Erdoğan: A New Caliph and Sultan?

V. Sazonov

Turkey Aims to Restore the Ottoman Empire

Introduction: Kemalism and Atatürk

By the time World War I broke out, the Ottoman Empire had lost all the territories it had held in North Africa and almost all its territories in Europe, earning the nickname “sick man of Europe”. Turkey had been in the throes of a long-term crisis. Entering the conflict made the situation several times worse—the war completely ravaged the Ottoman Empire, dealing it a final blow. The empire lost the war and was in deep crisis. The Treaty of Sèvres, signed in 1920, decided the essential partitioning of Turkey. Under its terms, Greece would receive almost all of Turkey’s territories in Europe and some in Asia Minor; Syria and Lebanon would fall under the mandate of France; Iraq would be controlled by Great Britain; Turkey had to recognise Armenia as an independent state; and an independent Kurdish state was to be created. The treaty included many other conditions shameful to Turkish pride, and much that Turkey had to give up (including money and control over the Bosphorus straits).


The last Ottoman sultan, Mehmet VI (r. 1918–22), was unable to fix or change anything in this continuously worsening situation. In addition, the Turkish War of Independence (1919–23) enabled the head of the Turkish National Movement, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (18811938), to seek political power and the establishment of the Republic of Turkey. He succeeded in creating a new Turkey that was founded on republican principles and in which the national movement played a big role. It was Atatürk who, upon coming to power, prevented the final dissolution and partitioning of Turkey. He managed to save what still could be—Turkish East Thrace and Anatolian territories were not partitioned. Greece essentially got nothing. An independent Kurdish state that had been talked about in detail was also not to be.1 The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne2 was in many ways Atatürk’s achievement, since Turkey retained East Thrace and other territories that would have been taken away under the Treaty of Sèvres. At the same time, it lost the Arab territories.

When Atatürk and his supporters established the Republic of Turkey in 1923, he decided to make it a secular state partly based on European principles. The Kemalist nationalistic ideology rose to power with Atatürk, which meant the end for both the sultanate and the caliphate, and the beginning of the secularisation of Turkey.3 On 13 August 1923 Atatürk was elected President of Turkey and on 29 October 1923 the Republic of Turkey was declared.4 Its first prime minister was Mustafa İsmet İnönü (18841973).5 The dethroned Sultan Mehmet VI had retained the title of the Caliph, and the caliphate formally existed until its abolition on 3 March 1924.6

Atatürk introduced a secular curriculum to Turkish schools and universities and fought the influences of Islam. He adopted civil and criminal codes, basing them on European law. He actively fought against Arabic and Persian loan words in Turkish and aimed for purity of the Turkish language, introduced the Latin alphabet, gave women the right to vote, abolished noble titles and feudal relations, and introduced family names. He developed industry and supported the creation of a banking system. Turkey was to be a modern, European and secular developed, powerful industrial state.7

In time, a personality cult developed around Atatürk in Turkey, and even in his lifetime he essentially became a dictator, a great nationalist who ruled his country with a harsh and sometimes iron fist. He died in 1938, but had managed to turn an Islamist, monarchist, backward Turkey into a secular, modern republic within a short period of time.

The paradox of this whole situation is that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk would never have guessed that, less than 80 years after his death, Turkey would be about to do a 180-degree turn. That change has all to do with the new ambitious ruler of the Sublime Porte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (b. 1954). Erdoğan has essentially ruled the Sublime Porte for some 15 years (2003–2014 as prime minister and since 2014 as president), and sees himself as an “Islamist Atatürk”.

Erdoğan’s Rise to Power

Even though Erdoğan is a nationalist just as Atatürk was, they are like chalk and cheese. Erdoğan is not a Kemalist and, unlike the secular Atatürk, is a moderate Islamist who dreams of restoring the great Turkish state. Erdoğan’s dream state is not Atatürk’s Turkey; the land of his dreams is the Ottoman Empire and its golden age. Erdoğan’s political views have been greatly influenced by the famous Turkish politician, Islamist and ideologist Necmettin Erbakan (19262011), who is the founder of many Turkish Islamist parties and among other things published in 1969 an Islamist manifesto Millî Görüş (“National Vision”). He was prime minister of Turkey in 1996–7.

From 1994 to 1998, Erdoğan was Mayor of Istanbul and a member of the Welfare Party—the same infamous party that was banned in 1997 after it was accused of attacking the principles of a secular state and inciting international aggression. Erdoğan was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment for inciting opposition to Kemalist (Atatürk’s) ideology. Since he had a conviction, Erdoğan was then banned from participating in elections. This did not stop him, and in 2002 parliamentary elections were won by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which he had established and led. The Turkish constitution was changed to allow Erdoğan to become prime minister.

