Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced “Erd-wan”) is the most important politician you’ve probably never thought about. You may have heard that he won a landslide victory in Turkey’s recent presidential election, after serving three terms as prime minister. Erdogan is now Turkey’s most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who founded the Republic of Turkey in 1922.
Why does his victory matter to you?
Mustafa Kemal (“Atatürk” was an honorary title meaning “Father of the Turks”) created a secular democracy following six centuries of the Ottoman Empire. He intended Turkey to be a parliamentary representative democracy on a European model. A charter member of the United Nation, Turkey joined NATO in 1952.
Kemal is still the George Washington of the Republic of Turkey. When I traveled across the country some years ago while writing a book on the seven churches of Revelation, I was astonished by his omnipresence. Statues, busts, and likenesses of the Atatürk dominate the culture. To this day, “Kemalism” is contrasted in Turkey with “Islamism,” the attempt to make Turkey into an Islamic state similar to Iran or Saudi Arabia.
Now many observers are worried that Islamism is the future of Turkey. Why is this significant?
Why Turkey matters
Turkey is the world’s only Muslim democracy. It is the strongest military power in the Muslim world, by far, and spend more than $18 billion each year on defense. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Turkey was a vital partner of the U.S., serving to help contain Soviet expansion into Europe and the Mediterranean.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 significantly altered relations between the two nations. Turkey disagreed with the U.S. and refused to participate or even to allow Americans to use their territory for military purposes. As a result, Turkey’s leaders enhanced their standing in the larger Muslim world. As the Arab Spring upended governments across the Middle East, Turkey’s relative stability has positioned it to become a major player in the region.
Its economy is the largest by far in the Muslim world. During the Great Recession, its economy expanded by 9.2 percent in 2010 and 8.5 percent in 2011, making it the fastest-growing economy in Europe and one of the fastest in the world. According to Forbes, Istanbul has the fourth-most billionaires of any city in the world (after New York City, Moscow and London). And Turkey is the most populous nation in the Muslim world (though Iran ranks close behind).
So the Republic of Turkey is the world’s only Muslim democracy and the largest Muslim nation in terms of its economy, military, and population. Its location makes it crucial to geopolitical relations with Europe, the Middle East, and Russia. It is clearly one of the most significant nations on the world stage today.
Who is President Erdogan?
Recep Tayyip Erdogan was born in 1954, the son of a coast guard. His family moved to Istanbul when he was 13; as a teenager he sold lemonade and sesame buns on the street to earn extra cash. He attended an Islamic school before receiving a degree in management from Istanbul’s Marmara University. For a time he was a professional soccer player.
He soon became involved in local politics, and was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994. His administration stood out for its integrity in a time of widespread corruption. However, he soon became known for his Islamist views. Erdogan was convicted in 1998 of inciting religious hatred after he read publicly an Islamic poem with the lines, “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers.”
His AK Party became known for its Islamic agendas as well. It won a landslide election in 2002, positioning Erdogan to become prime minister. Under his leadership, Turkey has condemned its former ally Israel over treatment of the Palestinians and the recent conflict with Hamas. Erdogan has gone so far as to accuse Israel of being “worse than Hitler” in this regard. His government has also been mired in corruption scandals, and has oppressed social media and journalists.
He has cracked down on recent antigovernment protests and headed off investigations into governmental corruption by overhauling judicial institutions. Some have compared his autocratic leadership to Vladimir Putin, while others liken his polarizing rhetoric to former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.
However, many believe that Erdogan actually seeks to rebuild the Ottoman Empire, which from the 15th to the 20th centuries grew to become one of the largest the world has ever seen. The Empire was dissolved after its defeat in World War I and the creation of the secular Republic of Turkey under Mustafa Kemal.
Erdogan’s victory in the presidential election may foretell the future of his Ottoman ambitions. He won because conservative Muslims supported his campaign. His government has previously encouraged religious high schools and allowed head scarves for women in state universities and most public offices.
However, the nation he leads today is strongly divided: 48 percent approve of his leadership, while 48 percent disapprove. Many of the secular population did not even vote; the turnout was lower than any national election since 1977.
What does his election mean for the West?
President Erdogan may moderate his Islamist statements and leadership now that he has attained the highest level of leadership in his nation. He may see himself as a peacemaker in the Muslim world, working with Europe and the Middle East to forge and secure a larger national community.
Or he may feel even less constrained by electoral politics and move Turkey in an increasingly Islamist direction. Such leadership would affect Europe’s historic character, already changing as Muslim immigrants tip the social and cultural balances of the region. It would risk a significant uprising from the secular and/or military coalitions in the nation, threatening Turkey’s economic expansion. It could even put very significant military assets in the hands of jihadists.
Turkey was one of the first mission fields for Christian expansion. Its central region was known as Galatia, its western area as Asia or Asia Minor. Paul planted and nurtured churches across Turkey in all three of his mission trips. Galatians, Ephesians and Colossians were written to Turkish audiences, as were each of the seven letters of Revelation.
Now Christians must pray for the Turkish people once again and work to share the gospel with this ancient land. A spiritual awakening in Turkey would change the world for God’s Kingdom. An Islamic movement would threaten the West and the world.
Will you pray for Jesus to reveal himself to President Erdogan and his people today?