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Erdogan as the Michael Jordan of Turkish Politics

April 4, 2011

The whole “Balkans” thing is temporarily suspended because, well, who cares about the Balkans. And I have work to do besides. The following post will not be cited as strongly as I usually like to cite things because I intend it more as a thought-provoker than as an assertion of truth. Bakacaz.

I’m not even a basketball sort of person, but basketball is American life. The urban facts of life in the United States have been largely laid clear – well, if not clear at least silhouetted – by Bethlehem Shoals’ crew at Free Darko. I don’t usually read it, because I’m not a fan, but something by Yago Colas grabbed my attention (basketball stuff elided):

It is to say that Michael’s transition from the high-flying solo dunker that we watched…to the …team player that won 6 titles in 8 years was not only effective on the court in making his team more successful and not only more effective, thereby, in cementing his place as the consensus Greatest of All Time. It was also effective as a – admittedly probably unintentional — poetic tactic whereby he made his game more amenable to narrative; narrative, which, after all is essential to the circulation of legend and its transmutation into the concrete forms of Official History.

Michael Jordan was not destined for greatness from the beginning, he created an identity as the greatest of all time. He could’ve been just another brilliant scorer, instead he cultivated a Legendary self.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan is not well-loved in most places. There’s a whole lot of good reasons for this: tone-deaf statements, lawyer-enforced paranoia, scheming, and a rather polychromatic foreign policy. But he matters, or to put it in Alt Internet parlance, Matters, in a way that Mesut Yilmaz or even Bulent Ecevit were not able to swing. He’s become the shining star, the face of Turkey, and someone nobody has been able to successfully deconstruct.

How does it work? Erdogan is a demogogue and a populist to the core. Marmara University, semi-pro football. Refah was successful for its populism, it’s “us-against the elites” message. And, yes, its Islamicst leanings. It ultimately failed because they were corrupt and not all that different from those they were replacing. Erdogan was smart enough to get off of the sinking ship along with Abdullah Gul, though, and form their new AKP.

But before then, in his Refah days, he was in many ways just another radical. The story of his arrest is well- and oft-told, and his time as Mayor of Istanbul was full of rather loud stuff. He didn’t seem to have a long shelf-life, especially compared to the smooth tact of Gul and the charm of Erbakan (who I have a real real late obituary I’m working on. Bear with). He could’ve easily gone, if not quite the Deniz Gezmis route, then certainly the route of numerous leftists and loudmouths, especially after his prison sentence. But instead, he found a jump-shot and made himself more amenable to narrative.

One of his better political masterstrokes was taking on the suit of American-based neoliberalism. Taking Ozal’s Kucuk Amerika one step further, he promoted business and worked closely with chambers of commerce, particularly in the “Anatolian Tiger” cities east of Izmir and Istanbul. These cities, not so coincidentally, were full of more religiously conservative folks in their business communities and were not controlled by the traditionally secular monopolies. AKP created a new Nouveau Riche class distinct from the White Turks and used them to move their agenda forward, culminating in their political takeover in 2002.

Much like how Jordan took off the gold chain and signed a deal with Hanes, Erdogan made himself marketable, he made himself everything to everyone. He was the Model Muslim State to the U.S., the reliable business partner after fixing the economy, the arms buyer to Israel, the tactful dealer to Iran and points East. Wealth was created, jobs were created and filled, and treaties were signed. There’s a reason for the passive voice in the past sentence; everyone saw the side of AKP they liked, they saw themselves in Erdogan. The Turks protesting against him? Haters. The statements of corruption and cronyism? Rumors. Turkey made itself attractive – not just as a tourist destination but as a place on the map.

Jordan’s hiccup and two-year absence has many stories behind it, mostly involving gambling. Erdogan wouldn’t gamble, he’s a good Muslim, of course. His current hiccup is more a case of that of every Turkish politician: delusions of grandeur and nasty bouts of corruption. Erdogan’s elevation of his own AKP clique has hardly divided the party, but has caused grumblings. The corruption in the Istanbul urban renewal projects is pretty damned expected. And while it would probably ascribe Erdogan too much agency to put him at the head of the Mavi Marmara incident, I don’t think he expected as heavy of an eyeroll as the IHH got. Insult Shimon Peres? Well, the old fella is used to it. Paint yourself in the blood of martyrs? You’ll start being divisive.