A 180-degree Turn—From Secularism and Kemalism to Islamism

In recent years Erdoğan has strengthened his power in the state, growing increasingly authoritarian. The aim of the new “Sultan” and “Caliph” Erdoğan is to restore, at least partially, the might of the old Ottoman Empire that vanished with Turkey’s defeat in World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after 1918. Erdoğan, the ruler of the Sublime Porte, sees himself as a new “Sultan” and has taken the state along a path of Islamisation, which would mean restricting democratic freedoms and ideas and building up an Islamic dictatorial state.

It can be presumed that the failed coup attempt in the summer of 2016 was profitable first and foremost for Erdoğan, by giving him a strong hand of cards, allowing him to strengthen presidential powers significantly and, essentially, to establish an autocracy.8 It also gave him an opportunity to blame disloyal citizens and political opponents for all vices, repress them by any means, and see conspiracies by the Gülen movement around every corner.

It is not known whether Erdoğan organised the coup attempt himself, but he is certainly the one reaping its rewards.9 The suspicious organisation of the attempted coup—for example, those attempting to seize power had no clear plan or vision for how to run the country, and did not present a political programme—supports the theory that it was a well-planned performance organised by Ankara that was meant to fail from the start. Was it all staged by Erdoğan?10 We cannot give a clear answer. However, it is unlikely that a 76-year-old former imam and scholar living in Pennsylvania, Muhammed Fethullah Gülen11 (b. 1941), would have been able to organise from that distance something similar to a coup in Ankara and Istanbul, given that we are talking about an elderly man suffering from several chronic diseases.12 Even if we suppose for a moment that he could have done so, what would have been the motives and aims of Gülen and his supporters? In some ways, Gülen’s vision is even more global than Erdoğan’s, who strives for regional power. Gülen’s organisation has successfully spread its roots in the Western world, where it disseminates radical Islamic teachings under the cover of educational and cultural cooperation. In Estonia, the organisation EESTÜRK13 has been established for this purpose, and has been trying to create links with local universities and municipal governments.

In this context, Erdoğan and Gülen can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Both aim to make Turkey great. Their strategic models are equally long-term and cunning—Erdoğan has cleverly used NATO membership to increase his influence in the region, while Gülen uses the cover of seemingly soft cultural values in Europe and America in Turkey’s local power struggle. However, the development of a stronger Islam is important for both. It is impossible to rise to a leading position in the Middle East without an Islamist line. In the context of Turkey these two simply get in each other’s way, and currently Erdoğan has had more success by crudely using his leading position.

So what profits does Erdoğan’s regime reap from the failed coup? Let me name just a few.

1. In any case, the failed coup attempt gave Erdoğan the opportunity to settle scores with anyone who did not agree with his regime or his views. The attempted coup seemed to justify the waves of repression and the witch hunt that broke out in Turkey in July 2016 and continues to this day.

2. It provided an opportunity to blame Gülen and his movement for various problems that Turkey has recently been faced with, mostly due to Erdoğan’s policies and those of his administration. This creates the image of the enemy both within and without. Since Gülen lives in the US, Erdoğan could link both the US political elite and the West in general to the coup; Ankara was able to blame the West for interfering in Turkey’s affairs and even for spreading terrorism.14

3. It added even more trump cards to Erdoğan’s hand, which allowed him to strengthen his position and amend the constitution, granting the presidency even more power. This so-called “referendum” essentially made him the sole ruler of Turkey.15 Turkey also organised an educational reform that removed teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution from school curricula; at the same time, teaching Islam is supported and even developed, Islamic norms are being introduced, and freedom of speech limited and dissent suppressed.16

4. The coup drew many Turks around Erdoğan, since it appeared that some people had tried to overthrow a legitimate head of state. Even those who had little love for him came to the defence of democracy and their lawfully elected leader. The second part of this clever trick is that it drew people’s attention away from security issues (growing Islamic extremism, ISIS activity), and also provided at least a temporary distraction from the conflict with Kurds and economic hardships.

Anti-Europeanism and Anti-Westernism

Erdoğan, who had been accusing EU states and top German politicians of fascism,17 now calls for the decapitation of enemies of the state.18 This creates a historical paradox and a sense of déjà vu—Turkey seems to have returned to the times of the cruel Sultan Selim I (1512–20) or someone equally bloodthirsty.

