Turkey’s embattled Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the most popular leader among Muslims because he was the only Muslim leader who could openly confront Israel and who led a modern and democratic nation.
In particular, Turkey was touted as a role model when the Great Arab Turmoil toppled decrepit leaders in tandem across the Arab world. A democracy built by “pious Erdogan” and his close associates presented a challenge to those who claimed that Islam is simply incompatible with a liberal democracy. Erdogan is no more a democrat and Turkey is no more a democracy today. But why is Turkey’s bellicose and anti-democratic leader still popular among Islamists?
In fact, Erdogan’s popularity significantly declined among Arabs when the prime minister failed to walk his talk. He could not realize most of his forceful statements and even failed to reciprocate Syria’s actions when its air force downed Turkish fighter jet and killed dozens of his citizens in a series of bombings. Only few took Erdogan’s words seriously about the Middle East and the Turkish leader overestimated his country’s ability to deal with numerous challenges in its neighborhood.
Egypt’s coup helped Erdogan
A military coup in Egypt on July 3, however, changed everything. Ankara was the only actor that was opposed to the military coup, which turned violent and brutal as the Muslim Brotherhood insisted on continuing street protests. Reliable sources have indicated that most of Egypt’s deposed leader Mohammad Mursi’s anti-democratic policies, which eventually led to massive public anger, during his one year in rule were adopted at the recommendation of Turkey. When Mursi was deposed, Ankara continued to display its support for the Muslim Brotherhood. It definitely didn’t help in Egypt and alienated Gulf nations, especially the United Arab Emirates, but Erdogan could easily exploit the tragedy in Egypt by bashing its military rulers. It was obvious that Erdogan was not sincere in his anti-Egypt statements, as revealed in a recent voice recording, which shows Erdogan avoided condemning Saudi Arabia over its support for the Egyptian military-backed government at the request of a Saudi businessman, who is currently on a U.S. terrorist list.
Erdogan’s popularity significantly declined among Arabs when the prime minister failed to walk his talkMahir Zeynalov
Another major reason why Erdogan is popular among Islamists is because they don’t really know who the prime minister is. As most of those who voted for Erdogan in March 30 elections, people have little idea how pious he is or how sincere he is in confronting “enemies of Muslims.”
Erdogan could publicly condemn and confront Israel, but his son was reported to have very lucrative business with Israel. In addition, Erdogan considers Iran, the archenemy of Islamists, his “second home” and did his best to help Iran circumvent U.S.-led sanctions in the past few years. The list of Erdogan’s hypocrisy is long.
Is Erdogan a pious Muslim?
The idea that Erdogan is a pious Muslim is also problematic. It is not up to anyone to question someone’s level of religiosity, but building a support based on a belief that the prime minister is a pious politician could be misleading. For instance, there is no public record of Erdogan performing a Friday prayer since Feb. 21. For a leader whose every Friday prayer is highly publicized, this speculation was not denied by the government either. Sources close to him also said he is not even praying daily, let alone praying on Fridays.
As someone who is subject to daily attacks by Islamists from across the world for opposing Erdogan, I believe I do have a right to speak about a prime minister who they claim is living like a real Muslim.
A real pious Muslim is the one who is modest and humble, one who runs away from places where people give standing ovations to him or her. A real Muslim is the one who constantly acknowledges his or her own mistakes, not publicly bashing those who don’t praise them. And a real Muslim is one who speaks only the truth and avoids telling lies every single God-given day. A real Muslim is also one who does not take and give bribes or build villas using public money while millions are suffering under poverty.
How can a real Muslim call his opponents atheists, terrorists, bloodsucking vampires, leeches, worse than Shiites, assassins, perverts, a tumor, insidious viruses and parasites? He questioned the faith of his opponents and belittled opposition leader Devlet Bahçeli and Islamic scholar Fethullah Gulen for not having children. In one public rally, he said his “mercy exceeded his wrath,” a well-known Islamic saying attributed to God.
‘Touching Erdogan is a prayer’
Instead of expressing discontent, Erdogan didn’t reject statements by his lawmakers and ministers who made incredibly outrageous remarks about him that could be considered as a grave sin in Islam.
For example, his Düzce Deputy Fevai Arslan said Erdogan is a leader who possesses all the characteristics of Allah. His ruling party’s Aydın Provincial Head İsmail Hakkı Eser said: “We are in love with our prime minister. Our prime minister is like a second prophet for us.”
His Bursa lawmaker Hüseyin Şahin said “touching our esteemed prime minister, trust me, I believe is a prayer.” Former Turkish EU minister Egemen Bağış said Rize, İstanbul and Siirt are sacred cities, because these three cities have a role in the making of the biggest leader of the Turkish Republic. Bağış is also the minister who made fun of the Qur’an in a recent leaked voice recording, but Erdogan defended him last week in a news conference. Deputy Health Minister Agah Kafkas once said “When we lay the foundation of a [facility], we also provide the date of its opening. This is the sunnah of Tayyip Erdogan.”
Erdogan’s skilled presentation of himself as a pious Muslim and as a leader of resistance against “evil forces” stands in contrast to his troubled record as a Muslim leader. He doesn’t deserve Arabs’ sympathy.
Mahir Zeynalov is a journalist with Turkish English-language daily Today's Zaman. He is also the managing editor of the Caucasus International magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @MahirZeynalov