Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is one who thrives from exploiting ethnic and religious tensions. For him, the more commotion and incitement, the better. Following the brutal bombing of Kurdish and Turkish protesters in Ankara, a bombing that took place with the police absent from the area and with many indications of the Deep State’s involvement, Erdoğan blamed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is a Kurdish militant group in Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, with an anti-centralized state ideology that has been fighting for independence since 1984. Why would a Kurdish militant group blow up fellow Kurds who share the same desire for independence? But the Turkish masses seemed to believe him. Erdoğan sees enemies everywhere, while the pro- Erdoğan media incites the impoverished public who see in him a hero, a resister and one of their own, wrongly persecuted and always innocent.
Erdoğan’s Justice and development Party (AKP) gained power in 2002 after decades of neglect of the Muslim working class by the Turkish elite. It is a popular, Islamist, pro-US party that seeks to overturn decades of secularism instilled since the founding of the secular republic. Turkey’s professed secularism ran contrary to the wishes of many of the poor living in villages and cities who could not find in the government or army a non-condescending official. The military, the protector of Turkey’s secularism, did not intervene after AKP won. Erdoğan could finally pursue a process of Islamization of the country and a revival of neo- Ottomanism. Erdoğan’s Turkey feels that it has been oppressed for decades if not centuries. Now it is breaking free. It aligns itself with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, with Hamas in Gaza, with the Islamic State in Syria. It will no longer be shamed of being Muslim, it will now support Muslim takfiri lunatics.
Dealing with Erdoğan is dealing with a provocateur who will constantly seek attention for himself, demand respect, lie, betray and yet feel humiliated. Erdoğan’s Turkey wants to be respected but cannot be trusted. When Russia revealed evidence of Erdoğan’s deep involvement in oil trade with the Islamic State, from which his family profits personally, Erdoğan denied the accusations and reversed the blame by accusing Russia of buying ISIL’s oil. Erdoğan said he would resign if evidence is provided. But even when evidence is provided, he does not resign. Instead, he resorts to accusations.
One would think that people presented with evidence of Erdoğan’s support for ISIL will understand that he is supporting a group that killed more Muslims than Christians and is profiting from it personally. That’s why the pro- Erdoğan media had switched the tables and portraying Russia as an Orthodox Christian power hell-bent on the massacre of Muslims. Following the escalation of tensions between Turkey and Russia, the pro- Erdoğan media accused Russia of supporting Assad “the enemy of Islam.” In an article for Vahdet, Mustafa Özcan wrote that “Russia has chosen a new generation of Sunni Muslims as its enemy.” Shia Iran is presented as an accomplice to the murder of Sunnis, and Ramzan Kadyrov, a Sunni Muslim and head of the Chechen Republic, an instrument of Putin. The Turkish media is now constantly evoking the memory of past wars with Russia in which Turkey has been defeated and Turks massacred. Russia is portrayed as a genocidal entity. Erdoğan’s Turkey does not trust Iran either for it is Shia nor Hezbollah. The Kurds are Sunni like the Turks but they are a threat to Turkish nationalism.
Russian sanctions on Turkey will cause a severe blow to the Turkish economy as the tourism sector will be hit. Erdoğan is working now to find alternative oil, even via Iraqi Kurdistan or Azerbaijan. The poor Turkish population, now unemployed, will be even more susceptible to Erdoğan’s propaganda. Working class Muslims, humiliated and poorer than before, will rally behind the president in his pursuit of an even more daring adventure.
To the degree to which he is able to reach the Turkish masses, Russian President Putin should seek to appeal to the Turkish people directly. They understand what betrayal means. He should tell them that Erdoğan’s neo-Ottomanism is an illusion. Turkey is a subservient member of NATO, the modern Western crusaders who follow their forefathers path. He should insist that he respects and values the Turkish nation, but that Erdoğan is doing them no favor by aligning with Western imperialism. It is true that Iran is Shia, but Russia had wars with Iran in the past and now the two countries are partners. He should seek to continue to give evidence on the corruption of Erdoğan who is not sharing his ISIL-made wealth. Erdoğan’s fanatical behavior is a far cry of the Turkish tradition of Sufism that values tolerance and respect for the other. Putin should explain that he will not talk to Erdoğan until an apology is issued backed by a change of behavior. It is precisely this kind of straightforward talk on matters of honor, often mocked by the West, which Turks are likely to understand.
Putin’s last speech was a good start but his next one should include a verse from the Quran. One who quotes from the Holy Quran cannot be seen as a giant oppressor. “Surely Allah does not guide him aright who is a liar, ungrateful” (Surah az-Zumar 39:3), says the Quran. Putin praised Erdoğan as “a tough leader” and invited him to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) with plans for the TurkStream but Erdoğan brought down a Russian plane.
Putin must seek to drive a wedge between Erdoğan and the people, or at the very least seek to calm even some down since there are Muslims who may get hotheaded following the incitement and seek to carry out attacks inside Russia or engage in jihad in the North Caucasus. There are Muslims who could be radicalized in Moscow.
Russia should also remind the Turkish people that Erdoğan attended the inauguration of the stunningly magnificent Moscow Cathedral Mosque which is frequented by Muslim citizens of Russia and immigrants from Central Asia and Turkey. Russia should also seek Sunni leaders who will appeal to the Turkish people. Sheikh Ahmad Badreddin Hassoun, the mufti of Syria, for example. Perhaps even the Supreme Leader of Shia Iran, Sayyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei, could remind the Turkish people that the great Persian poet Rumi, is buried in Istanbul and that Russia is an ally against takfiri terrorism. Erdoğan’s Turkey is desperate for respect and honor. Turkish businessmen in Russia should make an extra effort to appeal to the Turkish masses.
Erdoğan thrives on conflict and division. Russia must not fall into its trap. It must not fear speaking about its lost honor, quoting from the Quran, working with Sunni religious figures. Maybe even bringing Iran along can help, if the latter focuses on the shared civilizational interactions it had with the Ottoman Empire. But Russia must remind the Turkish that Turkey is not an independent country and Erdoğan is a slave of NATO and Obama.