Erdoğan’s anti-Europeanism and anti-Westernism are, in truth, an external pose to put the West in its place and create an image that Turkey does not need Europe and can manage perfectly well without it. The EU is partially to blame for this—it was not satisfied with Turkey’s reforms and procrastinated too long over accepting Turkey as a potential member state.

Second, by accusing democratic Europe, including Germany, of fascism, the authoritarian Turkish leader can quietly establish an authoritarian dictatorship-like regime in his own country.

Revanchism and Neo-Ottomanism

We must not forget that Turkish imperialism did not vanish with the Ottoman Empire—it was alive under Atatürk and was still around in the early 21st century. This can be easily illustrated by Turkey’s foreign-policy trends, which are expressed in neo-Ottomanist policies.19

For example, İsmail Cem (1940–2007), Turkey’s prime minister from 1997 to 2002, did not even attempt to hide that his aim was to turn Turkey into a global power. This was Turkey’s ambition, and it is now Erdoğan’s ambition. Even then, on the eve of the new millennium, Ankara launched active cooperation in order to get closer to the EU, and in 1999 the EU announced that Turkey was a candidate country. It can be said that the early 2000s were the golden age of Turkey’s “soft power”. Its foreign policy was largely based on the principle that “we have no problems with our neighbours”. Erdoğan, on the other hand, keeps looking for problems. Ankara’s influence in the Middle East grew in the early 2000s and it had good relations with its neighbours, including Teheran. At the same time, Turkey was already working towards curbing Iran’s influence in the region.

In 2009, the expansionist Ahmet Davutoğlu became Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs, holding this position until 2014. He immediately demonstrated an extremely ambitious direction in foreign policy and was one of the leaders of neo-Ottomanism. This is proved by Davutoğlu’s words to the Turkish Parliament in December 2011:

We are trying to implement this “strategic depth” in order to make Turkey a global actor … this is the essence of the foreign policy which we are attempting to put into practice every day.20

Davutoğlu has revanchist views like Erdoğan, and sees Turkey as the successor to the Ottoman Empire that continues its ideology and policies. 2009 and subsequent years were a time when Turkey supported various Islamist parties and regimes in the Middle East, including the Muslim Brotherhood that came to power in Egypt in 2012 and ruled the country until 2013. At the time, Turkey had good relations with Assad’s regime in Syria, Mubarak in Egypt and so on. Later, relations with Egypt and Syria took a turn for the worse. Turkey currently supports the Sunnis fighting against Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war.

Two alpha males—Erdoğan and Davutoğlu—had to bump heads eventually. When Erdoğan became president in 2014, Davutoğlu was made prime minister. The two men were not on good terms and their conflict led to Davutoğlu being relieved of his post in May 2016. The “vizier” Davutoğlu was not to the taste of the “Sultan” Erdoğan, so the vizier and the Sultan parted ways.

One could say that a sort of “neosultanate” has already been born, as it exists in the minds of Erdoğan and many of his followers who envision Turkey becoming a great nation ruled by a strong personality, a sovereign. The “neosultanate” also means that Turkey would no longer rely on any secular values and ideas, not to mention liberalism and democracy.

At the same time, as a regional power Turkey is no heavyweight that could be compared to the US or China. It may not even have enough steam to compete with Russia. Even its prestige in the Middle East has fallen compared to the early 2000s. Erdoğan ruined relations with Egypt, Israel and several other states in the Middle East, and is now in the process of making a mess of the relationship with Europe. Turkey’s main rivals for hegemony in the region are the Islamic Republic of Iran and wealthy Saudi Arabia, but Egypt could also be considered a regional power that could return to the game. One must not forget the growing ambitions of Moscow and Beijing in the Middle East, and the continuous US interest in the region. Turkey is not about to become an Ottoman Empire any time soon, but ambitions in that direction are clear.

What Might Such Policies by Erdoğan Entail?

The constant cooling of relations between Turkey and the EU could lead to the rupture of all ties to Europe and lead Turkey to turn even further towards Islamism, perhaps even to extremism such as Islamic Fascism, which entails even greater restrictions on freedom of speech, human rights violations, and extensive repressions—which Turkey’s new “Sultan” has already begun.

Erdoğan the aspiring dictator sees himself as the “reuniter” of Ottoman lands, a facilitator of Turkishness, yet with his blind ambition to bring back the former glory of the Ottomans he is leading the country into economic distress and crisis; such policies could eventually lead to the collapse of the Turkish state, a large part in which will be played by separatist Kurds in East Anatolia. Turkey’s improving relationship with Russia may also hide a security threat to the region and Eastern and Southern Europe, and in this sense even Turkey’s departure from NATO is not inconceivable.

