Does Erdoğan have caliphate ambitions? by Aydoğan Vatandaş*
Illustration: Cem Kızıltuğ
In an interview on Nov. 9, 2012 with RT, a Russia-based international news network, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claimed that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan thinks of himself as a caliph and accused Turkey of looking at Syria with imperial ambitions.
“Erdoğan thinks that if [the] Muslim Brotherhood takes over in the region and especially in Syria, he can guarantee his political future, this is one reason. The other reason, he personally thinks that he is the new sultan of the Ottomans and he can control the region as it was during the Ottoman Empire under a new umbrella. In his heart he thinks he is a caliph. These are the main two reasons for him to shift his policy from zero problems to zero friends," Assad said.
The word caliph actually refers to the ruler of the global community of Muslims, or ummah. During the centuries following the death of the Prophet Muhammad in A.D. 632, the rulers of the Muslim world were called caliph, which means “successor” in Arabic. In 1924, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the new Turkish Republic, abolished the caliphate.
Besides Assad's allegations, some of Erdoğan's followers have also called him a caliph. In 2013, Atılgan Bayar, an advisor to the pro-government news station A Haber, wrote that he recognized Erdoğan as the caliph of the Muslim world and expressed his allegiance to him. In one of her recent tweets, Beyhan Demirci, a writer and follower of Erdoğan, also wrote that Erdoğan is the caliph and the shadow of God on Earth. Some of his followers have gone even further and said things like, “Since Erdoğan is the caliph, he has the right to use money earned through corruption for his political goals.”
Even though Erdoğan has never expressed any ambition to create a caliphate, neither has he ever expressed any discomfort with these allegations or characterizations. Many believe that it was Kadir Mısıroğlu, a Turkish historian, who actually inspired Erdoğan about the resurrection of the caliphate in the years following the announcement of the Greater Middle East Initiative (GMEI) by US President George Bush in 2002, in which Turkey was supposed to play a crucial role. Many also believed that the idea of the resurrection of the caliphate was actually used to justify Erdoğan's policies during the Arab Spring, as well.
The opportunities that Turkey gained during the implementation of the GMEI and the emergence of Turkey as a key player during the Arab Spring, especially in Syria and Egypt, may have triggered Erdoğan's ambitions for a caliphate. But is it not obvious that the dream in Syria and Egypt has already turned into a nightmare? It is no secret that, after the abolishment of the caliphate in 1924, a plethora of candidates for the position of caliph emerged around the world for the consideration of Muslims.
In her dissertation “Loss of the caliphate: The trauma and aftermath of 1258 and 1924,” Assistant Professor Mona F. Hassan of Duke University notes that many Muslim rulers have aspired to augment their prestige with the supreme title of caliph since then. “In addition to the claims of the deposed Ottoman caliph, Abdülmecid, and the apparent ambitions of Sharif Husayn of Makkah, the names of King Fu'ad of Egypt, Amir Amanullah Khan of Afghanistan, Imam Yahya of Yemen, the Sultan Ibn Sa‘ud of Najd, the Sultān Yūsuf bin Hasan of Morocco, the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Shaykh Ahmad al-Sanusi of Libya, the Amir Muhammad bin ‘Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi of the Moroccan Rif, and even that of Mustafa Kemal were all claimed to have ambitions for the position of caliph.”
However, the conflicting national interests of Muslim countries after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire made the resurrection of the caliphate impossible. The different political, social and historical backgrounds of Muslim nations made reconstituting a caliphate in the modern era inconceivable. Some of Erdoğan's followers may absolutely believe in the caliphate of Erdoğan. The only thing this belief actually tells us, though, is that a cult of personality exists.
The major factor in Erdoğan's success was his establishment of a significant personality cult. It played an important role in his leadership during the last decade, including a heavy use of propaganda and strict control of the media. While the pro-Erdoğan media spread grand stories about him, they spread vicious rumors and baseless allegations about their opponents. This was one of the most important factors in his rise to power and creating his cult of personality.
The biggest question now for Erdoğan is actually whether he himself believes that he is the caliph or not. Does he also believe that he is infallible, as some of his followers do? If Erdoğan also believes that he could be the caliph of the Muslims in an imagined future and believes that he is infallible, he may face some major psychological problems since his power is already being challenged by the numerous corruption cases that threaten to engulf him.
*Aydoğan Vatandaş is an investigative journalist based in New York.