In March, I noted that as part of Erdogan’s increasingly erratic and authoritarian behaviors, anti-“Insult” crackdowns on free speech are mounting in Turkey. Erdogan’s immoderate behavior of the last two years (since the Gezi Park riots) is complex and motivated by many factors — some reasonable, others less so. But as I’ve argued many times before, it fits a pattern of political practices that are fairly consistent with Turkish (and maybe even pre-Turkish Ottoman) political culture, and I do not believe his actions and statements are uniquely egregious or related to his political affiliation as an Islamist democrat.
I just ran across an interesting piece from Mustafa Akyol, April 10, 2014 (during the run-up to Erdogan’s successful presidential campaign last year), headlined “Turkey’s doctrine of pre-emptive authoritarianism” for Al-Monitor, which goes more into depth on the political culture angle and how (at least) some of this has been “performed” authoritarianism:
This doctrine, which has not been observed much in Turkey simply because it is taken as a fact of life, is based on a simple rule: In every political confrontation, the thing to do is to be as strong, defiant, stubborn and threatening as possible. Only then, the enemy will be crushed and victory will be secured. Otherwise, the enemy will begin to come after you, defeat you and will show no mercy. So, you should pre-emptively corner and weaken him as much as possible.
This doctrine does not believe in peaceful solutions that will come through negotiation, bargaining and consensus. Reasonable concessions, which could normally lead to such consensus-based solutions, are condemned as naivete, weakness and perhaps not outright treason.
It is not a first step forward toward reconciliation. It is rather the first step back toward downfall. Once the malicious people on the other side see your concession, they will become only more invigorated and aggressive. So you should keep them at bay by never accepting any of their demands and showing them how tough you are.
This is why while Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism puzzles the West, it makes him only more popular at home among his conservative base. In fact, most conservatives love Erdogan precisely for being so defiant. One could see this feeling on the huge posters of Erdogan that were put up all around Istanbul during the recent election campaign: They carried a resolute pose of the prime minister and two simple words: “iron will.”
To be sure, it is not just Erdogan’s supporters who love an iron will, but most of his opponents as well. For decades, Turkey’s secularists praised Ataturk’s authoritarian legacy and rallied behind the military, which insisted in oppressing the “reactionaries” and the “separatists,” or religious conservatives and Kurdish nationalists, with all means possible.
Obviously I’m not excusing any of this, because it’s consistently one of Turkey’s biggest political culture failings. And I don’t think historical context and behavior automatically exculpates Erdogan himself. But I think it’s important to see that there is a wider/longer context, so that it’s not blamed on his faith or political affiliation, which I think has been wrongly implicated by some commentators who have an agenda of tearing down democratic political Islam and the religion generally.