President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:
Sprawling over nearly 50 acres of forest land that was once the private estate of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a new presidential compound has nearly 1,000 rooms, an underground tunnel system and the latest in anti-espionage technology. It is larger than the White House, the Kremlin and Buckingham Palace. The reported price: nearly $350 million. Then there is a new high-tech presidential jet (estimated price, $200 million), not to mention the new presidential office in a restored Ottoman-era mansion overlooking the Bosporus, all of which have been acquired to serve the outsized ambitions of one man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
There is little doubt that Erdoğan is both an ideologue and autocrat, and sees himself above the law. He targets those who vote against him, run against him, and criticize him. In Erdoğan’s mind, environmentalists who protest the cutting down of trees in one of central Istanbul’s last green spaces are “terrorists,” but those who place bombs on buses or behead journalists and aid workers in Syria are not.
The New York Times proceeds to compare Erdoğan to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, a comparison I made in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. At the time, it looked like that was what Erdoğan wanted, but the Turkish leader may actually want more. Much more. Despite a foreign policy which has managed to make Erdoğan persona non grata across much of the Middle East (Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, anywhere Hamas does not control in the Palestinian territories, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well), the Turkish leader still sees himself as a regional and Islamic leader. He is a Sunni sectarian to the core. He has declared his intention to remake Turkey along religious lines, and has pledged to “raise a religious generation.” And he is very astute with regard to symbolism.
Back in 2005, during his monthly television address, Erdoğan replaced the traditional backdrop of the Turkish flag and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with a photo of Atatürk’s mausoleum and a mosque. Turks understood the symbolism: Atatürk is dead, but Islam is the future.
By building his Versailles over Atatürk’s private estate, he is doing the same thing. Atatürk was the symbol of secularism, and Erdoğan seeks to bury secularism. If Erdoğan was not content to simply be prime minister, and is not content to be merely the president of Turkey, then to what else could he aspire? While it may once have seemed farfetched that anyone could aspire to revive the Ottoman sultanate and the caliphate which Atatürk ended, Erdoğan seeks to do just this. He differs less in ideology with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi than in tactics and ambition. For all his talk of restoring a pan-Islamic caliphate, al-Baghdadi concentrates on the Arab world; Erdoğan’s goals are broader. The Turkish leader may or may not succeed, but he likely believes God is on his side: After all, how else could anyone explain the meteoric rise of a relatively uneducated (at least in secular terms) former street vendor to the height of political power.
The United States and the West are in denial, much as too many left-liberal Turks were until recently. Erdoğan can rest assured, however. He can play his cards deliberately, for Western diplomats and journalists will as always ignore his game until it is too late.