leader of the MHP, responding to Erdoğan’s statement, “This is my last election!” with, “You cannot leave. You cannot abandon the Turkish nation!” With Bahçeli’s support, the Presidential Government System will be fully entrenched down to the capillaries and cells of the country. The constitutional amendment, which has been warmed up and then forgotten for a long time, will be brought to the agenda. The country will be completely stripped of the balance and checks mechanisms that still seem to exist.

THE CALIPHATE RHETORIC IS NOT NEW

Talk of Tayyip Erdoğan as a “new caliph” did not start with his election as “president” in 2018, but much earlier, after the General Elections on July 22, 2007. In AK Party circles, discussions began after the 2007 election victory that Erdoğan would revive the caliphate and become the new caliph.

Let’s briefly look at the concept of the caliph, endowed with extraordinary characteristics especially in the Sunni Islamic segment, and how it came to today.

After the death of Prophet Muhammad on June 8, 632, the issue of who would carry out his administrative and representative duties became the main agenda item for Muslims. Even before the funeral was over, the locals of Medina, known as “Ansar,” gathered under the shade of Beni Saide, arguing that since they had embraced the emigrants and supported the establishment of Islam in Medina, the caliph should be from among them. However, the meeting, which ended with the selection of Abu Bakr as the caliph due to Umar’s initiative, divided the Islamic community in a way that it would never unite again.

During the “Four Caliphs” period and the Umayyad era from 658 to 750, caliphs were always from the Quraysh tribe. The Abbasid era, starting with Abu’l-Abbas al-Saffah (the blood shedder, the tyrant) in 750, continued uninterrupted until 1250. (https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/ebul-abbas-es-seffah)

Contrary to popular belief, the Islamic world was not ruled by a single caliph. Shia Muslims always had separate imams. In the 10th century, there were three caliphs ruling large populations: the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, the Shia Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt (909-1171), and Abdurrahman III in Spain (929).

When the Seljuk sultan Tugrul Bey captured Baghdad, the center of the caliphate, from the Shia Fatimids in 1058, he did not feel the need to take on the title himself. Tugrul Bey started using the title “Sultan of Islam,” while Caliph Kaim continued in his role.

In 1258, when Hulagu, a grandson of Genghis Khan, entered Baghdad, Caliph Al-Musta’sim and his entire

family were killed. The only survivor from the family, Al-Musta’sim’s uncle, fled to Egypt, then under the control of the Mamluks/Mamlukes, and became the caliph there in 1261 with the title Al-Muntasir Billah. During the Mamluk era, 17 individuals from the Abbasid lineage served as caliphs.

When Sultan Selim I (Yavuz Sultan Selim) conquered Egypt in 1517, he sent Caliph Al-Mutawakkil III, along with the holy relics, to Istanbul. After returning to Istanbul, Selim imprisoned the caliph in the Yedikule dungeons due to inappropriate actions and kept him there throughout his reign. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (Kanuni Sultan Süleyman) released Al-Mutawakkil III after ascending the throne, and the caliph returned to Egypt.

However, there is no record in that period’s documents indicating that Sultan Selim I, or subsequently Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, assumed the caliphate. (Munşa’at el-Selatin; Published by: Feridun Ahmet, Istanbul, 1859, Vol. I, pp. 376-379.) Furthermore, neither Arab sources nor those from Europe, with which the Ottoman Empire had intense relations, mention such a claim. After returning from Egypt, Sultan Selim I did not claim the caliphate but began using the title “Servant of the Two Holy Mosques” (Mekke ve Medine’nin hizmetçisi). (Faruk Sümer, “Did Yavuz Selim Take Over the Caliphate?” History and Thought, No. 4 (February 2000) / N. Ahmet Asrar, “Rumors Related to the Transfer of the Caliphate to the Ottomans”, Studies of the Turkic World, No.22 (February 1983), p.94.)

The first mention of the caliphate title in Ottoman records appears in the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774, signed with Russia. The Ottoman ruler used the title “Caliph of Islam” to defend the rights of Muslims living on the lost territories.

ATATÜRK WANTED VAHDEDDIN TO BE THE CALIPH

When the sultanate was abolished on November 1, 1922, the issue of who would be the caliph came up. Discussions centered on Vahdettin, who had been deposed from the sultanate, and the heir apparent Abdülmecid. Mustafa Kemal Pasha preferred Vahdettin, while Kazım Karabekir supported Abdülmecid. (Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Nutuk, Vol. II, Istanbul, 1975, pp. 297-309) However, after Vahdettin left Istanbul on a British warship on November 17, Abdülmecid became the sole candidate.

On November 18, a proposal was accepted in the Assembly, removing Vahdeddin from the caliphate and a vote was held. With 148 out of 162 votes, Abdülmecid was declared the caliph. No decision regarding the caliphate was made at the declaration of the Republic. The first to congratulate Mustafa Kemal Pasha on his election as President was Caliph Abdülmecid Efendi. (Turkish Parliamentary History, Second Term, Vol. I, p. 296)

However, as the process continued, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his team concluded that the societal changes and transformations they planned could not be realized. For this reason, Army and Corps Commanders were gathered in İzmir for the War Games scheduled for February 15–20, 1924.

The meeting in İzmir was attended by Prime Minister İsmet Pasha, Defense Minister Kâzım Özalp Pasha, and Chief of General Staff Fevzi Çakmak. The decisions to abolish the Caliphate, the Ministry of Sharia and Foundations, and to unify educational institutions were made. On March 3, 1924, with the acceptance of Law No. 431, the caliphate was abolished, and it was decided to expel the Ottoman dynasty from Turkey. With this decision, 234 members and servants of the dynasty, including Abdülmecid, were expelled from the country.

THE REVENGE OF MARCH 3, 1924

President Erdoğan initiated the caliphate debate in the early weeks of this year and conducted a pulse check. On January 1, 2024, a rally in support of Gaza was presented as the recipe for Palestine’s liberation, showcasing the caliphate. Shortly after these demonstrations, Erdoğan seized an opportunity to indirectly join the discussions by asserting that “opposition to

Sharia is akin to hostility towards Islam.”

Erdoğan’s current major regret is that the March 31 elections were held a month late. Had these elections taken place at the end of February, he would have been able to take “revenge” for March 3, 1924, exactly 100 years later.

Erdoğan’s primary goal, with such emphasis on the local elections, is to reintroduce the caliphate after a century-long hiatus, even if it doesn’t coincide precisely with the 100th anniversary. If the AK Party receives the desired vote, Turkey’s agenda will shift towards discussions on the caliphate.

Initially, the caliphate will be declared symbolically. Support statements from some African countries, to whom we have provided foreign currency aid, will be portrayed domestically as an allegiance to the declared caliphate. This situation will be marketed to the public with the narrative, “You see, the world recognizes our leadership!”

This historical overview highlights the evolving nature of the caliphate concept within Islamic and Turkish history, the political maneuvers surrounding its abolition, and the modern-day implications of its potential resurgence in Turkish politics. The debate over the caliphate and its significance continues to be a topic of interest and discussion, reflecting both historical reverence and contemporary political strategy.

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