A referendum was held last month in Turkey which incumbent president Recep Tayyip Erdogan won by a slim majority, thus establishing himself as the first caliph of the modern Middle East.
Erdogan has been concocting this plan from the moment he began working against secularism in Turkey in 1998 and established the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Four years later, his party was victorious in the national election by exploiting the public’s concerns regarding the country’s severe economic crisis.
Erdogan made amendments to Turkey’s constitution, which allowed him to be elected president in 2014, and completed his undertaking last month, in the national referendum that called for the office of the prime minister to be abolished and the parliamentary system of government be replaced with an executive presidency and a presidential system. According to this new arrangement, Erdogan would remain in this leadership role for at least 12 years.
Turkey’s secular constitution was ratified in 1922 after Mustafa Kemal Atatürk became president of the newly formed Turkish Republic.
Atatürk immediately began carrying out a number of secular and westernizing reforms. The constitution stated that the military had the authority to intervene in politics whenever it was being disturbed by elements that were not loyal to the constitution. And indeed, the Turkish military carried out four military takeovers over the last few decades: in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1997.
In each instance, a coup d’état was carried out in order to prevent the country from becoming a Muslim state and to preserve its secular constitution. In July 2016, the military attempted another coup in order to put a stop to the country’s religious extremism, but it failed since it was carried out too late – Erdogan had already established his hold on power within the corridors of the government, and of the military, as well.
Erdogan’s long-term vision has always been to establish the largest Islamic caliphate in the Middle East, of which he would serve as caliph, despite his lack of religious education. As part of this endeavor, Erdogan’s regime has embroiled itself in every single religious conflict that has erupted in the last few years throughout the entire Middle East: in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and even in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
However, he’s been carrying out the most conspicuous attempt to achieve regional dominance in secret. For almost three years now, Erdogan has been supporting ISIS activity in Iraq, and then later in Syria, and has funneled millions of dollars into the organization by falsely claiming that they are payments for oil coming out of wells that were seized in Iraq during terrorist attacks.
Erdogan views ISIS as the executor of his vision and as the army of the largest Sunni Islamic caliphate in the future Middle East. There are number of organizations that share Erdogan’s vision, such as Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaida. Erdogan has had to overcome a few hurdles on the way, though, such as a public debate among the Turkish people regarding religious extremism, and whether or not Turkey should join the EU.
In the end, Erdogan was forced by Western pressure to stop supporting ISIS, and the terrorist organization did not wait long to begin taking revenge on Turkey in the form of a long series of terrorist attacks within the country. Nonetheless, Erdogan has not given up his vision. A caliphate cannot be established with a democratic parliament, a secular military and a modern judicial system. Erdogan needed to carry out a referendum so that he could abolish the power of the above bodies.
The new constitution states that Erdogan will serve as the sole ruler, and the position of prime minister, and the military court, will be abolished.
From now on, the president will be authorized to appoint any administrative and judicial official he pleases, can be reelected for another two terms of five years each, and can impose a state of emergency on Turkey at his discretion.
All of these changes help to stabilize Erdogan’s power base and his status as the solitary authority figure with tremendous power over a weakened parliament and judicial system.
While Erdogan claims that these changes make Turkey’s governmental structure more similar to those of France and the US, in practice his rule has moved Turkey closer to a dictatorship, since this was the only way he could realize his religious vision. In his song “Waiting for The Messiah,” Shalom Hanoch quotes former finance minster Dan Meridor, who said, “The public is stupid, and therefore the public will pay for this.” This statement is fitting for the Turkish people, too.
And yet this Islamic caliphate is still far from becoming a reality.
ISIS has suffered numerous military setbacks and Iranian-backed Shi’ite Hezbollah will continue to do everything in its power to prevent Sunnis from gaining the upper hand in the Middle East. At the end of the day, the eternal struggle between Shi’ites and Sunnis, which began when the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE, will continue to dictate the tensions in the Muslim world for many more years to come.
At this stage, Israel has no reason to intervene in internal Turkish politics that do not affect us directly.
But that is not to say that Israel does not have reason to worry about the strengthening of Erdogan’s power and the radicalization in Turkey along religious lines. EU member countries and the US will most likely express their displeasure with these changes and refuse to accept the direction Erdogan is taking. Judging from experience, however, it is clear that weakened Western countries will not take any action to eliminate such a threat.
What countries around the world need to do now is heighten their awareness, be attentive to what’s happening, and be ready to act when the time comes. The Islamic caliphate is still in its early stages, but who is to say if this small entity might not become big and strong at some point? The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).Translated by Hannah Hochner.