Erdogan And The Bitter Lessons Of Modern Muslim Leadership

"Religion is no longer an ally of the weak, the disenfranchised, the wounded. It is in the service of rulers and is dangerous to anyone who does not wish to capitulate."
"Religion is no longer an ally of the weak, the disenfranchised, the wounded. It is in the service of rulers and is dangerous to anyone who does not wish to capitulate."
Zafer Senocak*


BERLIN — There’s a cold civil war in Turkey. An event like the mining catastrophe and its 301 victims could have united the deeply split country, emotionally. But not even the grief of so many Turks could bring supporters and opponents of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan together.

Turkey is split into at least three camps. The Kurds in the southeast are stronger and more confident than ever. Secular, Western-oriented Turks who mainly live in the large cities and along the coasts have a profound dislike of Erdogan. He represents the 40 or so percent of the Turkish population that is bound by conservative Islamic values. They are uncompromising in their support for the prime minister, and have made it possible for the freely-elected head of government of an ostensible democracy to believe he is immune to criticism.

Can this be reconciled with the economic anxiety of the newly emerged middle class? There can be no doubt that this new class exists in Turkey, and that it owes its existence to the neo-liberal economic policies of the AKP government.

Until now Erdogan understood how to fulfill his clientele’s expectations, mainly by using ambitious projects to create a picture of Turkey as a fast-developing nation. Under his government, the Turkish economy has indeed achieved high rates of economic growth.

Before Erdogan, Turkey had only a narrow, secular-oriented middle class. Now there’s also a Muslim middle class of well-educated folks who earn good livings — and fervidly support Erdogan.

But the autocratic behavior of the prime minister after the mine accident could wind up being a turning point, where for the first time a wedge is driven between him and those who voted for him.

Betrayal in the ranks

If, instead, he rides this crisis out again, it is not because his supporters are blind. Some have sworn loyalty to him because they perceive him to be a Muslim leader who has taken on the whole world.

Such fights are familiar from the propaganda repertoire of totalitarian regimes, directed against "traitors" and "conspirators" in one’s own ranks, and serve as cover-ups for misconduct and wrongdoing by the leadership. Erdogan has powerful media at his disposal, and makes targeted use of disinformation. What is surprising is that he has so far come through all this rather well, not only in Turkey but also abroad.

When Erdogan came to power 12 years ago he was a bearer of hope. Religious, traditionally raised, from a simple background, he quickly became a role model for the impoverished masses. But he also held promise for the Turkish elite: a basic reform that would make the country fit to become part of Europe.

He came across as a devout, practicing Muslim who was also a convinced European. At a time when the image of Muslims was severely damaged by Islamic terrorists, Erdogan seemed — also to many in the West — to be something of a savior.

But there’s nothing left now of the democratic Erdogan. He is no longer a reformer, leading Turkey to Europe. He is merely a conqueror who has appropriated the oppressive means that the Turkish state used to employ against its opponents.

Under authoritarian Kemalist secular ideology of modern Turkey's founders, the promise was enlightened modernization, where backward believers in Islam were the main enemy. Now after the advent of Erdogan we know that it was an illusion to believe that a democratic movement could have its inception among those believers.

Twisting Koran's message

Islam in Turkey is very far from being an innovative force. Instead, it makes it possible for a corrupt group of politicians to cement their power. The religion unites but also separates believers for whom emotional shackles exercise stronger power than rational argument.

Muslim-dominated societies have no power of resistance against tyrants. Each individual has a deeply imbedded sense of obedience to those of higher rank which precludes informed public opinion. The secular modernizers of Turkey also based themselves in these authoritarian and hierarchical structures thus blocking the formation of a liberal enlightened society.

If you go to the masses, don’t forget the whip! That was the unspoken motto of Turkey’s modernizers. Anybody wearing a uniform or a suit took precedence over rural folks, or the have-nots who lived in the poor neighborhoods of the big cities. An autocratic mindset set the fundamental tone.

Inside Istanbul's Blue Mosque — Photo: Bjorn Christian Torrissen

Erdogan’s people wear suits. But the power that the Turkish state has appropriated no longer takes its references from enlightenment but from conservative values, from traditional Islam whose propagated fatalism was always the most powerful ally of repressive rulers.

It is always the same lack of values and orientation that draws many people to Islam — they hope to find in it something to hold on to. Why does Islam — which once founded a highly sophisticated civilization and is possessed of a strong social consciousness — fail so miserably as a reference for political and societal life in modern times?

Modernity left out

One of the reasons is certainly that lived, practiced Islam no longer has anything to do with the sense of justice that informed the Koranic message. But do Christians still live the Sermon on the Mount? No, but the consequences of that are entirely different than they are in the case of Muslims. Christianity long ago merged with the modernity, thanks to the Enlightenment.

Jesus could be absorbed into the humanism that marks the values of the West. Muhammed on the other hand stands alone, and when Muslim societies opened themselves up to modernity he was left out.

Very devout Muslims are proud that the lessons of the Prophet are considered timeless and that the Koran an eternally valid word of God. But today they’re paying a high price for that because their religion is no longer a match for human dignity.

Islam is a corset that can hold a body together but doesn’t provide enough air for the spirit. It doesn’t allow consciences to breathe. That becomes blatantly clear whenever a catastrophe befalls people, when as in Syria a country torn apart by civil war needs to find peace, or the wounds of a mine disaster need to be tended, as now in Turkey.

Religion is no longer an ally of the weak, the disenfranchised, the wounded. It is in the service of rulers and is dangerous to anyone who does not wish to capitulate. Its language makes the tongue bold, and can inflict fresh wounds.

Whoever challenges this system is not only breaking the rules, but endangering the entire belief system. So those in power do not see their opponents as mere opponents guilty of lèse majesté, they see them as godless.

*Senocak, a Turkish-born poet, writer and journalist has been living in Germany since 1970, and is a leading voice on issues of multiculturalism and German-Turkish affairs.

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

Indian retailer Fabindia's naming its new collection Jashn-e Riwaaz, an Urdu term meaning "celebration of tradition," has been met with severe backlash and calls for boycott from right-wing Hindu groups. They are accusing the brand of false appropriation by promoting a collection of clothes designed for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, but giving it a name in Urdu, a language spoken by many Muslims.


Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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