Turkey's Grandmaster of Symbols - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Turkey's Grandmaster of Symbols

Turkey's Grandmaster of Symbols

By Shannon Sims


Turkey is a petri dish for the interaction of Islam and democracy.

By Shannon Sims

Part of OZY’s occasional Know This Name series, on prominent business, political and other world leaders. 

It was the moment no one was expecting, but everyone saw coming. When the moon-faced, mustachioed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to the lectern to speak in early May in a Kurdish province in southeastern Turkey, he brought with him, as usual, a bundle of quotes from the Quran, which he layered into his political campaign speech like one might layer a Big Mac. But he also brought something else, something unprecedented. As Turkey’s former prime minister and current president slowly lifted into the air a black, leather-bound book — a Quran — he cast out a symbol that would thrill some Turks and utterly terrify the rest.

In waving a copy of the Quran, Erdoğan had passed a clear line in the sand in a political career built upon perfecting rabble-rousing symbols — it’s something no other Turkish president had dared to do in this stubbornly intentionally secularist country. That scene may mark the capitalization of a career spent steering the country away from the sterile, secular underpinnings hammered into Turkish politics by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the beginning of the 20th century. And now, many fear, Erdoğan’s gone too far, and has begun to use the Quran as a propagandic wrench.

Despite the setback, nobody is counting out the man who nearly became head of a “new official dictatorship in the Middle East.”

In his present act, Erdoğan’s brought his power-harvesting to fruition with grand gestures that either enthrall or shock, depending on your point of view. There’s the Quran-waving. But there’s also the recent construction of a new behemoth presidential palace in Ankara, built upon protected forestland, complete with an alleged maze of thousands of miles of tunnels beneath it. And in a crude metaphor for his veer toward grandiosity, last year he used a 10-foot-tall hologram version of himself to give a speech. By layering his politics with both textual and symbolic references to Islam, which then reach absurd proportions, he’s led Turkey scholars like Philip Clayton of the Claremont School of Theology to call his most recent politics, “the Putin-ization of Islam,” after the showy Russian leader. (Erdoğan’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

And like Putin, Erdoğan wants to stay in the picture. On June 7, his Justice and Development Party, or AK party, failed to win the supermajority it would have needed for his grand design: to shift Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential one. (Guess who Erdoğan envisioned as president?) Despite the setback, the AK party managed a plurality of votes. Nobody is counting out the man who nearly became head of a “new official dictatorship in the Middle East,” in the words of Kemal Silay, director of the Turkish Studies program at Indiana University.

Erdogan supporter

A Turkish woman wearing a niqab and a headband supporting the Turkish president attends a ruling party rally.

Source Bulent Kilic/Getty

To the outside world, Turkey’s once-promising economy is showing perforations, such as the country’s attempted auctioning off of state infrastructure, including the two iconic bridges that fasten the Asia and Europe sides of Istanbul together across the Bosphorus Strait. But worse for Erdoğan, the Turks also know the economy is slipping. A survey found that last year, 30 percent of Turks believed the economy was in a state of decline; this year, that number’s jumped to 48 percent. And 40 percent of Turks ticked unemployment as the main challenge, concerns validated by the most recent set of stats: Turkey’s unemployment rate just hit a 5-year high of 11.3 percent in January.

As for European Union membership — once considered by many the beacon for modern Turkey — well, it’s hard to focus on that when you’ve got hologram logistics to sort out; with each wave of the Quran that plan slides further out of reach, to the dismay of many. And with corruption scandals driving down voter confidence, this time around the grandmaster will need to use all the symbols he’s got.

Erdogan’s rise to dominance over Turkish politics exemplifies the tortured, conflicted nature of Turkish politics. Once a semi-pro soccer player in Istanbul, Erdoğan launched his political career back in 1994, when he was elected mayor of Istanbul. He rode into politics on the Islamist Welfare Party, a more conservative party. Married with four children, and, notably, two daughters, Erdoğan rose to power during a difficult period for Islamist politics.

For decades, Turkish politicians have tried to navigate the treacherous waters between Islamism and secular politics, seeking to balance the near 99 percent Muslim country with an adamantly non-religious democracy, as the lionized Atatürk intended. In the late ’90s that pendulum had swung far towards secularism, and Erdoğan witnessed his two daughters be denied schooling because they insisted on wearing headscarves to school. Indeed, in 1997, the military voiced disapproval of increasingly religious policies in politics, and in what scholars have called a post-modern coup, the government soon dissolved.

Nevertheless, a year later, in a boldly symbolic act, Mayor Erdoğan recited a controversial Islamic poem in public. Consequently, he was thrown into prison for nearly a year and banned from office. “Turkey had been cruel to him — that’s a fact,” notes 32-year old Istanbul businessman Erk Alav. After prison, Erdoğan rejiggered his political balance and founded the ostensibly more moderate AK party in 2001. Within a year it was the majority party in Parliament, and a year after that, Erdoğan was allowed to reenter the political arena. By 2003, he was prime minister.

His brutal perseverance and tenacity in gaining the crown is softened by a charisma in public speaking, and he often appears with his wife, Emine, by his side. Like most things Erdoğan, this too is a symbolic move. Today, two-thirds of Turkish women cover their heads — a number that’s been on the rise since Erdoğan came to power. Yet, when he became prime minister, women weren’t permitted to wear headscarves in universities or official buildings — rules that he argued created gender inequality. He’s focused much of his leadership on peeling back those secularist social limitations, and the headscarf is but one example of how the symbolism of the regime cannot be undervalued, and how Erdoğan, above all, knows this. Mrs. Erdoğan’s covered appearance was once shocking to the nation; now, 10 years and a swing of the pendulum later, Erdoğan is out campaigning with a Quran above his head.


Supporters wave flags and raise a portrait of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan before his speech at the Ethias Arena in Hasselt, Belgium.

Source Francois Lenoir/Reuters/Corbis

But many Turks have seen it coming. The eruption in 2013 of protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square highlighted Turks’ growing resistance to Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian regime; the over-the-top crackdown on the protesters only underlined their point. Months later, a $100 billion corruption scandal would wash over the government, with Erdoğan himself caught on tape that would, in a modern Shakespearian twist, run on loop across social media. His response? A clampdown on the Turkish judiciary and media ­— including blocking social media — which had the effect of both frightening and galvanizing the local press, not to mention the voters watching it all play out.

But like many Turks, Alav is confident that even if the AK fails to win a supermajority this election, Turkey’s Erdoğan chapter is not finished. With every speech that Erdogan raises a Quran, he layers his words with symbols meant to signal to Turks that he’s the brave, modern Muslim leader the country needs. And as Alav says, “It’s too easy to win elections when you talk like he does.” 

This article was updated on June 7 to reflect preliminary results of Turkey’s parliamentary elections. For more from our Know This Name series, read about The Star of Argentina’s Political StageVietnam’s POW Turned President and The Rise and Fall of Shirtless Putin.


Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories