«Time for Europe to Break Relations with Erdogan’s Regime». A Conversation with Cengiz Aktar

«This move is an insult, to each and every one». A long-time UN civil servant and current professor of Turkish and Modern Asian Studies at the University of Athens, Cengiz Aktar has been pointing to the authoritarian drift of Turkey under the rule of Recep Tayyip Erdogan for years, since well before anybody in Europe seriously realized how damaged that polity is. Something that many in the West actually still need to realize, he says now, as the images of the “inauguration” of Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia reconversion into a mosque still linger.

Cengiz Aktar is Professor of Turkish and Modern Asian Studies at the University of Athens

Prof. Aktar, to whom is the ‘insult’ of Hagia Sophia directed, exactly?

To all of us out there: to those Turks who live according to cosmopolitan values, to the Turkish Republic itself, which is supposed to be secular, to the two centuries of westernization of our country. And also, to the non-Muslim world: to start, to the 300 million Orthodox Christians, who were stunned and whose hearts are really broken, but also to Catholics and Protestants and all non-Muslims. This will be a huge blow to the image and prestige of Turkey, which has already been quite negative since 2013. It’s the confirmation of this general drift towards a totalitarianism of a country which is busy de-westernizing, reversing a 200 centuries old trend.

Did you expect the Hagia Sophia ‘coup’ to happen?

Of course, we all knew it would come soon. I just made a tiny mistake, expecting the government would open it on the date of the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, May 29th. But its re-conversion into a mosque was still charged with powerful symbolism. July 24th, the date finally chosen, marks the anniversary of the Treaty of Lausanne, the founding treaty of the republic of Turkey. As he inaugurated the new mosque, president Erdogan recited a sura from the Koran. There is no such thing in the world, not even in Iran! Then the head of the country’s religious affairs, who issues fatwas almost constantly, recited another sura, one that talks about conquest – as if Turkey were re-conquering Santa Sophia. And he was holding a sword in his hands!

An explosive mixture of religion and military imagery.

Yes, and one that has never been seen before in Turkey. The last time something similar happened was when Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi proclaimed himself the new Caliph and leader of Daesh. But this regime’s hunger for power can be seen elsewhere as well. They are challenging all the international rules and regulations in the Aegean Sea, and even the Mediterranean, as we have seen with the so-called memorandum of understanding between Tripoli and Ankara.

It looks as if Erdogan wants to push the limits of his country’s assertiveness always a bit further, even if it entails military adventures or high diplomatic risks. How far is he willing to go, and why?

Turkey is an irredentist, bellicose country right now. While before the political Islam takeover the national motto was “Peace at home, peace abroad”, today it is the exact opposite: “War at home, war abroad”. Everything points in this direction. Turkey is in war in Syria, in Iraq, in Libya and within the country itself with the Kurds, and next in line look to be Cyprus and Greece. Santa Sophia fits within this overall puzzle of an aggressive Muslim Turkey. Erdogan sees himself as one of the primary world leaders, and so does his entourage. Now, concretely speaking, he has become a de facto leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a kind of Caliph of the worst sect of the Sunni Islam. He is working on this mission together with the Emir of Qatar, Tamim Al-Thani, on an agenda against all the other Muslim/Arab countries, and Iran. And in fact the only countries who partially support him in the region are Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Somalia, plus the government in Tripoli. Full stop. It is no coincidence that all other Muslim countries were invited to the Hagia Sophia inauguration ceremony but none of them showed up. In that sense, it was a flop.

How about the internal welcoming of that move? Did it really bring consensus to a government constantly battling financial hurdles as well as the pandemic?

It’s been estimated that 350,000 people participated in the Friday prayer. For a city like Istanbul, with 16 million inhabitants, it’s nothing. Frankly, 80% of Turks simply do not know what the Hagia Sophia is. It is just rhetoric, and I don’t think that by converting a museum into a mosque Erdogan’s approval rate will seriously go up. But the entire Turkish political micro-cosmos was at the inauguration, and those who were not invited – such as Kurdish representatives or opposition leaders – did not complain about the conversion, but about not being invited.

As was the case for Istanbul’s mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, which many viewed as a potential competitor to Erdogan when he was elected last year. Others have recently been looking at the political initatives of former AKP heavyweights such as Ahmet Davutoglu or Ali Babacan…

As I say, the whole Turkish political establishment is very happy of the opening, no one dared say a word against it. Is this a real opposition? Imamoglu doesn’t represent anything, and he has no chance whatsoever. Davutoglu and Babacan are like mosquitos in front of Erdogan, they have been in the same boat as him, so he could kill them at any time.

You seem to have no hope left for any political change in Turkey.

The only change will possibly come from economic collapse or from a failure in some military adventure. Those are the only chances which may one day bring about the collapse of the regime. It is just too bad that the West, and especially the Europeans, still seem to have not understood this. They are not sure how to deal with Turkey and think that by appeasing and calming Erdogan they will manage to convince him and find common solutions to problems. That is absolutely a pipe dream. The more the Europeans appease him, the more Erdogan abuses them, and it’s been so for 7 years. Europeans are performing a very negative role by prolonging the life of the Erdogan’s regime, by continuing to sell arms to the regime and by backing down when Erdogan threatens them, and this is extremely counter-productive as it sends the wrong signal to many Turks who hope for a different Turkey.

What would you then recommend the EU do: break relations tout court?

Of course. Democracy does not have the tools to confront authoritarian regimes. It is just a waste of time and money, eventually strengthens that regime. Not to mention the unethical character of such kind of appeasement, with a country in which the rule of law does not exist anymore, as any international report certifies. But that stance will put Europe itself into trouble also in other, very concrete terms. By fueling war in Syria, harboring huge numbers of jihadi fighters, Turkey constantly creates more refugees to be used as a “threat” to the EU. And the government is now openly exporting foreign jihadists to Libya, with no-one capable of saying “enough is enough”. How can Europe, and Italy in particular, accept that thousands of militias are transported to Tripoli and Misurata, just miles off Sicily? Again, Europeans are hoping that the Turks will behave sooner or later. Yet totalitarian countries never transform into democratic States. They just collapse and something else is built on their ashes.

For all its international ‘retreat’, the US as well should have an interest in a stable Mediterranean.

The foreign policy of the US is today run by some capable ambassadors in the field, who are trying to run the show, but who have otherwise no instruction form Washington whatsoever. And that is a complete disaster, as America is not viewed as a credible actor in the region anymore. As for Turkey, the US are so eager to keep it in NATO, that they are ready to excuse Erdogan anything. What they are not seeing is that by doing this they are about to lose an equally important ally; Egypt.

Will Joe Biden as president be able to reverse this foreign policy ‘oblivion’?

Perhaps, but he still needs to demonstrate everything; he has not clearly sketched an overall foreign-policy approach yet. But he’s busy preparing his potential administration right now, and I think top names will come out in there. If Trump is re-elected, that would simply be a world-class catastrophe.


Photo: John Thys / AFP

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