MESOP TODAYS OPINION BY MUSTAFA AKYOL – Turkey’s Populists See an Unlikely Ally


New York Times 16 Nov 2016 – ISTANBUL — The election of Donald J. Trump as the next president of the United States came as an unpleasant shock to much of the world. But in Turkey, my country, it was applauded — not by everyone, for sure, but by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his enthusiastic supporters.

As it became clear that the Republican candidate had achieved an upset, pro-government Turkish columnists, some of whom are also members of Parliament, began cheering it as a blow to the American establishment. Mr. Trump won, they emphasized, despite the opposition of the American news media, Wall Street, the C.I.A. and Hollywood. Hillary Clinton’s defeat, they declared, was the defeat of “the globalist fascists.”

The first official statement from the government came from Bekir Bozdag, the justice minister and an Erdogan confidant. “Nobody can win elections with newspaper headlines, polls, televisions,” Mr. Bozdag said. “The American people said no to their will being manipulated.”

Then came the response from Mr. Erdogan himself. He congratulated the American president-elect in a phone conversation that went “unbelievably well,” the news media here reported. He also invited Mr. Trump to visit Turkey “as soon as possible.” Then Mr. Erdogan criticized the protests in the United States over the election as the work of the same global cabal that he says is constantly trying to topple him.

There are pragmatic reasons for this Turkish love affair with Mr. Trump, which was evident in the pro-government media months before the election. The primary reason is a strong distaste for Mrs. Clinton.

The Democratic candidate was accused of having ties to the Islamic group led by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish imam living in the United States who is widely believed to have orchestrated a coup attempt against Mr. Erdogan in July. Moreover, Mrs. Clinton’s vow to continue American support for Kurdish fighters in Syria, whom Turkey considers a terrorist threat, angered the Turkish government.

In contrast, Mr. Trump has not seriously suggested that he would support any policies that would upset the Turkish government. He did give “great credit” to Mr. Erdogan right after the coup attempt “for being able to turn that around” — a message that was well received in Ankara.

But Mr. Trump and Mr. Erdogan also seem to have a more fundamental connection. Supporters of the Turkish president see the American president-elect as a similar figure: an outsider who horrifies “the elite” yet is able to win at the ballot box.There’s something to this, but there’s also a major problem in claiming any ideological similarities between the two men: Mr. Erdogan’s supporters claim a strong devotion to Islam and solidarity with fellow Muslims. (Indeed, to show that this Islamic solidarity extends all the way to America, Mr. Erdogan flew to Kentucky in June to attend the funeral of Muhammad Ali.)

Mr. Trump, to say the least, has no solidarity with Islam. During his campaign, he called for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims” entering the United States. He suggested that he would register Muslim Americans in a special database. His candidacy attracted support from Islamophobes both in the United States and in Europe.

Why are Mr. Erdogan’s supporters able to overlook these stances? It seems that despite their conflicting values, Turkish and American populists can find common cause in their hatred of “the liberal elite,” and in their claim to represent “the people.”

There is some hypocrisy, or at best self-delusion, in this populist narrative. Populists demonize “the establishment” only to seize it for themselves. This is evident in Turkey, where Mr. Erdogan’s supporters still pose as oppressed underdogs, even though they now control the news media, business and the government at all levels.

Populists also have a lot of anger about the world’s problems, but no magic solutions. Their ascension to power in many corners of the globe is seen by liberal pessimists as the beginning of a new dark age. But if we are lucky, it can also be an age of trial and error, at the end of which a more mature liberalism may arise. Societies learn more from their bitter experiences, after all, than from the ruminations of their intellectuals.

With regard to Mr. Trump, there is another silver lining: He seems to be a businessman, not a politician with strong ideological and religious convictions. There is a Turkish saying: “A crown makes a head wiser.” Perhaps America’s new president can prove pragmatic enough to back off from the scary ideas he put forward during his campaign, and to follow a more moderate line, as he signaled in his victory speech.

The Trump presidency may also help ease the tensions in Turkish-American relations. Mr. Erdogan and his government have been rightfully requesting that Mr. Gulen, the imam, be extradited to face trial in Turkey. If Mr. Trump’s administration agrees to do this — and Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a Trump adviser on security matters, has suggested that he supports Mr. Gulen’s extradition — it’s easy to imagine a honeymoon between Washington and Ankara.

This will probably mean less interference in Turkey’s internal affairs, as Ankara hopes, which means less American criticism of our sinking democratic credentials. Paradoxically, that may help keep Turkey in the Western alliance at a time when darker forces, such as Russia, are eager to seduce it.

However, Mr. Trump will probably conduct “less interference” in Syria and Egypt as well, giving blank checks to brutal crackdowns on Islamists in those dictatorships. Then Mr. Erdogan’s supporters will have to rethink their position: Do they really want a world in which the winners, like themselves, freely trample whomever they want? Or would they prefer a world with some humane norms that their less fortunate comrades would need — and, in fact, they themselves favored until they became the winners?

Mustafa Akyol, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the forthcoming “The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims.”