Domestically, he’s run in an even shadier direction. The curse of neoliberal economic policies hit him as well, and his people became as corrupt as any. The economic elite AKP cultivated from the mid-sized towns of Anatolia were not necessarily good people just because they didn’t drink alcohol. As it has everywhere else, wealth congregated, unions were busted, and other some such happened. AKP was able to keep its word as both neoliberals and a welfare party while the investment flowed in and the global economy was sprinting. Ever since the most recent economic downturn, however, the AKP has had to choose between the two. They chose neoliberalism.

This was not a bad move in and of itself, but another default on a promise, another move towards politics as usual. Much how Jordan turned on the smile to blind the concerned, the AKP pointed at GDP growth. And while the move towards a more visible brand of Islam has raised concerns in think tanks throughout Washington DC, there’s still no question of doing business with AKP, and no problem talking about the Turkish Model with an honest expression.

What’s the problem with the Turkish Model? It only works for Turkey, it is a product of Turkey. The AKP’s greatest stroke over the past 9 years has been their ruthless elimination of opponents. Michael Jordan was known to make a point to humiliate, to destroy, any young buck who thought he could run with Air. Erdogan’s done the same. CHP has been handcuffed by their inability to come up with a response, left holding the mic like Papa Doc in 8 Mile. Erbakan, the old father, was left up to dry until he finally did. Kurdish parties are allowed to stick around until they get too serious. The MHP is allowed to run their mouth and make fools of themselves, and any decent leftist is either co-opted or humiliated, depending on their stance on Islam. The necessary response to a Westerner saying “I don’t like AKP” is, “well, who DO you like?”

Jordan came back from his absence with a fury. Nobody knows where Erdogan is on the Jordan timeline. Is he facing his Bad Boys? Or is this his bout with baseball? Erdogan is still strong, still ready to face all comers. Still thinking about changing the constitution so he can remain in power as a presidential figure, and still in the process of leaving his mark on Turkey.

You can’t talk about Erdogan’s AKP without mentioning three separate (though often intertwined) narratives: EU Ascension, Ergenekon, and Islam. To separate any of the three from AKP is to take away their raison d’etre, their Face of the New Turkey motif.

Michael Jordan may have been the first black man truly accepted by white America. I’m hardly the person to make this assertion, but he was so clean, so marketable, that he was hard to reject. Basketball may have been a black man’s game for a decade or two. Or ever since Oscar Robertson wasn’t accepted to Indiana and them embarrassed the world from Cincinnati. But nobody ever became the marketing machine Jordan was. He brought enough of an edge from his young days in a high-top fade to work towards eventual Icon status, while still smiling and erasing his Carolina accent when needed.

And although Ozal and Ecevit brought Turkey closer to European Union standards, it was Erdogan who make European Union standards the goal in and of itself. Even from the beginning, it seemed extraordinarily unlikely that Turkey would join the EU. It’s a larger country than any but Germany, Cyprus hasn’t been resolved, drug trafficking is a headache as it is, and so is 20% unemployment. All the same, Turkey represented something greater to the EU and to the United States. It represents the liberal ideal of the big tent, the great handshakes, the concept that we can do business with anyone in a business suit. Erdogan saw what the EU wanted from him and was more than happy to comply. To take a cynical view, Erdogan was like Clever Hans. He was able to focus more on pleasing the EU about the process than the process itself. This is not to say Erdogan is an obtuse politician, anything but. He was able to see the EU ascension for what it was, a half-hearted handshake. And any greater steps towards ascension will have to involve the EU accepting Turkey for what it is, not for what they hope it will one day magically be.

Ergenekon? Did you read what I said about how Erdogan deals with enemies? Ergenekon is more than a court case, if you haven’t noticed. It’s an attack on the haters, on everyone who said that AKP couldn’t get to where they are. Much like how there’s a reason every MTV Cribs has a Scarface poster in it, there’s a reason why Erdogan sues anyone who so much as offers strong criticism. He got to where he is through ruthless dealings with opposition. He’ll let Gul or Davutoglu be the conciliator, but he will do the yelling and accusations on TRT. I’m not sure what the end state of Ergenekon will be, I’m not sure anyone really does. Can AKP really jail and silence all of their detractors in one fell swoop? Are they ready to deal with the fallout when they do? Or will Erdogan come out with noblesse oblige and make sure that the military, the CHP, the journalists, all know that they work for HIM now. What are our 25th and 75th percentiles? It’s a talk for a different post, if it even ever gets written.