Turkey has a large army that is well-equipped with modern tanks and planes, and holds eighth position in the world in terms of military strength.21 In addition, Turkey is an important key state for NATO (and one of its strongest members), as well as the only NATO member in the Middle East and Asia.

We can only hope that this scenario does not come true. NATO is also important from the point of view of Turkey’s own stability and security, and Article 5 protects Turkey from potential external threats, such as hybrid warfare, in which Russia has achieved a level of its own and which it has made an influential foreign-policy weapon. Closer relations between Ankara and Moscow still seem to be temporary. We must not forget that Turkey and Russia have waged 12 wars between 1568 and World War I—plus the small matter of Turkey shooting down a Russian plane in 2015.

We must also not forget Turkey’s geopolitical ambitions, which have only grown with Erdoğan’s rise to power. These interests in the region cross over with those of both Russia and Iran, and this strategic triangle might turn out to be something of a Crassus-Caesar-Pompey triumvirate, which (as we know) ended with a big fight and civil war in Rome.


1 For more on this, see Kross, op. cit.

2 Treaty of Lausanne – Encyclopaedia Britannica. (last visited 16 August 2017); P. Kinross, Atatürk: The Rebirth of a Nation, Phoenix, London, 2001, 354–74.

3 H. Udam, Türgi. Teekond läbi Türgi tsivilisatsiooni ajaloo, Johannes Esto Ühing, Tartu, 2011, 174.

4 Kinross, op. cit., 377–83.

5 E. J. Zürcher, Turkey. A Modern History, I. B. Taurus, London and New York, 2005, 167.

6 Kinross, op. cit., 384–7.

7 For more on Atatürk’s reforms, see Kinross, op. cit., 418–24, 440–5, 446–57.

8 Sõjaväeline putš Türgis kukkus läbi, toimuvad massilised arreteerimised – Objektiiv, 16 July 2016, (last visited 16 August 2017).

9 There are various theories on who planned the coup attempt: one says it was the Gülen movement, and some think it was Erdoğan himself, but there are also other hypotheses.

10 Kas Türgi riigipööre oli vaid Erdoğani lavastus? Teised riigid kahtlevad Türgi riigipöörde motiivides. Pealinn, 18 July 2016, (last visited 15 August 2017).

11 See A. Christie-Miller, “The Gulen movement: a self-exiled imam challenges Turkey’s Erdogan”. The Christian Science Monitor, 29 December 2013, (last visited 15 August 2017).

12 Т. Франкс, “Кто такой Фетхулла Гюлен, и в чем его конфликт с Реджепом Эрдоганом?” Русская служба BBC News Russian service, 16 July 2016, (last visited 15 August 2017).

13 See

14 A. Withnall and S. Osborne, “Erdogan blames ‘foreign powers’ for coup and says West is supporting terrorism”. The Independent, 2 August 2016, (last visited 7 August 2017).

15 K. Kressa, “Välisvaatlejad: Türgi referendum ei toimunud vabalt ega ausalt”., 17 April 2017,

16 P. Espak, “Türgi viskab teaduse koolist välja”. Postimees, 26 June 2017, (last visited 7 August 2017).

17 “Erdogan accuses Germany of behaving ‘like Nazis’ after Turks banned from political rallies”. The Telegraph, 5 March 2017, (last visited 16 August 2017).

18 “Erdoğan kutsus riigipöörde aastapäeval reeturitel päid maha võtma”. Postimees, 15 July 2017, (last visited 16 August 2017).

19 Yeni Osmanlıcılık, or neo-Ottomanism, is a political ideology in Turkey, the aim of which is to extend Turkey’s influence in all territories that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. This means the development and restoration of Turkish culture in Turkey according to the traditions of the Ottoman Empire.

20 S. Özel and B. Özkan, “Illusions versus reality: Turkey’s approach to the Middle East and North Africa”. FRIDE/Hivos Policy Brief No. 200, April 2015, 4 ( (last visited 7 August 2017).

21 “2017 Turkey Military Strength”. ( (last visited 7 August 2017).

Post Author: Estonian Centre fot Islamic and Middle-Eastern Studies

The aim of the Estonian Centre fot Islamic and Middle-Eastern Studies is to analyse and popularise different topics related to the Middle-East and Islam such as religion, politics, society, history, economics, etc. in academic as well as popular contexts. The goal is to propagate and instigate wider discussions in society.

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