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Dreaming of a caliphate

Its looks like political Islam will win again in Turkey


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey casts his vote at a polling station in Istanbul on May 14. Umit Bektas/Pool Photo via Associated Press

Dreaming of a caliphate
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With a crippled economy, allegations of corruption, the mishandling of a humanitarian crisis, and sky-rocketing inflation, many assumed that Turkey’s Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would lose to challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu in Turkey’s presidential election.

He didn’t.

In what surprised many, he almost won. The Associated Press reports that Erdogan won 49.5 percent of the votes, while Kilicdaroglu grabbed 44.9 percent. Granted, this is the first time in 20 years that Erdogan hasn’t won in the first round, which suggests that Kilicdaroglu led a serious and credible opposition campaign. Still, with these results, the election will go to a second round, scheduled on Sunday, May 28. Turkish voters will have to head back to the polls to decide who will lead the country for the next five years.

Erdogan has been governing Turkey as either prime minister or president since 2003. The participation of voters in the first round approached 90 percent of the population, suggesting how important this election is for all Turks, as well as for Erdogan and his opponents. It is noteworthy that, with all its economic and political problems, Turkey appears to run a mostly fair election, following international regulations and supervision.

While we will know more next week, most likely Erdogan will win the runoff.

How did Erdogan manage to overcome challenges and challengers, defeating the strong opposition campaign of Kilicdaroglu? The answer is one word: Islam.

Erdogan presented himself as a Muslim savior, a keeper of an Islamic Turkey, promising to advance his Islamist agenda and insisting that Islam is both a religion and a governing philosophy. He galvanized a strong base of religiously conservative voters, largely from two groups—Muslim Brotherhood Islamists and Turk nationalists. Through his conservative Islamic rhetoric, Erdogan painted Kilicdaroglu as a threat who would lead Turkey far from Islam.

This is evident in how Erdogan used the LGBTQ issue to his benefit. He depicted Kilicdaroglu as an anti-Islamic candidate supporting deviant LGBTQ rights. Erdogan insisted he is running to save Turkey from corrupt western influences that were backing his opponent Kilicdaroglu, and presented himself as the only valid Islamic choice to keep Turkey a predominantly Muslim country.

Erdogan repeatedly reminded Turks of how they, during the Ottoman Empire, once ruled over a vast land and applied Islamic values.

Erdogan also emphasized his Sunni Islamic identity in contrast to Kilicdaroglu, who is an Alawite—a subsect within Shiite Islam. Since Alawites constitute a minority in Turkey, Erdogan was willing to lose their support for the sake of securing the majority of Sunni conservative voters. In a creative move, Erdogan changed the major issue of the election from a collapsing economy to the religious preservation of Turkey’s long-held Islamic Sunni identity.

Still, he is smart enough to know that the economy is a huge matter for Turks. Before Election Day, he proposed raising pensions and wages and offsetting energy bills.

Erdogan is a master politician and knows clearly what appeals to his conservative voters. He represents an authoritarian political Islam with his open pledge to enforce the religion as a governing system of the land. Kilicdaroglu campaigned largely on the promise to advance democratic values and secular principles. Kilicdaroglu wasn’t successful in consolidating political momentum to topple Erdogan’s powerful base, although his discourse seems to have appealed to young voters and moderate Turks.

Through Islamic rhetoric of nationalism and religious superiority, Erdogan appeals to Turks who pine for the restoration of what they view as the golden days of Islam under the great Islamic caliphate. He repeatedly reminded Turks of how they, during the Ottoman Empire, once ruled over a vast land and applied Islamic values. The Ottoman rulers were far from religious, even as documented by their own sources. The notion of the restoration of the Islamic caliphate goes largely unchallenged among conservative Muslims. For them, Erdogan is the Muslim warrior, conqueror, and victor.

What will happen in the runoff? It will most likely be a win for Erdogan, thus granting him five more years as president. For the majority of Turks, it seems that choosing a Muslim savior is more important than repairing a crippled economy and sky-rocketing inflation. Even allegations of corruption and mishandling of a humanitarian crisis can be forgiven, as long as the dream of a restored Islamic caliphate can be kept safe, even if only in their imagination.


A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.


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