And Islam. Oh, Islam. It’s come to the point where a place as august as Columbia University has to label a project “Who’s Afraid of Shari’a?” No word on whether their white paper will end with ‘Aisha receiving flowers from Muhammad, who is cryptically speaking Spanish. With the Mavi Marmara and other such anti-Israeli acts, the AKP has now been put squarely in the “Them” camp, no matter how much Israeli arms they buy and no matter how many billions of Euro of business they do with the EU. They’ll be reconciled with the shrieking harpies of United States-based racism when they start wearing power ties and drinking whisky.

There’s a far more subtle interaction in the domestic sphere (which shows how unsubtle things like “1453 oh noezzz” are). And again, the similarity to the Jordan narrative(s) are striking. The secular elite of Turkey’s view of Islam and its stricter adherents can be best described as paternalistic. Murat Cem Menguc write about Banu Avar in this way, saying “her heart beats for the Muslim masses of the world, as long as they do not run for the government in her country.”

Islam is for others. We drink to the AKP, we have our weddings at the Hilton, and we go to Babylon, not some kiraathane. These are seen in every visitor to Turkey’s guide: Istiklal, a fish restaurant, Aya Sofya. A place where nargile costs ~30TL. I’m not saying that the past few sentences isn’t the true Turkey or some such prattle, but that the “true” Turkey is all that and more.

But the specter of Islam as a political force frightens the elite. They are less scared that Turkey will become Iran or Saudi Arabia, then they are afraid that it could become Pakistan. That they could lose the democracy that they built. This well-acknowledged fear is what the Ergenekon case is based on. There’s enough of a kernel of truth to the case to convince people there is a legitimate case there, whether there is or not.

Erdogan was the first Muslim politician to run – and win – on his Islam rather than try to hide it. Besides Erbakan, of course, but Erbakan didn’t last too long now, did he? He is the fear, and as much as he downplayed this in the early 2000’s, he revels in it today. The similarities between him and the early, marketable Jordan who morphed into the big-time gambling, team owning Jordan of today are certainly extant.

There’s this blind hope, this sort of “faith in the market” that Erdogan is a blip. That he does not represent the future or even the present of Turkey, that him and the AKP is just an accident, a mistake. Even after 60 years of multi-party politics, the concept of truly multi-party politics is still foreign, exotic, scary.

In basketball, MJ was not the cap on the era of Dr. J, Wilt Chamberlain, and Magic Johnson. He begat the blossoming of character and swagger in the NBA. He became Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James. Erdogan has given the concept of a loud, brash, figure a vessel within Turkish politics. He’s rebuffed all comers to his prestige and his party. He’s made political Islam a force in Turkish politics.

And no, political Islam in Turkey is not the same as it is elsewhere, political Islam in the Turkish case is unique to Turkey. It is also, now, unique to Erdogan. Anyone who wants to rise to power like he did will have to imitate him in some way, shape, or form. Erdogan isn’t a blip, or the end of an era. He’s the symbol of a whole new way to do politics in Turkey. For better or for worse, his influence will have to be counteracted if one wants to downplay his future role. It will be very interesting to watch if anyone does this successfully; they haven’t so far.

Erdogan’s made himself into a singular figure in Turkish history, along with Inonu, Ozal, and maybe Menderes. He’s been able to dictate the tempo of Turkish politics, and energy spent whinging on how that’s so bad could be better spent trying to get votes or come up with an actual coherent foreign policy or start talking about Rule of Law which Kilicdaroglu did for like a week in summer 2010 and then forgot about. There’s a lot of reasons why Erdogan has become the man, and the old guard are a few of them.

It’s Erdogan’s world and we all just live in it now. He’s been able to do what nobody else has done there, yet, and its worth writing 2500+ words about.

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